My family, up until my early teens, consisted of my mom, my dad, and three sisters. My parents were blue-collar workers and neither had finished high school. For Mom, Dad was the center of the universe. Her high school love. He was by all definition the Patriarch.
When my parents began to have marital difficulties (uh hum… he took on another paramour) it was reported to me that Dad told her he didn’t feel like his children needed him anymore. This was one of the reasons he was contemplating leaving. I was 13 and my younger sister was only 7 at the time. In response, Mom told us we needed to make sure Dad “felt needed.” We, girls, then became responsible for the survival or failure of their martial relationship, as well as the “feelings” of our father.
I often remember Mom making Dad breakfast before he left for work. I also remember her having his lunch packed and ready for him to take to work each day. When she wasn’t employed outside of the home, she made sure he had a hot dinner ready when he got home from work. What I was witnessing and perceiving was the woman’s role in the marital relationship.
I distinctly remember one day he came home late, really late. She warmed up his meal, stew I believe. She placed the bowl on the table in front of him. She asked him a question about his whereabouts. Was he with “her?” I then watched my Dad back hand the bowl off the table, sending hot stew flying through the air as he lit into her. Yelling and making her feel stupid for even asking. She dropped the subject. Crying, she cleaned up the stew. His mess. I watched her clean up his mess.
What message was being sent to the pre-teen girl who wide-eyed witnessed this event from the doorway of her bedroom? Don’t question authority, perhaps? Affairs are part of marriages, for men, perhaps? Submit to your husband? Set your feelings (hurt and humiliation) aside for the sake of your family (raising your kids)? Don’t make him mad? Don’t stand up for yourself?Tolerate the behavior?
When Dad did finally leave Mom went into a complete emotional melt down. After watching and hearing hours of tears, witnessing her literally passing out from grief, honestly, I lost some respect for her. Watching the build up to this event, the excuses, the lies, the hurt, the cover ups, the instability, I just couldn’t fathom how she would want anyone to stay who treated her so badly. What message was she sending to her kids here?
Patriarchal messages are often sent covertly. For example: If Dad was tired, he was not to be bothered. We were to keep quiet, stay out of his way. In fact, I don’t recall ever having any specific in-depth conversations with my father. I do, however, remember days passing and him not saying a word. Physically present but totally absent. Sadly, these are exactly the type of men I would find myself attracted to as an adult. Strong, but silent. Emotionally unavailable. Controlling. There is a comfort in familiarity even when it is totally unhealthy. History repeats itself when left unchecked.
The house, the kids, the husband, that was Mom’s job. I remember one time asking Mom if Dad could read. She was stunned by my question. “Of course he can read.” It was a legit inquiry, though. Every time I brought papers home from school for a parent to read and sign, Dad always told me to take it to Mom. He never even looked at the papers presented. That was Mom’s job.
Getting the kids up and dressed for school…. also Mom’s job.
Grocery shopping…. You guessed it, Mom’s job.
Trouble at school with one of the kids… Mom’s job.
I am a severe asthmatic. This problem was made worse by living in a house filled with second-hand smoke. In the fifth grade, on my birthday (April Fools Day, enough said!), I had a severe asthma attack. I met the brink of death that day. It required two trips to the emergency room. I was a regular. The staff knew me well. My mom took me to the ER that morning before she had to leave for work. The doctors pumped me full of steroids, gave me several breathing treatments and oxygen, and then sent me home.
I laid in the back room of our house that day. My breathing did not improve but got significantly worse. Mom was at work. Dad was home. I began hallucinating as my fever spiked. Finally, Mom arrived home from her shift at work and rushed me to the hospital. The second trip for both of us that day. I remember looking up and seeing her crying in the hall of the emergency room as medical personnel rushed me, laid me on a cot, checked my fingernails for dehydration, began poking needles in my arms for intravenous fluids and putting oxygen on me, and I remember hearing the doctor say; “You got her here just in time.”
Where was Dad, some might wonder? Ensuring the kids get medical attention and survive chronic illness…. Mom’s job. Anyone care to guess where the second-hand smoke came from? It’s really cute this idea to forgive AND FORGET, but unfortunately, some memories char and disfigure the soul. Making the forgetting damn near impossible.
Children were expected, blatantly told even, you are to be seen and not heard. Oppression and disrespecting the autonomy of the human being starts early in the good ole Midwest. Children see these behaviors and model them in the future. Little eyes record far better than little ears.
As a child, I was taught men could pretty much do and get away with just about anything of their choosing, physically or verbally. In fact, they were often allowed to abuse children. It wasn’t talked about. You were simply told not to be caught alone by certain male relatives. And for me personally, accused of “speaking the words of the devil,” when trying to expose it. No hero to stand up for you. No apologies. No confrontation of the behavior or protection from it. What message could that possibly send? To little girls it sends the message; “It is your fault. You got caught alone.” It places the blame squarely on the female child as the silence pardons the behavior of the abuser.
Society still very much participates in hiding abuse today. Child abuse and domestic violence is rampant in Oklahoma. Statistics of shame. Yet, crickets. I hear nothing but crickets.
By now, some of you might be thinking, sorry your childhood sucked, Carol. You must really hate your dad. No, it didn’t all suck. No, I don’t hate my dad. You only know what you know, you know? No, my mom was not a saint (that is another blog post). And, if those are the only messages you’ve gotten from this post you are seriously missing the point (read it again). Frankly, my story is not unique or uncommon (Hence, the reason for this post. To give power and courage to the weak and a voice to the silent). This storyline, or one very similar to it, is played out through many, many households across America. This is how patriarchy thrives and is passed on from generation to generation.
But, wait Carol, you’re talking about the 70’s and 80’s. Things have changed tremendously since then. Have they now? This is old news. Are you sure?
I see these familiar patterns in many of the divorce cases I’ve handled over the years (we’ll revisit this in Part III). If you want to prove to me or the Judge you actively participate in your children’s lives, then you’ll be able to answer a few simple questions: (1) What is your kid’s favorite food? (2) What is your child’s favorite color? (3) Favorite cartoon to watch or video game to play? (4) What is the name of your child’s best friend? (5) What is the name of his/her pediatrician? (6) What is the name of his/her teacher? (7) Before the divorce began, did you attend the last parent/teacher conference? (8) Tell me about his/her grades. (9) Does your child play a sport or participate in any other extra-curricular activity? (10) How many games (performances) have you attended? More importantly, how many have you missed?
Having defined roles may, on the surface, appear to work for the household but I can assure you it is a farce. The time to get involved with the lives of your children is not during the middle of a divorce. You might convince the Judge with some quick research, but you won’t convince your child.
Listen, this is not a “male bashing post.” Men didn’t participate because they were taught they didn’t have to, in fact, they weren’t supposed to. They didn’t participate in the schooling, nor in the nurturing, but they were often first on the scene for the disciplining. Men were taught it was not their job. In a lot of cases, they are still being taught this today. I, too, find myself unwittingly passing on some of these messages to my own son. These lessons come from inside and outside of the home on a very regular basis. Sometimes the lesson is taught overtly (head of the household) with much forethought and reinforcement given, and sometimes the lesson is taught covertly, unconsciously even, a matter of years of social conditioning.
Patriarchy is as damming to the males in our society as it is to the females, and utterly abusive to our children. In fact, due to the exposure and evolution of this issue, I believe it is more damming to males now then it was even then (I will explain my position on this in a future post). It is a system of failure. You are being set up to fail. The foundation has been shaken. The power base disrupted. What we were taught is quickly sinking. Where do we go from here? Society as a whole is still struggling to answer that question effectively.