Specifically, about the way we perceive things when we're children. We make assumptions. We believe things that are often not true. No two children will respond to the same statement the same way. My two could not be more different if one of them were a girl; they are so completely unlike each other in personality. They share interests, now. But they could not be parented the same way.
I am the oldest of four children; the second, my sister, is thirteen months younger than I am. When we were younger, we asked the usual questions of our mother: how she met our father, how long they were engaged, where they lived. During this barrage of questions, my mother said, "I didn't intend to get pregnant right away; I was working, and I wanted to wait a couple of years and get my feet under me."
I had no problems with this at all. It was a statement of fact. She wanted to wait; she got pregnant almost immediately after she and my father were married. I was born ten months later.
But my sister's response was entirely different, and it wasn't something I even considered until she mentioned it decades (literally) later. She asked me if I remembered our mother saying this, and I said yes. She then said: "That was the moment when I knew we had ruined our mother's life."
So my sister grew up feeling that her very existence had ruined the life of the person she loved most in the world.
That is a profoundly, profoundly damaging feeling to have inform your childhood.
What I heard is what she said. I did not feel that my arrival, two years before her intended date, had ruined her life. (I often think about what her life would have been like without my early arrival, but I don't do it in a state of guilt.)
But my sister heard what my mother said as a criticism: we were not meant to exist. We were too early. We had ruined the plans she had made for her life. Therefore, we had ruined her life.
I think I was six years old and she was five. We weren't old, the first time my mother said this. But we were two totally different children, and we viewed the world in different ways. We had entirely different concerns. My sister, from birth, adored my mother, and mostly my mother.
She grew to understand that my mother of course did not mean it the way she'd taken it. But she didn't know that as a child. It informed so much of her emotional state and her interaction with my mother - and my mother certainly had no clue. I didn't either.
When she did understand, my sister could let it go. It took a long time. If she had asked my mother immediately if she had ruined my mother's life, my mother would have been horrified at the question and she would have immediately nipped the insecurity in the bud, where it would not have grown such deep roots.
But my mother didn't even consider that her words could have this effect. She was not angry when she told us; she was wry.
My sister consequently felt that she was guilty of something. That she was, by existence, a bad person. Again: my mother said the exact same things to me, and I did not feel them the way my sister did. I did not respond the way my sister did.
I was very, very poor training for parenting a child like my sister. And I was the oldest. The oldest often does train our responses.
My mother did her absolute best. She had four children in five years. My father worked seven days a week for the first two years after they bought their house. I cannot imagine living my mother's life. Her family did not live in Toronto. She was twenty-eight when the youngest was born, two years younger than I was when my first was born.
But: she said these words and my sister heard them, and they cut and cut and cut. There was no anger behind them. My mother wasn't screaming at us. She was - I believe - answering a question one of the two of us had asked.
But the entire world was under my magnifying glass when I was five; my mother was under my sister's magnifying glass when she was five. Only my mother. So every word my mother said was examined, magnified, searched; every gesture; every tone of voice.
I consider it a tragedy when two people love each other and they cannot perceive the other person's feelings. In the example above, my mother loved us. She spoke wryly, but with love. That's what I heard. She did not intend to make my sister feel the way she did. My sister did not choose to feel the way she did; at that age, an emotion is an emotion. She also didn't express it, where it might have been caught, challenged, and put to rest instantly.
There was no abuse, no harsh words, no anger; none of the effects were in any way intended. It was a quiet family moment, in which we asked the usual questions about how our parents met, dated, fell in love, etc.
I cannot be angry at my mother. I cannot be angry at my sister. What happened, happened. So: it's important to me to lay no blame; important to me to assign no fault. I think that many, many of the emotional wounds we do carry come from misunderstandings like this: there's no intent to harm.
So this isn't about my mother. It's not about what she should have known, because clearly, she didn't - and clearly, with me, she didn't have to know this. It's not about my sister and the fact that she shouldn't have felt this way - because clearly, she did and she was a child without the experience of life as emotional counterweight.
When I became the parent of a second child, I remembered my sister so clearly. I remembered that my sister was not me, and that her reactions were not mine. I remembered that my mother had treated us the same way - and that I had not suffered the way my sister had. I did not have a lot of sympathy for my sister when I was a younger child because she made no sense to me. But she also didn't tell me about a lot of this until we were both adults (when, I admit, it still made little sense).
There is no point in being angry at the way my sister did perceive my mother's words. But she sifted all of my mother's words and phrases that way, as if looking for the hidden barbs, the absolute proof, of those early, terrible fears.
My sister was a child. She was a child whose sole compass in the universe was our mother. I was not. But clearly, different as we were, we were part of the same family, subject to the same upbringing and facts; we carried different things from it, going forward, which is a testament to our disparate personalities.
What I most feared was that I would somehow do the same: as a mother, I would somehow completely by accident - because I have a pretty frank personality and I will answer any question - cause the same damage. I would be competent at parenting my oldest, and would fail to truly see my youngest.
Decades of listening to my sister - which was often frustrating - gave me the keys I needed to see clearly what I had to see, and to attempt to moderate tone and words; to watch carefully for reactions, to assume that if something like this was occurring, it would not come out into the open on its own.
And, you know, it was hard. On the whole, I understood my oldest son. I could figure out what his responses meant, and what his response would be, because he was so doggedly rational. He built his worldview from logical blocks, and he had an almost mathematical rigor in the way he applied that worldview.
But my younger son was not my oldest son in any way. I could not understand how he thought, or how he balanced his worldview. He was not, as my oldest was, terrified of the unknown. But he was very, very attached - to me. And I thought: I recognize this.
My tone of voice was of far more import to him than the actual words I spoke. But he was not sensitive in that way to most other people. So I treated him…the way my sister wanted to be treated as a small child. I wasn't perfect, because it is so very not what I need. Trying to give someone what they need when what they need is so alien was challenging.
And I'm not sure I would have recognized it at all were it not for her.