Gaslighting

Tim and I have been married for 15 years this month, together 18 as of February of this year. In that time, we’ve been through some big stressors, from his contentious custody battle with his ex-wife to my daughter’s surgeries and the educational skirmishes resulting from her disability. My admiration for his strength and commitment is well documented, and while we have had our differences, I consider our relationship to be the most important, enriching and supportive relationship of my life.

While Tim has lived through and grown from our life’s adversity, and our relationship has grown stronger, there is a family relationship that has caused real damage. Normally, I wouldn’t air these grievances publicly, but something happened today that made me realize what a hole this has caused for me. I suspect other people might have experienced something like this too, so I’m going to lay it out here for an examination.

I have a friend whose son has just gone through major surgery. Her writing about her experience parenting a child with serious medical needs strikes such an emotional chord with me I have wept copiously at each one of her articles. Hearing someone else articulate the pain and uncertainty and terror of parenting on the edge like this has cracked me open, and I see that time in my life — the time when my daughter was having surgery every couple of months, when she was caught in a fracture cycle that never seemed to end — with new eyes, or perhaps eyes that are just not as overwhelmed. Seeing someone else have a similar experience and express similar feelings confirms for me the powerful emotional toll exacted by this experience.

I suppose it’s similar to how it feels when I talk to another former Catholic-school kid, or when my daughter meets another person with the same disorder she has; comparing experiences and finding that someone else has been through something just like what you went through suddenly makes you feel less alone.

And so I am suddenly, retroactively, feeling less alone.

But I didn’t know just how alone I felt until … well, until today.

Compounding the isolation was the relationship I alluded to earlier, the relationship between my in-laws and Tim and me.

There’s a fair amount of water under the bridge that I will not be detailing here, and I am asking for your trust on the severity of those details. That’s your choice. This is treacherous ground to walk, and I take care with each step. But it’s enough to tell you that from the beginning of my relationship with Tim, my in-laws have viewed my presence in their life with a jaundiced eye. They communicated clearly and frequently their disdain for me concerning everything from my parenting, to our financial choices, to my exercise and dietary habits, to the problems we experienced with the schools, to the severity of my daughter’s disability. This is a limited list.

The criticism I received from them about my life was intrusive, unsolicited, harsh and unwelcome. It continued unabated for about ten years, and it was my normal. We maintained contact with them because I was convinced my children needed grandparents, and the absence of a tolerable relationship with my own father left Tim’s parents as the only option. That contact reinforced their belief that they had a right to say whatever they liked to me.

Today, reading the words of someone who articulates so well that feeling of isolation, of the otherness inherent in parenting a child with medical needs, it hit me that I had actually absorbed all those years of criticism from Tim’s parents. I believed, despite the fact that I was living the experience and they were only seeing it, that it couldn’t be THAT bad, that I was exaggerating, that I was inflating the danger or fear or difficulty for some purpose–probably pity. I tried to show them the truth, tried to make them see, but I was never effective. I never swayed them.

I remember one battle in particular, one moment in my daughter’s life when their disbelief is in clear focus in my memory. It isn’t the worst example, just the one I can remember the best. This happened before Tim and I were married, but well into our relationship. I was trying to find some kind of child care arrangement for my daughter while I worked. Up until this time, I had been using “respite” care, funded partly through the state, in the form of an at-home caregiver. But the person we were employing was a college student, and her schedule was changing, and she couldn’t watch my kids any more. I was scrambling.

I called upwards of a dozen different agencies from Easter Seals to Head Start, nursing agencies and in-home daycares and regular daycare centers. We called churches and put up want ads on grocery store bulletin boards. Nobody would even consider taking my daughter, because of the risk they would incur. The fact that my daughter has a disorder that causes her bones to break made everyone afraid that I would sue them if she broke a bone under their care.

The end result was that no one was willing to watch my daughter while I worked.

According to Tim’s parents, this couldn’t possibly be the truth. I was making up the story that I couldn’t find child care –for what reason, I was never clear. But what I was telling them was just not possible, in their view. Simply not possible. And my efforts to find a solution were dismissed as well; I must not have tried hard enough. I was, essentially, lazy.

This was the central message from Tim’s parents over our 18 years together. “Whatever you say the problem is, I know it can’t possibly be that bad, and you’re just not trying hard enough to make it better.” It applied to pretty much everything, from childcare to Tim’s court battles to medical decisions. Somehow, without any experience in any of these fields, they knew better than we did. And, by golly, they were going to tell us how wrong we were.

And again, I know that in-laws can be nasty, and that this was just one opinion (shared by two people). But today, when I realized how isolated I was as a parent of a medically fragile child, I saw how this messaging — from family members, who are purportedly there for you “no matter what” — left me feeling like I couldn’t correctly identify reality. I doubted myself and my decisions so badly that I was in knots most of the time. flame

So today, from the distance that time affords, I can see these pieces and how they fit together. I see the contentious relationship that already existed between Tim and his parents, and how the addition of my kids and me to that situation created for them a proxy for their anger. I see how much I wanted a supportive family, so much that I was willing to let things go unchallenged just to keep some semblance of order. I see how the high-stakes parenting we  were engaged in caused emotional fractures we couldn’t see, and we didn’t know how to take care of ourselves and each other. These were mistakes we didn’t know how to avoid. These were mistakes for which there is no repair.

But today, my perception shifted a little bit again, and I can see even more clearly how and why I struggled with my difficult reality, and somehow that knowledge gives me peace. Knowing empirically that I was involved in a demanding task, and that I was wearing glasses that distorted my vision, well, that helps.

I have already incorporated into my life some of the lessons I learned from the warped relationship with my in-laws. Therapists have helped me reshape my understanding of parent/child relationships, and I know now how to avoid repeating the problems with my in-laws. I’ve committed to being a welcoming, warm, respectful mother-in-law to whomever my children choose to have in their lives. I know it will take effort, but relationships often do, and I’m willing to make that effort to maintain healthy relationships with my children.

And I’ve learned that, in spite of the great perception that “family is everything”, the most important thing is the family you make for yourself. You might be lucky enough to have that kind of support system built in, but those of us who don’t have to learn how to form different kinds of bonds. There is no requirement to go through life — which is already difficult –hobbled by judgmental and disapproving voices. In the last few years, I’ve been lucky to have found people who help me see myself more clearly, who affirm the truth instead of making me doubt myself.

I’m grateful for people like my writer friend, who has a gift for holding life’s moments up to the light and taking a good hard look at them, who make me feel less alone.

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