Brittany’s family ate dinner together at the same time every night, no matter what. Her mom would make the meal with Entertainment Tonight on in the background, and every night Brittany would come to the table worried about what would set off her dad’s temper. The household was dominated by his anger and verbal abuse, which often would escalate at the end of the day. Usually the trigger was Brittany’s little brother, Jacob*.
“Dinner was always a time of conflict and tension,” she recalls. “I wondered what Jacob was going to do that would make my dad mad.” Jacob had a few developmental issues, including extreme sensitivity to textures, and as a result he often refused food. Brittany’s dad would react with rage and name calling, sometimes blaming her mom for babying him, sometimes trying to force food down her brother’s throat. Brittany remembers dreading the days when her mom fixed meals Jacob couldn’t eat, like sloppy joes. But if her mom fixed something else for Jacob, that caused problems too. “Dad would say, ‘Stop fixing him special food. You’re treating him like a little girl and he’s going to turn into a fairy.’ There were too many nights to count when my brother wouldn’t eat. I remember so much fear around it. If we made a move to clear his plate, we’d get yelled at, threatened.”
“My dad’s a scary dude,” she says. When she was young, she remembers that he took them camping and taught her to fish. But as she grew, she saw him get angrier about the problems in the family. Jacob needed extra care, finances were tight, and other problems were causing conflict in her parents’ marriage. “I never really felt a deep love from my dad,” Brittany says. He was completely absorbed in his own problems and took out his anger on the family.
She remembers one family dinner at a restaurant when her dad became violent toward her brother, who wouldn’t eat. Her mom hurried them to the car, worried that someone would call the police. He also used meal times to lecture them on not spending money, even when they were small children. “He’d always bring up money stress, which was crazy because we were just kids. He was the one spending money.” Things went downhill as her brother began to argue with their dad. “When Jacob got older, he got an attitude,” she recalls. “That made things a lot worse. It happened almost every night. I just remember so many fights.”
“Always making us eat family dinner together was total hypocrisy,” she says. “It was his way of showing where he was in the family, like, ‘You’re all sitting here eating the food that I put on the table.’ He wanted to show that we were as good as other families, too. It was like, ‘We’re better than so-and-so, we all sit down for a nice meal.’” But making the gesture of family dinner didn’t make up for the reality of a broken family life.
TO BE CONTINUED
*Name changed to protect privacy