I mourn the childhood that I didn’t have.
I remember the moment it clicked: The realization that everything I thought I knew, all my memories, represented a fantasy interpretation of events; untrue.
We were sitting at a booth in the 50s style diner, the lingering scent of pancakes, maple syrup, and bacon still hanging in the air. My writing group; two dear friends and me. Jenni read over my draft; the creative nonfiction piece I had worked on all summer. She looked up at me, then over at Colleen, then back at me and said,
“You haven’t named this.”
I was confused. The title was right there. Buried in my illusions, I cocked my head and frowned slightly, not understanding,
“What do you mean?”
She looked into my eyes and held my gaze, her eyes determined and full of sympathy.
“This is abuse. Emotional abuse.”
I shook my head, denying. I think I even let loose a sharp snortish chuckle; a remnant of my defensive strategy. And then as her words sank in and buried themselves in the crevices of my self-awareness, the carefully constructed shell around my magic memories cracked and I felt a rush of heat as my mind replayed all the moments I had written about; replayed the scenes with this new lens my friend had named.
And I knew.
I felt it to my core.
She was right.
And right there, at the table in the diner with one friend across from me and one beside me, my body shook, my face contorted, and I sobbed. I cried, overwhelmed at the death of my childhood. They let me cry. My friends gave me the space they knew I needed to absorb the truth of my own situation.
After I regained some control over my rising emotions, we talked, my friends and I. And at one point, Col said she was confused at first because of the elegiac story I had written for her collection, Western Pennsylvania Reflections. And how surprising it was that this was the same person.
“He’s both,” I said, choking back another sob.
“I understand,” she said, her eyes determined and full of sympathy.
That story, titled “The Artist’s Lesson,” reads very differently to me now that I’m awake.
The story begins
“Teach me how to paint?” I asked my dad, who was working at his slanted wooden work table on a Mr. Yuk design for the Pittsburgh Poison Center. The almost floor to ceiling windows stretched the length of the wall, giving us a third story bird’s eye view of our lush square back yard in the ‘burbs of the ‘burgh, as well as the back yards of our neighbors to the right, left, and the three directly behind us. Our crabapple tree was heavy with red, sour fruit, the grass was dark green and thirsty, the roses climbing the length and breadth of the garage wall were weighed down with broad pink flowers and humming bees. The neighbor kids played and screamed and laughed in the yard next door to the left. To the right, our sedate and low-key professor neighbors worked silently in their garden laden with vegetables and herbs. From somewhere in the neighborhood, the scent of a charcoal grill just firing up wafted through the open window, filling the studio with the promise of a burger and dog dinner.
This idyllic scene was true to me until three months ago when I jolted awake. This narrative was real. This narrative was true for 35 years. I was a child when this scene happened, and my adult writing self continued to protect that girl well into adulthood.
The story continues
Always eager to learn new artistic skills, having “mastered” by the age of nine the fine nuances of musical theatre performance, ballet, tap, piano, and singing in my culturally-oriented city, I wanted my dad to show me how to do what he had spent a lifetime learning. Faster was always better for me. Spending slow, methodical moments meticulously learning a skill was laborious, boring, and, well, hard. Hard and boring were the antithesis of my fun-loving and convenience-coveting nature at that age. I sat on the edge of the tweedy green sofa against the studio’s one wall, eagerly awaiting the artist’s generous offer to share his hard-won knowledge with his daughter.
“No.” He turned his head and looked at me, putting his sketching pencil down in the groove at the base of the tabletop.
I can’t be sure, but I’m fairly certain that I pouted and whined, “But why?”
“If I teach you how to paint, you’ll paint like me. And I want you to paint like you.”
It wouldn’t be until I was much older that this lesson’s true meaning started to resonate with me. At the time, I was just resentful that my dad wouldn’t share his secrets. When I watched him work, sketching or painting with watercolors, I witnessed magic. Beautiful images came together and sprang to life on thick paper and canvas; shadows, colors, and stark lines merging and combining into farmhouses, wooden sleighs, city porches with elderly couples rocking in chairs, Pittsburgh’s skyline growing up from all different angles, Kaufmann’s clock, the practical frame hillside homes of the Southside slopes under a moody sky, the muted red and gray tones of St. Patrick’s church in the heart of the Strip, Gimbels’ windows delighting Christmas shoppers in the snow, and Market Square in the warm light of the sun on a rare cloudless day.
The lesson I imagined that I learned that day is a story I created to protect myself from the truth. I imagined that my dad wanted me to be independent, learn for myself, persevere. But now I see that this man just didn’t want to teach me anything; he wanted to retain his power and authority by not sharing it. And that realization makes me sick, deeply sad, and angry. My dad withheld his knowledge from me because sharing through teaching would have required him to see me as an equal human being worthy of being taught instead of an object to control, criticize, push around, tease, dominate.
My dad made me doubt my value. By not being willing to share and teach his skill and knowledge, he infused me with an unhealthy drive to do everything on my own, an unwillingness to ask for help, and an inability to accept kindness from others. These characteristics enmeshed in my character have caused more professional and personal damage than is comfortable to admit.
This day that I write about so beautifully and with such admiration and acceptance is also the last day I ever asked my dad to teach me anything.
And I never picked up a brush to teach myself how to paint.
The Achievement Gap
When I was in high school, I was a low-achieving student. I hated the formal structure of classes, being told what to read, taking tests, the expected discipline, and most of the subjects. At home, my parents berated and criticized me for this, as most parents would. However, as I think back to how these exchanges actually went, I realize that my memory of them places me as the bad kid not doing what her parents are telling her to do. I remember feeling wrong. That my defensive self-affirming statements about loving and excelling at English and literature and writing and music and theatre and dance went unvalidated, unrecognized, unheard. Every bad grade, every disengaged stare, every rebellious action I took screamed to my parents that I was unhappy in that school with that routine; unhappy at home with their routine. But they persisted.
“You need to apply yourself. You’re smarter than this,” they would admonish.
“But I’m not happy there. I hate it there.”
This was always met with the “we’re older and wiser and do what we tell you to do” response. I wasn’t smart enough to know what I liked or wanted. They knew best and shame on me for trying to think for myself. Also offered were suggestions that I concentrate, work harder, stop playing and having fun, and just buckle down and do the work.
My feelings didn’t matter. Only my achievements mattered. In the absence of achievement, an achievement that they approved of, that they wanted, that they would be willing to validate, I was left feeling unworthy, unvaluable, and unlovable. Not good enough. I was not accepted for who I was, but was expected to perform to their unwanted and unacheivable standards and expectations.
The damage was done.
Looking back, I see this situation very differently now. I did achieve as a young student. I wrote extremely well, I was exceedingly imaginative and creative, I loved to read and read hundreds of books a year, I performed in plays and musicals, I learned to be a good friend and mentor to my social circle, I was a leader, I inspired people, and I knew how to have fun and draw others along in the merriment. But none of these achievements were good enough or worthy of approval. And so as I became an adult, this underlying feeling drove me; it drove me hard.
When I decided to move from being a media buyer in an ad agency to a freelance journalist running my own business, my parents warned me what a bad choice that was; how risky it was to work for yourself; how likely it was that I would fail.
I pushed myself and succeeded for ten years with my parents always in my ear, telling me to be a high school teacher for job security and a steady paycheck. My reputation as a reliable writer went unacknowledged. Every success I had in this career was just a stepping stone to criticism about what I wasn’t doing and how disappointing it was that I just wouldn’t listen.
I recognize now what magical thinking is: The desire for something that never existed and will never exist. The oft-given example is of the family dinner that wasn’t. In my case, I long for my parents’ acceptance and approval, especially my father’s, and I know now that I will never get it no matter how hard I work or how much I achieve. Take my decision to hang up my freelance hat and go to graduate school at the age of 34.
This decision was one that my dad approved of, but he still insisted that I should be a high school teacher. And when I visited, he would bait me into arguments by criticizing public education; a subject that he knew I cared about.
Although I was a Ph.D. candidate heavily invested in education and well-studied in the subject, as well as being a teacher in a classroom of college students, my dad never asked my opinion. He never asked for my input or insights. He still doesn’t. He only wants to lecture me, tell me what to think, and remind me forcefully how wrong I am to think the way that I do.
The constant brow-beating, infantilizing, criticism, invalidation, condescension, interruptions, and control tactics that I experienced as a child and that I still experience when I am in my parents’ home and specifically, in my father’s presence, not only drove me to consider suicide (I never got beyond holding a razor over my wrist one day for about an hour when I was 16 before deciding that wasn’t the answer), it also drove me to fill the achievement gap. My own personal achievement gap has been the space between the reality of my actual achievements and what my parents have expected me to achieve. An unfillable gap.
When I bought my first home at 42, I didn’t tell my parents because I knew they would try (and likely succeed) to talk me out of it. Even after the purchase was final and I had moved in, when I finally told them, my mother complained to my fiance that I didn’t have any “backing,” so my decision was a poor one; another bad choice in a lifetime of bad choices according to my folks.
Three weeks from now is Thanksgiving weekend. After waking from my illusionary childhood, I decided that Jim and I would only visit my parents for Thanksgiving if we stayed in a hotel instead of with them. He agreed and when I told my mom, she tried to talk me into staying with them, until I pressed the issue, established my boundary, and claimed my space, “I need a place to run to when Dad starts. A place that isn’t all the way back across the state. I am protecting my boundaries, mom, and claiming my right to have space to get away.”
“I understand,” she finally said.
But now the time is almost here. And it is hard to process the onset of emotions that I’m feeling. Primarily, the feeling is dread tinged with fear. Dread at my father’s inevitable outburst that will trap me in the pattern of childhood. Fear at the response to my calm statement that I will no longer tolerate being treated that way. Trepidation at the response garnered by my action of leaving as I say, “We will try again tomorrow.” Between the flight, fight, and freeze responses, I am hovering around frozen with a compulsion to flee.
My heart pounds like I’ve had too much to drink. The tension in my shoulders and neck and upper back is so strong that my head aches. I’ve cried four times in less than 24 hours as I anticipate what will actually happen on this trip. Not if. When. I don’t have anxiety attacks, but I imagine this is as close as I’ve ever come to having one.
I thought I could handle this.
I thought I was ready.
I thought I was stronger and braver than this.
I cling to my stuffed moose that Jim got me during our summer trip to Lake Kabetogama; he knows I love stuffed animals. I named the moose Kab; we had such fun at that lake. The moose is infused with happy memories, love, and kindness. I cling to the moose at night as tightly as I cling to my shattered sense of self in hopes of squeezing it back together. If I squeeze Kab hard enough, maybe I’ll feel as whole as the adult that I present to the world.
But I am strong and brave and I am being too hard on myself.
I have the right to protect myself. I have the right to protect myself. I have the right.
Maybe if I keep writing that and saying it out loud, I’ll start to believe it.
I deserve to process this truth in my own time.
I deserve peace, acceptance, and calmness.
I deserve to trust my own instincts.
With the help of my fierce friends who are unrelenting in their loving support of my journey, I have decided to stay home. I intend to email my mother to explain my decision. I will try to be delicate, but there is no delicate way to say that our family is broken, it is their fault, and I am not ready to be back in that environment.
I send the email.
I claim my space and rights.
I mourn the childhood that I did have.