Tag Archives: family

What a difference a week makes

I have been back in the US and back living with my parents for almost a week, and although I suspected it would be difficult, I am a little thrown at how unmoored I feel after just this small amount of time living in the house where I grew up.

Case in point: I am writing this entry on my father’s computer (because he doesn’t have wireless in the house, I can’t get online on my laptop) with the private browsing on so there is no record of my blog or what I am writing.  I am alone in the house and I feel like I am sneaking around.

I think back to this post and realize that I am going to have to tap into those skills HARD.  I really had no idea what living with my folks again was going to do to my eating, but whoa boy, it has been triggering being here.  The second night I was here, I asked my mother if she had any ice cream, and she said “oh, have a yogurt, it’s better for you,” and I capitulated and ate the yogurt.  It was yummy, it was fine, but I’m a grown woman and I can eat the ice cream if I want to.  Did I say that out loud?  Of course not.

Then my mom started showing me her book on mindful eating and how it’ll get you to lose weight, and I just sort of brushed it away with some kind of distraction.  Did I mention, oh by the way, I’ve been working with a nutritionist and know all about mindful eating?  Of course not either.

On Michelle’s advice, I bought some food of my own to have in the house, but I felt scrutinized buying it and I feel scrutinized eating it.  Last night I sat in the living room waiting for my mother to go to bed so I could eat some crackers in peace.  I eventually decided I didn’t want the crackers because I had heartburn, but I hated getting wrapped up in all that drama around whether or not I should or shouldn’t want them in my head. 

Now my parents are out grocery shopping (as they do every Monday night, as they have done for the past 25 years at least) and I am home alone and I just ate 7 cookies in a row that I didn’t necessarily want all of out of mild hunger and raging defiance.  I am finding that I am a little hungrier during the day than I prefer to be because I am not eating all I need to stay satisfied because I don’t want the big old judgy eyeball from my mother. 

So I know that this isn’t working for me the way it is, but I am not yet sure how to handle it.  I can certainly work alone on eating what I want out of desire instead of rebellion – I really have no desire to feel 15 years old again – but lurking in the back of my head is the idea that I might have to have a conversation with my mother where I lay down what’s what with me in an adult and reasonable manner, and that is so far from the way my family communicates (or doesn’t communicate!) that it is intimidating the socks off of me.

I guess if nothing else, this is an opportunity to really get to work on being an adult, because this feeling like a kid again really bites.

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Going home again

In exactly one week, I will be living with my parents for the first time in 13 years.  It is meant to be a temporary situation – a stop-gap place to stay while I look for a job and then get an apartment of my own – and I am incredibly grateful that they are offering me a safety net that I don’t take for granted.  Yet, living with my parents again is bound to be a challenge.

My parents are the primary reason that this blog is pseudonymous.  I wanted to feel free to write about lingering issues from my childhood that hold me back, and I don’t want them to find this blog and feel hurt by what I say.  (My mother is not very internet savvy, and my father does not frequent the same spaces online that I do, but I am wary of the magic of Google.)  On the other hand, I have really let that fear of what my parents think hold me back for quite a long time.

My mother taught me to read at a very young age – I was able to read independently by the age of 3, and was reading Nancy Drew books when I was 5.  My verbal skills spilled over into writing, and my family and my teachers always praised my writing, telling me that I should be an author one day.  My parents used to say all the time that they thought I should write a book about “our crazy family,” although it was always understood that they meant the extended family – our nuclear family was positioned as the lone island of reason in a sea of intergenerational dysfunction.

When I was in high school, I was incredibly lucky to attend a 5-week creative writing program at a local university.  It was the first time I had ever spent the night somewhere that wasn’t a friend’s house or my grandmother’s, and 5 weeks was such long time away from home at that point in my life, just a year before college.  It was exciting and heady and overwhelming at the same time.  I had never experienced independence from my family before, and while I had a few good individual friendships, I got to quickly bond with a group of friends in an intense way that was a wonderful novelty for lonely loser Claudia.

The writing was harder.  I have an unfortunate competitive streak, borne of deep insecurity, and it was intimidating to be surrounded by people my own age who were spectacular budding writers, flowing forth with words and ideas and creativity in an unbounded river.  I was much more tentative, hesitant, stuck.  But I plugged away at my work and charged my batteries with the electric energy of all the creation around me.

A few weeks into the program was Family Day, where parents and other family members came to visit the campus and the students displayed their works of art, their photography, their concerts and plays and in my case, readings.  I had a number of pieces in draft form, but most were not polished enough for public consumption, so I chose to read an innocuous little poem that I’d written about a day with my best friend Nathaniel (a wonderful man who has been one of my dearest friends for 25 years and is still going strong), which was the same poem I had chosen to publish in the literary magazine as well.  I was scared and nervous but the reading went fine.

Yet as my parents were leaving for the day, they berated me for humiliating them and wasting their money on the program.  That I had the gall to choose a poem about my friend.  That I was the only person who had the same piece for the literary magazine and the reading.  That it wasn’t good enough and I wasn’t good enough.  I am still not sure why such a small thing set them off in such a large way, but my mother told me that she was glad that her own mother was unable to attend Family Day, because she would have been ashamed to have her there.

They left and I was heartbroken and completely bewildered.  My lovely group of friends comforted me with words of support and a full-on pile of hugs and hair stroking and as I look back I think this was one of my first steps of detaching from my family, as unwelcome the need to was at the time.

When the five weeks of the program ended, I came back with my portfolio and a written assessment of my work and progress.   The feedback was honest and helpful and indicated that at the time, I had promise and worked hard but my work was not at the range of the very best.  I was devastated not by the feedback but my father’s reaction.  He was angry, ragingly angry, that I had wasted his money that we couldn’t spare by not coming back with straight A’s and I don’t know, a publishable novel?  He was angry that I wrote letters to my friends from camp on the computer in the basement instead of watching TV with the family.  He was angry that I spent so much time talking to Nathaniel, and threatened that if Nathaniel went to the same college I did, he wouldn’t pay for tuition.

Ironically, after I returned from camp, my writer’s block loosened and stories and poems poured out of me the way they hadn’t at camp.  I submitted my revised portfolio along with my college application and received a merit scholarship that paid half of my tuition for all four years.

Yet after that, I stopped writing – the words and the desire to use them dried up.

I don’t blame my parents directly for it, but here I am, talking about it still, 15 years after the fact.  So obviously it’s still with me.  The knowledge that sharing my writing with my parents isn’t safe, the disappointment in how much they failed me in that respect.

I understand it better with time.  My family is so tight-knit as to be unhealthily enmeshed, and I’m the oldest child, the oldest grandchild, the oldest great-grandchild on all sides.  The first member of my family to go to college.  The precocious straight-A student.  I carried the weight of innumerable expectations on my head, and my parents sacrificed a great deal so my brother and I could have so many things that they weren’t able to.  My struggling baby steps at independence and self-expression must have been very emotional and volatile and stressful to the family system in a way none of us were prepared for.  And my parents didn’t handle it very well.

I’m not a parent myself, so I can only guess at how difficult the job must be.  But I think about how easily overwhelmed with emotion I can get, how hard it is for me to process it healthily, how quick I am to lash out in words in anger and frustration within my marriage, only to regret it later.  Add that to the constancy that parenting requires, the 24/7 nature of the job, and the responsibility of being the grown-up, the role model.  I don’t know that I would handle it very well myself, and I can empathize with my parents in a way I couldn’t when I was younger.

Yet it is still important for me to declare its impact on me, the fact that I was ill-served by their reaction, no matter how understandable their mistakes were.  I am writing about it because I want to be done with it and move on, and unequivocally stating that this was not right seems to be the way to do it.  (My friends who have heard this story of woe multiple times will likely be happy if it works!)

I think of the things that I write about here and shield from my parents’ eyes and I have avoided naming them outright for decades because deep down, I was afraid they were right.  I am afraid to discuss issues of growing up and creativity and food and eating and weight because I am afraid that they will say, “You know, we were right.  You were a hideous child and a terrible writer and we were right to shame you for your body and force you to diet and march up and down the driveway for exercise and we only regret that you grew up to be even uglier, disgusting, and have disappointed us in every way possible.”

It’s rather liberating to write that out – I had to laugh, because our relationship has changed enough over the years that I know that they wouldn’t say that.  And I don’t even think they think it.  But what I have finally come to recognize is that as much as it would hurt, I could live with it even if they did think every single one of those things or worse.  Because I don’t believe those words anymore.  I’m just Claudia, living my life the best I know how, and I don’t have anything to be ashamed of.  So while I can finally admit that my parents fucked up without making excuses for them, I can forgive them and love them still.  And I write.

(Just an FYI – I’ll be offline until Thursday, so any comments that need moderation will be stuck until then.)

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Being Auntie Claudia

I don’t have any children, but I have two nieces who are the love of my life.

Bella is almost ten.  She has the loveliest warm eyes, a smattering of freckles across her nose that she doesn’t like but I think is the cutest thing ever, a wickedly sardonic sense of humor even at her age, and an enthusiasm for life that bubbles right through her emails.  (We have become pen pals since she got an email account.)

Maddie is almost seven.  She has blonde hair like my brother did at her age, and is breathtakingly fearless – she will jump into any activity without a second (or even first) thought.  She loves to make faces, scream, make noise, make herself heard.  She has a fashion sense that has nothing to do with prescription and is pure self-expression.

My family, as many families are wont to do, makes comparisons between the generations.  There is a picture of my brother Jeremy when he was young that Maddie used to think was a picture of her, they looked so much alike at the same ages.  The family lore also says that they have the same personality – Jeremy was the daredevil while I was the bookworm, and Bella and Maddie are seen in the same way.

Bella looks a great deal like me, to the point where she has been mistaken for my daughter in public.  She also has many of the characteristics that my family liked to note in me at her age: she’s clumsy in comparison to Maddie’s dexterity, she reads and writes beyond her age level, she can sometimes get caught up in her head and not notice what’s going on outside of it.  Her parents even call her Mini Auntie Claudia, particularly when she’s just tripped over something.

It is an interesting experience watching my nieces grow up, one that is often poignant.  At Bella’s age, she is already starting to show some signs of puberty – like me in childhood, she is not just above average in her intelligence and skills, but in height and weight for her age.

It is hard for me to remember when I was first scrutinized for eating, when I was first put on a diet, because I was so young that I can’t be sure.  I have strong family memories that help me put it in some context: one of my first is of eating some Doritos at a party my parents threw and my father scolding me for not needing them in front of all his friends.  I was about five, if I remember correctly.

When I was six, my grandmother bought me a shirt and told me I could have it only if I lost ten pounds.   My mind boggles now at the sheer cognitive overload such a request was at that age, but then I really just wanted that shirt.  It was navy blue with long sleeves, and had a Noah’s Arc scene embroidered on the chest and the arms, and I loved the animals.  I also hadn’t the faintest idea how to lose ten pounds.  She eventually got disgusted with my lack of willpower and gave me the shirt anyway.  The animals had lost their charm at that point.

When I was eight, my mother gave me a diet book and told me to start following it.  I don’t remember the name of it, but I can picture it vividly in my head.  It was bright yellow, and had before and after pictures of kids from fat camp.  I remember it had recipes requiring copious amounts of saccharine, exhortations to think of spaghetti as bloody worms so you wouldn’t want to eat it, and suggestions to tie bags of frozen peas to your ankles in lieu of weights for leg lifts (this particular technique was supposed to give me the shapely legs of an ice skater.)

(My mother still has that book on the bookshelf in her bedroom.  I want to take it from the shelves and set that fucker on fire.)

Meanwhile, my mother still cooked the way she always did.  I don’t blame her for that one bit; we had little money, my father is an incredibly fussy and inflexible eater, and feeding a family is hard.  (Hell, I find it hard enough in my family of two.)  But I was eight, and told to make that diet work for me, while nothing in my environment changed.  At the same time, I remember coming home from the third grade one day after one of those dreaded public weigh-ins, and my parents demanded that I tell them how much I weighed.  I laid face first on the kitchen floor with my head in my hands and wouldn’t say a word as my father shouted, “I bet you weigh as much as your mother!”

Writing about this, I notice an urge to downplay how much it hurt me.  Other people have had it worse, right?  My mother’s mother (of the shirt bribe) was an alcoholic, and I grew up hearing stories of how abusive and chaotic the household was.  (My mother often couldn’t hear me when I talked about what was hurting me, because hey, at least I didn’t have to raise my siblings and clean up vomit from my drunken mother.)  Even the body shaming could have been so much worse.  I remember reading an account of a woman whose father would give her a lashing for every pound she didn’t lose toward her “goal” weight.  So this makes me feel in some ways like a whiny little baby for even talking about it with any kind of gravity.

But then I look at Bella, living so happily in a body so much like mine at that age, and the idea of her undergoing any of that shame or self-hatred crushes me, in a way I couldn’t feel it for myself.

I look at Bella and Maddie, and I want a different life for them.  They are so vibrant, so carefree and alive and at home in their bodies and their personalities and their right to exist and take up space and be noticed.  I know this isn’t an easy world for girls, and that they will have darker things to deal with as they get older, pressures to hide their light lest they shine too brightly.  But I want them to have a fighting chance.

I have never talked to my brother about weight or food, not really.  He went through an anorexic phase in his teens so I know he didn’t get out unscathed either, but our family is good at avoiding talking seriously about, well, anything.  The idea of talking to him scares me, feels like making myself vulnerable in a way I’m not used to showing him.  But I think about saying to him, see what was done to me, and how long it has taken me to feel worthy or valuable, to eat and love and live without shame.  Use my experiences to help your daughters avoid that same pain.

As for me, I’m just going to keep being fat Auntie Claudia, loving my nieces with everything I’ve got.

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