Guest Post: Family Tectonics and Daughtering
Editor’s Note: Cassandra Phoenix is back and this time she is talking about family dynamics and re-learning how to be a daughter.
My relationship with my parents is complicated. It’s complex. Or nigh-nonexistent, depending on which side of my family I’m talking about.
I was born when my mother and father were 20. He entered the Air Force and my mother became an Air Force wife. She left him when I was 7. She then essentially kidnapped my sister and me and took us to where she was living with the man who eventually became my stepfather. My mother and father had a contentious divorce and were in court with each other for pretty much the rest of my childhood until I was 18. And probably after, I don’t know. I don’t want to know.
My mother remarried when I was 8. She began a campaign to alienate me and my sister from my father (and eventually my stepmother and half-brothers) that was tremendously successful. It was so successful, in fact, that my father and stepmother knew nothing about my abuse until they ran across a web post I made in 1999. I feel terrible about that in retrospect, I had no intention of having the paternal side of my family ever seeing it, and I can’t imagine how much it hurt them to read it.
I never speak to my mother. One reason is because when I revealed my abuse (by my stepfather) to her in 1995, she asked me if I wanted her to stay married to my stepfather. I told her I couldn’t make that decision for her, which she took as tacit permission to stay married to him. Which she did, including celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary with him, until he died of brain cancer in 2004.
The second reason we don’t talk is because I am now a mother and I find her actions incomprehensible. There is NO person I put above the safety and well-being of my child and I will beat to death with their own limbs anyone who dares to lay an unwelcome hand on her. I don’t know why she preferred to keep her marriage at the expense of her daughter, but it’s not just something you get over, your mother kicking you to the curb so she can stay married to your rapist.
My relationship with my father and stepmother is a work in progress. I give them a lot of credit because they kept trying. I think we started building that bridge when they read my post. Having the only grandchild is pretty helpful, too. It’s important to me that my daughter at least have a relationship with them, so I work at it.
But I am no good at daughtering. I hate the phone. My preferred method of communication is either email or text message. My stepmother has to call at least three times before I’ll give in and answer the phone. I never contact my mother, except to send her things that relate to my daughter. Whenever there is news from that side of the family, I hear it through my sister.
So when things happen to me, good or bad, that’s who I call: my sister. I don’t call my parents because I don’t have that habit. Eleven years after the birth of my daughter, I am still wrestling with how I can let my kid have a relationship with my mother that I feel safe about.
When my friends talk about how close they are with their parents, I’m generally envious and confused. Even though my father and stepmother are very present in my life now, I keep waiting for them to decide I’m not worth it. Unconditional parental love is something I know how to do but not something I know how to receive.
In this regard, I feel somewhat like a feral cat. I am eternally uncertain of my welcome in all my relationships. My father and stepmother keep showing me I don’t have anything to be afraid of with them, and maybe someday I’ll believe them. It’s not their fault, they’re good people and they really love me. But it’s not something I find easy to trust.
My stepmother threw a big party for my father on his 60th birthday that I attended. We were on the porch talking and I said, “I’m sorry I’m so bad at this daughtering thing.”
My father, a man of few words with two daughters and three sons, said, “I have no bad children.”
Cassandra Phoenix is a badass librarian who writes impressive fanfic. She started out in New England, got lost, and is currently in Wisconsin, where she lives with her daughter and her cat. She’s dyed her hair more times than you’ve had hot dinners.
I wanted to let you know that your articles resonate a lot with me. My mother was emotionally and sometimes physically abusive, and like you I’m horribly afraid of turning into an abuser myself (to the point of probably over-correcting sometimes), and I continually struggle to maintain family-relationships that are somewhat at least non-damaging to us.
And like you I have a sister I rely on, whom I call and with whom I will talk.
There’s one difference: I have given up the daughtering thing. My mother is an untreated alcoholic and I hate that she will break my children’s hearts in the not too far future. My father has officially blamed me for her drinking because I’m not a good enough daughter, I don’t plan my life around their desire to have access to my children (as if they were the people I want to have frequent access to my children). I’m doing the parent thing, the spouse thing, the in-law thing, the friend thing, the sibling thing and that is good enough for me.
Thanks for reading and commenting — I think that we all have to find our own best way to have relationships with people, and keeping the toxic ones far away is always a good idea. I’m glad that I said some things that resonated with you!
I think there’s more of us out there than people would like to admit. I recently watchen Disney’s “Tangled” for the first time with my kids (I know we’re late) and holy fuck, did I get triggered. Basically, I’ve been raised by the wicked witch, minus the magic hair and the locking up thing. After I calmed down I thought that the person who wrote that character must have known somebody like that, too. Because you really can’t make that up.
One notion I fight tooth and claw is the idea that we need to “make up” with our abusers, that we need to “forgive”, that we need to keep these people in our lives because they’re our parents, siblings, whatever. That we cannot heal unless we become a happy family again. That we automatically become the bad people for cutting them off. That they are like they are and that we need to change in order to accomodate. Fuck that shit.
I think there’s a lot of that from the religious, because religion is, in large part, about getting used to the idea that those with power over you (God, authority figures, etc) will abuse you and test you, but you have to let them. That’s one of the most powerful things we have in skepticism. The idea that abuse and suffering is NOT something to be borne, but something to fight and overcome. The idea that you are a victim, not of your own misdeeds, but of the indifference of nature, or the misbehavior of others, and you don’t need to apologize.