The older I get, the more life lived, my gratitude for the childhood I experienced grows. Idyllic comes to mind. Even trying to tone it down, give a realistic view, I reconsider my word choice. Idyllic still stands. I grew up in a safe, suburban neighborhood, walking to school and the pool, riding our bikes and playing endless games of kick the can with our friends. Beautiful old trees lined the streets, houses a mixture of architecture styles, all built in the 1920s. Even now, when driving by and decide to detour down my old street, I’m filled with such happiness.
I grew up in a tight-knit family, my two parents and my younger sister. Our home was welcoming, a magnet for neighborhood kids and my parents’ friends. Dinner was eaten together, every night, with a sitcom re-run like Get Smart on low in the background. My mom went back to work when my sister started kindergarten, so my dad, who worked in medical sales, made sure he was home for us after school. Life was predictable, with a daily routine, but never boring. Weekends meant fun family outings – visiting every historic site in 100 miles, spending lots of time downtown, scouring antiques shops (each of us had a collecting hobby) and dinners with family friends.
Every event, every holiday celebrated with much fanfare and style. Probably the reason I’m thinking about my childhood today. As I collect all the fall decorations, and begin to pull out the many Christmas bins, I can’t help but think of Christmas growing up. At 47 years old I’m now aware magic wasn’t confined to the holidays. The real magic was the feeling. Of acceptance, safety, caring and happiness.
I felt loved for who I was – a shy, slightly introverted, book loving girl who blossomed very slowly through middle school. By high school I was much more confident and began putting myself out there, acting in plays, participating in public speaking competitions, taking on leadership roles at school. My interests were encouraged, my parents’ support a given. Never feeling I was disappointing them or not living up to their ideal of who I was supposed to be.
Home was a safe space, a respite from the daily struggles of being a teenager. Even upset or hurting from friends, grades, angst or a boyfriend. Always guaranteed a hug and a smile when I walked in the door. Home was curling up on the couch to watch a family movie or disappearing into my room to cocoon for hours. My mom and dad were generally fair and measured in their parenting. Sure they could lose their tempers and they were far from perfect, but they never shamed us or make us feel small.
So much of how I mother my children is modeled on my mom. She worked hard at her mothering. Making sure we felt special. She wasn’t one to sit and talk about feelings, she experienced a very traumatic childhood, and I’m not sure she knew how to sit and talk about deep stuff, all those messy feelings inside. Instead she showed her love through actions. Creating a beautiful and peaceful home. Weekend breakfasts, special dinners to celebrate our accomplishments and birthdays and welcoming our friends over for sleepovers. Later, in high school, hosting all of our friends before school dances at our house and making trays of appetizers for us to nibble on while we prepped our hair and make up. Most of all, my parents always showed up, supporting us at school events, sports, plays, the list goes on and on. If it was important to us, they were there.
Home was a happy place. I can picture my bedroom, Laura Ashley periwinkle wallpaper and furnishings, and big enough to make a small seating area to hang out with friends. Books everywhere and my Gone With the Wind collection displayed on my built-ins. Later as my interest in art grew, room for an easel and paints. My love of rain lightly beating against the house goes back to the ledge outside my childhood room.
I have spent my adult life trying to recreate my childhood for my own children. At times with success and others failing miserably. Married at 28, a mom at 29, I was old enough and should have been thoughtful in choosing my life partner. I wasn’t. I mistook cockiness for confidence, a biting sense of humor for the cruelty it masked, and what type of father my husband would make by seeing him with his daughter from his first marriage. Never realizing that how someone would parent a child they saw a few times a year could be vastly different from how they perceived day to day fatherhood.
I knew, as my oldest son, became a toddler, that I had picked the wrong person. I would encourage him to play golf on the weekends, after he had already been traveling all week, simply because the extreme discipline and anxiety created by his high-strung demeanor were so hard to be around. Yet I could not admit defeat, would not seek a divorce. I had seen my parent’s marriage separation – that’s a topic for another post – ending in my father’s suicide and my mother’s alcoholism. Our family was destroyed and sadly never quite healed.
I was too stubborn and controlling to realize that I could not shape my husband’s behavior, reactions and point of view. That he was a product of his own tumultuous childhood, which he didn’t seek to change or do differently with his own children. For many years, I thought effort was enough to balance the good with the bad. That I could create enough magic, enough positivity to counteract the growing domestic abuse my children were witnessing and as time passed, experiencing their own abusive parent relationships.
Most of all, I was terrified that seeking my own divorce would create a life-altering event similar to what I had experienced as a teenager. By this point, I was too damaged from the abuse I was suffering and my own PTSD from my dad’s suicide, to be capable of accurately and clearly seeing the shambles of the family I had tried so hard and for so long to create. Wishing it, willing it was never going to be enough. I finally did get my divorce and things got worse. I was no longer in the home to protect my children. The guilt and regret and pain were overwhelming.
Heartbreakingly, I did implode my children’s childhood. Through 2016 and into 2017 I struggled as my heavy drinking morphed into full scale alcoholism. Finally, in June 2017 I sought inpatient treatment and began the long, slow journey of recovery. I’ve been sober and healing ever since. And I’ve been able to bring the magic back to my children. Just the way my mom did before her life and our family’s fell apart. Making a normal day special, celebrating their birthdays and holidays, finding magic in the everyday, I relish bringing joy into my children’s lives. Embracing my children for the wonderfully complex humans they are, having honest conversations about their feelings, helping them develop their emotional vocabularies…my brand of magic never forgets the most important lesson I learned from my childhood. Making sure my children feel accepted, safe, cared for and happy.