© 2013 Cora, last name withheld upon request. Continuing our May series on discipline, Cora shares her experience with us of being gently/non-violently parented during childhood and how that's influenced her, both as a child and now as an adult mothering her own children.
"Dear Mom & Dad,
Most people write letters to their parents to air grievances. They never send them, the letter ending up stashed away in a drawer or perhaps torn into tiny pieces or burned. I'll never get to send this letter because we're in two different worlds now, separated by a veil that can't be pulled back physically. My anger is at missing the chance to tell you this, my sadness that I'll have to wait until my own journey to that next world.
I sometimes close my eyes to go back to that time when life was about exploration, whimsy and sheer trust. I see you, Mom, leaning against the counter top in the kitchen, your shoulders relaxed as you slice carrots. I remember being fascinated with the speed and accuracy displayed in your fingers. Chop! Chop! Chop! Try as I might to quietly sit there, I always wanted to join you.
Looking back as a mother myself now, I must have caused quite a fright those times I got too close or grabbed at the knife but then you would smile warmly at me and hand me a spoon to stir the chopped ones in a bowl. Rejection wasn't a part of my childhood and it won't be a part of my child's. Every time I'm rushing around in the kitchen, tired or stressed out, wanting to tell my son to go away, I think back to our times together and it strengthens me, guides me on how to include him. Thank you for that.
Dad, I recall when I disrespected you in public, with my 8 year old voice, full of sass, ringing out in stark clarity. The silence around me was pounding in my ears. I didn't expect my voice to sound that loud. Where was the clamor and noise of everyone else at that time? I felt my ears burning and my heart dropped. It might have been the first time I experienced throwing angry words at a loved one and instantly wishing I could drag them back and break the arrow that took flight too easily into your heart.
Oh, you two were gentle parents but I sure did have plenty of punitive examples around me as a child going to public school and playing with kids in the neighborhood. I had seen the smacks, the way a parent would reach out and slam his fists against a child's head. I had heard my friends step into their houses during the hot days of summer, windows wide open, listening to the shaming and the cutting as it poured out of an angry mom's mouth, slicing her child down. I knew what my friends meant when they tried to bravely laugh about whippings and lashings but seemed a little too terse and quiet about it.
So there I stood as a deer in the headlights, frozen in fear and remorse, staring at you, all too aware of my friends standing around and expecting a good show. You looked at me, your eyes dark. Even at 8 I knew I had not only embarrassed you but hurt you. And now as a parent, I also know of the pressure you felt in public.
As you walked towards me, arms reaching out, fingers opening, I almost stepped back. Then the crushing hug, the smell of your cologne as you buried my face in your chest, brought tears to my eyes. You perfected that dad-power of complete silence being the best and most effective lecture a parent can give. Without a word, our relationship was healed and the world was set right. You chose to assume that I wasn't bad and that I wanted to say sorry and that choice has changed my life forever. Such trust in me is a feeling I still bring up during hard times to motivate me through life.
As I sit here writing this, the memories start to all flood back, yelling for attention and for a chance to make their rest in this letter. I see myself standing next to a neighbor friend as she squirmed and crossed her legs. Her father was off work for the weekend and she had been told to go outside and play. To me, that sounded normal.
In my young age I didn't realize she had essentially been banned from the home. She was terrified to sneak back into her house to go to the bathroom. Terrified of being caught in a fight, of being lashed out at, or of being told to do some mindless labor as punishment to ensure she missed the rest of the beautiful day. My young self had no awareness of this. I laughed at her hopping, gasping with half delight and half surprise as she hid behind our air conditioner and squatted down to pee. I sure did miss out on a lot of experiences due to you two.
I think now to later years, of going through that awkward, somewhat unpleasant period of time called adolescence. I remember becoming more aware of my peers at this time but still being completely confused by their behavior and their inner thoughts. Why were all my friends so insecure? Why were they so unable to speak honestly and openly? Why all the gossip, whispering and hiding in relationships romantic and platonic? I didn't fully understand what a childhood of shaming and punishing had done to these people and how they had been crippled and impaired by it. I was light years ahead of them simply by being unscarred.
I'd listen to them whisper gleefully about stealing from stores. Not like a huge theft ring, but a petty dare. It seemed to me that since they were on such a tight leash with their parents, and since they were unable to speak out, to share their own opinions, to voice their own identity, they had to go about it in delinquent ways.
Sex, alcohol, body alteration, petty theft, sneaking out for parties, it's all considered normal behavior for teens. Normal behavior that never appealed to me. And why would it, when I already knew who I was and felt accepted and treasured for me? I knew if I disagreed with you two, we'd discuss it together and make a plan that included my needs and wants. And I knew if I made a mistake, you two would be there to help me understand it and reaffirm our relationship.
As the next mountain of life rolled up next to me, I started to see more connections and to feel more gratitude for how you parented me. Compared to a little pot at a party or cliques in high school, the real world brought big choices, big situations that can make or break a person. Time and time again I found myself missing major traps because of the guiding light in my heart from my childhood. Choosing a stable partner who wasn't abusive or dishonest was one of them.
For a long time I believed what my friends and coworkers told me: Boy was I lucky! I just so happened to chance upon the one man out there who doesn't cheat or emotionally or physically abuse me, who had the same values as me and who worked hard to build our family. What sheer luck! It took many years to realize that I wasn't being arrogant in acknowledging the foundation of skills and minimum expectations in my life that led to our relationship and the hard work we both share to keep a respectful connection. It wasn't luck but rather the diligent use of the skills you had given me and the skills he had chosen to work on, healing from his own past.
But the final step in piecing together your parenting and my life didn't arrive until my son arrived, barreling into this world, screaming the moment he flew out of me. Because here was yet another mountain in life, and a big one. Here was parenthood. All my friends were having babies, too. Based on how my peers and I have been disconnected my entire life, I shouldn't have been surprised that we'd diverge on this path as well. The shock was still hard, like a blow to the gut. I didn't know one friend who thought birth was important. It was nasty. A life of feeling their bodies were gross, broken and nasty brought about women who thought birth was gross, broken and nasty.
In a peer group of about 30 women having children in upper state New York, I was the only one who had a vaginal birth. And only two other women breastfed with me past the 3 month mark. As I watched my friends start to slap their crawling tots, chasing after them, I suddenly had flashbacks to my childhood and of listening by the window standing around the corner in their houses. I saw them lashing out the same way their parents lashed out. I heard the same phrases fall out of their mouths, senseless statements that had nothing to do with shaping a child.
Playdates felt heavy to me, making my heart beat with anxiety. Smacking, hitting, pinching, boxing their ears, even pulling their hair or dragging them on the ground was all around me as I sat, holding my child and wondering how to get away. Suddenly I felt a new human emotion: the desire to protect my child at all costs. I began to drift away from these people, intent on protecting my son from watching and hearing the violence. And I started to think back to you, Mom and Dad.
How I wish I could have gone home after one particularly crazy day at the park. How I wish I could have fled into the safety of our home, tossed down the diaper bag, distracted my toddler with toys and run for the lifeline of a phone. I'd frantically tap out the numbers, then breathe a sigh of relief when Mom answered the phone. Help me, reaffirm me, remind me that love and joy exist. Let me come over to my childhood home so my son can be around others who open their arms and show him peace and respect. In that moment, it wasn't the loss of friends and coworkers that hurt. It was the loss of my parents. I was alone.
I broke down sobbing, hiding around the kitchen corner so my son wouldn't see me or be alarmed. I had finally realized how much you had done for me and you were gone and I couldn't tell you or thank you or hug you tight enough to show you. I was completely alone in that moment, surrounded by people who wanted to hurt, hurt, hurt. I felt as if the whole world was crushing down on me.
Don't worry, though, Mom and Dad. The hope you gave me as a child couldn't be extinguished even in that difficult time. I knew there had to be a way and I was determined to do it. If you two could do it, so could I. Were you lonely, Mom? Did you ever feel alone as a parent? Was Dad ever the butt end of callous jokes at work? Did people stare at you in public or make rude comments about your parenting? I see so much now of what you sacrificed and what you carried on your shoulders for me and I'm going to do the same for my son.
I've reached out, tentatively and looked deeply for others. It's different these days, Mom. There are new ways to form community and a new level of acceptance for respectful parenting. I found a group online and slowly made new friends. I found other people who had respectful parents or people who realized how they were hurt and are healing now. We're not alone. My son isn't alone. He's going to grow up with people who value children and value peace in the family. Mom and Dad, you two have done good. I hope you know that, wherever you are.