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Beyond the pain and stigma to healing
Like many other divorced women I was depressed; had questions about why I could not keep a man; and angry. For almost twenty years I successfully raised my children. This article discusses how to raise responsible children even with this background.
The Story of My Life
I am a woman who has been able to change the direction of my life after repeatedly (three times!) hitting the brick wall of marital failure. My story illustrates the power of choice, focus and perseverance. I was engulfed with depression; overwhelmed with questions about why I could not get and keep a man; and angry over the abandonment of me and my children. For almost twenty years I raised my children alone, with little emotional or financial help from their fathers. But after finally setting a radically new direction, I have begun to experience the joy of achieving life goals, and have overcome extraordinary odds. Now I am sitting on the precipice of their adulthood. They are, for the most part, confident, well-adjusted adults who are highly educated and successful in their careers. My story is how I pursued and finally achieved the dream of creating a better life for my family by envisioning success and then pursuing it by making small, but right decisions daily.
I did not choose to be a divorcee. No one sets out to repeat mistakes or to deliberately break vows and commitments. As a child there was nothing in my life that would have indicated my tendency to make so many wrong choices. After these choices were made, and after suffering many consequences that many women can relate to, I was able to built a foundation so that my children would not automatically repeat my mistakes. If that was all I achieved in my life, that would be enough for me. But the children finally have grown older and more independent, and I have had more time to compare my own family history with that of other women. I now see a common thread of insecurity, inability to handle emotions, and failure to reconcile the history of our birth families with our own desires and ambitions. If possible, I want to help other women and so I gladly expose my journey though life and the healing process that I've gone through. In my story, I tell of my mom's self image issues because of her color and size. Your story might have self image issues because of having a low income, or the place of your birth (southern versus northern United States, or to a Spanish speaking mom). Many women have issues that are unresolved but are breeding grounds for self loathing and comparisons to other women. This confusion and negative thinking breeds instability and wrong choices. Many, many times the question is asked why one woman does not suffer but someone else has tremendous self image issues. Bottom line: we may never know. I have learned that the unanswerable questions are like traps that can prevent growth and maturity. I have learned that when all else fails, release the issue, learn what you can to prevent future issues, and go on. My story is a story of hope. Emotional health can arise from the ashes of despair no matter how many questions remain of how you got there in the first place.
Birth Family My birth family can best be described as stable, politically active, conservative Baptists. It was expected that the lessons of honesty, integrity, and high morals would be just as important at home and in the community as at the church. When we were younger, Mom and Daddy always sat with us in church. As we reached the age of 8 or so, Daddy would approach us to see if we understood the teachings of the church, but more particularly if we wanted to have a relationship with God. It was not a demand, but a definite push in the direction toward a religious life. But I had a problem with the religious fervor that was at a high pitch on Sunday but would often be followed by phone calls and discussions about the pastor's extra marital affairs during the week. When I look back on my childhood, it seems as if early on I had a tendency to see things in black and white, not shades of gray. I observed as my father would often permit my brothers to forego Sunday services for trips with a neighbor to the rural area we called the 'country'. There they picked vegetables, took care of animals and otherwise breathed the rural air. This decision meant that their church attendance for weeks was very sporadic. So, the resulting confusion in my young mind was that spiritual matters were less important that physical labor or intellectual pursuits. This confusion would haunt me later in life as I tried to find my own voice spiritually, emotionally, physically and intellectually.
Father Daddy led the way in our becoming politically active. As the Democratic Precinct chairman, he was well acquainted with a number of Beaumont, Texas politicians. It was part of his responsibility to sell poll taxes and to encourage voters to come to the polls on election day. I remembered seeing mom bake pies and fix coffee in anticipation of visits from Mayor Jimmy Cokinos who was running for office or Jack Brooks, the long term U.S. Congressman. The envy in my heart for the pies they scoffed down grew as I looked into their reddened, faces with contrived grins. But Daddy's support usually translated to votes in the 18th precinct, a totally Black voting bloc. These politicians were oh so willing to humble themselves for this brief but important time. Dad's decisions also obligated all of his children to times of stuffing envelopes and passing out flyers. We knew positions, promises and commitments that the candidates made. We were challenged to understand the political environment and the role of human nature in marketing a candidate and 'getting out the vote - ...
If a life is measured by the number of stories told, memories shared, and words spoken, then my father's shadow and imprint on the lives of his children was huge. He was a renaissance man, before the word was spoken in commercials. He cooked, washed dishes, bathed us or mowed the lawn, washed and polished cars. As the father of four sons and two daughters he was tough, sometimes merciless in his issuance of punishments for misbehavior. But he was also, steadfast and dependable, caring and devoted. His heart can be seen in this message that he wrote to his youngest son Daniel upon his graduation from high school.
" What do I owe? Only myself to God. How? We should give ourselves to the radiant warmth of sunshine and the glow of open fire. We should give our community a good man. We should give our home a devoted husband and a father. We should give our country a loyal citizen. We should give our world a lift toward that one far-off divine event toward which all creation moves! The finest gift a man can give to his age and time is the gift of a constructive and creative life."
Mother Mom honored dad. I know that sounds archaic, but that is the best description that I can give. She respected his intelligence and was proud of his appearance. Mom told the story that until they had children she called my dad, Mr. Williams. Dad finished the eighth grade and was unusually good at math and what he called 'figuring'. At the age of 55 he went back to school to get his GED. After a number of years he successfully passed the test. Dad had very definite Indian/Negroid figures with a large, but pointed nose, very thin lips, and smooth, dark complexion with reddish undertones. He was 5 - 10' and small to average body type. Mom was large with definite Negroid features. She took extra care to ritually go to the hair dresser every two weeks and carefully dressed with the complete assemble of hat, gloves and suits or good dresses on Sundays. But deep down, she had a sense of never quite measuring up to the image she had of the perfect woman. She felt inferior to my dad both physically and mentally. One day, I was thinking of the uniqueness of their relationship and penned this poem:
To My Mom Dorothy Brooks
If there were words to express what you mean to me, I'd write them. They would be elegant and fine, with a little rhyme for color. Most of them would refer to God and Jesus and how the Spirit moves. There would be womanly things like 'How to raise good children And how to cook fried chicken or spaghetti. There would be comments on how to love, really love forever.
There wouldn't be words of hate for the things we lacked, Because in the end it didn't matter. I wouldn't talk about the things 'He' didn't do. I wouldn't talk about the what ifs.... If you'd been prettier, or richer, or had married better - .or had left Daddy.' I'd just say, 'It was alright in the end.'
It was just right for us. Because of you, I learned to love. You taught me to enjoy and to explore really living '.and for that, I am eternally grateful.
There just aren't enough words to express it all.
I was a teenager during the 60's. Back then, Black people began experiencing a definite break and crack in the Jim Crow laws under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as Presidents. Daddy participated in the NAACP, Mom participated in the bus boycott, and I joined the Beaumont United Freedom Fighters. My rational for my decision was that a more militant struggle was needed. Every night we would sit around the television and hear of the water hoses being used to break up sit-ins or marches. We listened as the stations reported the murders of students in Mississippi. We watched the bus loads of students who had come down to register voters. These nightly scenes on the television created a need in my heart to take action to accelerate the process of obtaining freedom. One day my activities led to my arrest for a sit-in and call from jail to my parents. When Daddy came to the jail to get me, the expression on his face was a combination of fear, pride, and worry all rolled up in a parent's worst nightmare. But the Civil Rights attacks on all fronts resulted in some visible changes in Beaumont. The line down the middle of the buses was replaced. We could sit anywhere we wanted. Finally we were able to go to the white-only library, Terrell, and check out books. We shopped and then ate at the lunch counters just like other families. It was during this time that John Kennedy's death was felt. We mourned the loss because we tied the success of the struggle and changes that we were experiencing with a person.
Education After graduating from high school, I was faced with a difficult decision. There was only one college in Beaumont, but I didn't want to attend it. I'd heard so many stories of the efforts of whites to keeps blacks out of the school that attending did not appeal to me. My father had also seen the story unfold of the decision to fight against black students and then the reluctant acquiescense. He had dreamed of one of his children being on campus. My grades were excellent, but I had no money. So, for the first few years of college I attended Lamar. But the dream of attending another college never died. After obtaining summer jobs, I was able to save enough money to make the anticipated transfer to the University of Houston. I was on a strict budget, but I was living my dream.
First marriage When I was a senior at UH, I met my first husband, Herbert, an Ibo from Nigeria. Herbert was a good man but hard. He expected absolute control over finances, family decisions and my life. I didn't have the backbone to communicate my needs because I didn't know who I was or what I wanted. My first child, a son, was born almost two years into the marriage. A year later, my daughter Marian was born. From the first doctor visit until her death five months later, I was told that Marian had serious heart problems. Referrals were made to specialists in Houston and often I made the doctor visits alone. While undergoing a simple procedure to determine the extent of her heart damage, Marian died on the operating table. When I was allowed to see her, I rubbed my hands along her face and I remembered thinking how powerful life and death are. Here was my daughter's shell that only a few hours ago was warm as I played with her, bathed her and then dressed her for the hospital visit. I could not go back to that time and somehow make things right again. There are some things that can not be changed.
When my husband finally arrived at the hospital, his first words to me were 'You killed her'. He felt that my decision to continue to bring her to the doctor resulted in her death. Perhaps the words were the result of deep grieving. But they formed a drum beat in my mind that was replayed over and over again until that was all that I could hear. The emotional gulf between us grew and soon I moved to one of the other bedrooms. In a failed attempt to force me to reconcile with him, one night my husband forced me to have sex and that attempt resulted in the conception of my daughter, Lexie. Shortly after she was born, my first husband and I were divorced and he moved back to Nigeria with the words that he would never contact them until they were grown. He kept his word.
Second Marriage My son, Rodney was born to my second marriage to a marijuana-smoking rogue from California that I happened to love. I had moved to California after my divorce from Herbert. My daughter stayed with my parents, but my son lived with me. I should have used this time for self examination, perhaps attending some in depth counseling sessions or talked to trusted but wise spiritual leaders. Instead my emotions were smothered with activities and just taking care of the requirements of a household. Soon, I met a man who was free spirited, intelligent and most of all loving to me. But he was also addicted to marijuana. The drug culture was everywhere in the 70's. Naively I thought that it was something that would just go away or that he would choose to change as we grew closer. We married and I became addicted to the emotional highs and lows of our relationships until I started maturing. This added additional stress on the marriage and we soon separated. I then searched for and obtained a job back in Texas. But my feelings for him, the physical bondage I had to him, was not over. He followed me to Texas. But when it was clear that a move to Texas from California, new friends and attending church would not change him or stabilize our relationship, we finally divorced.
I gave up on men but continued to attend church, seeking healing. My attendance touched my emotions but somehow deep psychological healing did not come. An examination of my life at that time would have revealed someone who was continuing to make wrong choices. I was not dating, but the core issues in my life (depression, loneliness, and an overwhelming sense of futility and inertia) were still present.
Third Marriage After one of the services, a church member asked if he could call me. He and his whole family were active in the church, and I trusted him. Perhaps out of loneliness, but most of all, because I had not taken the time to discover what I really needed, I responded to his attention. We began dating and a year or so later he asked me to marry him. Our life was good. We had a home, the children were stable and I felt secure in my marriage. When my husband asked me to have a child for him, I was reluctant. But feelings of selfishness gave way to my desire to please him and my daughter Paula was conceived. The pregnancy was difficult. Unfortunately my husband had time to develop an extra marital relationship. When he left when my daughter was three weeks old and I was on pregnancy leave, I finally reached bottom when he divorced me.
Aftermath of divorces I was now a three time loser, murderer (in my mind, because I accepted the tormenting accusation) and mother of four children in a city where I did not have support from friends nor family. My first thoughts were of suicide. I just felt like the odds of succeeding as a single parent were too highly stacked against me. There was no reason to expect happiness or any sense of peace for myself. In my garage I sat in the car and started the engine. Tears began to flow. Suddenly I had this urge to look in the encyclopedia for the description of 'carbon monoxide'. While reading the description, somehow in my mind's eye I began to see a relatively young woman who was looking up the recipe for death. Rather than cause tears to flow, the picture for some reason caused me to laugh. I cried and laughed. Laughed and cried. Finally, when emotionally spent I prayed, 'God if you will help me to have a life that was more than mere existence, I will serve you and learn how to live.' I knew death of the spirit: when a tragedy or a person or persons rob you of the will to live. Finally, I'd met up with my total inability to bring control and stability to my life. You go through the routine of life taking care of kids, cooking, washing faces. I wanted more. In the very core of my being I wanted to find hope again and healing.
Baby steps toward wholeness I wanted to live abundantly and well and not just survive. Deciding to live meant I had to finally address some of the deep roots of the issues in my life beginning with my inner thoughts that were like poison to my emotions and body. I could not blame my birth family for the negative self talk. My parents enjoyed a long, stable and as far as I know even happy marriage. Death to my spirit was happening because I thought wrong. Words out of my mouth were often negative. I sabotaged my success in small, but effective ways. The basic question that I had to ask and then answer was whether I was willing to take whatever humiliation, dig ever so deeply into my psychic so that I could be made whole and become a better example for my children. As I began to examine why I was so negative and hard on myself, it occurred to me it is not always possible to know why. This was a very large hurdle for me to cross. I was beginning to learn to rest in not knowing. Somehow I must come to believe in the possibility that I could grow and change. I must choose to speak life to myself even if I never discover why I have the tendency to do otherwise. My self talk began to change. Morals The next rung in the ladder that would lead to deeper levels of healing dealt with my moral values. I had to ask myself what were my core values. As an adult I can choose any way I want to live, so what do I really believe? What was more important to me, punishing my ex-husbands or improving my life? I had to choose to take a harder stand on moral issues. I could no longer be led astray. I had to choose to be moral in all my dealings. I also had to admit that I had not chosen to have firm moral values in the past. I had to resolve my past and how events that happened to me were incorporating into my soul but they don't have to destroy my essence. Being moral did not mean that I had to hide behind mounds of fat or layers of clothing. I did not have to wear a mask or try to act rough and tough like a man or as a brainless, mindless, helpless 'little woman'. The morality of my life meant I had to make some black and white decisions. I could not sleep around, bring men to my home, nor date married men. I could not be so flexible that I couldn't ell my children what I believed and based my life on. If I claimed to be honest then my morality should also be at my very core whether at church, at work, or in the community.
Forgiveness I had to learn to forgive. I did not want to. I could replay my first husband's words over and over again, 'You killed her.' I replayed other words and memories. 'What did you do that would cause them to mistreat you. You gave him your paycheck. You've ruined your life. There is no way that your children will be emotionally healthy. You were - t pretty enough - or nice enough - or sexy enough to hold a man. You're too fat.' 'I never cheated (on any of my husbands). I was honest. I cleaned. I didn't deserve this. I hate my second husband for running around on me. I hate my third husband for leaving me and holding himself out as such a solid, responsible person. He cheated on me inside the church. You really have to be pretty bad as a woman for a man to leave you when your baby is three weeks old ' I thought and hated and dreamed of getting back at them, but it was not going to get me to where I wanted to be: at peace and able to pick up the pieces of my life. I wanted to release these demons from my past so that I could have a future. The only way I could get there was to forgive, even though I did not want to. So examined and read about forgiveness. It felt like forgiveness was letting them off the hook. It felt like I was letting them off so that their lives would be free of problems but my life was left in a total wreck. What I read, however, was that forgiveness frees ME by way of freeing them. Forgiveness is a choice that I could and had to make that would allow me to be free from the chains of constantly thinking of them and their actions. I couldn't do it in my own strength. I had to lean on spiritual guidance to get there. But if I could get through this hurdle, then I would then be free to examine my own actions and to forgive myself also. Forgiveness didn't mean that I would forget. But the sting of the events would be removed and the memories would linger but would not engulf me, as expressed in this poem that I wrote. Memories Dorothy Brooks
I light a match And it begins to burn. I think of the times we were one. I watch, I learn.
The flame starts with a spark Strong, intense at times. Burning brightly, It flickers, and then dies.
The flames are gone. Smoke hangs in the air. Just as my memory of you Will always linger there.
Enjoy process, not just the final goal I had to learn to enjoy the process of life, not just reaching goals. It may not always be possible to succeed, no matter how hard I tried. So, somehow the process had to make sense. The journey toward a goal has to be filled with little marks of success, things that I would celebrate along the way. When I spoke truth and became willing to bare the consequences of making stands; when I became less bitter; when I was able to speak positively to my children instead of always looking for ways to correct them, I celebrated. Increasingly, I experienced real joy deep in my soul.
Another lesson dealt with examining my past but not letting my past hold on to me. Obviously I could not ignore the fact that I had four children and had been married three times. The question that I had to answer was whether or not it would be possible to lead my family into wholeness even though I had repeatedly failed at marriage. If it were impossible, then I should have given up and committed suicide. Since I made the decision to drive toward wholeness then it was possible to have a future and hope. I had to pay a huge price in terms of loneliness, hard work (near exhaustion), and depression but I could also have a large measure of faith, success, inner joy and peace.
Parental Education In my search for a better life, I read voraciously about parenting. No book became my total source, but I picked up key principles in a number of books. One key decision that I made (perhaps after reading this somewhere) was that I was going to be the adult in my family. My children and I were not equals. As such, there were some burdens that were mine alone to bear. It served no purpose what so ever for them to know I was scared; we were in a financial mess; or that I was exhausted. My goal was to achieve mental health and to grow in confidence. I walked alone in the precarious world between mental and emotional exhaustion and the confident world of the employed, working adult. My children would benefit from the end result of the process, but empty promises would not help them. I simply set the tone that we would have a family that experienced joy.
Our family meetings The dilemma I faced in the beginning of my life as a single was how to communicate these new life choices to my children. They ranged in age from 12 to one month old. I had a full time job and often worked late. My boys were involved in football. Lexie, my older daughter was in the band. We all had church activities. How could I efficiently talk to them and have an opportunity to listen to them? The Saturday family meeting was my secret weapon that fostered loyalty, social skills, and confidence in my single parent household. Normally, we arranged the meeting time days in advance and at times even had agendas. There were a few unofficial but well-understood rules. First of all, this was our time. Phone calls were limited. Expressed emotions were acceptable. Sometimes we cried, laughed, made snide remarks or expressed anger. During one of these meetings, my son Rodney told his brother, 'I love you but I don't like you. You're not my daddy. You're too bossy.' It was this outburst that brought attention to the need to recognize his growth and his need to have space to change and make his own decisions. Family meetings were times when we cleared the air. There were major arguments with tears and emotions including fear, love, anger and jealousy. We - ve had major announcements, lots of laughter, and some raw pain expressed. We developed a sense of belonging to a trusting team of people who loved each other. Walls were not acceptable but preferences were OK. Confidence was developed as I learned and my children were encouraged to express themselves in effective ways. Everyone was encouraged to speak. Silence used as a weapon was challenged, probed and finally destroyed. Spiritual guidance was given. Chores were argued about, negotiated, traded, administered as punishments or just plain assigned. Schedules for work and play for the upcoming week were communicated.
Leadership development It was during these times that I saw the difference facets of leadership develop. Uzo, the calm, outwardly confident older son leads through his position as eldest. He wants needs and gives clear objectives. His leadership skills are seen by his actions but he occasionally drops bombs of wit, intelligence or analysis when it suits him to talk. He is a well-read man but has a soft heart in a large, athletic, dark skinned body. As an End on the Alouettes football team in Montreal Canada, his job and personality utilize his ability to sacrifice for the good of the team. In the family meetings, I often deferred to him giving him the opportunity to express himself openly. Lexie, is a loyal, loving female leader who strongly believes in individual accountability. She has excellent work ethics and believes that setting a standard provides leadership. As a manager of musicians and a musician herself she demonstrates the struggle and difficulty of taming the creativity gift so that goals are obtained and not just talked about. Rodney, my tornado in a china store at times, leads by sheer force of personality and intelligence. Physically he looks like a football player and he knows that others may discount him because of his physical appearance. As a summa cum laude graduate of a major university, he enjoys the game of watching people put him in boxes. Morgan Stanley in New York has proven to be a good employer for him because of the challenge of learning how to develop more finesse in office politics rather than just using direct and forceful confrontations. Often he is physically close to me, providing both mental challenge and emotional stability through laughter. Paula, the child of my old age, is surprisingly a flexible driver, much like her older brother. She has good work ethics, a multifaceted personality and uses thoughtful analysis. The question is often asked, who will show up? Will it be Paula, the drama queen, who falls on the floor for effect or the calm, confident young woman who leads through charisma and intelligent thinking?
Releasing them to live their own lives Nineteen years later, I was about to lead my last 'official' family meeting. It started late. Emotions were just beneath the surface. Tears began to flow as I thought of letting go, permitting my children too emotionally and physically move away from me. Both an emotional and physical move is required so that they could make independent life choices as adults. As usual, it was difficult for everyone to assemble at the appointed time downstairs. Lexie, true to her efficient nature, was ready and talked about her impatience as she tried to drive us toward getting things started. Uzo, the eldest, just looked around silently. Rodney ignored the second and even third call to assemble until I raised my voice. He then took his usual place close by me. Paula, sent to get the Bible, a pen, and paper for taking notes, came into the room determined to be treated as an equal and most of all to be heard. I began the meeting stating the purpose was to plan the rehearsal dinner for Uzo's wedding. We had to outline what was needed and make assignments of responsibilities. But first, I wanted to tell them how much they meant to me. The efficient details of running a meeting of strong leaders was giving way to the deep feelings of a mom loving and already missing her children.
Release Dorothy Brooks, mother
I wanted to protect you and to shield you from harm. Now, I want to hold you, talk, and to calm my growing alarm. But your release will change my ordered life To a set of ' - - - ..memories' - - -
Of the time we crossed the lake and you repeated a hundred times your new word Water-r - r-r, water-r-r, water r-r, water-r-r, water r-r The time you acted in your first play and I sat in awe in the audience That you could remember all of the hundreds of lines. The time I opened the door on Valentine's Day, startled when you started singing 'Cupid draw back you bow.' While dressed in your own costume designed from my white bed sheets With a bow and arrow made from coat hangers.
Or the time that I discovered why I couldn't find the jacket to my most expensive suit. It lay in my closet because you were using it for one of your fashion experiments. The many times we talked and cried about boys and men, about courting and flirting. About God's perfect design for that area of your life. The time I cried all the way back to Dallas after dropping you off at college Because you said, 'Let me go' and I heard God say 'It will be ok in the end.' So, I am saying as surely as my mom said, 'Lord, help me let her leave so you can show her how to cleave to you.'
Nineteen years of being a working single parent of four children is changing. I now have one child in Montreal, one in New York City, one planning to attend the university in Austin and one living and working in the Dallas area. Emotional changes and growth are imminent too. New relationships are going to be established as wives, husbands and then grandchildren are added to the family circle. I am changing. Retired after almost 25 years on the job, I am experiencing loneliness and room in my heart for other relationships. It hurts, but it is the beginning of the natural process of release and growth. My children were my life. My thoughts, emotions and whole being revolved around them. Yet I know that the natural process of release demands that I let them go so that they can establish greater and greater levels of freedom. I am letting them go so that we will become all that we were ever intended to be.
About the Author
Dorothy Brooks is a retired manager from a large telecommunications company and the mother of 4 adult children, and 2 grand children. Her son, Uzo plays football for the Montreal Alouettes, son Rodney works as a bond analyst; daughter Lexie manages bands and is a musician; and her younger daughter is senior in collge.