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The children’s chatter and laughter could be heard from the back doorstep. The early morning sun shone brightly, and I laughed to myself as I listened to them from outside. Apparently no one heard me pull up the long gravel driveway to the old farmhouse because they weren’t responding to my knocking. It occurred to me that their dad couldn’t hear me through their squeals and fast conversation, so I went around to the front door.

The little boy saw me approaching and began to unlock the door before I got to it.  He was already hollering, “Hi, L!”  His darling little sister stood close behind him and greeted me readily as well.  They quickly shared with me that their dad was in the shower, so I shouldn’t go in the downstairs bathroom.  Scarcely had those words left their lips, when the little girl excitedly told me that she’d done her own hair.  She looked at me with questioning eyes, waiting for the answer she already knew was coming, “Yes!  It is beautiful!”  She had done a good job for a five year old–all six clips were lined up evenly along the left side of her face.

By the time their father opened the bathroom door I was well on my way around the kitchen counters.  He was pleasant but hurried.  It was a typical morning rush to get two young children out the door for the day.

Right before they left, the dad sprayed the children with sunscreen.  As he did, he instructed them, “Hold your breath.  Mommy says this is bad for you to breathe.  Hold your breath.  Run through it!”

The children did exactly as their daddy instructed, as their mommy had warned all of them about it.

Typical nice little family scenario.  But, it struck me.  I mean, literally like a slap across the face.

If my ex did ever perform any hygiene or preventative measures on the children at my request, there would not have been a nod to doing it because mommy knows best about how to handle it.  There would have been condemnation.  Something like, “This is ridiculous.  I don’t think this stuff really works.  I don’t know why your mother wants this done.  That’s good enough.  Just don’t tell her we didn’t do it.  Otherwise, she’ll be mad at both of us.”

Or, conversely, he would have yelled at them like a drill sergeant, yanking on them, and telling them that mommy told him to do it.

Either way, every action, every word, was meant to create doubt in their little minds regarding mommy’s knowledge and mommy’s love for them.  It was designed to create questions as to who was the real “bad guy,” the one administering this rough application or the one who had “commanded” it.   His voice conveyed a sense of him and them against me, not of family unification and the instilling of a common value and never simply of parental care and concern.

That’s when it slapped me.

That is precisely why my children question every request, every instruction.  Every.  Single.  Word.  That comes out of my mouth is met with indignant questioning by all of them.  Suddenly it occurred to me that my children are not necessarily displaying blatantly disobedient and disrespectful behavior.  They are merely living out what they have always had to.

They are fearful and insecure, feeling that they must figure it out by their little selves.  Who can they trust?  Daddy beat them and ridiculed them and said that he doesn’t love them.  He even tried to kill them on several occasions.  He obviously can’t be trusted.  But, he had moments when he would display kindness and, in those moments, he said mommy should be doubted.  She’s crazy.  She’s hormonal. She’s a dumb woman.  She’s just mean.  She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

They saw one thing, heard another, and God only knows how they felt about it all.  But, the result is certain.  They are insecure, independent, fearful, without a solid family structure to gird them and strengthen them.

It seems like such a small thing, such a silly thing.  It was just a father applying sunscreen to his children before school on a sunny spring morning.  But, it was a scene and a conversation that stood in stark contrast to anything that ever occurred in our home.  And, it grieved me for the damage that is already done.

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