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A clarification of the previous post

Someone asked me a question in email about my previous post, and I realized that I had not perhaps been clear enough about how my father’s necessary absences affected me.

In my last post, I spoke about untangling elements of myself from the effects of events in the past, when I talked about my father and my visceral response to his ten-week, inexplicable absence. The reason that this kicked in such a strong abandonment fear was that I was not quite six years old, I had done nothing wrong, I knew he loved me. Things were normal and happy in my house - and then he just disappeared. Knowing why intellectually meant that I accepted it. Intellectually.

But it caused a top-down fear that haunted me for another decade. It made me certain that it didn’t matter that I was loved, that I loved - things could, and would, just go away. I was powerless to prevent it.

I did not understand where the response had come from, because I didn’t kick or fight when my father had to leave for work; I didn’t hate him for leaving; I didn’t resent his employer for sending him away. The working intellectual knowledge, however, didn’t stop the pain. I was too young.

Putting the two things together meant that I could see that part of me was still emotionally trapped and entangled - that part of me was frozen in place at a much earlier stage of life. Arrested. Waiting.

I want to quickly add: this was me. Not all children will react this way; many of my friends did not have the same issue from similar absences. My husband’s father went on geological surveys for a minimum of six weeks every summer for as long as he can remember, and he did not find it emotionally unsettling; even in my own family, my father’s absence did not cause this type of trauma for my sister.

My father did not leave to cause pain. He didn’t leave because he was angry. He left for valid, normal reasons--and he always returned. So, again, I assign no blame here. I’m not looking for fault, nor was I when I finally understood: I want explanations that I can work with. I was trying to understand me at that point, because I wanted to change my own response.

I did not, therefore, require input from my father. His input wouldn’t have materially changed what I needed to do. He could apologize - but for what?

This is a cleaner pain to deal with on one’s own. There is nothing he could have done differently when I was a child. I understand--and understood that. It is much harder to deal with the same type of pain when one looks at a situation and feels that one’s parents could have avoiding causing the pain.

But…the work of untangling and repair is actually still the same. We can’t change the past. We frequently can’t change our parents, and they often don’t remember the bits and pieces of the past that caused our invisible scars.

This is how I often see emotional damage:

A person is not a single, undivided unit, a uniform whole: we have facets, we have multiple components. Sometimes, when we’re really badly hurt by something--whether through malice or just because of the circumstances of life, some part of us - the part that hurts - is caught and mired in the pain of that moment, and it remains stuck there. The other parts of us of us grow up, experience new things, revisit elements of our early life from the safety of perspective.

But those early hurts, perspective doesn’t easily reach. Sometimes we’re waiting for an apology. Some act of atonement. This makes sense because so many of us were hurt and confused as children--and as children, we’re expected to apologize, to clean up, to make amends, if we do something hurtful. We’re often not allowed, by our parents, to move on until we’ve done these things. An apology is like a magic spell: we need to make one before we can set ourselves free.

Consequently, as children, we see those apologies and that acknowledgement as a necessary part of the act of letting go and moving on. What we’re forced to offer when we’re young, we also need to receive, in the same spirit. We know what we deserve, because we’re often forced to offer it if we transgress.

When we’re badly hurt as children, we are waiting for contrition from the party that hurt us, because on some level, we’re entitled to that apology. We had to apologize, we had to make amends, didn’t we? And so we wait, knowing that things aren’t finished until that final act.

But when that final act should have happened decades in the past, it’s of course much more complicated. When we are forty, fifty, sixty, and that small part of us is still waiting, we need to come up with different ways to address those arrested parts of ourselves.

Yes, we deserve those apologies. Yes, we were hurt. But as adults now, if the same thing happened, we could much more easily disregard it. The pain of the past looms large because the solutions of the past are often completely out of reach: we’re not going to get the closure we’ve been waiting for, because we’re not five years old anymore.

What helped me -- and I hesitated to write this because this is such a YMMV thing -- is seeing my parents clearly as people. Not as my parents, but as individuals who are flawed, insecure, lonely; whose responses come - as mine do - from their childhood, much of which was spent in internment camps. There was no way I could have seen them as people at age five or six. They were, at that age, the centre of the universe, the well-spring of everything.

But when I was in my teens, I began to see that they were, in fact, struggling in exactly the way other people did. the Adult badge they’d been given was just that: some external accoutrement they pinned to their personalities. The parent badge did not suddenly elevate them beyond personhood and its flaws: they were just people.

And I was also just a person.

I could then examine all the slings and arrows of my childhood, armed with this new information.

I will say that it is very much like the act of structurally revising a novel, for me. I approach the whole book with a few new facts, and it gives me a magnifying glass I didn’t have while I was struggling to write it.

This realization was something I struggled to carry forward, but you know - it’s hard. I understood this as a concept when I was fifteen years old. But I’m almost fifty now, and it’s only this year, some thirty-five years later that I could stop and realize that my mother is sometimes lonely.

People get lonely. Why did it not occur to me that my mother could be one of them? Well, because she’s my mother. It is not easy to untangle that position in my own mind.

Seeing them as people helped me enormously. Becoming a parent made it easier to understand my parents as people - because I didn’t undergo any magical transformations: I was still me, still fumbling, still stressed about writing, still uncertain.

Some of the choices they made were choices I avoided making because I thought they would be costly for the kids later in life - but some of the choices they made I made as well, because I thought those choices were ultimately positive.

Both of these are based in my own experiences. I know I’ve made choices that will not be ultimately helpful, regardless - and I have to soldier on doing my best in the hope that when they’re older, they’ll see that I did the best I could given the constraints of personality, finances and time.

No, I don’t know which choices, yet; if I knew, I wouldn’t have made them. But…I’m a parent. I have that weight in the psyche of my own children. I didn’t exactly ask for it; it comes with the territory. They will outgrow it, because as they get older, they do, but of course, there are elements in the past that will probably echo and shadow them.

But there will also be good things. There will be things that strengthen them.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 2nd, 2012 07:52 am (UTC)
My mother was the one I adored; the one I believed I could never do without. I lost her when I was 22 or so. Now, a mother of two myself, I wonder if I've been stunted in some fashion because of that. It frightens and upsets me to realize I was ten when she was my age, with my baby and 4 year old. Because she is now perpetually older, wiser, idealized to me. I have some hints of her personhood, from re-examined memories and unreliable things my sister said about going through my mother's things after. She is Mother and I'm just Chrysoula and just because I have kids doesn't make me mother in my own head. It frightens me to realize I'm idealizing-in-memory somebody who I am also aware of must have been just a person because I know I wasn't anything magical and wonderful and patient when I was the age she was when I was 5. I think being able to peacefully reconcile the two-- the person and the parent-- into a single concept is a precious experience and one I worry about never achieving.
Jul. 2nd, 2012 08:33 am (UTC)
I think I will always be in pain. I've always been lonely.

I can be happy and grateful for life, but I think I'm basically a self-centred selfish being at the heart of it all. I combine this with feeling like a worthless waste of space. Huge ego + knowledge of uselessness = totally neurotic.
Jul. 2nd, 2012 02:23 pm (UTC)
There was an interesting slide show on MSN.com about well intentioned things parents say that have a lasting detrimental and even scarring effect. This seemed to tie in to your post, Michelle.
"10 things you should never say to your kids". My first post got kicked out as spam because of your settings so apparently a link marks it as spam(?). Part of why it's great is that it suggests alternatives that are more truthful and helpful ways of saying what we as a parent really intend.

I can really relate to trying to bring closure and seeking regret or apology as a way to heal a relationship with one's past and parents, and either causing them grief or running into them not even remembering the event that was so cataclismic in my development. When I was doing a research paper in a dysfunction family college class, I did it on families where there is someone who is chronically ill, which is the situation that I grew up in. When interviewing my mom for the paper she described the years she was sleepless listening for when my dad might stop breathing. and how everytime he left the house she'd fear she'd never see him again.

All while protecting us kids by not letting us know he wasn't expected to live. I was struck by the profound insight of how that had shaped me to be so irrationally anxious and at times distraught when my ex-husband wouldn't come home on time or wouldn't communicate what his plans were. It would be rational to be annoyed at the inconsideration but because I couldn't connect it to anything I couldn't explain myself to either him or myself. None of my siblings absorbed that reactions or understood mine either. It is very interesting.
Jul. 2nd, 2012 08:49 pm (UTC)
It's so funny to read this because when I read the previous entry, it never occurred to me to relate it to my own experience, it was SO DIFFERENT to yours. My father was gone for lengthy work trips also. He works in the movie industry and when I was very young would often do nearly back-to-back 6-12 week movies that were shot on location. He did as many in town as possible, but he was gone at least a third of the year every year until I was 12 or so. It's haunted him, he still to this day worries that he abandoned me, that it damaged me or our relationship in some way. I honestly don't recall ever feeling any really negative emotion associated with his absences. Granted, I also don't recall my childhood very well, so if any traumas there echo into my adulthood I doubt I'd be able to figure out the instigating incident. But I'm fairly confident that my Dad's absences didn't bother me. I thought his job was cool, it was exciting for me when he went away, to think about what he was doing. And I was always confident that he loved me and that he would return. There were some advantages to him being away, in fact. My Mom got to cook whatever food she wanted and we tended to prefer her more simple cooking to my Dad's more elaborate tastes when we were young.. and as I got older, it was a lot easier to skirt the rules when Mom was in charge than when Dad was. ;) He stopped working as frequently when I was a teenager, my Mom had by then gone back to work and we weren't so desperate for the money he made. Then he was the house husband, and I think he set a sort of unreasonable example for me of a guy who likes to be domestic that my husband now will never live up to. ;) He still goes on location now and then, but they're making fewer and fewer made for TV movies, which used to be his bread and butter. It's all series now, and most of them are shot in Canada.. which technically, as a department head he could go and work in, but since he wouldn't be allowed to bring his own crew he tends to turn down those projects. They don't shoot stuff in LA as much as they used to, now that the Canadian movie infrastructure is all built up and it's still cheaper to shoot there.

I imagine the fact that neither of my parents were really the center of my world growing up helped more than anything. The one person I really couldn't live without was my twin sister. I loved my parents and as a teenager I think we had a more warm relationship than is usual. (We didn't fight hardly at all. I cannot relate to those screaming mother-daughter scenes in movies at all.) My sister, on the other hand.. I couldn't go anywhere or do anything without her. We had the turbulent teenager fights, when both of us wanted to be different but also couldn't bear to be without each other. We had the violent upheaval when we left home and suddenly lived in different houses and had different friends. It was pretty painless for me to leave my parents, but leaving my sister was really hard.

Edited at 2012-07-02 08:58 pm (UTC)
Jul. 3rd, 2012 04:10 am (UTC)
Hello; just friended you for the parenting posts. Wow, you have given me a lot to think about.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )