Things of which I was certain prior to embarking on this dating adventure:
Absolutely no pets. I swiped left (or whatever direction meant No Thank You) on so many lesbians with dogs. Do you have any idea how limiting is was to be dog unfriendly? Lesbians and dogs are like macaroni and cheese or peanut butter and jelly. And then I fell for a woman with a dog.
I was also certain that children under 25 were a definite No. If they’re launched by 25, chances are they won’t boomerang back to the basement. But like with the dogs, I wasn’t really up for the maintenance–the walking, the feeding, the cleaning up after. The responsibility. Been there. Done that. But then I fell for someone who had a kid (sort of).
And then there was the whole coffee thing. I declared to anyone who inquired that I had two very good reasons for not wanting to be in a relationship: “I am 100% not interested in learning how to make someone else’s coffee.“ At this time. (Sorry, can’t tell you the other reason on a public blog).
The only certainty is change, Dear Ones.
It’s something of a mantra for me. Change and choice. If we can’t or are unwilling to change or if we forget that it is okay to make a change, we risk missing out on so much.
If we constantly brace for change, fear it, work to avoid it, all of our energy goes into staying the same. We can’t learn or grow. Our windows of tolerance for new experiences shrink rather than expand.
How do we learn that we have to stick with a choice? Who taught us that we can’t try a new direction if our current course isn’t working for us?
Like many of our ineffective adult behaviors, this one also likely began in childhood. Can you hear it Dear Reader? Can you hear your parents telling you “you signed up to play the tuba, sweetie. You have to give it a chance”? “You can’t stay home sick today, the team is depending on you. Suck it up and show up.” “You said you’d go to the dance with Johnny. You can’t back out now.”
We learn in childhood to distrust our own guts and go along to get along. Sometimes disagreeing can be dangerous. So we learn to put our own feelings aside to make others more comfortable. And, once we recognize that we do it, we can in fact make a choice to change.
We have such power in choice, when we slow down to recognize that we can choose our responses or our paths. I could have bailed upon learning about the dog or the kid or the kid’s sister. Turns out I chose to check it out, to turn toward those things instead of away. I loved the dog (and I know he loved me), and the kids were pretty great too.
I learned to make her coffee. In fact, I still have a bag of medium roast in the freezer.
Relaunched the website tonight. I’d taken it offline while I looked for a job. I go back and forth on this issue–should I let prospective employers see what I’ve written here or should I not? Will my writings help my career or harm it? I have no idea. But, now I have a job, so there.
I have a job! As a counselor. Good thing, since I woke up on Christmas to an email from the Federal Student Loan Servicing Company, reminding me that I was half way to the end of my Student Loan Repayment Grace Period. Yay! I won’t get thrown in debtors’ prison. Yet.
And I’ll be in private practice soon, since my job affords me time to see clients on my own as well. I will be working three, twelve hour shifts each week, so I will have a few other days in which to start building my own practice. I am very excited about both of these opportunities and couldn’t have imagined or hoped for a better outcome and transition into the mental health counseling field.
On the homefront, my 27 yo kid has moved in with me for awhile and I am completely digging having her around. It’s a chance at redemption for me. How often do we get an opportunity to have a real life “Do-Over?” I am one lucky mother.
Speaking of Mother, she has moved to a memory care facility. We reached a bit of a crisis point after Thanksgiving with a pulled tooth, a root canal, and a bottle of pain meds. Suffice it to say that her level of needed care exceeded my level of competency. She has a roommate who has a PhD in Sociology, so Mother is both duly impressed and thrilled to have someone to talk to who is at about the same stage of Alzheimer’s. They arrived within a week of one another, and both seem content (generally) with each other.
Charlie (or Chuck, as I like to call him), Mom’s shitzu, moved too, and seems quite happy to be there along with a handful of other dogs, a couple of hedgehogs, a Siamese cat, a tankful of fish, a cage of birds, and a chinchilla.
The transition to the facility was as awful and wrenching as I imagined it would be. Mom was none too happy with me that night, but I had to move her for her own safety. Who wants to have to make that sort of decision for someone? I certainly never imagined I would have to. And, I am thrilled to have my life back, my time and my home back. You can’t know what it’s like until you live it.
I spent the holidays working. Mom spent Christmas and Christmas Eve with my kids and their other mom. I am grateful for everyone’s love and caring these past few weeks, these past sixteen months. I couldn’t have done this on my own.
We would-be counselors all must take FOO (Family of Origin) before we take any other coursework in my graduate program. This class is the one in which we must sort through all of our personal Family Issues before we move on to counsel others. The idea, I suppose, is that we get our own stuff out of the way, but I’m not convinced we can do much with our FOO issues in 10 weeks. However, at 52, I definitely had an advantage over most of my younger classmates. I’d been working on FOO issues for decades.
Sitting in FOO for three hours every week was like attending group therapy—everybody cried, and I felt like I had one of the least traumatic childhoods of all. Some people had seriously mentally ill parents; others were abused by siblings, and still others grew up in remote, poverty stricken areas and no services for hundreds of miles. My heart ached for many of my classmates who still struggled mightily with their families.
Obviously, our parents leave a lasting impact on us, but one of the more fascinating aspects of FOO was how the same behavioral patterns played out over generations. Even when each generation may not even know much about previous generations. In one family, every generation included a pregnant 16 year old. How does that happen? How do we inherit such specific behaviors from our ancestors?
Epigenetics. The research is fascinating. We inherit memories, behaviors, trauma. A 2013 article from the online Discover Magazine explains it thusly: According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories.
Wild, yes? I find it all so fascinating. As the adoptive parent of two children, as the child of a mother who was adopted, and the sister of an adopted brother, I am well aware that more is at work in our development than simply what we experience. We are complex beings, bundles of history and experiences that are not even our own. We are more than half mom and half dad, but carry in our very essence not just the physical traits of our foremothers and forefathers, but their memories, traumas, victories, and defeats.
I guess that’s one thing about becoming a therapist that I so look forward to—exploring with clients how they came to these difficult places in life and working with them to make positive changes. Not only will they change their own lives, but they have the power to make life better for future generations.
Turns out that April is Counseling Awareness Month. Isn’t this just a serendipitous turn of events? I’m writing a blog a day, A to Z about my adventures as a graduate student in Mental Health Counseling and the American Counseling Association is making it a special month. Pretty sure I can’t take credit, but still . . . (maybe tomorrow I’ll tackle Delusional and Diagnosis).
I have a long history with counseling. I started seeing a psychologist in 1992 and have been in therapy of some sort consistently since then. For a long time, I thought of myself as having a serious character defect. I was young. I didn’t really understand how counseling worked, or could work. I had only a vague notion of Freud and his couch and Woody Allen’s neuroses.
Prozac and SSRIs hit the market about the time I began therapy* and not long after my psychologist diagnosed me with depression, she and my general practitioner agreed I would do well to try the new wonder-drug, Prozac. And, honestly, I looked forward to some relief. At 29, in 1992, I was a fairly new mom of an adopted bi-racial daughter, in a relationship with a woman 13 years my senior. I had just sold the bookstore I started, owned, and operated for three years, and I had moved back home full-time after living 90 miles away for most of each week. To complicate things, my fundamentalist Christian parents were only just beginning to adjust to my, er, lifestyle (as we called it then) and its unconventionality.
There’s more, but that’s enough. You get the idea. I was a stress monster. The crinkling of a tissue set my teeth on edge. The noise of someone actually blowing their nose sent me over the edge. The first time I swallowed one of those little green and white pills, I felt like I was taking communion. I crossed myself and sent up a prayer.
After four weeks of taking that precious little capsule every morning, I no longer cared who sneezed or how loud. Irritation rolled off my back. The grey veil that separated me from the rest of the world lifted, and I started seeing in color again. Cliché, I know, but accurate. Everything sparkled. I got a good job as the bookstore manager at the local technical college with a great boss as well as health and retirement benefits. Did the little pill have anything to do with my new job? I believe happier, less-stressed, less-depressed people tend to have more self-confidence and do better in job interviews, so yes. But I digress.
I felt good, and I loved talking to my therapist. I loved paying someone to listen to me. I loved the 50 minutes of uninterrupted attention. I could do this for a living, I thought. I’d love to listen to people’s stories, to help them make sense of their feelings, to help them gain the confidence to reach for their high dreams. I had no idea that someone who went to counseling could actually ever become a counselor. I thought my diagnosis and being on meds precluded me ever being in the field.
I had never heard of Jung’s Wounded Healer. I was an English major who, stupidly and stubbornly, avoided all social science classes. The books cost too much. The classes met on Fridays. What can I say?
I wanted to get off the meds, though, yet every time I quit taking them, things in my life would head south, and the psychologist would exhort me to stay on the meds. I got stuck in a loop and never really got to the issues that were causing me to become depressed. I’d just start popping the pills again, and things would improve. Etc.
I spent about twenty years with the psychologist before I found a new therapist, and the woman I chose to see was an LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor). I didn’t know what the difference was when I made the switch, I was just seeking someone a little more flexible and spiritual, a little less dogmatic and not so pharmacologically oriented. Turns out the switch worked very well for me then. I made several changes in my life at the same time: I got a new job, I relocated, I started taking writing classes and running, and found new community with both activities.
The psychologist got me up and out of the depression and quite literally saved my life on many occasions. And the LMHC has helped me move forward from there, developing self-confidence, practicing mindfulness, introducing me to non-Western philosophies. I have learned so much about myself, about why I am the way I am, and how I can move forward.
I’ll never be done working on myself, but it turns out, I can become a counselor anyway, not in spite of my past, but because of it. Jung believed that disease of the soul could be the best possible form of training for a healer. And as Victor Frankl wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.” By these measures, I am perfect for this job.
*for a more in-depth—but still inadequate—explanation of the differences among therapy, counseling, psychotherapy, and psychology see this previous blog
I’m currently working on a group project for my Counseling Sexual Minorities class. We are looking at Attachment Theory as it applies to LGBTQ people and the clinical implications for counseling this population. For my part, and to help the cause along, I decided to take a look at the relationship between attachment styles (secure, fearful/avoidant, dismissive, and preoccupied), identity integration and lesbian shame.
Attachment theory suggests that how well our primary caregivers met our needs as infants and children determines how we relate in relationships later in life. (For a more complete discussion, check out this site).
The Cass Identity Model is one of the primary ways of evaluating how well gays and lesbians have integrated their sexual orientation into their lives. It has six stages, beginning with Identity Confusion (am I a lesbian?) and ending with Identity Synthesis (I am a lesbian and I am out in all areas of my life). (For a more complete discussion on the Cass Model, click here).
The Internalized Shame Scale is an assessment tool used to rate individual’s levels of internalized shame.
Turns out there is a correlation between a lesbian’s attachment style and the amount of shame she experiences. The two studies I looked at gathered data on about 500 lesbians and discovered that those lesbians with a secure attachment style had lower levels of shame (as measured on the Internalized Shame Scale) than those lesbians with other attachment styles (fearful, dismissive, and preoccupied).
The first study (published in 2003) looked at 380 women who self-identified as lesbians and as a level 4, 5, or 6 on the Cass Identity Integration Model. The results aren’t really that surprising. What’s surprising is that overall, lesbians scored 49.8 on the shame scale where 50 is a clinically significant result (i.e. pathological). As a comparison, heterosexual women average a score of 33.
It’s important to note that most infants and children who escape childhood with a secure attachment style tend to remain securely attached in other relationships as their lives go on. Not so with LGBTQ children. Even those who begin life securely attached run a high risk of shifting attachment styles later in life due to particularly severe breaks in important relationships: rejection by their family when they come out, for example. Rejection by peers, teachers, clergy, friends.
One paper I read for my presentation reported that 43% of LGBTQ youth experience some form of physical violence. In addition, a significant number get kicked out of their homes when they come out to their families. LGBTQ people are barraged daily with messages that it’s not okay to be LGBTQ. I just have to open my laptop and scan the headlines on any given morning to read that politicians want to strip me of my rights, that “christians” want to round us up and put us in camps, that self-appointed guardians of morality want to outlaw me, and that people like me are threatened with death just for being who we are.
Sure, we’re gaining rights, but we also face a backlash from those who believe we are less than human, less than deserving of equal rights. The Kim Davis’s, Antonin Scailias, Michelle Bachmans, Ann Coulters, Ted Cruzs, Marco Rubios of this world. We have the right to marry, for now. But how long will that last? Will a change in our country’s administration threaten my rights again? Will I ever be able to relax or must I remain vigilant?
The second study, published a year later looked at 100 lesbians who scored a 6 on the Cass scale and who had also spent at least three years in therapy. What this study showed was that these lesbians scored 43 on the shame scale and 58% were securely attached, compared to 49% in the previous study.
What are the clinical implications of reduced lesbian shame, more secure attachment styles, and higher rates of identity integration? Therapy may work to repair attachment by providing a new secure base, resulting in reduced internalized shame. This is good news.
Why am I interested? Funny you should ask. One of the amazing (and awful) aspects of this graduate program I am in, is that I am constantly analyzing myself, challenging my assumptions about myself and monitoring the way I am in the world. I can’t think of a single class I’ve taken that didn’t shove me right up into the shit, from the initial Family of Origin Issues class, where we looked at intergenerational patterns and all the ways we have unfinished business with the people in our lives to Human Development: Gender in which my mind was blown regarding the social constructs of gender roles and the false dichotomy of binary genders (i.e. boy/girl, male/female).
Every class has taught me something about myself: Ethics, Psychopathology, Psychodiagnostics, Group Therapy, and so it has been with this class, Counseling Sexual Minorities. I signed up for the class with a level of excitement and anticipation I’d not had for other classes because we were finally in my wheelhouse. I thought I knew a thing or two about this topic, at least from the client side of the couch. I wasn’t prepared.
In general, the class has been less than stellar, but even still, I wasn’t prepared for how digging into all the ways in which LGBTQ folks are discriminated against would impact me. I figured that I’ve been out of the closet for the past 40 years and had dealt with my internalized homophobia and had come to terms with my sexual orientation, but what I have realized so far this quarter is just how exhausted I am, how much I shut out on a daily basis in order to protect myself, and that there’s a simmering rage just below the surface that is eating away at me.
The other day I ran across a story on some county clerk in Texas who likened her fight against same sex marriage to the fight against Nazi Germany. Really? And the rhetoric amongst the GOP candidates who want to roll back what few legal protections LGBTQ folks have terrifies me. One candidate whose name shall not grace this blog has stated he would nominate Supreme Court justices who would repeal same sex marriage.
And that’s the thing that just kills me a little inside all the time—other people think they have a right to determine what is best for me simply based on whom I love. Everyone has an opinion and sometimes even a vote about what rights I should have. Just this morning there’s a story on the front page of my local paper about a debate in Charlotte, NC on LGBT protections. A debate. About my rights as a human.
As I grew up, instinctively knowing that there was something different about me, I tried hard to keep that difference under wraps, to not let my true self out for fear of rejection. But eventually the need to be true to myself overruled cultural mandates to fit in. Being authentic, regardless of sexual orientation, can be challenging for many of us, but I would posit that most people don’t spend most of their time with this level of anxiety.
As I came out over the years (coming out happens over and over and over again, by the way, not just once), relationships fell away. Some repaired, others did not. I remember writing to a friend from my high school days when I adopted my oldest daughter. My friend wrote back that I was an abomination, that my daughter deserved better, that I was going to hell.
Eventually, I learned to be more discriminating, oftentimes pushing people away and shutting others out who may not have rejected me. Better to protect my heart than to have it shattered over and over again. Even now when I know better, when I am pretty certain that the folks around me are open and accepting, I still armor myself against betrayal, though occasionally I let down my guard and show up as completely out, completely me, defenseless, and vulnerable because I feel safe, because the environment seems to exude acceptance and warrant trust. Sometimes I’m right. Sometimes I am very wrong.
I am tired. I want to lay down my shame. I want to live in a world where I am not afraid, where no one cares who I sleep with, where no one is threatened by my relationships, where no one wants to strip me of my dignity, humanity, my rights. I want to live in a world where no one gets to vote on my right to marry, work, buy a house, use a restroom, adopt children. I want to live in a world where who I am is not up for debate.
Many years ago, flummoxed by the joys and perils of raising two non-white children in our predominantly white culture, I wrote an essay expressing my doubts and fears, and (surprising to me now) my certainties (you will recognize them when you see them). Some of what I wrote makes sense and some of it clearly needs rethinking. Yesterday on the day we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., my eldest daughter, now 23, texted me (this is how we communicate these days). She was wondering if I thought it odd that the company for which she now works didn’t celebrate the national holiday. I do find it odd, odd that only governments and banks shut down on this Monday when the world grinds to a halt, more or less, for other national holidays: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, the 4th of July.
Hello! I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to join a group of bloggers who are writing the 50 things for which they are grateful. The trick was we had to write the list in 10 minutes (adding pictures and links came later and did not count toward the total time). I had no trouble at all coming up with so many things to be thankful for. Life is rich. I live in a beautiful place. I have a solid support network, good friends, a loving family. When times get hard, I try to remember these things. I started the list off with some of the things I repeat to myself on mornings when running is challenging–I am grateful for my body parts that all work as they should. If you’d like to join in on the gratitude blogging fun, you can find instructions at the bottom of this blog. Enjoy!
If you’d like to join in, here’s how it works: set a timer for 10 minutes; timing this is critical. Once you start the timer, start your list. The goal is to write 50 things that made you happy in 2015, or 50 thing that you feel grateful for. The idea is to not think too hard; write what comes to mind in the time allotted. When the timer’s done, stop writing. If you haven’t written 50 things, that’s ok. If you have more than 50 things and still have time, keep writing; you can’t feel too happy or too grateful! When I finished my list, I took a few extra minutes to add links and photos.
To join the bloggers who have come together for this project: 1) Write your post and publish it (please copy and paste the instructions from this post, into yours) 2) Click on the link at the bottom of this post. 3) That will take you to another window, where you can past the URL to your post. 4) Follow the prompts, and your post will be added to the Blog Party List.
Please note that only blog posts that include a list of 50 (or an attempt to write 50) things that made you feel Happy or 50 things that you are Grateful for, will be included. Please don’t add a link to a post that isn’t part of this exercise.
I originally published this piece on my blog in December 2012. I thought it was worth re-posting, given that it’s that time of year again and my holiday anxiety is ramping up.
Christmas Eve always provokes anxiety in me. For all of the 1960s and well into the 70s, I was the sole granddaughter amongst many grandsons and as such the only target for girly gifts from my well-meaning Mema: dolls, dresses, and purses. While my cousins and younger brother gleefully tore through the wrapping paper to discover footballs, cowboy hats, cap pistols, and baseball gloves, I opened my gifts cautiously, always hopeful that my true wishes would be granted, that my grandmother would see me for the tomboy I was, not as the girly girl she wanted me to be. As the Barbies, ballet slippers, tea sets, and girly frou-frou piled up over the years, I knew better than to be expressively disappointed. Growing up in a conservative Christian household, I learned early that it is better to give than to receive, to be thankful for what I had, and to put others ahead of myself, so I pasted on a smile and gave my thanks with as much authenticity as I could muster.
As the years wore on and the family expanded, my girl cousins finally came along, gleeful recipients of all things sugar and spice and everything nice, and I could ignore my gifts and slip away to play with my boy cousins and their superior toys. They would share their bounty with me, and for many happy hours I wore the cowboy hat and shot the cap guns, threw the footballs around the basement. Still, an uneasiness always settled over me as the holidays drew near, and as much as I looked forward to Christmas Eve at Mema’s, a genuinely fun and spirited occasion where the alcohol flowed freely and everyone sang and acted out a verse in The Twelve Days of Christmas, where we all wore colored paper hats from the Christmas crackers, I dreaded going because I didn’t feel like I belonged.
A sense of Other became my Christmas cloak: fundamentalist Christian amongst fun loving Catholics; country bumpkin cousin among my sophisticated Seattle cousins; and something deeper that I sensed about myself, something I knew set me apart in ways I wouldn’t understand for many years.
So, no surprise then that those familiar pangs rushed back as I navigated our red late-model Volvo into Mema’s driveway for Christmas Eve in 1994. Even though I was 31 and had a family, the anxiety dogged me. I let out the breath I’d been holding during our hour and a half drive south from where I lived with my partner and our two daughters. I pulled on my wide-brimmed purple felt hat that matched my paisley purple dress and smiled through the rear view mirror at the girls, Anna four and a half, and Taylor six months old. They were ready to be sprung from their car seats, their holiday dresses hidden beneath their matching Christmas coats from Nordstrom. I squeezed Sweetie’s hand, both for comfort and for strength, and admired her stylish red wool coat and her fine black leather gloves. I allowed a small satisfaction and confidence to creep upon me. We looked so normal that no one could possibly know from first glance that we were lesbians with two children. I drew comfort from our appearance as we wrested the girls out of the car and arranged ourselves into presentability—straightening rumpled tights, buckling Mary Janes, wiping the spit up from Taylor’s chin and removing her bib, making sure Anna had a firm grasp on Blankie. We each carried a child and marched to the front door to ring the bell.
We knew better than to wait for someone to answer before letting ourselves in. The bell served only to announce our presence before we walked into the sounds and smells of Christmas tradition: cracked crab, singed spaghetti sauce, bourbon, scotch, laughter and conversation, the burble of children’s voices and laughter. Aunts and uncles yelled out greetings or raised their glasses to us as we entered. My mother came to coo over her granddaughters. We collected hugs and kisses as we waded deeper into the gathering, and because we were women, we all finally came to a stop in the kitchen.
“Merry Christmas!” My aunt Betsy said, “You guys look great. I love your dress Pam.”
“Where did you get that hat?” Mema sipped her vodka, the ice tinkling. “I love it!”
“Sweetie!” Uncle David stepped towards us, a glass of red wine in his hand. “Merry Christmas!” He gave her a sideways hug and a peck on the cheek. “How are the girls?”
“Hey David,” Sweetie matched his enthusiasm. “They are great. Thanks for asking! Your girls must be getting big, too!”
I began unbundling the girls, removing their coats, checking Taylor’s diapers for any obvious odors. They both looked amazing, their brown skin glowing against the red velvet dresses, their white tights gleaming, their Mary Janes shiny. Anna’s eyes took on the pensiveness of being in a strange situation, and Taylor’s eyes grew wide, her Surprise Baby look we called it. Since we’d only just adopted her in May, many of my relatives had yet to meet her.
“She’s so tiny! How old is she, again?”
“She’s so dark!”
“Well, yes, she’s African American,” I explained. “She’s just a bit over seven months old.”
“Anna, you’ve gotten so big!”
“Anna! How do you like being a big sister?”
Anna buries her face in the pleats of Sweetie’s red skirt.
“She’s still adjusting,” I say.
“Hey, Pamalamala!” My uncle Mike approaches, the funny guy in the family. “What can I get you to drink? You’re still drinking, right?” He nods at Taylor in my arms. “You’re not nursing are you?”
“Scotch on the rocks sounds fabulous,” I say, happy at that moment to be an adoptive parent, no breastfeeding required.
Anna peaks inquisitively from Sweetie’s skirt. “Pamalamala?” She laughs. “That’s funny Mommy!”
“That’s what I called myself when I was your age,” I explain. “I couldn’t say Pamela, so I said Pamalamala whenever someone wanted to know my name.”
Anna’s brown eyes light up, and some of the anxiety disappears. I want nothing more than for her to be free of the anxiety. Mike hands me my scotch and I relax, happy to be among family on this holiday, grateful for the acceptance from nearly everyone, and even thankful for the forbearance of those who might still disapprove. I am aware they might be masking their disdain with holiday cheer and copious amounts of alcohol. I don’t mind.
Before long, the girls and their cousins hear the prancing of reindeer feet on the roof and the ringing of sleigh bells. The little ones who are old enough to walk, rush to the window hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa. I hold Taylor as she wiggles and babbles excitedly and points to her big sister, eyes wide with anticipation.
“HO! HO! HO!” Santa opens the front door, a pillowcase bursting with presents slung over his shoulder. “I hear there are children here who have been very good this year!
“Sit over here, Santa,” one of my younger cousins points to a wing-backed chair between the fireplace and the lavishly decorated tree. Over the course of the next hour, each child under 18 sits on Santa’s lap and assures him they’ve been nice and not at all naughty during the year. Santa digs in his bag and presents each child with a present, and as they unwrap their gifts, they hold them up as cameras snap and flash. The adults grin conspiratorially at one another, remembering Christmases not that long ago when they did the same. I’ve chosen Anna and Taylor’s gifts carefully, the sting of disappointment still fresh on me.
Once the spaghetti and crab have been devoured, once the platters of cookies have been depleted, once the children have succumbed to the rush of sugar and the excitement of Santa and fallen asleep about the living room, once the adults have exchanged gifts, and had a final glass of holiday cheer, we begin to gather our newly acquired belongings, our coats, the diaper bag, Anna’s Blankie. We whisper our good-byes and carry our sleeping babies to the car and tuck them in to their car seats. After several more forays between house and car, more hugs and kisses, I put the Volvo in reverse and head north, letting out the breath I’d been holding the past several hours.
We had navigated through a family Christmas Eve, our little family of four breaking new ground, the four of us presenting as just another family in spite of our differences. No one else in my extended family had ventured quite this far outside of the norm: being a “married” lesbian mother of adopted multi-ethnic children broke some new family ground and gained not just tolerance, but acceptance. Still, my anxiety and self doubt colored my experience and I believed that the love and welcomes came because we worked so hard to be a normal family, we wore dresses and feminine shoes; we bought thoughtful and not inexpensive gifts; we were fortunate to have beautiful children and dressed them in dresses and lace. We drove a Volvo. I believed that acceptance required stringent adherence to heterosexual norms. I thought that if we were going to be a successful lesbian family, we were going to have to be as non-threatening and as normal as possible.
I was so busy hiding who I was, I didn’t even try to be myself. It didn’t occur to me that my family would love me anyway.
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.
I often say that I write non-fiction essays and memoir because I lack imagination. I’ve never been good at making stuff up, and whenever I sit down thinking I’m going to write a short story or embark on writing a novel, I get a few pages in and stop, overwhelmed by the apparently limitless options.
Taylor, my youngest daughter (she’s nearly 20 now), loved to watch SpongeBob SquarePants when she was little. She loved SpongeBob so much that we had a SpongeBob bathroom (The Little Woman painted it SpongeBob blue and yellow with hand drawn and painted replicas of Patrick and SpongeBob on the walls) complete with a SpongeBob shower curtain and SpongeBob toilet seat cover. Taylor’s bedroom was also SpongeBob yellow, and she had SpongeBob posters, blankets, pillows, sheets, Legos . . .
Of all the characters populating childhood during those years, I found SpongeBob endearing and definitely the least objectionable. He was happy, undaunted by failure, cheerful, a good friend, a hard worker, compassionate. But most of all I loved SpongeBob because he had Imagination.
That Taylor loved SpongeBob made sense, because she too had a great Imagination. I could give that kid two sticks and a small rock and she could entertain herself for hours, making up stories, creating characters, playing alone in her own world.
When Taylor was eight, the two of us went on a three-week camping adventure across Washington and Oregon. We set off without much of an agenda, except that we were going to see Grandpa in Bend, OR. Other than that, we were footloose. We started our trip by meeting some friends and floating the Yakima River. I worried a bit that T would be bored, hanging out with three adults and our friends’ high school-aged son, but she proved to be an excellent traveling companion.
As I set up camp, pitching the tent and getting the camp stove ready for dinner, she played in the hammock, creating entire worlds from just leaves and twigs. What amazed me the most, I think, is that on her own T wasn’t much of a reader. She loved for me to read to her, but she wasn’t one to sit in camp (as I would have done as a child) with her nose in a book. Instead she was engaged, making up her own stories. I so admired that quality.
We spent a lot of time at the beach on that trip, and while I went to the beach to read, T went to the beach to play, to create. Every foray was an adventure for her, a chance to create new worlds, to see everything in a new light, with new possibilities. I stopped taking my books with me because I ended up pulled into her world each time, building sand castles, searching for agates, creating new worlds.
When we had fires on the beach at night, they weren’t just for roasting marshmallows or for keeping warm. Each fire presented an opportunity to create, even fleetingly, something new—Taylor delighted in burning sticks and then running to the water to put them out, creating steam. Or, drawing in the sky with the red ember end, writing words for me to guess.
One of our stops, a little town in Northeast Oregon called Shaniko, had been a ghost town and was now just a town stuck in time for tourists to wander through. I didn’t find it particularly interesting, but I made a point of walking around with her, reading some of the historic descriptions. I think we got ice cream cones that melted rapidly in the eastern Oregon summer sunshine. I didn’t think it would hold much interest for T, but she still talks about “that town that was just full of old people.” Something there captured her imagination.
Our last stop on our adventure was Manzanita. We pitched the tent at the campground on the beach and walked the shoreline into town to have some dinner. We’d heard about the great pizza place, and found it jammed. We finally got a table, one that could easily seat more, and so when I saw two women come in who wanted to sit down, I invited them to join us.
Taylor started telling these women about our trip. She didn’t leave out a single detail. And when I thought she might run out of material, she started embellishing, sprinkling in details about my personal life, adding a few false statements, entertaining the women who joined us. No one else could get a word in. On our walk back to the campground, I thought I’d take the opportunity to discuss the difference between talking about our adventures and sharing personal and/or made up details.
She looked at me and said, “It’s just imagination, Mom.”
That’s it–just imagination. No need to be overwhelmed or caught up in the details. Find some kelp to turn into palm trees. Make the sticks talk to the leaves. Just put my stick in the fire and write in the sky.