My early life was shaped by divorce. Anger and people leaving and financial worry were just the norm. There would be a few good years and then they’d be over, and we’d be moving or someone would be moving out. If you haven’t lived through it yourself, you may not know the toll all that moving out and moving on can take.
As a child, I had adults I cared about blatantly lie about how they were going to keep in touch. One, thinking my mother picked up the phone, said outright that she didn’t want to see me anymore so I cut up all the pictures that we were in together. Every single one. I’ve watched my dad barricade the front door on Christmas Eve to keep a certain someone from breaking in – and then she broke in anyway half a year later. I have holed up with my mother in an illegal apartment and cooked on a hotplate. I’ve been ashamed to share my story – stories, really – with friends.
But that’s not the worst of it. The worst thing was living under the gray shadow of parental stress.
It’s not something I really understood until becoming a parent myself. When I was younger, my mother (who I hope will forgive me for saying this) made some fairly big mistakes. It’s not my place to go into them here, but suffice it to say that there are some things that will always be the cold undercurrent in the flow of our relationship. I wasn’t a perfect kid by any means, but she was the grownup and there are decision she made that I will never understand
But here’s what I do understand. For a lot of my life, my mother was scared, and fear makes people do irrational things. There was a time we had very little money, even for necessities. She was a single parent without a strong support system. And that meant there wasn’t a lot of security for either of us. So she tried to find support. There as a time she wasn’t there and knowing I would always be in the background needing care was scary, so she tried to find someone to be a caregiver. There were times she had to choose between people, and I’m sure that scared her, too, and so she made her choices.
Fear creates stress and leads people down dark roads. I, as a parent, have enjoyed relative security when it comes to things like housing, food, and other necessities – and there has even been money for extras. My support system is broad. At home, I have the mister’s second set of hands and second income and also his kind heart.
When I try to imagine struggling to feed my children or sharing a one room roach-infested apartment with them or having no one to turn to in troubled times except people who fall on the wrong side of right, I feel stressed, and that’s just me picturing that life in my head! If I was living it, I don’t know what I’d do. What kinds of decisions I would make. How I’d respond to the demands of my children. Whether I’d be kind or unkind. Who I’d take into my confidence. Who I’d let care for my family in my absence.
And yet, even as far removed as I am from that kind of hardship, I can feel myself sliding a little bit toward that same way of being sometimes when work gets nuts or worse, slows down, and I don’t like it. Stress is there when I’m raising my voice on a very late morning because P. is having trouble with her shoes or asking to bring just one more toy. Such little things to inspire such a bark as mine! But I know, because I have lived it from the other end and have not only heard the bark but felt the slap of the hand, my own worries should not become my children’s hurt. I’ve been on the receiving end and it makes for such a dark childhood.
Truly dark in a way many people can’t understand. I used to think of childhood as something to be endured until the age of autonomy allowed you to escape your family and build your own definition of being. Distancing the self from the tribulations of the parents as the main goal of growing up. The idea that a person would look fondly on childhood was absolutely foreign to me.
It is only as I watch my own children simply live that I can understand why anyone might actually dream of revisiting childhood. Childhood, apparently, can be carefree and beautiful like I saw it in books and on television and at other people’s houses.
I’ll never get to experience that for myself, but I can do everything I can to make sure that P. and Bo will. And sometimes that means just breathing. One more toy. A problematic shoe. One too many requests for a movie or another jellybean. Doesn’t matter. Look at their faces. Breathe.