Stopping the cycle of abuse is one challenge, but a bigger challenge is knowing how to raise a son when the men in your life are abusers.
I was raised in a tight knit family. Both sets of my grandparents lived in my small home town, as well as all of my aunts and uncles. I went to school with all of my cousins at the same private school. We spent holidays and weekends with our large extended family. They were our social circle, with few outsiders allowed inside our heavily fortified walls.
It could have been the ideal childhood, straight out of a Rockwell painting. But it wasn’t. My family tree was filled with dysfunction, particularly among the male limbs and branches. Both of my grandfathers were angry men with voices that were quick to climb up the volume scale. I knew they had been raised in less than desirable circumstances. They carried their unhappiness and bitterness everywhere they went like ugly, noxious baggage.
My father’s father was a brutal drunk. I know my dad suffered at his hands. In turn, my father carried his pain into his relationship with me. I suffered at his hands, for more years and in more ways than my mind could handle. There was no kind uncle or other male role model for me to look up to, either. Alcoholism, pain or anger claimed them all.
I tried to find a healthy man I could look up to and admire to marry. I wanted to break the cycle of intergenerational dysfunction for my children. I was determined they would have a good relationship with their father. I needed that, especially if I had sons. Without brothers or any healthy male role models in my youth, I had no clue how to raise a healthy boy into a good man.
But my first choice was a poor one. Infidelity was more attractive to him than I was. Our marriage ended as did my hope that he would be the man who would help me raise the children I wanted. In hindsight that was a good thing, even though it felt like a huge loss at the time.
I chose again. This time I married a man who already had children, including a young son who was a delight. It seemed like a guarantee that all would be well. And yet it was not. He worked hard to provide for his family. But then he came home and went to bed, leaving the children and I to fumble our way through a tenuous relationship. Surely, I thought, when he and I had children things would be different. When I got pregnant I hoped the baby would be a girl though, as I still felt unsure of my capacity to raise a son.
I had a boy. My husband did not change. I was left to raise our son and my stepchildren alone. No role models. No guidance. Nothing but uncertainty.
I made it through the early years, feeling my way in the dark. I did my best to lay a foundation of kindness, compassion and courtesy within my son. Those, I thought, were universally good character traits. Hopefully, by the time he nine or ten I would have figured out a roadmap guiding me to how to raise a good young man.
All of my role models had failed me; male relatives, my father, my choice of husbands. But I held onto hope that I would not pass a dysfunctional legacy onto my son. He would not grow into a broken man. I would not be a mother who said, “I taught him what I knew” because I was all too aware that I didn’t know a lot of things, especially the right things.
When my son was five his father and I divorced. We moved from an affluent community into one where everyone was fighting to stay afloat. I knew no one. Struggling to pay the bills and keep a roof over our heads, I was raising my boy alone.
I cobbled together a network of resources to help me fill the large gaps in my knowledge. I read books and consulted experts. I watched men as they moved through the world. At every turn I combined this information with my own experience, hoping to come up with the right formula I needed to raise my boy into a man who would not fail his children.
Everywhere I went I studied and assessed the men around me. What characteristics did I want my son to have? What did the world seem to value in men? As an abuse survivor I had visual analysis of men down to a science. I honed the skill trying to stay safe as a child and used it as an adult to compile a laundry list of behaviors I thought healthy men displayed.
I found men in my community whose character I admired. Upon talking with and listening to them I reverse-engineered their development. Who had been influential in their youth? Where had they spent their childhood and what had they spent it doing? What did they value the most now as adults? Where did they invest their time? Working backwards I tried to lay out my road map. It wasn’t perfect, in fact I’m sure it was flawed. But it was more than I had before I began.
I read books, talked to experts and scoured the internet. We learned shaving techniques from YouTube. I taught him about safe sex and we took a field trip to the Walmart family planning aisle.
Perhaps the most important thing I did was use my experience to determine what not to teach my son. While I couldn’t be certain what had caused the men in my family to fail me in the ways they did, I did the best I could to save my boy from those influences. I guarded both of us from exposure to those who would do us harm, even if that meant they didn’t support me in my efforts to determine what was best for him.
In the end, I’ve done the best I can. I mixed what I knew with what I learned and what I didn’t want to carry forward. I hope I have drawn my son the best road map to manhood. I pray he is on the right path to becoming a man who doesn’t fail those who will depend upon him the way the men in my family failed me.
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