“It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.” – Seneca
In ninth grade, I learned that not everyone has the same starting place. I recall the very moment that I felt genuine empathy for what I deemed at the time, a very stupid problem. I had worked that morning and forgot that it was picture day. I had a deep impression on my forehead from my baseball cap that I wore backwards while working part-time in a kitchen. I felt a bit embarrassed that I had an indented head but reasoned that this was my reality and if nothing else, I would look back on it one day and laugh.
While I was busy worrying about my forehead, I became aware of a group of girls sitting in front of me. One girl was fighting back tears and the other girls were trying to comfort her. They all looked beautiful and had obviously put time and effort into their appearance. The upset girl was oscillating between something her mother had said to her that was critical of her appearance and worrying about “ruining” her makeup with her tears.
My first thought was self-pity. In that very second, I would have gladly switched places with the girl. Her problems seemed so trivial and stupid. I had not even looked in a mirror yet and this girl had hardly looked away from one. It seemed like a luxury to be that self-obsessed and vain. Then something broke inside me and how I viewed the entire situation changed in an instant.
This girl was one of the “popular” ones in our middle school. She always had the right clothes, hair, and make-up. Other girls always surrounded her, hoping to glean away some of her popularity. Yet here she was just minutes before her picture, absolutely drowning in self-doubt. The girls “comforting” her were mostly just talking about themselves, while occasionally patting her in reassurance. She was on an island, surrounded by false smiles.
My self-pity changed to empathy. I felt in my heart had I been in her exact situation, that I would not have been as strong as her to hold back the tears. I took a quick inventory of my life and decided that truly in that moment, having an indent mark on my forehead, that I earned while working a job, was the worst of my problems. I did not have any false expectations of my life or anyone in it. I may not have been happy but at least I was 100% me and not a fractured reflection of someone my mother or someone else wanted me to be.
When it was my turn to go take my picture, I walked by and casually mentioned to the sad girl that I thought that she “looked nice.” I was met with something along the lines of “Fuck-off dike”, which made me chuckle because there was nothing else to do. I was trying to be nice, but I could see how taken out of context, my words could be off-putting.
That year, I didn’t get a yearbook to see how my dented forehead picture turned out. I did not care. It was my last year as a “regular” student. The following year, I started at the local trade college for a degree in Culinary Arts. I left all the insecurity, drama, and vanity, that middle/high school had to offer and traded in my childhood for adulthood.
There are many things I don’t remember my childhood. It is better that way. But when things pop up in my mind, I do my best to pay attention to them and reflect on why the memory is surfacing. I think in this particular case, it is to remind me that not everyone has the same starting place and that no one can truly know the burdens another carries with them. Also, none of that really matters. We can judge ourselves on our emotional state, while the rest of the world judges us on our actions.
Yesterday, I went to coffee with a friend who I admire greatly. She spoke with fluidity about the challenges in her life and the effort it takes to break generational trauma and to live life in an “average” way. As I listened to her, I became keenly aware of how much effort it takes in my own life to reach the point other people start off at. In other words, I became aware that I was still carrying around this feeling of being fundamentally flawed in some way, and worse, that somehow this made me unique.
Listening to my friend talk about her successes and growth, I felt optimistic. If she can overcome the fractured childhood, and other scars, so can I. She broke the generational curse, so why not me?
My glowing optimism lasted until I picked up my kids from school. My two-year-old didn’t want to take off her snow pants and my five-year-old was so excited he literally could not stop jumping. We hustled into the minivan and headed towards Tae Kwon Do.
The two-year-old was crying because she got goldfish for a snack, and she wanted animal crackers. The five-year-old, found an old bag of animal crackers in the car and promptly started tormenting her by offering her tiny pieces and then withholding more. The homemade muffins that I had made that afternoon, which used to be their favorites, were suddenly “disgusting and tasted like poop” and the music I had on was terrible, and I was driving too slowly, and the chaos continued to build.
Once at the gym, my son ripped off all his clothes and then got distracted and started running around in his underwear while my daughter wandered off and helped herself to the training equipment on the mats. Meanwhile, a fellow parent is handing me ice skates as a hand-me-down for my son and the instructor is trying to talk to me. My calm resolve started to fracture.
Two minutes into class, my daughter is asked by the Master to leave the mats, because she is not listening. Also, she is not really in the class. This is completely unacceptable to her, and she has a meltdown. Somehow, my son makes it through class without incident and in a whirlwind of chaos, we make it out the door and on our way home.
Once home, the chaos multiplied which included refusal to eat anything, coloring on the walls, table, and each other, and ended with my five-year-old son telling me he “hates me and that I’m the worst mom ever” and my daughter screaming at me because I’m “not her dad.” I felt utterly defeated. I remembered telling my own mother that I hated her and meaning it.
Thirty-five years later, I can still feel the distain I had for my mother as a young child. She used to tell me that she hoped my kids hate me as much as I hated her. And for a moment, I felt my mom from the grave, smile approvingly as my both my children railed against me.
Later that evening, as I laid in bed, I felt the familiar wave of self-pity from my childhood wash over me. I called my dogs to come comfort me and they did not come. Even my beloved dogs had abandoned me. I wept and went to sleep, feeling like a failure as a parent and as a person.
About 3am I woke up. Both dogs and my son had climbed into bed with me. I chuckled to myself at the ridiculousness of my earlier thoughts. I enjoyed a moment of gratitude and tucked in my son and pet my two dogs, all of which cuddled closer to me as I did so.
Then I picked up “Gilgamesh” and finished the epic poem I started weeks ago. The story of Gilgamesh really highlights how important it is to enjoy life and to not focus on the unchangeable. Another theme is it costs life force to love another. In other words, we can only truly experience love when we are vulnerable. I asked myself how vulnerable I had been in my own life? I did not like the answer.
This morning, I spent a few minutes reading articles about five-year-olds and learned that what I had experienced the night before was very common and almost expected. Same thing for the two-year-old. I was not a chronically unique mother who had already damaged her two young children enough to earn their rage. No, I was just an average mother with average kids having an average experience that I was internalizing to be worse than it was.
Before school I received a total of three unprovoked “I love you mama” between the two children and my son took a moment to thank me for switching him to a new classroom – something I had already internalized as being the wrong decision. There were hugs and kisses and smiles and we all went on with our day.
It does take effort on my part to adult in a manner that breaks free from my generational trauma. But the alternatives are unacceptable. Whatever I struggle with, I am not alone. There are many other mothers that feel the way I do. I am not the only one that worries about passing dysfunction to another generation.
What I choose to focus on today, is not only am I not my mother, but that my children are not destined to experience anything I endured. It doesn’t really matter how I get to a place were I can remind myself of this simple truth, only that I get there.
Today, I will continue to strive to live in a manner that is free from shame, guilt, and doubt. I will remember that even as I look to the struggles of the past, perspectives can change, and new strength can be found. The roots of my struggles only matter in context to growth and should never be used to seed doubt. It does not matter how I arrive, only what I do once I am there.