We all begin in the back seat in life. Somewhere around two, pretty much all of us go through a phase of self-assertion, saying “no” to everything. By age three, we can assert our personal taste, saying what we like and don’t like. Throughout youth and adolescence, we learn to express our opinions with increasing social awareness and sophistication. An emotive, “No, it’s yucky!” simply won’t do past age four. Hopefully, as we grow, our differing personalities and perspectives are acknowledged and given room to grow in the midst of being taught manners, obedience, and morals. Moral lessons teach us to respect—for we all have feelings that shouldn’t be overlooked or belittled.
In the home of my youth, plenty of sounds asserted themselves. Sometimes the sound was the high-pitched hum of a sewing machine, as my mother compressed the foot petal and pulled the fabric onward beneath the needle. Sometimes, my mother’s voice filled the house in clearly enunciated words–phone conversations, her recollections of recent events. Sometimes, rooms carried shouts to us, as my mom called us on to bring her something from another room, or called us to the kitchen to eat. Often, my own voice and a brother’s filled a room of the house with play, as we animated our stuffed animals. Sometimes, when my father was home, and my mother and father were still together, we could hear arguments and the common remark “not right now [in front of the kids].” Often after that was the sound of silence–the silence of my dad–as he got quiet or left the house. Those sounds–the arguments and the silences that followed–made us feel sad.
When my mother and father divorced, the worst part wasn’t the physical separation of parents (that was for the better); the worst part was the schism that erupted long before the divorce, my mom falling into bitterness and criticism, and my dad into defensiveness or retreat. Sounds, for a while, were out of balance: mom became louder and louder, pointing out my dad’s faults, both real and imagined. She was the scribe, the interpreter of events, the conduit of truth, reminding us that he was the villain.
In times of trial, false dichotomies propped up her self-esteem. She saw the truth, the only truth, while others told lies or held less principled perspectives. Our childhood disobedience was an intentional slap in the face of goodness, a step towards the devil—or “witchcraft” was the word my mom tended to use. The marriage was failing because my dad gave up his faith. This, in truth, was just an after-the-fact attempt to explain why the relationship was falling apart. The false dichotomies were reflections of the way that she felt, but really only made things worse. She felt like she was always in the right, when she, quite possibly, was the main problem.
I can see clearly now that there wasn’t much basis to what she claimed. My father wasn’t slipping away because he was too secular, worldly, or fallen. Still, to this day, I do not know of a single thing that he did to deserve his status as the bad guy. My mother’s arguments weren’t based in fact; they were emotionally based rather than Christian or morally based. She had a right to feel the way that she did; it must be scary to be a mother and wife for years, and then, without knowing why, your husband’s love starts slipping away from you. She didn’t know what the problem was; she only felt very strongly that he was the problem. He must, therefore, be cheating, have a malicious heart, or be incapable of love.
Even as strongly as one may feel something true, it’s wrong to assert mere suspicions as facts. It’s wrong to rally your children’s support, to rely on them, because you feel you’re the good one. Even if one person is obviously in the wrong, and if children are old enough to handle the truth, children should be given, to some degree, the facts, which can speak for themselves. They shouldn’t be asked to support you in your muck raking and name calling (unless, of course, they’re adults and happen to share your opinion).
If I could have said, if I could have known (though I couldn’t have), I would’ve said this: I am your child, not your support system. Relationships can break. It feels awful. All those unsolved arguments add up and weigh you down. But that doesn’t make you or the other a bad person. Bad moments that you had together shouldn’t eliminate my chance of having good moments with my father.
It breaks my heart that I spent a good part of my youth feeling uncertain about my dad. He’s a terrific person. But I couldn’t see it then. I could hardly know what I thought about a number of things, because I was in the back seat for the longest time, being steered, instead of given room to assert my own feelings and voice.
Have you ever been around someone who pushed your center of gravity out of balance? Have your feelings been criticized? Have you lost touch with your own feelings, as you attempt to respond to the stronger, more volatile body of emotions? Trying to please others with such a temperament can be difficult, if not impossible… Sometimes, normal things will amass praise and sometimes best attempts will garner criticism. And the more you try, the more you lose yourself.
As we grow up, we tend to break away our from parents and develop our own independent voices. If you weren’t encouraged to have your own voice, it’s more of a struggle to find your place in the world. Who am I? What do I like? You must give yourself more time to discover.
If silence was rewarded in the past, you must find ways to reward speech. Friendships that are of the understanding and patient variety. Learning that interests you. Books or poems that are best read aloud.
If you’ve lived off-balance for a long while, with someone else dictating your world, you might search for a stronger, more reliable, center of gravity. You might seek philosophy, a better faith, a mentor, or a new worthy influence.
In the aftermath of an overpowering influence, I tried to strengthen my own voice, to learn the less-common truths. I looked for arguments that made sense instead of just voicing emotion. I know that there can be a difference between what we feel is true and what is actually true, even if the two are easily confused.