It’s hard to remember the first six years of your life, but according to Oliver James in They F*** You Up – How To Survive Family Life, those first years and how our parents relate to us, define us more than genes.
Parents are often limited in their ability to connect with us in all stages, such as the competitive adult who lacks understanding for the fantasy life of a four year old, but strongly relates to the adolescent. Other parents are short on empathy due to problems with depression or lack of proper care in their own upbringing.
If our parents lacked empathy, were abusive or absent, there’s a very large chance that we will end up struggling with depression, narcissism, or personality disorder. If those issues aren’t dealt with, we’re at risk for repeating the exact same cycles in our own children.
What our parents value in us and encourage determines to a large extent who we become as people. From infancy on, we are treated a certain way on the basis of a complex weave within the mind of the parent. What do we remind them of, do we bring back memories of negative experiences in their own childhood, do we remind them of their own failings. The cycle repeats itself when we become parents ourselves.
“Each parent treats each child so differently that they might as well have been raised in completely different families (James, 8).”
Though obviously, I can’t remember how I was treated as an infant, the one thing I do know is that my mother does not like babies at all. She has difficulty relating to them, and is bored until they get to the toddler stage of being able to talk. She was also unable to breastfeed. Our Old English Sheep dog, Big Boy, guarded my crib religiously and growled at any unfamiliar person who dared to enter my room. All through my childhood, I was often much closer to animals than to people.
When I was older I lived at the pool with the girl from next door. My skin was a dark chocolate, my hair a golden mushroom. I don’t remember if there was an adult with us. It was normal back then for small kids to run rampant through the neighborhood without supervision. My mother hated parks, possibly because it meant she had to talk to the neighbors.
My parents didn’t really interact with me in playtime, and my sister was too old for most of my games. What I remember is that my mother seemed like an ever-present figure in front of the kitchen sink. Always washing dishes. I would look up at her from my spot on the floor, next to the record player, chewing small square ice cubes and listening to children’s albums from the 1950’s.
She always loved us, was always caring, if not strict due to a desire to ingrain us with her beliefs. But she was a distant, foreign presence until my teens. My father didn’t really know how to deal with being a dad. In fact, he is still figuring it out. As a parent, do you ever stop figuring that out? Especially since your children are constantly growing, changing, evolving – hopefully. Once stern and emotionally unavailable, he is now more loving and affectionate than I ever thought possible.
I remember having a fear of using the toilet. I was afraid that a giant snake would come up the pipes and bite me in the ass. I washed my hands before flushing, then pressed the lever down and went running, flailing my arms down the hall, certain the snake would get me. There was also an angry tiger that lived in a massive empty oil tank in the basement. I could hear him groan within the metal. I pictured him pacing, muscles flexing beneath his orange and black striped fur.
My sister told me they opened a McDonald’s in Africa, but since they didn’t have cows there, they just used six-foot long worms that they sliced into patties. She said the patties were kind of rubbery and grey. I actually believed her, and then held a grudge for years when I realized she’d made it up to prove my gullibility.
I find it lame that some people think children are not sexual creatures, and that you wake up at twelve suddenly aware. All children are sexual, and their levels of inhibition all depend upon how adults handle their sexual expression. There was enormous embarrassment around my constant desire to stimulate my genitals. It was a humiliation for my mother. I found ways to hide it – hands hidden in pockets, the edge of a chair.
When I was four or five, I was at someone’s house, and a boy pulled me into a bedroom for the classic, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” With our pants pulled down around our ankles he pointed at my crotch and said, “I can almost see it. Don’t worry, you’ll grow one soon.” Suddenly, I felt incomplete. I was missing something. But that something looked kind of funny and I didn’t get why it was so important to have one.
I didn’t have a crush on a boy until the first grade. Below age six, my crushes were on beautiful women, particularly, my preschool teacher. She carried a Gucci purse, and always wore purple with lots of make-up. I craved her attention, wanted to be close to her, wanted to be like her.
At four, I was so shy that when people asked me my name all I could say was “Hi”. For a while, that is what they called me. “Hi.” I stuttered and could only speak after literally spitting it out. From the very beginning, I was behind in school. Maybe my sister struggled too, but she was an over-achiever. My parents always treated her with respect, like an adult, while I was always, and still am, the entertaining fuck-up.
“From the moment we gather on Christmas Eve or the day itself, our parents and siblings demand that we enact our appointed role. Never mind that we may have long since ceased to be the clever one or the fatty, the attention-seeker or the moaner, our family treats us just as they always did and within minutes of walking through the door we are back in the nursery. The achievements and independence of adulthood are swept away and we find ourselves performing a role that we thought was long obsolete (James, 35).”
Going back a generation, it seems that everyone in my mother’s five child family needs therapy. “Offspring of families with five or more children are significantly more likely to be delinquent and to suffer mental illness (James, 4).” My grandmother had depression. She was not really suited to having so many children, and would have been happier with a career. She loved fashion, and later in life, liked to write. But to her children, she lacked empathy and was prone to negative outbursts. My grandpa was emotionally distant and had trouble expressing affection. He was reserved and stern – does that sound familiar?
Growing up, my father had very little emotional support. His mother died when he was three, his grandmother who helped raise him after, died when he was eleven. His sister ran away from home at fifteen, and his brother died in a car accident at eighteen. To cope, my grandfather was an alcoholic, and he married a woman who never accepted my father as a son. So for a long time, my father struggled to emotionally connect with people for fear that he would lose them. He’s had moments of irrational fear and outbursts, particularly, when I learned how to drive.
Something about the whole environment of repressed feelings has turned me into a fighter for speaking my mind. When I came to adulthood, I was the first in the family to speak directly and honestly and openly. It was an enormous shock, I think, for everyone. When they attempted to close up, or retreat backwards, I kept marching forwards with my banner raised. Now when an issue lurks beneath the surface, it is always bound to come out at some point, and we are all happier for it, even if my mother blanks out the things that she doesn’t want to remember.
At this stage of my life I have a very healthy, strong relationship with my parents. I work through the way things were in the past through my writing, and I find understanding and forgiveness for the course we were all on that we really had no control over. The mind is made up of maps and patterns that can only be broken through vigorous insight and awareness. My mother can afford a therapist. I can afford a pen and a pad of paper.
As I think about having a baby, I have become even more aware of breaking negative patterns. In some ways, I feel prepared because I have already done a lot of work within myself. I’m looking forward to the possibility of the challenge. And despite a few hiccups, I’m extremely lucky that, growing up, I had a strong and loving family life, and still do.
Oliver James refers to many studies that have proven genes play much less of a role in us than we have been led to believe. I appreciate this stance, and have witnessed to a great extent, that we do have the ability to change our reality completely, even working through the deficiencies in our early development that are inevitable no matter how wonderful our parents.
I’ll always be the entertaining fuck-up to my family, and that’s okay with me. But as a result, there is always the feeling that I have to prove someone wrong. I know within that I am a winner, and I’ll just keep doing what I do regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. The main thing is – I’m okay with myself. Once you achieve that, others are okay with you too.