We have spoken to your mother. We know everything.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Guest Post- A Chapter From The Book Of Life

The following is written by Betsy, of My Whim is Law. While we have already received some excellent posts/essays, we wanted to start with her post.

The guest posts will showcase all kinds of voices and a wide range of opinions. SC&A hope to present a wide range of intelligent discourse in the free market place of thoughts and ideas.

This post is poignant in part, tragic, joyful and as yet, remains an unfinished chapter in The Book of Life. It recounts a life in the here and now, and addresses the very real issues we touched upon, and more.

This post may not be an easy read for some of you. It is however, a worthy read. It is in part, a story we all share, in one form or another.

I grew up as a fourth generation resident of my very small hometown. My ancestors were considered prominent founding fathers – active in the local church, well-known in the community, held up as model citizens.

My ancestral family was also rotten to the core, yet kept that rottenness well hidden. The rampant alcoholism was readily apparent to even a small child, while the issues of incest, physical and
emotional cruelty (and the resulting scars left behind) only surfaced as I grew to adulthood. And I learned that my family experience was hardly unique in my small hometown – or, I'd assert, to families throughout the nation in days gone by.

Against that backdrop, my parents' divorce was the first blast that rocked the family bedrock. And as the cracks started to widen, the
resulting light helped clear the air…and even allowed for outside intervention and support in limited ways, given the times. It was the first sign I had that transparency- even at the risk of emotional turmoil- was far preferable to stony silence or subterfuge.

It wasn't easy, of course. When I asked for family intervention after several episodes of abuse directed towards my siblings and me, the resulting family confab only branded me the 'troublemaker' - while the abuse escalated in the wake of family members who chose to turn the
other cheek rather than intervene. They couldn't admit that things weren't picture perfect, or deal with even more family scandal heaped on top of the fact that someone in our supposedly "prominent" family had gotten a divorce. And it was then that I first realized that I would always be my own best advocate and source of protection - even while I recognized that there was still merit in reaching out to resources beyond my extended family.

Did I learn about the emotional aspects of a relationship? My sister and I joked sarcastically that we learned what not to do – lessons
that served me well later in life. We had vague notions of what 'should be'- and plenty of examples about what 'shouldn't be.' And we had similar notions of how we wanted to bring our own children up- children, to be frank, we thought twice about having as we grew older, convinced we couldn't possibly have 'the stuff' to do right by them, and fearful of how our own upbringing might taint them.

But we did grow up. We did our best to work through our own past histories, and I learned when it was time to put it on a shelf and call it dealt with (rather than lug it around with me for the rest of
my life.) And I managed to carve out a fragile peace with both parents that's grown over time – even as I resolved that I'd never, ever put my kids through a similar situation.

And no, I'm not talking about the divorce (although I did want to do whatever was possible to preserve an intact family.) While the aftermath wasn't pretty, the divorce itself was long overdue- my parents married for all the wrong reasons, and stayed together far too long. Why? Societal pressure, perhaps? Both parents vainly seeking stability after horrendous childhoods? I don't know- all I do know now is that they never, ever should have done so in the first place. But- it's what people did, so they did too.

Fast-forward 20 years – I'm married and starting my own family. I'm bound and determined to Do Things Differently. And over time, the wildly shifting lurches to establish my own rhythm (in the absence of any role model to follow) settled into a much more subtle series of course corrections as I honed my own values and expectations along the way.

First: religion. While I was raised a nominal Catholic, and did some religious exploration along the way, we'd agreed to raise our children in their father's faith: Judaism. For me, that meant learning as
much as I could, at first. When the children got older, I chose to get them actively involved in religious education and a community spiritual life, even though we weren't very observant ourselves. I joked that I'd rather give them something solid to rebel against when they grow older, and I make wisecracks now about the fact that I'm the nominally-Christian parent with the synagogue membership teaching Shabbat School classes for my kids – but I feel it's vitally important to give them both a sense of their heritage and culture and an understanding of what it means to be part of a community of faith that's compelled to make a difference in the world- starting in our own local community. And through that community? I've developed friendships, established support networks, and sustained myself during times when I thought sustenance wasn't possible.

Second: popular culture. I am an avid student of what's going on in the world around me, from the trivial to the truly important. And I
feel it's my job to help shape the picture of the world my kids see- even while I do what I can to present that world in unvarnished, complete form at times, warts and all. I'd like to think I've adopted my grandmother's spirit here- she was never, ever calcified. She was the piano teacher who, even at 80, knew what kind of music would get kids most interested in learning – and then she knew how to bridge them into 'the good stuff.' And that's the approach I take with my own children. So- I'm the parent who listens to hiphop music, talks about it with my son- and then, together, we decide what's acceptable and what's not (although I always, ALWAYS retain veto power.) And I'm the parent who sat through American Idol tonight with both kids as the contestants sang show tunes. Next on the viewing list at home? Classic Broadway musicals…cause it's about taking advantage of the teachable moments and finding that bridge. And - more than anything else - keeping those lines of communication wide open.

Am I close to my children? Yes- although I can see that changing and shifting as the years go by. That closeness has helped sustain us- even while my own insistence on maintaining my own separate identity
as someone who is not just 'Mom' or 'wife', but a woman to be respected and taken seriously also takes precedence. That's why I freely re-adopt the phrase 'because I said so', or take full advantage of kid-free weekends, for example.

And it's also why I am no longer together with their father- as gut-wrenching as it's been for us all. In the end? It came down to which was more important: maintaining a nuclear family that started to become rotten at the core, or showing my children that treating another human being with respect and love was the most important thing they could do in this world- and what they ought to demand for themselves. I chose the latter.

So? On one hand, I'm the classic picture of a single mother who immerses her children in popular culture and fails to put their every want and desire first. Or- I'm the parent who's smart enough to build in an extended 'family' of sorts as a safety net in place of the real dysfunctional thing. To demonstrate that integrity and self-worth are things to hold dear- no matter what. To keep the lines of communication open- even if it means I'm listening to hiphop
music or watching American Idol to do so. And I'm also the parent who will lecture her young daughter about the wonders that true physical and emotional intimacy can bring- yet won't hesitate to hustle her down without judgment for appropriate birth control and safe sex lessons at the first hint that it's necessary.

Our children face pressures now that we can't relate to- and it's incumbent on us not to dismiss them because we can't possibly comprehend how kids can think that oral sex doesn't 'count', for example. Or lay their creation at the feet of popular culture…lax parental influences…or the ravages wrought by societal shifts over time. We don't have time to blame ourselves- or each other. What we are compelled to do is to deal with those pressures now, as best we can, using every single tool at our disposal.

And that's what I did earlier this year.

Earlier this year, my middle school son (who had supposedly been sailing through school and life) told me he'd been thinking about killing himself.

Thankfully, he told me. He also told friends, who told their parents, who called me.

Some would argue that he wasn't serious. Others would decry the culture that's spawned an epidemic of kids seeking a way out, while others would lay this squarely at my feet – or at his father's feet. But I knew my kid – he's a very deep thinker, for starters. And I knew him well enough to take him seriously.

I didn't have time for any of the navel gazing- the questions about "How could this happen? How am I to blame? (although the self-recriminations kept me up late for weeks to come, of course.) So I called on my community – the professionals at his school. His father – and thankfully, we'd never lost sight of the fact that we'd always have a united role as parents for our children. The parents who called to inform me of what had been said. My friends, who rallied around to offer tangible support for both my son and myself. And even my office, since some schedule shifts were needed.

In other words, I let the light in. I let the air in. I didn't keep it a secret. And therefore, it can't fester.

Now? He's doing much better – the relief of being able to talk about it openly mitigated much of the fear and the bad feelings. And he's talking – to me, to peers, to his father, to family friends, to his therapist.

From my perspective, the transparency that we decry when it manifests itself in rising sexual behavior in our children, for example, is both blessing and curse – two sides of the same coin. See, it's that same transparency that's helped unveil long-hidden issues of family abuse, incest, and other dysfunctionalities. You lament 'the days gone by'? You can have them. I'll stay right here in the 21st century – warts, 'wardrobe malfunctions' and all.

(It should be noted that I have not talked about this on my own blog at all – and plan not to. I respectfully request that you not visit my blog with the expectation of carrying on a conversation about teen suicide or depression, and thank you in advance for respecting our privacy. But I do post this here with my son's knowledge and permission, after much discussion of the pros and cons of transparency. In the end, we both felt it might be important to someone, somewhere to hear our story – and I chose this venue since I felt this community would treat us with care.)