This is one of those way way back stories. It takes place in a small family room set up for my sister and me. It was a nook of sorts and had a black and white TV. Family lore has it that my first words were “I Love Lucy!” learned in that very space. There is no doubt in my mind that this could have been true. After all it was once a place where our family of four gathered to watch the Ricardo’s antics with reverence. It was the last place we could be found together before my parents finally divorced.
It was also the “playroom” where we played with dolls, built blanket forts, and colored. One day I was there with my best friend, Heidi. My first true friend. I met her at kindergarten orientation with Ms. Francin. We were paired together and it turned out we both lived along winding Old West Mountian Road. Later it was her dear family who showed me a different kind of home life.
This one day Heidi and I had gleefully discovered a new painting technique. We dipped our brushes in the murky watercolor set and whipped them. Back and forth, back and forth. We splattered tiny rainbow polka dots over the white sheets of paper in front of us. It was thrilling.
I didn’t learn of Jackson Pollock until I was grown up and every time I see a painting of his I think back to that fateful day. It resulted in one of my first clear memories of shame. My mother came in with a look of horror, followed by a litany of screams and German cuss words. She pulled me aside and spanked me in front of my new friend. I was confused. I was red hot. Heidi froze in place. When I looked at the wall behind me I discovered that we had indeed “ruined” the walls. I instantly felt like I was a terrible little girl for having spoiled something of value belonging to someone I loved. And I had an unwitting accomplice.
The artist in me shut down.
Toward the end of the 6th grade, when I was about 11, we had to try out for the junior high chorus. I had loved singing as a young child. Apparently, I could blurt out the German lyrics of many a childhood lullaby. But I had become a shy girl in public. There were too many problems at home. Heidi had moved far away the year before. And while the school day was a reprieve, I held my breath for most of it. I barely spoke in school and when I was asked to sing a song in the concrete corridors of Barlow Mountain Elementary School – just in front of the gym doors where others could hear me – I became mute. The next year I ended up in music appreciation class with 20 obnoxious boys.
The singer in me shut down.
When I was in my first college English class I wrote a personal essay of what I thought was the triumph of overcoming the hardship of my postwar upbringing and of being the first child in my extended family to go to college. The classic story of a first generation American. The teacher gave me a C+ and told me visit the counseling and writing centers. It was the C+ that crushed me.
The writer in me shut down.
My childhood experiences are not uncommon. So many of us know intimately the empathic failures of the adults in our world. (Forgive them for they no know what they do). My mother was not a mean person. She was overwhelmed. The chorus judges were not bad people. The English teacher was green and didn’t know what to do once he got piles of personal stories. But who has that perspective as a kid?
Every one of us has closed off part of our selves because we learn in many small ways over a long time that who we are is never good enough. We have learned the language of comparison, judgment and perfectionism.
Yet I know that the little artist in me had some sense that I had self-worth for I grew up to love art and fashion. I know the singer in me has not died for my crooning in church moves me to tears – even if I get choked up and can only finish a hymn in a whisper. I know the writer in me lives in some small and big ways for I would not have been able to dabble with this blog or write a dissertation.
Now that I have my own girls I am mindful of my words and actions on their vulnerable hearts – I know I have failed them and will fail them. I also know something else. It is my instinct to nurture them the best way I know how. But it is a gift to also care for the child within myself even as I age. How can I not see my younger selves when I see my girls at their tender ages? It’s inevitable. For all the hurts I may have endured, something far greater and more beautiful persists. That is the courage to create, the willing to sing out of tune, and the commitment to speak my truth – on paper, in person, in prayer. I practice compassion for that shy, yet feisty girl.
A brave girl.
I bring her with me and let her know that all is well. I love her. She has been a great teacher. I carry her on my shoulders in triumph and together we go forth with whole hearts.
It is a privilege and a gift to be a candidate in Brené Brown’s The Daring Way™ method, a training and certification program for helping professionals who want to facilitate Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability, courage, shame, and worthiness. We are a community of wholehearted practitioners who believe in the power of owning our stories, and who recognize that vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.
Download Dr. Brown’s Parenting Manifesto. Read it (1) for yourself as a parent and (2) in parenting your inner child.