There are many ways to lose your children. Some parents endure the death of a child from illness or accident. Others, like my own parents, lost their only son to suicide.
I lost my children to the dominant culture. Of course, as a young twenty one year old mother I colluded in this process without knowing it. First by repeating the cycle of abuse I had been born into, and then making a series of poor choices as a young woman and mother.
I grew up in a terrifying abusive family, one that looked like the “American Dream”- great from the outside – rotten from within. Living in an upper middle class environment in a “nice” house in the country in upper Westchester New York my father ran a successful business and my mother was a stay at home housewife and artist. Both considered themselves academics because each had attended the colleges of their choice, although my mother never received an undergraduate degree. My father was an immigrant who came to this country from Italy when he was 12 and put himself and his brothers through college becoming an aeronautical engineer in the process. My mother, an only child, came from a family of privilege and she never let anyone forget that, particularly her daughter who she treated like a servant.
Inside our family walls unspeakable violence of all kinds occurred. Both of my parents drank – a lot. My mother used deathly silence as a means to control her husband and children, sometimes refusing to speak to the perceived offender for a week. Sometimes, she inexplicably left home for days. I was so terrorized by the threat of those silences/abandonment that I did anything my mother wanted me to, giving up my personal self in the process. My father’s explosive rages kept both his children walking on egg – shells whenever he was around which fortunately was only on weekends. We both hated him, gravitating towards our mother who seemingly was the better of the two because she endured this abusive behavior although she struck out at her children instead.
Theirs was a marriage made in hell. Silence and Rage make poor bed partners, and I remember begging my mother to divorce my father when I was barely six years old (it is astonishing to me that I knew what divorce meant at that age).
To escape my family I went away to college and got married.
My abusive drunken husband threw me down the stairs when I was three months pregnant with my first child.
Four years later my brother killed himself just after graduating from Harvard.
Single motherhood became the worst nightmare in my life after the loss of my only brother who I adored.
As a suicide survivor I believed that I owed my parents my children and willingly surrendered them whenever my parents wanted them (a prime example of what survivor’s guilt can do).
How did I manage to forget what it had been like living with people like that?
It wasn’t until mid –life after having made the terminal mistake of letting my parents “parent” my children that I began to suspect that something was very wrong with them, and that maybe I wasn’t the whole problem after all.
By that time I was divorced, my children were grown, and both had left home. It was too late to repair the damage. I didn’t understand at the time that my children had internalized the very worst of their grandparents’ patriarchal values of “power over” and were embracing my parents’ view about how defective their daughter was as a human being.
I began to craft my own authentic life.
I thought time would soften my children’s vicious treatment of me.
I didn’t realize that my children thrived on this sense of having emotional power over their mother.
Power Over, not Love.
I am ashamed to admit that I kept trying to repair the damage with both of my children up until this year, enduring the silent treatment, endless bullying, and verbal abuse at the hands of my youngest son after my oldest simply shut the door on our relationship 25 years ago.
This is not to say that eventually I didn’t became aware of what had/was happening.
I did, but like Cinderella, I kept “hope” alive for a different ending.
This spring the chains that once bound me as a sorrowing mother snapped and I was set free.
At this point in my life I respect who I have become too much to sanction more “family” (familiar) abuse.
Still, it is frightening to acknowledge how our personal accounts repeat themselves over generations without interruption.
These family stories are bigger and more powerful than we can ever know, creating a cautionary tale for those who think they have escaped abusive situations. We either repeat the story, or embrace its opposite. In rare cases, if we have the courage, we can break the cycle, something I hope that I am doing today.
First Harvest Moon (The Blueberry Moon – 2017)
Published on the day of my youngest son’s 49th birthday.
The word Patriarchy requires an explanation:
Historically, Patriarchy was defined as “The Power of the Fathers.”
This definition is partially correct. Patriarchy is a hierarchal system of domination that thrives on white lower, middle, and upper class men (and some male identified women) having power over other less fortunate individuals especially other women.
Carol Christ defines Patriarchy as a system of power that seeks to control women through their sexuality.
However we define it, Patriarchy is a destructive system that is endemic to our culture and is mirrored by the collective in countless ways including our insatiable need to “control” nature.
(As an eco – feminist I believe that what we do to nature we do to women. A poignant example is the way we continue to sanction rape of both women and the trees that provide us with oxygen to breathe).
An equally horrifying example is the attempt by the dominant culture to control a woman’s right to have an abortion. A woman’s right to choose is just that – a basic human right to have control over her bodily processes including pregnancy.
I have worked with women for most of my life, and I have never met a woman who didn’t struggle with the right to choose abortion, and then have to deal with the guilt and shame she endured as a result of making the choice to end a pregnancy.
As a naturalist/ethologist I am struck by how nature has built in abortion as a response to too much stress in most non – human species, if not all. If the mother in question does not have enough food or resources to survive, spontaneous abortions occur without danger to the mother. Survival of the potential mother comes first.
Black bears, for example, practice something called delayed implantation, which means that the mother mates in the spring, but the fetus will not develop unless that mother has sufficient food and has gained enough weight to survive hibernation. If she has, cubs will be born and cared for while the mother is denning during the winter.
In my own life I experienced a spontaneous abortion after leaving my abusive alcoholic husband. I had no money, no place to live, one toddler and one 6 month old baby (I went to work as a waitress). Without support from my family I did not see any way through this horrific situation until Nature mercifully stepped in and ended a third pregnancy.
Most desperate women are not as fortunate.
I have come to embrace Carol Christ’s belief that Patriarchy is primarily a system that seeks to control woman through every aspect of her sexuality. The obscene emphasis on the way women are supposed to stay “ young” is yet another way we cage our women like the animals we consume so mindlessly, objectifying ourselves and animals without consent or compassion.
As women, we still struggle to develop an identity beyond being someone’s mother, wife, grandmother, servant.