Can people be saved from a terrible childhood?

Dear quarter lives,

Can people be saved from a terrible childhood? This was the title of an article in The Guardian 1 I had read a couple of years ago. It caught my attention at a time when I was reflecting about my own childhood and wondering if it had passed or was a part of me still living there. These contemplations about childhood slowly turned into an obsession with these seemingly separate states of being we label as childhood, adulthood, and parenthood. All the hoods seemed to me to overlap. I could not separate them from one another. I found myself struggling to neatly split my life across all three. Slowly, an aha moment arrived and the realisation came over me, What if they are in fact not separate states at all? What if they are states of being that exist together simultaneously? 

What if adulthood is just the transfer of the role of parenting from the outside (i.e. from parents, caretakers, etc.) to the inside, to us? What if all adulthood really means is that we become parents for ourselves instead of relying on others to love us, discipline us, tell us what and what not to do or think? What if the problems, confusion and breakdowns that happen in young adulthood happen because of precisely this, the fact that all of a sudden we become our own caretakers, and all of a sudden the newness of this role is overwhelming and like children learning how to speak, all we can do is emulate what we have observed. And so if we have observed parents that are overly critical to us, in wearing this new role of parenthood with ourselves, we become overly critical parents to ourselves, but if we observe gentle parents, we emulate that and become gentle parents to ourselves. Where the role of the crisis is important is that it forces us to question what we have observed, questioning whether it serves us or destroys us. In sitting with those questions, we slowly begin to develop our own parenting style with ourselves. 

If we start looking at ourselves as a unified home to a child and a parent that come together to form the adult that we are, we will start acknowledging the realness of that child within us that is screaming to be heard, that is screaming to say I am still alive, I didn’t die when you became an adult. And the kindest act we can do for ourselves is to say ‘I hear you’ , ‘I see you’, and ‘I acknowledge you’ to that child within us. Like any other child, the child inside of us just wants to feel loved. But if we keep on expecting an outside person to become our parent and provide us with love, affection and discipline then we starve our inner child of its own inner parent, and thus have purposely orphaned it and sent it to the foster care of a friend, a wife, a husband, leaving our inner parent heartbroken. Our grieving inner parent now is starving to care for someone, to give love, to discipline and thus it starts craving a child, and that is how we often pour our hearts into our children thinking that they can save us but it is only our own inner child that can save our own inner parent. And thus, when we do not acknowledge both the child and parent within that make us a whole adult, we fall into cycles of toxic relationships* as we try to quiet the screaming inner child and feed the starving inner parent. 

And so to answer the question, Can people be saved from a terrible childhood? Yes, they absolutely can! But only if they do it themselves. Only we can save ourselves. There is no god that will save us from a terrible anything without us putting in the work ourselves. And the way we save ourselves is by re-parenting ourselves and re-childing ourselves. This means that we need to step fully into adulthood by stepping fully into the role of parent for ourselves while embracing and nurturing the child within us. We need to make space within us for the healthy expression of both. We need to play. We need to work. We need balance. And just like we give importance and time to our outer relationships, we must also give time and attention to our inner relationships. For any relationship can only grow if we make time for it. Be present for those inside of you, just as you do for those outside of you. Adulthood, I have found, is a state of being whereby one becomes proficient at showing up for themselves, where one learns how to be completely present to themselves as parent and nurturer when need be, and as child and wonderer when need be, and the ability to discern when to make space for the parent and when to allow the child to appear is where the art of being an adult lies. It is always about balance. And to get good at balance, like to get good at anything, requires practice. And practice requires us to embrace our errors and continue showing up until we get it right. And when we get it right, we must show up to keep that balance.

As always with love and for peace,

S.A.

1https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2018/nov/07/ace-adverse-childhood-experience-trauma

*(relationships include not only those with other people but with work, with leisure, with food, drugs, exercise, religion, etc. the list is infinite.)

We need boundaries to grow

Dear quarter lives,

This is a short story about letting go, about growing apart and growing healthy. It is a story about our need for space to grow, about our need for boundaries, even with our most beloved mothers and fathers.

***

One day someplace where there were streets and crossings, a young mother and her son were about to cross the street. The little boy was very afraid. He had never crossed a street before. He had seen stories on the news of people who died crossing the street, but never about those who had survived crossing the street. So he assumed that people just died crossing the street. He didn’t understand why his mother would want him to do such a thing as cross the street, but he didn’t question her, she was his mother. The boy held his mother’s hands as tightly as he could, to the point he was hurting her just a little bit. You could see his little hands latching onto her big hands tucked in and protected by their sheer size. Her big hands were nothing compared to her tall body, like a walking tree beside him, she protected him. As he stepped onto the zebra crossing, his eyes began to sparkle, wondering why the marvelous lines changed colour so frequently. Black. White. Black. White. Black. White. And as his mother took a large step in front of him, she cast a long shadow over him, a shadow longer even than she was. 

The little boy fell into a deep darkness. His mother falling only a split second after him onto her knees and over him. Her shadow now much stronger and much closer. He slipped further and further away into the dark. She did not know what to do but to hold him close. And the closer she held him, the further away he went. ‘Let go!’, someone in the crowd shouted. ‘I can’t, he needs me.’ ‘Let go of him. You have to.’, they shouted again. ‘I can’t leave him alone. He’ll be so afraid.’ Her tears were falling on his face.They came closer now. Their hands held her shoulder, ‘We’ll be here for you. He needs to come back alone. You must leave him now. Trust, dear mother. Trust him. Trust yourself. Trust us, your community. There is nothing you can do but trust that he will come back, but you must let him go.’

‘Can you help me let him go?’ ‘I can stand by you, but I cannot remove you. You must choose to get up. You must choose to stand separate from your son until your are distant enough that you cast no shadow onto him.’

And with all the love she could find in her heart for her little boy, the mother stood up slowly, as though she was a toddler standing up for the first time, not knowing whether to trust gravity yet. And as she returned to her tree-like posture, stable, standing and grounded, she carried her legs with all the power she could muster, for they were the heaviest three steps she would take in her entire life. Now standing away and across from her son, she no longer cast a shadow on his heart. There was a long silence. The silence of waiting. Tears still rolling down her face, puddles forming at her feet, now at her knees again, all she could do was think, and when she thought, she doubted. She doubted herself, she doubted her son, she doubted her community. But her community stood by her, reminding her they were still here, reminding her to trust, ‘Trust does not betray those who make space for it in their hearts, so make space, dear mother.’ 

And as she drew in one more breath and exhaled another, she looked over to her son. His eyes were beginning to open. She almost ran towards him, but a hand held her back and whispered gently in her ears, ‘I know it is painful, but that is what we must do. We nourish them until they can nourish themselves. We support them until they no longer need us. You see, dear mother, it is our duty not to smother ourselves onto our little ones. It is our duty to let them grow into their own being, that is our role ― to teach them how to fill their space, to show them that boundaries are essential so they can spread roots and reach the light themselves without help from any mother or mediator.  You see young mother, if our shadow remains cast on their bodies, we are no better than weeds whose shadow and needs kill all that is around it. Parenthood is a journey very few endure in truth. It is the hardest lesson to learn. It is one intended for the growth of the mature spirit, and the subsequent survival to youth of the infant soul. So rejoice my daughter, your pain will transform you. And soon he will have grown into a parent himself, then he will come to you for guidance and support, for his turn too will come when he will have to let go of his young ones. So let your child go, give him back to the universe, let him scour for his food, hunt and grow, and as the cycle continues, he will ask for your hand one day as you have asked mine. Do you remember me now? I am your mother from long ago. Today, you have passed the most difficult test of all. Today, you have truly mothered your child into being. Today, you have let go of your attachment to your child. Now, you are both free.’

***

Thank you for reading. Thank you for accepting this invitation to contemplate.

With love and peace,

S.A.