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Since it was my children's father who chose to challenge my physical custody of our kids, the burden of proof fell to him to show just cause to remove the children from the home they share with me. His assertion was simply this: that he is the more "emotionally stable" of the two of us. And better equipped, therefore, to be the primary custodial parent.
And so I found myself one day last winter opening my door to a total stranger in possession of more power over my life and my children's than anyone I'd ever met or, probably, any one I ever will: the man who would decide if my children were to continute living with me or not.
Now if there's one thing I feel sure of about my life, it's that I'm doing a good job as a mother. And the evidence seemed clear enough that our children are happy and well in the home we've made here. (That they love and need their father was never a question in my mind. It's why I didn't move very far away when we separated.) None of that, however, altered in the slightest the fact that when I faced the guardian on my front doorstep that morning, what I felt was a mixture of enormous anxiety, indignation -- and pure terror. Give my novel a bad review if you will, criticize my appearance, my cooking, my housecleaning skills, my politics and I can take it all without a discernable rise in my blood pressure. But called into question as a parent, I felt as though my house were on fire.
The texture of a person's days with her children and the quality of her love for them are not so easily conveyed in an hour-long interview. But I had given a lot of thought to the things I'd tell the guardian ad litem about what it is that has been my main pursuit these past fourteen years -- namely, the nurture of the three children I love more than anything in this world. What I wasn't expecting was a question early on in our interview, not about my life now, or even about my children, but about events of more than thirty years ago, and two people both dead -- my parents.
"I understand," said the guardian uneasily, "that you come from an alcoholic family."
Evidently my former husband had told him this fact about me, out of a sense that it had some relevance in the man's assessment of my abilities to parent successfully. Like a history of drug abuse or an old DWI conviction, there it was on my record -- not a black mark, maybe, but a question mark at least. And the question it raised, not for the first time and doubtless not the last, was whether a person who grew up in what we now know to call "a dysfunctional family" (a term that didn't exist, back in the days when I inhabited one) can ever truly succeed in being an emotionally stable parent herself.
I don't blame the guardian for asking me the question. These days the literature of popular psychology and self-help is filled with examinations of the relationship between a person's family of origin and the family each of us may go on to forge (or try to) in adult life. We know that almost invariably, child abusers were themselves abused as children, and that children of alcoholics carry a far greater risk of substance abuse in adulthood. We read that children of divorce have a harder time forming lasting relationships. Just as children of smokers are far more likely to smoke.
It's no surprise, given the current trends in thinking about the importance of role models as determinants to behavior, that those of us whose parental models fell short of the Norman Rockwell ideal would be called into question as models for our own children. If I were a guardian or a social worker asked to evaluate the parenting of an adult child of a dysfunctional family, I suppose I'd ask about that person's background too.
Because no question, even for those of us who manage to avoid the trap of recreating our parents' particular forms of pathology, the legacy remains, imprinted as indelibly as a tattoo: the desire of the adult child of an alcoholic parent to be perfect, the tendency to deny her needs and feelings in an attempt to more clearly respond to those of the needy parent, the likelihood of distrustfulness, fear of intimacy, a certain troubling prediliction for chaos and crisis, a need to rescue... I can easily dismiss the notion that just because I was born in November I conform to the traits of a Scorpio. But however much I would like to believe that I am in control of my destiny, I can't ignore the inescapable fact that when I read a laundry list of ACOA traits, I feel at times as though I'm reading an intimate description of myself.
But the same books and self-help groups that have done such a service to adult children of dysfunctional families -- by giving our problem a name, for starters, as well as a set of symptoms -- have also unintentionally spawned a potentially dangerous side effect. Namely the increasingly prevalent attitude among the ranks of the psychologically-oriented that because of our own dysfunctional origins, we're damaged people who go on to damage our own children.
If I were simply a hapless pawn at the mercy of events and circumstances beyond my control, I too might write off my own chances for ever managing to create a home for children that is any more safe-feeling and healthy than the frequently scary place where I grew up. But specifically because I knew from painful experience the profound and enduring effects of growing up without certain kinds of security some of my friends take for granted, I think I have always taken my job as a parent with particular seriousness -- and felt all the more keenly my responsibility to provide those things myself.
Not that I always succeeded. Or that I was immune to the unhealthy patterns laid down by my parents. I wasn't. Never anything more than an occasional and moderate drinker myself, I have found myself displaying what I call "alcoholic behaviors." There have been moments, over the years, when I'd lose my temper with my children, and then realize part way into my tirade (or afterwards, in a stage I always equated with a hangover) that -- without a drop of liquor in me -- I was behaving just the way my father used to after a few shots of vodka.
Likewise I have been my mother -- overcompensating for all the pains I cannot remove from my children's lives by going to excessive lengths to rid their lives of smaller, normal, everyday disappointments. When I drove to six different stores in search of a particular color of paper napkins for my daughter's birthday party, or when I suffered my daughter's loss of a doll shoe or a part in a play, with pain all out of proportion, those were all moments when the unresolved pain of my own childhood reared its head and came alive again with no less intensity than it had in the year 1958.
As recently as a month ago, in the middle of a game of charades, my older son chose to "play drunk," and began reeling around our living room, clutching a pop bottle like an old wino, while I felt my neck and shoulders tense, and all the fun of the game disappeared for me. Suddenly I was ten years old again myself, and the little boy hiccuping and staggering across our living room floor was my father. To me there was nothing funny about his act. Never will be. And so -- explaining my reasons -- I asked my son to stop.
But the fact is, I am raising children who are free from that particular terror, children for whom the sight of a drunk with a bottle is no more than a party game. Not that my own children's lives are free of pain and loss: They have come to terms with the fact that the two adults they love more than any others do not get along. No small pain, that one.
If I were to name the central difference between the climate in which I grew up and the one in which my children live today, it would have less to do with the absence of anxiety and pain, and more with how I choose to deal with the presence of those elements in our lives. My decision as to how to deal with them -- that is, to acknowledge their existence, name them, talk about them, get help when needed and above all else, provide my chidren with the model of a healthy and reasonably happpy adult woman who wrestles with her demons and is in no way at their mercy -- has everything to do with my own experience of growingup in an atmosphere where those behaviors never occurred.
I would never go so far as to suggest it was a good thing to have grown up in a household as troubled as the one I lived in for the first eighteen years of my life -- although there's no question that along with the scars from my father's drinking and my mother's codependence, my parents gave my sister and me great gifts I draw upon every day of my life. But I will say that having come from a family where the problems were obvious, inescapable and severe (as opposed to one of those happy-looking Donna Reed families, where the trouble stays under the wall to wall carpet, and nobody is ever forced to examine it) forced me to look hard at my life. I have had to work on becoming healthy (a lifelong process) much as a person does when she has sustained a serious injury and enters into physical therapy -- ending up in better shape perhaps than she would have in the first place. The way a once-broken bone sometimes heals stronger in the broken places.
Back to the question the guardian ad litem asked me that January day, concerning the posibility that the dysfunction of my family of origin had somehow prevented me from ever managing to be a successfully functioning parent myself. What I told him was this: That of course I wish my parents had been close and loving and supportive of each other. Of course I wish my father had been strong and sober when I was growing up, and that I'd had, in my mother, the model of a happy woman, living a life in which she was not only caretaker but cared-for too. But as the product of every experience that's ever come my way (as we all are) I couldn't change where I came from without chanigng, too, where I find myself today. Which, all things taken in the balance, is a place I like.
I will always regret that my children's father and I failed to provide them with the model of two parents living under the same roof, raising them together and loving each other as well as them. I take comfort, though, in the knowledge that we did not, at least, do what my parents did: stay in an unhappy, unhealthy situation, tacitly conveying the message that pain is an immutable fact of life and change impossible. Just as I reject the notion that I must be forever the victim of my parents' shortcomings and failures, I reject the notion that at the ages of fourteen, ten and eight, three children who are smart, funny, healthy and full of pleasure in the world and their place in it, as well as well-loved by both their parents, should be (as some experts predict) destined to an endless succession of short-term relationships and failed marriages. My parents launched me in life, as my former husband and I are launching our children. But each of them will chart their own course, as I am charting mine.
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