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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My sins of omission

My youngest, Steve (38 years old), who is visiting me at present, massages my shoulders when I look uptight; he fixes things around the house; he washes the dishes when we have guests so that I can spend the time enjoying my friends; he hugs me often. So I know it's true when he tells me he loves me dearly – despite the fact that he sometimes informs me that I am a liar and/or insane.

This perception is at least partly based on our different recollections of his childhood. I remember walking down to the shops with him, hand in hand, chatting. I recall what I experienced as companionable family times around the TV watching favourite shows such as the old Dr Who and The Goodies. And all the other things mothers do, like creating costumes for school plays, driving my boys and half their mates to their basketball games, getting out in the back yard and kicking a football with them (however ineptly!) when their Dad was away working, hosting parties from kindergarten to teenage.... I remember a kid who used to confide in me both as a child and an adolescent. He remembers the door of my study
being always closed, and the feeling that I gave him little in the way of time or attention.

Nancy Lee, who blogs about the welfare of children in Child Person from the South, writes:

About All the Children...

The children whose pictures are on this Blog are not abused or least not to my knowledge! Or should I say no more than what falls within a "normal" range... for in my opinion all children experience some degree of abuse and neglect...if only from their own perspectives.

These children may look "neglected" in some cases but it is a momentary thing, as happens in the lives of all healthy children. Any child who is never rumpled or dirty is more likely to be at risk from some compulsive caregiver than from some occasional bad-hair days!

The children may look so very sad, confused, or whatever that "symptoms of abuse," come quickly to mind. But, children's routine lives are complex, often involving challenges that few of us would want to experience. We carelessly use words such as "resilient" to describe their extraordinary ability to deal with tragedies...great and though it is somehow easier for them to bounce back quickly and easily from whatever comes along to stretch, bend or compress them out of shape.

Their ordinary emotional lives seem subject to higher peaks and lower valleys than some want to believe should or could be part of children's experiences. But whether we choose to believe or not, children- all children- inhabit a world filled with loneliness, pain and terror as well as beauty, joy and exhilaration.

I salute and honor them, warriors and heroes all!

As my son tells me now, what actually happened is less important than his experience of it.

He was astounded when I contradicted his assertion that I never worked during his childhood. I was amazed, and somewhat outraged, that he could believe such a thing. I always worked. I gave crochet lessons. I made crocheted tank tops and sold them through a local store. I was an artists' model, paid to pose nude for students to sketch. And most of all I followed my profession of librarian, sometimes going out to work and for one period having books delivered to my home for me to catalogue. (It was before the days of centralised computer cataloguing.) Not to mention doing all his self-employed father's secretarial work.

The thing is, I worked part time, arranging it around my children's school hours, a deliberate decision which I believed to be in their best interests and mine. It all happened while they were out of the house at school, so of course they saw little evidence of it – though I do wonder how they missed hearing conversations about it, or seeing me crochet items which never ended up on their own backs, or noticing the boxes of books by my desk during a time when my desk was in a corner of the living room. What was this extraordinary lack of curiosity, I wonder. Do all children just take their parents' lives for granted?

He sees it differently, particularly as he checked with his brothers and they didn't remember much about it either. Even on that our recollections differ. He says their emails disclaim all knowledge of me working. I thought they vaguely recalled some details – though I no longer have the emails to verify the matter. To Steve this is evidence of my insanity: they said they remembered nothing and I then said, 'See, I knew they'd remember.' Certainly he is right on the crucial point: what on earth was going on that he knew so little about his mother and her life when we were living in the same house? 'How is it that I didn't know my own mother?' he asks. I can only speculate.

He feels I was never there for him. He believes I contributed nothing to the household in the way of work and income. Even if I could show him documentation that I threw out long ago, what difference would that make? Memory is selective, but the fact that he remembers things that way tells me the times with the study door closed made a greater impact than the times of talk and companionship. And although it was no secret that I worked during his childhood, the fact that it so surprises him means I entirely failed to communicate it to him at the time.

I realise I don't know what is normal. Do parents and children really live in separate worlds with different focuses of attention? Or are there families where it's impossible not to know all details about each other? There were things about my parents that I didn't find out until long after the events, but I don't know that I would have been interested, or even have grasped them, at the time they took place. But my son tells me he has a genius IQ; perhaps I underestimated his capacity to understand.

Or was it I who took things for granted? I remember a time when teenage Steve walked in as I was giving a friend a cuppa in my kitchen, and heard some mention of my degree. After she left he sat down with me and said expectantly, 'So – tell me about all these university degrees you've got.' I was surprised to realise that he didn't know about the (only) one I had. Then it dawned on me that he had no way of knowing. I didn't have the certificate on the wall – though it has been displayed ever since that occasion – and it didn't usually come up in conversation.

I learned a lot about my family background when I was a child by sitting around in the evening and talking, or listening to the grown-ups talk. This happened in the immediate family and at extended family gatherings. My kids grew up with the family gathered around the TV in the evenings, and they had few occasions to hobnob with their extended family.

The other day I spoke to Steve about my beloved Nana, my Mum's mother, who died when I was four. He remarked that he'd never heard about her before. I said, 'Well, you never wanted to read the family stories I was emailing to your brothers.' He told me that was because I'm a liar so he wouldn't have known what to believe of them anyway. Had he read them, he'd have known that some of them were taken from my mother's own writings and taped reminiscences, which he now tells me would have counted with him as evidence for their truth. But can anything make up for the communications he missed as a child?

This is a vexed question to which I have no answer at this time. Nancy's post reminds me that a child's emotional world is a vast and dramatic place of which we take far too little account.


  1. HI! What a delightful post. It is so refreshing in your honest exploration of this complex subject and I am so honored that you used a few of my words as a jumping off place. What a neat surprise to have it show up on the Google Alert! I think the time has come for a lot more exploration of this dual perspective...well actually it's even more complex than that, isn't it? I mean we know that different children in the same family have entirely different lives...different experiences, different memories, different perspectives of it all as they become adults. On that rare occassion when open dialogue occurs among parents and children we all come away convinced the others are crazy or lying! Because my mother died when I was 24 we didn't get to that stage. However, my daughter and I have many such conversations that now begin... hey, does this sound true as you remember it?...because we've explored so much of her childhood together. Thank you so much for letting me be a part of your thoughts on this...and keep on thinking! and writing... if we follow enough of these scattered crumbs of insight we will find a way out of the woods someday!
    A Child is Waiting.
    Take aware,
    Nancy Lee

  2. Thank you, Nancy! I had resolved to remove this post this morning, after a long conversation with the Prodigal Son last night. He spent one and a half hours (my husband timed it) informing me that the evidence I have "borderline insanity" (sic) is that in my own eyes I am never wrong about anything. After being lectured that long, I started to think it must be true and maybe this post was an example of what he was talking about. It's a relief to have someone of your calibre perceive it as honest and useful. So I'll leave it up.