Content Note: childhood, family dynamics, shame
When I was either a little girl about 5 or 6 years old, I wanted a baby doll that wet its diaper for Christmas. This was somewhere between 1975-77. I was quite thrilled when Santa brought me that doll. It wasn’t quite as fancy as some of the other neighborhood girls had, but it was definitely new and definitely mine.
She had light hair, big eyes, and a mouth perfectly shaped to accept a bottle. She wore a nightgown, maybe flannel, and she had little panties that looked like diapers. I filled her bottle with water and ‘fed’ her often. I do remember trying to give her the bottle while the doll was unclothed and creating a mess on the carpet although it was just water. Lesson learned.
That same holiday, my grandparents decided to turn their den into a dining room and bought a new dining room table set. They gave my father a wooden desk. What I probably was told, but didn’t understand was that this desk belonged to HIS grandfather who had died long before I was born, but had raised my father.
My grandparents had allowed me to color on the desk at their apartment using colored pencils they kept in a cup. So I associated it with that.
My father was excited, I remember, and set it up in our living room as we didn’t have a spare room to use as a study. It was a sturdy wooden desk, maybe oak? There was no middle drawer, that I do remember because it was roomier underneath than most desk.s
One morning soon after Christmas Day, I woke early and walked into the living room with my new doll. I saw some paper on the desk and decided to make a card or a note or some such thing. I hoisted myself into the desk chair, put my doll beside me, and began to color.
The problem was there were no colored pencils, just a black marker so I used that. Unfortunately, it was a permanent heavy duty black marker and bled through the thin paper to stain the desk.
My father was furious. I was terrified, probably lied that it wasn’t me and cried, etc.
He told me that he wanted me to feel the way he did so he took the black marker and scribbled on my new doll’s face. Then I was devastated, too, both about my doll and the fact that I made my father cry.
It was a horrible overreaction over a desk that was still perfectly fine – I didn’t actually break it or damage it, it was just a little disfigured. A nice desk calendar or blotter and he woudn’t even notice. He had many options in that moment and he chose to drag a little kid, his own daughter, down because he was angry.
It was a petulant move by someone who was the literal adult in the situation. And we had a lot of those moments – my Dad storming off from the car, leaving us stranded in the middle of the street or the time he left my mother & I Downtown over some argument, forcing her to get us back home on the bus. He intentionally destroyed other items as well, including a small statue of the Blessed Mother that my maternal grandmother had given to me. It was one of the few kindnesses she ever extended to me. He destroyed it because I was misbehaving over I don’t even remember what. He seemed to believe that we should be grateful he wasn’t hitting us, just breaking our stuff.
In that moment with the doll and the desk, my father taught me that I was a bad kid who didn’t deserve nice things and that I was also responsible for his emotional well-being. He really thought a tit-for-tat approach to discipline of a little girl was appropriate. That because his desk and my doll both had value to us respectively, it was okay to destroy my little treasure to make me feel his pain.
I spent every Christmas after that trying to make the holiday SO GREAT no matter what. I decorated and baked and scrimped to get presents. I wanted us to do all of the holiday things to fill that hole inside me that knew I would never ever be worth my father’s trust or love, that I would always have to work hard and make up for something inherent in me that I didn’t understand. I was always trying so hard.
I was a little kid whose parents should have made better decisions about where they put permanent markers. I was a little kid who had a few days with a pretty new doll before it was defaced to reflect the anger and self-loathing inside of me. I kept her and played with her a little bit, but I quickly switched my interests to stuffed animals and Barbie dolls.
This certainly wasn’t an isolated incident. I suspect if you asked anyone in my family they would not remember it and think I’m overreacting or too sensitive or other gaslighting and denial comments. It is true, it was just a doll and a desk. I wasn’t damaged by not having a perfect doll, I was damaged by having a father who thought I deserved a ruined doll for any reason. I was damaged by the inability of these two people, my father and mother, to rise to the occasion of parenting pretty much most of our lives.
I have always rationalized these memories, but I’m starting to understand now that they were far from typical childhood experiences.
I have no idea what happened to that doll. I still have my childhood stuffed BFF and my very first baby doll. Her name was Mary and I played with her when I lived with my grandparents as a toddler. Those are complicated memories as I grew more aware of the atrocities my grandparents committed. But I can’t bring myself to part with these frayed pieces of my occasional childhood happiness. I still cling to the hope that the love I thought they represented was genuine even amidst the trauma and chaos.
I’m grateful to have access to EMDR and other trauma therapies so I can finally process and step away from these experiences. Unlike my little kid self, I now realize that I can’t do it alone.
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