Healing My Mother and Myself
This is my story. These are my words strung together with the threads of my perspective and recollection. It is not the truth. It is my truth which is a small but significant difference. I do not pretend to know all, or even some and of the things that I remember; I question even them daily. Mother Badu said "the [wo]man who knows something knows that [s]he knows nothing at all..." so I guess this is something like that.
You ever heard of epigenetics? If not, google it and fall into that rabbit hole all on your own. For now, a simple understanding of it is that just like traits and tendencies are passed down through our genetic DNA, so do our pains and our traumas. Growing up, I was somewhat aware of the fact that my mother's story paralleled my own. My grandmother became pregnant with my mother at age 15, and up until my mom was 5, she was raised by my great-Grandmother. She had no connection to her biological father but when she moved to Atlanta from Alabama to live with my Grandmother and her husband, my mother looked to her step-dad as her own.
I only met my mother's biological father once. We were in Alabama and he approached me saying he was my grandfather. I immediately recoiled telling the stranger that my grandfather (My mothers Step-father and the only grandfather I ever knew) had died, so I didn't know what he was talking about. I looked to my mom for explanation. "Well my name's Clarence. I'm your mama's real Daddy". Her WHAT? nothing about the entire situation made sense to me. I must have been no more than 6 or 7 years old when this happened but even into adulthood I twist the encounter around my finger as I would a lock of hair. What is a real daddy?
The next part is difficult to write. I'm thinking of all the ripples my words cause. The reverberation of my proclamations that I make so boldly behind the safety of my keyboard, but then have to emotionally and spiritually respond to in my waking life. Still, I say it. Not to hurt anyone because the things that I write about, though they may always hurt, they no longer have the strength over me that they once had. And I have forgiven it all because I trust that people are always doing the best that they can at any given moment. I try to believe that of every single human.
I have fucked up relationships with men, food and money. When I was little, still Sunshine--a moniker that my maternal Grandmother made up for me that was used often in my childhood--I remember my father's phone number was one of the first ones I learned by heart. He worked over nights and when I got to go home with him after shift change, I'd start in my bed but by morning would be wrapped up in my daddy's arms. I loved his closet. His clothing was wrapped in plastic. Now I can recognize them as dry cleaning bags, but then it just made them feel untouchable. I took the wooden shoe trees out of his leather oxfords and play imaginary games. Flights of fancy of my four year old mind, obsessed with closets. I loved his cologne the most. I never knew exactly what it was, but the scent carried through everything he owned.
My dad always had something to say about what I ate and what I spent. I was judged and critiqued on both so much that I developed something of an eating disorder when I was very young. I would literally not eat or eat very little while at his house over the weekend then come home to my mom and step-dad and BINGE because I had been starving. Eventually I stopped going as often because the whole ordeal gave me anxiety. I knew if my hair wasn't perfect, if I wasn't at least pretending to try to not be fat, AND the top of my class, it wasn't going to be a fun weekend for me. As much as I hated the judgment, I spent most of my teen and 20s grappling with loving myself and feeling wrong and guilty for it. As if I loved myself "despite" rather than simply "because".
When my dad got married and moved on from his relationship with my mom, it was pretty much the time he checked out of any real interest with me. Financially I found him to be manipulative. Not offering child support but donating to and what he deemed important. Chief of all was my education and really, pedigree and my appearance. I think that my father wanted a Whitley Gilbert for a daughter if having a daughter was going to be his lot in life. Sometimes I feel when I travel the world or meet very wealthy and influential people that I am living the dreams of my father. A life he envisioned for himself.
My relationship with my biological father, for which I am named so there is truly no escaping him, is complex. As an adult I can understand how he never wanted to be a parent, and how he truly did try in his own way to communicate to me that he loved me. The unfortunate part was that juxtaposed to how my mother and step-father showed love, I began to deeply resent my father. I went years without speaking to him. Refusing financial support which was typically the most reliable kind of support he offered. My dad, Jessie, was always a supporter of my education and so in my immature 18 year old mind, if he wasn't going to pay attention to me any other way by financially, I was going to pay him pay.
I ran up credit card bills. Trashed my credit, over drafted my accounts, and like a masochist I went crawling to daddy to hear a lecture of my financial irresponsibility. How I should know better. How I should be smarter about money. I should take a financial management class. It was a hallmark of his advice and often a stipulation of receiving larger amounts of money. It was my atonement for being disobedient. And when I swore I learned something and would do better, he gave me what I wanted and the cycle continued until it all came to a head.
I couldn't reconcile being called a "spoiled white girl" when I was begging my dad for things I knew he could afford to get me. Sidebar, grown up Jessica has no earthly idea if this is true or not. I never asked my dad's financials. I just assumed that he should be able to take care of me lavishly because I was his only child and if my mom could with two other kids, then what was his problem? The resentment and anger and confusion lead me to not speak to my father for three years. During that time, his sisters and nieces would beg me to reach out. Stubbornly, I refused because I felt as the child, he should be the one to reach out. He never did, and each day of silence lead me further and further into a depression until the only truth my mind could cling to was that My Father was dead. Surely he was. I had convinced myself of it and I began to grieve him as though he were no longer here.
Perhaps to those without serious mental health issues may find this part to be unbelievable, but if you trust me to be a reasonable human being, then hear me when I tell you, in my mind soul spirit body heart and gut? My father had died.
It was a stupid nickname that my Stepdad and Mom had given to me. "HA" short for half-ass. According to them, I never did anything with complete conviction and follow through. I'd wash the dishes and not sweep the floor or put up the food but not clean the stovetop. It wasn't that I was absent minded, I just didn't care. And during my teen years, communication became extremely difficult. I'd always been a straight-A student but suddenly I was getting into trouble and failing classes. Why? I was doing the work but not turning it in. Truly not giving a fuck since 1995. Looking back, I can see this as an indicator of a child who is intellectually not stimulated. Especially since they gave me all the chances to make up the work and when I left middle school I did so, again as a straight -A student. Only now, I didn't really care about school. I had gotten into extracurricular activities like cheerleading, and pretty much wanted to be with my friends all the time. On top of that, for my teen years, my mother was pregnant and hormonal.
I even remember for my junior prom, my baby sister was two months old and the next year when dress shopping season started for senior prom, my mom sent me out into the world with a blank check citing her two toddlers as reason enough to stay home. During this time my father had remarried and had a bit of a financial glow-up. There were more Mercedes. More vacations and now TWO homes. I begged for a car. I begged for vacation. I begged for time together but usually what I got was a credit card, a gift card, and my step mom. She was nice enough. She was at least very, very posh and appealed to the version of me I could never afford to be. I remember walking through her house and thinking "I want a home just like this one". There were rooms that were perfectly decorated but never used. Nothing was "under construction" like at my house. She ever catered Thanksgiving dinner which was the strangest experience I'd ever had. Wasn't part of the fun being in the kitchen all day the day before? Our dinner was seated, catered and without my father. With all of my parents basically distracted, I started playing into the role of the young independent go-getter. Completing my college applications, SATs, ACTs, essays, arranging financial aid, and housing all without logistical help from my parents. I did it not because I wanted it, but because...well who else was going to? I had to grow up. It's what I kept being told, but in actuality I had no idea what they meant by grow up.
My fathers already minimal interest in me was weaning. Good grades were now the standard, as was leadership and student involvement. And by the time I reached high school, I knew exactly what to wear if I wanted to impress my dad or if I wanted to manipulate him out of money for "a perm" or "new clothes". I did whatever I had to do to keep his attention, and if he went broke in the meantime I didn't care. I didn't take much seriously because I didn't have to. I was smart enough to coast through school with minimal effort, my mom and step dad had two young daughters that dominated the majority of their time and I was happily finding myself on the outskirts of my immediate family as I prepared to enter adulthood and basically fall flat on my face. More than once.
Everything changed in college. Suddenly my step dad was unemployed. My mom was trying to keep our family whole and decide the best steps while I was off at college. I worked two jobs. One at the advising office for the College of Communication and Information and another as a referee for Intramural flag football. On top of that, my dad sent me money for food and other such nonsense every month. When I could, I'd send money home to my mom for my sisters. For school shopping or a new coat or shoes. I remember giving money to my parents right before a vacation and my stepdad said to me "Thank you because it made the difference in going on vacation and saying "no, not this time" and "Yeah, you can have that"." I didn't care about the money. I cared about the people I love feeling happy and at peace. It's really all I ever want. Sometimes to my own detriment. The trade off were lectures from my father about my irresponsibility. I never told him I was taking his money and helping other people with it. It didn't even occur to me that he might need it more. I was furious with him. I felt like I was this amazing human and he was electively opting out of knowing me. My feelings of rejection turned to rage.
The first fight I got into with my first love was insane. He told me we weren't (I wasn't) ready to have sex yet and I threw a tantrum of seismic proportion. I couldn't figure out why he didn't want me. I slept in the guest room after a night of yelling crying and throwing things. I told him the following:
When I was a teenager, my dad took my step brother on a disney cruise. do you know how many times i begged my dad to take me on vacation? He would take me to his families house and his sisters would baby him, and me too. But it was never, ever just us. he would promise. go so far as to tell me what day and time to expect him and then he would never show up. It was like he didn't know what to do with me. Like he didn't really want me. and on those road trips i would talk so much my breath would get stale, he would recoil against my words and offer me a peppermint, begging me to give it a rest. say less. be less. So when you tell me you like me then reject me, it feels like i'm not enough or maybe too much, and I have had a lifetime of that shit.
It was after this admission that my love told me the best advice I've ever been given. "J, sometimes people aren't lying to you, they're just lying. Don't take everything so personally." At 18 this was an impossible task because clearly I was the center of the universe and how could it not be about me? However now as a 34 year old woman reflecting on the complexity of human relationships? I get it. I like to believe that with every "lie" my dad told was the truest intention of following through. I like to think he wanted me, he just had no idea how to have a relationship with me and without a strong blueprint, parenthood is hella intimidating. I like to believe that as I reconcile the feelings of being unwanted and unworthy of my father, that I'm healing for both my mother and me because I don't think her dad was trying to be shitty either.
Understanding that my fathers action were not always done to hurt me took a while to digest. I couldn't understand how I wasn't always a factor in his life. I mean, I always was with my mom. The reconciliation of their unbalanced adoration and acceptance of me impacts my self-esteem much more than I like.
The day I earned my PhD, I knew my mother was praying for me and she was my first phone call once I got away from the crowd and my colleagues all there to cheer me on at my defense. My graduation day, I got a bouquet of rainbow colored roses from my dad telling me how proud he was of me. I hated everything about them. Why wasn't he here? Why wasn't my step dad here either? Months before, my Stepfather had gotten really sick which included a hospital stay. He was out of PTO and realistically, he just couldn't make the trip. Still, I cried because the men I wanted most to show up in my life did not. My biological father was in the hospital, though I did not know it at the time. Weeks later my stepdad would join my sisters and mom on a beach vacation with his family. I seethed at each of the photos. I hadn't been invited. But more than that, how could the beach be better than my graduation? The rejection still fucks with me.
My uncle was there. Perhaps one of the softest spots in my heart is for my Uncle. Both of them really. But the uncle who was there at my commencement was there to give me a big hug, tell me how proud he was of me, give me flowers, side eye the nigga who was standing a little too close, and give me both a gift and a little "pocket money" just in case.
A year later, I would find myself heading across country where another uncle, this time my great uncle would do something similar. Ask me how I'm doing. Look at the car to make sure the tires weren't flat and nothing was leaking. Give me some pocket money and tell me to be careful.
Do you see where I'm going with this? I was missing the forrest for the trees. Looking for A dad who would give me all the things I'd imagined or been manipulated by media to believe that men should give and I allowed the devastation of MY expectations to distract me from what I had right in front of me. Fathers and father figures who have, in their own respective ways, been exactly the men I have needed in my life.
The true healing of all my daddy issues (or what began the big turn towards healthy relationships) was my forgiving my fathers. I forgave my dad for all the things he wasn't that I thought he should have been. I apologized for holding him to a standard or condition rather than accepting him for who he was. I accepted the parts of me that are from him; love of jazz, solitude, travel, and high-class social life. I understood that the way he acted when I was younger? That was a different man then. I allowed him the grace of maturity and reflection. And whether he has changed or not, for my own peace of mind, I let it go.
The reverence I have for fathers and daughters is second only to that of mothers and daughters. I am a mama's girl. When I first started learning about healing and epigenetics I knew my journey would be tied to hers. I realized that I inherited her worry, her fret. I leap to abandonment, I push people away before they can leave. Or...I used to. Before, I was so afraid of what certain people, actions, circumstances, and events would project about ME and who I was. I did not want people to think untruths about me. I did not want my reputation to be a narrative that I did not control. I needed my dad to love me in a certain way because if he didn't it meant that I was wrong. I should have been less of this and more of that. THEN he would have stayed, then he would have attended to me, THEN and only then...when I was good enough.
It was bullshit and I let it go.
I now know myself. I know who I am which means I don't answer to names that are not mine. It does not mean it doesn't hurt to be called outside of your name. To be told you do not care, to be told you are bad at your job, to be told you are only worth $10, and really not even that. Not by enemies or even strangers, but by people who love you. People you respect and cherish. It only strengthened my conviction and commitment to forgiveness. I do not want my daughter to inherit my daddy issues so I owe it to her to heal that part of me. That adage "hurt people hurt people?" It's the truth. Because when you love yourself, it is easy to love others, matter of fact it comes second nature. Because when you know who you are, and you can hold tightly to that, insinuations of alternatives fall on deaf ears. You're human and divine all at the same time.