Thursday, July 22, 2010

Birthrights and Heritage

When I think about the pattern of the relationships in my life, one obvious thing stands out (to me). I was so intent (subconsciously) to avoid an abusive man that I attached myself to men who were unable – for one reason or another – to fully engage. Not only with me, but with life in general. Somehow that lack of aggression was enough of a safety flag for me that I was willing to overlook all the other deficiencies: irresponsibility, isolation, lack of motivation, limited interests, and poor self-esteem. To varying degrees, the men that I’ve spent the most time with over the years have all been quite happy to let me do everything, make most of the decisions, and set the pace of the relationship. They didn’t have great jobs, but they didn’t hit me. They didn’t share a lot of my interests, but they didn’t violate my boundaries. They didn’t really want to know me, but they also didn’t try to control me. For the most part, they were affable, quiet, predictable, but severely limited.

While I was proud that once I left my parents' house I was never again hit or molested or yelled at, I knew that there were many things I was not experiencing. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to believe that you deserve better than you’ve known, even if you have been lucky enough to know inside that what you’ve known is wrong. While you are spending years learning a different way of navigating in the world, other people are going to college, starting careers and families, building the life that you envision from a distance. By the time I felt like most of my decisions were in my best interest and I had stopped taking three steps back for every one step forward, I was a lot older than I had started.

Maybe that’s why – besides the accident of genes – I have consistently been mistaken for someone a lot younger than I am. I am well educated and well read, so I don’t “sound” ignorant. But I am aware that I have retained a certain naive quality despite my accompanying cynicism. I’m sure it is as confusing to others to try to interpret as it has been for me to live.

Being smart doesn’t offer you a road map to normal. And it is desperately hard to learn how to behave with people who have not grown up with crazy beyond just the pretending that kids like me learn way too early. There are nuances that can make you feel inadequate that a person who hasn’t been abused just doesn’t fathom. Back in the day, “self-help” books were just beginning to appear and therapy was damned expensive. It is sort of like someone who hasn’t grown up with private school and money doesn’t really “get” how to feel natural in that environment, except that we don’t tell our children that “everyone” knows what wealth feels like. We do, however, paint pretty pictures in our culture that families are sources of love and comfort, that parents and siblings care for one another, and that there is no place like home. By the time that you find out that you are different it has already shaped you.

I vowed one thing: that I wouldn’t pass it on. That it stopped with me. And though it cost me, I have fulfilled that promise to myself and the universe. I am raising my daughter – although alone – in a home that has an even keel, lots of hugs and kisses (but no creepy ones), regular hours and consistent rules, fun, no yelling, treats, honest discussions, vacations, permission to be royally pissed off – but not to be mean, attention and oversight and involvement, but minimal trying to make someone into someone they’re not, and a concerted effort to be kind, real, and fair.

Even driving with her in the car, I can glance at her fresh, lovely face in the rearview mirror and feel so very thankful that she is here with me in my life. Because I do get so much vicarious joy out of making sure that she is safe, whole, and happy. She tells me about her concerns, and I rejoice in their mundane ordinariness. She is spontaneous and kind. She is interested in the world around her. I am doing right by her.

She does not hear from me that boys are something to fear (although we’ve had some interesting conversations about cooties and such). And I hope that she will have the confidence to form relationships with people who have a healthy amount of drive and ambition and involvement with people and issues and projects that appeal to them. I hope she will be able to meet her match – and that it will be connections based on mutual strengths, not mutual neurosis. I wish I could be a better example in that department, but I’m not magic. But our household is peaceful and loving, and that is light years ahead of my legacy, so I will glide on that for a while.


  1. Another beautiful post. I'm consistently amazed at what a great mother you are, and now to hear that you did not learn how to parent by example makes me all the more appreciative of your character.

    Some of the best people in the world had to struggle and claw their way out of a bad childhood to become who they are.

    You are lucky to have your beautiful M, but she is also so very lucky to have you.

  2. In a sort of odd and twisted way, having to live the life you did as a child has made you become an excellent parent for M. You've made something good come out of those experiences. I applaud you for your determination in giving M the home life you didn't have. I can only imagine how difficult it has been. Well written post. I'm sure M brings you much joy. That's how it should be. :) Hope you have a nice weekend.

  3. What a wonderful post:) M is very lucky to have you as her mom, champion and guardian.

  4. I love this post. Touching and thoughtful.