Below is a potential excerpt of my memoir-in-progress. My present title is Labor Pains: Breaking Generational Patterns by Healing Maternal Wounds.
I had been pastor of my congregation for four years. It was a Friday night after dinner, and, as was our routine, Eric gave the girls a bath while I cleaned up the kitchen. Afterward we stood in our living room talking, with the sofa between us. Sophia and Zoe, ages four and two at the time, were in their jammies, hair still a little wet. They played together loudly on the floor. (This was a part of their nightly “I’m not tired and I’m gonna go overboard to prove it to you so that you won’t put me in bed” routine.) Eric was wearing very casual clothes, what he called his “stay-at-home-Dad uni.” By this hour his shirt and pants were graced with “decorations” from his hands-on day: food and drink spatterings, grass and soil spots from the lawn and garden, smudges from craft projects, and an occasional discolored spot thanks to bleach or some other cleaning product. Even though I had been home for a while, I was still in my work clothes.
We were discussing the schedule for the next day, Saturday, which in our family was supposed to be a sacred family day — unless of course I had an emergency, or a wedding, or a funeral, or a church-related meeting, workshop, or retreat.
“What are you going to do tomorrow?” Eric asked. He clenched a hard-earned beer in his right hand like it was the elixir of life, and a dish towel draped over his shoulder. Exhaustion seeped out of his pores.
“Uh…well…I thought I would…” is all I recall saying as I stammered. I was caught between knowing that I had work to do, wanting—no, needing—to spend time with my family, and subconsciously wanting—no, needing—for my answer to please Eric so that he would be pleased with me.
Eric rolled his eyes and sighed. He’d heard this stall tactic before.
“Look, it doesn’t really matter what you do. We are going to go to the farmer’s market in the morning and will do our thing the rest of the day. You are more than welcome to join us for all or part of it. If not, just let me know when you’ll be home.”
Perhaps we had engaged in similar conversations before, but Eric’s we/you language was loud and clear this time. It hit me square between the eyes.
I stood there, shocked and hurt. “When did that happen?” I asked, not blinking. I could feel the stunned look on my face that no doubt revealed my inner dread.
“When did what happen?” responded Eric, now somewhat confused and agitated.
“When did our family unit become you and the girls doing ‘y’all’s thing,’ me doing ‘my thing,’ and me being ‘invited’ to do stuff with y’all ‘when I can’ like an out of town relative?” I retorted.
He sighed. His shoulders drooped in recognizable bearer-of-bad-news body language; and he spoke softly, in an I-don’t-want-to-hurt-you-but-you-need-to-know-this tone.
“It’s been like this for quite a while. You say that your family comes first, but the way that you have come to live your life doesn’t reflect that.”
The scene blanks out for me then, because that was when the emotions came rushing in. Our years in congregational ministry flashed before my eyes, and I saw for myself what Eric had described. I was overcome with a sickening feeling. So physical was the recognition that if I could have vomited, I would have. Considering the enormity of the dismay I was experiencing, it would have taken days to expel everything.
I looked over at my daughters, so happy and sweet-smelling. They deserve so much better, I thought. They are children – inherently precious, vulnerable and dependent — and they are entitled to so much more.
I wanted to scoop up Sophia and Zoe and hug and rock them while I wept and apologized profusely for four years of distracted motherhood. I knew, though, that such a display would be more about me and would only confuse and scare them. So, I settled for handling storytime and bedtime alone. I soaked in every sound, scent, and texture in an effort to make up for opportunities missed.
As for Eric, I was remorseful. I finally began to recognize our strained and forced connection where an electric and relatively effortless one had been. I was deeply in love with him, and yet I couldn’t reach him as I previously had. He was standing right in front of me, and he felt light years away. I didn’t even know how to begin to walk towards Eric. I’d lost my way so profoundly, and he didn’t have the energy to call out to me and provide a beacon.
More dread and nausea hit me as another realization became crystal clear.
I saw my own marriage emulating that of my parents’. The pattern was repeating itself – the bi-directional family operation (again it was father and children, and a working mother with a vocation that regularly flooded its banks), the growing emotional distance, the unexamined marital discord, and the haphazard (at best) family time.
Warning! A voice screeched in my head. Remember, your parents divorced after almost 25 years of marriage (and probably could have separated sooner). Do you want this to happen to you?
Eric and I were both tired from “doing our things.” We believed ourselves to be functioning for the “team” of our family. His “territory” was the home front; and I worked the mission field earning the wages. The problem was that the foundational unit of Team Mabry Nauta, our marriage, was not coefficient. And our “team” sometimes felt more like a gathering of persons with home and name in common rather than like a family with strong relational ties.
This was exactly the kind of family life that I definitely did not want – one that resembled my own family of origin. It was deja-vu all over again, only with a new generation’s cast of characters.
The plot: Mom and her career come first and the three most important people to her live in the wake. Drama ensues as the three supporting actors attempt to scrape up the leftovers. Watch the tragedy of this husband and these children, who are malnourished of the first-order love, loyalty, and attention that are rightly theirs.
I was smacked with the truth that this was our family life. And that truth hurt.
Something had to give.