Today in What We Don’t Talk About Out Loud, family edition. I know I said I would write more about women and the patriarchy, but that’s not what I want to write about at the moment. I may get back to it at some point, but we’ll see. This post is about praying at the altar of faaaaaaamily and how we’re supposed to revere it above all else (while also not doing anything to support it). Fortunately, in the last several years, there have been more people speaking out as to the problem with this mentality, but it still seems to be the default. There is something the matter with YOU if you are estranged from your family or low contact. There are several reasons for this so let’s dive in.
The first is the same as in my post about women and the patriarchy–holding up the status quo. For people who are invested in doing what they’re supposed to do, it can be a kick in the posterior to have others not doing the same thing. It reminds me of an old letter on Dear Prudence (they run old letters on Sundays). The letter was from someone who had spent the past several years (from when the letter was written) taking care of their deteriorating and abusive mother. The Letter Writer (LW) mentioned that their brother had cut off the family once he turned 18 due to the abuse he suffered at their mother’s hands. The crux of the matter was that the mother had come into a large amount of money. The LW was seething that her brother would inherit a portion of it despite walking away. The LW wanted to know if they could somehow get their mother and other relatives to cut the brother out of their wills because he hadn’t “manned up” and taken care of the mother in her late years. The LW glossed over the abuse, barely acknowledging it existed in their rage against their brother not doing the right thing (according to them).
This was Emily Yoffe and I hesitated to read her response because she was all over the map when it came to her answers. She had a stubborn streak of misogyny especially against sexual harassment victims. In this case, she was spot on. She rightly took the LW to task for being pissed at their brother for doing what he needed to live his best life. She astutely intuited that perhaps the LW was mad because they had made a different (and not healthy) choice to stay in contact with their abusive mother. This is the point I wanted to make. The LW held up the status quo because it’s what expected in our society. They did what they thought was their duty and was resentful because their brother didn’t do the same thing. In other words, misery loves company. I understand why the LW felt bitter about it, but she was directing her ire at the wrong person.
It reminds me of a metaphor I heard of relating to this topic. A dysfunctional family system is like a leaky boat that is rapidly taking on water. Or rather, the abusive person is the leak in that boat. Everyone on board is frantically bailing out water with equally-leaky buckets, trying to keep the boat afloat. At some point, one of the bailers realizes it’s futile and jumps overboard. They manage to swim ashore at great detriment to themselves. Everyone left on board, instead of being impressed and perhaps inspired that someone made it out alive, they become enraged at that person for escaping the situation. Why? First, because it leaves the ones behind with more water (abuse) to bail out (deal with). Second, because it busts the illusion that there’s nothing to be done but bail out the water (put up with the abuse). It can make the left behind people feel like they’ve wasted their lives up to that point. Third, and this is where the analogy falls apart, it’s difficult to be angry at the abuser because you know the abuser is not going to change. It kinda fits. The boat isn’t going to fix itself in the analogy.
This is the dirty secret as to why enablers push the abused person to put up with the abuse–they are the reasonable party involved. The abuser is often irrational and unlikely to change. What’s more, they are often deeply unpleasant when confronted and make life hell for whoever stands up to them. The abused person, on the other hand, is often trained to be more compliant and is generally better about regulating their emotions. This is a very broad generalization, but it holds true more often than not. I see it in the advice columns time and time again. The letter writer writes in about a horrific family situation and they do the reasonable thing like distance themselves and they’re suddenly the villain of the family.
The system needs everyone to prop it up in order to succeed. When one person leaves, it leaves a hole in the system that needs to be plugged up in order for it to limp along. In our broader society, we idealize the notion of family without really breaking down what that means. We want to believe that family loves you and family wants what’s best for you, but it’s often not true. It actually ties in nicely with my previous post about the women and the patriarchy. One of the reasons I would give when badgered about not wanting children is that I would have been a bad mother. I wasn’t being self-depreciating or negatively modest when I said this. I knew it was true and I didn’t want to continue the family dysfunction for another generation. I also didn’t want to give my parents access to any kids of mine to fuck them up the way they did to me.
This is not something I can say out loud very often. When I used to say I would be a bad mother, the person I said it to would inevitably rush forward with all the reasons I was wrong. Or when I would say I was worried I wouldn’t love my children, they would assure me it was different when it was my own kids. I remember clearly thinking that was bullshit because there are so many abused and neglected kids in the world. There are plenty of people who don’t love their kids even if they don’t feel they could admit this. I will always remember an article I read about being child-free for the comments in which several women said if they were able to go back, they wouldn’t have had children. More than one expressed relief that they could finally admit it and that there were others who felt the same way.
I knew with every fiber of my body that I didn’t want to be a mother. I didn’t want children. I didn’t like children (in general). But I was the bad one if I said anything like that. Let’s not talk about that, though .Let’s talk more about abusive families. I am pretty low contact with my parents. I don’t call them and I try to keep my emotions separate from any conversation with them. It’s difficult to do, but I gray rock them as best I can. I don’t tell them anything important to me because I know that it’ll just make me feel shitty afterwards.
Let me take a small example. It was my birthday last Wednesday. I don’t celebrate my birthday. I used to hate it and refused to even acknowledge it existed. I used to give a fake birthday whenever anyone asked me. One of my favorite stories is that back in the old ages, you had to give a birthday if you wanted to be on Facebook. Not only did you have to give them a birthday, you had to let them publish it on your wall. I really did not want that so I gave a fake birthday. Don’t remember the exact day, but it was in January. I promptly forgot about it until I woke up on that day to have a bunch of birthday wishes on my FB wall. It was really sweet, even though I didn’t give a shit about my birthday. I was really happy when FB allowed me to take my birthday off my wall.
Every year on my birthday, my parents would call and make a big deal of my birthday. They would ask if my brother had taken me out and would get upset when I said I didn’t celebrate my birthday. One year, my mother actually started crying as she talked about how important that day had been to her. It was really fucked up that I was made to feel bad about my own goddamn birthday. A day that theoretically should be about me. But, no, my mother made it all about her. That’s her jam, by the way. It’s another reason I don’t talk about myself much. Any time I try to say something, she turns it back to her. If I had a cold, then she had one worse. I end up feeling ignored and why the hell did she ask in the first place. It’s even more frustrating because she’s a psychologist.
My father, on the other hand, I wrote him off decades ago. He has no capacity for seeing other people’s points of view or realizing that maybe someone could feel something other than the way he does. Most of the time, I just listen to him ramble (same as with my mother), but he’s started this really irritating habit in the past few years of adding, “Right?” to the end of whatever inane statement he’d just said. What’s more, he actually waited for me to answer. Most of the time, I could just say right or uh-huh or whatever neutral statement I could muster, but once in awhile, I couldn’t do it. Like after Joe Biden was confirmed the winner of the election. Keep in mind that my parents haven’t lived in the States for decades. They didn’t have to live under the orange thumb. My father started rambling about how Americans were logical and everything would be fine. I knew I should just say ok and move on, but something in me snapped.
This is how a sick system gets to you. You do your best to navigate it without blowback and think you’re doing fine. Then, something pulls you back in and you’re ten again. I told him that there was going to be rioting because half of the people who voted were fucking assholes. He tried to say that I was overreacting and I wasn’t having any of it. I retorted that he hadn’t lived her in decades so maybe his opinion wasn’t that relevant? I didn’t say it in that way, but it was heavily implied. He said that maybe his outsider view was more important and I completely lost it. Later, when the riots happened, my mom told me that he actually admitted I was right. I have never heard him say that in my life.
Another quick example. We played ping-pong as a family because of course we did. We’re Asian. My father loved it because he was the best in the family. He would play me one-on-one, taking pleasure in beating me. How do I know this? Because I beat him when I was in my twenties and we’ve never played again. He couldn’t handle it and my mother would certainly never do anything silly like beat him in a game. As for me, it was antithetical to everything I believed in to let someone beat me in a game. Well, maybe a kid, but not an adult.
These are the tame examples. Very tame. Anyway, my parents asked me what I did for my birthday again this year and again I said I didn’t do anything. Once again, they acted as if this was the weirdest thing they’d ever heard. I mean, it’s the same answer I’d given for decades in a row so I didn’t know why it surprised and shocked them every year. At least there was no crying this time. I talked to them a few days later and my mom asked if my brother had taken me out for my birthday. What, this again? I said very impatiently that I didn’t celebrate my birthday AS I HAD SAID TWO DAYS EARLIER. Also, pandemic? Even if I did celebrate my birthday, I wouldn’t have done it this year.
Once again, this is getting long so I’ll end this for now. We’ll see if I feel like talking more about it in the next post.