Losing Your Children to Patriarchy*

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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.

 

Until now.

 

This spring the chains that once bound me as a sorrowing mother snapped and I was set free.

 

Grace intervened.

 

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.

 

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Afternotes:

 

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.

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Violence and the Fourth of July

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I have just survived another “Independence Day” celebration complete with three nights of experiencing myself as being under ruthless attack by not so anonymous neighbors who began the weekend with deafening explosions that intermittently assaulted my nervous system. Semi – automatic weapons also punctuated the monstrous three – day weekend splitting the air with their “mindless” gun power at all times of the day. Like drones at war. Last night was the finale. For two and a half hours we were forced to listen to fireworks exploding like bombs and then echoing blindly around our mountain valley. All my efforts to protect myself – closing all windows, exchanging the screen door for winter glass, using ear-plugs and wearing professional ear protectors could not keep out the ear – splitting cacophony. My two dogs stared at me with deeply troubled eyes. Wasn’t there something I could do they begged? “It won’t last forever” I responded with heartfelt compassion, the only sane reply I could make to their pitiful query, (which was also an attempt to comfort myself). When the auditory attack finally ended, I realized I had a horrible backache. My body, unable to withstand the assault at a cellular level was keening. Was she also filled with blind rage? I hugged my dogs and opened the window so we could listen to toad trills and the night symphony, but although the darkness was still sweet the toads and frogs had fallen silent. Like us they were probably exhausted. We three spent a restless waking night…

Target shooting and gunning (everyday occurrences here in our mountain valley), take on a more sinister aspect around holidays. New Year’s Eve, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Veterans Day are celebrations that bring out the killers in full force. War games complete with all the necessary victims, living beings, human and non – human, whose nervous systems recoil at blunt auditory force, not simply because our bodies can’t deal with the chaos, but because of what we sense is happening beneath the noise – we feel the intent to kill, maim, dismember, overpowering us. Death is in the air. And we are powerless to stop the assault.

This morning I reflected upon my distressing response to this third night of the weekend attack. After the first hour, I heard myself thinking how much I wished these people were dead. I would like to say that this persistent reoccurring phrase was a simple exaggerated reaction but it wouldn’t be true. For every moment I thought it, I did wish people dead. Worse, I recognized the pit of pure hatred I had fallen into as a result of feeling victimized. I knew from prior life experience that I had to shut down this kind of thinking immediately and I was able to do so with some concentrated effort. I couldn’t afford to become part of that problem. The conclusion I reached for the millionth time is that violence breeds more violence, and no human being is immune. I find this perception terrifying.

Perhaps equally troubling was a conversation I had this weekend with a dear friend, a mother of two adolescent boys, both of which are developing violent tendencies that are being ignored. In this family it is now acceptable to discuss the many ways to blow up geese I discovered on Saturday while listening to dad and the boys laughing uncontrollably at their own ruthlessness.

Slaughter.

The following day my friend complained about her husband and sons’ violent conversation, which apparently occurred quite frequently around the dinner table. However, almost in the same breath she also said that she understood why people believed they needed to carry around firearms to protect themselves because the world had become too dangerous. I was shocked because up until recently this woman and I shared the belief that violence engendered more violence and that guns would not solve our cultural crisis of escalating human (and non -human) slaughter.

My first thought was that she was protecting her oldest son who had become a gun carrying “red neck” by his own description. He had just turned eighteen and still lived at home, though he did have a job. He shot anything that moved. I remembered him as a child, bright, a budding naturalist, a little boy that I loved. What happened? What flashed into my mind next was an image of her youngest, also a teenager, throwing an ax at a helpless tree, wounding it horribly in the process. And his bloodless stare. My gut response to this adolescent’s behavior was to shudder involuntarily as I made the decision to leave the premises. This tree was being wounded so that some kid could have “fun.”

What had happened to my woman friend’s perspective on violence? Was she losing her reality under the force of this dominant male family ideology? Patriarchy has such dark roots. As I empathized with her as a mother, I also felt threatened.

I remembered the gun that my brother used to shoot himself just after graduating from Harvard…

When my youngest son (now almost 48) purchased his first weapon a few years ago I was stunned. I thought I had taught both my children well that guns, violence and war were unacceptable…

I remembered that the last time I saw my grandson almost two years ago, he proudly showed me the gun that he purchased on the way to my house. My stomach churned uncontrollably when I saw the deadly weapon. He was finally discharged from the Marines after five years this June at the age of 22. He hasn’t bothered to call me.

At almost 71 I continue to believe that violence breeds violence and that buying more guns to protect ourselves from those that would would harm us is not the answer. Am I simply naive? Perhaps I am deluded? I can’t answer my own questions but I hear the deepest part of myself crying out “No! More guns will only bring us closer to the worst form of human evil in ourselves and in others.”

I choose to listen to that inner voice, and realize that to do so puts me over the edge into a  terrifying territory of unknowns.

Postscript: The image at the beginning of this article is of the Lorenz Attractor which is a paradigm for chaos. The idea behind this image  is that small changes in initial conditions can create perturbations that can have large effects because sensitivity to initial conditions means that each point in a chaotic system is close to other points with significantly different future paths. Thus a small change in the current trajectory may lead to significantly different behavior. As a metaphor the Butterfly Effect could help us understand that if the initial conditions are predicated on peace, for example, then a change in behavior might be able to create a new kind of peace… To extrapolate the metaphor further if we uncover the initial conditions under which early cultures lived then we might be able to change our current aggressive behavior. Feminists believe that early cultures did live harmoniously (see Marija Gumbutus). We also know that Indigenous peoples  around the world walked lightly on the land and as a whole were peaceable. If feminists are right, we have a chance then to call up the past and build a more peaceable world for the future. Of course critical mass is also an issue because the majority of people must believe and take concrete actions to help make these changes. And feminists are few… We have such a long way to go but perhaps there is a sliver of hope for those of us who abhor violence…

I must add that in all fairness from a scientific perspective this explanation regarding the Lorenz Attractor depicting chaos is ridiculously simplistic.

I chose this image was because it reminded me of an owl and owls are  often associated with wise old women!