Thursday, March 28, 2019

Reparenting my inner child

I sat on my hotel room bed weeping as I watched Mr. Rogers sing, “It’s you I like,” with his neighbor Jeff, a young wheelchair-bound guest in his show. It was the second time in two months that I had been in a hotel room, channel surfing, watching Mr. Rogers.

The first time was on a business trip in California, and the hotel TV included movies. The Mr. Rogers documentary was on and since I hadn’t seen it in a theater yet, I watched it.

This second time, I was on a pilgrimage of sorts in Florida where my past and future had collided with a big bang. I had spent the previous two days with my dad’s sister and her husband, catching up after more than 16 years.

Then I’d moved on to spend the next three days in my oldest son’s college town. That day I had taken him shopping at Target between his classes and a fraternity meeting.

My aunt and uncle and I had so many questions for each other. For the longest time, I thought I wanted to know what my dad was thinking when he told my aunt he didn’t want my brother and me at his hospital bedside during his final days. To be honest, I also wondered what my aunt, who was also a mom by then, was thinking when she agreed to his wishes. But we never got to that. Nor did we get too deep into what happened when my cousin (who was much, much younger than me, thus we did not grow up together) died suddenly and unexpectedly a year and a half ago.

Instead, over the course of two days, in between walking on the beautiful beach at Longboat Key, sharing meals, and going on a rainy-day trip to an aquarium that included my brother (we had coordinated our visits to Florida so that we could both spend some time with this side of the family, but he was staying somewhere else with his girlfriend), we talked about our childhood and the events that transpired after our parents’ divorce, and our memories around them.

I was only 5 years old when my parents split, and just 11 when my dad moved to New York City, to pursue his dream of becoming an actor have a midlife crisis the depths of hell because of his lover, like Oscar Wilde. This move was simply the catalyst that changed him from a Harvard-educated Navy veteran doctor to a destitute ex-con living in a shabby studio in a dull beige brick pre-war apartment tower.

My aunt and I filled in a lot of blanks for each other and corrected some of our memories. My aunt is 10 years younger than my dad so she was probably barely 20 years old when my parents split. Not only that, she would have only heard my dad’s side of the story.

For example, I thought that side of the family had cast us off after the divorce. My memory was that my grandmother had said, “Don’t ever ask anything from me again,” after my mother sent my brother and me to visit her one summer for a week. However, my aunt told me her mother would never say that and I realized that perhaps my mother had alienated us from that side of the family due to her own shame at having an affair. My aunt wondered if my dad had paid child support. I told her I doubted it because we were on welfare and got food stamps (when they were literally stamps as opposed to EBT cards, so everyone knew) and if we had received the child support we should have, we wouldn’t have qualified for benefits.

I’d had a lot of time to ruminate about our conversations as I made the hour-plus long trip to my son’s college town.
  • I felt sad for the little girl who was shamed, criticized, and physically punished; who thought if only she were good, her parents would get back together.
  • I felt scared for the insecure girl who never lived in one place for more than a year or two, often sharing dilapidated rentals we couldn’t afford with boarders.
  • I felt ashamed for the little girl who was “white trash.”
  • I felt sorry for the young lady who made bad relationship choices because she had no clue what a good relationship is.

Then I felt happy when I thought about how well adjusted and “normal” my own kids are. I had got sober (being an alcoholic is another legacy I inherited from both of my parents) long before any of them were born, thus had worked through a lot of my issues (so I thought…at least I learned the slogan, “fake it ’til you make it”). The last thing I wanted to do was perpetuate the same dysfunction I might have been if I were still drinking. (I’m almost convinced I’d never have had kids if I was still drinking. I’d probably be in jail somewhere or dead, no lie.) I have parented my kids the way I wish I had been parented (I still worry that even though they were brought up in a sober home, that “nature” might take its course, especially with my older two whose father is also an alcoholic).

I realized when watching Mr. Rogers that somehow I had missed a lot of his messages when I was a kid. By age 7, we had left our comfortable and secure two-parent home and moved to a big city and apparently, I was already a jaded and cynical person because I hated Mr. Rogers. He was just an annoying interruption between the two shows I really wanted to watch, The Electric Company and Zoom. I used to flip him off. My brother at the time, at age 4, would tell me, “Don’t do that, he can see you!” Mr. Rogers' messages about trust, feelings, constructive approaches to anger (or even that anger was okay) and his daily expression of care were lost on me.

I Googled and learned that there actually is such a thing as reparenting your inner child. It’s just about going back to the age when I was wronged and giving the response or fulfilling the needs that were required at that time.

My parents have been gone a long time. My dad passed away in 1992, and my mom in 2008. I have wanted to write about my childhood for a long time but always chicken out because I feel guilty speaking ill of the dead. But one of the things I learned in my reparenting research is that parents do the best they can. No doubt they also had wounded inner children.

I remember being at a spiritual retreat with my mom one time and in a circle of other women, one of the leaders asked, “What was something your parents told you as a child that made you feel ashamed?” My mom said, “I heard, ‘who do you think you are!?’ a lot.” I blurted out, “Oh my God, me, too!” And we all laughed at how I had just illustrated how the dysfunction can be passed on through the generations.

I have written in the past about parents doing the best they can. Today, thanks to my aunt and uncle’s validation, I know that while the parenting I received might have been the best my parents could do, it was nowhere near good enough. 

I was better off divorced

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the nurse said at my baby’s 18-month checkup. I put my hands over my going-on-3-year-old’s ears, a little too late.
I didn’t know what to say.
I had tried to hint at the change of circumstances. “We’re living at Grandma’s house. We just moved in. No, we won’t be going back to our other house. No, it is not being renovated. It’s just Daddy’s house now.”
I knew this was a necessary topic for discussion, but just how does one sum it all up in a politically correct elevator speech, suitable for all audiences?
It had taken me more than a year to arrive at the decision to leave my husband. During that year, I mourned the loss of my dreams. Occasionally I felt a ray of hope that things could be the way they used to be, that I wanted them to be, that my husband had told me they’d be. But those moments were fleeting.
My husband told me I was a bad Christian. After all, according to 1 Corinthians 1-7, “Love is patient, love is kind . . . it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs . . . It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” So how could I give up?
Well, I could no longer handle the fact that my husband couldn’t hold a job or stop drinking.
If I tried to talk to him about that, or any topic he didn’t want to discuss, I endured criticism, sarcasm, or name calling—or he’d “punish” me by giving me the cold shoulder.
He went to counseling reluctantly where he gaslighted me (psychologically manipulated, e.g., “You’re insane! That never happened!”), and the therapist believed him. My husband found ways to isolate me from my support group as well.
I couldn’t hide from the fact that I wrote the same things over and over and over in my journal for the better part of that year.
“I think I made a terrible mistake.”
“I’m so disappointed.”
“I can’t live like this.”
The day I knew I had to plan an exit strategy was one when my older son, then aged two-and-a-half, looked at me and said, “Mommy sad.”
I clearly wasn’t fooling anyone and I couldn’t deny it. To do so would set the stage for another generation of dysfunction. I was fed up with being bullied, belittled, shamed, and undermined. I didn’t want my kids to witness me being treated that way nor did I want them to experience it for themselves.
So, finally, I left.
When people told me, “You look great—did you so something different with your hair?” they were surprised to find out what it was that had changed. Because what person in her right mind would leave with two toddlers?
“I’m so sorry!” they said.
“Please, don’t be. I’m better off.”
But at the pediatrician’s office that day, a choked out “Thanks” was all I could manage for the nurse, and really all that was necessary. I just wanted to end the conversation and not predispose my sons to thinking there’s something bad about the situation.
Plenty of kids have parents in two households. “My boys are so young; how will they ever know any different?”
“Down the line, they might,” the nurse suggested and handed me a pamphlet about counseling.
Pangs of guilt washed over me anew, as they had during the previous year of indecision and from time to time since the separation, as I detoxed myself from my toxic marriage.
However, today we are more than a decade and a half “down the line” and while it has certainly not always been easy, it was the right decision.
I wasn’t a bad Christian. I chose to “love” my ex-husband from a distance, meaning that I remained cordial and neutral to him and would only engage with him on topics related to the children. Like I always told my kids, “You don’t have to be friends with everyone, but you do have to be polite.”
I learned that gossip is the devil’s telephone as every smear campaign my ex-husband tried to launch backfired.
I learned that living well is the best revenge: I put my kids first in every decision I made, and it seemed like the hand of God was upon us, even through our darkest days.
The boys saw their dad fairly regularly until he moved out-of-state. The distance coupled by the fact that the boys had their own agendas kept them closer to home during their high school years.
Ultimately, I saw firsthand that kids handle a divorce just about as well as their parents. And like I said, I was better off divorced.
This story originally appeared on

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