U is for Umbilical Cord

leave-it-to-beaver2

Visiting Mother
Our past. My future. Her womb.
Cord blood. Still tethered.

The other class I’m taking this quarter is Family of Origin Systems, or FOO for short. Here’s the course description: The purpose of this course is to facilitate the development of competencies in understanding family of origin systems theories of human development and differentiation. Particular emphasis will be placed on students examining their personal and professional development in terms of their own family history, relationships, and conflicts.

In other words, in this class we will take a close look at how our families, the ones in which we grew up, completely fucked us over and caused us to be the hot messes we currently are. I’ve done a fair amount of self-work over the years and have looked closely at my parents, our relationships, how they raised my brother and me. I’ve listened in many workshops as other people describe their upbringings, how they survived everything from drug and alcohol addicted parents, sexual abuse, beatings, to benign neglect and hostile indifference. Compared to most people, I am practically Beaver Cleaver. In many respects, my parents rivaled June and Ward.

But still. The one thing this class makes crystal clear is that none of us leave childhood unscathed. Sure, maybe my parents, like so many, “did the best they could with what they knew at the time,” but they too were products of their environments. And like their parents before them, they carried on, operating within family systems that have perpetuated all the conscious and unconscious family secrets, tragedies, coping methods, and survival mechanisms.

Take for example just two facts from my childhood: We moved to a small logging town when I was four, and my parents became Born Again not long after. These events alone generated major repercussions for my brother and me.

Our parents subscribed to the “spare the rod, spoil the child” parenting style. They raised us to believe that god knew our every move—He knew when we were naughty and nice with implications far more sinister than any Santa might have dreamed up. I grew up believing I could be struck dead (or at least turned into a pillar of salt) should I displease god.

I learned early on that if Jesus returned in The Rapture and I hadn’t caught up on asking for forgiveness for my sins, I might be Left Behind to withstand horrible trials and tribulations. Should I die with my sins unforgiven (because I’d forgotten to pray in a timely fashion), I’d go straight to hell where I would burn for all of eternity. Never mind what the church had to say about being a lesbian.

So there was that. And I’m just scratching the surface of the religious implications. Then there was life in the logging town. Like I wrote in my blog about my brother, we had a fairly idyllic and unfettered (if you don’t count god always watching) childhood. Freedom to roam was one of the many upsides growing up in a small town offered.

Inferior schools presented one major downside.  I was a pretty bright kid. I scored high on tests, always tested into the advanced groups whether they were for math or reading, and I brought home stellar report cards year in and year out. But the schools we attended were full of first year teachers who were all on their way to someplace bigger and better, and I ended up attending four different high schools. By the time I realized I needed a better education, I was in college wondering why I couldn’t figure out pre-calc and why I was failing basic chemistry.

I didn’t take a foreign language (well, I took a quarter of it at the church-affiliated pseudo high school I attended most of my junior year); I stopped taking math in 10th grade. I dropped out of biology my sophomore year and didn’t take any more science until college. Thankfully, standards for college admission were fairly low in 1981.

To be fair, my parents hadn’t been to college. They didn’t know what a college bound high-school student needed in order to be fully prepped for a higher education. Many people I grew up with didn’t go to college. Many had parents who didn’t think girls even needed to pursue anything beyond an MRS degree.  So, in many respects, I count myself fortunate and very blessed. Yet, what might have transpired had we stayed in Bellevue when I was four? What sort of education might I have received there? How might things have played out differently?

Yet it’s not just about what I know. Families are full of secrets and generational patterns. We all move forward under an ancestral burden (or so they say in FOO). What implications did grandpa’s dead brother have on our holidays? What about grandma’s drinking? How did the antagonism between grandma and her sister get mirrored in my aunts’ relationships with one another and with my parents? What about my grandfather’s upbringing made him so hard on my father, his only son? And why did my grandparents adopt my mother? What was the true story there? Did we move far away to escape these legacies? So many questions.

We have to fill out a questionnaire for class tomorrow, one that describes our roles in our family of origin—for example what sort of child was I? Was I The Rulebreaker? The Delegate (strong self-sufficient and competent)? The Companionate (a friend and peer to one of my parents)? The Rejected Kid? And, why? How did my role in my family of origin affect the choices I made later in life? The partners I chose. The roles I play now. It’s fascinating to ponder.

 ***

I’m not writing all of this to lay any blame on my parents. I’m writing to point out that even when we do the best we can (or the best we think we can do), we still pass on to our kids (and I’m a parent, so I have done this too) a legacy with which they, in turn, will need to grapple in order to fully realize their own hopes and dreams.

I know that my parents discussed parenting before they married. I know that they both had dreary childhoods and problematic relationships with their own parents. Together they resolved that they would do better than their parents. And in turn, I resolved the same thing when I had my kids. And, most likely, if my kids have children of their own, they too will make a similar commitment.

I sat in my FOO class and listened to my classmates tell their stories—felt the hair on my arms rise as they recounted tales of abuse, neglect, grinding poverty, drug addiction, mental illness.  And I felt a sense of hope wash over me because in spite of all the various hardships, and perhaps because of them, here we all were, eager to learn, to move on. To help.

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