I make a lot of spelling mistakes. My mother first told me she thought I was “LD” in high school. I was having trouble with concentration and my grades were going down. But during this time, home was a place of fear and chaos. I never knew when I woke up what kind of mood my parents might be in. I would listen for the sound of my father’s footsteps across the kitchen floor below. Would they sound angry? Would they be rapid and heavy? Did this mean he was simply happy for the day? I’d listent o the tone of my mother’s voice. Was it cheerful to match his? Or cheerful in a way that was trying its hardest to compensate for some rising threat in him? It took a lot of concentration and focus for me to lie in my bed and listen intently and figure out whether it was safe downstairs or dangerous.
So much effort for a child, before the start of the school day. Eventually my mother might come upstairs and wake me. Maybe I sensed a threat and didn’t come down on my own, but pretended to sleep in. Maybe she had ushered out the potential for violence, and now she could turn her attention to me with tenderness that relieved her of her own vigilance. Maybe she could relax into the morning, into a gentleness that would ease her own heart out of its tension.
Or she might come upstairs all business, sick and tired of dealing with her husband, drained from the effort. Maybe she would wake me up, already angry and fight with me about my clothes for the day, maybe she would have a list of grievances and expectations for chores when I got home. All mothers have days like this and all children have mornings where they are softly bullied about.
I would rise, get through school and all the minor and major obstacles of a day in the life of a teenage girl in the 1980’s. There would be the performance of my sexual availability to boys, an early marker of my worth and value. Demonstrations of wit, expressed in an ability to match the boys’ swagger, vulgarity–the more obscene and misogynistic, the more I gained clout as one of the cool girls who could hold their own with the boys. I said things like “I’d love to grease up Sinead O’Conner’s head and fuck it.” to howls of laughter.
How am I judged, Dear Reader? I always wonder. Every day, so many times a day, how am I judged? And then does this wonder make me a narcisssist? Whatever I do, my brain makes its calculations for safety and threat.
Recently, my soon to be X writes in legal filings, cataloging everything he can think of as evidence of my “disturbing patterns of behavior” “recklessness” and ” extreme selfishness.” The only thing new to all of this is the legal filings and affadavits. I have lived my entire adult life under the fog of judgment and contempt. And once my children became young adults he joined forces with them in their condemnation of me, the Mother.
My children never laid in bed afraid. They leapt from their beds in a joyful, rambunctious swarm of beautiful energy. I knew how it felt to live in fear as a child. I knew what it meant to grow under that terrible pressure where all of my emotional and psychological resources would have to be spent on intelligence gathering within my own house. I knew how it stunted learning. I knew how it drained me of my ability to expand my creativity and to thrive.
So I was intentional about giving my children a safe home full where they could flourish. I made the choice to set aside my own ambitions, to make room for my children. I did not write for the first six years of my eldest life. My first book was published in 2005. It was all poems from my undergraduate and graduate school years. I did not travel for readings or do anything to promote the book because by that time I had two young children. This was my choice, and yet, it didn’t feel like a choice at the time. My inlaws and my parents were ever-watching, ever-judging and my husband was not a support. I was a full-time stay-at-home mother. This was the expectation of me and there was never any support for me to do anything outsuide of my role as mother. When my first book came out, my inlaws said it was selfish of me to write it. My parents thought I was mentally ill. I was criticized constantly from every angle. The book was something embarassing, shameful and an example of my bad behavior.
So, what did I do? I carried all of this inside of me and I transformed that energy into loving my children. They would be my poetry–and you cannot control a poem. To be a real writer, a real poet–you know to let the poem create itself. You must follow the poem and be true to the poem’s own life. It was like that for me with my children. I loved them for who they were separate from me. I loved them for their own sakes and not as a reflection of me. The world around me hated me and my poems. I would love my children.
I am adaptable. I survived a childhood of abuse and abandonment. I survived rape. I survived war. I have set my heart on surviving and living a life that was meaningful and true. I mean true as the sense of having a purpose, following some spirit or instinct or divine gudiance toward something whole and good and transcendent of whatever suffering comes.
So I loved my children and their mornings were mostly bright. Not every morning was I a good and happy mother. Some mornings I was grouchy. Some mornings my private griefs or resentments came out in my tone of voice or in my distraction. But my purpose was intentional and creating a world for them where they could grow into themselves fully. I was a good mother. I did my best, and I was certainly good enough.
But when they came into those teenage years, the contempt that Todd had for me day in and day out, became a part of the air my children breathed. And slowly I watched as they formed this symbiotic bond, and I became a target in my home once again.
Instead of learning from my childhood how to abuse others, I learned how to take abuse. What I said about Sinead O’Conner’s head was deeply misogynistic and offensive. I was a teenager. Teenager’s brains arent fully developed. That’s why they make such lethal soliders. I watched my own children grow into these beings who also could say deeply offensive and violent things. This is normal. But what became dysfunctional was having a partner who joined them. And Having that partner turn on me and attack me along with them.
I became the Monster Mother in all of their eyes. I was called stupid, soooo stupid. Ugly. I looked like Bob the demon from Twin Peaks. I was interrupted, corrected, screamed at, insulted, laughed at, mocked constantly day in and day out. Instead of my husband supporting me and helping me set boundaries with the kids, he egged them on. The kids would tell racist jokes, say racist things, and my husband would encourage it. When I told my teenager to stop they screamed the racist words in my face even louder and then laugh and laugh. They all accused me of having strokes, of being schizo and borderline.
Everything I did was used as evidence against me. I was made fun of for every mistake I made, and every mistake I made was weaponized against me. It was and continues to be full on shaming of my intelligence, shaming of my mental health, shaming of my sexuality and gender identity.
Eventually I was physically thrown out of the house by my partner. I am now alone and trying to rebuild my life, and maybe attain a life I’ve never even experienced. One finally free of abuse.
I have reconciled with my own mother, who was once a kind of monster to me. I grew up being kicked, slapped, grabbed, having my arms twisted and headbutted. My own children have never even been grounded. Because of my being abused, it was hard for me to set boundaries with my own children. And it was hard for me to do anything but desperately try to please everyone around me. That life I lived came from the choices I made, many many choices that I see now were mistakes and I am taking responsibility for those mistakes. The mistakes used against me in affadavits and court filings–the mistakes the family has made fun of me for, my difficulty expressing my feelings, my stammering, my confusion, my trauma, and yes, my spelling mistakes that make me seem crazy or stupid to those who judge, those mistakes don’t belong to me. I won’t carry them.
I have a son who also estranged from the family now because of his own mental health issues. They shame him and do not allow him to express his own feelings without berating him, judging him, laughing at him. The trio of my husband and two kids has become a whirwind of anger, hate, condemnataion, and shaming and they reinforce one another and the pain they leave in their wake is devastating.
My mistake in the past was trying to please them, to make them love me. I am walking away from that path. I will have to love myself enough to stay alive and to follow that instinct toward something transcendent and good in the world.