I was 9 years old. He and I were standing in the driveway of our home in Meridian, Miss. In just a couple of months, we would move yet again — to Anniston, Ala., this time.
He poked his finger into my little chest as we stood there. I don’t remember his exact words, but I remember being very confused at his anger. Nobody had ever said a word about my weight before. I seemed to be about the same proportions as all my friends, although I was slightly taller and was built bigger than they were. But my father angrily told me I had to start running — so I wouldn’t be fat.
I felt very ashamed of myself.
Not only did this mean I must look terribly ugly to everybody, but I had obviously disappointed my father. More than anything else, I wanted his approval — and I couldn’t ever seem to do enough. Or be enough.
As soon as we moved to Anniston — actually a rural hamlet outside of town called Choccolocco — I had to start running. Our new house was far off the main road and the last quarter mile or so was unpaved. I was assigned to run up and down that dirt road — and keep doing it until he said I could stop.
Even though I was terrified of being caught slacking, I simply couldn’t keep going as long as he demanded. After awhile, I would get out of his sight and then stop to catch my breath, waiting long enough that I should have been able to make it to the other end and come back.
This sort of thing happened off and on. It seemed to depend on his mood. If he happened to be in a bad mood, he would start lecturing me about being fat and tell me to go start running. I never knew what to expect.
After we moved into town, the running stopped. I don’t remember him talking about my weight much after that — but I never lost the fear that I was fat, even though I can look at pictures of myself from middle school and high school and realize my size was perfectly normal.
As an adult, I finally figured out what caused my father’s behavior. My mother had started gaining weight — and I think he was afraid his children would gain weight as she did. It was very important to him to look good. He was obsessed with looking good in public — with us looking perfect for other people — and I think his fear of his son not looking like him pushed him to plant this seed of shame in me.
He used many other words that had negative effects — and maybe I’ll talk about others in time — but the two that seem to have stuck with me the most were “fat” and “lazy.”
If I slept late on a Saturday, for instance, he might come storming into my room and start yelling about how lazy I was not to be up and working. Especially if I had something to get done that day which he had told me to do — cut the grass, for instance — he would call me lazy if I didn’t get up early and do his work first.
He liked going to bed early and getting up early. I’ve always been a night owl and do my best work at night. But he insisted that I should be like him in every way. Whatever choices I might make — based on my own personality and preferences — were wrong if they weren’t like what he would do.
He would deny this today — and he’s never been willing to talk about it when I’ve brought it up — but he wanted his son to be a clone of him. I’m nothing like him — and he constantly used his angry words to try to bully me into being like him. (His calling me fat back then also created a struggle with this self-fulfilling prophecy that I’ve struggled with for years.)
All it did was make me feel I could never be good enough for him. Even when I did something that others were honoring me for — at school or church, for instance — he would tell me I could have done even better if I had done things his way. Even in my moments of child and teen glory, he made me feel like a failure.
I’m thinking about all this today because of a message that a friend sent me last night. She was telling me about the circumstances of her own childhood — and her feelings when her abuser was dying — and I haven’t been able to get her story out of my mind.
“I was told I was worthless, an idiot, a waste of space, a mistake,” she wrote. And she told me she still has some scars on her skin from places where he put out his cigarettes on her body.
What I experienced wasn’t as physically abusive as what she went through, but we each have emotional scars. And despite our best efforts to reason with our adult selves and let ourselves know those words can’t hurt us now, the words are still running on some endless-loop tape from the past — taunting us when we least expect it.
The things we tell our children stick with them longer than we think. Many of them remain lodged in their brains — like little pieces of programming — for the rest of their lives.
Let your children be who they are. Don’t try to force them to be clones of you. And remember that the words you’re using with them — and the words you’re allowing other people to use with them — are going to be with them for many years. Maybe for life.
Raising emotionally healthy children is the most important job we have. Your children deserve your love and respect — and they deserve your protection from those whose angry words might leave them wounded for life.