Part 2 Misconceptions: The Picket Fence Life
Matthew 19:14 “Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Matthew 22:37-39 “Jesus replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
When I found myself interviewing for a job at one of the schools that just so happened to house so many of “my” babies, I was asked why I thought I could work with kids who came from diverse backgrounds. My answer was that I felt more comfortable working with kids who came from broken families with trauma in their backgrounds because I found it hard to identify with “picket fence kids”. I don’t know what it is like to have 2 parent family problems. I have very few memories of my parents being in the same house and those memories are mostly plagued with coldness or fighting.
One of the questions I get asked a lot when people find out what I do for a living is “Where are the parents of these kids?” This question has become one that annoys my whole entire soul. This question irritates me because the underlying statement is that the kid who is acting out is defective because the parents have not been vigilant or involved or capable. In some cases, that is true. As with any other case though, every set of circumstances is different, and every child reacts to change and life events differently. This question also suggests that children that have two parents in the home don’t get into trouble or have struggles of their own. I believe this question adds not only to the struggle of the child, but to the struggles of their parents. Parents become stressed out and tired over everyday life. It happens all the time, no matter what our situation looks like. Life happens. Life happens to everyone. Life happens and its events affect all of us, not just our kids. Life can be cruel, and you don’t have to get very far into it to be able to understand how bad life can beat you up. We all have things that shake our sense of normalcy, our sense of self, and our sense of direction.
I operated under this misconception for a long time. I believed that somewhere out there was a picket fence life that I had not been given because my parents were incapable of expressing love. I believed that I had been robbed of something that most other people had and I allowed that belief to steal my joy for a large portion of my life. What I came to realize is that there is no such thing as a picket fence life. Even kids who grew up having enough money, both parents, and a support system of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends still had things they struggled with. They all, at one time or another, struggled with feeling like their life made no sense. I have mentioned before that I think the best question I ever learned to ask is “Why?” When kids are sent to me in ISS (In School Suspension) I talk to them about the occurrences that brought them to me. Most of the time when I get to “Why do you think you reacted that way?” they look at me like I just asked them to explain physics to me. “I don’t know.” Is the most common answer I get.
My kids aren’t lying…they truly do not know. In my own personal situations, I look back on some of the mistakes that I have made and when I ask myself why I acted a certain way, or I said something to someone, my answer is often the same. “I don’t know.” Until I look deeper at what is under the “I don’t know” I truly have no idea what causes me to react to people in some ways. What I have been finding out is that when I investigate my not knowing, it becomes a “knowing” that I have a pain I don’t want to see. Sometimes, it is fear. Sometimes, it is embarrassment. Sometimes, I don’t have the answer yet, but I have a feeling it is because I felt undervalued or unloved. My students are no different than I am, and neither are their parents.
Let me give you an example. I relayed in an earlier post that bulimia and anorexia had become a problem for me after I was sexually abused in high school. The only time I didn’t struggle with those eating disorders throughout my adult life was when I was pregnant with my kids. For some reason, being pregnant gave me a reason to not care about punishing other people with my refusal to eat. I didn’t know that was what I was doing…punishing other people by not eating. It just always seemed to bother people when they asked if I wanted food and I said no. It gave me control over my world in a way that made sense to me.
If you know me personally you already know that my favorite food is steak. I can be in the middle of a week of refusing not to eat and if someone brings me a steak, I will eat it. (Alligator quiche has been added as a second favorite since then, but people don’t usually bring me that because I get this question, “Is that REALLY a thing?” It is a for real thing, and it is amazing. Try it! If you hate it then send me a message and I will come pick it up and eat it for you. I am willing to sacrifice my time to take it off your hands for you.) I never bothered to think about the reason why I love steak. It just is. I was reading the book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend when I ran right into the story of a man who wouldn’t go out to eat at restaurants and couldn’t tell anyone why he didn’t like them. Through some digging (and asking “Why?”) he finds that he can’t go to restaurants because his mother had locked him in a closet when she and her boyfriend would go out to eat. They told him if he was worth something, they would have taken him along too. He carried that thought, that idea with him into his adult life along with his feeling of not being “good enough” to go out to eat at a restaurant. This hit home for me.
My mom has never been a good cook. Food has always been a necessity, not something people took time to enjoy eating or creating. The only times I remember her cooking anything that made anyone happy was when she made spaghetti for my Dad or when she cooked dinners for her boyfriends years later. We ate a lot of Hamburger Helper when I was growing up. I wanted to throat punch the people that invented it we had it so often. Then they went and added Chicken Helper and Tuna Helper and I couldn’t have been more disgusted. I don’t like spaghetti either. Steak is different. I inherited my lack of cooking skills from my mom and my aversion to food never required me to learn. I could just blame my not eating on my lack of cooking skills. It wasn’t until I started looking at the reasons why I have a hard time eating did I realize the significance of steak in my life. I will always eat that.
Mom would cook steak dinners for her boyfriends, or her boyfriends would cook them at our house. The steak would be accompanied by big salads with lots of different ingredients and a baked potato and usually another sort of side. I never paid much attention to the side. These steak dinners were always for two. They were big enough that there was always leftovers, but Mom wouldn’t let us have the leftovers. We had our box of Hamburger Helper, a vegetable and then usually buttered bread if we had butter and/or bread. Just bread not biscuits. Always, corn, green beans or some mixed vegetable. They didn’t eat with us, but the dishes were our job. They would bring their plates into the kitchen and set them on the counter, along with the bowls that still had half a salad in them. I remember asking Mom several times when I was doing dishes if I could have the rest of her food. She always said, “No, just throw it away. I don’t want to hear you guys fighting over it.”
I get the sentiment because my own kids will eat dinner with me, have the exact same thing I have and will hover around me waiting for me to put my plate down so they can eat whatever I don’t. They’ve usually had 3 or 4 plates of their own before I am finished and because kids are human vacuum cleaners, they just inhale my subpar attempts at making dinner. I think they inhale it so they don’t have to taste my actual cooking.
I remember being angry at her one night while I was washing all of the pans from her meal with a boyfriend when she came in with their plates and salad bowls. I was on the verge of tears and she didn’t notice. When she left the room, I heard them laughing at something on TV in her room, which was the only room that had cable. I had recently discovered MTV at my grandma’s house and I loved to watch the videos that went along with the songs. But Mom only had cable installed in her room and never really explained why. I looked at her plate, her steak was only three quarters of the way eaten and she still had a few bites of salad in her bowl. I remember hurrying to cut the steak without making any noise. It was cold and not very well seasoned, but I ate what was left of both her steak and Weirdo of the Moment. I scooped out the few bites of salad left in the bowl too before I washed up the rest of her dishes. I did this every time she had these kinds of dinners after that. It was always cold, and it wasn’t that great but the smell would drive me crazy. It smelled so much better than the Hamburger, Chicken, or Tuna Helper I had come to hate.
After I finished the dishes, I would go downstairs to my room in the basement. I always got a stomachache after I finished off Mom’s dinners. Not because I was super full; sometimes there was nothing but a bite left. Just because I felt like a dog eating out of the trash. She’d rather throw that food away then let us have any of it. I felt like I was stealing from her and it made me feel a little bit better. Except, it made my stomach hurt. I always thought it was the food but now I realize my stomach hurt because I felt like my mom would rather throw away something good than give it to one of her kids. I wasn’t old enough or involved in my own feelings enough to realize that that thought was what made my stomach hurt, not her cooking or the food that was pretty foreign to me. When Mom was single there was always a kind of ice cream in the freezer that we weren’t allowed to touch. I became an artist at scooping out bites that stayed along the ridges from her last helping so that she wouldn’t notice that I had taken any. Food was a war between Mom and I. Only I don’t think Mom ever noticed we were fighting. One day I took a sip of something I thought was water out of our freezer. I thought it was just part of the “Mom has something I’m not allowed to have because we aren’t good enough to eat it” collection. It turned out to be vodka. It was disgusting. It burned my throat and I felt like the inside of my nose was on fire after I coughed and sputtered trying to get around the taste. I don’t know if my mom was drinking it or it was the boyfriends, but I never touched anything liquid in the freezer again. I kept eating the leftover steak and getting stomachaches until I left home.
I’m not saying that my Mom didn’t deserve to have some kind of nice dinner. Parents work hard to pay bills and take care of kids and sometimes they need to spoil themselves. I don’t know if my mom knew how I felt, and I have a feeling it wouldn’t have mattered to her if she knew or not. Mom didn’t really see us anymore during that time…it was almost as if we were transparent, like holograms. There, but not really people. We just didn’t matter.
This may not be a memory that does much for you. But, when I examined why steak was my favorite, and I realized eating steak is a way of showing my mother (who is not even watching) that I AM good enough to eat it. It is a way of still fighting with her that I lose at.
You may not have any experiences like mine, but I can almost guarantee you that you have something in your past that you do that you can’t explain. You have something that you do that you don’t know why you do it, and it is hiding an insecurity that you have.
What does this have to do with a picket fence life? I think what God showed me about this incident is that there are things that affect us that we don’t look at. We get used to being how we are. We get used to how we talk to others and we get used to being a certain way. We act like that is “just who we are” because of the circumstances we have had to face, when in reality we all have little things we do that are odd or strange to others and we can offer no excuse as to why we do them. We don’t know because we do not want to know. We do not want to look at those situations. I never liked looking back at those times because I felt worthless. I felt disgusting…eating things that people were supposed to throw away. We don’t look at the ways that we feel unloved because it hurts. So, we ignore it and pretend that we are fine. We are not fine. Those little things that we don’t pay attention to are things that can hold big answers to our healing, if we can get past the pain of them long enough to examine our motives.
Picket fence lives don’t exist. They don’t exist because we can’t see the ways we don’t love ourselves. We don’t look. We ignore them and stuff them down on the inside of us due to whatever lie the devil gets us to believe. “I’m not good enough to have a cooked just for me steak.” “I’m not worth enough to anyone if I’m not a part of my dysfunctional family.” “I’m not smart enough in school to have anyone there that cares about me.” “I’m not important enough to notice.” If picket fence lives existed, then kids who grew up in two parent households would never get in trouble and the only kids that ever did anything wrong would be the kids who had neglectful, abusive, or emotionally detached parents. That is not the case. People from everywhere are hurt and I truly believe that we can’t love other people because we don’t know how to love ourselves. It is not our intention to pass that insecurity on, but we do. If we are one of the people that seems to have navigated the childhood, teenage, and adult years without any perceivable holes in our psyche, we can rest assured that LIFE will happen and will bring us some sort of trauma eventually.
What about the parents who stay together and love each other and then all the sudden one of their parents dies and they have no idea how to handle the sadness and pain that comes with it? What if a drunk driver hits a car that is driven by a mother that was always loving and there for her kids and treated their father with kindness and respect and she dies? What if the family loses everything in an economy crash or a housing crisis and has to start over? Why are these parents getting lumped in with the same results as parents who don’t seem to care whether or not their kids are being taken care of, or worse who hurt their kids on purpose because they are too selfish or overtaken with evil to be any good to anyone?
Healing and forgiveness are important, but we can only do that when we recognize the misconceptions that are blocking our paths. Trauma, whether it is the lack of something good or an event of something that never should have happened, is always accompanied with a fear and a lie. Sometimes, we don’t even know that we are believing a lie. I believed my mother wouldn’t cook me a steak dinner because I wasn’t worth a steak dinner. I don’t know her reasons, but my conclusion was just as inaccurate as anything she could have given me as an explanation.
We all have things that make us feel inadequate and make us feel like we aren’t good enough to participate in the joy that life has to offer us. God never intended for us to be hurt and sad and alone. We did that. We do that to our kids, and we do that to people we love because WE are broken, not because they are. Hurt people hurt people and that hurt isn’t something we can run from, but boy do we try. Running away from pain is something this society has learned very well, and yet when we hear of someone else who is doing the exact same thing, our first response is to judge and ask questions like “Where are the parents of these kids?” Maybe, just maybe if we started asking, “What am I doing that causes MY kids to have issues of inadequacy?” instead of listing all the things that someone in the news, or someone at our schools did wrong, we would be able to find more answers.
Sometimes, it isn’t not asking a question that leads us to the wrong answers. It is not finding the right answers to the right questions. If we spent more time learning to love ourselves instead of running away from our pain, we’d learn that “The parents of these kids” are just like you and I. They may not make the same choices, but then again you don’t make the same choices that I do. God never wanted all of us to be carbon copies of each other. He wanted us to be individuals in him…each with our own skill set and ways to contribute to society. He told us not to judge each other for a reason. Only he can see what is in our hearts. When he commanded us to “love our neighbor as ourselves” he was telling us that it is impossible for us to love other people very well if we don’t love ourselves first. That means healing and realizing that we are no better than anyone else that he created. The only job he gives us in that regard is to keep progressing in him. We are to love him first so that he can show us how to love ourselves and then we can give love to others more freely. We hold onto our pain and settle for scraps and teach our kids that they deserve scraps as well. Then we sit around and lament and complain over the way someone else’s life is going. We sit around and keep asking “Why didn’t I deserve to have a picket fence life?” when maybe what we should have been asking is “Does a picket fence life even exist?”