Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Conclusion to Part 1




    Becoming a dad was 10,000 times better than anything else I've ever done.  

                                                                                                                — Steve Jobs

Grace and Mary on the swings while Mary reads a book
















A couple of years ago I was walking into a local Barnes and Noble when I noticed an elderly man standing in the entrance by himself. He was holding on to a walker and looking out the window at the parking lot. He seemed lost. I stopped and asked him if he needed any help, and he told me he was only waiting for his daughter to get the car. Soon a car pulled up in front of the store and his daughter came in and got him and they left together.

I sat down with some coffee and started to think about this man, and that made me sad. Not because he was and older man who needed a walker, but because he still had his daughter in his life and it was then I realized this was one more thing I won't have when I'm an older man like him. And even though that day is a few years away yet, unless something changes soon, I don't expect my daughters to be with me even then.

I'm not trying to paint things worse than they are; I would love more than anything to be wrong about this, but I'm not fooling myself either. 

I'm also not going to subscribe to the usual reasons I'm given to try to explain why my children are gone from my life. What happened to us wasn't the result of a run-of-the-mill rift between a parent and child. There was never any rift of any consequence anyway. There's a completely different dynamic at play in our family -- one that's very serious and affects many families. It's called parental alienation, and is usually described as a set of strategies parents use to undermine and interfere with a child's relationship with his or her other parent despite that child's innate desire to love and be loved by both parents.

And this is exactly what happened to my girls and me.

Nothing I know about children or parenting can explain how a child can suddenly drop off the face of the earth like my children have, except for the extreme poisoning associated with parental alienation. It's not typical for a teenager to go from loving her father one day to hating him the next, simply because she's going through a phase in her life or struggling with her teen years. Kids don't suddenly, one day, tell their father they never want to see him again -- and then actually never see him again -- because they're upset about their curfew or their chores or their allowance.

And the problem can't be remedied by doing things like giving them "space" or giving them "time to come around." Time is the enemy now, and the longer we wait, the harder it becomes for both of us to ever to have a relationship again.

I seldom hear reconciliation stories from parents in similar situations. I only hear about ten and fifteen-year estrangements going on a lifetime, or only see the desperate pleas of parents who have tried everything they can think of and are left with no alternative but to post messages on internet sites hoping their children will see them and know they're still waiting for them.

I'm only facing the facts, bleak as they are, because the facts, or truths, are all I have. But I'm confident these truths will remain once the lies are gone.

They're simple truths, really. And one of these is that my girls were lied to. Another is that the reason we aren't together any more is not because of something I did wrong but because of many things I did right. I lost my connection with my girls because I'm a very involved parent and because I've devoted my life to raising my children. I believe in their hearts they know this, but I think they may have forgotten it.

And that's why I wrote my story — to remind them of the life we once had together and let them know the truth about why we don't have that life any more.

I wrote it because I want them to know that the reason Mary and I aren't together is because I put my life on the line for her when she was being moved in and out of group homes across the state, because I scoffed at threats that I would be harmed if I tried to bring her home, and because I sacrificed my job for her when I had to choose between keeping it and keeping her.

I wrote it because I want them to know how I took the time to understand Mary's disability, care of her when no one else would, and give her back a life where she felt valued and loved when no one else could.

And I wrote my story because the same lies continued on to affect my relationship with Grace, just as they had with Mary, and ended up severing our relationship just as severely. The campaign of denigration against me was even more obvious by the time it had moved on to destroying my relationship with Grace, until one day when she was gone too, almost as quickly as Mary had been.

And I wrote my story because I want all my girls to know that it never crossed my mind not to fight for them, and that if I would have cowered from threats and stayed silent, Mary probably wouldn't be with any of us today. Someone had to speak up for her. It's what parents do. It's instinct.


Animal Instinct

I first learned what the parenting instinct was all about when I was a child growing up on a farm in South Dakota. We had a big farm full of lots of cattle. Stock cows, we called him. And my siblings and I spent hours playing in the trees and fields surrounding our farm and sometimes out where the cows were in the big pastures that seemed to go on forever. We weren't afraid of the cows because they were as gentle as pets, most of the time.

Except in the spring. And that's why every spring my dad made sure he told us kids a story about cows. He told us how the mother cow gets very protective when her calf is born and that we have to be very careful when we're walking through the pastures during that time of the year.

"Sometimes," he said, "you could be walking along through the grass and not even know it and suddenly be standing next to a calf that's sleeping while its mother is grazing nearby. And this can be dangerous."

"It can be deadly," he warned us, "because the mother cow will see you and she'll charge at you if you get between her and her calf."

"But why would they do that?" we asked him. "They usually seem so friendly."

"They are friendly, most of the time. But something changes in them when their calves are born. They don't care who you are then. They only care about their calf, and anyone who gets between them and their calf is a threat to them. It's instinct for a cow to protect her calf, just like it's instinct for your mother and me to protect you. The cow will give her life for her calf just like we'll give our lives for you."

I never forgot those lessons, and I'd like to think it was this same protective instinct in my dad that compelled him to warn us about this danger. I also never fully understand what this parenting instinct was until I had children of my own. And now I know how powerful it can be and how it comes from a place deeper than our thinking or even our emotions. I also know that fathers have it just as much as mothers do. Men have it as much as women.

It's the same protective impulse that drove me to keep fighting for Mary when she was in the group homes and allowed me to face down a hailstorm of threats when I tried to bring her home and nurse her back to health. And it's the same passion for my children that drove me to write this story. There's nothing heroic or courageous about it. It's just what parents do. It's instinct.


A Last Visit to the Therapist

A few months ago, I paid another visit to the therapist I wrote about at the beginning of this story. We met outside his office, not as client and patient, but as fathers who have had similar experiences who might offer each other support. It had been two years since I had seen him and I wasn't sure what to expect. I didn't even know why I was meeting with him again except that I knew I needed some closure to this part of my story and maybe even to this part of my life. I also wanted to know if things had improved with him and his sons.

Our stories are very similar. He's a devoted father who has been hurt terribly by his children's loss. He has three boys. I have three girls. He's still in touch with one of his sons like I'm still in touch with my oldest daughter. And like me, he's tried for years to reconcile with his sons knowing full well what happened to them. As a therapist and as a parent, he knows how easily children can be turned against another parent and how severe and lasting this damage can be. He hasn't seen his sons for 12 years and doesn't expect to see them again, ever.

But our stories are different too.

He says he doesn't think about his sons any more because he's moved on and can't keep dwelling on them. It's over as far as he's concerned. And this was still his advice for me: to forget my kids. He had hoped I would have moved on by now, or will now that I'm coming to the end my story.

I told him my story isn't finished, however,  even if a part of it is. I said that I'm still holding out hope of seeing my kids again, and I asked him why he didn't feel the same.

"There's too much pain, and they hate me and I'm not going to go where I'm not wanted. I'm going to accept this," was his answer.

"I understand," I replied, "but I still think there's a part of them that wants to be with us. They had to bury a big part of their past just to go on living. That can't be right. That can't be healthy. I don't want to be doing the same thing. It would be like burying them. How can that be good?"

"Well you need to realize that your kids are different people now," he said, "and so are you. It's been almost three years since you've seen them, and you all have different lives now."

"Not that different. We were very close; and deep down I believe they really do know why we aren't together any more, and I think they want to be. They're children in many ways and can't fully understand what happened to us. Besides, someone has to challenge the lies they've been told. A lot of lies and misunderstandings have snowballed into the eradication of us from each other's lives and this seems like something that could be fixed. I understand moving on, but I don't want to until I've tried everything I can to get in touch with them. I don't think we should run from things like this or it will never get better for any kids or parents."

Well, it's your choice," he reminded me. "You can either have a life or you can't. You've got a lot of living left to do, even if your kids aren't going to be part of it. You can't keep fighting this forever." 

His advice for me was to let go because the damage is irreparable. And while I relish the thought of not having the pain of constantly missing my girls, I don't want to cut the ties to them either. Maybe I'm afraid that when the pain is gone, the memories will also be gone. 

Plus I can't help but think of something I read in the book Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome, by Amy Baker. She interviewed adults who were alienated from their parents when they were young, like our children are. These kids (now grown) didn't realize what had happened to them until years later, but they all realized it at some point, even though it was too late for most of them to have a relationship with their parents again.

But what I remember most about her interviews, is that all the children said that, even though they rebuffed their parents' efforts to contact them, they all wished their parents had kept trying. Some parents did. Some didn't.


Moving On


Just like the therapist still has a connection with one of his sons, I still have a connection with my oldest daughter, Josie. I haven't written about her as much as the other girls, and that's probably because I still have her in my life and I take that for granted. 

But we're extremely close and have a connection that's hard to explain. Sometimes when she calls me, I already seem to know if she's having a bad day and even what's bothering her -- something I can only imagine is the result of the years spent holding her, feeding her, reading to her, and listening to her tell me all about her  world in the way only a child can. But she's still 2000 miles away and we haven't seen each other for over two years.

But I plan to see her soon. She wants me to move out to Oregon where she lives, and I'll probably do this.

Like me, she doesn't have much contact with the rest of the family either -- not nearly as much as she would like. She hardly talks to Grace at all and only occasionally to Mary, and all my girls were always very close — that is, until forces drove us all apart a few years back. Grace probably doesn't talk to her because Josie is on the wrong side of battle lines that were drawn when we were all forced apart — ones all my girls had to draw. How nice for them.

For a long time I was afraid I was losing Josie too, but that was because my world was coming apart and I didn't know who was still in it. When Grace's mother told me Grace never wanted to see again, I texted Josie and said something to her about moving out to be near her. When she didn't return my text immediately, I got panicky and texted her back:

"What's wrong, Jos? Don't you want me in your life either? You're the only family I have."

She texted me back: "Dont' worry, Dad. Settle down. Of course I want you in my life. You know I'll always love you."

I knew this was true, but I was shaken to my core and I needed to know if any of my children were still in my life.

Sadly, I've had to rely on Josie more than I've wanted to over the past two years, but we've talked about this and she understands. She knows what happened to our family, even though she doesn't like talking about it, which I understand. And so we haven't talked about it much. She figured it out for herself, however, after that crazy Christmas back here.

She understands why it's hard for me to look at pictures of Grace and Mary without breaking down, and how I've had to close myself off from places and things that bring back their memories. And I think she feels the same pain. She certainly remembers all the times I called her crying and telling her how much I missed the girls and how I didn't know how I to forget them — something no child should ever be burdened with, but something I believe any parent in the same situation would do.

One of my biggest fears, however, is that all my girls are now going to grow up thinking this is how families are supposed to act — that it's normal behavior. And I want them to know that it's not normal for a parent to never see his or her child again, and that instead it's a freakish, unnatural thing that makes an abomination of childhood, parenthood, and everything we're taught "family" is supposed to stand for.

I thank God I still have Josie in my life. I don't know what I would do without her. She wants me to move out to Oregon to be near her, and that's something I'll probably do. She's still young and still needs a father in her life, and I'm not going to go through another Father's Day, or any holiday, without at least one of my children in my life. That's a dream I've missed.

But I have another dream -- that maybe someday Mary and Grace can also find their way to where Josie and I are and see it as the safe place it is -- safe from all the craziness that tore us apart, the way Josie does now, and the way Mary did when she visited Josie and was able to call me

And maybe the only waiting I'll ever do again is when I'm waiting for them to pick me up in a book store when I'm an old man, and we can be together again as a family without having to worry someone's going to try to take us from each other. We haven't felt that in years. And maybe then, just maybe, we can finally move beyond the secrets and the lies.



Mary, Dad, Josie, and Grace


          Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy.
— Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger


The End 
 (of this part)




2 comments:

Jennifer said...

I just sat and read through your whole blog in one day. I have so much I want to say to you, first of all, I found your blog because my son was just diagnosed with NLD today after we spent years being told he had everything from bipolar to Asperger's, ODD, ADHD, etc etc. I was looking for information when I found your blog. The second thing I want to tell you is that this year has been a year of grieving for me because the stepdaughter I have raised since she was 2 and loved like she was my own daughter, succumbed this last year, to her mother's never ending campaign of PAS and left us to live with her. And the last thing I want to tell you is that I myself was a victim of PAS. And by victim I don't mean my role as a stepparent, but that of a child of divorced parents. My mother actually started her PAS before they were divorced, when I was a baby, even. I was manipulated to believe that my father hated me, only loved my sister, and abused me in many various ways. I was estranged from my dad for many years, and I suffered greatly for it. A couple of years ago, when I was in my early 30s, the sky broke open and I realized I'd been lied to by my mother for my whole life. My sister was lied to, as well, but I was more easily manipulated, and believed her more readily. I have since cut my mother from my life, reconnected with my father and am working my way through the pain of not having any real childhood memories because my mother replaced my memories with whatever served her best. Thank you for sharing your story. Your daughters will know the truth one day, I know they will. As thick as I was, I figured it out.

John Brosnan said...

Jennifer, thank you so much for the comment and testimonial. What a wonderful bookend to the end of this part of my story.

I'm sorry to hear about your children: the one with NLD and the one you lost to parental alienation. I'm also sorry about what you had to go through as a child as a victim of parental alienation and all the years you missed being with your father. I'm glad you found each other again.

I'd like to know how you came to this realization, because, as you know, I want my children to also realize what's happening to them, before it's too late for us. I can only hope the "sky opens up" for them too.

Your comment gives me hope, and I would enjoy talking with you about your story.

Thanks, John

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