Believe it or not, that’s a phrase that seldom, if ever, crosses my lips.
I had an…interesting…childhood. Not as bad as some, not as good as others.
I’ve done the work that needed to be done to gain perspective – not to say that I don’t get triggered every now and then, but mostly, I’m at peace with my past.
When I realize that I carry no responsibility for things done to me as a child, that I’m only required to carry the burden of the choices my grown-up self makes, it makes most of my young life fade into irrelevance. After all, as an adult, I’ve sought help. I’m choosing healthier paths every day, and that’s something I can live with.
Parenting my son actually has been both the best and the worst thing I’ve done – the best, because, well, he’s awesome. Amazing. Incredible. Special, unique, lovable….so many wonderful things about this child.
The worst, because, well, it made me face up to my past.
For all the cliches about how being a parent changes you, no one ever told me “it will rip you apart and make you face everything you never wanted to think about again and every day of his life you will examine everything you do with the goal of “how can I not screw up this tiny person I’m responsible for?!”"
I know, I know – that’s not pithy enough to make the front of one of those sappy “now you’re a parent” cards, nor is it loaded with warm fuzzies.
But it’s the truth.
So as my son becomes ever more aware of things around him, I’m fielding lots of questions.
- “What did you like to do when you were 8, Mom?”
- “What was it like being a kid when you were 8, Mom?”
- “What was the best day of your life when you were 8, Mom?”
- “What was your church like when you were 8, Mom?”
- “What was your family like when you were 8, Mom?”
Because one of my goals in the “please God don’t let me screw him up” category is to not make him carry the weight of my childhood, I’m always careful how I answer him. Because he’s perceptive, he picks up so much more in the empty spaces, in the things I don’t say, and it breaks me every time to see his eyes well up with sympathy for the sadness he feels in the silence.
So I look for the happy moments, I sift through my memories looking for bits I can wipe off and present to him as singular, shining glimpses.
And there were those moments, moments of Grace and beauty, moments where I was able to look toward this future and plan out my life, a life apart from all I knew.
Moments where certain people reached out, moments where I overheard something or intercepted a glance, moments where it dawned on me that my normal was not the normal accepted by, well, normal people.
These are the things I can never tell him.
At 8 years old, I knew that
- God hated women
- God wasn’t all that keen on the menfolk, either
- That our little church of 40+ were the only people in the entire universe that had “the truth” and most of us were so sinful that we were hellbound, anyway
- God hated Catholics
- God hated Baptists
- God hated other Pentecostals
- God hated (insert any other group here)*
*No, I wasn’t *told* God hated them, rather that they were sinful and evil and were doomed to burn in everlasting fire. In my mind, that translated then and translates now to “hate”.
I heard sermon after Cold-War-paranoia-induced-sermon, sermons about how the Communists and/or the Catholics were going to burst into our church and line us up at gunpoint and ask us to deny our version of God. Most of us, we were told, would live – long enough to burn in hell for not choosing death, of course.
- At 8 years old, I knew that no one would protect me.
I knew the world was not safe.
- At 8 years old, I knew that my life as a woman was ordered, and predictable, and included lots of cleaning and cooking (and childbirth and diapers) – because that was my punishment for, simply through my genitalia, belonging to a group that brought sin into the world.
- At 8 years old, I knew first-hand what it was like to grow up in a fundamentalist, uber-conservative, patriarchal home – although it would be years before I had the words to define what I lived through.
- At 8 years old, I knew that I could endure broken bones that were set without anesthetic, broken bones that grated and twisted, because “Jesus will heal them”.
- At 8 years old, I knew that I could get through anything – physical trauma, illness, years of ear infections – without pain medication or a doctor.
- At 8 years old, I knew I was still 10 years away from seeing a doctor for the first time in my life.
- At 8 years old, I knew how to get through a beating.
- At 8 years old, I knew how to get through attempted exorcisms after the beatings didn’t cow me sufficiently.
- At 8 years old, I carried scars in my body that no child should ever carry.
Here’s the thing, though. At 8 years old, I also carried within myself a core of unyielding steel. Even when I didn’t have the words to know how to explain what was wrong, I knew that I would someday survive. I would journal or go climb a tree and daydream about my life outside of it all.
At 8 years old, I would look ahead to this day, to this point in time, where I would have an 8 year old of my own.
And the fact that I can’t tell him these things? The fact that, even if I told him these things, my 8 year old couldn’t understand, that he has absolutely no comprehension of a life lived like that?
That means I kept all those promises I made to my 8 year old self. I was right. I won.
So what do I tell him? Mostly, when asked the “what was it like when…” questions, I tell him stories of a person who listened to the guidance of the Voice within her, the person who determined to make a better life for her child.
And I tell him that I see the same strength within him, the same determination to do good things, the same heart that longs to follow the Father’s voice.
And I hug him, and my heart overflows with joy in anticipation of the man he will become, of the times when his children ask him, “Dad, what was it like when…?”
Because I know that my son will be able to look at those future children and say “When I was your age…” without pain, or fear, or remorse.
And it is all worth it.