Of leather belts and broken cutting boards: Why I don’t believe in spanking

***trigger warning***

(This started out as a comment on a Facebook post that shared this article about the difference between black and white styles of parenting. But then I found myself seven or eight paragraphs into it without being anywhere near done, so I decided that this might as well be a blog post…)

I am glad that the article points out the difference in the “why” here. Sooo intrigued by the idea of permissive parenting as white privilege…profound and absolutely true. I get “those looks” when I am out with my black godson in public…it seems that I might be a leeeeeeeettttttttttttllllllllllleeeeeeeeeee tiny bit overly permissive…but I get that children of color, and particularly black children, need to be raised differently. I “get it” enough that I never try to tell them that the police are their “friend”. I know that they can’t afford for me to teach them that lesson.

(My godson was in his second year of Head Start – so maybe four years old?-and he was telling me about a policeman who had visited his class (in what was likely a “policemen are your friends!” and/or teachable moment about safety type of thing) and the first words out of his mouth were, “He didn’t do nothing to us, though”.

Four. years. old. This is the world a black boy’s parents have to raise them in. And Mona ([Cecil] Elijah’s momma) and I disagree sharply about spanking, but I have to admit that he is a really good little boy and I struggle sometimes with how much the threat of physical punishment has shaped that (in a positive way).

BUT I also subbed in a classroom yesterday where a five-year-old, two weeks into her kindergarten career, punched another child in the nose. Children are taught in school that hitting is not okay, that we shouldn’t put our hands on each other in hurtful ways–but then purportedly go home to quite the opposite message. A neighbor of a friend has a girl of maybe 14 watching her younger cousins, third and fourth grade. She was walking around the street yesterday, in broad daylight, with a man’s leather belt, threatening (half in jest, but there was a seriousness underneath it) to handle them if they didn’t get it together.

I was mortified the other day to hear that 75% of Americans think spanking is okay. (This study from 2013 shows the numbers to be even higher.) This was presented as sort of a side note on NPR, and I don’t know if there was any differentiation between “open hand on bottom” and the myriad of other ways that children are disciplined. But it’s not okay to me, and it never will be. I know of a child who was punched in the eye, but because he was pre-verbal, there was no way of proving it. I feel the same way about physical punishment of children that I do about any other form of violence (war, guns, football itself): Those who live by the sword” (or the switch, or the leather belt) “will die by the sword”.

And here’s the thing: I KNOW that this all comes from my own scars. I clearly remember two spankings (white folks’ verbiage?!) I received as a child. I suppose there were more, but maybe not…who knows. One was my mother in a rage, cursing (which I never heard her do) and hitting my bare bottom (it was summer, and I was running around the neighborhood in a bathing suit) with one of my father’s leather belts. This was followed by her telling me to leave the house and not return.

I can’t remember if I was 7 or 8 at the time, but I was either going into or just out of second grade.

The other spanking I remember is from my father, only because it was done reluctantly (my mother had delegated it, since whatever I had done she deemed to have needed a heavier hand). I remember that one because he did it reluctantly. It might have been the only time he ever spanked me. And he did it without being in the rage I saw him in whenever he beat my brother.

I believe that I am scarred emotionally by my own limited memories of being the recipient of that belt, but much worse was what I witnessed in terms of my father’s behavior towards my brother. (My brother who, like me, was adopted. I never saw my oldest brother, their biological child, get hit, but granted, I was six years younger. Maybe he experienced it when he was smaller. I’ve never asked him.)

What I remember of my father, in contrast to his reluctant and almost gentle spanking in my case, was his rage when he beat (and I use the word “beat” because to me, it was more than spanking) my brother. I remember my brother being on the roof of the garage and my father dragging him down (his own parents were there, and I have a vague sense of feeling like he was more angry that my brother was acting up in front of them). I remember walking into the kitchen and seeing a wooden cutting board, broken in half and bloody. My brother, who has a “tough guy” exterior and has been in all kinds of situations in his life, told me not too long ago that he was never in his life as terrified of anything as when there was a bad snowstorm and he had to call our father for help with his paper route. He was maybe 12 at the time. He is 48 years old and he still remembers this as clearly as if it were yesterday.

Part of the difference in our case is that we were not having these experiences in the context of any knowledge or certainty that we were loved. We knew that we were what people in our community called “lucky” to have been adopted. My parents “got” my brother when he was about a year old, after another failed placement. No idea what happened there; I just knew that his bronzed baby shoe was much bigger than mine and my oldest brother’s. What I have learned from my brother, and only in the last dozen years or so, was that when he was younger and misbehaved, my mother would sit him down in the back porch and tell him that they were going to send him back. My father would come home from work, and apparently would join her in shaming him. “We’re going to send you back wearing only a diaper, the way that you were given to us”.

It’s safe to say that both my brother and I came into this family with attachment issues, something that wasn’t talked about in those days. With that said, I am still bewildered by the fact that my parents passed whatever constituted a home study in those days, and wonder often if they ever would have been approved in this day and age. But I digress…

In my early twenties, I would watch young black mothers (on the ferry or the train going into the city) interact with their children. What I saw was something I couldn’t fathom. They would be so harsh and strict with their children, but at the same time, I could tell that they loved them. Five minutes after a scolding, they would smile or laugh at something the child did. I could not reconcile this in my mind. Would I feel differently if I had been spanked as a child by people whose love I was certain of, by parents who didn’t have the threat of “sending me back” to hold over my head? I don’t know.

And I read these words as well, and they resonated with me:

The pernicious, toxic and inescapable lifelong effect of being disciplined physically – either to the point of abuse, or to the point that the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable blurs in your mind – is that you almost have to say you turned out fine, just to redeem the fact of being who you are. That you “turned out fine” is the only way to make sense of having once felt total terror or uncontrollable shaking rage at the sight of one (or both) of the two people expected to care most for you in the world. The thought that you might have ended up relatively OK or perhaps even better without all that fear is almost unbearable: the suffering only doubles if you admit that it truly had no purpose.

The thing I always say is that I (almost) can understand physical punishment if it is separated from rage. But I don’t believe it ever is. I think it’s a rare thing for parents to lash out at their children in a calm manner. with perhaps the exception of Michelle Duggaroh wait. And again, maybe it’s different for children who have some level of confidence that they are loved by their parents-but the above quote seems to prove otherwise (although I don’t know for certain that the author is actually a biological child of his parents).

AND I cannot say this often enough: I get that I don’t know what it is to be raising a black child in this society. But this doesn’t mean that I think that a belt, or a switch, or anything else used against a child (I respect, to some extent, a parent’s right to use an open hand on a bottom, but that’s as far as I can take it), is okay, no matter what color you are. (<—-the recovering racist in me shudders at the use of this phrase, as I know it’s not that simple…but then, in some ways, it really is. I could take this further and talk about the generational PTSD that people of color are dealing with, but like the author of the original article that started this rant, I still don’t think it’s okay.)

A thing people sometimes say to me when they don’t agree with my views on something is “You are just seeing this through your own scars”. Yes I am. That’s because those scars (in my case, more emotional than physical) are still there. I was spanked. And it wasn’t okay.

Apparently 75% of Americans disagree with me. But I’m okay with that. It doesn’t mean that I will ever stop speaking out against what I consider to be child abuse, pure and simple.

A football player’s actions have sparked a heated debate in this case…but lots of kids are living this on a daily basis, and that’s barely in the news. I am speaking out, not because I want this to be about me, but because I need to let it be known that some of us do NOT think it’s okay. Not for any parent, at any time, famous or not.

I don’t know what it’s like to be black in this society, but I certainly know what it’s like to carry the scars of childhood abuse. And I hope that this somehow gives me, white as I am, some credibility in speaking about the subject.

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Resolve

It’s March 4th (Mona’s birthday!) I’ve just spent twenty minutes writing about my experiences as a substitute so far, and in keeping with my earlier decision, I want to start posting them.

I am a writer and a perfectionist (or maybe those two are synonymous), and it’s hard to share things that are less than “perfect”. But perfect never comes, so I’m trying to force myself to just. write. And I think there’s some good stuff in my random ramblings about my subbing experiences…too much for one post, really. So I think to myself, “I should just start posting them as snippets and at least start the work”. Do not despise these small beginnings, blah blah blah.

But wait. I was going to post my resolutions. That I sketched out the first week of January. And it’s March. Did I mention that it’s March?

So I can’t post the stuff I’ve just written now, because first I have to finish what I started two months ago. Only the best of what I hoped to write is no doubt lost by now…but then I remember. Just. write.

So here, as I start to feel sleep wanting to overtake me, are the resolutions I identified back then.

1) Send out Christmas cards (right. this one is a joke. But maybe next year?!)

2) Eat more slowly. This is a resolution that is entirely independent of any other attempts at making better food choices, and it’s fantastically difficult to achieve. Eating is most often an afterthought, something that gets in the way of everything I have to do. It is an inconvenience and feels like too much work. I ate yesterday…and now I have to think about what I’ll eat today?

Too many days, I wake up for my 6pm shift at 4 or 4:30. It’s never enough time to plan out what I will bring to work for lunch. I’m never quite hungry enough (or together enough) to get something to eat before I go to work. And eating in the car, or at my desk, between phone calls, is not conducive to eating more slowly.

I have been failing miserably at this one. But I’m not giving up.

3) Purge (more) clutter

If things progress as they have been, I may be starting an online degree program fairly soon. This has me itching for a fresh start…not just with external clutter, but with the life-crushing and meaningless stuff that is neatly packed away in boxes, or with the utterly redundant closet that sorely needs an overhaul.

Fresh starts make me happy…if only I wasn’t so bad at starting.

4) Write more – that goes without saying. “Write more” is a resolution for my entire life, not just for a given year. I’ve not been moving towards that goal, but I am always “blogging on the inside”. The words are there…why do I not spend time doing something that I claim to value so much?

5) In the minor leagues, but worth mentioning…stop re-posting stuff on Facebook without vetting it first. It’s far too embarrassing – me, who has made it a life goal to debunk urban legends, and yet I’ve gotten caught up in far too many in the past few months.

So I guess I want to blog without thinking too much and at the same time stop retelling stories UNLESS I’m thinking a little too much about them.

Sounds like me…all of it. So here we go…

What’s in a name?

“What’s your name?”

The elderly lady smiled at Elijah and asked him this seemingly innocuous question. I am certain that she had no idea how complicated this question actually was. I watched him, wondering what he would say. Most of the time lately, he will say, “I’m Moo-Moo” (TiTi Lena’s nickname for him from the start). When I call him “Elijah”, the name I’ve been calling him since before he was born, he answers to that name. But on this day, he turned to the woman and said, “Cecil*”.

And my heart sunk. Because yes, his name is Cecil. Cecil Elijah Davis (“Jr. III”, but that’s a story for another day).

Before he was born, Sara and I had managed to talk Mona into reversing the order of his names. Instead of Cecil Elijah, we had her convinced to call him Elijah, with Cecil as his middle name. “All of your other boys have names from the Bible”, we told her. And then there was what we didn’t say – that the Cecil he was to be named after was nowhere to be found. It was Elijah’s aunties who brought Mona to and from her doctor’s appointments in those long two and a half months between the time she found out she was pregnant and the time Elijah arrived. We were the ones who took her to her weekly non-stress tests. We were the ones who encouraged her to eat correctly when her diabetes was raging out of control. When the doctor told Mona, “We have to keep an eye on things because we don’t want your baby to be stillborn”, I was the one who had to ask her, “Mona, do you know what ‘stillborn’ means?” I almost came to blows with a friend of Mona’s who was goading her into mocking my assertion that hers had been a high-risk pregnancy, because I knew. I knew, because I was there.

A few days before the baby was born, Cecil Senior (who himself is also Cecil Junior; there’s a whole lotta “unclear on the concept” going on here) strode back onto the scene, with that toothpick dangling from his mouth and that creepy, controlling demeanor. When we wanted to visit Elijah in the step-up NICU,  we were not permitted to enter without him (or Mona) accompanying us. Nothing we had been through together mattered at that point. We were out, and he was in, and so was the new name. Baby Elijah was now Baby Cecil. (This was also the point at which I started calling the father “FOTY”, for “Father of the Year”, because he swaggered in acting like he was in charge and feigning great interest in the baby’s health issues while he was in the step-up NICU).

It’s been almost three years, and I’ve gone on calling him Elijah without giving it a second thought, until recently. By the time the above conversation occurred, this had already been nagging at me for a while. Part of the issue is that FOTY is in the picture to a much greater extent these days, and although I still feel like I need to wash myself in bleach every time I interact with the man, I have to begrudgingly admit that Elijah seems to do well with him. And although he’s never said a word about it, I am almost to the point where I feel like I’m being disrespectful by not calling the child by his given name in the presence of his namesake.

I think the hardest thing for me, though, is hearing my beloved Elijah refer to himself by this other name. When I ask him, “Who’s Elijah, then?” he points to himself . . . he knows that this is the name that Aunt Sara, Aunt Lorraine, and everybody in our circle calls him. But when he is talking more, and going into more and more situations where people will call him by his “real” name, I am starting to seriously question how I should handle this.

I can’t call him Cecil. I just can’t do it. He is, and always will be, “Elijah” to me. But I don’t know what to do about everybody else. When I signed him up for nursery at church, I listed his name as “Elijah”, and so his name tag does not say “Cecil”. I find myself waiting for the day when FOTY will show his true colors and fly into a rage about this, demanding that the name be corrected, and while I don’t think that avoiding a scene is a good enough reason to give in, I find myself more and more wondering what the “right” thing to do really is in this situation.

I know he’s not my child. But I don’t know what to do. What is the right thing to do in this situation? How can I be fair to his biological father while still acknowledging that I, too, am a part of his life, and that he has never been anybody other than Elijah to me?

What would you do if you were in my situation?

(*pronounced “Sea-sill”, not “Ses-sill” as in B. De Mille)

Not the mommy . . .

“Are you his mom?”

It’s a fair question, and I’m quite used to it by now, especially from kids (or others) who are trying to make sense out of this white-skinned woman with a brown-skinned child in tow. When I’m out and about, I will do everything I can to refer to myself as “Auntie Lorraine” (because I *am* becoming THAT person–talking to him non-stop in the store, narrating everything–so basically talking to myself :-o), and if people say something about how cute he is, I often respond with, “Thanks; I wish I could take credit for him!” I also try to make it clear to people that he belongs to someone, that he has a mama . . . when one woman remarked about how beautiful his eyes were, I smiled and said, “Yep, he has his mama’s eyes!”

Again, it’s not as if the question is out of bounds–certainly when I am out and about with him, I give every appearance of being a mom . . . when I walked into church on Mother’s Day this year, with a toddler trying to squirm out of my arms and a diaper bag slung over my shoulder, I had to stop myself when one of the ushers wished me a Happy Mother’s Day . . . started my usual, “Thanks, but I’m not . . . ” and then realized how preposterous that would seem. Too much to explain . . . so I just said “Thank you!” and left it at that.

Today, the question came from a girl at my apartment complex’s pool . . . one of those needy kids that always seem to glom onto me in public places, seeking my attention . . . her mom was sunbathing, and she was in the water and asking me a zillion questions. “Do you know how to swim? Can you show me how you can swim? Does he want to come in the water? What’s that on his face?” (answers are “yes”, “not now because I have to keep an eye on the baby”, “I think he needs time to get used to it”, and “boogers”.)

She was the one who asked me if I was Elijah’s mom . . . but then later, when I was talking to another little boy, who was about four years old and was doing that “kid” thing of “I’m not getting out of the water even though my teeth are chattering and I’m turning blue!”, she looked at me again and asked, “Are you his mom?” And again, I said no, but this was a little too much for me . . . I had to bite my tongue to resist saying, “I’m not anybody’s mom”. And in that moment, I was overcome with sadness at the thought of this. No matter how many times my friends tell me that I’m “like a mom” or a “second mom”, no matter how many diapers I change or baths I give or how full of little clothes my closet becomes, the fact remains that I am still not anybody’s mommy  . . . I do not have primary responsibility for any of these little lives. And I don’t know if or when I will ever have that privilege, and yes, sometimes that makes me very, very sad. I don’t even know that I subscribe to the “it’s better to be an aunt because you can send them home to their mom” idea anymore . . . the more time I spend “playing mommy”, the less I *want* to send them home. What I want, more than anything, is to BE “home” to at least one child.

People ask me if I want a man . . . often, this question comes from some of my single friends who are my age or older and who themselves feel that lack deeply . . . but I am old, and stuck in my ways, and can’t even imagine myself in a relationship at this point in my life. But a child? Yes . . . I still want a child of my own. Although giving birth myself seems more and more unlikely, I keep telling myself  that “when I get my life together” I will adopt a child . . . but because this is *my* life, it’s not likely that I will ever get it together, so I don’t know if it will ever happen . . .

I am grateful for the privilege of having so many precious children in my life, and I don’t take that privilege lightly . . . but there is still a hole in my heart, a space waiting for the chance to be called “mommy” . . .

I hope that someday that hole will be filled, but for now, I will love the children God has placed in my life, and I will try to tell myself that this is enough . . .

2am angst

(wondering if this is what a mid-life crisis feels like?!)

the questions that are currently getting in the way of my falling asleep:

  • how is it that a person can be so convinced that things are heading in one direction, to feel in the deepest part of their being that this thing is going to come to pass, but then have that certainty shattered in a few short hours by an equally intense pull in the opposite direction? To “know that you know that you know” a thing, but then to be confronted with a sense of being equally certain of another thing that, if true, would make the former thing, that thing that you were so sure was about to come to pass, an impossibility?
  • how much does a person choose to give up out of love for someone else? This is where I know that I am quite clearly NOT as much like Jesus as I would like to be . . . because a selfishness screams out of me, and the words I’ve heard so often echo in my mind . . . is it a lie, something the world tells us, or is it a healthy level of self-preservation that brings the advice, “you need to take care of YOU . . . you can’t live your life for other people”? even in this, there’s confusion, because the reasons I want to do this thing “for me” have so much to do with this calling I’m convinced I have to “do” for others. . .
  • how do I let go of my desire to feel like what I’m doing is “important”, as I define that word? (part of that definition involves a rejection of any other person’s attempt to convince me that my idea of “important” is too limited.)
  • is my dissatisfaction with my life a flaw in my character, or is it a catalyst that will bring me to a place where I can assuage this intolerable, unrelenting restlessness? really, will I ever have a life that I don’t despise? it’s not even so much about having a “Spark-worthy” life as it is about feeling like I am doing what I was meant to be doing. is the problem really in my circumstances, or am I doomed to be restless, dissatisfied, and feeling like an underachiever for the rest of my days on this earth?!

The crazy thing is that all of this middle-of-the-night speculation is based upon two things that I don’t know at this moment. In other words, neither has come to pass as of yet. There is this thing that I feel so certain is going to come to pass, but there is also this new bit of information that would wreak havoc on that certainty.

In a few days, I will know about the latter, and in three weeks or less, I will know about the former. But in this moment, I have zero knowledge that either thing will even come to pass . . .

I am just so afraid, though, no matter what the outcome, that my life will not be any less unsatisfying than it was before this journey.

And now, having spewed up some lovely self-serving, too-much-informationing ranting, I am finally feeling sleepy enough to try to go to bed . . .

buenos noches . . .