I love going out to eat with my family on a holiday or a celebration day. Dinner out of our house was kind of a staple growing up as it was easier for my parents to take one child out than a whole slew of them, and they enjoyed going to restaurants they frequented, and new ones they found along the way. My parents waited ten years after I was born to have my sister, by design. Taking one child out to dinner, and then two ten years between, made it something that they could do, quite frequently, and with some ease (I say some dad, I know we have stories but I’m not sharing those right now).
My husband’s family didn’t really go out to eat that much growing up he tells me. And, in the nearly twenty years we’ve been together, we’ve had many conversations about how “it’s not all about the food” and “yes it is.” It’s what we bond over, and sometimes how. If our kitchen table could talk, it would tell stories upon stories of gut-wrenching laughter, and gut-wrenching pain, and everything in the middle. The kitchen table is where it always happens. So why wouldn’t we go out to eat for dinner on Mother’s Day?
This year, we each spent the day with our own married with children families and then came together in the evening. I loved it. It was the perfect combination of a day spent with my husband and children, partaking in our own traditions as well as enjoying time with my own mother. Plus, we got to eat out in the “big city” and that was a bonus for us all since we tend to stay in one of two zip codes most of the time.
I don’t know what it was about that dinner that made me so happy to be there. It’s not like my kids acted any less crazy at the restaurant or even in the car on the way there for that matter. I think it was one of those things that I saw in my mind years before it’d ever happened and being there taking part in it was just fitting and wonderful. My parents, sitting there with their kids and their grandkids, my sister with her husband and my nephew, my family being there. There was such a sense of togetherness from the moment we’d all sat down and it was complete. The dinner table felt full.
We’ve had many hard conversations at dinner tables. And to our family, it doesn’t really matter whether the conversation is at one of our dinner tables or a public restaurants’ dinner table or even someone else’s houses’ dinner table. Grab a table, some chairs, some food, and it’s a dinner table no matter where we’re at. I find it so annoying when we’re out at a restaurant and the table next to us or across the room is being so loud, laughing and talking fervently, until it’s us. There’s no shortage of topics to talk about, and talking about difficult topics is not new to us. Like most families, we’ve had some unexpected life events, and difficult times together. We’ve also had some seriously hilarious, hysterically crying fun times too. Sometimes it can get tricky for the spouses who have learned how and when to jump in, but for the most part, they get it right and I think conversationally keeping up with my family when we’re really being authentic, is pretty daring.
One of the topics that has come up more frequently in the past few years has been surrounding a sexual molestation in our family, and the stand we’ve taken. And we haven’t always taken the same stand. Those of you reading this who have experienced sexual abuse or trauma can understand easily that sometimes the stand you want to take isn’t supported. Sometimes you stand alone.
Most of the time victims of sexual abuse or trauma within a family aren’t just traumatized by the event or events that have occurred, but the even deeper detachment of family and friends who are unsupportive, more forgiving of the perpetrator, less serious, or don’t want to deal. It happens often, and in this way quite simply, quietly and the legacy of family secrecy and then hereditary and serial victimization becomes what it is. It’s clearly not that simple, that’s merely an outline, but there’s a general sense.
At age fifteen I became a victim. Since age fifteen I’ve stood alone waiting and wanting for the rest of my family to come aboard my island. I would’ve let anyone on for the mere desperation to not have felt alone and scared and like I was doing something wrong or bad. Sometimes they paddled next to me and we’d hold hands across our boats, then wave goodbye as I paddled forth to my island and they paddled back home to theirs. Sometimes they’d even come up on the island to check things out, poke around, see what it’s like. I’ve even had a couple of family members and close, close friends come aboard to tell me my island sucked and it’s not even real and it doesn’t matter. But no one ever stayed, except my husband. Who never even considered there was anywhere else to go.
Living with the experience of molestation has been painful, but not nearly as painful as being alone in my stand of what is right and what is wrong. For nearly twenty years, holidays and family gatherings have required pressure to attend even though my betrayer was there. Conversations every single Christmas season, multiple conversations, about whether or not I was showing up for Christmas at grandma’s, and then if I’d be bringing the kids. Lines were very blurred and it was clear that if I was going to be making a scene, it’d be my scene. It’s interesting what family systems do with a trauma when it comes to another family member’s involvement. There’s an invisible, but very heavily weighted line that’s drawn as if to say you’re either with me or against me. And to be fair, I often played on both sides of that line.
One Christmas I’d be angry and oppositional, but that was after Christmases of being too scared, too nervous, and too concerned about hurting other people’s feelings, or even embarrassing him, to tell my parents I didn’t want to go. There were other Christmases where I’d feel forgiving, some when I’d just feel numb. Some years I’d pretend he wasn’t even in the room, and other years I’d make eye contact, and even wish him a “Merry Christmas.” I continued to see my uncle at Christmas for at least ten to 12 years after he molested me. I didn’t know where I was supposed to stand, but what I did know was that I wasn’t supposed to be standing there by myself.
Things happen, experiences occur in families that cause rifts and resentments all of the time. Many times these experiences come down to betrayal. Something happened that wasn’t in the expectation or description of who we think others are or should behave, or what we think others are actually capable of. This was the betrayal I felt. But as years passed, and parties happened that I was expected to be at, and no one else was saying ‘no,’ I slowly distanced myself away from my extended family, and even my parents and my sister. Resentment grew with every conversation about an aunt or uncle that had to do with my mom’s side of the family. In nearly every conversation I could find a way to trace it back to a divide. You’re either with me or against me. So I bowed out, and became quietly angry, the worst kind.
Then I started to resent my own anger. I hate hating, having hardened feelings toward people. I hate conflict. In our house with my children, we rarely even use that word, hate. But living in this anger every day was, I’m quite certain, killing me. And I don’t think I hid it well at all. As a therapist I know the importance of verbally and mentally, and emotionally processing. I process with people all of the time, and I don’t think I ever stopped processing my experience and my shame. But, I did learn how my anger was part of my story just as my experience was, and just as my family members were. I learned, and re-learned, and then learned again (because I don’t think we ever really stop) that being molested wasn’t the title of my book, my life. It didn’t need to be. It did need to be a chapter, maybe more than one, because it happened and we can’t undo life. But the point is, it wasn’t my shame that I was carrying. I learned to re-write my story to honor myself and release the shame I was holding on to for my uncle. It wasn’t my shame. It was his shame. And I had nothing to be shameful of.
There is experience, then there is acceptance, and finally forgiveness, but sometimes these things happen in bits and pieces. Eventually we hope that they do all come together.
There’s been a recent shake up of family allegiance and alliance. Recent family news indicates that after a couple years of my uncle being out of the picture (I’d go on but this part’s really not my story to tell), some of my mom’s family members are having a difficult time staying in the arena taking a stand against him. I am okay with that. It’s not their story to defend me. I am not their daughter, nor their sister. I’m not his wife, nor his child. What happened to me is not their story and they don’t own my pain, or my strength. It is a story that exists within our family, and that cannot be denied. But it is not their story and forgiveness comes in many ways.
Often times, when we’re faced with making a decision, taking a stand, we do so, but not always for the right reasons. We forget about the why part, and go along letting others’ emotions lead our way. This happens in multiple areas of our lives and throughout our lives. It is okay, but we cannot last like that. Our values, our family ties don’t belong to or in just one person. In family systems, we need the freedom to be able to take a step back and ask ourselves that question: Why? Why am I fighting? What am I fighting for? Sometimes this leads you to support others and be supported, and sometimes it does not.
No one could’ve fought for me. I needed to and have done that by myself and for myself for years. Those who stood with me, aside from my husband, didn’t really know their why or their what, and so even my close, close family wavered. I understand. I was so, so lonely on my island, and so sad, so hurt for so long. But I do understand. They needed to figure out their own why.
This mother’s day, my sister, her husband, my mom, and my dad told stopped wavering. They figured out their why, their what, and even their how. At the dinner table they presented me with a moment on mother’s day that I will never forget. My sister, holding my nephew, looked at me and said something that reversed years of devastation. “We all stand together. All of us.”
Then, they grabbed their paddles and their belongings, boarded their boats and paddled out to my island. They docked, came ashore, and even told me to move over and make more space for them. And they’re still here.
My home is full.