Monday, May 12, 2014

Ozzie, Harriet, Mormonism and Me

"Her idea of the 'ideal life' was definitely an Ozzie and Harriet dream."

So wrote a friend who knew my mother. She had written to me after reading this post I published the other day about my mother. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was a TV show that ran throughout the 50's and half-way through the 60's. It portrayed the "All-American nuclear family," and is often used to describe the wholesome image of the post-war ideal that many parents, including my mother, strove to achieve.

(The above picture was probably taken on Mothers Day around 1964. L-R are my sister Karen, my brother Danny, me and my brother Mike. Wasn't I cute?)

As I described in the post about Mom that I wrote the other day, she had a difficult and troubled childhood. "Her childhood," wrote my friend, "was not something she really wanted to remember ... Gloom and doom was basically how she described her early years." As I read and re-read my friend's e-mail, I gradually came to see how there had been some similarities between my mother's approach to parenthood and my own, especially during the first ten years or so of my marriage.

First, there is the matter of control. Mom had a chaotic childhood and therefore sought security through control. My friend referred to this, i.e., the structure Mom wanted to have in her life - meal times, nap times, bedtimes, rules about this, rules about that, etc. Similarly, I admit to being controlling as a parent - not in the way my mother was, but controlling through the structure of Mormon family life. I, too, had had an abusive childhood. Mormonism offered to me a ready-made structure for my role as a father; all I had to do was follow the plan, obey the rules and apply the teachings.

Second, I was struck by my friend's "Ozzie and Harriet" reference. Mom wanted to achieve that ideal, but she didn't have the tools and she denigrated herself in the process, constantly striving for  unattainable perfection, hurting both herself and her children. After all, we kids were expected to play our part in the attainment of perfection.

Similarly, my idea of the "ideal life" was the ideal presented by the Mormon Church of loving parents and obedient and well-adjusted children. I reacted to my childhood upon joining the Church in the same way my mother did upon marrying, i.e., by doing everything I could to escape my past (and my homosexuality).

I imagine that Mom jumped at the chance to marry my Dad. His family represented everything Mom wanted but had never had- stability, togetherness, a degree of love she had not experienced, a large family which she could become a part of and escape her lower-class, somewhat gritty background.

My father and his family in front of their farmhouse near Salem, Illinois. Dad is kneeling, looking away from the camera.

I believe that my mother was probably ashamed of her background and felt very insecure as she integrated herself into small-town life with lots of sisters-in-law. She worked very hard to be the all-American homemaker (not so much a mother, but a homemaker), through her baking, her bridge club, and her housekeeping. I remember her saying once that we children "could have eaten off her kitchen floor."

A birthday party at Grandma Broom's house in 1954 or 1955. Various Broom uncles, aunts and cousins are pictured. Mom is holding my brother Danny. My sister, upon seeing this picture, commented that Mom was the only adult not wearing a hat. I hadn't notice that until she mentioned it.

Similarly, when I joined the LDS Church, I admit to feeling somewhat ashamed of my family background in light of the Mormon ideal that presented itself to me. Ideal Mormon families did not - or so I thought at the time - have abuse, divorce and dysfunction in their background. (I later came to realized how ridiculous that was.) Like me, I suppose that Mom thought that if she could just be perfect and raise a perfect family, she would be able to purge the ghosts of her past.

Getting back to my friend's email, I could and did relate to her statement that Mom thought that if she did everything the opposite of the way she was raised (i.e., with respect to parenting), it would probably be the "right way." Mom had no real parenting role models. Her father was not a part of her life due to the divorce of my grandparents, which was frankly a blessing. Her mother, meanwhile, was too busy trying to survive. She certainly was not the loving, doting mother ideal that my other grandmother exemplified. Though they shared the same name (Nellie), my grandmothers had had completely different life experiences and were two very different women.

As was the case with my mother, my parenting role models were not ideal. So Mom and I both tried to be a "good parent" through adherence to others' ideals. In Mom's case, it was the whole Ozzie and Harriet thing; in my case, it was the Mormon ideal. Neither one of us had a good sense of ourselves that would have allowed us to be parents from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.

Fortunately, the wheel had moved forward enough in my case that I could be in a better place when I became a parent. Nevertheless, I made mistakes - plenty of them. I was, however, finally able to get to a place where I cast off others' expectations of me as a parent and and adherence to others' ideals of parenthood. That was when I began the journey of being a parent from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.

Mom, later in her life

Unfortunately, Mom never had that opportunity. As my friend pointed out, she lived in a different time. "She was never taught that it was all right to show her true feelings ... I always felt that if she had received *good* therapy, things might have been different. But in those days, the doctors just gave you pills and you went on your merry way. Talking about your feelings, especially to your family, was just not done."

I am grateful that things have been different for my generation - and for me.

No comments:

Post a Comment