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I am still thinking through No in all its variations, and something has been spinning wheels in my brain all day. I want to talk a little bit about perception, and about personality.

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.


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 21st, 2012 02:38 am (UTC)
And thank you for reading :)
Jun. 20th, 2012 05:50 am (UTC)
Damn, woman.
Jun. 20th, 2012 06:51 am (UTC)
Your mother's life sounds in some way like my father's mother's: married when she was eighteen, right away had five kids in six years. I can't imagine having that life, either: she was done, or nearly done, having all those kids when she was my age.

I've never heard her express any sort of regret about what her life has brought her. But I do know, because my mother told me, that when my parents were first married and (their) grandparents would start getting pushy, wanting to know when there would be great-grandkids, my grandma would pull my mom aside and tell her, "Don't let them rush you. You just take your own sweet time."
Jun. 20th, 2012 07:09 am (UTC)
I recognize the differences in my kids the way I know my brother was always able to push my buttons. He still is the only one who is able to do it with such ease, although my own son has that ability as well.

Boy, do I recognize that one.
Jun. 20th, 2012 07:39 am (UTC)
I have a similar story about me and my brother.

We were kind of impossible, always teasing each other, always fighting and our mother sometimes had to resolve to desperate measures to make us shut up and be quiet. She would warn us, loud and clear: "If you do not stop doing this, I will hit you" and she always warned us three times before following through with her threat. A slap in the cheek, something that really shocked, hurt a little and did no permanent damage. It didn't take me long to recognise this pattern and stop doing whatever I was doing after the second warning. In hindsight, I think she handled us pretty well. I learned that other kids were a lot less difficult to shut up than me and my brother were and I feel like every time I got slapped, I deserved it.

My brother, on the other hand, apparently never recognised this pattern. The amount of warnings didn't quite register and he grew up feeling that our mother had a temper and slapped us around. He went into therapy and still has trouble telling whether mum loves us because she has always been a no-nonsense sort of person who never literally says "I love you". I was shocked when he told me this when we were both well into our twenties.
Jun. 21st, 2012 02:39 am (UTC)
I have a similar story about me and my brother.

Yes, very similar situation. I was surprised when I first heard it. I don’t think I fully understood it until I had children, because to me, my sister was my age, and I never felt all that young on the inside. My own children seemed like, well, babies.
Jun. 20th, 2012 07:59 am (UTC)
I have no kids, for which I am grateful because I know me, very well.

You rock.
Jun. 20th, 2012 08:25 am (UTC)
One of the odd things that has been happening in my family in recent years, now my parents are ageing, is my discovery of how much about his interactions with me in childhood my father does not remember. I remember these things very clearly -- they are mainly occasions on which he was unreasonable or hurtful. My mother remembers them. For years he denied that we were telling the truth, but recently he has come to accept that there may be something in our memories. (I don't know why he's changed: my guess is it's down to the death of his brother, but I may be wrong.)
At the time, I thought he did and said those things because he hated me. Now, I think he did them out of anger and his own difficulties with accepting others as real.
He behaved better with my brother, and even he accepts that this is deeply gendered. His family do not like women and girls.
As these things have come up and been discussed, and he's come to some acceptance of his own actions as well as ours (and we were not innocent), he's apologised to me several times. Which helps take out the sting.
Recently, though, he apologised to me for something it had never occurred to me to mind, something that was a complete given in my childhood -- which was that his wants and needs were always the most important and trumped everything and everyone else at all times. I was stunned and touched and moved. But baffled, too, because, well, that was how things went and it has never occurred to me that it could or should have been different in any way.
People can't read minds. We want them to, all the time. And they can't. And some things aren't anyone's fault.
Jun. 21st, 2012 02:40 am (UTC)
People can't read minds. We want them to, all the time. And they can't. And some things aren't anyone's fault.

Yes, this. But I think it’s hard for people to tease out the damage they’ve taken from a situation without placing blame. I always found it enormously relieving to understand that things that had upset me did not come from a place of willful malice - but not everyone does.
Jun. 21st, 2012 08:07 am (UTC)
It's an important insight, but one that is hard to reach, alas. I am only just getting there myself.
Jun. 23rd, 2012 12:55 pm (UTC)
One of the odd things that has been happening in my family in recent years, now my parents are ageing, is my discovery of how much about his interactions with me in childhood my father does not remember. I remember these things very clearly -- they are mainly occasions on which he was unreasonable or hurtful.

I have this too! I'm not the only one!

And I think my mother has difficulties accepting people who are different from her as real too. It's the best conclusion I've been able to come to.

So for instance, when I had weird stuff as a preteen, I brought the subject up with her, in the car at the intersection of Washington Ave and Colvin Ave when she was driving me somewhere. I said that I felt pain when people I knew touched me, not physical pain but something that was pain in my head. (I didn't know how else to describe it. Still don't. And yes, strangers patting my head or holding my hand or whatever was completely neutral to me.) She said I had a family duty to let her touch me (on the limbs, I add, lest anyone think anything inappropriate was going on) and to give her backrubs. I interpreted that as it doesn't matter to her if I have pain. She does love me, in her way, so I don't really understand it. The only conclusion I can come to is she didn't believe what I said was real. That is so baffling to me.

I brought it up a few decades later in family therapy and all she said was 'I don't remember that.' It was a very shattering experience for me, but for her, my words had hit some kind of initial perception filter and been deflected, so it never became a significant experience for her.

And of course I assumed she meant what she said and it was her complete and well thought out opinion on the subject and never mentioned it again. I was fascinated by dystopias as a child and it was easy to assume I was supposed to live hiding bad things and keeping on guard and pretending I wasn't in pain.

I have no idea whether I was fascinated by dystopias because of something in me or if reading dystopias led me to assume bad things. I HOPE reading dystopias did not lead me to assume bad things, as I want to believe all knowledge and reading is good.
Jun. 25th, 2012 04:41 pm (UTC)
You are definitely not the only one.
I think we tend as children to learn not to do things that upset our parents or create worrying spaces -- so we keep quiet, we hide things, we become watchful. And when we have difficult relationships with parents, this becomes all the more powerful and necessary and damaging all at once.
I was fascinated by prison camp memoirs and stories for a long time, which is similar to your dystopias. I think I was looking for others who had experienced that sense of the world being unreliable, crazy, dangerous -- of course what happened to me was very, very, minor in comparison, but at 10, you don't make those sorts of distinctions. I loved Anne Holm's I Am David, for instance, which was all about displacement and feeling unsafe in a mad world. I don't think I saw bad things in the world -- which I still can tend to do -- because of the reading, though: that is rooted earlier, in my experience of my father's scarily arbitrary, ever-changing rules and moods.
Jun. 26th, 2012 03:00 pm (UTC)
Yes, I liked dissident/prison camp literature also. What happened to me was obviously very different and more minor, but it's about the same philosophical issue and I learned to keep things hidden and seem all right just as the citizens of the USSR did. (Just lesser comparative consequences.) I also learned how to put a complete and noncontradictory cover story together, probably from spy novels and being prone to like language and analyzing.

I don't know why I saw bad things in the world. I guess, since I have depression, I still can also. I guess also, if recent defense of YA literature stands, then the dystopias and Soviet lit did not harm me, but I liked them because they reflected things that were important in my life. The other obvious candidate is my parents' divorce, but I am reluctant to blame that when it's obvious to me it would have been so much worse if they'd stayed together. It happened when I was 4 and I have no conscious memory of it, but I'm told I refused to interact with other children after but would cry if my mom went in a different room from me.

Blaming the crappy part of my life on my parents' divorce is so fucking cliché though, and I don't want to penalize my parents for making what I feel was the right decision at the time.

Maybe this is what msagara means about not blaming people.
Jun. 26th, 2012 08:22 pm (UTC)
Blaming the crappy part of my life on my parents' divorce is so fucking
cliché though, and I don't want to penalize my parents for making what I
feel was the right decision at the time.

Maybe this is what msagara means about not blaming people.


This is exactly what I mean. I think it’s really important to understand ourselves and we therefore look at the things that hurt us, because those things inform who we are. Those things happened, but I feel at base that we can’t always get past them while we blame.

But at the same point, we have to acknowledge where the hurt comes from to reach an understanding of where we came from.
Jul. 5th, 2012 12:21 am (UTC)
(Replying after the fact 'cause I want to throw in my 2 cents, but I've been moving and off-line)

I've been having issues because somehow I learned that pain was normal. That everybody hurt all the time and just never said anything. I can't tie this to any event or memory or ANYTHING. But I remember being in pain of some sort as long as I can remember, and only doing something about it when it seemed injury-level or unbearable. Because it had to be normal, right?

So now, when I'm at the point where a few chronic pain conditions have fully manifested and flared and I can't work - people keep telling me "just push through it". And I want to punch them. I've been "pushing through it" my whole life, and that's why I functioned as long as I did. But since I'm so used to hiding the pain, and the pain conditions are invisible, people don't see it and OBVIOUSLY it's not that bad because I'm still functioning on a basic level.

And my younger sister is the worst. Recently (she graduated from grad school last December, at 25) she's been digging up EVERYTHING emotionally painful in the family's past so she can have "closure", telling other members of my family details of my sex life (she found out through a series of unfortunate events that started with me on sleep meds), and deciding to take over my health care. Especially since she took an antibiotic this one time and felt bad, so I should stop taking all of my meds and it'll help me feel better. And when I don't want to go see a "doctor" she found who is actually degreed in divinity, but looks at your lifestyle (and works with an endocrinologist, but that doesn't help with my problems) - I'm being terrible to the whole family because they love me and want me to get better and I'm going to DIE any minute. (which was news - chronic pain is rarely fatal, although I guess I could be hit by a car)

All of that mess just happened, so it's kind of still making me cranky, but I can't understand how we came out of the same household. Even my mom, the slightly crazy hippy lady trying to get me to take herbs and do weird diet changes isn't being that crazy. (My mom and I get along great, but she fully admits to being odd)
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 21st, 2012 02:42 am (UTC)
I also find it fascinating that my kids never asked those questions about how their dad and I met, etc. I was merely Mom, and there, and took care of things, like magic, I guess.

My oldest did ask, when he was young.

I remember the first time he saw a photo of us at our wedding. He recognized most of our friends, and he was upset that he wasn’t in the picture because it meant we had left him out.

So I had to explain that the picture was taken before he even existed; that, in fact, part of the reason we chose to get married was so we could eventually start a family, which meant him.

But my youngest never asked. He still hasn’t.
Jun. 21st, 2012 10:52 pm (UTC)
Thank you for teaching me something today.
Jun. 22nd, 2012 03:54 pm (UTC)
Your insights make my life richer. Thank you!
Jun. 23rd, 2012 12:43 pm (UTC)
I understand the tone of voice thing. I am very very keyed to voice tone, but because I analyze things so much I also analyze the words. So it's sort of a balance.

Ya know, if someday for whatever reason life sticks me with a child, it's going to be thanks to you I don't ruin the poor thing for life.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )