Sunday, 13 April 2014

"My Father Has Never Given Me Anything..."

Something I think about a lot as I re-watch the last season of Mad Men is Sally Draper's relationship with her parents. Up until she caught her father fucking Lindsey Weir in Elizabeth Taylor drag, she idolized him and saw him as the the Good Parent to Betty's Bad Parent. That's not to say that Betty isn't a Bad Parent, but isn't Don pretty terrible as a father too? Ditching his kids so he could move in with his new wife to a chic Manhattan apartment? Leaving them alone for the night without any supervision whatsoever? Sally doesn't see that, though, because she isn't around Don enough to realize what an asshole he truly is. She is around enough to bear the full brunt of Betty's anger and frustrations, though, and to take her abuse head-on. That's the thing, really. They're both horribly abusive parents, but Betty's abuse is just more obvious, especially to a child who grew up in a time when all TV moms were nurturing and kind and happy. It's easier to put Don's abandonment out of her mind, but Sally has to live with Betty's abuse every damn say.

It makes me wonder if children, and society in general, think of abusive mothers as much worse than absentee or neglectful fathers simply because mothers are not 'supposed' to have character flaws like the coldness, anger, and resentment that Betty has.

It's particularly sad, though, when a mother is abusive towards a daughter, because we think that as a woman, she should know how hard it is to constantly feel as if you are not good enough, and that she would not be so heartless to inflict that on a child. We expect heartlessness from men, so when a father abandons his children, it's obviously shitty but not at all surprising because men are generally pretty scummy or can turn scummy at a moment's notice.

My parents share some similarities to the Drapers, and it's difficult for me to reconcile my sympathy for Betty with my deep and abiding empathy for Sally. It's maybe more difficult to have a mother like Betty than it is to have a father like Don, because as a young woman growing up you have no understanding of what a healthy female friendship or companionship dynamic should feel like. We all joke about the 'daddy issues' that arise from paternal abandonment; but if a young woman doesn't know how to make friends that will set her straight and give her guidance in her relationships with men, what does she have?

It's also easier for people to understand or believe paternal abandonment from an outside perspective if they haven't experienced it. Based on personal experience, I have found that my friends and acquaintances don't know how to respond to and often don't even believe admissions of maternal abuse, be it emotional or physical.

Victims of abandonment or abuse should perhaps stop asking ourselves "who fucked me up the most, mom or dad", and rather ask ourselves "how fucked up am I, exactly, and how can I avoid fucking up my kids in the same way?". Easier said than done, of course, especially when paternal abandonment can have consequences that are not as obvious as abuse.

I wish there was an easier answer for all of this, but there isn't. I guess this is why therapists will always be able to find work.

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