Growing up, I didn’t realize how malfunctional our family was. Everybody seemed to perceive us as normal and I didn’t know any different, at least for a few years. Maybe we were more normal than I thought. Or maybe “common” is a better word. Maybe we hid it. I don’t know. What I’ve come to realize is that much, if not all, of my personality was formed within the confines of our family home as a youngster.
Let’s start with that phrase that’s thrown around to excuse people for what they didn’t know, couldn’t or weren’t willing to give, or what they didn’t know how to learn – “they did the best they could”. I thought maybe part of it was generational since my parents were older than all of my peers’ folks, my dad was in his forties when they had me, but I have come to know other people of similar ages that were not necessarily of my parents’ mindset. Or maybe lack of mindset is appropriate. As my mom often admitted to me – “we didn’t know what the hell we were doing” and “we didn’t know what we were getting into, and if we would have, we wouldn’t have had kids”. She said this directly to me, multiple times, and for some reason, I did not take this personally. Or maybe it affected me more than I know. I knew the hell they’d been through with my brother from the time he was born and yeah, that is not the life anyone wants or expects when they have a child. I can’t believe they had more but none of us seem to be planned.
My parents idea of their responsibilities seemed to be providing a home, making home-cooked meals, being frugal, keeping a tidy house and yard, going to church on Sunday and being at home most of the time when they weren’t working. All of those things checked their boxes of good parenting but it left their youngest emotionally starved. Yes, my parents were present but that did not equal being supportive, encouraging or having my back.
I was in what was called TUG then, Talented and Uniquely Gifted. School was easy for me and the administration asked my parents if they wanted to move me up at least one grade. I think my parents tried to keep me from understanding that I was bright. I think it scared them and they seemed to do their best to tamp me down. For my own good, of course. To this day, my mom will not believe anything I say unless she can independently confirm it because I am her child, she is my mother and by default, she knows more and knows better, always and forever. And the universe would implode if she ever relented.
I was an accident. I was told this from a young age. My brothers were 10 and 12 when I came into what was a fully-formed family. I never felt like I wasn’t wanted by my parents, though. My brothers? Well, I felt what I came to label as resentment from them from the beginning. I knew my parents loved me even though that phrase was never said in our house. Enough so, that it was the sole reason I didn’t go through with killing myself in 8th grade. I knew it would shatter them and it kept me breathing and enduring the torture that several of my female classmates viscously inflicted on me, day after day. My parents were clueless. I was embarrassed to tell them and I knew they would be ineffective at changing anything for the better. In fact, they might, as they often did, assume I did something to deserve it. Regardless, as I had learned in my family, I was on my own to deal with it.
I vividly remember telling my dad I loved him for the first time as I stood in the kitchen and he stormed away from me through the dining room and into the living room. I was an adult, probably around 30, and I don’t remember exactly what precluded it but it was likely around his first cancer diagnosis. What I do remember was how hard it was for me to get those words out of my body. It was as if I was breaking a lifelong seal and an unspoken agreement that my parents and I knew we loved each other but would never say it and I didn’t know what kind of bomb I might be setting off. I was terrified but felt like I needed to do it.
Me: “Dad, I love you.”
Dad stomping off into the living room…”Yeah, I bet you do!”
I burst out laughing. It was a response that was 100% him; quick-witted and wrongly funny. He had no practice saying those words, he wasn’t expecting me to say them and I got back exactly what he could give.
My parents didn’t know what to do with me. As my dad said, he had three VERY different kids. They treated me exactly like they thought a girl should be treated and that was rarely, if ever, how I wanted to be treated. But that didn’t dissuade them! In fact, they just seemed to double down as if they tried harder, they could change who I was into who they thought I should be. My mom, especially, was determined to make me into a proper, docile, good girl that didn’t question anything and always looked and acted “nice”. She expected me to become a secretary because that was the biggest aspiration a young woman could or should have but only until she got married and became a stay-at-home mom. Definitely not the motorcyle-riding, weight-lifting, car-tinkering daughter she got and was visibly disappointed in. Criticism was my mom’s form of love and “fixing” me. Kindness or encouragement was just prone to “making me be big-headed” so even though I specifically asked for it, she refused to give it to me. To this day, even in memory care, her default conversation with me is looking me up and down and telling me what’s wrong with me. I mean, couldn’t I have at least combed my hair?
My parents rarely asked what I wanted and when I told them, they usually responded with, “no, that’s not what you want” or gave each other a knowing glance followed by my mom’s disapproving look. I desperately wanted a BMX bike. I would pedal that thing so hard! I dreamt of taking it off curbs and finding sidewalks that were raised by tree roots that had grown underneath and getting some sweet air off of them. Instead, my parents gifted me a used, decades old, rusty bike with a cracked banana seat and hovered around me as they asked with gleaming smiles on their faces “Isn’t this a great bike? You really like it, don’t you?” I looked down, away from their happy, expectant eyes and slowly nodded through my tears. It wasn’t a matter of money. I was willing to spend what I had earned and saved on a bike but they wouldn’t allow it.
I was taught that I didn’t know what I wanted or that it was wrong. So, some of the time I kept it to myself and other times, I got loud in order to be heard, much to my parents’ dismay. That was not what a nice girl did. It was the only tactic I had and it didn’t work. I am just starting to see the scar tissue of my wounds created by not being heard or understood within my own family and discovering how deeply imprinted it is that revealing almost any part of myself was…still is…dangerous.
Early in life, I learned to keep my vulnerable parts, or any other part that *might* be in that arena, to myself. I marveled at my friend’s siblings that seemed to have affection for them and their parents that they felt safe sharing sensitive things with. And were genuinely interested in them? I could not compute. I desperately wanted to be seen, heard, and valued but quickly learned that was not safe and I developed rudimentary self-defense skills to guard my authentic self. I kept almost everything of any interest or value about myself from my family. It was just going to be fodder for harassment and ultimately wounding to me. I was teased and ridiculed for any soft spot I had by my dad and brothers. It was my dad’s way of showing affection and interacting with me when I was little.
Mom, from the kitchen: “John, quit teasing her!”
Dad, in the living room: “Oh, Kay. We’re just having fun.”
Me, on my way to screaming…
Mom: “It doesn’t sound like she’s having fun. You are going to make her meek or mean!
Dad, dismissively: “Ohhh Kay.”
The more of a reaction he got out of me, the more he did it and my brothers followed suit but their tormenting took it to another level. They relished seeing me cry and that would only encourage them. I suppose it’s no wonder I didn’t cry for a few decades.
I thought I was a typical introvert, and I exhibit many textbook characteristics, but maybe I just don’t feel I can be myself around anyone who hasn’t passed my gut test. For the few that have, look OUT. I can talk like a faucet that has been opened up. The feeling that it is safe to be heard releases my soul in verbal form that is desperate to share who I am; the younger me that is still there and longs to have her words, her thoughts, her opinions welcomed and valued, like a pressure cooker having the release tapped.
I don’t make friends easily or often. Most I have had for decades, some going all the way back to childhood. Once I find someone who is safe, I hang on to them, whether they like it or not, I not-so-jokingly say. My Spidey senses are always elevated around new people until I can get a read on them. I go into crowds or events and aim to keep my back towards the wall so no one can sneak up behind me and I can keep an eye on the entirety of the room. I learned these tactics as a child and they are ingrained in me today. I hate surprises. I’ve been conditioned to be hyper-vigilant in an attempt to be or stay safe and it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time, money and effort to undo. I’ve come a long way and still have a long way to go. I’ve been uncovering and tracing the roots of many things, connecting dots that are in plain sight and blinking bright red. Attempting to identify my wounds and understand their impact on my physical, emotional and mental health. I’m not responsible for my “normal” childhood but I am accountable for my healing.
I know my parents loved me and I also know they did the best they could.
4 thoughts on “They Did the Best They Could”
Thank you for sharing. Saying I love you in my family I just don’t ever remember though in my wife’s family it was common. I think I was 40 yrs old and was talking to my mother on the phone , sitting on the couch with Mary on the opposite side of the couch, as the phone conversation was wrapping up Mary kept saying to me. Tell her you love her she repeated several times so finally I got the courage to say. Mom I love you. There was a long silence then she replied, I love you too. And that made it easier with each conversation we had since
Aww, I love that, Rus! Amazing how much courage such a seemingly innocuous thing seems to take while for others, it’s second nature. Thank you for sharing that.
Sarah, So glad you’re posting again. Having a peek into that beautiful mind of yours is fascinating. I miss your laugh and our unvarnished lunch visits. D.
Thanks, D. Hopefully we can catch up soon.