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My Legacy from Angry Parents

By Arline Rowden

On Father’s Day I saw so many Facebook posts from children, mostly adults, about the love and teachings from their fathers who are still alive and those who have passed. It’s lovely to see and it touches my heart to see and read them. That was true on Mother’s Day, too. My father passed in January 1996 at the age of 90. My mother passed in June 1969 at the age of 59. I often reflect on my relationships with my parents on Fathers’ & Mothers’ days.

I do feel that my parents loved me and that I did learn things of value from them. I grew up on a large dairy farm, so I learned how to be productive and it gave me the confidence that I could always support and take care of myself. My father taught me how to problem solve in a practical way. I received the love of reading, learning and creativity from my mother. They both encouraged me and my sisters to not make mistakes, so we learned to focus on perfectionism and self-criticism. If something went wrong or we got something wrong, we were always asked to figure out what we did wrong that caused the problem. I know they meant well but I’m not sure that was so helpful to me over time.

Both of my parents had anger issues and would yell and hit us when they were frustrated with how something was unfolding. My dad would usually just hit once. He was a big man; even grown men would remark on his huge hands. My mother would do a lot of hitting and then if you cried she would say to stop crying or she would really give you something to cry about. I would also feel hate towards my parents for hitting me. If I had been an adult they would have been arrested for assault.

As a sensitive child, I was afraid of them when I was young and defiant, at times, when I was a teenager. I also learned to be a people pleaser and to be hyper-alert as a way to deal with living in a home with angry volatile parents. I would also spend as much time alone as I could. When I wasn’t working, I would read or take a walk out to the woods. I created a fantasy life as a way to cope with my real life. My parents and older sisters would praise me for my ability to entertain myself. It was really about the fact that when I was by myself I felt safe.

Even though we lived in the country, I know that some of our neighbors could hear my dad yell when he was outside. It was not only embarrassing but I felt shame at times for being part of my family. I couldn’t wait until I was out of school and 18 so I could leave. In contrast, there were some good times. Holidays were often fun and by the time I was the only child at home my parents often took part of Sunday off and we would go out to dinner after church. Also, once each summer we would usually go to Devil’s Lake state park for a picnic and swimming. Sometimes dad would even make homemade ice cream. We did get together with extended family at times, too.

For years I was angry with my parents for what they did that hurt me and for what they didn’t do that I needed. I was still that scared little girl who would hide from my family. I was depressed for years because I didn’t have a way to process my childhood and everything else that happened once I was an adult. It seemed that all the emotional trauma that I kept inside just drew more traumatic experiences to me until I was ready to begin to confront it all.

Over time I found ways to start to work through and release trauma. Then I started to remember some positive experiences from childhood which had been hidden in the pain. I’ve had to learn to accept my family bloodline. If I hate my family, I am hating myself. I began to have a sense of compassion for my parents and their life experiences. I have also realized that anger is not bad and that there are more constructive ways to deal with one’s anger than hitting and yelling at others. My journey has been giving me insight into why I felt so much hurt since childhood.

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