I’ve been thinking a lot about guilt this week and, in particular, as it relates to a conversation with Jerri about our dad who was her only local support person when she lived in Winston-Salem. He was her money-manager, her occasional chauffeur, dog-sitter, and errand boy. She admits she took advantage. Dad felt guilty for not being more active in our lives as kids and Jerri used that to get him to do things for her even when it was inconvenient or inappropriate for her to ask. Early on in our renewed relationship, she assumed I also carried a hefty load of guilt. I denied it saying, “What do I have to feel guilty for? For believing Mom and Dad when they said you were an addict?”
The thing is I lied. I do feel guilty. For a lot of things. Dr. Safer discusses her own feelings of guilt in her book, The Normal One. In talking about her brother, Steven, she says,
The guilt I never felt also became unavoidable. He was the family scapegoat, and I colluded to keep him so. I cannot reverse the favoritism that was undeserved, nor the way it distorted both our lives and prevented any real trust or real love from developing between us.
This rings so true that when I first read it, it was like sticking my face into a Harry Potter-ish pensieve and viewing the silver, hair-like wisp of a memory that had been extracted from my own brain. The number one crime I feel guilty of is colluding with my parents to keep Jerri the scapegoat. In my own defense, it wasn’t a conscious decision, although there was a part of me that acknowledged as long as the heat was on Jerri, it was focused away from me. Growing up in our house, you were just glad NOT to be the focus. Unfortunately, I got so good at NOT being the focus, that even now when I want to be, I can’t seem to manage it.
I feel guilty about the favoritism our parents showed me. I did not seek it out. I didn’t even realize there was favoritism until long after I was an adult watching Mom apply the same methods to my nieces and nephews.
I feel guilty about Jerri’s living conditions. Her housing is modest but safe and comfortable. Still it’s in a bad often dangerous part of town. Her main mode of transportation is the bus system which is used primarily by the poor, people who are not just down on their luck, but often tough, street-wise predators who snack on people like Jerri. She is surrounded daily by those with complex and recalcitrant mental illness and has little exposure to mentally healthy people. She eats most of her meals at the nearby shelter which has an ongoing problem with bedbugs. On several occasions, she’s been violently attacked. Once, when walking home from the bus stop, she was hit in the head by a homeless man with schizophrenia because she asked him what he’d said–she thought he was talking to her and was just trying to treat him like a human being.
I felt guilty at work yesterday when I had to get off the phone with Jerri or miss the opportunity to grab lunch before the cafeteria closed. She’d just admitted she’d had nothing to eat all day and had already missed lunch at the shelter.
According to Dr. Safer, all siblings of “damaged” individuals experience guilt. When it comes to mental illness, I wager that it’s not just the siblings. I doubt anyone in the family escapes the guilt complex whether parent, sibling, or child. We all wonder if we might have some how done something to trigger the illness or at the very least, make it worse. We all know we have responded poorly and failed the one who is ill.
My friends and coworkers remind me on a regular basis of how much I do support her, but, frankly, it seems like too little too late. It falls way short of her actual needs. Just this week, a friend said, “what if you did all the things you think you ought to do – moved her into your own home, administered her meds every day, took care of her like she was your own child, paid for everything she needs – what if you dedicated your whole life to her and nothing changed? What if she continued to be just as sick, continued to get into just as many scrapes?”
My friend had a good point. Sometimes I forget that I’m not God. I can’t fix some things even if I throw my life at it. Dr. Safer makes this point:
There is a critical difference between assisting a damaged sibling and trying to undo accidents of fate and fortune you cannot help and did not cause. The former is brotherly or sisterly love and mature, if circumscribed, responsibility. The latter is compulsive self-sacrifice driven by the belief that you do not deserve your advantages. The one is sadly finite; the other never lets you go.
The word “circumscribed” is important. It means “to limit or confine.” When we are assisting with sisterly love and with mature responsibility, we recognize there are limits to what we can do. In fact, we define those limits. We feel sad about the limits but maintain them just the same. I’m trying to accept that I can’t undo the damage—all I can do is love Jerri the best I can. That is enough.
More self-analysis today based on a quote from Dr. Jeanne Safer’s book, The Normal One. It was a reference to this quote in a customer’s critique of the book on Amazon that convinced me to buy a copy. The quote is:
It is no accident that a disproportionate number of normal siblings choose not to reproduce.
Yep. That’s me. Childless by choice. I was intrigued to find out many siblings like me make the same decision.
I can’t remember a time when I ever wanted children. I didn’t even like playing with baby dolls. I can only remember asking for two, Mattel’s Baby Tenderlove, because my best friend Julie had one and I thought it might be fun for us to switch up from playing Barbies all the time, and Ms. Peep, because Jerri was so attached to hers, the doll obviously had charms not readily apparent to the casual observer. Neither of the dolls “took.” As a child and a teen, I was rarely exposed to babies and when I was, I was not taken in by their cuteness. They meant responsibility, something I had already had more than my fair share of.
Stan and I dated for 4 years in college and when we started talking about marriage, I was extremely direct about my lack of interest in kids. I said something to the effect, “Do you want kids? Because I’m not having any and if children are important to you, you need to marry someone else.”
In the U.S., particularly in the South, people judge you for choosing not to have children.
“So, do you have children?” they ask.
“No, we don’t. It’s just the two of us.”
“Oh.” Uncomfortable pause. They struggle with how to phrase the next part. Some are more straightforward than others.
“Did you want to have children and just never . . . did?”
“No, I’ve never really wanted them. I guess I just didn’t get the “mothering” gene. (I used to be quite honest. Of course, now I’ve learned my lesson, and I tend to be more vague.)
“Oh. Well. Motherhood isn’t for everyone. It is extremely hard work. There’s a great deal of sacrifice involved. Not everyone is up for that. You can’t really climb the corporate ladder with a kid in tow. You have to put a lot of stuff on hold while they’re young. But it’s so worth it. It really is the most important work there is. I’ve always taken the Bible quite literally, you know. The whole ‘be fruitful and multiply thing’? God is really all about the family. Don’t you think he wants all of us to raise families? You could always adopt you know . . .”
You might as well grow fangs as confess you don’t want children. You are a monster either way. You are selfish, self-centered, superficial, caring only about your career or getting ahead, unwilling to sacrifice your own needs for those of someone else, not valuing the things that really matter in life, like family, a sinner, willfully defying God. No one considers that perhaps you’re scared you just won’t be any good at it or you’ll emotionally damage the child the same way you were damaged or the responsibility might be the very thing that plunges you over the edge into madness or you’ll end up with your sister’s kids down the road and instead of 2 of your own, you’ll wind up raising 6.
Not to mention that your mother has told you repeatedly for years that it doesn’t matter how good a parent you are, it’s the luck of the draw. You can still end up with a child like Jerri who will make your life a living hell. That you’ve heard your mother say so many times “Don’t ever have children” it seems permanently tatooed on your frontal cortex. In case you find this shocking, here’s another quote from Safer that shines some light:
Parents need their children to see the world through their eyes; the more disturbing and precariously held the view, the more threatening a contrary perspective can be . . .
Maybe my mother is afraid she’s responsible for what happened to Jerri whether genetically or because of bad parenting. Her belief that “you can’t help the child you end up with” is precariously held. Maybe that’s why it’s so important for the rest of us to believe it too.
You have to read between the lines a bit in The Normal One to discover the reasons why many “normal” siblings don’t have children. Not surprisingly, they reflect my own.
Dr. Safer reflects that many normal siblings who do have children either go to great lengths to avoid the errors their parents made or don’t believe their parents made any. Either way, they will ultimately see the faces of their damaged siblings reflected in those of their children.
Accepting that to some degree you are inexorably bound to reproduce at least part of the essence if not the form of your original family relationships, and not only in ways you consciously choose (or wish), is a crucial step. This involves giving up the grandiose notion that you can change history.
The truth is my history haunts me and it always will. I had hoped by not having kids I could somehow rid myself of it. Or at least, loosen its grasp. I’m not sure that I succeeded.
I just finished a book by Dr. Jeanne Safer called The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling. The book explores the effects of “problem siblings” on “normal ones” and is based on interviews with over 60 “intact” siblings. I found myself on almost every page.
Apparently those who grew up as I did with a troubled, difficult or disabled sibling share a common set of personality traits which include premature maturity, compulsion to achieve, survivor guilt, and fear of contagion. Who knew?
My kindle edition has so many highlights, its more yellow than white so I decided to dedicate the next couple of posts to unpacking some of the quotes that resonated most. Here’s the first one:
Invisible is the word normal children most often use to describe their place in the family
Because the everyday problems we faced as kids were nothing compared to those of our siblings, our parents always put our siblings first. We were chronically overlooked. Our parents didn’t do this on purpose. They were overwhelmed by situations they never bargained for. Understanding this, however, does not minimize the actual consequences to us. We continue, even in adulthood, to have a hunger for our parent’s attention that will never be satisfied. We feel like we don’t matter to them. Our needs were so consistently ignored, we don’t even acknowledge them to ourselves.
Months ago I wrote an essay called “Super Powers.” It starts out:
There are some days I feel so invisible, I’m convinced not even God can see me. If I were a Super Hero, I’d be Invisi-Girl.
Perhaps at some point, I’ll share the full essay. For now, I hold it up as confirmation of Dr. Safer’s point.
What did my parent’s do exactly that made me feel invisible?
- They did not assign me a curfew. That’s right. As a teenager, I could stay out all night as long as I let them know where I was. When I’d call at 1 am to say “I’m at Michael’s house playing cards”, I’d wake up my parents. No one sat up waiting for me to come home. No one worried about my safety. They only had the emotional capacity to worry about one child and that child was Jerri. “We trust you,” they’d say. I was 15 for Pete’s sake!
- They did not attend events important to me. My senior year, I was nominated to Homecoming Court. I was surprised and incredibly honored. My parents skipped Homecoming. Mom said, “Too many people know I’m Jerri’s mom. I just can’t face them. They are all judging me behind my back.” I was in the Marching band; they never came to a game. I played soccer; they never came to a game. I suppose they came to my high school graduation but frankly, I don’t remember.
- They did not protect me from predators. When I was 16, a 28 year old man pursued me. Looking back, I think he was a pedophile. My mother knew about him. The only thing she had to say was “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to see him.” My senior year of high school, I kept stats for the boy’s soccer team. At the end of the year, the two coaches held a party including alcohol for the team of about 20 underage boys. The stat girls (4 of us) were invited. Hmmmm. 20 boys, 2 men (one of whom had hit on me in the photography dark room at school), beer, 4 girls. What is wrong with this picture? As I was walking out the door, Mom said, “I don’t think this party is a good idea but you do what you think best. It’s up to you.” On the other hand, they were constantly monitoring who Jerri was with. They banned some of her friends from our house. When she didn’t come home, they would drive through the town looking for her. When found, they would drag her butt home.
As an adult, my mom only called when she wanted to complain about Jerri. She rarely asked about my life or what was going on with me. In my 30’s, I wrote her a letter and said I no longer wanted to discuss Jerri. “If she is all you want to talk about, please don’t call again.” Mom apologized and things got better for a while.
About 4 years ago, I invited my parents and Jerri’s kids to the beach for Christmas. Stan and I rented a small mansion and invested a substantial amount of money in the vacation. My family left early. Mom said, “The kids are bored and this isn’t what we expected. We thought there would be more sights to see and things to do.” I was so furious, I stopped talking to them. My mom never sought reconciliation. Neither did I. Two months later, my parents wrote me out of their will. To this day, we are estranged. It still dumbfounds me how incredibly easy it was for them to erase me from their life. I guess it shouldn’t. They’d been doing it for decades.
So, invisibility, check – I identify with that one.