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.)