names have been changed and omitted in this post
this post contains language
this post may be triggering/ upsetting to some readers
It was my late sister's son's second birthday party. My youngest sister, just a few short months before she passed gave birth to a son, her only child she'd leave behind after her boyfriend of six years killed her in a fatal car wreck. It had been an extremely difficult grappling of her loss on many different levels... there was the loss of her and then the loss of knowing she hadn't met someone wonderful but instead abusive that we had been unable to pull her away from.... there was the loss that she wasn't going to walk down the aisle one day or be there for her child and would miss so much. It was a profound and compounded loss in that in many ways we'd already lost her before the final one... her boyfriend had been a terrible influence with drugs and alcohol... my sister having been someone with a friendly and kind spirit was a believer in Christ and incredibly smart, as she graduated high school a year early and attended a coveted nearby Christian university. It was a smashing of her dreams in journalism and one day living in New York when she began the path and downward spiral alongside this man we knew to be not good for her. So why did she choose him? I believe it's the cliché reason many of us choose those who are bad for our souls... we are searching on some level for what we never received; attention ie; love. And when someone who is toxic shows us a little bit of good sprinkled here and there.... we believe it because we want to believe so badly that there is good in there... we want to believe in something wonderful after having lived darkness for so long... we go to what were comfortable with and yet may adamantly declare it's different, they are different and we know what were doing. When really we don't. We are the equivalent of being a detriment to ourselves when we erroneously believe our empathy and Christ loving heart will rub onto someone else and magically cure them. We are the walking blind and believing in a goodness that doesn't exist in someone. It could be argued that this toxic person just has problems, needs help, blah blah, blah... but it's not our job or obligation to allow ourselves to be destroyed in the attempted belief we can help or change them. Because we can't. We can't change anyone. All we can do is stay at an arms distance or walk away. And wish them the best.
We were all gathering at my parent's home; our childhood home and it was bound to be awkward. My middle sister was coming... she hadn't been to their home in years due to the estrangement between her and our dad. It was no surprise... between the way he'd treated her for years growing up and then when she announced her engagement to a black man he'd banished her from the family. This family gathering would prove to be a rare one and as most past holidays and birthdays would turn disastrous due to his unbridled outbursts of rage.
The dining room with it's antique hutches and cabinets held collections of Waterford crystal and china and sideboards decked out with elaborate candelabras and oversized decorative platters circled the mahogany dining set. The walls were covered in old fine oil paintings and ornate frames, candles were on the table and overhead hung a vintage chandelier in hues of amber glass that cast prism-like colors on the walls from the sunlight shining through the nearby window. Bright streamers and birthday balloons graced the room.
My dad entered the room and spoke to my sister "Hello, there.. how are you?' He asked and she spoke "Good, I'm good. How are you?" She returned pleasantly back. She had brought my three nieces whom I saw regularly and my son and daughter sat at the table with them chatting. Her husband wasn't going to be a part of something he had never been welcomed into and had stayed home. I asked my mother if she needed help with anything while my then husband and father strayed into the nearby living room to chat. While my mother happily bustled around fetching plates, utensils and napkins on the table my sister's son toddled around excited it was his big day. Braydon was the spitting image of my sister... with his wheat hued hair like her, green eyes and cherub face he was a cutie pie. Everyone was cooing he was turning two and enjoying taking pictures. My sister's boyfriend's mother and step father had custody of him and we had occasional holidays and weekends we spent with him.
My mother announced we were ready so everyone could take a seat.... she asked my father to lift Braydon into the armchair at the end of the dining table. My father did and after we'd all gathered around she soon entered with his birthday cake holding two lit candles. Everyone sang "Happy Birthday" and snapped pictures. Braydon was smiling and staring at the candles aglow and upon prompting gave it a go at blowing out his candles with a little help. After my mother began cutting slices of birthday cake and passing them around she slipped into the kitchen to grab a pitcher of water and extra napkins. It was then that it started.
My dad had been grumbling and fussing at Braydon because when he took bites of his cake crumbs were falling onto the upholstered seat he was seated on. He began picking up the crumbs and telling him "Hey! Braydon! Stop it! Look at what you're doing!" and then "See this?! You're making a mess. You're getting crumbs on the seat!"
I shifted uncomfortably and exchanged a pointed look with my sister. She caught it and looked like she wanted to escape. I spoke "Oh, he's fine. He's just enjoying his cake." But that wasn't enough to shut him up.
"No, he's not.... he's making a mess! He's getting it all over the fabric!" He retorted and having snatched the fork from Braydon now tried to feed him a bite. Braydon closed his mouth and shook his head no... tears began welling up in his eyes and he started crying, Well, great. That's just great, I thought.
My mother came running back in the room "What is going on?!" She exclaimed.
"He's making a mess!!! He's getting cake all over!!!" He yelled.
My mother took in the scene and spoke "Well... okay! He's TWO! That's normal! It's just a chair... it's not a big deal. Stop standing over him!" She exclaimed. When people are unhealthy and fail to recognize normal rites of child development they will always create upset and shame.
My mother saw that Braydon was crying and now full blown sobbing, his little face now bright red and his plate of cake pushed away. Now the room with festive party decorations and balloons took a depressing turn.
"You aren't doing this! You aren't pulling your usual and ruining yet another birthday!! You aren't doing this to another generation!! Get out of here!" She yelled at him.
My husband followed him into the living room where to my horror my father began screaming obscenities at her and then.... "Oh YEAH?!!! WE WILL SEE ABOUT THAT!!! MAYBE I'LL JUST GO KILL MYSELF!!!! HOW ABOUT THAT????!!! SHIT ON ALL OF YOU!!! THAT'S WHAT!!!!" He screamed. Some people are not depressed but merely throw ugly threats around as a way to intimidate, shame, control and abuse.
My heart lurched and I saw the types of outrage and chaos I'd grown up witnessing were playing out yet again... and now for the newest youngest addition of the family. My sister looked at me with great alarm... trying to speak soothing words to our nephew... while her daughters sat quietly eating their cake occasionally glancing up through lowered lashes with trepidation at the situation.
It was the same ole same ole way of how our family birthdays, celebrations and holidays had been repeatedly ruined over the years by him. It was yet another reason why I don't want my children around him and yet my ex now continually allows and encourages a relationship between my father and them. I want this shut down but I doubt the ability to get it done because there are always some people who are happy to enable and turn a blind eye.
I abhor the idea that there are those who are perfectly fine with children being subjected to the types of situations as described in this post and many of the other posts I have written here at grace power strength. I believe all children and teenagers need to know what one day you will be free... if you are living with these types of chaotic and abusive ways please know one day this too shall pass. Ask for help, lean on those you can trust, report what you can... look out for your siblings... there is zero reason to be screamed at for spilling milk, dropping cake crumbs, spilling a bowl of cherries. There are always going to be people out there who are happy to blame you for their inability to be healthy. Stay strong.... there is kindness out there... just because abuse is what you've lived doesn't mean it's your life sentence... there is better out there... good people who will listen, who will understand and who will lift you up. This is why I write. This is why it's so important to continue writing... to let those who have lived what I've lived and what many children and yes, even adults have endured that it is okay to not be okay with it. To say enough. To speak up. To bide your time. To get out. To draw lines and boundaries. To say yes to a new chapter, a new life, a beautiful circle with people who truly love you and want good things for your life and soul. Those people are a reflection of God's goodness... blessings. I will keep writing and sharing because it's important for those who feel alone in the dark to know they aren't alone... they are thought of and prayed for. They are resilient and will one day fly free. You can take your negatives and turn them into a story of hope for others... your life can improve. Those who try to shut you down and turn a blind eye to the damages endued will one day have to answer for it. In the meantime acknowledge their ways, cut the cord and wish them well. Enjoy every birthday you can... because we are not all so blessed to continue having them... and don't worry about crumbs... life is much, much too short.
With much love, Jennifer Gafford
2012/2013 during the divorce process
names have been omitted in this post
this post contains strong language
Anyone who has had to go through a divorce with a toxic individual knows that it is pure hell. A normal, amicable divorce it is not. Instead it is like a flaming case of hemorrhoids that never seems to go away. If you've gone through a divorce with such a person you know when the court rules that you must attend co-parenting classes it's going to be an oh so lovely experience. If you're lucky you will get a time slot when your soon to be ex isn't also attending... but considering the limited spaces typically available you likely will have to endure not only the class but also their presence as well. The thing about these classes that I have come to learn firsthand is that in my experience the people who teach the classes don't recognize any type of toxicity or personality disorder. If they do their approach is to sweep it under the rug. These people are like something out of the body snatchers they have been so brainwashed and programmed to believe the most ridiculous poo fed to them you likely wouldn't believe it unless you witnessed it yourself.
After I paid for the class (oh, yes, you have to PAY for it as well... and believe me, this is such a joke they should be paying YOU to take it. Plus throw in a free lunch) I chose the class time that worked for my schedule and then arrived the day of. Much to my irritation who do you think was there that day? My soon to be ex. He initially approached my table on the first row and after glaring at him he chose a seat in the back. I was so angry that I had to take this class I probably had steam coming out of my ears... it was already a toxic situation and I really (rightfully) resented the fact I had to take the class with him.
The class begins and the two women teaching the class (I'll use the term "teaching" loosely as I really think someone could have read co-parenting for dummies if there's such a book and done a better job) begin talking about how important it is to really hone that working relationship as now you are co-parenting and from here forward it's best to keep all communication business-like... just about child-related issues and nothing more. They also began their long admonishing of any potential bad-mouthing and how that should not be happening. I felt like they were admonishing us for something some of us hadn't even done. Yet at this point in time my soon to be ex had already long begun his brainwashing statements starting with the first night he'd been served. What about him? I felt like we were all being treated as criminals when some of us hadn't done anything wrong.
I raised my hand "So what are you supposed to do if one parent is behaving poorly? If they are doing things they shouldn't be around your children? What are you supposed to do then?" I asked her. My ex's bedroom door had already been a revolving one and each time the children returned to me I heard horror filled accounts of the types of women he was picking up at bars and bringing back to the loft he lived in during the divorce process. And there was nothing I could do about it. The family court system doesn't penalize a person for behaving without a moral compass.
One guy at the table beside me raised his hand "Yeah... I mean, my soon to be ex wife and I are sharing custody but she's already moved her boyfriend in our old house and I think they are doing drugs. What am I supposed to say to my daughter when she asks me about all that?" He asked with concern.
The "teacher" or whatever she is spoke "And those are both valid questions.... and in those situations you have to not say anything. Because that is her mom. And so you have to communicate to mom and say 'Hey, in our child's best interests it's best if you don't do those things'. And then you speak to someone about it, your attorney, the pediatrician, for example." She told him.
"But what if my daughter asks me about it? What do I say to her?" He asked, needing some guidance.
She spoke, "In that case you tell her you both love her very much and that's grown up stuff and you will take care of it."
I rolled my eyes and sighed with exasperation, "Yes, but don't you think the child is smart enough to know that her parent is not doing what she's supposed to be doing? Kids are pretty smart. I mean, what are we supposed to do? Just ignore it and then eventually we run the risk of them thinking the behavior is okay?" I demanded.
She looked over at her fellow teacher as if to silently say this one is going to be a real pain in the arse.
"What I'm saying is that in order to protect the relationship between the mother and the child he shouldn't say anything. That is still her mother. Do you understand that?" She asked me with an edge to her voice.
I wasn't having it or backing down. "I see... so it's not really about what's in the child's best interests... it's you saying that the mother can just do whatever she wants and he's not supposed to say anything about it. What you're saying to me is that it's okay for his daughter to grow up thinking moving someone new in, having sex outside marriage and doing drugs is okay. That's what you're telling me is it not?!" I demanded again, my voice rising.
A sigh released from her lips and she snapped "What was your reason for divorcing?"
"He cheated. He's sitting in the back row." I gestured toward the back of the room. Everyone in the entire class turned to look at the cheater sitting on the back row. I spoke "Look, growing up my mom told me what my dad was like... and it was all true."
She nodded "So do you have a relationship with your dad?"
"No." I told her.
She made a sad puppy dog face of pity at me. "Well, that's sad. And just think if your mother hadn't talked about your dad you might have been able to form your own opinion and still have a relationship with him." She said to me.
How dare she. "Are you fucking kidding me???!!"I exploded, my Irish roots igniting. "Have a relationship with him? He's a piece of shit the way he treated us! Do you think I'm too FUCKING stupid to figure that out on my own? That I couldn't see it day in and day out how he treated all of us??? Really?! I can't believe this is the BULLSHIT you are teaching in this class! This is the biggest bunch of shit I've ever heard. You aren't doing what's in the child's best interests. You're enabling the bad behavior and telling the GOOD parents to keep quiet!!!!" I practically screamed with fury. I was beyond upset that children were being mistreated and apparently no one was supposed to say "Yes, your mommy (or daddy) shouldn't be doing that." Or at the very LEAST "Cheating and drugs are big no no's. We don't do that." For goodness sakes... this was partly what was wrong with the world. Yes, maybe my approach hadn't been the best and I shouldn't have cursed but the intent was good... and needed on some level. Today, anything and everything was okay and we were just supposed to turn our heads. For goodness sake, someone stand up and do the right thing. For just once.
"Ma'am, you are going to have to lower your voice or I'm going to ask you to leave!" She admonished me glancing nervously over at her comrade of injustice who had her hand on her phone. I was about to be escorted out by the police officers downstairs. It was a "no tolerance" classroom. I was vaguely remembering now why I'd hated school. What a load of crap. I was done. I closed my booklet, crossed my arms and glowered at her the rest of the sessions. I had no tolerance for their bs. I had to return a certificate of completion to the court showing I'd finished. But I was outraged. They could take all their "teachings" and cram them where the sun don't shine. I would never forget that day, that misguided witch(!) nor the now very worried face of that father sitting at the next table.
There is nothing wrong with telling our children some behaviors are not acceptable. If our ex (man or woman) is having one night stands in the presence of our children, if our ex is drinking every night and not adequately watching our little ones, if our ex is choosing irresponsible behaviors like leaving young kids home alone, in the care of negligent partners, babysitters, etc.... or worse choices than those... we have every right to tell our children:
"That behavior is not okay", "That behavior is unacceptable,"
and "God doesn't condone those choices."
If we don't, who will? We are not under any obligation to paint our ex's behavior as pretty when it's anything but. We are under no obligation to sweep ugliness under the rug and pretend it didn't happen. We are under zero obligation to act like their other parent is doing a wonderful job when they are a detriment.
Obviously we can't say "Your father is a real piece of slime" when we hear via them how Daddy had another lady in his bedroom last night. But we can say "You know, God really doesn't condone men and women sleeping together that aren't married. That's called sin."
We can also ask our child "So how does it make you feel when Daddy does that?" More than likely it makes the child upset, sad, etc that their parent is already with someone new when they are still struggling with the very real aftermath of a painful split of his or her parents... children aren't stupid but exceptionally bright and it adds insult to injury for a child to know that a mom or dad's prime focus is his or her sexual satisfaction and emotional happiness when they are still trying to come to grips with their family being torn apart. It is a mark of selfishness that doesn't escape a child's acute observations.
It's not your job to clean up your ex's mess. It's not your job to throw a pair of rose colored glasses on your child to wear 24/7. No, it's perfectly fine to tell it like it is without bashing their parent. In fact, it's vital. Otherwise we run the long-term risk of our child believing all this bad behavior is okay... the abuse, the lying, the cheating, the shady behavior, the inappropriate choices, the drinking, the drugs, whatever it may be... we have to state what is okay and what's not... otherwise we run the very real risk of our children believing they too can behave the same way... after all, their mom or dad does it... and shockingly seems to get away with it... so why shouldn't they? We do our children a huge disservice when we don't speak up. And although I wouldn't recommend yelling it in a co-parenting class I can say do speak up... speak up regarding the injustice, speak up regarding the court system... speak up and write the truth. Write letters stating how co-parenting classes need to be overhauled; that we also need informed teachers teaching classes on how to counter bad parenting, lacking morals and overturning brainwashing and the "Disneyland effect"... keep speaking up... don't be afraid. Because when we let fear take over we lose the war on what's truly in our children's best interests.