EXCERPT: Room in the Heart: Surviving a Childhood Undone, Fulfilling a Pact to Love
This is a story Dana Andrews is finally ready to tell. It’s the story of how she survived a childhood of Cinderella-like emotional abuse by an unstable and punitive mother and somehow was able to fulfill a vow to raise her own five children surrounded by love. Dana says, “Looking back on the past it is easy to see that there is a plan—not always ours—that causes things to fall into place, just where they belong. We are so small in the scheme of things. Let peace fill your soul despite the noisy confusion of life. Embrace even the unexpected turns; often we make friends and learn lessons when we take these detours. There may be no flags to signify when we’ve finally healed—just a wiser, sandpapered, more patient and loving soul within us.”
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Chapter 1: The Pact
“Since you were a mistake, we were planning to abort you.”
I vividly remember hearing my mother say these words to me, in a cool, matter-of-fact tone. I was about six years old, sitting in the back seat of our family car, my baby brother Lawrence beside me. I listened, frozen in my seat, as my mother went on:
“Then we realized that you might be the boy we dreamed we might someday have. Didn’t you ever wonder why you and Bianca are only thirteen months apart? Your father and I tried for almost a year to get pregnant with her. When she was only four months old, I accidentally got pregnant with you. Bianca was so adorable and funny, and we were so happy with her—how could any other baby even compare? Well, unless it was a boy, of course.” Of all the things I did wonder, that was certainly not one of them.
From the front seat, my older sister, Bianca, turned her head towards me and delivered a sickening, self-assured grin. It was a given that only she belonged in the front seat next to our mother; I was always reminded that Bianca came first, and it was she who deserved first choice on everything from clothes, to outings, to sitting in the front seat.
Our mother often reminisced about these things, reminding us how smart and amazing Bianca was, and how when I was an infant, all of Mother’s friends told her I was neither cute nor smart. I was not the chubby, gregarious first born who was planned and long awaited. I was the skinny, quiet one, content to suck my thumb and watch the world hammer on. I hardly cried, but even so, somehow made life inconvenient from the time I was mistakenly conceived, to my birth, when I was not, in fact, the boy they had wished for. To make matters worse, apparently I refused to nurse, making my mother engorged, forcing her to lie in bed with ice on her breasts. “Oh, the pain you caused me! I was not very happy with you,” she would say.
“We thought you were retarded,” Mother mused. “You just sucked your thumb and stared into space. My friends said, ‘Look at how wonderful Bianca is! Dana doesn’t matter. She’s not even cute!’” In early infancy, I developed a cyst on my eyelid that had to be removed. Mother told me that she made my dad take me to the hospital “in case I died,” because she didn’t want to be there if that happened. When my dad brought me home later that night, mother recalled, “You smelled like the ether anesthetic they used. You stunk! I couldn’t even get near you or hold you.” My father told me how much he enjoyed holding me as an infant, I was so calm and content—but I had to be content with being held when he got home late each night.
As we became toddlers, Bianca was still chubby, with twinkly eyes that matched her outgoing, adored personality. I was skinny, seldom spoke, and had huge saucer-like eyes that, unbeknownst to mother and her friends, took everything in. Always I was placed on the back burner, forever held accountable for having been such an inconvenience from the start. I have a memory from the age of two, of being wildly spanked while on my changing table because I had dirtied my diaper. I was yanked out of my crib, half asleep, and made to feel so guilty and “bad.” Mother was angrier still because she had to take off my shoes to bathe me. She refused to take off my shoes when she put me in my crib for naptime because removing my shoes was “inconvenient” for her.
* * *
From early on, I was made to feel unloved, flawed, and unmistakably a mistake. Neither my parents nor my siblings had any use for me, other than to mock and belittle me. Yet part of me held onto little scraps of hope. I wanted to believe that God planned for me to be here. If there were indeed a God, I would tell myself, I would amount to something after all. Something deep inside my soul whispered to me that I was born for some kind of real purpose. I had to look for it on the sly, as my attempts to find who I was were constantly swamped by my mother’s behavior toward me. As a child, I dreamed of another kind of life: about one day having kids myself, and making a home where we had plentiful love, laughter, pets, and every reason to have little parties to celebrate anything happy.
I remember one particular night, when I was nine years old. That day my mother had reminded me once again that I was “a mistake that was to be aborted.” As I lay in bed that night, I decided to make a pact with God. I promised that I would gladly accept as many children as He would give me, so that I could undo, as many times as possible, the childhood I had endured. Just thinking this filled me with hope. After this, my secret pact gave me an escape hatch from my painful present, allowing me to enter a future that held everything I wanted. I could imagine spreading my happiness not only to my children, but also beyond them. Certainly I was not the only one who ever had or would have an unhappy childhood. I would somehow find a way to bring happiness to the hearts of my children’s friends who shared my childhood fate. No child I knew would cry him/herself to sleep if I could help it.
* * *
It would be many more years before I began to figure out what made my mother act the way she did towards me. Since she talked a lot about herself, I knew that my mother’s birth was also unplanned. Neither of her two older brothers welcomed her with open arms. When she was young, her wealthy parents were hardly ever home, often taking long trips through Europe. While her parents were away, she and her brothers would be left to stay with her two eccentric aunts. Her brothers would tease her mercilessly, and they punished her by hiding her dolls. Mother had trouble learning to read, and she felt inferior to her brothers, who were much older than her, and both highly intelligent—one became a professor of philosophy, and the other a successful artist. This may be one reason she spent most of her adult life on a mission to impress others with her “intelligence.” Unfortunately, the time she spent with her crazy aunts left her with no boundaries and with very odd thinking. These women were rude, nosey, dogmatic, and exceptionally arrogant.
I believe her madness and inappropriate behavior can be traced to this experience. She often acted immaturely, even bizarrely—to the point of others’ embarrassment. She would often walk around the house naked after showering, even when Lawrence was in his early teen years. I somehow knew instinctively that this was both odd and inappropriate; but when I told her I was uncomfortable with it, she would look at her very overweight naked body in a full-length mirror and tell me her body was beautiful. She believed that she could and should do whatever she wanted, and anyone who got in her way would suffer the consequences.
Mother also loved to tell dirty jokes to people she hardly knew or just recently met—it was her way of sizing them up. Those with solid boundaries would object, thereby placing themselves on her “bad” list. “How dare they not want to listen to my jokes?” she would rant later. “They don’t even know what they are missing. They are sick in the head and need help!” In later years, she even included these inappropriate jokes in emails to our children. If I objected, she insisted that it was her right, that I was being a prude, and that I had no sense of humor. Those who did laugh at her jokes and pathetic behavior became immediate friends. But she constantly had to replenish her supply of friends; any time anyone offered even the least hint of an objection, she took that as a total rejection, and she pushed them out. Then she would make sure to broadcast the details to anyone who would listen, using her latest enemy as an example of what awaited those who crossed her.
My mother never attended college; she became a phlebotomist and worked in a hospital, hoping she would find a doctor to marry. When she met my dad, he was practicing in general medicine. Even though he was much older than she was, my mother quickly took charge in their relationship. She pushed him into changing his field of practice to psychiatry, telling him that if he were in an area of medicine requiring house calls, she was afraid “some woman might steal him from her.” That’s right—my mother’s behavior toward me took place even though our father was a psychiatrist, someone who should have been trained to recognize and handle toxic behavior. This was another mystery I couldn’t confront until much later.
Mother’s irrational jealousy toward other women continued after they got married. And it expanded to include me, her daughter. My dad had stopped hugging me after I was five or six. When I asked my mother once why he never hugged me like my friends’ dads hugged them, she said, “That would be incestuous.” She was the one who had discouraged him from touching me, out of her own twisted misunderstanding. Not only was I undeserving of love from anyone, but in her eyes, I was also perverted for even thinking it was normal to want to be hugged by my dad. Once again, I was taught to never expect to be loved, cherished, or even appreciated. After all, I wasn’t even supposed to be alive…
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