Imaginary Friends

Why do kids create imaginary friends?
According to Kimberly Eckert, a registered psychologist in Calgary, children often create playmates just to engage in imaginative play (the way another child might play with action figures), but sometimes they do so when bored or lonely. An imaginary friend can also be used as a form of self-soothing during a big transition, such as adjusting to a new home or sibling.


According to Marjorie Taylor and her colleagues at the University of Oregon, by age seven, about 37% of children take imaginative play a step farther and create an invisible friend.

It seems logical that children who invent invisible friends might be lonely or have social problems, but research doesn’t support those assumptions. In fact, compared to those who don’t create them, children with imaginary companions (either invisible friends or personified objects) tend to be less shy, engage in more laughing and smiling with peers, and do better at tasks involving imagining how someone else might think.

Oldest children, only children, and children who don’t watch much television are more likely to create an imaginary friend. This probably reflects opportunity. Children need unstructured time alone to be able to invent imaginary friends.

Having an imaginary friend is not evidence that a child is troubled. However, imaginary friends can be a source of comfort when a child is experiencing difficulties. There are many case studies of children inventing imaginary friends to help them cope with traumatic experiences.


Imaginary friends used to be a cause for concern, but research is finding that kids with elaborate tales of friends who aren’t really there are getting ahead in learning and social development. So what makes children who dream up pretend playmates so advanced?

In the days of Dr. Spock, imaginary friends were seen as a symptom of social problems. If your child was spending her time talking to thin air, prevailing wisdom said she probably needed more attention and company. Seen as a way to deal with loneliness, stress, or conflict, imaginary friends had a bad rep for most of the 20th century.

But the tables have turned, with psychologists touting pretend friends as boosters for language and social skills. Last year a study from La Trobe University in Melbourne found that three to six-year-olds with imaginary friends were more creative and socially advanced. Earlier studies had shown that kids with imaginary pals use more complex sentence structure, have richer vocabularies, and get along better with classmates.


Imaginary companions are much more common than people might think. Up to two-thirds of children have them, typically between the ages of 3 and 8 (although there are accounts of teenagers who retain them from childhood or who first develop them as teens).

Historically, many researchers and parents thought that imaginary companions were harmful or evil, and were a sign of a social deficit, demonic possession, or mental illness.

Small, statistically significant differences between kids with and without imaginary companions do arise, however, and they tend to be positive, says Taylor. For example, children with these pretend pals tend to have a slightly larger vocabulary, are less shy, and are good at understanding the perspective of others.


The way researchers used to view imaginary friends has undergone a nearly complete reversal since the early 1990s. Until then, the consensus among child psychologists was that children with imaginary friends were troubled introverts who, the more they indulged their fantasies, were more likely to need professional help.

As a result of this work, a new profile of children with imaginary companions has emerged: They are more socially skilled, they perform better on tests of verbal skills and, perhaps not surprisingly, they are more creative than children who do not have imaginary friends. What’s more, these benefits do not end in childhood.

Take all the most creative people you know, says Jonathan Plucker, a creativity researcher at the University of Connecticut who is researching how people, especially students, communicate their creativity to others. It doesn’t matter if they are artists or engineers or entrepreneurs. Now look for common denominators among them. What you are most likely to find if you do some digging is that they had an imaginary friend in childhood.

“It pops up almost whenever it’s asked. Creative people say, ‘Oh yeah, that was me,’” Plucker says.

Today, they can say it with pride, not fear of stigma.

“They thought these children were weird,” says Taylor, head of the Imagination Research Lab at the University of Oregon. “Maybe smart, but socially troubled or shy or whatever. And all that is completely wrong.”

In was not until the 1990s that a new view emerged: that children with imaginary friends were actually exploring a form of play with a high degree of creativity.

In a study published in the Creativity Research Journal in 2005, researchers found that children who had imaginary companions were more creative than their imaginary-friendless peers.

And in 2010, Evan Kidd, a researcher at Australian National University, and colleagues found that adults who had imaginary friends as children scored higher on creativity tests than those who did not.


Children who have imaginary friends are not typically loners. They don’t have issues with making or keeping friends. Parents should see imaginary friends not as a replacement for real friends, but as a sign of a child’s resourcefulness. A child with an imaginary friend is a child who has found a way to cope with feelings and problems.

Children have two different ways of relating to imaginary friends. Children may have hierarchical relationships or egalitarian relationships with their imaginary friends. In a hierarchical relationship, one friend in the relationship is dominant, more powerful. In the egalitarian relationship, the imaginary friend and the child are on equal footing.

In the hierarchical relationship, an imaginary friend may boss the child around or direct him to a good hiding place. In other cases, the imaginary friend is under the child’s command, and must serve the child’s wishes. Imagine what a comfort this is to a child who is bossed around by her peers in real life! Finally, she gets to tell someone else what to do and get that friend to obey.

Children aged 3-6 with imaginary friends, are, in general, both more creative and more advanced in their social skills. They have larger vocabularies, use more complex sentence structures, and get along better with their real life friends.

We can use that imagination to think about the future or to solve problems. For children, an imaginary friend can be a guide or a comfort or a way to understand things. The imaginary friend is there by command when the child is bored or lonely, and has no one to play with. An imaginary friend can soften  a difficult or stress-filled time, for instance, when the child is adjusting to a new baby brother or even a new home.

One of the great things about imaginary friends is that they are always available. Big sister doesn’t want to play? Imaginary friend to the rescue.

The imaginary friend is forgiving. Children can yell at imaginary friends. They’ll still be your (imaginary) friends.

A child wants to imagine the sky to be green and the grass blue? The imaginary friend is right there with the child to imagine it and “live” it, and most of all, laugh about it. No one has to know about the color switch, which makes it safe. No one will laugh at the child for being creative at play.


I can remember one morning at breakfast telling my mom and my two older brothers about a dream I had the night before.  Since Mom was still in the house I must have been around 4 or 5YO, 6 at most.  In the dream there was a giant green pig with no legs running down the street.  I think it was the older brother who scoffed and said, “How could a pig with no legs be running?”

Of course my mother didn’t defend me, or chastise my brothers for laughing at me.  Narcissists don’t build family ties.  They prefer to divide and conquer.

After that, I stopped talking about my dreams because it felt so bad to be made fun of and laughed at.  Because of that incident, I also stopped talking about any scary dreams I had — instead of getting comforted by my family, I figured I’d just have to deal with them myself.

In fact, I tried to stop dreaming at all.  I changed my before-bedtime prayers to include these words:

“God, please don’t let me dream about anything stupid or scary or silly.”

I still don’t often remember my dreams.

Needless to say, I had an imaginary friend as a kid, and I got made fun of for that, too.


A list of some of the many things imaginary friends can do:

  • Provide companionship
  • Give the child a chance to try different ways of doing things
  • Allow the child to play in a more creative way
  • Offer a safe place to practice people skills
  • Permit children to test out strong emotions like anger and fear, in safety and in private
  • Let the child be the one in charge, the boss, when the child may be feeling powerless or vulnerable in real life
  • Empower the child to experience a rich internal private life that is safe from others’ eyes
  • Grant comfort when a child is stressed out by being there with unconditional (if imagined) love and acceptance

    http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/05/parents-relax-imaginary-friends-are-a-totally-normal-part-of-being-a-kid.html

In other words, for concerned parents who might want to see it spelled out: An imaginary friend is nothing to worry about. First of all, they’re incredibly common — by some estimates, 65 percent of kids have had an imaginary friend by age 7. And kids know they aren’t real; researchers today believe these made-up companions aren’t an indication of loneliness or a deficit of social skills so much as they are a normal way for kids to exercise their imaginations.

And past research has shown that kids who create imaginary friends may even enjoy some cognitive and emotional benefits. “In a lot of ways they’re really similar, but when we do find differences, they tend to show an advantage for kids who have imaginary friends,” says University of Oregon psychologist Marjorie Taylor, the author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. “They’re sociable kids, they’re less shy than other children. There are some studies that show they have enhanced social understanding — they’re better able to take the perspective of someone else in real life.” (It bears noting that these links are correlations, not causations — scientists don’t know if kids who already have these traits are then more likely to create imaginary friends, or if the act of having an imaginary friend in turn spurs the development of certain skills.)

Old Home is Good Bread

It’s funny what can trigger a memory.  A friend on FB today posted a few lyrics from the song “Convoy”, and I was immediately taken back 40 years.

Listen, you wanna put that Microbus in behind that suicide jockey? Yeah, he’s haulin’ dynamite, and he needs all the help he can get.

The singer of “Convoy”, C. W. McCall, is a man named Bill Fries in real life.  He did commercials for Old Home bread, which is what actually launched his recording career.  (I also found out today that they must have licensed the concept out — another friend saw slightly altered versions as commercials for “Kern’s Bread” in Kentucky.)

Old Home was a brand name for Metz Baking Company, which is where my dad worked.  It was around 1974, so I was only 5 or so, but I can remember Dad and us younger kids going to watch a commercial being filmed once.  It was summer, and hot, so we were out of school.  I think I already had my glasses, so it was probably the summer after kindergarten for me.

My memories are bolstered by later seeing the pictures we had in the photo album:  we got to sit in the cab of the truck, and we met C.W. McCall and Mavis, and the mother, and the dog Sloan.

I do remember I got a really nice, warm, cushy hug from the mother, and she held me on her lap for a while.  I’m guessing I remember that because it was a rare thing for me to get such physical affection from a motherly figure.

I can also remember that Sloan the dog was supposed to eat a whole package of buns and try as they might, he wouldn’t finish the whole thing.  After two or three packages of buns it became clear that this was a losing battle, as the dog was getting more full with each attempt.

You can view all 12 original commercials here.  None of these spots seem to exactly fit what I remember.  There isn’t one that has the mother AND the dog at the cafe.  #10 is the closest one – at least the dog is eating a bun – but I don’t remember the poodle being there, and the mother isn’t in it.

But they could have been shooting footage for more than one commercial.  I think the cafe itself was real — or at least the disused building was real — and out in the middle of nowhere.  I also read one comment on youtube that said the two main actors were from Dallas.  So it would make sense to film as much as possible in one day, for later use.  By commercial #10 it was clear that the series was a winner, so the whole story arc would probably have been fleshed out by then, and they would have had an idea what scenes they would be needing.

Just a funny little part of my childhood with my dad.  Part of my reality, my history.  This was my Dad being a parent as well as an executive, taking his kids along to something fun because he had the chance to, like any normal parent would do.  Giving Mom a break, a day away from the kids, even.

The Triumvirate version says Dad was “brainwashing” us younger kids with fun things, so we would take his side in The Divorce.

It takes a special kind of bitter vitriol to twist normal parenting into a brainwashing campaign, but you can’t say it’s not creative.

Tattletale

This morning at about 5:30 am, the cat woke me up because his timed feeder failed to open.  So I took care of that and then went back to bed. At which point a memory surfaced.

I felt an ache in my left leg, and the term “charley horse” came to my mind.  What followed that was an immediate association with my two youngest brothers.

And from there came this forgotten memory, of going to my mother, possibly crying, because one of my brothers had given me a “charley horse” when we were “playing”.  There could have been a trick played on me, as in, “Do you want a charley horse?” when I didn’t know what one was, so I would say yes.

So if my mother was in the house, I would have been younger than 6.  My gut feeling is that I was around 4, which would put my brothers at 7 and 11.  And my sense is that this happened in the afternoon, maybe after school for them.  I want to say that it happened outside, and I don’t remember a coat, so it was probably warm weather.

Anyway, I went looking for my mother and found her, lying in bed, and my view is that of being about level with her back, which was turned towards me as she lay on her side.  I can see her aqua colored housecoat.  She doesn’t turn over to look at me, let alone hug me or show concern.  She doesn’t even move.

And when I complain to her uncaring back about the physical harm my bigger, older, stronger brother did to me, what I was told may not have been in these exact words — but the meaning I clearly get, the words in my head now are,

“No one likes a tattletale.”

This is how my mother apparently dealt with me being deliberately physically harmed, at the age of around 4 or 5.

It puts the blame on me for having bothered her with my problem, my pain and distress.

It makes it clear that she isn’t going to do anything about it.

It contains the threat that “people aren’t going to like you” (which she continued to use on me throughout high school).

I now know that what was meant in all those cases — what she was really saying, but couldn’t say aloud — was “I don’t like you.”

And finally, it fits the familiar pattern:  I ask for help of some kind, and I get told in no uncertain terms that I’m not going to get what I ask for.

(Of course, you mustn’t think that this shows my mother being NEGLECTFUL.  I have it on good authority that she’d have had to be going to a BAR and leaving the kids in the CAR, for it to be NEGLECT.)


So.  My recourse at that age is going to be one of two things:

  • go and tell Dad, and try to get some help – although I am certain he wasn’t home, or I would have gone to him in the first place;
  • or, with the threat of not being liked hanging over my head, which maybe also prevents me from going to Dad, because of the fear of losing the one person I can trust and count on in the entire world — (which would expose her complete lack of care and concern to him, the one person she has most to fear from if she is found out) — I can retreat and stay away from my brothers.

This works for the narcissist on quite a few levels.  They like to keep their audience from communicating with each other — it makes it so much easier for them not to be found out.

My mother’s reaction makes me wonder if there is also an association with the incident at my kindergarten Open House, in the fall of ’74, when I became the “big mouth” — blamed by my mother for having spoken truthfully about my family when I was asked.

If she decided that I was to blame then for speaking the truth, it is not a stretch from there to being called a “tattletale” for speaking up about physical abuse from my brothers.


There were other incidents of physical harm that revolve around them.

Once I was playing with my brothers in the back yard, and for whatever reason was running behind the garage.  I tripped (or was tripped?) and fell on some glass from a broken window.  My wrist was slashed open vertically — the way you’re supposed to do it if you’re serious about bleeding out — and I ended up with 9 stitches and three still-visible scars.

Another time, my second-youngest brother was cleaning a BB gun in the basement, on a big old metal desk we had down there.  I think all three of us younger kids were there.  I was drawing or writing on one end of the desk, and my brother was cleaning the gun at the other end — with it pointed at me.  At some point the gun went off, and I have a middle finger that I still can’t feel the tip of.  My brother claimed he thought it was unloaded, and that it went off when he opened it.  I have my doubts that that is how a BB gun works.

My youngest brother had a definite streak of cruelty.  After the divorce, when we had babysitters in the summer months, we had one who had a 5YO daughter whom she brought with her every day (with red hair, too).  I had no interest in playing with her, so I must have been several years older than 5; the divorce was finalized when I was 7.5 so I had to be older than 8, which puts my brother at older than 11.  Certainly old enough to know that you aren’t supposed to deliberately hurt other people.

He concocted this “game” where he would call her by name, and she would come running into the living room, and then he would hit her with a pillow hard enough to knock her down.

After a while she got smart enough to not respond to his call, so he invited me into the game and got ME to call her name, in order to prolong his fun.  I think I only did it once or twice and then refused to “play” any more.  That poor little girl was crying and she went to tell her mother, but I don’t think she was able to explain what was happening and besides, I am sure my brother said we were just playing with the pillows and she fell down, or something.

Funnily enough, once I stopped trying to play with my older brothers, I can’t remember any similar incidents that involved physical injury.

I’m sure this will be called paranoia by those who have a vested interest in making sure it is seen that way.

Or is it the willful inflicting of pain on another person — one who is already known to be the scapegoat, at least when Mom is home — by a couple of boys who are in pain themselves, and don’t have any other way to express it?  Because of course boys don’t get sad and cry.  Boys get angry, and then physically violent.  And the scapegoat gets the brunt of it.

Honoring Sadness

One of several good articles from Dr. Cloud that I found today:

“Sadness… tells us about hurt and loss. We live in a world where we get hurt and lose things. We need it to help us grieve and let go. If we repress and deny sadness, there is inevitable depression. Unresolved sadness always leads to depression and often other symptoms.

“…sadness says that there is a hurt of some kind that needs to be processed, and usually it involves a loss.

“When people deny their sad feelings, they “harden” the heart, and that is to lose touch with tender grace-giving aspects of who they are. They become unable to love and be tender, and to feel grief over their wrongdoings. This state leads then to become insensitive persons. In addition, it leads to all sort of symptoms – depressions, physiological problems, substance abuse, eating disorders, and the inability to get close to others.

“Whenever trauma is not worked through, the development stage present at that age gets affected.

In particular, I think this speaks to the trauma of The Divorce — or in my case, the trauma of my parents’ adversarial relationship during my first few years.  For me, The Divorce was an end to THAT trauma, of living with a mother who didn’t give much of a shit about me, and of my parents fighting and yelling at each other all the time.

“When we lose our ability to feel sad, we lose our tenderness. It is a major aspect of ourselves that must be protected at all costs. If we can’t feel sad, we get coldhearted. Sadness does not equal weakness. Rather, processing sadness leads to strength.”

Yet Again, There’s A Name For It

Notes from here about “functional dependency” and “relational dependency”.

“Two kinds of dependency… Functional dependency relates to the child’s resistance to doing the tasks and jobs in life that are his responsibility. This means he wants others to take care of things he should… Don’t enable functional dependency.”

Relational dependency is our need for connectedness to others… when we are loved by others in this state of need, we are filled up inside. Because they need so much, children are especially relationally dependent. Over time, as they internalize important nurturing relationships, they need less; the love they have internalized from Mom and Dad and others sustains them. Yet, to our dying day we will always need regular and deep connection with emotionally healthy people who care about us.

“You need to promote and encourage relational dependency in your child to teach him that mature, healthy people need other people; they don’t isolate themselves… Help him see that needing love isn’t being immature. Rather, it gives us the energy we need to go out and slay our dragons.

Encourage him to express his wants, needs and opinions to those with whom he is close. This is true especially in his relationship with you. He didn’t choose to be in your family; that was your decision… don’t abandon him when he needs more intimacy…”


I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that my mother had functional dependency that was enabled by her use of her children, especially her oldest child, to take on her responsibilities.

“…resistance to doing the tasks and jobs in life that are his responsibility. This means he wants others to take care of things he should.”

I don’t know how her unhealthy functional dependency got started – maybe because she came from a large family of sisters and she didn’t have too much responsibility.  But that’s just a guess.

I certainly didn’t choose to be born — no one does.  My mom chose not to use birth control, instead putting faith in god and a lack of sex to prevent further children.  That failed, and she got saddled with yet another burden, a workload that she had no interest in.

As a child, I had normal relational dependency.  I didn’t get “filled up” by Mom.  I got some of this love from Dad, but it didn’t completely fill up the hole left by my mother’s neglect and rejection.

In fact, as children we generally learn… our first independent steps, and our first identity moves from none other than mom.

So I probably looked for it from the other adults in my life:  my older siblings.  One more of my mother’s jobs for them to assume, in fact.  No wonder my sister resents my very existence.  But that resentment is misdirected.

It’s normal for me to want or miss the connection with the people who once filled this need.  But they are no longer “emotionally healthy people who care about [me]”.

ideology

  1. the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.

“…the problem with any ideology is that it gives the answer before you look at the evidence. So you have to mold the evidence to get the answer that you’ve already decided you’ve got to have.”

~~ Bill Clinton

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Our Little Sister

This is the title of a Chinese movie.  It’s not something I’ve ever been called by my FOO.

The movie is about three older siblings who, upon the death of their estranged father, find out that they have a much younger half-sister.

The older siblings have a shared history, lots of memories, which leave the half-sister out entirely.

She is the daughter of the woman who “ruined their family” – the woman their father left their mother for.

The older siblings are still angry and resentful towards the father — whereas the half-sister clearly loved her father.

An older woman in the film suggests that this is a good reason not to take her in, not to accept her, not to love her.

The half-sister understands the situation and internalizes this scapegoating:  “Someone is always hurt, just because I exist.”

But these sisters can see the truth:  “It had nothing to do with you!”  And they invite her to live with them, to become part of their family.

The movie could have been over in the first 15 minutes.  They could have gone to the funeral, met the half-sister, decided to be angry at her too, to blame her, and to push her away.

Instead they make the healthy, positive decision to love her, to include her, and not blame her for things she didn’t do.

And one of the older sisters says:  “Maybe father was a kind man… He left us such a lovely little sister.”

Such a different ending to the story.

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An Open Letter To Donald Trump From A Social Worker

Well, after yesterday’s post, this open letter hits home (heavily edited for length here).

I’ve hated the patriarchy for a long time, for what it did to my career.  More recently, I’ve come to hate it for what it’s done to my family.


Dear Mr. Trump:

…I’m a social worker.

when someone got angry, I got curious. “Why are they angry?” I’d think. Sure, maybe I was annoying, but where did that anger come from?

…I’m much more concerned about the kid who’s being “bad.” I’m wondering what the message is behind his taunting, her racial slurs, his homophobia, her violence, his haughtiness.

I’ve learned, and it hasn’t always been easy, to look for the message behind the behavior, no matter how horrendous that behavior is to others (or to me).

See, I told you social work is a weird profession.

So when I hear you mock Marco Rubio (“little Marco”), or when I hear you talk about women as if they’re reduced to their biological cycle, or when I hear you be dismissive of other people (“You’re fired!”) I admit, I’m curious.

I want to know why you feel the need to say things in such an inflammatory, divisive, dismissive way.

What is behind this need to do that to others?

And let me say, this isn’t just you that I’m curious about, Mr. Trump.
I know a lot of your supporters. I’m related to several of them.

I’m really, really curious as to what happened to you and to them.

I want to know why you feel the need to say things in such an inflammatory, divisive, dismissive way.

Especially dismissive. Why don’t you have a conversation where you respect the other person talking?

What are you covering up?

…I really don’t understand why, with all your money, with all your power, with all your status you, you, you of all people need to humiliate others. To, for lack of a better word, “bully” them.

I know that if I’m in a conversation or an argument with someone, and I’m feeling the desire to say something cutting or shaming, it’s because I’ve usually run out of logical argument strands.

…But I know that when I do it always means I “lost.”

…You can be you without having to prove to everyone how you-ish you are.


… except when your mother, your culture, your religion, and everything else around you is telling you that you can’t.

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One Person Who Really Cares

I never know what’s going to inspire me to write a new post here.  Today, it’s this article from the BBC.

While I can’t relate to the economics that the author experienced, I can relate to this:

“My parents split up when I was young, but I grew up in a loving home. My mother taught me to read and write before I went to school.”

Except it was my father and my older brother Joe who taught me to read and write before I went to school.  My mother was not interested, or “too busy” or something.

I can relate to the author’s sensitivity, too.  I’ve read about the orchid/dandelion theory before, which also ties in with HSP theory, and I’m fairly certain I’m an orchid/HSP.  (Interestingly, DH also seems to be an HSP, but he is an HSS as well.)

But what has really resonated with me is this:

“Angie Hart from the University of Brighton is a child and family psychotherapist who studies resilience. She stresses the vitalness of the support of at least one person who really cares in helping us to make changes.”

And this:

“The MP Frank Field… suggests parenting is “more important than income or schooling” in improving life chances. He stresses the role of mothers, in particular, in shaping their children’s future… the nurture I experienced in my early years impacted on my later life…in terms of who I am…”

It’s safe to say I never had the “universal” nurturing mother’s love — and you can’t miss what you’ve never had.  But that “vital person who really cares” — I lost that.

I did have a nurturing father who was at home during my childhood, instead of traveling for work.  I had that one vital person who really cared.

I used to think that I had a few more, in my older siblings.

I found one in my husband, although at the time of Dad’s death our marriage was less than 4 years old, and our relationship then was not one I counted on as much as the ones that had been around so much longer.

Then I lost my father, and then my siblings, and now DH is the only one I have left.


I always knew I would lose my dad early.  It was apparent to me from early childhood.  There was an occasion when Dad took me on some kind of riverboat cruise thing on the Missouri River.  It was a beautiful Sunday evening.  I was probably about 5 or so.

At one point, Dad sat me up on the railing and was holding on to me.  I remember the breeze in my face, and his strong arms around me, and I felt happy and completely safe.

Then the boat captain made an announcement over the loudspeaker, of all things.

“Grandpa, we know you love your little girl…” was all I heard — I can actually still hear it when I think about it.  The rest of the announcement was lost to me, but it was about how Dad needed to take me off the railing for safety reasons.

I was embarrassed, I think — what a stupid, tactless, public way to correct someone.

But I cried inconsolably, and for a completely different reason.  Everyone thought I was upset at not being able to sit on the railing, or maybe because of the embarrassment of the public chastising, or of having my father mistaken for my grandfather.

I probably couldn’t even put it into words that day, but the reason I was crying was yes, because they had called him my “grandpa” — but not because it was humiliating that they got it wrong.  It was because it crystallized something important about my Dad.

I already knew he was older than everyone else’s dad.  That was obvious.

But what I knew right then and there about grandpas, was that GRANDPAS DIED.

I believe I had a classmate whose grandfather had died, and even at 5YO I was able to put two and two together.

And that fear stayed with me the rest of my life, until it finally happened.

I’m not sure I ever did explain to Dad just what it was that long-ago day that had me so upset.  I do know that just after he was diagnosed with cancer, I visited him for a couple of weeks, and one night I was so upset, I went into his room and woke him up and cried all over him because he was going to die, he was going to leave, and I was only barely 30 and I felt the same way I felt when I was 5.

He replied gruffly, “Nobody’s dying yet,” to which I said, “Yes, but you will some day,” and he didn’t have an answer to that.  So he just hugged me and let me cry.  And in less than a year, he was gone.


So I lost my dad — my one vital, nurturing, loving parent — after barely 3 decades.

And in the same weekend, really, I lost almost all the other people who I thought really cared.  The ones who said, “This is going to be tough, so we’ll all cut each other some slack.”  The ones who said, “She’s the one who is going to take it the hardest.”

The bitter fact is that these people whom I had known all my life, the ones I would go to if I ever needed help, the ones who at least called on birthdays and Christmas and signed things “love” — didn’t.

Hell, some of them signed some very nasty emails with that word.  LOVE.  What a shitty lie to tell for so long, to a kid sister who implicitly believes her older brothers and sister, and who is dumb enough to believe it means something strong enough to matter.

Or maybe we have different definitions and expectations of what it means, because of the different ways in which we grew up.

To this day it’s hard for me to type it.  I find it a hard word to use casually, even among close friends or with my husband.  I stopped signing “love” on family communications quite some time ago, once I realized how hollow and meaningless it was in that context.  It was just the word you were supposed to use when signing things to certain people.  Automatic.  Nothing really behind it.  As I found out that weekend.

I thought I had a handful of people who really cared about me — and then I found out I didn’t.  That’s what’s been so painful.  It calls into question a lot about yourself.  If all these people who have known me since my very first day don’t really love me, then the common factor is me, and it must have something to do with me.  What did I do?  How unlovable am I?

Of course, that is the scapegoat talking.

Well, as I now know, after years of asking questions and finding facts and working with professionals and facing up to some ugly truths — I didn’t do anything to earn that betrayal.  And the common factor is not me, but a pair of women whose narcissism has poisoned our whole family.

I was never so relieved as when I found out there were words for the role I had been given, for how toxic our mother had been, for what had happened in our family.

And then, of course, I got angry.  Very angry.  Because I had been lied to for so long and made to feel so bad for so long, FOR NO DECENT REASON EXCEPT TO MAKE OTHER PEOPLE FEEL BETTER — and if you want proof of a lack of love, there it is.

Maybe the clue lies in when it all came out — when our father died.  The “only” thing I did differently from my siblings with respect to our father is, I loved him as unconditionally as he loved me.

You’d think this score would be settled by the fact that they all apparently had our mother’s love, where I most certainly did not.  I could clearly tell there was a difference between the way my mother and my father acted towards me by the age of 6, during the divorce proceedings, when I explained all the ways my Dad took care of me and my mother did not.

Of course, knowing what I know now about our mother and her version of love — yeah, I got the love of the one vital person who really cared.

And perhaps because they had a flawed model of what love is, maybe they never really learned what love is like when it’s real, or what you’re supposed to do — what you genuinely WANT to do — for someone you really love.

When I think about a mother’s love and what I missed out on, what was denied me, I never — NEVER — think about it in terms of my own mother and my siblings.  If I’m honest, I’m not actually jealous of them.

No, the times when I feel that burning jealousy is when I see it in other mothers:  thinking back to mothers of friends that I knew, or sometimes seeing complete strangers at the grocery store laughing, joking, and hugging with their kids.

And if I had to choose between my Dad, and what’s happened since he died, I’d still choose my Dad.  His love was real and true, even if I didn’t have it for very long.


The funny thing is, the very first professional I ever spoke to about all this hit this nail on the head right away.  I have mentioned two therapists that I worked with for months at a time — there was one other, a man whose name I have forgotten and to whom I still owe the paperwork for that one and only appointment, for which I still feel bad that he probably never got paid.  (I was supposed to go back but I didn’t.  In retrospect, I think it was too much for me at that point, and I was not ready to confront the reality of how shitty my family had been to me at the most vulnerable time of my life.  I was not capable of facing up to having lost almost everything all at once.)

In late 2001, a few months after our parents’ deaths, I was severely stressed about the whole family situation and was on antidepressants.  My oldest brother was getting married that fall and I was considering not going to the wedding.  I can’t remember if it was my GP or my gynecologist who sent me to a therapist, after I probably fell apart during a routine exam, and described what was going on in my personal life.

I don’t remember much of what was said.  I do know I cried a lot.  The only thing I can remember is that after I probably asked something like, “but what would I say?” I can still hear him saying, “Why not just say:

“Dad and I loved each other, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

We went to the wedding.  Of course no one talked about the elephant in the room, the shitty behavior of Joe and Susan a few months before, so I don’t know why I was even worried about “what I would say” in the event the subject came up.

I even did a reading, and when my new SIL thanked me for it she said she had never heard it read so meaningfully as when I read it.

It’s stunning to read it now.

We are supposed to have put the ways of childhood behind us.  The reasoning of children, who believe what they are told by the toxic adults in their lives, is supposed to give way to the reasoning of adults.

Completeness — as in giving credence to both sides of the story — is supposed to supplant partiality, both in my story and in our parents’ story.

Love is supposed to delight in the truth, yet my siblings insist on supporting the lies that allow the dysfunction to continue, year after year.  Love does not dishonor others, as Susan and Joe did to me.  And love is supposed to protect, not attack.

It’s all spelled out in a book that they all believe in — or say they do — perhaps that’s about as truthful as when they used to say they loved me.


1 Corinthians 13:4-13

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Fighting Back

All the events, and stories, and jealousy and anger and manipulation and blaming and lies that got us where we are today, were set in motion 40 years ago or more.

I was a kid.  I was a helpless baby at more-or-less the start of it, when my mother was hospitalized.  I was only 6YO when it culminated in The Divorce.

It was a horrible, stressful time for the whole family.  Mom and the kids hated actually living with Dad day-to-day.  They all missed their previous location.  Dad had a new job, an important job.  And there was a new baby.  These three things alone would cause a great deal of stress.

If you look at the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory there are a few more things to add to the list:

  • Change in health of family member
  • Pregnancy / Gain of new family member
  • Sex difficulties (I’m going to lump “being a teenager” in with this one)
  • Change in financial state
  • Change to a different line of work
  • Change in number of arguments with spouse
  • A large mortgage or loan
  • Change in living conditions
  • Change in work hours or conditions
  • Change in residence
  • Change in school/college
  • Change in recreation
  • Change in church activities
  • Change in social activities

I’ve kind of lumped these all together — for instance, Dad had the job change, while the kids changed schools — but no matter whose point of view you take, they total well over 300, which is the lower limit of the high-risk category.

OVER 300 POINTS: This score indicates a major life crisis and is highly predictive (80%) of serious physical illness within the next 2 years.

Frankly, it isn’t surprising that someone got sick, although Mom’s illness wasn’t physical, but mental.  And you might be able to count my sister’s suicide attempt as “serious physical illness”.

What did the teenagers have to cope with?  New schools, no friends, no teachers or mentors to confide in — just a bunch of nuns and priests who would probably advise them to “pray about it” and “be obedient” if they were consulted.  I think you could just about count on being invalidated if you went to them for help and understanding.

Mom is too sick to talk to, and she can’t be held responsible for any of this anyway.  They hate Dad and are used to blaming him, but that’s no longer safe because now they are dependent on him for everything, not just money.  And of course they are not allowed to be mad at God or blame him for anything — remember, “He doesn’t send you any more than you can handle!!”  😀

It’s bad enough that they are already feeling like outsiders at school:  now they have to take turns staying home from school to run the house while Mom is sick.  But it can’t be Mom’s fault she is sick…

…it’s the baby who “made Mom sick”.

Side note:  You know, I’ve always kind of accepted the responsibility for that part.  I always accepted it was the fact of my birth that made Mom go crazy (although obviously still not my responsibility).

It’s only recently that I found out it probably wasn’t — Mom was probably schizophrenic all along, and was at high risk for post-partum psychosis.

What actually made Mom sick, if you have to assign the cause to a chain of events, was her refusal to have a medically advised hysterectomy, coupled with her refusal to accept sex as a normal part of marriage.  I’m pretty certain she thought the jeopardy to her health that would be caused by additional pregnancies could be easily eliminated by simply eliminating sex altogether.  Her insistence on following church doctrine became her excuse:  can’t have a hysterectomy + can’t use birth control + can’t risk another pregnancy = Voilà!  A “get out of sex free” card!

This is similar to what I believe was her real reason for not learning how to drive:  that too was a “get out of doing something for other people” card.

But that bastard husband of hers, who was supporting her, still wanted some.  A pregnancy resulted.  “Look what your father did to me.”

What’s comical about this to me is, isn’t avoiding sex in a marriage just as much going against god’s will as using birth control?  I mean, it IS birth control.  Yet somehow abstinence is considered an OK method of birth control to use, even within a marriage.  SMH.

…it’s the baby who “made Mom sick”.

This stupid baby with diapers to change, who is just a bunch more work, and really, really easy to label and blame as the cause of all their problems.

It makes sense that my sister is the one who holds this grudge the most deeply, because obviously she was the one most affected.

As a girl, and the oldest, she would have been expected to do the bulk of the mothering chores.  It was her senior year, yet here she was living the life of a teenage mom, without even having the benefit of having had the sex to go with it.  And if she attempted suicide, obviously she was deeply affected.

I wonder if my sister looks at me and thinks, “Look what my father did to me.”

A friend once pointed out to me that if things had been normal, if my mom had been healthy and done her job and not enmeshed and parentified my sister, if she had been free to be a normal teenage girl, my 17YO sister would likely have loved me to pieces.  If you don’t think that realization broke my heart, think again.

To all this injury, add the insult that Dad and I went on to have a loving relationship, and instead you probably have a recipe for the kind of relationship my sister and I have failed to have.

A helpless baby who couldn’t fight back was the only safe place to dump all that shit.  I became the scapegoat for them, as my dad was for my mom.  They had her example to learn from, after all.

I know of one other family who had a similar situation.  A knitting friend told me once about a family she knew — they were cousins or some such — with a lot of children, spread out over a lot of years, such that the oldest children were almost adults when the youngest child was born.

The youngest sibling was a woman who was now estranged from the rest of the family, because she was universally considered by the rest of them to be the cause of the mother’s death.

The woman who told me the story said that nobody ever talked about what had actually happened, so for a long time she had assumed the mother had died in childbirth, or shortly after.

At some point she found out that the truth was that the mother actually died SIX YEARS LATER.

It had nothing to do with the youngest child at all.  Yet the rest of the family somehow found a way to make it her fault.  It was probably their way of coping with the senselessness of what was happening to them.

Their scapegoat was only 6YO, and she couldn’t have fought back against the blame that got heaped on her.  She was a safe place to put their psychological garbage, their difficult-to-deal-with anger and grief, because she was too young to do anything but accept it.

No wonder they never talked about what actually happened, because the truth would destroy the warped story that they concocted to make themselves feel better.  And no one would then want to admit how unfair it was that they blamed this child her whole life for things that weren’t her fault.

And no wonder that poor little kid is estranged from the rest of them now.  That’s what happens when the helpless baby finally starts fighting back against the injustice of what has been heaped on her.

All that shit, years and years of tiny little things said and done, or not said and done.  Hugs not given.  Phone calls not made.  Letters unanswered.  Outreach ignored.  Happiness for another’s accomplishments eclipsed and snuffed out by jealousy.  Criticisms made, trust betrayed, snide remarks, bullshit apologies or none at all, excuses made for the fucked-up behavior of everyone else but me and Dad — we two who never, ever get defended.

Love not given.

Acceptance in the family withheld, always out of reach.  Just being born wasn’t enough –in fact, being born was my original sin, and keeping me out of the family is probably my well-earned punishment for that.

It all comes back in one big wave of shit, sparked by one unforgiveable-because-still-unapologized-for incident (which conveniently allows people to easily invalidate it all, and me, by saying, “Geez, is she STILL upset about that?”)

And you get this blog to go with this fucked-up family, these broken relationships.  That’s the only part I’m responsible for.  If they hadn’t done what they did, and failed to do what they failed to do, I wouldn’t have anything to write about.

The rest of these things are entirely the result of other people dumping 40 years’ worth of pain, trauma, and emotional garbage on someone else, instead of working through their own shit like responsible adults.  And now it’s come back home to roost.

It’s a shame for them that their target grew up to be wise enough and strong enough to figure out everyone’s bullshit.  And I know it won’t truly change anything with my siblings, but I’ll be damned if I don’t fight back somehow, and put all this shit right squarely back where it belongs.

They have admitted that they were angry.  They never asked themselves what they did with that anger.  They transferred it to me and never, ever looked back.  It is a high, stinking pile now, but that’s what happens when you don’t go back and clean up after yourself.

I know my writing won’t change my siblings, but it is changing me, and healing me, and that’s worth doing.