I was doing my homework when my mother sat down in front of me, plopping a cutting board down on her lap. “Where is all of his money going? I just don’t understand why he doesn’t have enough to pay the bills.” She spat this out to me in her thick Jamaican accent while she cut a potato. As she talked, the knife seemed to hit harder and harder against the cutting board.
I didn’t reply to my mom because I knew she didn’t expect an answer. She just needed to spew and for me to listen to how annoyed she was with my father. I was 10, and my parents had been fighting about money problems for as long as I could remember. Recently my mother had started looking to me as the person to confide in.
I felt this was a conversation she should have with my father instead of venting to me, because I wasn’t able to do anything about it. I also didn’t like hearing her bash my dad, although he did spend a lot of his money on lottery tickets. As a result, my mom had to pick up the slack by working overtime. She had been a nanny for about three years. My dad was a taxi driver.
“If it were up to him we would all be put out on the street. All I ever ask him to do is pay the f-cking phone and cable bills. I pay the rent, the water, gas and light bills. All he does is gamble away his money. He has no sense of responsibility.” Her critical tone filled the room.
“Two f-cking bills,” she reiterated, her voice rising with every word.
I found her endless rants about my dad draining.
“Call your dad and tell him I need the money by tomorrow,” she demanded.
I murmured, “OK.” I felt a rush of aggravation. Even though I had grown accustomed to being a messenger between my parents, it made me furious. Going back and forth between my dad and mom was upsetting. They often told me to tell one another to ‘f-ck off” or my mom used terms like b-tch to describe my dad. She would say, “Tell him I said it just like that.”
I often asked myself, “Why can’t they just talk to each other like normal adults?” I felt stuck in the crossfire without any way of getting out. Why did I have to do their dirty work?
Here We Go Again
Over the years, my parents seemed to fight more often than not. My dad can’t move out because he doesn’t have enough money to pay for his own place. About a year ago, my dad started sleeping either on the living room floor or in my brother’s room when he was away at college.
They remind me of children fighting over a squeaky toy. Their yelling bounces off the walls at full volume, each word filled with anger and pain and used to hurt one another.
A typical fight goes like this: “When are you going to give me the money for back-to-school shopping?”
“Didn’t I tell you I don’t have the money? I’ll get it to you when I can.” My dad sounds annoyed, not apologetic.
In response, my mother’s nose flares and her eyes widen. “You always say that, but you never come through.”
I turn to face my younger sister and mouth the words, “Here we go again.”
“You bring out the worst in me and you don’t provide enough for the children,” my mom says vindictively. This statement makes my dad heated because he hates when his financial stability is questioned.
“That is not true. You leave the kids alone to do whatever it is that you do,” he says, implying that she is running around with other men. Sometimes he inches forward and hovers over her as a way of intimidating her, but my mom rarely backs down.
Sometimes I step in between them and watch their movements nervously. I resent doing this because I am afraid of getting hurt.
I only remember one time my dad got physically abusive with my mom. I was 7. My older brother was 12 and he got in the middle of them to break it up. He told my dad, “Do not hit my mother.” Then my dad slapped my brother across his face.
Special Bond With My Dad
I can’t talk to either parent about how their fighting affects my two siblings and me. They have made it clear it isn’t my place to tell them how to behave. I was raised in a Jamaican household where parental authority is supposed to be respected, and when I cross the line I am punished. I’ve gotten a beating and lost privileges like my phone and TV.
Over the last six months, the fighting has increased; now it’s almost every day. As a result, my mother put my father out. Before, I would see him almost every day for dinner and he’d talk with us kids about how we were doing in school. He’s been sleeping in his car, which stays parked across the street. He comes over to shower but otherwise tries to avoid my mother. I hardly see him.
This is particularly hard for me. Although I am close to both my parents, I have a special bond with my dad. When I was 3 he brought me to America from Jamaica before he brought the rest of my family here. We were living in poverty in Jamaica; my parents’ plan was for him to find a job here and then send for everyone.
Since my mom and aunts had jobs and my grandmother already had my siblings and lots of cousins to take care of, I came here with my dad. It was just the two of us for about two years. During this time my dad became a taxi driver. He chose that kind of work so he could make his own hours and drop me off and pick me up from daycare.
My dad’s living situation upsets me not just because I miss him but because he is often sick. Whenever I see him, he is sniffling and complaining about his back pains. I figure this is from him having to sleep in his car, which can’t shield him from the cold. This also makes me feel that all of the fighting is not worth it.
Now that I am older I have tried to talk to my parents about how their fighting affects me, but I haven’t been successful. They talk over me or sometimes ignore me completely. If I could talk to them, I would tell them that when they fight I feel drained and useless because I cannot fix the situation. I would suggest they try approaching their conflicts with patience and empathy. I would also suggest that they have mature conversations without the use of derogatory language and to deal with the conflicts themselves instead of dragging their kids into it.
Since this is out of my control to change, I find comfort elsewhere. I’ve embraced my love for writing and I often write down how I feel to release any built-up anxiety. Now, instead of trying to change my parents’ relationship, I focus more on my school work and hobbies I enjoy. I love watching basketball, which takes my mind off of my problems.
One thing I’ve learned is how important it is for kids to grow up with parents who have constructive, respectful ways of communicating with each other. When I’m an adult, I will make sure that my partner and I can do that well, and that we create a positive environment for our children.