Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Best Intentions

Submitted by Jessica
About Jessica:
I challenge everything. It is important to me that I understand why I do what I do and I'll challenge everyone else too because that is how I learn. Christ-follower, student, teacher, artist, musician, mother of 5, wife, daughter, friend, home-schooler, doula, home-birther, knitter, abuse survivor, advocate of women, children, families and peace, I value relationships more than anything in this life. I know I don't have all the answers and I'm willing to listen, I don't argue for the sake of arguing or to win but I am passionate and opinionated while being open to change. Wrap all that up and then some and serve it with a cup of coffee, a glass of wine and some chocolate and that's a little bit of who I am.

I don’t think she meant to hurt us. It never was as sinister as that. Though I can’t be sure, I expect that she berated herself every time it happened, she loathed that she would loose control and I wouldn’t be surprised if she promised herself that next time, next time it would be different. Sometimes it was. Often it wasn’t. While I can’t say that my mom was a victim of the spankings she doled out on us kids, I do believe she was a victim and trapped by a combination of her past experience with an abusive father, others telling her spanking was right, a desire to “raise us right,” being burnt out, and simply not knowing what else to do. These factors all merged to create a version of herself that I grew to fear and eventually, despise. But I don’t believe it was intentional.

The early years have long since left my memory. Vague impressions of me running around in Wonder Woman Underoos with a towel tied as a cape as I skated across hard-wood floors in socks and using left-over frosting and my mom’s cake decorating tips to create colorful designs on Tupperware lids to be eaten later as bits of candy are about all I remember from before 1st grade. Like most mothers and fathers, my parents wanted the best for their children. They didn’t have the greatest childhoods themselves but they set about doing what they could to give us more than that. So I have no idea when it became more than “just” spankings. No idea when my mom started loosing control and the punishments would get out of hand but I do remember there being a gradual shift before my parents made a monumental decision about discipline. I can’t tell you how I felt about it before, if there really was a before. If I ever was able to differentiate between “discipline” and “abuse” and if I felt any different about them. What I do have are memories of feelings. I know I hated spankings. I know I would lie to avoid them. I remember being afraid. Mostly I remember being humiliated, shame that cut me deeply. I don’t remember the sting of getting hit or if it left a mark. The only real memory I do have from a spanking from when I was young, maybe 5, isn’t much of a memory of the actual one or two hits on my rear or of what I did but of hiding in my play kitchen set by the closet of the room my sister and I shared. In my memory I was sitting on the floor, holding my knees, crying and saying over and over again “I hate you.” Oddly enough, I don’t know who I was talking to, my mother or myself.

In search of the best thing for their family my parents began to research and study, talking with other parents about what was best for the family leading them through a gradual shift to a decision. The decision my parents made was one of justification. Before she could justify hitting us my mom would apologize when she spanked us and definitely when she lost her temper and it went too far. It didn’t happen every time, she and my dad both worked hard to not spank us out of anger but it happened and when it did it wasn’t pretty. Even though I was young, I knew when she didn’t approve of the punishment she bestowed upon us in a fit of rage. When things changed though there were more clear guidelines as to what was acceptable punishment, which sounds like it could be a good thing but my young mind saw those guidelines as permission to do more. In the name of God, my father fashioned a paddle from a 2x4 with Proverbs 23:3 engraved on it. This became the rod. It was through a fundamental Christian homeschool organization now called ATI or Advanced Training Institute (back then it was ATIA: Advanced Training Institute of America) that my parents were educated in how to discipline us according to the Bible. After joining this group, the rod was the primary means of administering spankings, replacing belts and wooden spoons, which sometimes broke on our back-sides or the table when used for emphasis in the pre-spanking lecture. The number of hits from the rod were limited, I can’t remember the cut off but it was more than a few and could be administered with significant force. Usually we had welts following a beating, occasionally bruises. But the marks were always hidden and I doubt my parents even realized they were there as most of the time the punishments were administered with our clothes on, only once in a while was an offense horrible enough to have us drop our drawers. Some 20 years later the humiliation from those times still burns my cheeks even just in memory.

My brother and sister and I rarely discussed our parents’ measures to discipline us accept to warn each other what would be coming if we weren’t careful. We all knew which parent we’d rather get in trouble with and were grateful when mom would defer to “when your father comes home” as he tended to be a little more soft regarding discipline. At some point I realized that most of my friends were no longer getting spankings and that they had stopped when they were pretty young. The few times I dared to speak of my punishment experiences with my peers that were more mainstream I discovered that what was happening in my home was not considered normal. There were a few other families in ATI that we socialized with that had similar home lives including discipline. One of my friends shared how in her family you couldn’t be hit more than 39 times because that was the maximum allowed in the Bible. I was terrified. God said we could be hit 39 times? It wasn’t until I was much older and no longer living at home that I realized that this arbitrary number came from the Roman laws at the time governing how many times a convicted criminal could be lashed with the cat of nine tails to ensure they prisoner didn’t die from the whipping. This was not God’s law regarding the discipline of children but rather a twisted interpretation to justify abuse. To be honest, I don’t remember the number of hits my parents limited themselves to, it could have been the same, it could have been much lower. I never really wanted to think about how many times they would allow themselves to hit us. Sometimes things got out of control and the rules didn’t matter anyway. After joining ATI my parents tried to stick to using only the approved methods of discipline but there were instances where my mother would punch someone in the face, dump chlorine on the child that didn’t do the pool care correctly, or somebody’s head met the wall when the paddle wasn’t handy enough. When those unapproved moments happened a tearful apology would happen with a confession that I now know' revealed a mother at the end of her rope. She didn’t know what else to do but she didn’t like that version of herself. The turmoil of the anguish caused from hitting us and not knowing what else to do left both of my parents frustrated. Able to see that in them I played to it once I understood that their mode of chastisement was not encouraged in society and I threatened to report my own parents to CPS. Because I loved them and feared being removed from my home and the stories I had heard about foster homes I never did and instead received harsher punishments.

The physical abuse wasn’t the only means of discipline my parents, specifically my mother, employed. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words... cut deeply and last a life-time. When my sister was around 10 or 12 she cut her bangs on her own and they were far from straight. While fixing them, mom alternated slapping my sister’s face with her hand and slapping my sister’s spirit by saying she looked like an ugly, stupid whore. I stood in the hall outside the bathroom crying and begging her to stop, my words earning me a fat lip. Name calling and manipulation were par for the course and what my mom fell back on if she was trying to reduce the amount of physical discipline she distributed. To this day I remember some of the things she opinionated about me and struggle against their meaning, refusing to allow myself to be defined by what my mom said.

I never doubted my parents’ love, I knew and still know they love me and my siblings. The intent to give us the best is actually what fueled what became the abuse they bestowed upon us. As soon as I could, I left home. At age 17 I had to get away from that love because I hated it. In my mind, it would be better to live without love than to continue enduring the conflict constantly present in knowing they loved me but not feeling that love. It wasn’t until 2 years after I left home when I broke free from the emotional control my mother continued to hold over me that I could actually feel their love. The measures they choose to use to punish me overshadowed what I knew to be true and instead of feeling love I was often overcome with bitterness, self-loathing, fear, humiliation, sadness, anger and depression. Today my relationship with my parents is far from perfect and not what I desire it to be but I have a relationship with them and I cherish them. When I became a mother I didn’t trust myself and I didn’t trust my parents either. For a time I fell back on what I knew but with strict guidelines for myself so I wouldn’t go “too far.” As time went on, however, I realized I couldn’t be comfortable with any form of hitting my children and I found it to be ineffective anyway. Instead of working as consequences, spanking, even very limited controlled spankings, worked only to produce bitterness, humiliation and fear in my children. Feelings I could identify with all to well myself. Now, as a parent, I can see how easy it can be to be fighting exhaustion, burn-out and one’s past and simply not know what else to do. I understand how in a desire to help my children be the best people they can be I could loose sight of what I know to be true. In fact, I know that though I deeply love my children I could make the same choice my mother did, I have it in me and I think everyone does. We can be misguided. We can loose control. Even reaching for spanking as a last resort in times of desperation can seem to make sense when you’re at the end of your rope. But those aren’t good enough reasons for me to trust myself or to believe that hitting a child is somehow the best choice for discipline. The only way for me to avoid going down the same path is to educate myself, surround myself with people that value non-violent and non-punitive parenting methods, and to constantly reevaluate my choices. I am choosing to stop the cycle of abuse with my children. This isn’t easy, this isn’t even simple and certainly not something I can do alone but I’m bound and determined to do it differently. I don’t have it figured out but I know one thing: it ends here.

(Pictures in article are not actual representations of family members. Pictures are from


Sarah said...

As always, your words strike a cord in me. Thank you for sharing something so important.


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