Little Soldiers’ Little Shoulders

This article was re-uploaded in 2018. It is part of the archive restoration project

One of the most important articles I read this year was “When Shame Feels Mothering: The Tragedy of Parentified Daughters.” In it, the author explains how role-switching works with girls who have needy mothers. If a mother needs an emotional outlet, she turns to her daughter for support. The daughter, because she hasn’t learned any different, fills the role of comforter and pillar of stability, and she learns that “Mommy can fall apart, as long as I don’t fall apart.”

The child learns to suppress emotion and feign strength and stoicism. It’s the best way to survive, because keeping the parent stable is required to feel safe.

I want to make it clear that this happens with many dynamics, to people of all genders. Daughters learn to hold their fathers together, sons learn to hold their mothers together. It’s not just mothers and daughters, which is the only problem I had with the article.

I think about that article whenever I hear the other extreme: “Boys learn never to cry, because men refuse to cry in front of their sons. It’s one way that patriarchy hurts men.”

My parents did cry in front of me, but I learned never to cry. I sometimes wish they hadn’t cried in front of me. I have friends, though, whose parents never cried in front of them, and they also learned to suppress emotion. They wish their parents had cried.

I was eleven the first time I remember it happening. My sister Alicia had chosen to stop counseling sessions with my parents and Kevin Swanson. I walked past the door of my father’s office, and he had his head in his hands. His eyes were red, and he invited me to sit down across from him at his desk. He cried and said he was trying everything to deal with my sister’s rebellion, and she wasn’t being obedient at all.

I let him cry on my shoulder, and bit back my tears, and soldiered on.

I learned that crying wasn’t okay, because when my parents cried, it meant that nothing was okay. They were falling apart. My parents always cried with the words, “I might as well kill myself,” or “I have failed as a mother/father.” I knew that crying wasn’t okay because I couldn’t cry without expecting punishment for it, and, when I was older, having my feelings minimized and dismissed.

Meanwhile, the other half of my binary star was watching her parents hold back their emotions. The demonstration was different, but the effect was the same: we learned that our own feelings didn’t matter, and it was better not to express them at all.

So should parents demonstrate emotion to their children?

Yes. But.

I wish I could say something simple like “Children are people and people are children,” to answer this question. It helps to realize that children feel things very deeply, and they have complex perspectives. One of the most destructive things I hear about kids is “they’ll forget,” or “they don’t notice,” or “they’re resilient.”

We know scientifically that it’s not true. Children are more observant and sensitive than calloused adults in many ways. If children forget, it’s probably because they were traumatized, or they don’t trust the people who are asking. Lady Gaga put it this way:

“Clinical psychology tells us arguably that trauma is the ultimate killer. Memories are not recycled like atoms and particles in quantum physics – they can be lost forever. It’s sort of like my past is an unfinished painting, and as the artist of that painting, I must fill in all the ugly holes and make it beautiful again.”

But I can’t just say “treat children like people,” because adult-to-adult relationships are rife with improper emotional expression. It may be particularly cruel to make a child blame himself for the instability of a parent, but the same thing happens in marriages, professional interactions, and just about every other adult relationship in existence.

Let’s treat children like people, absolutely. And while we’re at it, let’s also figure out how to treat people. Here are some things I try to do, but this list is definitely incomplete – feel free to add in the comments.

1.    Don’t make your emotions another person’s fault.

2.    Cry when you need to – don’t suppress your emotions.

3.    Understand your level of involvement with a person who’s feeling grief.

4.    Give yourself the space to be alone, or surround yourself with people you can vent to.

5.    Don’t look to other people for stability. Nobody can give you that, except yourself.

Emotional abuse isn’t confusing because parents do or don’t cry. Emotional abuse is what it is because the abusers are looking for someone else to provide stability. Abusers do not always know what they’re doing, which is why I can see people who are abusive as complex individuals, while simultaneously calling out their abuse.