I was "lucky," in that I had two toxic fathers. My biological dad, who I didn't live with after I was 18 months old, and my step-father, who I lived with from ages 9 to 16. There are so many ways growing up with a toxic father changes how you raise your kids, and my toxic fathers most certainly changed how I raise mine.
The thing about these guys is that neither of them were toxic all the time. I'm still unpacking whether that was better or worse than having chronically toxic fathers. You see, when your father is blatantly and constantly toxic there's little room to question whether or not he is, in fact, a sh*tbag. However, when he's sometimes sweet, nice, caring, and protective, that seriously messes with your ability to trust your own interpretation of events. We call that gaslighting, and when your identity forms around it it's with you for life.
It's not all downside, though. Having two toxic fathers definitely helped refine my dark sense of humor. It also greatly informed the kind of parent I wanted to be. When I ended up deciding to create children with my cisgender male best friend, instead of a woman like I thought I would, I ended up really needing all that lived-experience to see that a father could be different. While I can't say what type of co-parent I would've been without growing up with toxic fathers, I do acknowledge how these relationships shaped me as an adult and as a mom. It's one thing to know what you don't want to be, but it's another thing to figure out who you do want to be, especially as a parent. Having two toxic fathers helped me do both.
You Think Before You Speak
I had one father who constantly communicated in veiled insults. My other father communicated in manipulative compliments with a side order of God-sauce-guilt. There is nothing like a constant mindf*ck to help you become an adamant proponent for clarity in communication. When I talk to my kids I strive to ask all of the following:
- Does it need to be said?
- Does it need to be said by me?
- Is it hurtful or helpful?
- Constructive criticism or just criticism?
- When my kid walks away will they be confused?
- When my kid walks away will they feel loved?
You Treat Your Children As Human Beings
If I might be honest for a moment? The old "children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard" is highly offensive. At least ,for now, there are plenty of ways to plan your parenthood. I was always a burden to my fathers, and in general felt neither one of them really wanted me. Their actions showed they'd rather not have me around.
As a result, when I was around I knew I better damn well do what they said, whether I liked it or not, and be exactly what they wanted me to be in the way they wanted me to be it (spoiler alert: definitely not queer). As a result, even when I'm frustrated and exhausted, I try really hard to make sure my kids know they're not in my way and that I am so glad they exist.
If you're anything like me, you make mistakes, right? We all do, even (or perhaps especially) with our children. Emotions, and the stakes, are so high. What having toxic fathers taught me is that doubling down on my mistakes is bullsh*t. While my conditioning may say, "Double down! Don't let them see weakness!" that is exactly the type of defensive behavior that caused so much pain and self-doubt in me as a child.
Not having the words to describe it as a kid made my step-dad's behavior confusing. I swallowed the message that I was not worthy of respect. He made it constantly clear that saving face was more important (to him) than making sure I was emotionally safe.
So when I make a mistake with my children (i.e. when I yell, or unfairly punish, or am distracted when I should be listening) I swallow my pride and apologize to them. I own my mistakes and we process them together. I share how I am an in-progress person, too, and that we all make mistakes.
This most important piece with children, I think, is making sure they know that no matter what our disagreement is I love them to the moon and back. Just because I struggle sometimes doesn't mean anything about their inherent worth as human beings. We repair the relationship and they see me make a conscious effort to do better next time.
You Don't Use Shame To Discipline
As Brene Brown famously teaches us, there is a difference between shame and guilt. Using one as a tool in parenting might be helpful, using the other will almost certainly be damaging.
When someone feels guilt it's about their behavior: I did a bad thing. When someone feels shame it's about the inherent worth of person: I am bad.
A small to moderate amount of guilt is an activating force. Guilt, when used effectively, can teach children about their behavior's effect on other people and the difference between right and wrong. Guilt is a part of having a conscience, and people who feel guilt see that their behavior matters and that they can change it.
Shame, however, has the opposite effect. Shame is paralyzing. When someone feels shame they generally retreat, isolate and/or act out of self-hatred. When a child thinks their "bad" behavior is due to a character defect or their inherent unworthiness? That is unchangeable. They are bad and always will be bad.
This shame-based child rearing was prevalent with both my fathers. The dark tentacles of shame take a lifetime to extricate from your insides. When you're raised with shame it's easy to revert to automatic behaviors with your own children. This is why my partner and I agreed to be intentional about not using shame as a parenting tool.
You Allow Privacy
Toxic parents don't allow their kids any privacy. Now there is obviously a difference between the age-appropriate privacy of a 5 year old and the same for a 16 year old. What my my toxic step-father taught me was that just because a smaller, less powerful person lives in a house that you pay for does not give you absolute rights to their bodies, thoughts, and belongings.
Unlike my step-dad, I'd like to instill in my child they have the right to personal privacy. Age appropriate privacy is vital for the development of strong self-esteem, sense of self, and the knowledge that you have the right to boundaries.
You Teach (And Respect) Boundaries
When your step-father is a chronic boundary violator you wonder if you're even allowed to have boundaries in the first place. What is the point of setting them if no one will listen to them?
Even though it can be hard with an obstinate 2 year old, I am adamant about respecting my children's boundaries. The word "stop" in our house is sacrosanct. When we are playing tickle monster and one of my kids says "stop," even if I'm pretty sure it's a joke, I will always stop the tickling immediately. This lets my children know that their bodies are theirs. This lets them practice having complete autonomy over their bodies (as long as they are making safe choices).
Because of this early and consistent training, if anyone does something to make their bodies unsafe or doesn't listen to their "stop" that is an immediate red flag. They will know this means to come talk to mama and get help.
My kids' autonomy as human beings will be respected and consent is mandatory. Always.
We Have Surprises, Not Secrets
There is a difference between secrets and surprises. We teach our children that secrets are hurtful and surprises are shared fun! The underlying feeling behind a secret is generally painful or shameful. It's something that relies on no one ever finding out. The purpose of a surprise is that the whole fun of it is in the finding out.
You Encourage Creativity
I actually had one dad who did encourage creativity. In the sense that he acknowledged that I was creative and showered me with praise. "Oh! You're so creative! What an imagination!" Which made me feel great, until I realized that not all of my creativity was praised the same. If it had anything to do with feminism or queer-ness? Forget it. For my dad, Madonna was a heretic and women were "feminazis." "Ellen Degeneres? More like Ellen Degenerate!"
Under the pressure to fit into the constraints of a very specific type of creativity, I'd often err on the side of caution and keep my creativity to myself.
The other dad just laughed at me when I would put myself out there in any creative and vulnerable way. Needless to say, neither of these are patterns I want to repeat with my kids. I heartily encourage my kids' copious amounts of creativity. Even if that means I have to go in the other room so they can play the drums at ear-bleeding decibels.
You Allow Independence
Toxic parents expect you to be whoever they think you should be at any cost. As a parent I believe you do teach your children your values and worldview. But most importantly you teach your child how to think critically for themselves. This way you're raising someone who can make healthy, ethical decisions for themselves rather than just follow orders.
You Tell The Truth
Some parents have really great reasons for altering the truth with their kids. I am not here to judge those reasons, and believe at the end of the day you need to do you.
However, if you're anything like me, the constant, pointless lying that is socially acceptable within child-rearing really tears up my insides. I want to teach my children the value of the truth, even when it hurts.
There are no #alternativefacts, there are only the facts. One of my fathers was a pathological liar and the other one would lie for "your own good." I am pretty sure he wouldn't have even called his omissions and fabrications lies. However, these dynamics led me to suspect very early on that I couldn't ask either one of them for the truth and expect to receive it. How f*&ked up is that?! I never knew what was the truth, what was a "harmless" lie for my own good and what was a harmful, manipulative lie. It was scary and confusing AF.
I will never do that to my kids. If they're old enough to ask, they're old enough to know the truth.
You Love Them No Matter What
It's called unconditional love. I didn't learn it from my toxic fathers, but they sure as hell taught me I wanted to give it to my kids.