People don’t realize how destructive words can be when the intended pain is indirectly caused. Parents going through divorce do this a lot. My parents turned me into their own personal tennis court. Back and forth. Back and forth. Slandering each other and telling me things that would be inappropriate to tell an adult, let alone a young child. A 6 year old. A 9 year old. A 13 year old. Parents like this slander each other as a means of tearing down one another while not realizing it is the child they are tearing down.
Think about it. Regardless of which parent says it, the child gets 50 percent of her DNA from the parent being revealed, no matter how honestly. For me, this tapped into my self worth. It made me feel I was inheriting shame that was not my own and over which I had no control. I felt betrayed by my parents for telling me, for putting their anger above my development. At the time, I didn’t understand what was happening to me and couldn’t have described it that way. I just knew that what was happening was very wrong. I felt trapped by the parent maliciously preaching to me the misdeeds of my parent. I felt like my parents had declared war on each other and made me both the battlefield and the territory for which they were fighting. Only I didn’t want to be fought over and the more they decried each other, the less I felt I was worth fighting over. As I heard a parent disparaged, I connected that to my personal self make-up and therefore watched my sense of self-worth sink.
Some of it I committed to memory. Some of it I forgot. Like Alice in Wonderland, I have little ability to actually know what is and is not true, though, given my mom’s proclivity to shamelessly accuse exes of brutal violence and other acts, I have learned to take everything she has said at face value.
The worst things, however, are those I have forgotten. Those things I didn’t quite understand or didn’t seem significant to my child understanding so I averted my mind, only to have my hostage ears store them away somewhere. Randomly, as I go about my day, that information will pop up and I will suddenly remember it. It could be months, weeks, a year since my last involuntary discovery and it will catch me by surprise gently–not gently because it doesn’t impact me but because when you grow up in a turbulent environment where it is more probable for destruction to happen at any moment than for peace to be prolonged, those ugly, harsh moments that confront you are as familiar as the first symptoms of an oncoming case of strep throat. It’s been a while since you last had it. It can be fairly seasonal and you get a case periodically within your own standard time-frame. The feelings of nasal drainage, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat are painful, inconvenient, and uncomfortable but like an old frenemy you reluctantly greet. At least you know the pattern, what comes next, how long it will last. You know at least you will get to nurse yourself, give yourself some reprieve with nyquil-induced naps and warm bowls of soup.
I think for my own good, and like Alice where the adults behave as children and up is down and down is up, it’s important to write things down. When the irrational occurs, there can be a moment of doubt whether your perception is off or if this unnecessary bad thing is actually occurring. Growing up in a rough home is a lot like that. So I am going to document, whenever I think of them, all the things my parents accused the other of at one point, like a diary of their words which, more than my own, have dominated and written so much of my childhood.
Here is the one that inspired this post, all because it crept in through the bathroom window as I stared into the mirror while brushing my teeth before bed:
I was around 10 years old and one of my parents, getting ready to get separated again, informed me the internet search history had revealed the other parent was looking at child pornography.
This information was not solicited and this conversation was not instigated by anything I had mentioned. It was just told to me as gossip, to shame the other parent and point out what a horrible person my parent was, to humiliate. A child myself, it was ironic the parent haphazardly sharing was not thinking of how that would impact me, how I would make sense of it. It was rarely mentioned again unless in a list of exhibits in the case the parent was angry making against the other parent. Now as an adult, with a nephew, I think of myself as somebody who would mindfully want to protect him from that information AND any consequences it might have. It would not be to directly involve him but to ensure its ability to affect him was mitigated and he was protected.
As an adult who cares about several young kids in my life and takes the weight of my choices involving them seriously, I now see this as the most shameful thing my parents did, worse than those acts of which they accused the other. Impulsive and sometimes premeditated choices were made that had no practical use and would be damaging and confusing to the children. It disgusts me and enrages me that this was done in a sort of out-of-body experience type of way: I can’t be mad at them for doing it to me because it was too normalized into my childhood and I don’t feel that sense of agency where they are involved; however, as an adult who takes care of children in my life, I am appalled at their conduct and abandonment of their responsibilities to the children in their case because of the hatred they felt for each other.