First “Do No Harm” by Theresa O’Neil Knight
September 1st, 1997
My daughter Grace shared a dream with me the other day. She told me it was a “kaflooey” dream. I don’t know where she picked up the word, but I have learned during the past year that it means “boy-girl stuff.”
She was a little hesitant and seemed embarrassed by the dream, but she wanted to tell me and I was curious about the content of a five-year-old’s “kaflooey” dream and encouraged her. I assured her she could tell me anything and it would be okay.
In her dream she was standing in a river with her daddy who was “wearing shorts.” She said they “fell in love.”
I was embarrassed. I didn’t know what to say so I laughed, perhaps a little too loudly. I think I was buying time to know how to respond. She looked betrayed. I could plainly see that she felt ridiculed and shamed. She turned away from me and refused to finish telling the dream. I immediately and overwhelmingly regretted my response, but I knew its source. Little girls have crushes on their fathers. It is okay – healthy – normal, even. Intellectually I know that, but nevertheless my response was a gut reaction from a lifetime of negative conditioning. Expressing anything related to one’s own sexuality was strictly verboten while I was growing up. Any natural curiosity or question, any dialogue or action that even hinted of self-awareness in that regard lead to firm rebukes or shaming – even if you weren’t exactly aware of what was going on.
I remember clearly two particular incidents from my early childhood. In the first I was playing with our collie, Babes. She was little more than a puppy, so I must have been about 8- or 9-years-old then. My brother was teasing the dog with a dish rag and it looked like great fun, so I joined in. The whole family was in the room, laughing. As the dog got really into the game, she got a little overexcited, I guess, because she had a go at my leg. I didn’t know what she was doing, so I kept laughing. I thought she was playing. My mother had an immediate, visceral response. I don’t remember her exact words, but she made it clear I had done something truly disgusting. I was horribly embarrassed and felt confused and shamed. I can still remember it clearly to this day, 25 years later.
In the other memory I was younger – maybe 5 or 6. My family was visiting relatives in New York. I was shy and quiet then and I remember sitting outside on the steps by myself while my more outgoing sister and brother played with our cousins inside. My cousin Jimmy, who is a year or so older than I, came outside and sat down de me. We talked for what seemed like a long while. He was very kind and persuaded me to go inside to play with everyone.
Jimmy and I decided to pretend we were “married.” We lay down straight as boards on opposite sides of a bed. Our brothers and sisters pretended to be our children. My sister Belinda, the family tattle tale in those days, ran downstairs and told on us. My mother tore up the stairs at 100 miles per hour, dragged me out of the room in obvious disgust and made me sit in a wooden rocking chair in the living room while everyone else went on playing.
The depth of my humiliation was immeasurable. I felt vile and dirty.
For more than two decades I could scarcely look my cousin Jimmy in the face. Even though he and my brother became close friends over the years, I somehow managed to avoid nearly all conversation and interaction with him. It is only in the past several years that I can feel comfortable whatsoever in his presence.
My point isn’t to highlight how badly my mother reacted – I understand she is the product of her own parents’ value system and fears. I understand now that she thought she was somehow protecting my moral fiber. My point is that I want to do things better. I want desperately to save Grace any of those agonies. I want her to act appropriately, of course, but my idea of instilling values doesn’t extend to shaming because I want her to arrive at adulthood with as little emotional baggage as possible.
I waited until Grace had more or less forgiven my laughter, and I assured her once again that she could tell me anything. I coaxed the rest of the G-rated dream from her and proved to her it was okay. She seemed relieved and I’m pretty sure it won’t lead to an uncomfortable memory approaching that of cousin Jimmy or Babes the collie.
I like the physicians’ credo, “First do no harm.” (Or is that the lawyer’s credo?) Either way, it applies to parenting as well. Motherhood is difficult, but I think I’m getting the hang of it.
Theresa O’Neil Knight is a freelance writer and illustrator who lives in Boston, Virginia, with her daughter Grace, son Ian, and husband Jeff. She is expecting her third child in December.