May 26, 2013
The Mother Who Hated the Sound of Her Children's Laughter
I never read Lord of the Flies when I was a kid. I didn't need to read a book about how when there's no adult supervision children would give into their most primitive and brutal instincts.........I'd lived it. I knew exactly what children would do to one another when there were no limits and knew there'd be no consequences for their actions toward one other.
The dictionary could use a photo of my family as an illustration of "dysfunctional." On paper, it seemed normal enough for the time, a traditional nuclear family: father, mother, three children and a dog. The father the breadwinner; the mother the homemaker. I was the youngest and also the only daughter. My two brothers were six and four years older than me. I've heard of other dysfunctional families where the abuse/neglect by the parents would cause the children to bond close together, protecting one another. But that didn't happen in my family.
I grew up in a house filled with anger. Affection was not expressed (actual affection was non-existent or close to it), but anger was expressed fully and very loudly and often. My parents fought with one another. The parents and children fought. We children fought with one another. The house would ring with the sounds of our shouts of anger. Fighting was the most common form of interaction in that house. Now my parents had limits....they never fought physically with one another and though we children were spanked, we were never beaten. And my parents had limits for what we kids could do to them: verbally arguing, smart mouthing and insulting them was allowed though could be punished. But my parents had put no limits on our behavior when it came to what we kids could do to one another. Not once was one of us ever told we had gone too far. And, having no limits, my brothers wouldn't hesitate to resort to physical violence. I was the youngest by years; I was also female while my siblings were male. So to say I was at a disadvantage when my brothers got violent with me was an understatement, especially when they teamed up. Since I was a normal enough little girl, when I was being hurt and my mother was nearby, I would do what any little girl would do, I would scream for my mother. And my mother would do............nothing. She would continue on with her housecleaning.
It's not that my screams of pain and pleas for help from my mother would go unheard ---- they just went unheeded. The violence could happen in the same room as my mother and she wouldn't so much as look up from her housekeeping, wouldn't so much as tell my brother to stop. Once, after my eldest brother had grabbed me and knocked me down the stairs, then dragged me through the hall kicking me, I went to my mother, tears streaming down my face. The attack had started at the top of the stairs, only two feet from my mother as she she stood there washing the dishes. I had been begging for her help the entire time, but she never even looked up from the dishes. She still didn't look up from the dishes as I tearfully asked her, "Why didn't you do anything?" Her reply as she continued washing dishes was, "I thought you were just playing."
So the sounds of shouts, screams, cries of pain, even pleas for help before I grew to realize that there would never be any help from my mother were routine sounds in that house.
But they weren't the only sounds.............
Occasionally, my brother(s) and I would play together amicably. Usually it was outside, out of my mother's earshot as she would be inside cleaning. But rarely we would be inside where my mother could hear us. We would be playing happily together, laughing with one another when my mother would suddenly burst into the room and yell at us to "Stop fighting!!" Then just as abruptly she would turn and leave. We would look at each other and shake our heads at the stupidity of our mother. At the time I thought my mother must have been one of the stupidest people on the face of the Earth. How could she not be able to tell the difference between laughing and fighting?
As an adult, I realized that of course my mother could distinguish between laughing and fighting. The ability to recognize basic emotions in other humans is instinctive behavior, encoded in our DNA. I came to realize that it wasn't that my mother thought we were fighting.........the woman patently did not care when were fighting.........my mother stopped us because she couldn't stand the sound of her children having fun. The sound of our laughter grated on her nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard. She hated it, and it had to be stopped. So this woman who wouldn't stop cleaning for anything would stop cleaning, storm into the room and tell us to "stop fighting" in order to stop the sounds of our laughter.
The sound of us fighting, the shouts of anger, the screams of pain, the cries for help.............to my mother that was all so much background noise to be ignored as you'd ignore the sound of the refrigerator motor. But laughter, her children's laughter, that was hateful to her ears. It was the one sound that would cut through her obsession with cleaning, the one sound that could get her to do something. It couldn't be tolerated. Her children's laughter was an abomination to her, worse than the buzzing of a thousand giant mosquitoes armed with dentist drills, and it had to be stopped. And it was stopped.........
When I was around 13, I was worried by what had become almost constant fighting between my parents. So I went up to my mother and spoke of my concern. As usual, my mother was washing the dishes. Dish washing was a household chore she spent hours on every day as she scrubbed and rinsed the dishes over and over. My mother didn't stop washing as I spoke to her, but she did look up from the dishes long enough to stare directly at me with a hateful expression on her face. In a voice filled with venom and spite she spat at me, "Daddy and I are thinking about getting a divorce, and it's all because of you." Then she looked back down at the dishes and calmly continued washing them. I was devastated. Imagine being a child and being told by your mother that your parents' divorce was all your fault? That is exactly what a parent is not supposed to do in a divorce.
As an adult, I understand that my parents should have divorced. Their marriage had been a disaster. But my reaction at that moment was fear and overwhelming guilt and horror. I believed what my mother said to me; though reflecting on it through the years, I think it's possible my mother made up the story of the divorce ---- a vindictive impulse, trying to say the most hurtful thing she could to me. And, regrettably, there never was any divorce. Instead my father became terminally ill and died a painful death. Then shortly after my father died my oldest brother disappeared.
And my mother no longer had to worry about being bothered by the sound of her children's laughter.
At the time, your parents are your parents, and they define normal for you. In elementary school, I was vaguely aware that my friends thought my mother was a little strange. By high school, I realized that my mother had a whole host of peculiarities. But it wasn't until I was an adult that I began to understand that my mother wasn't just peculiar. She was mentally ill. She was so mentally ill she should never have been allowed to rear children. My "Aha!!" moment was when I found out what obsessive-compulsive disorder was. Finally, I had an explanation for some of my mother's bizarre behavior though even OCD could not explain all her behavior.
Though discovering the existence of OCD as a recognized mental disorder may have helped me to understand some of the events in my childhood, it was too late to enable me to help my mother, something I had tried to do for years before I finally gave up and walked away. Denial is one of the main symptoms of many mental illnesses. And my mother died without acknowledging that she had any problem whatsoever. As far as she was concerned, she was perfect. When the subject of her parenting skills would come up between us, this woman who couldn't stand the sound of her children's laughter would insist that she had been a "great mother."
For more about what NOT to do in raising kids, read "When You Think God's Light Shines Out of Your Kid's Asshole.........You're Raising a Brat (And Why It's Not Doing Your Kid Any Favors)." For a different aspect of my parents' marriage, read "Ingloriously A Bastard? Mississippi and Miscegenation."
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