Expectations and Responsibilities
Expectations shape our whole lives. Our families, schools, religions and cultures imbue us with expectations, both explicit and implicit. We ingest these expectations consciously and unconsciously, we push them on each other intentionally and unintentionally. In search of belonging, we willingly and unwillingly conform to expectations that are relentlessly imposed. They’re everywhere.
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe V Wade – imposing an expectation that women bear children under even the most preposterous of circumstances – I’ve found myself reflecting on how expectations play out in my own life, and in the lives of my clients.
My dad disappeared for a couple of years when I was 12, shortly after my parents decided to divorce. We had no idea where he was. For most of my life I have wondered about the impact that had on me. 50 years later, I’m still discovering how my fear of abandonment shows up.
I remember crying a lot, crying at school about the littlest things, getting teased for my sensitivity. The cottonwood trees fluffed out the last day of school and the fluff kept getting in my eyes, which kept tearing up. Boys mocked me. “Uh-oh, crying in school! Whatsa matter, are you sad? Boo hoo!” I was standing in line to talk to our teacher, Mrs. Jones. I don’t know what I wanted to say to her, anything to have a moment of her attention, to stretch out the protection of school another few minutes before the lonely latch-key abyss. Katie C. was in front of me and told Mrs. Jones her cat had died and I started crying. Someone asked me why I was crying about Katie’s cat, whom I had never met, and I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know why I was crying and I couldn’t stop.
Now I understand I was an anxious child. My anxiety was emotional and bodily; I was extra-sensitive to everything. Hyper-vigilant.
It’s too late to ask my dad why he disappeared. He died in 1999 at the age of 61 from complications of lifelong alcoholism and constant cigarette smoking. He was the age I am now. I know he felt shame about not living up to the expectations set by his parents. I don’t know if he felt the weight of parenthood when he decided to leave. Sometimes it’s easier to escape than to face the daily not-living-up-to-it. He surfaced several years later in a different city with a different woman and her son, living a different life.
Maybe leaving lessens feelings of failure. If I feel like I have not met my family’s or church’s or society’s expectations it is less painful to distance myself from those expectations than show up and constantly be reminded of failure.
Somehow this is accepted in our world; that fathers sometimes disappear. Maybe part of the problem is the binary nature of gender role expectations: What Fathers Do, What Mothers Do. What if our expectations of What Children Need won over What Parents Must Do. Would that yield more fully parented children?
If I could go back in time I would ask my dad to stick around. I would tell him that his disappearance would devastate me, and especially my little brother. That for us— as bad as it was— it was better than having him missing. I would ask him to figure out how to be a dad and to drink less. Please.
Even after he returned I felt his absence; it had ripped the fabric of me, and of our family.
I can’t fill the dad-shaped hole in my heart. It will be there all my days. It is unfixable. And: I have discovered I can live with it.
In the months leading up to my dad disappearing, my mom struggled. She worked full-time and had two anxious, upset young children who were her sole responsibility. Our home was foreclosed upon and we struggled financially on her secretary’s salary. (In 1971, women’s salaries were 59% of men’s. It was expected that women didn’t need to be paid as much because their husbands would have jobs.) My mom was filled with rage and grief, and suffered from lifelong depression that went undiagnosed until she was 60. She screamed and smashed things. I hid in my room a lot.
I’m pretty sure you can’t force anyone to be a good parent. Forcing men to take responsibility is a joke, partly because Patriarchy, and partly because even if you put in your time, it doesn’t ensure you are not doing harm. I have witnessed families so dysfunctional as to be unsafe and trauma-inducing. Between a rock and a hard place, the most vulnerable ones lose.
Some families have generational histories of dysfunction and abuse. They have learned to not give a fuck about others, to not trust anyone. To only look out for themselves. Their expectation: life is brutal, you will get hurt, you will hurt others. They have cultivated rigid armor which protects them from vulnerability, from caring about anyone, even themselves.
My wish is simple: that we not hurt each other so much. That we become more aware of our own needs first, then to the needs of those around us. Some days that looks like examining assumptions and expectations; to let go of what is not true or appropriate, and to grow in the direction of caring. It is my job to tend to my wounds and get away from those who would hurt me. When I am doing the hurting, it is my job to stop it as soon as I become aware.
We can undo suffering, we can heal from trauma, and we can learn new skills that suit us better than our old skills.
The child who is not embraced by its village
Will burn it down to feel its warmth.