My mother was brought up by a very gentrified set of rules, resulting in love being expressed through respect and intellectual accomplishment. My father was a country boy, though, and his family expressed love through food. Gatherings at my mother’s house were very refined, and the children were sent outside to play while grownups talked; reunions with my father’s family were rowdy and crowded into one big room. My mother’s mother cooked the best vegetable soup you ever had, and treated us with oatmeal cookies that are still my favorite dessert; my father’s mother cooked anything you wanted, as much as you wanted, and didn’t stop until long after you had already said you were full – and then still brought out pie and cake and ice cream and kept a jar full of cookies on the counter, plus Little Debbie snacks in the pantry. My mother’s mother was had a short temper, would redirect us by pinching us with her toes, and had no qualms with using the wooden spoon on our bottoms as needed; my father’s mother gave the illusion of endless patience, but her passive aggressive build-up had a mean bite and the sting of her lost temper could send us scurrying.
My mother’s parents both died far too young, while we were still younger, which left her abandoned with me and my brother being grandparent-ed by a world far different from her own experience. This often left my father in the middle between them, except he never took sides, which, of course, is always taking a side. This left my mother in such conflict with his parents that she no longer felt safe there, and our visits became more and more a father-outing rather than a family gathering. His parents were kind and generous, and expressed love the way they knew how, but it was not an intimacy that my mother understood – which to them felt like a rejection, while she felt disrespected by their interfering in her parenting and ignoring of her wishes, choices, and boundary requests. Their disapproval of her wounded her deeply, and her defenses to protect herself with determination to prove her right as matriarch only added to the conflict.
She never spoke negatively about them in front of us, though we were aware she was frustrated and hurt. They did talk badly about her, which was confusing to us and added to her wounded-ness. When those added layers of hurt wounded her further, she isolated from them just to keep safe, which they perceived as proving their point about how awful she was. This created a vicious and tragic cycle where nobody one and contention grew, where she felt disrespected by their disapproval (which was a rejection of her love language), and they felt rejected by her lack of participation (where their love language was emotional enmeshment). It was a sad thing, especially for me and my brother, but also for them because she really did love them and my father, but those negative interactions and the lack of emotional safety my mother felt contributed to the divorce of my parents.
I thought of this during Sunday School this week, when someone made a comment that made me look something up that led me to a quote from a General Conference talk:
“The way you treat your wife or children or parents or siblings may influence generations to come. What legacy do you want to leave your posterity? One of harshness, vengeance, anger, fear, or isolation? Or one of love, humility, forgiveness, compassion, spiritual growth, and unity?”
My father and I did not get the kind of talks my mother and I did, so I know more about my mother’s experience than his. She always said that her grandmother had been treated so harshly that she worked on just not physically abusing my grandmother. That was progress, but it still left her mean sometimes to my grandmother. So when my grandmother became a mother, she worked on not being mean. That was great, and more progress, but it was not the same as being nourishing. Lord knows, really, that my mother and I had our own issues, but she tried very hard to nourish me and my brother, and to make sure that we knew she loved us. That was her progress: to move from the not-doing-this to the trying-this kind of parenting style, even if she had her own struggles in parenting as well – no doubt, in part, because she raised us on her own. And we were a handful to raise.
But that was how progress was passed down, which makes me think about how we all need each other, on both sides of the veil, and how without each other we cannot be made perfect.
But she was still the kind of mom, as too many of us are, that would more quickly point out the one thing wrong than the thousand things right.
So I think about another talk, that says:
“…. to be securely rooted in the gospel, we must be moderate and measured in criticism and seek always for the broader view of the majestic work of God.”
That, as it turns out, is easier said than done.
Especially when you get angry.
And everyone gets angry.
I don’t know the spiritual doctrine of anger, exactly, except that people always say that even Jesus got angry sometimes, like when he threw the money lenders out of the temple (which, by the way, ruined the economy in Jerusalem for more than a year, if you didn’t know that). Except once I heard a gospel doctrine teacher say that even then, it wasn’t anger the way we think of it. So I still don’t have that sorted out exactly.
But anger is exactly where the chaplaincy program opened up this year.
For my long-time readers, you will remember that chaplaincy training isn’t just about walking the halls of the hospital or helping people die. It’s also lots of papers, and research, and reading, and group discussion about all those things. There is a group therapy component, which was really good for me last time in regards to the deaths of my parents especially.
We go into chaplaincy training to be challenged emotionally and mentally, so that we are pushed to draw on spiritual power in effort to create a greater capacity from which we can serve others. If we have not done our own work, or have not dealt with our own issues, we will be less available to help others. Besides that, in chaplaincy we are almost always dealing with people in crisis, so we must know how to recognize and empathize with the kinds of emotions people struggle with if we are going to effectively minister to them.
I experienced this before as an intern, and wondered what my experience as a resident would be.
But I was not expecting anger.
That’s how we opened the new semester, however: anger. We listened to a guest speaker lecture on community anger and recent events in society and culture, and what it means about the way people process anger these days. We listened to another guest speaker lecture about being present in the moment so as to let go of obsessing about what we cannot change and being anxious about what hasn’t even happened yet.
We had to share times we have felt really angry, and I could think of a few, like when that jeep killed my mother or when Medicaid won’t help the baby.
But know what made me familiar with anger? My children! I have never felt such angry spirits as Anber and Barrett, and the anger of someone else has never made me so angry as they can make me!
Except Anber is not angry; she is fierce.
Barrett is not angry; he is determined.
Neither of them would have made it this far in life if they didn’t come straight from Heavenly Father with those spiritual gifts. I know that.
But sometimes it’s easier to remember than others, and always it teaches me new skills in how I respond to them. Their explosions are not as often now, and they don’t last as long, and they get over it more quickly… all of which counts as progress therapeutically. But the rest of us who have lived with them the last two years are worn out and exhausted by their rages, so we have to consciously make an effort to respond to the moment of what is happening rather than from two years of frustration.
Usually it works these days, a simple redirection or a little snuggle or some positive attention.
Sometimes, like when he kicks her in the face because she pinched him and the get in a scrap in the pew before church, that’s less pretty.
But even then, this week, they fixed it, and the rest of church was great!
Other times it’s harder, like when he teaches the baby how to put things in the light socket and then starts fights with every single child all through naptime, repeatedly waking the baby, and then getting into all kinds of scraps on the way out the door to our going away party.
Except still, when they want us to fight them (because domestic violence is so familiar to them), it is best that we don’t.
So being grounded from your own party is super lame, but it’s better than getting a spanking or missing a meal (the biggest trigger for all of our children is anything to do with food).
But even then, intermittent fussing while grounded from your own party is better than the screaming rages for hours like what we endured two summers ago.
That’s progress, too, even though it’s harder than the days when it is easy.
It gives me hope, that maybe Heavenly Father knows I am trying, that maybe He still believes in me, that maybe He hasn’t given up on me yet. Another talk said:
Please remember tomorrow, and all the days after that, that the Lord blesses those who WANT to improve, who accept the need for commandments and TRY to keep them, who cherish Christlike virtues and STRIVE to the best of their ability to acquire them. If you stumble in that pursuit, so dos everyone; the Savior is there to help you keep going. If you fall, summon His strength. Call out like Alma, ‘O Jesus,… have mercy on me.’ He will help you get back up. He will help you repent, repair, fix whatever you have to fix, and keep going. Soon enough you will have the success you seek.
There is great comfort in that.
There is great comfort in knowing that my Father-in-Heaven believes in me, even when I almost don’t, and even when my earthly parents are gone so there is no one else to believe in me until I figure out how. There is strength that comes just from trying, and courage that comes just from not giving up.
That’s where we get hope, I think. So often anger comes from fear, and the real feeling is hopelessness or helplessness. But when fear is replaced by faith, and faith is acted out in courage by trying, then hope is what you get. Even when you aren’t finished yet.
That’s us, our family: not finished yet.
But we are here, moving together as a family for the first time, all of us gathered as we are and doing our best.
I don’t want my children to be perfect. That’s gross.
I want my children to understand their choices, to practice making them, and to understand that when they choose, they are also choosing the consequences.
What they choose is their business, no matter what I wish they would choose.
They are trying.
I am trying, too.
We are learning together.
And we are getting better at it, just a little.
And the better we get at it, the happier we are, and the more freedom we have, and the more fun we have, as a family.
I know that is true.
I know it is true, because these days there is more laughter than screaming, and more hugs than hitting, and more tickling than time-out-ing.