We are not immune to our parent’s failings.
When I was a girl my dad would call my mom a bitch in their numerous heated arguments. He'd tell me and my little sister, "Don’t be a bitch like your mother."
During visitation weekends, we'd sit at his light pine-planked dining room table in his country home and listen to him drone on and on about how my mom was such a bitch as he chain-smoked Marlboro cigarettes. The ashtray would be a mountain of butts, the air stale and suffocating.
Some twenty odd years later I’m sipping my organic red wine on a chilly fall day, smoking my own Marlboro cigarettes. Organic wine and cigarettes: the juxtaposition is not lost on me. It's complicated, like me.
I'm on the phone with my dad doing one of our monthly catch-up conversations. They sometimes last an hour or two. We currently have six states between us. We comment on the weather in our respective cities, we talk about the recent election and then I ask my dad why he was violent when we were kids.
"Your mother was a bitch. What would you do if someone was trying to gouge your eyeballs out?" my dad asks me.
"Dad, why was she trying to gouge your eyeballs out?" I say impatiently.
"Because I didn’t come home again and I was out with girls. My priorities were f*cked up," my dad admits.
Did he understand he made the bitch?
I was in second grade when my dad threw my mom's clothes in our wood-burning stove during a heated argument. It was a cold winter morning in New York and I was waiting for my mom to drive me to the babysitter's house to catch the bus. The house was filled with sunshine and smelled faintly of firewood.
I couldn't tell what they were fighting about but their yelling had become commonplace at that point. I simply waited for it to be over like I always did and acted like it wasn’t happening. Why kids try to spare their parent's feelings in traumatic situations is beyond my comprehension, even as an adult. I guess we don't want to make things worse, so we tip-toe around the torment and shittiness.
My dad came storming into my parent's bedroom as I sat patiently on their waterbed fully dressed for school with my pink backpack on. He ripped a heap of my mother's clothes off of the hangers in the closet and carried them downstairs.
I looked out the doorway and saw the littering of garments in dry cleaning bags that had fallen from his grasp strewn all over the hallway and down the stairs.
I darted to the closet and saw a hole where my mother's dry cleaned suits, blouses, and pencil skirts used to hang. They were gone. Also missing, my two favorite "fancy" outfits my aunt bought for me from Limited, Too. They were also in plastic dry cleaning plastic bags (they were the only clothes I owned that were dry clean only). Surely my dad didn't mean to grab my clothes, too.
I don't know what triggered me to go downstairs where my parents were fighting — my own selfish rage over my beloved outfits or a real fear that my dad was going to hurt my mom — but I ran downstairs. My dad had one arm holding back my mother back from the wood stove door while the other hand fed the flames with her clothing.
"Stop! Stop! Stop!" I screamed over and over again.
I slid my backpack off my back and started swinging it uncontrollably at my father in a tearful panicked blur.
All of the clothes were burned.
A few moments later my mom and I left the house. She drove me to the babysitter's house where I was supposed to catch the bus to go to school. As we turned onto my babysitter's street my mom told me I could stay at the babysitter's house and not go to school if I wanted to.
“I can call the school and tell them you’re sick.”
I stared out the window. At the snow. The suburban houses. Wasn't I? Sick.
When my mom became a divorced woman and subsequent single mother I admired her fierce independence. She was assertive in my eyes, not a bitch. She was a renegade for her time, a career woman.
She'd come home after a long day's work in her stylish magenta and violet suits, her stiletto heels clicking with such strong intensity that she assaulted any ground she walked on. You could always hear my mother coming, the down-beat of her heel the strongest. She was threatening in those heels and daring to make noise.
But about once a month, after smoking a cigarette, checking the answering machine, and feeding us a dinner of yogurt and baked potatoes she'd take off those heels and proclaim, "Your father owes me child support."
Whether he did or he didn't, I don't know. I knew we were poor after the divorce, but not close-to-being-homeless-poor. My mom was a single mom on a tight budget. Either way, the whole ordeal was the perfect excuse to go over to my father's house and taunt the woman who he had cheated on my mother with.
After the divorce, my father lived with his mistress. Those money-collecting visits weren't just about making sure we had enough money for groceries that week, because, heeelllllooo didn't the post office exist in the 1990s? Couldn't my dad just pop a check in the mail on the same day every month?
The visits were about more than the money. I believe underneath it all, those visits were my mother's desperate attempt to exercise some level of power and control over my dad and his mistress. Keyword: desperate.
My mother would make these drop-ins even during the dead of winter, a time when no one in New York wants to leave their house unnecessarily. She would park in his driveway and leave the heat blasting in the car so me and my sister would stay warm. But she'd be in my dad's house for so long, fighting, to realize we were really hot in that car.
It was like a sauna — just dry, stifling heat. We were also bored. The digital green clock number would tick away as we just stared out of the windows into the darkness. Sometimes we'd draw shapes on the fogged up windows with our fingers in complete silence.
She'd go back for more for years. More fighting, more tears, more trauma. I blamed her for being a reckless and careless mother exposing us to such wretchedness. Now I know she wasn't careless or reckless or deserving of my blame. She was a victim.
"If anyone asks you what happened to mommy's wrist, just tell them I tripped and fell," my mother instructed me on the way to my Saturday morning ballet and tap class. She didn't fall down the stairs. I knew my dad did it, but somehow I was more pissed at my mom for not telling me the truth and so I said nothing.
You'll never be able to leave me. Where are you going to go? No one's going to want a woman that's divorced with two kids.
The manipulation was relentless. The violence unnerving. There are thousands of reasons people stay with their abuser... until they are dead or freed. Is there really a difference between the two? Even when you are freed from the immediate threat of violence and alive on the other side, the aftermath and emotional trauma still kills something inside of you. Mainly trust and love for other humans.
All through my young adult life, I thought I was "over" my parent’s divorce. I would tell my then fiancé, now husband, "THANK F*CKING GOD I WILL NEVER BE LIKE THEM OR DO WHAT THEY DID."
But as I mature, gain space, and become more self-aware, there are some markers of a traumatic childhood within my personality, my life, and my marriage that are pretty hard to deny. I'm a difficult woman. I have a difficult time showing love and connecting. I am a bitch.
I'm not a nice person. It's anything I can do to get through the day without wanting to strangle the driver on my morning commute who doesn't use their blinker, or the overly chipper parent helping with carpool drop-off at my kid's school, or the assh*le who cuts me off in the Starbucks line, or my husband who mindlessly leaves empty water bottles all over the damn house (even though I’ve asked him a thousand times to pretty please pick them the f*ck up).
I go through life often operating from a place of fear which comes out as anger. I'm a relentless worrier and scratcher of surfaces, always searching for meaning. I can be downright wretched and obsessively self-involved.
I'm not affectionate. I don't like hugging, cuddling, kissing, hand-holding, none of it. Sure, in my hetero sluttiness of my late teens I did all of these things, but true intimacy is something you find out about in marriage. When the fuzzy high of new love wears off you have to keep a deep connection to your partner if you plan on staying married.
In the process, you learn what it takes to sustain intimacy in its many forms. I know what it takes; I just really suck at it.
I have more regard for homeless people on the street then I do for my husband sometimes. I'm the model empathetic citizen. I crusade for better laws to protect the children in our country, I demand equal pay for equal work and I'm always supporting charitable causes with either my time or my money.
But isn’t that how it is? Sufferers of trauma, who are lucky enough to come out the other side, are the most empathetic to those who are clearly suffering. After all, we know suffering.
I'm not an idiot. I know other children have endured way more anguish and adversity than I ever did; however, there is a spectrum of childhood trauma. To act like a few ticks on the trauma scale don’t profoundly impact a child is to deny parental power and influence. We are their hostages, essentially. Whether they’re physically around or not. We are not immune to our parent’s failings.
We as humans can overcome dysfunction, but can we fully undo disaster? Or does the disaster inevitably become engrained in our psyches and souls so deeply that no matter how much therapizing you do, you can't get all of the ickiness out. And maybe not all of the trauma should go away, lest we forget the suffering and in turn the sufferings of others.
Whenever me and my husband fight, even about small crap, my brain internally screams get out, get out, get out. I want to distance and detach. I start fantasizing about my life as a single mom in some cool urban condo somewhere. But then I stay. I get lost in the routine of every day again.
I take off the boxing gloves slowly, untying them one by one. I remove my fake pristine running shoes that I don't own in real life. I unpack the mental suitcases jammed with all mine and my kid's essential belongings. And I wait.
I don't know if I'll ever be undamaged or less difficult. I don't even know if I want to be completely. It keeps me honest and authentic. It's part of who I am as a wife and a mother. I became the bitch my father told me not to. Maybe he doesn’t realize, he made this bitch too.
It's exhausting being a bitch, or more accurately, it's tiring to be her every day. Thankfully, my husband makes her feel like she's welcome in our house, but only when she's called.