“Mothers are all slightly insane.” J.D. Salinger
“So how on earth can I bring a child into the world, knowing that such sorrow lies ahead, that it is such a large part of what it means to be human? I’m not sure. That’s my answer: I’m not sure.” Anne Lamott
I swear I do not dwell on the past. Truly, I swear it, at least not in the woe-is-me-life-is-so-stinky-and-I-am-scarred-for-life sort of way. At some point in my early adult life I realized I couldn’t swim in that ocean of shame and anger and sadness…I’d simply drown. I also pledged that I wouldn’t let the lives of my parents define who I was. To a great extent I’ve been successful at this. Years of therapy helped (and I’m not being ironic or snarky here – big fan of therapy). I came to define myself by my work and my writing and my relationship to others. Yet, every so often, a news story or photograph or a certain expression on my daughter’s face will cause me pause, and there I’ll be, contemplating the past in a spiraling stream of conscious that takes me to all sorts of sad little nooks and crannies of memory. That’s what happened when I stopped to compare photographs of my daughter and myself the other day. This is me. Lord love a duck, was I cute or what?
I’m probably three years old here, four tops. We moved a lot when I was young and the chronology of these earliest years gets a bit fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure we were living in a mobile home somewhere near Fort Riley in Kansas when this photograph was taken. Dad was still in the army, just having returned from Vietnam. The only particular I remember from this day was that I was waiting for Mom to finish vacuuming so we could go somewhere. I wonder where Brother Mine was at the time. I didn’t do much of anything without him then, not if I could help it. Looking at this photograph now, I seem preternaturally poised and patient. I wasn’t though. Those crossed legs, neatly folded hands and shy smile belie an impatient little soul with a rich interior life. I look innocent too, don’t I? I still believed in Santa Claus and Baby Jesus and my parents. My little world would be turned upside down within a year. If I could now, I’d hug the stuffing out of that little girl that was me. I’d send her a letter (she loved getting mail) and gift her these few bits of insight too.
Sweet Lil’ J,
You are so absolutely lovable and amazing. Things are going to get a little bumpy for the next decade or so and I want you to know that I am on your side. And, in the long run, you are going to be okay. So, here’s what I want you to do:
- Take a deep breath, a really deep, deep breath. Do this a lot. I swear it will help.
- Brace yourself.
- Stick with your brother. He’s a good egg. And thank him when you get older.
- Once you learn to read, don’t stop. Ever. Those books are going to be your refuge. They’ll open up your world too.
- Pay attention in school. Soak it up. You’ll be able to become who you want to be because of what you learn.
- You’ll be mad at the world for a bit and mad about the concessions you will have to make as a woman in this world. It’s okay. You don’t need my permission. Be mad.
- Go ahead and love your mother. She might be flawed, but she loves you too and she won’t be around forever. Sad, but true.
- Don’t worry too much about your father. You can’t fix him and you’ll break your heart trying. He’s a stranger in a strange land and there’s nary a thing you can do about it.
- Look around you. There are all sorts of big people who will step in to help when you need it. Be open to them. They are really super folks and they love you too.
Above all, remember, you’ll be okay. That’s it chickadee. Hang tough.
I love you,
Little people are so vulnerable. But it’s also been my experience (personally and as a teacher) that little people can kick ass in the resilience department too. My wee Goose is about the same age now as I was in that photograph. I’d like to think I’m providing her with a more stable start to her life than I had. Certainly, I could list a dozen or more ways that my parenting is an improvement on that of my parents and I mean more than just time-outs versus wooden spoon spankings. I mean being present and sane and sober. That’s not to say my folks were totally devoid of parental skills, well, at least not Mom. She tried to create a sense of home wherever we moved. She instilled a love of reading in me, even as she struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia. She snuggled and smiled and laughed. I have many fond memories of her and some days those outweigh the sad ones. When I first became a mother, I worried about my children someday discovering that missing-in-action look in my eyes, which would expose me as emotionally absent. Now, six years into motherhood, I recognize it is nigh on impossible to be present every moment of the day. These little people NEED so much. And I have forgiven Mom some of her transgressions as the strained acts of a struggling single mother. Sometimes, despite the intentions of my best self, I shout and curse too much, transforming into a raving mad monster mommy. When this happens, I feel that little, strawberry-blond, cutie patootie me cringing inside. In those moments it’s clear that a time-out would be more appropriate for me than the kidlets. Bear Boy has assured me that werewolves and real bears are still scarier than I am, even when I yell too loudly. Bless his heart. I’m human after all. I do the best I can with what I have and hope it’s good enough for my sweet babes.