Labels and the Damage Done
This is the story of a middle-class family who lived in a small city on the east coast of the United States in the 1970’s. Two parents, Teacher Dad and Homemaker Mom, had three children: two girls and their younger brother. There should have been four children, but one child died when she was a baby. The brother was “full of the Dickens” when he was little. He found trouble whenever and wherever he could. As he grew older, he became a real Piece of Work.
Money was tight in the household, so during the summer months, Teacher Dad became Part-Time House Painter to make ends meet. He often fought with Homemaker Mom. Teacher Dad yelled so loudly at times the kids thought the walls would splinter apart and crumble to the ground. The oldest daughter would position herself at the bottom of the stairs when her parents fought up in their bedroom. She’d cock her ear and pray she didn’t hear the word “divorce.”
The younger of the two sisters, the middle child, was sweet and kind and loving and caring. In fact, when she was little, she was known as Sweet and Loving. But she cried. A lot. She always seemed to be upset about something. This irked Homemaker Mom and Teacher Dad, who didn’t know how to handle emotional upset, so Sweet and Loving came to be known as Super Sensitive.
“You can’t look at her cross-eyed without a barrage of tears!” said Homemaker Mom.
As the children grew, the older sister saw how Super Sensitive and her display of emotion irritated her parents, especially Homemaker Mom. And Piece of Work was always in trouble for something, which triggered more arguments and fighting between the parents. The older sister discovered it was better to keep things to herself; best not to bother her mom and dad with any of her “feelings,” even though fear and confusion wrapped themselves around her like an itchy, woolen blanket. Her parents appreciated how the daughter didn’t share any of her upset because Homemaker Mom told her how “strong” she was. The older sister learned to steel herself against feelings and emotional turmoil, and in turn, ingratiated herself to her parents and other adults in the family. She didn’t want to burden her mom and dad like her sister and brother seemed to do.
Although Homemaker Mom was grateful for her oldest daughter’s “strength,” she didn’t like the flip side that came with it. Because the oldest daughter kept feelings to herself, and didn’t allow herself to feel anything really, it meant she couldn’t open herself up to be kind and loving with Super Sensitive. When the oldest daughter was in her teens, full of hormones and a snarly attitude, Homemaker Mom would get angry when the girl would be standoffish and withdraw from people. The mom would get in her daughter’s face and say, “You are cold and aloof! People don’t like you when you act this way!” The girl didn’t know what “aloof” meant, but it didn’t matter. She’d earned her epithet: Cold and Aloof. In reality, she should have been called, “Scared and Misunderstood.”
Homemaker Mom would often tell, albeit with anger and vitriol in her voice, how fortunate Cold and Aloof was to have a younger sister who loved her and looked up to her. Cold and Aloof was riddled with confusion. After all, she was Cold and Aloof. Why would sweet and loving Super Sensitive want to be like someone so vile? Hearing it as often as she did and with seeming disgust from her mother only made Cold and Aloof resent Super Sensitive more.
“You don’t know how lucky you are!” Homemaker Mom barked. “I always wanted a sister when I was growing up. I would have killed for one!”
Cold and Aloof seemed to be doing everything wrong. One minute, Homemaker Mom loved her strength; the next, she hated her for not being warm and loving. Super Sensitive believed she’d been adopted at birth because she felt so isolated from the family. She believed no one loved or cared about her.
Cold and Aloof and Super Sensitive packed up their hurt and anger in rolling suitcases and lugged them into adulthood, where the past settled in and took up residence in their lives. Whenever the sisters got together for holidays and family functions, feelings and emotions that had been repressed for years would explode on the scene, like a scary Jack-in-the-Box after its handle had been cranked one too many times. Eyeballs would roll, snarky comments would be hurled back and forth, and uncomfortable silences ensued. The family tried to act happy and normal, like those portrayed in Norman Rockwell paintings, but underlying tensions gurgled beneath the surface of their pseudo happiness.
Those tensions reached a boil one crisp, spring day when Cold and Aloof unleashed her anger on Super Sensitive. The older sister imagined herself as the coyote from Saturday morning cartoons. She depressed the detonator on the small red box with TNT in yellow letters, and released years of pent up frustration from non-validated feelings and complicated emotions. Caustic accusations flowed, tears spilled, and voices cracked. The girls were ill-equipped to handle the enormity of their sorrow. The rift that had its beginnings in their childhood had split open and become an emotional chasm neither of the girls thought they’d ever repair. Teacher Dad and Homemaker Mom were appalled as they stood on the sidelines, spectators of the fallout. Bereft of emotional intelligence themselves, they were shocked their girls despised each other as much as they did.
When she was in her mid-20’s, Cold and Aloof began seeing a therapist. She would see two more over the course of the next twenty years, one of whom had to completely “re-parent” her, and help her shed the coat of Cold and Aloof. Super Sensitive also sought professional help, and both girls slowly began to rectify their relationship, an undertaking that would last the next twenty years and take five therapists trained in the art of navigating human emotion.
One day, after many sessions with her counselor, Cold and Aloof told Super Sensitive: “I don’t feel cold and aloof, so I don’t want to be thought of that way anymore.”
Super Sensitive shot back: “I don’t feel super sensitive. I want to be able to have an emotion and not be criticized for it.”
So the sisters agreed to never use those painful words against each other ever again. They began to see each other as who they truly were: Sara and Mary.
Both girls married and had children of their own. Mary has two boys, and Sara has two girls, a karmic blessing not lost on her. It is now her duty to raise two daughters and break the cycle of emotional ill health that has been passed down to her and her siblings. How would she do it?
“I will never label them,” she promised. And she didn’t.
Sara’s girls have heard “I love you” every day of their lives, something Sara and her siblings rarely heard when they were growing up. Sara didn’t want her daughters to question if their parents really loved them as she had.
Homemaker Mom and Teacher Dad watched how Sara and Mary have raised their own children—with unconditional love and patience and understanding. Witnessing this changed them, and they’ve become Wonderful Grandparents to their grandchildren. They say, “I love you” to their grandkids. They even say it now to Sara and Mary and their younger brother, George. Although it’s loving and positive, saying “I love you” to her parents feels awkward for Sara, and this saddens her. Telling someone you love them should feel warm and wonderful and affirming, like it does when she says it to her husband and their daughters. It feels uncomfortable when she says it to anyone in her family of origin. She prays this awkwardness will erode over time, before it’s too late.
Damage and suffering occurred, but the family has done its best to bandage old wounds. They’ve grown into a cohesive unit, one in which members love and respect one another. Labels have been torn off and thrown in the trash, where they belong.
Amy Simonson is now a stay-at-home mother who writes full-time from northern New Jersey. She’s had an essay published about her 9/11 experience in a local newspaper in Huntersville, North Carolina, a short story, “Third Shift” published by Blue Cubicle Press in 2009, and two “Six Sentences”: one published online, and one in a printed anthology.