By Esther Mann, LCSW
I grew up in a home where there was a lot of yelling. My mother and father yelled constantly at each other and at their four children. I can’t begin to tell you how much I hated it. For a while I went into a fantasy world with my superhero figurines. I played with them for years, creating story lines that involved the good guys winning and the bad guys losing. When the yelling would begin, which was daily, I would just tune out. As I look back on those difficult childhood years, I shudder to think how close I was to really getting lost in that world.
In high school, I connected with a teacher who was sensitive and kind to me. I think he suspected that I was traumatized from my home life and he sort of took me under his wing. We would often talk about subjects that were meaningful and helpful to me. Looking back, I often think he saved my life. He brought me back into the real world and made it OK for me to finally connect with an adult whom I could trust.
I married late, at 32. I was obviously not rushing into marriage. When I met Pearl at the age of 30, she seemed like the quiet sort. I was afraid of finding myself once again in a home filled with yelling. We dated for over a year, and during all of that time, I really never saw her get out of control. I probably would have continued dating for longer, but Pearl gave me an ultimatum. She was anxious to marry and told me that either I had to commit to marriage or she would break things off.
I can’t even explain what happened, but from the moment we got married, Pearl changed into a different person. Yes, she still had certain qualities that I love, but the soft-natured, mild-mannered woman that I fell in love with suddenly turned into a woman who angered easily and lost control. I was careful not to anger her. She had a lot of rules, and if you messed up, she would go nuts. It seems no matter how hard I tried to run away from yelling, yelling was going to find me!
I did try getting Pearl to enter into marriage therapy with me, but had no success. She thought our marriage was just fine the way it was and that I was overly sensitive and needed to grow thicker skin. Maybe she was right to some degree. I tried to deal with my hurt and sadness.
So now we have a three-year-old son, George, who is painfully shy and reminds me so much of myself, I want to cry when I look at him. He is very sensitive and if you look at him the wrong way, he falls apart. I know what he is feeling because that’s how I was as a child. At least he has a father who never raises his voice, but Pearl is very hard on him. Pearl treats him like a much older child, expects perfection from him, and tells me that if we don’t have strict rules and consequences, he’ll turn into a wimp like me!
I’m concerned about George. I worry that, like me, he’ll escape into a world of fantasy. Maybe he won’t be as lucky as I was to connect with a wonderful teacher who pulled me out. Maybe he’ll crack under the constant barrage of criticism and attacks.
I’m wondering what I can do to protect him. I want his life to be easier than mine, less stressful. I seem powerless to stop Pearl from being so tough on him. But if he is as weak as I was as a child, which I believe he is, the future does not look good for him. I worry that this poor child is doomed.
As I read your question, the first words that come to mind are “slow down.” It seems you are projecting all of your own experiences, feelings, and fears onto George and, as far as you’re concerned, it’s a fait accompli. According to your thoughts, he’s doomed to live your exact life and that does not bode well for him or for you—since you are his loving father and only want the best for him.
Several components to your life story merit discussion. I think your first order of concern should be targeted toward yourself. Figuring out who you are exactly, who you want to be, and what would be required of you to live the life that you deserve to be living. It does sound as though you had a difficult childhood. You clearly were a sensitive child, which made the fit between you and your shrieking parents a disaster. Some children can handle more than others. For you, the atmosphere was unacceptable, which motivated you to find an escape route that helped you get through the days—though how healthy it was could be debated.
At some point in everyone’s life, we have to stop blaming our parents for what they’ve put us through and start taking responsibility for what is happening to us in the present moment. Though you believe you took your time selecting the right wife for yourself, and were cautious to pick someone who appeared to be the opposite of your parents, somehow you fell right back into the trap of winding up with a “yeller.” Coincidence? Probably not. Pearl came with different packaging, but at her core there was something familiar to you that, although you believe you despised it, you felt comfortable with. This is more common than you might think. We’re drawn to what we know, no matter how much we believe we detest it and are running from it.
So now what? Do you just accept your lot in life, with the same passivity of a powerless child? Or do you decide to take a stand with Pearl and demand different behavior from her? She is not your mother or father who had the last word. Your desires as a parent are every bit as worthy as hers and deserve to be heard and incorporated into the parental strategy that should be used in raising George.
It’s time for you to find your voice, to feel empowered, to speak your truth. Like your parents, Pearl sounds like a bully. It never works to cave in to bullies. That only emboldens them. Bullies need to be confronted and redirected.
I suggest you find a therapist who can give you the tools you need so you can confidently take back your power. It’s hard to suddenly change one’s self-perception and act on it to boot, but it can be done—if you are determined.
Now back to George. Once you gain the confidence to create boundaries with Pearl and contribute to the overall energy in your home, George will feel the difference and benefit from these changes. However, although you see yourself in George, George is not you. He may be quite sensitive now, but that doesn’t mean he won’t grow thicker skin on his own, as he matures. Also, don’t underestimate the power of one’s same-sex parent. You play a vital role in George’s life. You never had a gentle father to turn to and trust. George does. Your involvement in his life and influence on him will play an important role in his development.
As you saw for yourself when you connected with that wonderful teacher, you never know what other players may show up in George’s life who can impact him in a powerful way. It could also be a teacher, a friend, a rabbi, or a neighbor—or even a hobby, such as reading—that has the potential to open up a whole new world for him. Many variables will go into determining how he experiences life, what he makes of it, and who he ultimately becomes.
But first get your own house in order. It’s lovely that you are motivated right now for George’s sake, but you ought to be motivated foremost for yourself. The healthier and happier you feel, the more you will be able to be a model for and give to George. Not only has George’s story been barely written, but your story is far from over as well. An exciting plot change right now would be perfect!
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.