It’s pretty common wisdom that the way we parent is significantly influenced by the way we, in turn, were parented as children. That doesn’t mean, however, that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of our parents.
When I was in my twenties, a friend who had also come of age in the 1960s confided that she had been unhappy as a child and still felt anger toward her overprotective mother and distant, disinterested father. In response, I blithely stated that I thought my early years were pretty normal. She looked at me with wide eyes. “Think about that, Marcia,” she said. Once I did, I realized that my childhood had been anything but what could be called normal.
As the only child of parents who divorced when I was seven, I became, no doubt out of necessity and self-preservation, quite independent. Unless one was Elizabeth Taylor or Frank Sinatra, divorce in the early ‘50s was practically anathema; something the neighbors whispered about. After the initial shock of coming to terms with what “divorce” meant, including the fact that my father had moved out of state, I slowly adapted to the new normal.
Yet there was something far more toxic underlying the displays of concern by my mother and grandmother: the appalling practice of bad mouthing. After my father left, they began to trash him on an almost daily basis. It started as quiet talk between them, but soon escalated to harsh accusations directed at me. Both of them, often with unpleasant sneers, began to make references to “your father” as though my mother’s problems were my fault. At first, I thought it was just the way adults spoke, but after a couple years of I began to feel instinctively that what they were doing was terribly wrong. Although I asked them to stop, they never did.
My father, whom I seldom saw in those years, was also critical, especially toward my grandmother, whom he blamed for their breakup. Since it was something no one outside my family ever talked about, until my teens I took this behavior for granted. I took refuge in reading and drawing.
The psychological term for my parents’ behavior is parental alienation, defined as “a set of strategies that parents use to undermine and interfere with a child’s relationship with his or her other parent.” Dr. Amy Baker, a developmental psychologist, suggests that this is the core experience of psychological maltreatment, or emotional abuse, as defined by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children.
“Parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse that damages the child’s self-esteem in the short run and is associated with life-long damage,” asserts Dr. Baker. “In essence, the child receives the message that s/he is worthless and unloved and only of value for meeting the needs of others.” How right she is. The outcome of all this misplaced anger created distress, anxiety and ultimately a deep chasm with my parents, particularly my mother. It was a breach that was never resolved.
In the ‘80s, when I was married with a daughter, those childhood memories reared their ugly heads. My daughter was about six when my marriage hit the proverbial wall. Most of the early arguments were petty and ended quickly, albeit not without escalating animosity. One night, during a harangue by my husband, I stopped abruptly and called a time-out. Realizing what was happening, I vowed never to do to my daughter what had been done to me.
After that my husband and I kept our arguments well out of earshot. It wasn’t easy to stop a spontaneous outburst, and we were far from perfect, but we were both determined not to repeat the essentially abusive pattern I had grown up with. When an upset occurred, we were careful to explain only as much as we thought our daughter could absorb and understand.
Eventually, we divorced. After the initial period of angst and anger passed, we overcame our differences and became friends. One day when she was ten, my daughter made an insightful observation. “It’s good you and daddy got divorced,” she said. “This way everyone is happy.” While happy is a word seldom used in divorce, she wasn’t far from right.
Marcia Gloster is the author of the memoir 31 Days: A Memoir of Seduction and the novel I Love You Today, both published by The Story Plant.