It’s time to stop the legacy of pain and shame that goes with being a man, and a father.
I was in a black mood that day.
I have never been a guy that likes to putter around in the yard in the best of times but that day, it felt like some sort of punishment to be mowing the lawn in the Florida heat.
I was working as a professional chef and was juggling the stress and work load of a newly opened restaurant with a young family with a wife and two daughters; Elissa a bubbling, artistic four year old and her adoring two year-old sister, Senna.
“Being present” was a skill I hadn’t even heard about, let alone begun to practice, so my days were an exercise in being pulled in many directions at once and my nights were usually spent, after work, in an effort to self-medicate the frustration away and anesthetize the feelings of doubt.
So there I was, on a blistering Sunday morning, hung over mowing the lawn at my wife’s insistence that I get something, anything done around the house. I could have been lingering in the comfort of an air conditioned bedroom licking my wounds from the previous night, but instead I was pushing a mower, pouting like a petulant teenager.
The scene could have been comic were it not so tragic.
As my mood darkened with the imagined imposition of this most unreasonable request, I hear my wife, Nora, yell my name several times. I tried to ignore her by turning up the music in my headset.
Aiming for a tender spot, I pulled my hand back and gave her a quick but emphatic smack on the back of her leg in order to drive the point home in a way that she would not soon forget.
Her yelling became more frantic. I gave in, and in the full bloom of anger and sweating like a sailor I barreled into the kitchen to find her behind the counter, pointing at Elissa with a soapy hand, imploring me to “do something about your daughter”
Ellie was laying on her tummy, cool on the tile floor, happily doodling. She had been coloring in her book and felt inspired to use the silver crayon on the grout which, to her, must have seemed to be an extension of her creativity.
Momentarily blinded by the situation, I looked around and wondered what there was to do. My wife was asking me to make her stop but I couldn’t really make out her words through the testosterone and adrenaline roaring in my ears.
Unclear, as some new parents can be, on how exactly how I was to make her stop and fueled by the conflicted emotions of my morning, I picked her up off the floor by her arm and stood her up.
As I was telling her that her actions were unacceptable, that Mommy didn’t want her doing that, I eyed her back side. She was wearing a little sun dress and her frilled shorts stopped just short of her hem line at her thighs. Aiming for a tender spot, I pulled my hand back and gave her a quick but emphatic smack on the back of her leg in order to drive the point home in a way that she would not soon forget.
Elissa shouted her surprise and started to cry, dropping the crayon to the floor.
I pulled her a little higher into the air, pulled my arm back to spank her again and looked back over my sweaty shoulder at Nora, as if to say “Are you satisfied? Isn’t this what you wanted?”
She stood frozen with her hands to her mouth, with a look of horror on her face that I had never seen before.
And time stood still.
I was 15 the last time my father spanked me.
My dad, Dr. Anthony Lamb, was not prone to violence nor corporeal punishment but for him, there was a time and place for hard lessons to be taught.
His father, a Portuguese immigrant to Boston, had been a barber and a hard man.
My dad told us tales about how his father had prepared him for adulthood at the end of his barber strap, a thick length of leather that hung in the shop that was used to sharpen his straight razors.
There had been a bully that would hold my dad up for his lunch money every day on the way to school. My grandfather had admonished his son at his apparent weakness and told him to attack instead of retreat. When he did, my dad was beaten up and sent on his way for his troubles.
The next day, more in fear of his father than the bully, my dad beat the bully mercilessly. Such was my father’s entre into the ranks of “Men.”
When he told his father, through his tears, that he had been bested, the old man took the strap off the wall and started in on my father, not because he been beaten up but because he was crying about being beaten up.
The next day, more in fear of his father than the bully, my dad beat the bully mercilessly.
Such was my father’s entre into the ranks of “Men.”
I had been caught shoplifting in the local drug store. What made matters worse is that I had a pocket full of money from my paper route and my father and brother had been with me in the store at the time of my theft.
I had slipped a package of cigarette papers into my belt line when I thought no one was looking because I didn’t want my dad to see me buy them. My friends had begun to smoke marijuana and even though I didn’t yet smoke, I wanted to fit in; causally offering up a pack of “skins” when someone started to roll a joint.
That kind of silliness.
After I was caught I was dragged off to the office while my father looked at me and the store dick asking “just what the hell was going on.” My dad negotiated for my release without alerting the authorities and the car was as silent as a tomb on the drive home.
Before we got to the door my dad told me to go straight upstairs to my room and to wait for him. I paced the floor for what seemed like hours before I heard his voice from the bottom of the stairs.
I followed him into the kitchen where, I was surprised to find, my entire family sitting around an empty dinner table.
He sat me down at the head of the table and told me, “I want you to look everyone in the face and tell them what you did today.”
It crushed me to say it out loud, bringing me to hot tears of shame burning my face as the words came out of my mouth.
When I finished he said, “Adam, not only are you a thief, you’re a bad thief. As long as you live you’ll never be able to steal because you’ll always be caught. Now go back upstairs and wait for me.”
Again, waiting for his heavy footfalls on the stairs toward my room, seemed like hours. Finally he opened the door and I got up from the bed where I had been sitting, awaiting the inevitable.
As he took his belt from his pants, he started to cry.
“I don’t want to do this Adam, I don’t,” he sobbed as he grabbed me by my wrist. I twisted in his grasp, dancing around him in a circle.
I thought I heard him say something like, “I don’t want to be like my father, but you leave little choice.”
I lower her to floor, hold her tightly and whisper to her “No matter what, I will never do this again my love, I promise that I will find another way to get through to you.”
He made a few feeble attempts at striking me, glancing blows that didn’t even really hurt. I shouted out, squirming, more from the pain of the familial confession and his tears than anything he was inflicting on my body. I could tell from his mumbled words, his muffled crying, that he was right back there with his father and fully embracing his failure as a father to have steered me in the right direction.
I couldn’t tell who suffered more in that moment, him or me.
Sweat stinging my eyes, I was wrenched out of my memory by Elissa’s crying and Nora’s shouts.
I look at my arm and confirm that I have withheld my second blow. I look back at Nora once more and see that she has broken her stillness. Elissa is there in my grasp, crying.
And the wave of anger breaks against the rocks of my resolve.
I lower her to floor, hold her tightly and whisper to her “No matter what, I will never do this again my love, I promise that I will find another way to get through to you.” We both cry.
Nora’s arms are around us and we are crying in a chorus; for ourselves, for each other, and for all the children who were ever misunderstood and for those that still are.
We cried finally for all the parents, past present and future, who look to strike the balance between discipline and chaos; breaking the cycle, forever, of physical abuse, and setting free, energetically, all those parents who came before us; all those who didn’t know that they even had a choice because that’s all they had known as children.
It’s been 20 years since that day and I have kept my promise to Elissa, Senna, and my son Anthony James. I’ve kept my vigil not only as a commitment to them but as a testament to my father, who struggled mightily with his decisions given what he knew at the time.
I have made mistakes along the way but have tried, ceaselessly, to find the sweet spot between loving and empowering my children and taking away their power by being dominant both emotionally and physically.
It hasn’t been easy but, manoman, has it ever been worth it.
I continue to pay it forward through my coaching with men who seek to live their lives in the new congruency of what it means to be a “Man” — free from the slippery slope of societal expectations, evolutionary impulses or patriarchal inheritance.