I’ve heard it said, “Oh, to be a child again,” or “The innocence of childhood….” I never understood those sayings. There certainly was nothing innocent about my childhood, and I hated the powerless uncertainty of my day to day existence. While other children fidgeted in their seats throughout May, longing for summer and school to be out, I dreaded the idea. All summer long I clung to the hope of going back to school in the fall and escaping into the world where I felt I belonged.
Childhood was not an idyllic place where I frolicked all day and my thoughts were of nothing more than sunshine, bicycles, and ice cream. I swore that when I had children I would give that to them. I failed.
When my oldest daughter was seventeen, rebellious, and insolent she spent a great deal of time at home hiding out in her bedroom, sleeping until one in the afternoon. One day I’d had it. I marched into her room and stared at her lying there, covers up around her face. She looked like she was burying herself alive in comforters and afghans. I spoke firmly, “I know what’s wrong with you.” She looked at me with that, “Oh no, here it comes,” expression. I continued, “You are about to turn eighteen. You are about to face the adult world, and you were denied a childhood. You’re mourning the passing of those things you know you’ll never get to experience now.”
She erupted into tears and asked, “How did you know? I feel so transparent!” I told her I’m her mom and I know everything, but the truth was I recognized myself in her.
The younger four children suffer nightmares, upset stomachs, headaches, and weakened immune systems immediately preceding and following visits with their dad. This last one was particularly rough. I think in part because he had not come down since the first of October. They’d been given a six week reprieve, and this visit shattered the complacent happiness they were beginning to take for granted.
After this past weekend’s visit with him my four year old was not loving toward me. She normally wakes up in the morning and comes running for me, leaping into my arms, and hiding her face in my hair. She smothers me with kisses. This Sunday and Monday though she woke up, sauntered past me, looking at me warily out of the corners of her eyes. I was devastated and suspected that she was blaming me for Daddy leaving. Though I am her mom, I don’t know everything.
Yesterday morning as I applied make up in my bathroom I heard her little voice call me from my bedroom. “Mommy? I love you.” I called back to her, “I love you, too, Baby.” There was a period of silence and then, “Mommy? Are you ever going to leave us?” I couldn’t believe I’d just heard those words. They were so clear. I thought my 6 year old must have said it. I began asking, “Who said that?” before I stepped into the room where she was sitting in my bed smiling at me. She answered, “I did. It’s just me.” And, again, “Mommy, are you ever going to leave us?”
I dove into the bed and scooped her up. “Are you afraid I’m going to leave like Daddy did?” She shook her head yes. I tried with every ounce of my being to reassure her, “No, I promise I will NEVER leave you. As long as I have breath in me I will be here for you.” My desire was to comfort her, but my heart was broken. Like I saw through my older daughter nearly ten years ago, my youngest daughter now saw through me. She patted my face and asked, “Why are you sad?” I had to tell her the truth, “I’m sad that you’re worried. I don’t want you to be worried or sad.”
Her countenance immediately changed, and she reverted to her babyish use of language, “Oh no! I not! I talking about when you a toy and I a toy. If you a Barbie. Are you going to not play with us.” Through her father’s manipulative narcissism and irresponsibility he’s taught her well that she’s responsible for adults’ emotions. I gently took her face in my hand now and told her, “No, that’s not what you meant. And, it’s okay. I’m your mama, but we’re also friends. I’m your mama and your friend, and friends can talk to each other. They can tell each other the truth. I want you to be able to tell me what you are afraid of, okay? Cuz, I’m your friend. Talk to me.” She looked sad and confessed, “I afraid you going to leave us, too.”
My 6 year old son has insisted upon sleeping with me since his dad left. The nightmares have been too much for him, so I’ve allowed it. He is a big boy though, sturdy boned, and roots more than cuddles, so I have made him sleep in a sleeping bag on my floor on the nights I have to work. Last night I was exhausted and begged him to consider the sleeping bag. In a poor attempt to use peer pressure to my advantage I shared with him that his friend also sleeps in a sleeping bag on his parents’ floor. He looked a little surprised, and I thought he was going to go for it. He wanted to know how I knew. I’m going to start cleaning for his mom and had done a walk through of the house. I told him that’s really cool because if they ever spend the night with each other they’ll already be used to sleeping in bags on the floor. His face suddenly looked like someone wiped it downward.
“No! We can’t spend the night! Q’s not like us! They’re different from us!” He has a tendency to be highly emotionally charged and a little defiant, so I wasn’t as patient as I should have been. “What are you talking about? They are human beings just like us! It would be fun to spend the night with a friend or have him spend the night with you.” He kept his head down and vehemently shook his head no. We went back and forth. I tried to pry his meaning from him all the while he continued to assert that, “Q is not like us!”
He finally caved and looked up at me and softly said, “Q isn’t like us. We’re trashy. We’re trash.” I demanded to know, “Where did you hear that? No, we’re not! Who said that to you?!” He stared at me intently, “No one. No one said that. I just know it. We’re trash.”
Suddenly, like all those years ago with my oldest daughter, I recognized myself in my son. I remember sitting on my bed, shortly after my dad left, telling my little brother, “You know Daddy just ruined our lives? Things will never be the same. We aren’t going to be like other kids. We aren’t going to college. We’ll never have what everybody else has. Our entire lives are ruined.” I was nine. And, I knew I was destined to be trash because my childhood was marred with abuse and abandonment and I would have no idea how to create a normal adult life. I mourned my childhood while I was still just a child.
It kills me that my children have and are experiencing similar childhood pains and fears. I failed them. Somehow I thought that swimming and music lessons and 4-H and play dates could cover up the trashy feelings of fear of being alone and the knowledge that you aren’t like other kids. They are bright children, but I thought I could fool them. I thought they wouldn’t notice that the other children have a mom and a loving, involved father present at the activities. I thought they wouldn’t notice the nicer clothes and the better cars.
Now, my daughter’s pretend conversation after swim lessons makes sense.
As I dried her off and helped her dress she very smartly told me, “I going to have the boy of my dreams.” I agreed with her but asked where she’d heard that. She said, “Nowhere, I just know it.” She then raised her left eyebrow a couple of times and said, “And, him going to be haaaandsooome.” It was so cute! I thought it was just little girl dreaming. She pursed her lips and continued, “I have to stay home and take care of my children while he works. We have seven children and four cars.” J was impressed and interrupted, “Wow! You’re going to be rich!” She replied, “Yes, we’ll have four cars and money. And, rich coffee for us and our children cuz we’re going to let our children have coffee.” I thought she was hilarious and darling.
I thought it was the innocent thoughts of a child dreaming of her future. However, as I laid awake last night pondering my children’s fears and feelings, I wondered if that little interlude signaled her desire for what she sees as “normal.” Maybe, like J, she, too, is already looking around and noticing the nice dads and the nice cars and the nice clothes and feels trashy. Maybe all the talk of her being a little princess has failed to convey to her that she is special and prized. And, all she’s taken from it is that a knight in shining armor (or four cars) will come rescue her from this dark, lonely world and will escape with her into the world where she feels she belongs.