Sunday, June 9, 2013

Mothers, Fathers, and Stay-at-Home Daughters

One of my more painful experiences as a stay-at-home daughter was my mom’s jealousy. I didn't know what to do with it. In the years since, I have talked to other homeschooled young adult women who could relate to this, having had similar conflicts in their homes.

My younger brothers were very active, hands-on little boys. One wanted to build and invent, push buttons, take things apart, know how stuff worked. The other was obsessed with the outdoors: exploring, digging, hunting, fishing, growing, collecting, tasting. Dad was neither a great sportsman nor a knowledgeable mechanic; he excelled with numbers, formulas, charts, and had a surprising affinity for the arts. He did his best, anyway, to live up to his sons' ideal.

I had little curiosity about the natural world and less about the inner workings of a toaster. The history of humanity's struggle was of great interest to me and I was content to absorb this information from books, radio programs, or adults' conversation. I devoured history books, biographies, [conservative Baptist] textbooks on government and political philosophy.

Dad appreciated the humanities, too. He had little time to read (and generally nodded off when he attempted it), but he liked to stay informed about current news topics and he loved to learn about people and places and events from history. Many of our family vacations included visits to museums and historical sites and I loved them all.

Since I was also good with numbers and computers, Dad soon had me assisting him with the family finances, his business invoices, and his taxes, in addition to doing data entry, filing, and taking phone messages from his clients. We would work together in his tiny office, sharing the cramped work space and clambering over stacks of books and packets of reports. On long drives to the state capital to collect data from public records, we would discuss theology or listen to National Public Radio or some religious broadcast.

When Dad had jury duty, he took my friend and I along to observe the court proceedings. One time Dad and I both dressed up and went to hear the governor debate a rival candidate at the fancy resort down the road. Halfway through the speeches, Dad slipped out a chocolate bar he'd brought along for us to share, reminding me of times long ago when he and mom took me along with them to the movie theater.

Another time we attended a pastors' conference together (featuring a day of lectures by Bill Gothard). Though neither of us had any intention of ever becoming pastors, I think we felt like we "belonged" in that group of men so committed to the claims of our Bible that they had made it a full-time vocation. If I had been a boy, I was pretty sure I would be training to become some kind of preacher. My Bible knowledge was as good as any pastor's, and I never mixed up Elijah and Elisha or Rachel and Rebecca.

Besides cultivating an ordinary friendship with my dad based on common interests and shared experiences, I was encouraged to "give my heart" to my father, who would in turn guide my choice of a mate. Accordingly, when I was fifteen, Dad and I signed an agreement much like this one, with our pastor as witness. Though I wasn't yet dating age, I took this piece of paper very seriously. (And shed many, many tears over it at age 24.) If Dad was to help select or reject my suitors, it seemed imperative that he know me well since my future happiness was at stake.

At home, Dad and I would discuss current events or interesting details about his clients at the dinner table. Our crowded board could be a very happy place, but it could also be a tense place. With so many ages and so many varied interests represented, conversation could easily give way to chaos. And chaos could lead to indigestion, especially for the lactating matriarch trying desperately to feed herself and the infant in the highchair next to her while straining to hear the stories her son at the other end of the long table was telling about his day away at work.

There were even periods when talk at the table was banned, or required authorization from a parent. Other times, Dad would attempt to “make mealtimes meaningful” with a planned lesson, reading lessons to us or utilizing the dry-erase board on the wall behind his chair to present a puzzle, an analogy, an exercise in logic.

As the oldest, I was a leader, or sometimes squelcher, of discussion. So if a topic interested me, I would keep it afloat. At that stage of my late teens, my interests were in travel, international affairs, public policy--how adults of the world lived and thought and how I should relate to them. Alas, these subjects were of little relevance to my mother's world of diapers, potty-training, tantrums, grocery lists, math drills and phonics workbooks.

One day my mom took me aside and told me she felt left out and didn’t appreciate these table conversations she felt were just between my dad and me. I don’t remember how she expressed it, only that I felt quite unsettled and awkward afterward. I distinctly felt like my mom was jealous of my relationship with Dad (though I didn't exactly consider us “close”, we got along pretty well back then).

From that time on, I felt uncomfortable with my dad. When he would try to kiss us kids good night, I felt Mom's eye on me, as if I was suspected of being “the other woman”. I backed off from his affection and stopped chatting with him at the table. Later on, they arranged for me to help Mom more with sewing projects instead of working primarily for Dad.

In spite of this increased tension, my mother actually insisted on Dad escorting me on my travels more than once after I reached my twenties. (That’s an awkward story in itself.) We still occasionally had good times together--and even still listened to NPR together--just not when Mom was around.

I blame the courtship process for finishing off my connection to my Dad. We talk a few times a year now, and pretty much stick to safe subjects like the grandkids. I have nice memories of playing with my dad as a kid, but feel that Mom’s insecurities ruined that relationship during my adolescence. Maybe because I was the oldest and Mom was unprepared for how it would feel to have another woman in the house, especially one who was attempting to trust God, through her dad, with her very heart.

In practical terms, I was the live-in help, something like the au pairs who helped raise my cousins. And psychologically, I believed my parents were the mouthpiece God used to speak his specific will and warnings to me. But it was often difficult to interpret these divine messages: was I supposed to keep my hands off my mom's husband? Had she said anything to him about how she felt?

I believed what I'd been told--that God intended for me to live at home under my parents' authority until he directed me to some greater ministry. But how was this supposed to work for a young woman in her twenties? This lifestyle was bewildering.

1 comment:

  1. I actually had something like this happen too. I would keep the entire house clean in order to help my mother, to give her time to relax. My dad was in full support of it and even asked me to do a lot of the chores so my mother could rest.

    I found that my mother started doing chores at 3 and 4 in the morning before I would even have the chance of doing them. I guess from her perspective I was stealing her position in the household.

    So I'm completely ready to help lead a household but my parents don't want me to move out.