Here is what I have been able to learn about the years just before and after I was born.
Some of the following is is admittedly informed speculation, based on my solo research. At one point I tried to get my mother’s hospital records, only to find out that they are only kept for 40 years by law in Iowa, and I was about 2 years too late. I have asked the family if anyone has any official records, but if anyone has any documentation, they have kept it from me. Most of the quotations come from a recorded conversation among my siblings.
Prior to the year before I was born, my dad’s jobs required him to travel most of the time. He was usually gone during the week. Then, he got offered a prestigious job in a new city. It was a sudden move, because the job offer resulted from the death of a colleague.
So the family moved from the place where they had lived the longest (about 10 years or so). They moved in the late summer of ’67, so the kids could start school in the new city, and at first they lived crowded into an apartment for about 8 months. My sister (15) started her sophomore year of high school that year, and the next two boys were in 7th and 9th grades (14 and 12). Brother #3 was 5YO and brother #4 was around 18 months old.
The following spring, early ’68, they moved into the house I grew up in, and I was born about a year later, in spring of ’69. My sister was finishing up her junior year.
Mom’s mental illness
In the fall of ’69, at the start of my sister’s senior year, and a few months after I was born, it is agreed that my mother suffered a “nervous breakdown”. This is the terminology that I have heard all my life.
A couple of years ago, I got a book from the library about post-partum depression, and learned about post-partum psychosis as well. What they used to call a “nervous breakdown” is now called a psychotic breakdown. This can involve dangerous delusions and violent behavior.
As part of her treatment, she received electroshock therapy, or what they now call ECT. This is also undisputed — although it is unilaterally considered by everyone else that it was a “ridiculous” “unbelievable” treatment choice.
“ECT is often used with informed consent as a last line of intervention for major depressive disorder…
ECT is considered one of the least harmful treatment options available for severely depressed pregnant women…
For major depressive disorder, ECT is generally used only when other treatments have failed, or in emergencies, such as imminent suicide.“
“Hospitalization may be necessary in cases [of major depressive disorder] with associated self-neglect or a significant risk of harm to self or others. A minority are treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).”
Mom was indeed hospitalized twice during my first year, for a month each time: once in the fall, when I was around 6 months old, and then again in the spring, when I was close to a year old.
I tried asking my sister about what happened to cause Dad to hospitalize his wife: in other words, what was the psychotic break that almost certainly had to happen, to precipitate everything that followed?
And, knowing that she always, ALWAYS defends our mother and will do so to the death — it occurred to me that if she did know anything, there was a good chance that she might decide not to tell me, and just say she didn’t know anything. So I asked her, if that was the case, to at least tell me that truth, and not lie about it.
Well, that was a mistake. She got extremely defensive and lashed out, claiming that I had no evidence for anything like this happening. All she does say is that Dad packed a suitcase for Mom and took her to a doctor, and that she wasn’t sure if Mom knew what was happening or not. (Which gives some credence to the idea that she was not right in the head at that point, but I digress.)
But simple confusion on the part of his wife would not be likely to lead a man to pack a suitcase for a trip to the doctor. If you don’t think there’s something seriously wrong, you would just take her to the doctor. Then when the doctor decides to check her into the hospital, that’s when you go home and get the suitcase. Or possibly you have called the doctor, described what is happening, and the doctor told you what to do.
I say that conjecturing that there was a dangerous and/or violent psychotic break makes far more sense than conjecturing that my father just suddenly decided to up and check his wife into the looney bin for no good reason — especially with a 6 month old baby, and a 3YO and a 7YO, to care for at home.
The family had been limping along for months, if not years, in denial, trying to function as best they could with a mother running the home who was increasingly nonfunctional. My dad never talked much about it, but he referred a couple of times to things such as, “soiled clothing being put back in drawers,” instead of being washed, and that I “had diaper rash so bad that [my] butt was bleeding”.
If this kind of thing was able to be rationalized over time, it seems ridiculous to think that Dad just suddenly had a revelation one day. Something must have happened to make it clear to him that she was mentally ill and needed medical help, and whatever it was, it was bad enough for him to know that he had to remove her from the house.
It at least seems clear that Mom was severely depressed. Prior to being hospitalized, Mom was “crying all the time”. She badly missed their previous home, and with the move, any support system she may have had had disappeared. She didn’t work outside the home and she never learned to drive (a circumstance that was always and forever blamed on my father), so she was isolated at home all day.
She made few, if any, friends in the new town. This is held to be one of the reasons why she didn’t win custody in The Divorce, because she had no one to testify on her behalf. (But over the following 12 years, when she was working outside the home and had every opportunity to socialize, I rarely saw her do so. I remember she tried square dancing for a while, but that didn’t last very long. I never met any friends that she made, other than a few women who would give us a ride to or from somewhere — usually a church function.)
The job change meant my father was home more. Instead of being gone all week, he was now able to come home every night, and even come home for lunch.
One brother said, “I saw that as more of a threat than anything else.” (and everyone else laughs. They have no idea how twisted and unhealthy this sounds in the mouth of a teenager. It’s called “parental alienation” and it is a serious form of child abuse. It’s not normal — at least not if a parent is not abusive [in that case it is called realistic alienation], and I have never heard anyone claim that Dad ever raised a hand to them except in earned punishment. It is learned from the alienating parent, the “aligned” parent. See also the defense mechanisms of splitting and idealization and devaluation.)
Admittedly Dad was an absent parent during the week, because of his job. For whatever reason, though, this arrangement held sway for years and I believe it allowed much of the dysfunction to take root. I think things would have been very different if Dad hadn’t traveled so much, but there are also plenty of families who make this arrangement work just fine: military families, for instance.)
It is clear that the man was not welcome in his own home.
Another brother noted that previously, when Dad would leave for the week, for the first 2 or 3 days, they “could do anything” and were able to “screw around” instead of doing chores and so forth. Dad’s return at the end of the week was seen as an unwelcome end to the fun (more laughter), as they then had to rush to get things taken care of before he came back “because Dad was coming home”. See who gets blamed for Mom’s inability to run the house properly and their own teenaged lack of discipline?
(This is exactly the situation that Flylady used to call “crisis cleaning”. It’s a lousy way to run a household.)
They saw him as a “workaholic”, someone who “enjoyed” doing work and chores, and never had any fun. Well, when the work doesn’t get done as it should, during the week, and then it gets done in a half-assed way because it’s being done in crisis mode — well, someone’s gotta do it, and that someone probably ended up being my dad.
But it is not hard to imagine that when he returned from a week of sales and schmoozing, what he wanted — and, according to the social contract of the day, had a right to expect — was to be welcomed home by his wife and children, and have a nice meal in a clean, tidy, and well-maintained home.
He didn’t enjoy working hard all week to come home to a mess, to be required to punish his sons for a week’s worth of misdeeds, and then to reward that by going out to eat, and finally to spend his weekend catching up on chores that should have been already done.
Of course he wasn’t happy, and he wasn’t any fun. He was being let down by his wife and alienated from his children, week after week after week.
And his was a pretty normal reaction to the situation, as it turns out:
“Rejected parents, generally fathers, tend to lack warmth and empathy… instead, they engage in rigid parenting and critical attitudes.”
Dad was considered unreasonable for things like wanting dinner to be at a certain time. They complain that he never wanted to go out, he never wanted to have any fun. (Oddly enough, my experience of my mother in the years that followed The Divorce can be described in exactly the same manner. Mom rarely took us anywhere or did anything at her home that could be called “fun”. I remember doing a lot of reading by myself in the living room, or doing her housework.)
The words used to describe living with Mom are: “relaxed”, “flexible”, “not exactly haphazard, there was some structure but it wasn’t to the letter”
The words used to describe what it was like when Dad was home: “like having someone breathing down your neck”.
One brother referred to seeing Mom at the hospital and thinking that she was so much happier, that maybe being away from Dad for that long (a month or so) was a good thing.
I’ll note that also while she was in the hospital, she wouldn’t have had to lift a finger, and she probably enjoyed being waited on by the staff all day.
But see how Dad is made to be the source of the problem? Mom may be mentally ill and have severe depression, but that’s only because of the unthinkable circumstance of being forced to actually live with her husband around all the time. Not because her husband wants and expects reasonable things, that she is too unreasonable to do.
In fact, my siblings believe that the situation was abusive, and that any professional would have told Mom to get the hell out. (Which begs the question, so why is the divorce such a horrible thing? but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
But — no abuser willingly lets the target of their abuse go. Yet Dad was the one who left the marriage, and Mom was the one who resented The Divorce.
I agree, it was abusive — but not in the direction they believe.
Mom is praised for putting herself through misery and sacrificing her personal life in order to save the marriage. WHAT MARRIAGE? She resented the shit out of him for expecting her to do things — normal, everyday, housewife, marriage things, like cooking and laundry and cleaning and sex — and apparently, changing my damned diapers — that she simply didn’t want to do.
And incidentally, this poor decision made everyone else’s lives a fucking misery too — to the point that somewhere in all this mess, my sister tried to kill herself. That is so far from praiseworthy I can’t even. That is, in fact, abuse.
I have wondered just what would have made my mother happy at this point in the narrative. She needed and wanted Dad’s income, and refused to give up being provided for in the manner to which she had become accustomed — but she hated Dad, and living in the same house with him, as his wife, made her miserable, and by extension, everyone else too.
The only thing I can think of that would have “fixed” the situation would have been if Dad had conveniently died, and left her with all “her” kids and a big beautiful house, and a big insurance policy, so she would never have to work.
The other thing that came out of this was the information from the doctors. The only actual diagnosis I ever heard was “paranoid schizophrenia.” But Dad related some bits and pieces to the older kids, in sound bites, like “Your mother is crazy, and she doesn’t love you.” The doctor also famously told Dad, “She hates your guts.” (To which one brother said, “which I could sort of see that.”)
I think it was during this period that Dad learned about things like blaming, and contempt, and how destructive those things are to a relationship, and began to see how hopeless it was that anything would ever change or get better.
During the first hospitalization, Dad used up his vacation to stay home and take care of the house and the younger kids. Then the older kids were drafted to stay home from school in a rotation to do the job. At some point after the initial “episode”, as it is delicately called, a housekeeper was hired, but even that wasn’t enough to prevent the second hospitalization.
Things were admittedly dysfunctional even before the move, but the enormous stress load just made everything worse: the move, the new job, and the changes in the household routine, with the new baby and a bigger house and of course, Dad’s increased and unwelcome presence.
And in the course of Mom’s hospitalizations and having to run the household end of things on top of doing his own job, Dad found out about things that Mom was spending money on behind his back, such as astrologers and horoscopes — and in particular, she spent money on a private investigator to track Dad, and tried to hide it from him.
This was a huge betrayal to Dad, because to him, money was equal to love; it was how a man showed his love for his family, by being a good provider. Letting his wife handle his money that he worked hard for was a symbol of his trust in her. To then find that she wasted a lot of his own money by paying someone to spy on him was, to him, the height of dishonesty and treachery.
Of course this is not Mom’s fault – not even really her doing. The blame for this is placed on the private investigator! who is held to have manipulated Mom into doing it.
Predictably, they fought about sex (mostly my mother resenting my father and making him out to be a bastard for wanting to have some). Apparently at some point Mom accused, “This is all about sex, isn’t it?” and Dad either (a) didn’t deny it or (b) agreed, depending on whose memory you rely on.
It would be funny if it weren’t so unhealthy. The woman who didn’t want to have sex with him got paranoid and mad when she thought he’d found someone else to have sex with. Sex is generally considered a normal and healthy part of a normal and healthy marriage. The person who doesn’t believe this is the one who is not normal or healthy.
At some point Dad started spending his weekends somewhere helping someone remodel a house. (It’s not clear if this was before or after the bit with the PI.) He would come home on Friday, throw a bunch of tools in the car, and leave. But this was considered to be “great, because he’d be gone all weekend.”
So, they fought about money. They fought about sex. But so what? These are the two of the most common things married couples fight about. What they were apparently unable to do is communicate effectively (without blaming!) and resolve the problems. This was absolutely, positively, not all on Dad. Yet the excuses are all made for Mom.
Mom was “under an awful lot of stress”.
Mom was “trying to keep the marriage together”.
Wasn’t Dad? Wasn’t it stressful to find out that no one wanted him around? That his wife was spying on him? When Mom was sick, wasn’t he using all his spare time to do as much of both jobs as he could? And this was while his day job was brand-new to him. Oh, no, that’s not stressful.
But Mom is the one that they “feel so bad for”.
Guess what? That is the hallmark of a manipulator.
My BIL — a man whom I believe everyone in the family respects greatly — once said something to this effect:
A man wants three things out of a marriage: to feel important in his own home, to have a good meal, and to have a roll in the hay every once in a while.
My dad got none of the three out of that marriage.
So at some point over the next 4 or 5 years, he decided there was nothing left for him, and probably nothing positive for his younger kids, in keeping this relationship going. He had nothing, in the way of family, to lose. So he decided to divorce her. He really had no other choice worth making. And alone of his kids, I’ve never blamed him for making that choice.
Because I’m in the same position: a family that doesn’t want me around, that refuses to even consider that they could be part of the problem. And just like it was to Dad, it’s been made clear to me that nothing is ever going to change, and there is nothing left for me to do but leave. I too have nothing, in the way of family, to lose.
It’s still painful. Rejection always is. But it’s a pattern that I can at least recognize now, and get away from.