I have a lot of respect for my dad. He’s thoughtful and generous to all of us. His constant reading makes him an interesting and well-informed conversationalist. He makes his life decisions very carefully, yet never looks down on me for making different decisions than him. Instead, he tells me all the time that he loves and misses me, and that he’s proud of who I’ve become. I feel so lucky to have him as my dad.
Unfortunately, we have not always gotten along so well. Less than ten years ago, our relationship had been almost completely destroyed thanks to the authoritarian parenting techniques of the fundamentalist Christian homeschooling culture. Authoritarian parenting forced both of us into roles that we were not at all suited for, with tragic results.
For my dad, authoritarian parenting caused him to see our relationship as a power struggle; maintaining his authority was his biggest responsibility and highest priority. After all, if we were calling the shots in our own lives, we would become self-indulgent and lack internal self-control. That would lead us to more dangerous “worldly” teenage rebellion against our parents and God. So in order not to fail at parenting, my dad had to be hyper-vigilant against giving up power to us kids. What an insane amount of responsibility to put on one person! And how difficult to create a positive relationship with that kind of dynamic: it’s impossible to mandate real respect and love! My dad began to crack under the pressure.
For me as a teen, authoritarian parenting very nearly reduced me to an empty shell of a person. I found that my opinions and emotions were sources of trouble and guilt. Anger or frustration–even just on my face–were signs of disrespect and lack of self-control. Questioning my parents’ decisions or expressing different opinions, even on trivial matters, were signs of rebellion. Even the simple act of lifting my eyebrows could get me in trouble. In order to survive, I had to bury my negative emotions and try to become more passive and less opinionated.
In addition to guarding my facial expressions and speech against “disrespect” and “rebellion”, I also had to hide many positive feelings. My parents’ preferred method of discipline when I was in my teens was to take away privileges. Anything that I had shown happiness or excitement about was a likely target. So, to protect things I cared about, I tried to stay detached. One technique that helped me care less about something was to focus on the negative about it. Unfortunately, it was hard to rekindle my excitement once my negativity had extinguished it, but at least it was easier to deal with the feelings of helplessness and disappointment.
At the worst point in my relationship with my dad, I went for several years without my dad smiling at me even one time. He spent long hours at work or locked in his room and tried to avoid talking to me or looking at me when we passed. But still, every night, my mom made me find him to say, “Goodnight Dad, I love you,” and stand there looking at the back of his head with no answer. Any time I protested this nightly tradition and expressed my hurt to my mom, she simply cautioned me not to let the “root of bitterness” spring up in my heart. So I did my best to bury my negative emotions, just like I saw my mom doing.
I was supposedly in the prime of my life, but I started to feel very old. My body was full of aches and pains, and I was constantly tired or dealing with a headache. Finally, at my mom’s urging, I went to see a doctor. I was caught off guard when the doctor asked, “Do you think you’re depressed?” “Oh my goodness, no!” I answered. When the doctor left the room, I burst into tears with no idea why. I finally decided that I must have been upset that my Christian witness was damaged since I wasn’t showing Jesus’ peace and joy on my face during my doctor’s appointment.
Looking back, it’s easy to identify that I was deeply depressed and incredibly emotionally repressed. But I didn’t interpret it that way at the time. I saw my depression as “deep spiritual sensitivity” that came from my desire to be perfect. And I saw my emotional repression as “true love”: by pretending I was never bothered and that I had no preferences, I thought I was being unselfish and putting the needs of everyone else before my own.
As I entered college and started to work through many of my social anxiety issues, I continued using the relational techniques that had helped me survive at home. I was passive; I went along with other people’s ideas and goals; I had no strong opinions or desires of my own. I was just there, a non-factor, grateful to be included.
The real change for me came through developing my relationship with my boyfriend/husband. Our long conversations helped me work through my pent up emotions and discover my opinions. On many occasions, he waited patiently even for 20 minutes, silently walking next to me with his arm around my shoulders, so I could finally express a basic opinion or feeling. At some point, I came uncorked, and we now have an entirely different challenge as my opinions and feelings come flying from left and right! In time, I’ll find balance.
Sorry, but I don’t agree with ___.
I felt really sad when you ____.
I’d really rather ____.
I don’t really enjoy ___.
In my opinion, ___.
These phrases may seem mundane to you, but to me they are priceless. Every time I use them, they remind me that I am a real and valuable person with my own identity, my own voice, my own choice. They make me feel empowered because I remember what it was like to try to live without them.
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Latebloomer is on a journey away from the ideals she was raised with in the conservative homeschooling culture. Becoming a wife and mother has prompted her to re-evaluate her childhood experiences in an effort to avoid repeating those mistakes. Her blog Past Tense Present Progressive is her place for sorting through her thoughts.
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce