With Thanksgiving looming on the horizon we are headed into what might be one of the most fraught times of the year-the holiday season. With its heavy and sentimental emphasis on family, this can be a tough period for those whose relations don’t necessarily come bearing damp-eyed hugs. Not everyone will be gathering around the piano for a lusty singalong during the last six weeks of 2009. I wonder how many of you are dreading seeing one or more person at dinner next Thursday? This feels like the right time to run the following essay by Rebekah Cowell, who describes how she came to split up with her parents. Sometimes we have to make our own families from friends who come to mean more to us than those we were brought up with. Sometimes we start anew by having our own children, vowing not to reproduce the childhoods we experienced. If any of this sounds familiar, and you would like to share your story, write to me at email@example.com . Now over to Rebekah.
When you’re seeing a guy or gal who your closest friends suspect isn’t good for you, there will be one tough-love friend who will pull you aside and say, “It’s a toxic relationship, and you need to move on.”
It’s a little different when we’re talking about toxic parents and family.
For six years, I’ve been trying to sort out the meaning of that one word-family-and how it relates to me and my decision to estrange myself from those who are my flesh and blood: the mother who carried me in her womb, the father who rocked me in his arms as a baby.
Recently, I ran across an article in the New York Times by Richard A. Friedman, M.D., “When Parents Are Too Toxic to Tolerat e .”
One sentence stopped my breath. He writes: “The assumption that parents are predisposed to love their children unconditionally and protect them from harm is not universally true.”
This is the hardest concept for many of us to grasp.
When I make new acquaintances and the topic of family finally arises, and I tell them I’m estranged from my parents, the response never varies. First shock, then pity. Usually I must assert, “No, I’m happy. I’m healthier without them.”
Running into the same person later, I might hear, “Have you talked to your parents?”
As a society, we need to believe in certain moral imperatives to survive the darker sides of human nature. For example, most of us want to embrace the idea that a parent and a child should maintain a close relationship for the rest of their lives. At the very least we want to hope that this new parent will love their child no matter what and nurture it with love and compassion.
Friedman writes about a patient he advised to forgo a parental relationship when this patient came to him severely depressed over being disowned by his religious parents for coming out as a gay man.Though terribly hurt and angry, this young man still hoped he could get his parents to accept his sexuality and asked me to meet with the three of them.
The session did not go well. The parents insisted that his “lifestyle” was a grave sin, incompatible with their deeply held religious beliefs. When I tried to explain that the scientific consensus was that he had no more choice about his sexual orientation than the color of his eyes, they were unmoved. They simply could not accept him as he was.
My greatest sins were going to a liberal arts school and not marrying in the faith.
When I blew out my wrist in college, ending my dreams of becoming a concert pianist, my mother said, “God took away your music because you weren’t serving him.” My injury was supposed to draw me closer to them and this God of theirs.
But it didn’t.
I finally cut them off after struggling with anorexia and trying to take my own life, events that illuminated my revelation that I was actually a better, healthier, and happier person without their negativity and hostility in my life.
Less than a year later, I became pregnant, as they say, “out of wedlock.”They did not know of my pregnancy until my daughter was a week old-they have never met her.
Giving birth healed pieces of my soul. If anything, becoming a mother has made me ever more unflinching in my resolve that there is no excuse for ever abusing a child.
When I hold my daughter close, and I see the love, security, and stability she has, I want to weep for what I lost to two people who were not stable enough to be parents.
My daughter is 3, and traveling along this path alone without a family hasn’t been easy. Fortunately, my partner is an invaluable parent, and he believes, as do I, that our daughter’s happiness and security are our most imperative priority.
So many friends assured me that having my daughter would change things. They believed I would reconcile with my parents and that we would create a new relationship-that my status as a mother would give us a new and healthy way to connect.
I never saw it that way, because that is exactly where my parents let me down: in parenting itself.
How would I sit down with my mother and talk about raising my daughter? What advice would I even begin to accept from the woman who had physically and verbally abused me? What parenting skills would I learn from her?
If I took her parenting advice, I would tell my daughter about an angry God, and I’d fill her mind with stories of demons and the devil. A family member gave me a Cabbage Patch doll for Christmas when I was 5, and it was taken away because it was considered “heathen.” My parents did not allow me to attend school past kindergarten, I was forced to wear long dresses that covered me up every day, and I had to attend church several times a week. They told me that any career other than being a wife and mother was a sin.
My parents forced me to learn Bible verses and squelched my beautiful creative soul with a steady diet of “nos” and spankings. Would I make my own daughter kneel on her little knees and ask God to forgive her for her sins at the age of 4, and then have her baptized before she understands what “sins” were?
No, I would not.
Though I believe that the instinct for mothering and parenting a child with love is strong at birth, I think it can be overridden by environment (and in my family’s case, religious dogmatism). A toxic relationship, whether with a father, mother, or lover, makes us weaker, not stronger. For one’s health alone, letting those relationships go may be the very best chance any of us have for blossoming into the beautiful souls we were created to be.
I’d like to say I’ve sorted out what the word family means to me, but to be honest, the word still conjures more questions than answers. In the last few months, my daughter has picked up what a family is from her books and stories; recently, she grabbed my hand and her father’s hand as we sat together and looked up at us, brown eyes filled with love, and said, “We’re a family.” And perhaps that is my answer.
Family is a concept defined by what you create, and, as corny as it sounds, where your heart belongs. My heart did not belong to the people who conceived me, but it has found its home.
Rebekah L. Cowell is a freelance writer for local newspapers and national publications based in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Prior to motherhood and taking the writing path, she was contemplating law school (what else do you do with a Philosophy degree?) and/or living aboard a sailboat.
Photograph of mother and daughter by Jack Hollingsworth/Digital Vision/Getty Images.