Sure, you turned out pretty good, but is there anything you wish had been different about your childhood? If you have kids, is there anything you wish were different for them?
Well, first of all, let me make this clear. I don’t think I turned out all that good. I am twice divorced; not especially close to my only daughter; have not too many close friends; live 2,000 miles from my brother and sister, the remaining members of my nuclear family; have no significant other. So, no, I don’t think I turned out all that good in my personal life.
I do wish my childhood had been different and I tried hard to make my daughter’s childhood different because of the childhood I had. My mother was a mentally disturbed individual, very unhappy in her life, and she didn’t get the help she so desperately needed. She was depressed, and I think, bipolar as I think back on her behavior. She had terrible mood swings, from the manic highs to the depressive lows. She was also physically abusive to us children, never hesitating to spank us to within an inch of our lives with a wooden paddle when we’d done something to piss her off, like squabble among ourselves as three children under the age of five tend to do. My sister was the one who took the most of the paddlings, though. She was mischievous, always in trouble. I tried so hard to be good, so that Mommy won’t get mad at us, and Joanne would always manage to get us into some sort of trouble.
I remember one time when my parents went out to the store and left the three of us home alone. I was upstairs reading (of course!) and Patrick and Joanne were outside playing. Patrick ran inside and locked the door. It was wintertime, I remember. Joanne started to pound on the back door window and put her mittened-fist through the window. Luckily she didn’t get cut because her mitten protected her but I didn’t even think about that. I heard the glass shatter and knew we were all in big trouble. Me, for not watching my brother and sister more closely and the two of them for locking the door and breaking the window. We gathering together all our money to pay for the window and waited in dread for our parent to come home after we’s cleaned up the broken glass. When our parents got home, my mother wanted to spank us all (we were older now–I was about 12, my brother 10, and my sister 9), but my father stopped her. He was grateful no one had been hurt. He went out to get the glass to repair the window and had it fixed that afternoon. My mother’s first reaction was always physical punishment, though.
I can remember nights lying awake while she threatened to pack her suitcase and leave, to “go home” to Virginia, while my father pleaded with her, “Please, Mae, calm down. I’ll help out more. Things will get better.” She would cry and scream. And I would lie there and think, “Who is going to take care of us? Daddy has to go to work. Will Grandma take care of us? Why does Mommy want to leave? Doesn’t she love us?” This happened on a regular basis. A little girl who regularly wonders if her mother loves her is sure to have self-esteem issues, and I most certainly do. My mother would constantly cry and yell, “Y’all don’t love me! Y’all don’t care about me! If you did, you would see things to do done around here. I wouldn’t have to tell you what to do! You say you’re sorry but you’re not!” It was a litany that I heard over and over and over again throughout my childhood and into my adolescent years.
So you can see why I’d want my daughter’s childhood to be different from mine. When her father left us when she was two, I resolved to make her childhood as happy as I possibly could. But there were times I fell short. I never spanked her. I never hit her. I didn’t believe in physical punishment, having suffered so much of it in my childhood. I believed in time-out and being sent to your room to “cool-off.” That was my discipline. The time I fell short of devoting my whole attention to my daughter was when I had an affair with a musician who lived with us for a brief time, and I’ll always regret that decision. She had to compete with him. And he was like another child. Really.
But after that I devoted my life to my daughter and her needs. Her life came first. She went through a period of illness and I had to take time from work to care for her, putting my job in jeopardy. Then she got better and began dancing. I shuttled her to and from dance classes. She won a coveted role in a State theater company production of A Christmas Carol and I made sure she got to and from rehearsals and to and from all the performances for two years. Then she went back to dancing in earnest through her high school years. I also took her to school in the mornings and picked up her friends as well on my way to work. I fought for her to take special PE classes that wouldn’t injure her for her dance classes–swimming, weight training–and got her out of school for auditions and performances. I took her all over the Northeast for auditions and drove her to far off cities for the summer programs for ballet companies that she was enrolled in. I did more than a mother should have done.
Now she barely speaks to me. She married for the second time. I helped her with her divorce and her move to San Antonio from Hawaii. But she feels I didn’t help her enough with her children. And her current husband doesn’t like me. They both don’t like the fact that I’ve converted to Islam. They don’t want either me or his parents “interfering” in their lives, so subsequently neither parents see much of them, even though his mother is very ill with cancer. So I guess I shouldn’t feel so singled out.
I did my best for my daughter. I would do the same thing again. I try to have a good relationship with my granddaughters. I see them regularly. It’s more difficult now that they are 17 and busy with school activities and friends, but we try to go to the movies once a month and go out to eat and talk. I like to listen to them talk about their thoughts and dreams. They listen to my stories about their mother. They laugh about them. It amuses them to think of their mother as a teen.
I’m glad my daughter and my granddaughters didn’t have a childhood like mine. I hope no one ever has a childhood like mine. It was a nightmarish childhood. There were good things about my childhood and I’ve written about them. But there was so much damage done by my mother’s mental illness. I wish she could have gotten treatment. But back in the 1950s, people didn’t talk about mental illness nor seek treatment. She finally did get medication for her depression sometime in the 1960s and it helped a bit, but it never helped her violent outbursts. She still hit me when I was in high school and wanted to take a class that she didn’t want me to take. My father had to pull her off me, she was punching me so hard in the head. Many years later, my doctor made me get a CT scan when I told him of the incident to make sure there was no damage from it, it was that bad. I wish no child to ever live through what I lived through with my mother.
I loved my mother. Before she died, my mother wrote a letter to us saying how sorry she was for not being a good mother sometimes but she had done the best she could. She showed me the letter. I read it, and told her I knew she had done the best she could under the circumstances, that she didn’t need to apologize. She said she knew we loved out father more. I told her we loved her and that she didn’t need to give us that letter if she didn’t want to. After she died, the letter was gone, so she must have destroyed it. I told my brother and sister about the letter, though. So they knew she had realized she had made mistakes. But I know she did the best she could, given her illness. She was depressed even in her later years because of physical illness as well. My mother was a very depressed and unhappy person for most of her adult life. Such a sad thing to say and yet it is true. And it affected so many people’s lives. Especially the lives of three little children.