I grew up in the fifties and sixties, a time when life was simpler and we were all pretty innocent, perhaps even naive. My family of four was no exception, try thinking of the families in the movie, “Pleasantville”. Yep, that was us.
We were a typical middle-class family. Daddy was a truck-driver(“Honey, I’m home!”), Mom, a housewife, stayed home full time to raise her two children. Daddy had a great sense of humor but he also had a quick temper which flared often. Mom always said, he “got over it” quickly when he would become upset or angry cause he would usually get back to his “old self” right away. He came across as impatient about most things when I was a child, but underneath all of that thick veneer of agitation, lived a true “softy” who I knew adored Mom and us two girls. I do know he loved me. He was friendly to strangers, a hard worker and smart as a whip for someone who only had a fourth grade education. He had very high morals and a common sense about life in general. He was well-respected as an Officer in the Army and well-liked by fellow truckers where he drove for over 30 years. Everyone loved “Mac”. Dependable, strong, funny. I could see why Mom loved him so deeply.
Mom was always the easy-going one. Never raising her voice with us, she was always cool, calm and collected. I have a faint remembrance from very long ago, of her swatting at my diapered butt as I ran past her once, but not much else as far as disciplining us. Our Mom didn’t stand a chance of getting a word in edge-wise in our house, living with two young daughters who never stopped talking. My older sister’s excessive talking seems to have stemmed from a need to cover her natural shyness, mine seems to have been from an overactive mind and burning need to entertain others. I appeared shy at age four but that disappeared quickly when I developed my verbal skills and found great reward in making people laugh. I feel giddy when I know that I am responsible for the catch in someone’s ribs and their face red from laughter. Years later in the darkest moments of my life, my quirky sense of humor and belief that the world is a much too serious place, saved me and my sanity. Mom was definitely my best audience, she always called me her “Clown” even as all the years passed and I became an adult. There is never any situation in life that we can’t find a glimmer of humor (or hope) in it. If I didn’t believe this, I would have given up long ago.
Mom could be very judgmental about others and was prone to gossiping, especially amongst her 14 siblings, about “outsiders” (people other than our own family members). Gossip, she was good at, showing her own feelings, not so much. I think I only saw my Mom cry about 10 times in my whole life. I know she was never allowed to express her own feelings while growing up (info she shared with me while in her 80’s!). As a result, she attempted to raise my sister and I in the only way she knew how, by not allowing us to show OUR true emotions either. The old adage, “children live what they learn” is historically passed on from generation to generation and in our case, that was very true. Not that it was wrong, I just always felt stifled, like I was going to explode if I couldn’t express what I was feeling. No talking back allowed, no outbursts of anger, go to your room, period. No wonder Sis and I always “ate” our feelings for years and we both struggled with our weight off and on over the years as a result. When you can’t express who you really are, food is very comforting. Years later when I became a Mom myself, I made the decision that I would encourage my children to feel their feelings, even if they were not terribly comfortable in doing so. I have three wonderful grown children so I guess I did something right somewhere along the way.
My sister and I were the poster children for the adage “Children should be seen and not heard “, so true for that whole generation. We didn’t know any different because to us, what was occurring was normal. In looking back now, I think one of the reasons we both talked so much was that having a Father who told us to shut up (at least in my case) and a Mom who did not allow us to express our real feelings, we tried to compensate by talking non-stop to cover the pain of not being allowed to express ourselves. I can’t speak for my sister, but for me, it has taken many years and one good therapist recently (thanks, C.O.), to help me come to this realization. Trying to be more real about who I am and ending “The Dawn Show” is something I try to work on now. Not just being real, but being kind to myself and actually feel the feelings that I am experiencing, whether they be good or bad. Believe me, I still struggle keeping that childhood persona at bay and keeping a watch on always trying to be my authentic self. That may take me the rest of my life.
My Daddy never spoke much about his own childhood, his silence was a clear indicator that those memories were either too painful to talk about or he had simply blocked them out as a way of coping. Raised in rural Georgia as the baby of his family, he had a brother who was twenty years older than he and several other siblings in between, two of whom passed away at very young ages. Times were hard and the family was dirt poor. Daddy drove truck from a young age and also took care of his bed-ridden Mother for many years after his own Daddy died. Daddy seems sad when he occasionally talked about his Mom, I don’t remember him uttering a word about his Father.
Marrying later in life, my Father was 44 when I was born and tended to be old-fashioned and terribly strict. I never knew my paternal Grandparents, they had been dead for over 30 years by the time I came around but their rigid form of disciplining came through in my Daddy. On the other side of the coin, my Dad was a wonderful story-teller who’s true life stories were always hilariously funny, very animated and were rarely about his life during his childhood years. Most of these stories, which I heard all the while growing up, were about his time in the Army and time as a trucker. His stories never conveyed the childhood pain which he hid so well, a coping skill I’m sure he developed very early in his life. Yet I never heard him complain even once about his Mom or Dad. There is only one faded black and white photo of them, showing Grampa’s stern face and Gramma’s fragile stature and passive expression. Sometimes one picture really is worth a thousand words.
A true southern Father, my Daddy spanked me with a belt. Not all the time, but often enough that I remember rubbing the welts on the back of my legs and putting my hands across my butt to block the impact as he swung. I remember that thick leather black belt like it was yesterday. My sister told me (being 6 1/2 years older, her memory much clearer than mine) that I cried a lot when I was put in my crib at night when I was very young, around 2-3. As a trucker, Daddy needed to fall asleep fairly early, as he would get up for work at 4:00 AM to drive his rig. My crying and being noisy in my crib was not conducive to him getting his rest. My sister claims that my Father would beat me (her words, not mine) with a belt nearly every night during that time, to get me to finally be quite and go to sleep. She brought this subject up one day out of the blue (I was in my early 20’s) and a very uncomfortable feeling came over me. In fact, I was adamant and flustered, insisting that she was either making it up or exaggerating. In those days, there was a large opening between our bedrooms in the house we grew up in, so she witnessed all that went on in my room first hand. She stood her ground about what had happened, despite my protestations. I don’t have memory of the physical part in my conscious mind but deep down inside of me, I remember. Those memories were so distant and fuzzy, but the moment she brought this subject up, they all came flooding back into my mind. Those feelings are, after all these years, still present. Facing them and processing them, is something I am still working on each day of my life.
In those days spanking was the “acceptable” form of disciplining ones children. Spanking still occurs today in many homes, I realize that. I was never hit on any other parts of my body but my rear end, as some other children have had to endure but it still hurt like hell. What Daddy did was wrong, but it was all he knew. As the years passed, the spankings decreased; although Daddy did try to reach over and swat a my rear-end when I was 13 about a remark I had made. As he reached across to swat my butt I leaped up, turned around (I had been kneeling down playing a game at our coffee table) and I gave him a look that if looks could kill, he would have been dead. He had not spanked me for a long time at that point, and I was sure not going to let him start again… he never did.
Not all of my disciplining was physical. If my Father was around and I was talking too much, he would become impatient and would tell me, “SHUT UP, DAWNIE!!!” His voice and tone very harsh and stern. Those three words have rung in my ears my entire life. It didn’t seem to have much of an impact on me at that time though. Being quiet is not easy for me, so those words really stung. When I close my eyes I can still hear his voice, those three words still vibrating through the very core of me. Those words, in that context, would be considered verbal abuse by most people in this day and age, but I eventually learned to let them roll off me like water on a duck’s back. It’s as if my brain would hear his words and my internal voice would say, “OK, just try to keep me quite, watch me”. As a result, I became active in theater and performed in musical shows and plays from sixth thru twelfth grade and beyond without missing a beat. If I couldn’t express myself at home, I’d go express myself in front of a huge room full of strangers AND my parents, wiggling around uncomfortably in their seats in the audience, unable to control their extroverted and talkative daughter. Childhood revenge at it’s finest.
Interestingly, even now as an adult, if someone tells me to “Shut Up” in a stern voice, even if they are kidding around, I get a funny feeling in my gut that’s equivalent to someone slicing my belly wide open with a fileting knife. Those words bring up two feelings immediately; anger and rejection. Guess some stuff stays with us no matter how much therapy we have or how much forgiveness we have granted.
Sis and I knew how to “play” our Mom. We would bug her and bombard her with stuff we either wanted to do or wanted to buy and she would avoid making decisions by saying these two phrases to our whining; “We’ll see” or “Maybe”. Those two phrases always guaranteed the same two results every time. “Maybe” meant we were going to get our way, cause Mom was calling the shots and she was the Softie parent and would grant our requests. “We’ll see” meant that Daddy would be involved and have the final say and that meant whatever Sis and I wanted, no matter what, the answer was an adamant “NO”. So, naturally, my Sis and I would work on Mom and knew we could get our way about things if we asked her first. If we ever got in trouble (which was pretty rare), she would say that she was going to “wait until Daddy got home” and then we would face our punishment. I remember sweating bullets when I would hear Daddy’s old Chevy coming up the gravel driveway, knowing that Mom would be presenting our wrong-doings to that short fuse of his. In reality, that rarely occurred because by the time he got home, Mom usually softened about whatever event had happened (or she forgot about it) and our evening went on as usual. Sometimes I was glad that Mom was always a bit forgetful.
As the parent of three grown children, I am proud that I allowed my own kids to express their feelings beyond just showing “happiness”. I just wanted them to experience all the various emotions and learn that as human beings, we float through a array of different feelings throughout each day of our lives. Some are good and some are not-so-good. I also have always made an effort to not belittle my children with any name calling. The words that we say to our children will live in their hearts and minds forever. Never forget that.
My childhood memories are happy ones despite being aggressively spanked and often feeling very frightened of my Dad. I loved him. He wasn’t perfect and neither was Mom. They were doing and living what they had each learned growing up in their homes when they were children. If you are a young parent reading this, please know that the expression “Children Live What They Learn” is a huge truth and that is why I chose to share these painful memories of mine. If you too, were abused in any way, you can stop the cycle. Get help through your church or religious organization, see a good therapist, take an anger management class, join a support group. Do something healing for yourself and in the end, for your own children.
I felt compelled to write this blog which is about a very controversial subject, spanking children as a form of discipline. This accounting is to the best of my knowledge, the truth, as retold in parts to me by my older sister and my own childhood memories. I hope it does not portray my Daddy as a child abuser or a monster, he wasn’t and I don’t think of him that way. But the fact remains that at some deeper level, the spankings I endured have definitely impacted me in a negative way. I hope my sharing will convey to other parents to think about and consider the consequences of your actions in your own children’s lives if you should choose to physically or verbally harm them in any way. If I can convince any of you out there to stop spanking and/or verbally abusing your children because of some part of my story, then I will be content. Treat your children well, learn to face and clear your own issues and buried anger, without taking it out on your own kids. Do something healthy and positive, mentally and physically for yourself every day. This was not an easy blog for me to write and share. It took hours and days to make my decision to actually post it. Know that this process moves me further along in my own healing and I thank you for reading it with an open heart and mind.
My best to you all…until next time.