Tag Archives: relationships

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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Happy returns

One of the reasons I started writing again is that my husband and I are going through a separation of sorts.  It is hard to know what to call it, how to view it.

I met Carl almost seven years ago, a year after I had ended a physically and emotionally abusive relationship that left me reeling.  I wrote like a fiend in that year I was single, processing my pain, trying to fit things in perspective, purging all the things I didn’t have the safety to feel or acknowledge when I was with my ex.  It was such an intense time, a roller coaster of emotions that had been repressed for so long, and so heady with self-discovery.  Right before I met Carl I had gone to northern California by myself, for my first trip I ever took, planned, and paid for by myself.  My mother had fretted about me going alone to “such a big city!”  “Mom, I live in New York City – I’m in a gigantic city every day.”  “And I worry about you every day!” she cried.  I come from a very anxious family, and don’t exclude myself from that description, but the trip to California was amazing, everything I had hoped for and more, with no anxiety at all.  When I came back to New York, I felt on top of the world.

(The picture at the top of the blog is me stepping in the Pacific Ocean for the very first time.)

Perhaps a month after I returned, Carl replied to an ad I had put on a dating site and since forgotten about, as it hadn’t gotten a single response in months.  He wrote me short, sweet emails that were curious and respectful and well-composed (all rarities in internet dating!), and although our first encounters were a bit awkward, I soon fell in love with his intelligence and calm nature and dry sense of humor and the knowledge that I would be safe with him.

Not long after, I stopped writing.

One reason is that I didn’t feel comfortable writing about Carl online, since he is a much more private person than I am, and I wanted to respect that.  (I still do, and am trying to keep the right balance here.)

I also thought to myself, I am so happy – I can only write when I am miserable. What could I possible have to say now?  So I stopped with the daily checking-in that writing provided me, even in my own personal journal.

Last year Carl decided to apply for a fellowship to do research overseas, for a two year period.  The application process was grueling in so many ways, but particularly because we had absolutely no idea how to talk to each other about it, about making such a drastic change in our lives.  He wanted the work and the change and the adventure so much that he couldn’t hear how dreadful the idea of being a trailing spouse was to me, and I was so scared of the change that I didn’t listen to how important the fellowship was to him.

So he sent the application in, and I figured that statistics were on my side – I would just assume he wouldn’t get it, and shoved it off to a dusty corner in the back of my mind.

Well, I am writing this post in Europe.  So much for denial.

We have been here for a year, and it has been an incredible strain in so many ways. After much fighting and depression and sadness, we mutually agreed that it made sense for me to go back to New York, while he stays to finish his work, and we will re-assess our relationship when he is done.  I write this not to air our dirty laundry, but because of what has changed in my life since committing to going back.

Like I said, I haven’t written seriously in years.  I didn’t even feel like writing; I felt numb.  But suddenly words are just pouring out of me, like water out of a collapsed dam.  I can’t sleep at night, with all of the words racing in my head.  I felt fuzzy and dulled for at least a year and now I have this calm, razor focus.

It might seem that I’m suggesting that Carl is somehow responsible for my writing slump, seeing that I stopped writing when we met and am only starting again now that we’ll be living apart.  But really, it has so little to do with him, and so much to do with me.

I wanted safety so bad after my ex that I sacrificed a part of my life that I found useful and fulfilling because I didn’t want to rock the boat.  Because it might make Carl uncomfortable.  Or because it might force me to realize my dissatisfaction with various parts of my life.  Because if I grew or changed, I might lose my safe haven.  Yet this stubborn denial of myself turned a safe haven into a small, suffocating box – for both of us.

(Pretty clichéd, right?  But it’s a cliché for a reason.  I know I’m not the only woman to fall in this trap.)

It’s only now that I was able to say hey, I really need to go back, I really want this, that things started to change. So my goal here is to exercise my rusty voice, aiming for clear, compassionate honesty.  Let’s see how it goes.

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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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