Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Growing Up Is Hard To Do

Today I am taking a little stroll down memory lane, which in this case is probably more appropriately termed 'a walk into the bowels of hell', but hey, I'm resilient, you're resilient, we can take it. This little piece of self-indulgence can be credited to Miss 3T herself, who stumbles through life and finds that the third time's the charm. She writes with insight and warmth, sharing the mistakes we all make with such dignity that I can hardly express how proud I am of her strength. She asked: what one event or aspect of your childhood has affected you the most psychologically?

And the answer is....

By the time I was 5 and a half, I had 3 younger sisters. I don't ever remember having a single moment alone with my mother, though I often craved it. The youngest ones always came first, and if I could get a word in of complaint (which was rare), I was told that "you are the oldest, and you should know better."

I ached badly, longing for a mother who was right in front of me the whole time, but always just out of reach. I struggled with this confusion as a kid, and I am at a loss to put it into words even now. I knew I couldn't have her to myself, but I also knew that I never even got a piece of her. Someone else was always holding her hand. Someone else got to help push the grocery cart. Someone else sat beside her at supper. And it's not to say that she was a bad mother, because she wasn't. She did her best as a mother, and as a substitute father. But from a young age, I was acutely aware of not belonging. My sisters formed a trifecta that was always in opposition to me. They vetoed my choice of television shows, restaurants, vacation spots, movie rentals. It was so constant that I didn't really feel outnumbered, I just felt lonely.

I didn't have a bad childhood. I did well in school and had lots of friends. At home, I turned inward. It was easier to sit in a quiet corner of the house reading than to butt heads with the family. But looking back, I just cannot escape this underlying current of separateness that I always felt. When all the hours of a day were spent, there just never seemed enough to get around to me.

Still, it all went rather smoothly until the 4 girls all living in one house started hitting puberty one after the other, all the while our parents were going through one of the worst divorces in history. There was a decisive crack in the foundation of our family, and we all went our separate ways and dealt with it on our own. To keep track of each other, we kept a family log book where we left each other funny messages. We were probably closer than we had been in years through that book. It was easier to pour your thoughts out onto a blank page than it ever was to talk to one another. But that book was also my undoing.

One day, after another bout with my abusive father, I locked myself into the bathroom (the only room in the house where I had any privacy), and I set pen to paper. I penned an angry poem filled with teenage angst and frustration. I wrote until my tears dried and my blood stopped boiling. I left the poem in the log book, where eventually my mother and sisters would come to read it, and leave comments.

When I happened upon the poem a few days later, I found one single comment, left by my mother. It basically said that I should refrain from leaving such "serious" words in the family log book. She made me feel badly for daring to write them. And that was it.

That's still it. That is the one event of my childhood that has had the most profound psychological effect on me. I was crushed at her lack of empathy, her lack of basic understanding of me. I was young, maybe 11 or 12, but already I was winning awards for my writing and starting to think of my words as not just an escape from an unsatisfactory existence, but as a means to an end. Her response crushed me. I would have taken criticism more kindly because even that would have meant acknowledgment.

From that day on, I felt like I hadn't a friend in the family. It was Me against Them. I realize how black and white it sounds, and I know that there must have been a lot of gray in the following years. Certainly we had some good times. I still loved them. But I wasn't part of them. I was separate.

I never felt like my mother didn't love me, but I often felt that her love was more the obligatory kind, like the kind you have for a distant, elderly aunt whom you barely know. Of her 3 younger daughters, she had the clingy one, the cuddly one, and of course, her Baby. That was enough. They kept her busy. I kept myself busy.

My mother and I didn't have a lot to say to each other when I was growing up. In many ways, it was like she was growing up too. She and I would fight over who would take the car out on our date on Friday nights, and then which one of us would get up early Saturday morning to drive the girls to work, or hockey, or a friend's house. She had boyfriends, and I had boyfriends. I didn't like hers, and she didn't like mine. When I told her so, she called me insolent. When she told me so, she forbade me to see them, and grounded me for weeks. We both pretended I didn't sneak out at night. When her boyfriend slept over, we looked the other way. When mine slept over, I became the Bad Daughter.

But I had my eye on the ball: I was moving out. When high school was over, I made sure to pick a long-distance University. I asked for her input, she flatly refused to even look at the brochures. Suddenly, I was made to feel that post-secondary education was just further evidence of my being the Bad Daughter.

I moved out, and on, anyway. She saw me off to university, and on our parting, she pinched my cheek and cried. I sat in my room, void of sisters or mothers, for a long, long time, thinking about what that meant. Why had she cried?

When there was distance between us, there was a growing closeness between us. Eventually, my mother treated me as a contemporary. She talked to me as a friend. She confided in me about her ongoing battles with her ex-husband and my ex-father, and about my sisters as they when through the Terrible Teenage phase too. It was surprising and refreshing to have her back in my life in this capacity, or any capacity, but it didn't last long. In fact, it ended with my marriage.

She didn't like it much when I moved in with Jason. I don't think she cared much for our engagement either, but to her credit, once she accepted it, she launched herself into wedding plans like there was no tomorrow. At times, she seemed genuinely happy for me. I could have sworn it was so. I remember crying myself to sleep for the sheer happiness it brought me to be deep in the bosom of my family.

But once I was married, she backed off. She turned cold. I questioned her, and she told me that she didn't want to "horn in." I quashed her worries, but wondered to myself whether she was being honest. Nothing much had changed; Jason and I had always lived together. She wasn't any more or less of a nuisance post-wedding as pre-. But the chasm grew.

All of my sisters still lived with my mother, and life went on. I had mine, and they had theirs. I thought that given time, they would adjust to having a grown-up family, but to my dismay, they simply counted me out. News from them was sporadic. I heard about them from second and third hand sources. I approached them about it once. I said that I was hurt to be so thoroughly excluded, but I knew that whatever I said, it was pointless. It all goes back to the poem in the book. If I'm upset, I should keep it bottled up. I am not entitled to my own hurts and feelings. The four of them bond together, and have a mob mentality when it comes to outsiders. I am an Outsider.

I suppose it is inevitable to find out that your family is not infallible. Maybe I expected too much. I remember when I was little, my mother used to eschew the cool relationships between the extended family, and it was a point of pride with her that we would never be like that. I guess I believed the hype. But we are like that. If I have a falling out with one of them, I have a falling out with all of them. I will always be a misunderstood poem, AND I'M OKAY.

It is a lucky and rare thing for family and friend to be synonymous. I feel lucky myself, in that my friends have become my family. My husband is my undisputed best friend, and we have an extensive network of friends that now span several cities, and that is where we feel at home.

That one aspect of my childhood has made me who I am today. I am not dependent on family. I choose the people I let into my life. I refuse to repress feelings for fear of the response they'll illicit. My mother has often insisted that if I feel out of place in the family, then I am either jealous, or depressed, or both. I think maybe she's just afraid of what people will think of her family. But you know what? It is my belief, and philosophy in life, that you are poisoned by all the things you keep inside. I don't hold things back. If you were a fly on the wall of my home, your tiny fly ears would ring with all the words exchanged between Jason and I. But I am committed enough in our love to air our differences, and her cares enough to hear me out and take me seriously.

Now I find that whatever relationship I have with my family, I am fine. And better than fine. I am fabulous.

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