The Disorganized Childhood Living with a big, not so good family

In a cluttered, classic ‘70s living room in Milwaukee, Wis., six kids lined up, fear in their eyes. One of these terrified kids was Barb.

“Which one of you would like to go first?” asked Barb’s mother.

Complete silence shed over the room.

She asked again, “Who wants to go first?”

Barb’s younger brother stepped forward and said he would go. With a belt in her hand, she lifted up the boy’s shirt and slashed him. The boy kept his mouth shut, but groaned loud enough for the mother to hear. She pushed him back and went onto the next child, and then the next.

Barb’s childhood was very dysfunctional. There was alcoholism and child abuse within her household.

“We would always have to be careful,” Barb said. “We never knew what mood our mom was going to be in.”

The punishments that her mother would give her six children were not always a lineup with a belt, and some got it much worse.

Barb’s younger brother, who could be suspected of having an undiagnosed learning disability like ADD, got his fingers burnt on the gas stove by his mother. Years later, when this same sibling was in school, he got into a lot of trouble. Barb’s mother found it would be good to take him out of school for the rest of the school year and when the school demanded that he come back, she said no. Saying no to the school created much gossip within the small town of Wild Rose, Wis. which had a population of nearly 800 people. Barb’s mother was then sent to jail for nine months for her son’s truancy.

“All I can remember about high school was always being embarrassed about my family,” Barb said. “I don’t want my kids to grow up the way I grew up.”

Meals in her house were not always such a regular routine like many other homes in America. Going to sleep without a meal or two would be a punishment to the children from their mother.

“There were times where you would just fend for yourself,” Barb said. “And we didn’t have money, so I remember thinking a tuna salad sandwich or a can of tuna was a treat in our house.”

They also relied on food stamps for meals because of the lack of money coming in. In the small town they lived in, everything was known, so when Barb would have to go to the store and buy food with stamps it was very embarrassing for her and her family.

The way out for Barb and her siblings was to go to college. Although Barb was very introverted, she still found a way to get to college without her mother’s help. The only reason that she wouldn’t go would be because she didn’t want to leave her siblings alone with their mother.

“As much as you wanted to help your sibling, you needed to help yourself too,” Barb said.

However, Barb never expected the warm meals made with love during the holidays on break. The last time that Barb went home for a holiday was in college at the age of 20.

“I went home for Thanksgiving, like normal college kids do,” Barb said. “[My mother] couldn’t even finish cooking Thanksgiving because she was too drunk and passed out.” This was the evening that Barb finally said, “I can’t do this anymore,” and really meant it. She hasn’t talked to her mother since, and even when she found out that her mother was dying of lung cancer, she was indifferent with the situation. Her mother thought that the way she raised her children was the correct way, and because of that, Barb never agreed to seeing her or talking to her again.

Barb’s father was a World War II veteran that wasn’t at home much. He was an only child and everyday after work he would visit his mother, which made his wife mad. But he was definitely not abusive.

“She would say that he needed to spank us,” Barb said. “But then he would come in and say, ‘I’m just going to tap you but yell loud so it sounds like I’m hitting you.”

Today, Barb feels resentment towards her father for not helping her and her siblings out of the mess her mother had made.

“You think it would bring you closer, but because of the way we grew up, it was kind of weird,” Barb said. All of Barb’s siblings live in different states and don’t have contact with one another. The closest Barb had gotten to her siblings was when she was in college and had contact with her younger brother and sister — the one that had an undiagnosed learning disability, who worked at a 7/11 and could call her landline to talk while he was at work. But one day, she called like any regular day, and the guy that picked up the phone had told Barb that her brother moved to Appleton, which was an hour away from her.

Barb’s sister also had a relationship with her and her family in later years, but found that “she had the flattest, most boring personality,” Barb said. “She would call me and then I would have to do all the talking.”

After months of awkward phone calls, Barb was sitting in her minivan at Slauson Middle School to pick up her son, George, and was a bit early. Her phone rang and it was her sister, calling for what she assumed was small talk. When she picked up the phone, she discovered her sister was in Arizona to pick up the baby she was adopting. “How do you go nine months without mentioning something like that?” Barb said. This was the moment that put Barb over the edge and made her not want to contact her sister anymore because she wasn’t interested enough in their conversations to share important events like adopting a baby into their family.

“I guess that because we never had it instilled — your family values — we never got that instilled in us, and as weird as it sounds to someone who has family values, it’s really not that big of a deal to lose touch with a sibling. It’s just like another person to me, because we never had those close family things the way a normal family has it.”

Barb has raised three boys, has a caring husband and lives in a comfortable home with nice neighbors all around. But how did Barbara Barb get from such a low time in her life to such success? She worked hard in college with as many jobs as she could have, and worked hard on her studies.

“There was always something in me that always knew I wanted something better in my life,” Barb said. It wasn’t hard for her to choose the right path, which was to work hard to get the life she wanted.

“There’s a lot of research on why some students are so resilient and it seems like everyone else is not in the family,” said John Boshoven, Community High counselor. “And there’s no answer to that other than sometimes there’s environmental issues, maybe a key mentor, a key experience they might’ve had, could be a religious one or a spiritual one or a life experience that caused them to say, ‘I don’t have to be this way,’ sort of like a fighting spirit.” Boshoven has done a lot of studies in psychology throughout the years and the answer to this study today is still under further research.

Lizzie Peterson, an interning counselor at Community High had a similar view on this topic, “it’s a combination of things, both just your personality traits and then key relationships,” Peterson said. “If kids are coming to school there might be an adult or somebody else that they really connect with that gives them that little bit of hope that keeps them going until they can get out and overcome their circumstances that they were born into.” What Peterson is saying connects very well with the way Barb felt, but instead of having a teacher or adult help her through her rough experiences, she did it all alone. Counseling is helping students with problems, and it’s much better than it was when Barb was young.

The counselors at Community High have gone through times in their lives that were hard as well, but not as tragic as Barb’s obstacles. But they all want the job they have in order to help students that are going through challenges in their life, and let them know that they can get through this and choose the right path.

Many believe that switching from the bad path to the right path is like a switch that can just turn on.

“It’s more like stepping because you’re going to have some downs and ups,” Boshoven said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a turn.” It’s a total process of really helping yourself think that you can do something when your environment may be telling you otherwise, just like Barb’s environment growing up. But counselors and other teachers see this as a process that will eventually go up with some time.

“This is the visual that’s always in my head when I see students experiencing setbacks and they might feel like there’s no way to overcome it but it’s just the ups and downs and back and forth of everything.” -Lizzie Peterson

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