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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.

Comments

la_marquise_de_
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.
comrade_cat
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.
msagara
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.


Yes.

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.