Saturday, June 1, 2013

What I am passing on

As a parent it often occurs to me that I wonder what it is  that I am giving my daughter?  How will she look back on her childhood?  How will she be when it is her turn to go out into the world?

I am a cushy affectionate mother and my daughter is affectionate too.  I hug and kiss her A LOT.  I think I try to give to her all the hugs and kisses I wanted as a kid but didn't get enough of.  My parents were old school.  They weren't given that kind of affection as children so they also didn't know how to give it.  My dad was different with me than he was with my brothers, the father-daughter bond brought that out in him, but while he was sweet and protective and he listened to me, I still didn't get enough of those outward signs.

I knew I was loved, but I always questioned whether I was worthy of love.

Until I hit my 30th birthday I felt in my heart of hearts the answer to that question was always no. So during my morning commute to work, while Amsterdam passed by in the window and teenaged girls talked too loudly on the tram, I set off down memory lane, I found some music from that time in my life to help set the mood and stared out the window, not seeing the Amsterdam school architecture and the familiar tree lined cobblestone streets, but seeing me, as a  young girl, several pounds lighter, just shy of my 18th birthday, with the world in front of me.

I was headed to college, leaving my home, my family and finding freedom and independence. I was the first of my friends to leave at the end of an idyllic summer spent in the hot sun and the cool rivers outside of Pittsburgh, spending my days boating, swimming and waterskiing on the banks of the Monongahela River surrounded by my high school friends.  All of us caught up in that special feeling that only happens precisely at the moment when we're done with high school and haven't yet gone out into the world, but have every possibility open, ripe for the picking. Looking forward to the future, yet trying desperately to cling to the right now.
I had gotten into a good college.  My family was encouraging and said all the right things.  I really was, as the child of an immigrant, raised with the idea that in America, anything was possible.  Time and again my dad told me that I could do anything I wanted, that the only thing stopping me was my own ambition.  He constantly fed me a diet that the brass right was right there, all I had to do was reach up and grab it.

I spent my high school years in a college town, so many of my friends were staying home and going to the local college, I was one of the few that had chosen to go away.  Staying was not an option.  I loved my little town but as one of the few Jews in town, I also felt like an outsider.  Going to a goyisha college in a goyisha town did not seem like a realistic option for me.

The day I left, my dad and I packed up our car and my friends from high school came up to see me off.  There were hugs and tears and frantic waves and honking horns.  As my hometown disappeared in the rearview mirror and my dad turned our car onto the highway for the 3 hour drive north, my dad took my cues.  When I talked, he made easy conversation, when I just wanted to just lose myself and look out the window, he stayed quiet.

Truth was, I was scared to death.

As much as I had talked about getting out and wanting to get out of my small town and go out into the world, like many kids at that age, I was amass of insecurities.  My parents having divorced when I was 12 left its scars.

I had always been a fragile, sensitive girl  who was able to overcompensate by being loud and funny. I let my big mouth and easy humor work for me.  I learned early on that the best defense was a good offense, so I acted confident and above it all and figured if I could pretend to be happy, people would believe I was happy and therefore I could be happy.

At 17, I still had no clue as to what was really important.

I went to college and I made friends and I got lost in the freedom and absence of limits. I drank.  I drank a lot.  I figured out that alcohol helped, it helped me quiet the voices inside of me that told me I was ugly and not good enough.  Around me, my girlfriends found boyfriends and I had no dates. I was typecast as the gal pal.  I was so busy being funny and confident all the time and I was so good at it, that people bought it and felt I didn't need anything else or perhaps they all knew me too well and could see I was worthless.  I developed crushes on boys who I didn't know, who I could look at longingly on campus and devleop scenarios in my head, but where I never ever had to take a risk by putting myself out there.

While I had a good time in college and did well enough, I had no direction and even though on the surface everything was good, I was happy, I had friends, I was pursuing a college education, behind all the jokes, I was unhappy.

In my junior year, still directionless and without a major, I had moved in with 3 of my friends into an apartment off campus.  It was fun having our own apartment and not being in the dorms helped us to branch out and meet new people outside our immediate circle of friends.  One of my roommates in our junior year started dating a new guy and we became friendly with his friends.  I liked them, our group had become too insulated.  I was adrift and lonely and I was happy to branch out and meet some new people.  We had a party at our place and I was really excited about it. But after my third beer I went running for the toilet and got violently ill.  I didn't really understand it, I had built up a good tolerance and hardly ever got sick.  My friends reassured me it was because I hadn't eaten all day, we had shopped to get ready for the party and I ran out to buy a new outfit because I wanted to look nice.  I cleaned up, brushed my teeth and in a half hour I felt better.  My friend D, my roommate from our sophomore year talked to me and told me it was no big deal and told me to sit down, relax and have fun, and she ran off to get me another beer.  She brought it back and after I drank a few sips I got violently ill again and threw up.  People started to leave after that, as parties with sick girls are no fun. My friends put me to bed and told me to sleep it off.

The next day I was humiliated and embarrassed but my friends laughed it off with me and we chalked the whole evening up into a drunken escapade.  A few weeks later while having lunch on campus, I ran into one of the guys who had been at the party, a friend of my roommate's boyfriend.  He was a nice guy and we sat and talked for a while.  He told me he hadn't seen me around much and I told him I had been laying low a bit, embarrassed for being such a drunken mess at our party a while back.  He then told me that my friend D had been spiking my drinks with serum ipecac the whole evening.  I didn't believe him at first but in my head of course it made perfect sense after I thought about it.

I ran off to confront D and ask her why she had done such a thing?  I considered her one of my closest friends, we had lived together for a year, why would she want to humiliate me like that?  She tried to write the whole thing off as a joke and told me I didn't have any sense of humor.  Finally she told me that she just wanted to embarrass me in front of my new guy friends and bring me down a peg or two.

I drove off in tears convinced that I had done something to birng this on, that if I was a better person, someone who was supposed to be one of my best friends  wouldn't have done this to me and my other good friends wouldn't have sat idly by saying nothing and bearing witness to my humiliation.

I left.

I moved to Florida, I worked, I partied.  I made better friends but surrounded myself mostly with gay men, who were great friends, loads of fun and true blue, but who were emotionally unavailable to me.

A good offense is the best defense.

It took a while but eventually I made my way back to school, a different school.  I was more focused and ready to learn, and I got my degree with honors and went on for a Master's Degree.  I spent the next seven years of my life studying and working, I made some great friends.  I fell in love with a guy, we ended up becoming close friends and although we enjoyed a romantic relationship, he didn't return my feelings.  I allowed myself to just be his friend and we established the kind of relationship where if neither of us were dating, we'd take each other up on the benefits part of friends-with-benefits.  Still,feeling unlovable, I hoped that one day something would change, that his feelings for me would change.  So, I pretended, I pretended I was okay with the whole thing, that I was cool with the arrangement, that I was doing the same thing he was.

And I hung on, because I had spent my entire adult life putting out a good offense, never telling people what I really needed, never really putting myself out there.

I feel lucky that I was able to make changes in my life, that finally after so many years I was able to figure out that it wasn't about what people think, but it was about what I felt.  I feel lucky that I was able to find a way to understand my childhood and to understand I had gotten myself all wrong.  I am grateful that I figured out that while I was so busy putting out a good defense and blocking a lot of hurt and drama and misery out of my life, that not much else was making its way in either.

It took a lot of years, a move across continents and oceans and a lot of solitude but I was finally able to drop my defenses and just live.  Just be me.  

Lots of good things happened after that, some hurtful things too, but then they were just hurtful things that happened and were no part of some grand plan to show me I deserved it.  

I don't want my daughter to go out into the world the way I did.  I don't want her to feel unlovable.  I want life's disappointments to be just that, disappointments, not confirmation of her worst fears about herself.

I don't want her to do stupid things just to try and fit in.

I don't want her to feel like she has no choice but to play a role in order for people to like her.

I don't want her to accept something less because she doesn't feel like she deserves anything more.

I want her to like herself and put herself out there and not be so afraid all the time.

I want her to understand that being hurt is part of life, it happens to all of us, but if we go around trying to avoid being hurt, that we get hurt anyway but we shut out lots of good things in the mix

I know I can't stop her from being hurt or disappointed, those things are just part of life. But I hope if she feels good about herself, and feels our love, she will be able to make better decisions and won't spend so much of her life feeling lonely and worthless.

Perhaps my journey is the just the journey.  Maybe no amount of hugs and hand holding and sweet talk can alter us from this path.    Maybe as human beings we are programmed and socialized to feel unloved.

I don't know.

I just know that while my parents gave me some wonderful gifts, they also raised a child who was sad, wounded and bereft and I in turn allowed myself to spend half of my adult life feeling rotten.

I don't know if what I am doing with my daughter will put her on a different path in adulthood, she has her own journey to take.  It's her own and not mine, but I am trying my hardest to send her out into the world feeling worthy and not question whether she is lovable.

I'm trying.