Something about my personality I have noticed as my children grow up is that milestones in their lives become times that I reflect on my own life at those ages and what was going on. It’s often a source of anger or sadness and sometimes longing for what should have been.
As my children approach the age of 8, it seems that is the time they ask why they have three sets of grandparents. My own parents separated when I was 7 or 8 and the divorce was final when I was in the third grade. Whenever I explain that my parents were divorced, my children ask the inevitable questions about “why” and “did that make you sad, Mommy?” Of course, they often have asked if that would happen in our family. It’s a heartbreaking question to entertain. And I hate that I even have to qualify my response. Because the truth of the matter is that both of my parents assured me when I was in the first grade that a divorce would never happen. That turned out to be a big fat lie. So, when I answer the kids, it is usually goes something like this: “Your dad and I intend to stay married. I think everyone intends to stay married. You just never know how things will pan out. My own parents didn’t set out to get divorced, but they still did in the end. So, just know that no matter what, your dad and I are always going to try as hard as we can to do the best we can to keep our family together and safe.”
Sarah is the only child of mine that has reached the age that I have explained more about the divorce and how my life was impacted. Things like the fact that my dad lived many states away and that our situation did not include me getting to see my dad on Tuesday-Wednesday and every other weekend, the way other people’s arrangements always seemed to work out. Every now and then, Sarah will ask me, “Did you do X, Y, Z (insert any regular old teen-girl pastime here like looking at prom dresses and shoes) when you were my age?” And usually it is something I never did. Because my life was nothing like hers.
I see the amount of organization that goes into keeping Sarah’s high school life on track — all on her, by the way — and the ONLY reason she is able to think about everything she needs to do to keep her path going toward her goals is because she doesn’t have to worry about feeding younger siblings dinner and ensuring they all get to bed on time. She doesn’t have to worry about whether she will get to her volleyball tournaments on the weekend without asking for a ride. She is able to rely on me providing her time and space to study in the evenings or getting her to the extra study sessions on the weekends that one of her teachers provides. While Sarah is aware that anything considered “extra” (some makeup items, brand-name clothing, outings with friends) will come out of her own money she has saved/earned, she can feel confident to know her necessities will be purchased and provided to her by her parents. She takes the time to attend Life Teen at our parish and also the young women’s group that meets on Wednesday evenings. This provides her very regular and routine opportunities for confession and prayer and another adult female role model (the youth ministry leader at our parish) from whom to learn and receive encouragement. All of this is possible because she has an intact family at home, both parents committed to providing her the time, space and means to have an academic, social and spiritual life that keeps her headed toward her goals.
I’m keenly aware nowadays, of how extremely neglected I was as a high school girl. Even typing that, I feel as though I must be ungrateful and complaining. But no! Seriously, a girl should be able to count on having her parents maintain a stable environment at home that she can count on. I did not have that. I didn’t have anyone following up on my school work. I was on my own for too much time. While I helped ensure my younger siblings didn’t starve, I can look back and see that for the most part, we were all on our own. College applications? Pshaw! right! I am pretty sure I didn’t apply anywhere during my senior year. I only entered college the fall after I graduated high school because I was loopholed in as a resident of Kansas and my dad was still active duty military (living on the east coast) and claimed me as a dependent. Even then, it’s a minor miracle because Board of Regents universities in Kansas HAD to accept residents into their programs (at least that is how it was explained to me). None of this takes into account the ways I was getting the attention I needed — you know, the bad kind. Without a father in the home to give me the affection teenage girls need from their dads, I was searching for affirmation of my worth in not-so-good ways.
I have spent most of my life “getting over” the fact that things were hard. I forgave my parents (what choice do I have?) I forged on with regard to sports because I have a competitive spirit and I could lose myself in the contest. I refused to waste time thinking about the mistakes I had made and chose to simply move forward trying to make fewer mistakes and justifying the ones I made after that.
But the truth of the matter is that a high school girl has so much “hot mess” going on inside that adding all those other things to the mix made for a perfect storm. I shouldn’t have had to “get over” growing up without my dad. I shouldn’t have had to “get over” dealing with a neglectful mom who was emotionally abusive when she was not being neglectful. I shouldn’t have had to navigate high school all by myself without any support from a parent. You see, while I don’t do any of the work for Sarah, she has both of her parents available to bounce ideas and thoughts off of. If she has a question, she can trust that we’ll help her find the answer. When she needs to be somewhere, while it’s her “job” to take the initiative to communicate her needs, she can rely on both of us to help her get where she needs to be. And in the process, she can count on us to teach her what she needs to know so that when the time comes, she will be able to do it for herself.
When I think about the time and effort I spend educating and helping Sarah with logistics, I can’t help but feel cheated all over again for the things I didn’t get. It’s so weird. Every now and then, I feel like I need to have a little pity party for one and vent to myself. I think about the relationships I see between my dad and my siblings that lived with him for their high school years. I recall how lost I was in high school. But what’s really sad is I was so freaking lost that I thought I knew what I was doing! To remember how completely clueless I was about so many things back then, sometimes makes me angry! But it always provides me the resolve I need to ensure I never leave my kids hanging.
Obviously, my experiences are what made me the person I am today. Perhaps if I hadn’t had the experiences I did, I would not be so keen and sensitive to what I think my children need from me. It’s almost as though I am hyper-aware of being able to provide a stable home environment for them. Because I can look back and see what was lacking in the areas of emotional support and familial stability, I am able to work with Craig to ensure we do not lack in those areas.
I know the world is different now than it was in 1992. There seems to be a lot of pressures on kids in high school that I don’t recall there being when i was there. But often, I wonder if that was my experience because I didn’t have anyone to help me be aware of those pressures. Interestingly enough, I found the program from “Awards Night” at my high school for my senior year and my name was listed among the “academically fit.” I’m not sure how that happened because I recall “sweating it out” whether I would pass a couple of classes to graduate. (I had a VERY rough senior year in many ways.)
While I would have loved to change the economic background from which I came, I do think the fact that I never had any real money to speak of has helped me to accept that doing everything financially for my kids is not a requirement for them to have successful upbringing. It’s true that Craig and I are able to provide things for our children that I could have never even dreamed about when I was a kid. But, we’re not able to provide what many of their friends receive financially (for example, we will not be able to foot the college bill for our children). However, the lessons I had to learn all on my own about managing money — making it, saving it, spending it — have helped me get Sarah going on the right path. She doesn’t have a lot, but she understands the value of what she does have.
In the end, I often use my own experience as a way to help me understand my path with my own family. The example of my own upbringing is not an ideal one. Being aware of that has made all the difference with how we do things with our kids. I guess that’s the way it works for everyone — we all decide on things that we will “never do like our parents did” and those things that we hope we can do “just like our parents did.” Many times research indicates that what a child grows up with is what s/he perpetuates going forward into adulthood. There are some things in my life where I would agree with that, but thankfully in some of the really important things, it is not the case.