Monday, April 22, 2013

Reflections On My Childhood, Part II

For Reflections, Part 1, click here.

As far as I can tell, my parents have always put the demands of their God over the needs of their children. The result was an environment that has often been physically, emotionally and educationally abusive. In addition, their faith of choice, when I lived there, was sadly misogynistic. My father was the “head” of the home; wife and daughters were not permitted to behave independently in any significant capacity. As underlings, we females were supposed to wait for our spiritual leader to “hear from God” on issues that concerned us—questions like what church to attend, whether to take a job, or whether to date a guy we liked. The “family” took precedence over individual enterprise, particularly in the girls’ experience. (Sons were allowed more leeway in plotting their own course, since they would need to lead a family themselves one day.)

Control:  I lived in my parents’ home until I was about 23. During that time, I was discouraged from attending college or working fulltime; I never owned a car, never went on a date, never had a high school graduation, and never earned credits from an accredited school. (How I wish someone had explained accreditation to me in those years! But I was so brainwashed, I probably would have argued with them.) I did change thousands of diapers, cooked hundreds of meals, helped with laundry, tutored younger siblings, was a “nanny” for even younger siblings, sewed dresses and nightgowns, shopped for groceries, scrubbed sinks and mopped floors.

I was told when to get up, when to go to bed, and sometimes required to memorize passages from the Bible. I had to ask permission to go anywhere, and was not permitted to walk more than ¼ mile down the street alone. All music with a rock beat was forbidden. My mother once coerced me into signing my name to a paper that said I would not turn on a radio.

The girls’ clothing was strictly regulated: turtlenecks and t-shirts (anything stretchy) could only be worn under a jumper or vest. Pants were only tolerated under a dress or nightgown. We went swimming fully clothed—even the boys kept their shirts on.  Some colors were forbidden at times.

Morning family Bible study was mandatory. We attended church together every Sunday, but not Sunday School or youth group, which were another unfortunate means of breaking up the family. If we didn’t attend church for some reason, we were all expected to gather in the living room and sing hymns and watch an inspirational video lecture.

Abuse of Authority:
Citing assorted Bible verses, the basic principle ran thus: God ordains authorities and they speak for him; rebellion against wishes of authorities is rebellion against God (Romans 13:1-2). Rebellion = witchcraft (1 Samuel 15:23). Witchcraft = deserving of death (Exodus 22:18). This formula put many trivial issues, like ear piercings, in the category of potential capital sins.

The hierarchical authority structure was reinforced regularly, almost always with a man at the top, answering directly to God. Various supporting concepts included the “umbrella of authority”, wifely submission, homeschooling, keeping a clear conscience by confessing sins to parents, virginity until marriage, father-directed courtship, stay-at-home moms, and divorce permitted only in the case of sexual improprieties.

Even though I abided by the rules of our belief system, it was normal for either of my parents to pull me aside into an office or bedroom to express private concerns and criticism about my character or my attitude, usually tied to “privileges” that would be withheld if I didn’t quickly improve. We all learned to walk on eggshells. If we consulted our parents about personal questions or problems, we would be prayed for. If we stepped too close to the line, we would hear about it. For ten years after I left home, I heard my mother’s disapproving voice in my head every time I stood in front of my closet or went clothes shopping.

Obedience was insisted upon. The youngest children were spanked on an almost daily basis for infractions as minor as not praying before meals on command. As the oldest child, I cannot count the number of times I was required to apologize to the rest of the family for my bad attitude, or for "being a bad example". I was a developing young woman of thirteen when I received my last spanking—stretched out over Dad’s lap in the wool skirt Mom had passed down to me from her closet. As usual, the punishment (beating with a wooden spoon) was for my "attitude" over an assigned project. I suppose Dad must have felt as awkward as I felt ill-used, for I never was spanked again.

From having unattended home births (most without any prenatal care) to condemning antidepressants, my parents have been reluctant to get their children “normal” medical care. Since they felt that most vaccinations were unnecessary or harmful, several of my siblings had whooping cough one year. It scared me to death to watch them struggling to breathe. While nutrition was always given a high value, sleep was considered more of a luxury, especially for the younger girls. “Secular” psychology was dangerous. Sexual education consisted of “abstinence till marriage” and “birth control kills babies”. AIDS was God’s punishment for gay sex.  Our family doctor promoted “alternative” methods, against some of which the FDA has now published specific warnings.

Gothard taught that all suffering had a divine purpose. Pain therefore had value. You couldn’t find aspirin or tylenol in our home. Ibuprofen was reserved for acute pain and doctor's orders: like after childbirth, and the time I had pleurisy. Once when I was visiting my parents, I shared Advil with my sister for her headache and later got a severe scolding from my mother for giving medication to her daughter.


When I combine my reflections on my childhood, I am torn apart. There was beauty, and there was trauma. There was life in its simplicity, but there was also suffocating fear.

It was what it was.

Today I look at my own children and my heart yearns to support and nurture them, to enable them to stand with strength and  confidence in their world, to teach them to live at peace with themselves and with one another.

To demonstrate for them the beauty of relationships based on kindness, respect, and trust.

These are the things I want to pass on.

So first, I must teach myself. 

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