On Childhood

January 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have been listening to This American Life lately as an alternative to the increasingly depressing and infuriating news on NPR. The stories vary, of course, but for the most part they are interesting enough to keep me listening and only on occasion are they as heartbreaking as the news. I listened to a few stories that featured people recalling childhood events: some positive, some negative, some terrifying, some heartwarming events. This led me to consider my own childhood.

For the most part, when I hear people recount tales of school days or hot summers, they have a tone of wistfulness, filled with that Rockwell-esque nostalgia for those “carefree” days. As I get older (and please note I’m still quite young), my memories of my own childhood fade. As far as my pre-high school days are concerned, I don’t remember much of being in school or even being with friends. Mostly I remember being alone, playing in my room, listening to music (I listened religiously to Casey Kasem’s countdown of the weekly Top 40), or drawing. If I think hard enough, I can recall details of play dates in kindergarten and birthday parties, but my emotional impression of childhood isn’t what one would call “warm and fuzzy.” I never felt carefree, although I’m sure I was in a sense.

Let’s talk about what I miss most about my childhood. I think I spent an unusual amount of time with my parents, at least when compared to my peers. For the majority of my childhood I thought my parents existed only for me, that their sole purpose in life was to take care of me, so I demanded an unfair amount of their time, energy, attention, and money. I complained all the time and was never satisfied with what I had, always thinking that I “needed” more of x or less of y. High school, what I consider the end of my childhood (I’m sure most people do, but considering some of the kids I went to college with I don’t think it’s fair to generalize), was the most interesting time for me, at least when I look back in retrospect at my relationship with my parents. It wasn’t an easy time, that’s for sure. I attended art school which meant longer hours (8.5 hrs of classes a day, 45 minutes travel time to and from school, plus homework) and the complications of class. Not class in the studious sense but class in the economic sense. I wasn’t really aware of our financial status until I suddenly found myself around people in the upper middle class. That caused a world of trouble and stress between myself and my parents, mainly because I was ashamed that I couldn’t have money and use money the same way my friends did. My friends all got their own cars for their birthdays. I shared a minivan with my father, and I had to pay for the privilege to do so. I worked at a restaurant Thursdays through Sundays. Most of my friends didn’t work, choosing to drink, smoke, or shop away their weekends. Now of course I see how my parents did the best they could and that it made me a better person in the end. But at the time, there were many fights, many tears, and many slammed doors.

I mentioned that I never considered my childhood “carefree.” Even as a young child, I was somewhat preoccupied with death and dying. As I got older, I grew only more concerned with the death of those around me. The thought of my own death still scares me sometimes, simply because the concept of non-existence is so foreign to my pitiful human brain, but for the most part, I was far more petrified of losing someone I loved. Non-existence I can deal with, but knowing that I might have to live another day without certain people in the world was more than I can handle, something even today I still grapple with. Anyway, my emotional turmoil over the issue of death reached its peak when I was in high school. I would go hang out with friends and cry the entire drive home, heartbroken over the simple fact that one day they would no longer be in the world. I had the same feeling for my parents. I remember even when we would have a fight, I would always call my mom or dad to tell them I loved them, just in case something happened to them on the way home. I wanted them to know that I loved them. I mention this not only to illustrate how I don’t look back on childhood and think “oh man, those were the good ol’ days” but also to illuminate another element of my relationship with my parents.

It couldn’t have been easy to deal with a depressed child. I’m sure they had a hard enough time as it was trying to get my brother and I not to kill each other (it wasn’t until very very recently that we’ve begun to get along, or at least talk without the conversation ending in a fight). I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to try and keep a home together while their children were fighting tooth and nail to tear it apart. I made matters worse by being constantly depressed. I cried all the time and would stay shut up in my room for days at a time, emerging from it only to get food or a drink of water. My depression was exacerbated by social issues, too, but for the most part it was generated by my inability to move past the “death” issue. That’s not really something you can make better by offering advice or going on a shopping spree. That’s not the predictable “teenage trauma” that other high schoolers seem to go through. My parents couldn’t make it better.

As I’ve gotten older, my relationship with my parents has changed dramatically. Well, not so much with my mom as with my dad. I have the best mom. Seriously, I’ve heard everyone else talk about their mothers and I hands-down have the best mom. There’s not a mean bone in her body and, excluding the death thing, she always knows the perfect thing to say to make you feel better. She always puts her children first and never fails to surprise me with her constant generosity and thoughtfulness. We’ve had a fairly consistent, friendly and affectionate relationship which has changed little even since I was a small child.

My father and I have had a more… explosive relationship. I look back with nostalgia on my high school years because I think that was the time my dad and I were closest. We fought all the time, it’s true, but we really understood each other, I think. We used to hang out all the time too. When I dormed briefly in high school, Dad would pick me up for coffee every Wednesday. We’d go to our favorite Starbucks downtown and just talk. We talked about everything and there was little judgment between us. When I moved out of the dorms, we hung out mostly on Sundays. I would go with him to church and then we’d get lunch, coffee, and drive around town. We were shopping for a new house, so we’d go look at whatever open houses we could find or just drive around to see what fixer-upers were for sale. We were pretty close then.

The issue now with my parents is that I’m not a child anymore. Although they’ve never really “treated me like a child,” I still always felt like one. I always felt incredibly dependent on them, so I elevated all my little achievements of independence beyond what they deserved. I began to feel guilty about what all they did for me, whether it was paying for dinner when I was home for college or paying my rent when I moved out of the dorms. I did the best I could to be independent, I even worked two jobs one semester to be able to buy food and pay my own bills. But my parents always gave me extra money, always knowing that I was down to my last dollar. That guilt has created tension between us now, although it’s probably one-sided. I feel guilty because they still pay my phone bill and because they’ve bought my plane tickets home since I moved to DC. I resent that I can’t help but accept their financial assistance, because I feel like I’m still not “truly” independent. I’ve always resented feeling like a child around them, and that resentment tends to explode as my guilt for the little assistance they offer me grows. I guess it’s complicated.

My point is that in high school, even though we fought, I understood our relationship. I understood where I was going and mostly what their expectations were. Now that I’ve graduated college, things are so much more vague. I keep expecting our relationship to settle back down, to find its comfortable little niche, but it doesn’t. I think about my parents all the time, and relish the time I get to spend with them, but we fight so much the first few days I’m home and I’m having trouble sorting it all out. I assume the tension is from trying to reconcile being a child and being an adult, in my eyes and their own, and from trying to dispel my guilt about asking so much from them and being unable to repay any of it. I look forward to the day when I can stand on my own two feet in front of my parents and greet them like the good friends they are. I look forward to move past this awkward stage, to move on from the guilt I feel about my childhood, to forgive myself for making their lives so hard, and to accept that I may never be able to pay them back.


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