A three-year-old girl with two long blonde braids tied at the ends with red ribbons sits on the kitchen floor of her parents’ double-wide trailer with her legs outstretched and a tall drinking glass between them.
Her arms tremble as she struggles to hold the heavy carton of orange juice high enough to pour it into the glass, and the cold liquid falls mostly into its intended target, but a fair amount missed its mark and splashes onto her pajama pants and the linoleum floor.
Suddenly, a booming voice shouts from the living room, startling her, “What are you doing in there?”
She replies in her small, sweet voice, “Nothin’!”
She hears him rise from the sofa on which he had been laying, and feels each footstep reverberate in the floorboards beneath her bottom as he makes his way toward her. Upon entering the kitchen and discovering the mess, his face flushes crimson with anger, and without another thought, he picks her up by the arm—her small body dangling in front of him, toes unable to touch the floor, and he burned her biscuits.
That’s what they called spankings.
I suppose giving a cute nickname to a 200 some-odd-pound man open-palm smacking the rear-end of a 35-pound child makes them a bit easier for the mind to accept as normal.
The man, contrary to what the fictional story paints, is a doting, loving father with a contagious laugh and wide smile. He is a man who would tell you with raw emotion that any man who beats his child should get what’s coming to him.
In 1980, spankings were as normal as leaves on trees.
Hell, child abuse wasn’t even recognized legally as a bad thing until 1874.
Want me to really blow your mind?
The first known use of the expression “domestic violence” in a modern context, meaning “spouse abuse, violence in the home,” was in 1973. *
Chew on that a little while before you swallow and digest it.
Pre-Covid, my children and I went to a friend’s house with lasagna and a bag full of gifts for his newborn baby girl.
“Having her,” he cooed to his wife as she stared into his eyes naively and adoringly, “took a boy and made me a man.”
She ate his words like they were fine chocolates, and, boy, were they just as sweet, but my (admittedly a bit cynical) mind took his words and chewed on them as if I were a cow chewing regurgitated cud.
What I wanted to say but didn’t because I didn’t want to ruin the purity of the moment: It takes far more than a woman giving birth to your child to make you a man. It takes life experiences that tear you down so painfully and so utterly unforgivingly that you must learn how to rebuild yourself all on your own.
One cannot possibly mature overnight simply because a child has been born, although I certainly understand what he meant by it.
He felt forced at that moment to start living for someone other than himself. He was forced by the invisible threat of others shaming him and damaging his strong-as-a-bull 20-year-old ego if he ran the other direction and left this poor young woman to raise this newborn all on her own.
Although the law says we are adults at 18, science says differently.
Research suggests that most human brains take about 25 years to develop, though these rates can vary among men and women, and among individuals. Although the human brain matures in size during adolescence, important developments within the prefrontal cortex and other regions still take place well into one’s 20s.
Take a look through old photos of your parents around the time you were born. Look how fresh-faced they were. Stare into their eyes. They were just learning the world, just beginning to explore what it meant to be an adult in most cases.
Some parents were much older when they first began having children; others much younger. What they all have in common is the fact that not a single one of them received their “How to Raise a Baby” handbook in the mail, nor did they attend a vocational school teaching them the ins-and-outs of how to be parents. They didn’t have the internet around to tell them what makes a good parent versus a bad one; all they had was the moral compass programmed within themselves that had only just been molded by their own experiences as children having been raised by their own parents.
A WWII vet came home from the war a solemn, joyless man, as they often did. During a family dinner a few weeks later, he stabbed a fork through the top of his then six-year-old son’s hand for reaching across the dinner table for a dinner roll. He wasn’t a kind man, to begin with (or so they say), and didn’t treat his wife and children with much, if any at all, love or affection.
When he was just a young boy himself, the war vet’s father had a female hunting dog that birthed a litter of puppies. A dozen or so; all female. “Useless,” he called them and made his little boy drown each of the pups one-by-one in a small bucket as he wept silently. If his father saw him crying, he would have been hit. If he didn’t drown them, he would have been beaten until he vomited or pissed himself for disobeying.
This young boy grew up vowing to never be like his father but became the man who stabbed his son in the hand with a fork for reaching across the dinner table without permission.
Facing away from his wife so as not to show his masculinity had faltered, tears fell from his eyes to his pillow for having acted out of anger and drawing blood from his boy, just as his father would have. There would be no apology issued to his boy on this night nor any other, however, because that’s not how a man behaves. His son needed to be taught this valuable life lesson, or so he assured himself. He quickly dried his tears and admonished himself for his sissy show of emotion, and fell asleep quickly.
Meanwhile, the boy laid in his bed holding his bandaged hand to his chest and weeping, while his three older sisters held him and comforted him. He didn’t sleep much, if at all, that night, and he would never, ever forget the incident. From that point forward, his love and respect for his father had been replaced with fear, and he never spoke to him again unless his father had spoken first.
This man’s mother wasn’t the most pleasant either, unfortunately. He tried so hard, as it was simply in his nature to do so, to make her happy over the course of his childhood. He’d pick wildflowers along his walk home from school once a week, and he’d put them in a glass vase with fresh water for her. The only things that held her interest, it seemed, were a flask of whisky and the bible.
One day, the man and his wife and children were attending a local yearly festival in their hometown. While standing with a group of his friends, chatting, and enjoying fresh, cold draft beer in a plastic cup, his 15-year-old daughter noticed his mother—her grandmother—across the field standing with her own group of friends. He watched as she excitedly walked up to her, poked her on the shoulder, and said, “Hi Gramma!”
He watched as his mother turned to face his daughter. He witnessed his mother look his daughter up and down with the same expression as if she were dog shit on the bottom of her shoe, and she callously asked her, “Who are you?”
Giggling nervously, innocently assuming she had possibly had a few too many swigs out of her famous silver purse flask, his daughter replied, “Nick’s daughter, Marina—your granddaughter.”
She turned her back on the bewildered and humiliated teenage girl and continued her conversation with her friends as if she had just shooed a pesky fly away. One of her friends, but only one, gave her a look of pity before she turned to walk away.
That was the moment he saw his mother for what she was.
This miserable woman had an entire army of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who just wanted to love her and be loved in return that she completely missed out on because her inner pain won during this lifetime and became more of a comfort to her than the love she could have experienced.
His heart broke for her.
He was angry with her, yes, but it was as if the door she had slammed shut and locked with heavy iron decades ago had finally been opened just enough for her to be exposed. He finally understood somehow at this moment that she was still only just a child who had become too afraid of the world to grow up, due to her own childhood experiences, so instead, she freely gave away her soul a little each day by feeding pieces of it to her whisky and misery.
While fictional, this story is intensely, and perhaps uncomfortably, familiar to many.
Most of our parents were simply children who were finding their own way while trying to somehow raise their own, which, as most of us now know, isn’t an easy feat.
Invisible things like affection or unaffection trickle down the family tree without much notice.
We seem to hold our older family members, especially our parents, to such high, ludicrous standards. So much so that when they do “mess up” and simply demonstrate their own flawed humanity, we are appalled.
How dare they?
They are the elders—the supposed wise sages. They are supposed to show us how to do things: how to properly adult, how to be nurturing, how to gracefully screw up—and when the grace is momentarily lost, and their raw souls are bared before us even as an infinitesimally tiny glimpse, we simply don’t know how to wrap our minds around it so we, mostly subconsciously, admonish them for it.
How. Dare. They.
They f*cked us up, man, They parented all wrong, and because of their mistakes, we grew into flawed adults.
The nerve. I should be sending them my therapy bill.
I hope my sarcasm is apparent.
Look, the day has to come, better sooner than later, where we as adults look at our parents and truly absolve them of all their supposed sins.
Life is so damn short, and what good is continuing to cast stones at people who are only ever doing the best they know how.
I’m not saying to go out and forgive the father who beat you, or the mother who sold your innocence for a pack of cigarettes—what I am saying, however, is that we need to teach ourselves to understand them if we want to finally rid our own minds and souls of bitterness or long-held resentments, whether the degree is small or seemingly infinite.
Every person on this planet will do or say something that others find utterly heinous.
Even you, with your faux halo held loosely in place above your head.
We cannot possibly seek to understand anyone else’s motives; the quest to do so only causes our own trauma and mental/emotional anguish. Chances are because humans—believe it or not—are innately similar in their thought processes, they will punish themselves for the deed far more intensely than they will ever let anyone become aware of.
Shame is a punishment reserved for humans. No other species on this planet possesses the capability to replay their mistakes on loop in their minds in order to repeatedly punish themselves for it.
Work on you during your lifetime.
It might not cause tsunami-like waves in your lifetime, but rest assure it will trickle down your family tree and cause tremendous change for the better in the long run.