Mama Obama & Daddy Donald: Growing Myself Up

“And I told them, I told them that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. And I told them that they should disregard anyone who demeans or devalues them and that they should make their voices heard in the world.”

This is the part of Michelle Obama’s speech that killed me.

How do you disregard your own father or family members if it is they who devalue you?

If a sexual predator is a parent or coach or neighbor how does a child disregard them?

I didn’t. I couldn’t. So I did something else instead.

I learned to tolerate, live with and make excuses for the way I was treated.

It’s hard to admit this but when I heard what Donald Trump said on that video 11 years ago, my actual first thought was this:

“That’s it? That’s what the breaking news is? That’s all.”

I minimized Trump’s words, not because they are “locker talk” but because they were car talk, dinner table talk. They were not said or done in secret but out in the open.

I minimized his words and his way not because it was not offensive but because it was so familiar.

That’s the part that I have been flattened by all week as I’ve steeped in my own pain and shame and memories.

What I grew up with still shapes me thoughts, feelings and even my reactions to others at times. Still. Decades later.

When I heard people say that what Donald Trump was describing was sexual assault, I thought, “It is?” before I realized, “It is!”

My step-father used to honk his horn at girls and women walking down the street. He’d pick them up female hitchhikers only and flirt with them while his seven kids were in the car.

On his 60th birthday a stripper came to his apartment. I can’t remember if she was in a cake or carrying balloons but I remember not knowing what to do with my eyes when she gave him a lap dance as he sat on a kitchen chair. I was sixteen.

He was the same man who made me sit on his lap when I was a child as he sang “Daddy’s little girl” before kissing me on the lips or having me get candy from his work pant pocket.

There would be no way to wipe the ick feeling from my lips or skin and to this day I can’t stand wet kisses.

He’d ask, “Are you a good boy or a bad girl?” to me and “Are you a good girl or a bad boy?” to my brother.

To be let go I’d have to say “I’m a bad girl” and even crying “I’m a good girl” was not an effective answer.

This is the same man who would inspect me after a shower, making me turn and spin, to be sure I got clean. He was 54. I was nine. He was 45 when he met my nineteen year old mother who already had two kids.

When I disclosed, at 17, that he had molested me I was told:

“You should go to a shrink because you think something happened to you and it didn’t,” and “Even if something did happen what do you want me to do about it now?”

By my mother.

My sister wanted to know if I was raped or penetrated or if it was “just” dirty old man inappropriate stuff I was making such a big deal of.

My step-father was the same man who bought ice cream and sang with a wonderful voice in the car. He could be jovial and so, “it’s just the way he was” was the refrain that was supposed to soothe my pain. It’s just the way he was. It’s just the way he was. Itsjustthewayhewas.

And so it’s no surprise that I became a woman who, decades later would share a bed with a man who would say,”The thing I miss most about drinking is ogling women at the bar with other men.” I would not stand up or cry out or show how punched I felt.

I listened as I pulled the blanket up over me and I told myself, “at least he’s honest.” Atleasthe’shonest.

Because the guy before him seemed sweet, sensitive and trustworthy. He told me I worried too much. When I asked, after a decade of marriage, if there was anyone else said, “You’re the only one I love.”

For years I apologized for being anxious, needy and clinging before learning all the ways and shades of unfaithfulness and that, because he hadn’t “loved” the others, he had not lied. Now, when someone says they love me it feels like a threat, a trap or a trick.

I could divorce him but not myself. The self that believed him over me. The self that valued his words over my own. His feelings over my own.

He demeaned me and I demeaned myself. But it’s more than that. I demeaned others.  I’ve minimized the experience of others.

When people got outraged about being cat called, I thought, “That kind of the least of my problems.” It could be worse….

When I hear people have an ACE score of two or four, I’ve thought, “Lucky you.”

I was wrong. We need to support each other and not compare the ways in which we are hurt.

Once, someone told me she might have been date raped. I was silent and not in the holding space good way. I stared and waited and watched for her lead. I thought, “Ugh oh. This could be messy. You better be sure.” I left her alone with her feelings and figuring if or what to do or say.

I let fear and discomfort trump decency and care.

I failed her.

When I told this same woman I was becoming afraid of my ex, she told me that it’s “just drama” unless I was going to file a restraining order.

She failed me.

How does this happen even between women and feminists?

Because we ingest, internalize and repeat what we learn. We minimize and normalize and make light. We treat others as we have been treated.

The stalker guy was a man I loved once. His ex wife said he snuck into her bedroom at night to erase messages he sent her so she couldn’t use them in court and had a restraining order against him.

I didn’t believe her. I didn’t believe it. I was sure she was the exception, the rare % who lie about abuse.

I believed him until I was her.

I am ashamed of my own behavior.

I share it because I am not the only woman who has tolerated, made excuses for and even protected predatory behavior. I share it because this is the way me normalize what’s not normal.

This is what Obama’s speech helped me see more clearly.

This too is part of the cycle we must break. This is part of the way women learn to be in the world when we go through life without appropriate shock, outrage and support.

Me. My sister. My mother. We have made light of our own experiences and that of others.

All the “don’t mean harm” and they aren’t “really” dangerous or “let’s not make a big deal” crap doesn’t help anyone. All the “toughen up” and “don’t dwell” and “don’t be so sensitive” advice is incessant.

These are the words we hear and they hurt too as much as what they are said to defend.

We learn to lie to ourselves and pretend it wasn’t so bad because…

It could be worse.

No one else seems to mind.

Others are living with it.

Because we don’t want to be too sensitive-feisty-uppity or difficult. Because we are told we should forgive-lighten up-move or not make things difficult.

I learned to make excuses and lie. I learned to check out of my body and pay attention to the ceiling, the next task or to worry more about others than myself.

I learned I might not be supported or believed. I learned I might lose more by speaking up.

That’s why when I first heard what Trump said, at first, I shrugged. I thought, “Just that?”

The reckoning I’m having is with myself.

For what I have lived with. For what I have accepted. For what I have normalized.

For how I have been failed and even more how I have failed others.

Having tolerated, lived with and grown up with sexual predators, sexism and violence has consequences that ripple throughout society.

It’s with me still today in how I hear the news and how I show up and act as a lover, a partner, a friend and as a parent.

It’s how I inhabit my own self. My four-year old self cried and insisted, “I’m a good girl.”

I was not wrong. But along the way I learned to stop crying out and to suck it up.

I knew it was wrong to make a game of me, that I shouldn’t be asked “Are you a good girl or a bad boy” and I looked to my own mother to make it stop.

She didn’t. She couldn’t.

So I just got used to creepy behavior. I got used to home being filled with love and lies.

I made light of Trump’s words. I shouldn’t have.

It took a full week to even feel offended, to get un-numb and to land back in my own body.


“And I told them, I told them that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. And I told them that they should disregard anyone who demeans or devalues them and that they should make their voices heard in the world.”

Children can’t disregard parents, coaches, priests or neighbors. It’s not possible. That’s part of the problem.

But when I heard Michelle Obama I got to be a little girl again and for a moment, though I am the same age as she, I was nurtured and raised up by her words. She was Mama Obama and wise and strong.

I believed her. She believed me.

That’s what I want to do for myself and other women every time.

You are not broken

You Matter Mantras

  • Trauma sucks. You don't.
  • Write to express not to impress.
  • It's not trauma informed if it's not informed by trauma survivors.
  • Breathing isn't optional.

You Are Invited Too & To:

Speak Your Mind