Most of our adult anxieties can be traced back to our childhood – something happens to us along the way that plants a seed of doubt about some aspect of our lives, and the right growing conditions allow that seed to grow into a full on adult-sized plant of doubt or anxiety that we then spend the rest of our lives trying to prune back or pluck out of existence. For me, abandonment was a prominent theme of in childhood – lack of stability, fighting between my parents and everyone else, my mom using me as a pawn with the rest of my family, my brother and sister being kidnapped, my mother’s inability to keep a job or house for any length of time, moving from school to school – all of these things shaped in me a lack of any sense of permanence. I either tried desperately to glom onto anyone who came into my life or I feigned indifference and an unwillingness to commit in the hopes that I wouldn’t have to eventually lose them.
So now, as an adult, I have things that I’m desperately in love with – my munchkins, my husband, what’s left of my family – and I’m still terrified of losing them, though my methods of coping aren’t the same as when I was eight or fifteen or twenty-five. I sometimes don’t feel like I deserve them; that I’m worthy of the unconditional love those little people give me each day or the affection my husband shows when he’s being a sweetie or the sense of belonging that comes from being a family. I feel sometimes like it’s this grand joke the universe is setting up giving me things that I am so fond of now; that the joke is that the rug will be pulled out from under me and I will lose them just as I did when I was a child. And it’s hard to go day by day thinking that way.
Everyday parenting decisions are so much more difficult when the internal argument for allowing my kids to do or not do something deals with the legacy I’m leaving in their little minds rather than is it the right thing for them to do developmentally. Having the conversations with my family about how I feel about this or that is so much more difficult when those conversations are tempered with all the icky feelings of things in the past – what happens if we start the conversation and something happens to us in the middle of it and the conversation is never completed? And don’t even ask me how interacting with a spouse that both makes me weak in the knees and want to kill him simultaneously is made more difficult when being afraid that the wrong fight at the wrong time will make our relationship come to a screeching halt.
My adult life has been a series of missed opportunities to set right the craziness of my past. My dad died last year, and though I hadn’t spoken to him since I was in my late teens, there was a profound sense of loss that came with that phone call. I don’t have many memories of my dad – and the ones that I do have are really a mixed bag of sweet and sour – but like most other humans, I’ve been conditioned to feel like a dad matters. His death closed a door that, while in reality had been closed since I was a very young child, had remained open in my mind – always with the possibility of the fairytale ending that so often happens in sappy romantic comedies. Reconnecting with my sister(s) has kind of been the same way – on the one hand, my relationship with Amy is so full of promise and possibility because each of us has come so far in overcoming the crappy childhoods we had but we are forever tied by a sad shared thread that connects us to so much pain and bitterness too. How do you create a relationship that’s full of the sweet when it’s born of such bitter? I don’t know, but I’d like to think she and I will figure it out along the way. My aunt passed this weekend, and though I’ve only had one conversation with her in my adult life, my child’s mind still remembers her laughing and calling me honeybun, and so it feels painful to know that there will never be the opportunity to figure out the whys and whats behind the isolation in that relationship. It’s a weird, complex feeling to know that there was a reason behind so many of these people leaving my life over the years that was beyond my control – one that brings with it so much guilt over what my devotions and attachments should be when the understanding is so far beyond my grasp.
And for the rest of my family who has scattered through time because of pain and torment created by my parents – how do I fix that? How to I set right what someone else broke? Is it even possible to fix something I had no control over being broken? Is there a way to take all of the fragmented memories of a child’s mind and sew them up into a quilt of comfort in adulthood – one that will protect against the bitter cold of fear of abandonment? I don’t know. And that makes me feel so helpless at times. My friends and mothers-in-law have commented so often that I stay so busy and I’m always doing something with the kids. My aunt says I don’t know how to be still – and she’s right – and they’re right. I am and I don’t. I have no idea how to be comfortable in my own skin or in my own headspace so I stay busy.
I hope that the things I do with my children will keep them from feeling disjointed and uncomfortable when they’re my age, and that they will figure out they’re truly, deeply loved. I hope the one more kiss and one more nibble and one more hug rituals will allow them to never feel the fear of losing someone they love without knowing whether that person would have gone to the ends of the Earth and back for them. I hope that my scattered family will realize the memories they have in my head are too few and far between, but are mostly sweet and poignant and that I want more of them. I hope my husband will know that I love him beyond words even though I really seem like I’m fussing at him more often than not. I hope that the anxious days will eventually be fewer and farther between – or that my coping mechanisms will be easier to employ. But most of all, I hope that no one else ever has to have a missed opportunity to tell someone they love exactly how they feel.