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Chaper Four: The Golden Child
To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward. ~ Margaret Fairless Barber
My parents did many wonderful things for me and my sisters over the years. We’ll never forget the gifts we’ve been given, the many opportunities we’ve been offered, our parents’ personal sacrifices, and the kindness we’ve been shown. The three of us will always be immensely grateful for all those things. With that said, the truth is that no amount of kindness could ever counteract the devastating effects of years of their emotional abuse. To this day, the three of us are still untangling the mess they made.
When I was a child, my mother would often comment to me that she hoped I’d develop a “thicker skin” then she had. That always confused me. I wondered how she planned to give me the tools to develop strength and resiliency when she could never attain those skills herself.
From a very young age I had an innate curiosity about what life outside of my family was like and how other people experienced it. I knew that my mother was unable to broaden my perspective on life. She lived safely inside of her middle class Jewish bubble and wanted her children to do the same. My father, who had served in World War II as a medic on the front lines and had seen the heinous atrocities that mankind was capable of, was fiercely protective of my mother. He intently kept her in that bubble and allowed her to rule the roost from that limited, maybe even skewed vantage point.
To be fair she wasn’t unlike many other Jewish people who, feeling justified in their suspicion that every other human being on the planet was Anti-Semitic, had formed a cohesive inner circle. They had tragically lost six million of their people in the despicable, senseless holocaust.
My parents, both born in the 1920’s, had grown up with a generation of parents that believed children should be seen and not heard. The parents of that era demanded respect, whether or not that respect was warranted or reciprocated. Children were dutiful and compliant or suffered the consequences. They did what was expected of them and never complained. The average person knew nothing about psychology or discussed their feelings; they just stockpiled their pain. Guilt was believed to be a great motivator.
My father had grown up without ever knowing his mother–she had died when he was five years old. In his eyes, a mother was a queen up on a pedestal. On more than one occasion over the years, Dad has wished me or one of my sisters a happy birthday and then urged, “Thank Mother for giving birth to you.” The inflection in his voice always indicated that he thought it would be rude not to give her credit and not to focus on her. He completely disregarded the fact that our birthday was the only day of the year that belonged to us and made us special—not Mom! He never had the slightest awareness of the inappropriateness of his suggestion. Mom ate the royal treatment up with a spoon.
Mom and Dad always said that they loved me and my sisters and would do anything for us. We believed what our parents would tell us, but in our hearts we knew that we came second to their relationship. If all five of us were in a boat drowning, we knew that Dad would definitely save our mother first. She always came first. He couldn’t live without her; in his eyes she was perfection personified. Dad always referred to Mom as “Mother,” or “Your Mother.” I don’t ever remember him referring to her casually as Mom or Mommy.
Whenever Mom wanted attention or demanded respect she would refer to herself in the third person. She’d say something like, “Your Mother is not feeling well.” I was always tempted to reply, “Oh, she isn’t?” But she forbid us to ever refer to her as “She.” She’d become furious and say, “I am not a SHE, I am your MOTHER!”
Mom and Dad often told me and my sisters that they’d always be there for us—they said that we could tell them anything. But deciding whether or not to confide in them was always a hard call. Mom would be gentle, sympathetic, and understanding at the time, but then she’d often stew and use our disclosure against us at a later time, or repeatedly throw it in our face for years to come. And talking to Dad was useless because he’d tell Mom everything we said. We had no one to advocate for us, no one we could trust.
My parents never acted as a parental unit. A visual representation of our family structure would consist of three concentric circles—Mom in the center (the queen of the castle), Dad in the middle ring encircling her (the protective moat), and the children in the ring around him (the commoners).
Mom tended to use guilt tactics to elicit the compliance of her three daughters. She took everything we did or said personally; like our misbehaviors or emotional growing pains were intended to deliberately hurt her. If we did something wrong, which all children do, both of our parents would be sure to let us know how badly we had hurt Mom. That’s a cruel and heavy burden to place on any child.
My sisters and I were often told to “do the right thing.” That never made sense to me. What was “the right thing?” I always wondered if a universal understanding even existed; if the rules to follow were actually written in a book somewhere and if everyone in the world knew them.
From my mother’s viewpoint, our family image and how it directly reflected upon her were of primary importance. She always worried about what other people would think. Mom’s public persona was entirely different than her private one–she was a chameleon. Unaware that it was a façade, mostly everyone that she met or socialized with adored her. She thrived on that adoration and knew exactly how to obtain it.
My mother frequently and shamelessly belittled my father in the presence of me and my sisters. She’d often condemn his effectiveness as a father, knowing that it would guilt him into blindly fighting her battles for her. He was her puppet and she pulled the strings. Witnessing the deprecation sickened us, and it was pathetic to watch Dad being emasculated and relenting to the humiliation. It was so hard to respect them; they acted like children.
My parents each claimed, and quite often I might add, that no one had a spouse as wonderful as they did. But witnessing the dynamics of their relationship within the confines of our home, one would have assumed that they despised each other.
My parents, though very devoted and outwardly affectionate to one another, argued all the time. Behind closed doors our home was an angry battleground. Their arguments were thunderous and heavy-laden with painful, lingering emotion. As a young child I found the frequent upheaval distressing and frightening; in fact it was unbearable. Time stood still as I’d watch in silence and cower with my insides trembling, or stop whatever I was doing and listen nervously from another room, praying for their fighting to end. It tore me up inside; I often worried that they would get a divorce. Incredibly, that never happened.
My parents never seemed to think they were doing anything wrong. I don’t think they ever realized the impact that their insane behavior was having on their three impressionable children. If they did, that realization never stopped their despicable behavior; they were much too caught up in each other.
Physical, mental, and emotional boundaries were ignored in our family. My sisters and I were never permitted to lock or even close our bedroom doors. My parents viewed that as an insult—they wanted full access all the time. We could never create a barrier to escape from the madness without the risk of angering our parents even more or having Dad impetuously remove the door knob. When I became a defiant teenager, if my father would remove the door knob to my room, I’d locate and re install it myself while he was at work.
Besides being riddled with guilt that we had or would hurt Mom, my sisters and I jumped through ever changing hoops to avoid upsetting her. My mother liked pleasers, compliant children. She wanted all three of her daughters to fit inside the molds she’d made for them. Anything outside of those confines was unacceptable. When my sisters and I in turn reached our adolescence years and began the natural process of developing as individuals, Mom’s anger intensified.
Mom assigned lifetime roles to each of her three daughters and treated us each differently: Marlene was the incorrigible rebel, Michele was the overly-sensitive scapegoat, and I was the do-no-wrong golden-child. We always felt as if we had three entirely different mothers. Each of our roles came with a heavy price to pay.
Sometimes when my mother was angry or frustrated with my sisters she’d resort to hurtful name calling, using words like “dumb-ox” and “phony.” She didn’t seem to have the slightest care or awareness of the resonating impact of her words or how they’d be imprinted on her daughters’ developing psyches forever. Since I was the baby of the family and clearly my mother’s favorite, I was immune to the name calling until I entered adolescence. But the abuse might as well have been directed at me the entire time; I adored my sisters and couldn’t bear to see them hurt.
Mom never admitted to doing anything wrong. In fact, she’d often deny that anything she did ever happened. Who was going to advocate for us or tell her otherwise? It would certainly not be Dad; he thought she walked on water. Along with all the other emotional abuse, that discrediting, deceptive tactic made me and my sisters feel crazy, confused, and insecure.
On the rare occasions when Mom did apologize, she’d say something like, “I’m sorry if you’re upset.” She never took personal responsibility for her actions. No matter what my sisters and I did with our lives outside the home, and whatever decisions we made, we were never to forget that Mom was the center of our world and pleasing her was of the utmost importance. Mom expected that devotion, though she’d never admit it, and since Dad worshiped the ground she walked on, he saw things no other way.
We found it very difficult to separate from Mom at the appropriate stages of our development without feeling terribly guilty about hurting her. It’s no wonder that my sisters and I became unruly, defiant teenagers in our parents’ eyes. There was no healthy way for us to disentangle from the stifling enmeshment of our family and blossom into the individuals that we had every right to be.
Hysterical crying that lasted for hours upon hours and loud door-slamming were common occurrences in our household. The slightest issues were over-emotionalized; our home was a place of frequent outbursts and melodramatics. Every argument escalated to the nth degree. I found it impossible to ever relax because I never knew when the next volcano would erupt.
It was terribly confusing because what my sisters and I saw with our eyes and felt in our guts didn’t correlate with what our parents constantly lead us to believe. Our home life was one of smoke and mirrors. The inconsistency, unreliability, and unpredictability of our childhoods made each of us feel like we were forever in a state of insanity.
As the golden-child I was always expected to look perfectly and act perfectly. My mother idolized me and would give me the world on a silver platter when I played that role; she’d trample anyone who got her way–including my father. But God help me when I couldn’t fill those shoes.
As the youngest child I had the benefit of observing my sisters’ interactions with our mother and learning from their mistakes. I discovered early on that the best way to keep the peace and stay on Mom’s good side was to avoid certain topics, to say what she wanted to hear, to do things the way she wanted them done, and never ever worry her. Mom’s worry was a catalyst for her anger. Out of sheer necessity I learned how to lie.
Clearly I was a “pleaser child.” Desperate for serenity and harmony I served as the family peacemaker. Even as a very young child I’d assume the role of the family mediator, try to apply logic to illogical situations, and calm everyone down. The raging storm would eventually blow over but I’d remain traumatized from all the turmoil. I kept it all inside; no one knew what I was going through. I always had stomach issues.
Since my mother was my primary female role model and she had no coping skills–I watched her constantly beat herself up, worry, and obsess over unimportant things that she’d encounter outside of our family–I learned to react to the challenges of ordinary life in the same unhealthy manner. With no other coping methods to call on, I began building emotional walls inside of me as a fortress to protect me from all the insanity that surrounded me.
Children learn what they live. As the years passed, I became very proficient at protecting everyone else’s feelings at my own expense. Conflict of any nature terrified and sickened me. “Pleaser” became my new middle name–I lived it and breathed it for the first forty years of my life.
Fine…ly: My Story of Hope, Love, and Destiny by Randi G. Fine is available for Kindle type Readers as well as in Paperback
I am available to talk about any life issues that are concerning you. Private, confidential counseling by telephone. http://clarity.fm/randi-g-fine