On Memory and Motherhood

16 Jun

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This post is about memory.  About how critical it is to understanding family life, about how “wrong” it is, about how it differs so sharply from family member to family member.  I use to put great stock in my recollections of my childhood.  I used to recite narratives about what happened and what people said and who was responsible and even why people did what they did, as if I had any access whatsoever to the why’s of other people’s actions, especially as a child.  I used to tell these tales with fair confidence. They were true because I remembered them.  But I don’t do that so much anymore.  Even when I’m explaining moments form my past to my therapist, I usually mention something about a grain of salt and not quite a grain of faith in my recollections.  I don’t know if it’s feeling more and more like a grownup, or if it’s my exposure to my own kids’ narratives that occasion me to tell my tales with reservation, but I’m learning that family memories are a peculiar thing.

One of the harsh realities of mothering I think is that our children use this peculiarity of memory as a significant guiding force in how they understand who they are and who we are and the choices we made that shaped their lives, even though none of our memories may be particularly ‘accurate’ and few of them in synch with each others’ memories.  Our kids remember shared events differently than we do; sometimes these differences are stunningly absolute.  And yet their narratives of these events are what will guide their lives; not the ‘accuracy’ of the details or how well their version meshes with ours.  I remember falling asleep exhausted as I read picture books to my daughter, and wondering as I garbled the words in semi-consciousness whether she’d recall that we went through stacks of library books each summer, or that I lost consciousness halfway through them. The answer, as it turns out, is she seems to remember neither.  My son mentioned recently that we always say we’re going to get him a bike for his birthday in June and then never do.  I reminded him that it is HE who says he wants a bike in April and May practically every year, and then by June he’s decided he wants something else.  I suspect that his version of being annually denied the bike is the one that will stick in his narratives.  My daughter remembers walking home many times in the dark from karate class while in junior high; she actually walked home once, at dusk.  My son says we always say we’re going to go camping and never do.  I say we DID go camping, him and his sister and me, quite a lot in fact; but now his two weeks at summer camp knocks out 40% of his summer break given his year-round school, and he has made clear that he is in no mood for more camping.  And I’m in no mood for cajoling unwilling participants at the campground, I’ll tell you that.

In a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago,  I mentioned one my father’s evening rants, which included storming down the hallway, flicking on the light, shouting “and another thing!” and scolding us about that other thing, to be followed by another thing, and another thing, in sequence.  My sister read this post and swears that this script was performed by my mother, not my father, and confirmed this with our other sister. I have distinct memories of fearing my dad’s hallway rants so that’s the recollection that sticks for me, but I don’t make much ado about narrative accuracy any more. I do fear though, the more profound ways in which my children’s narratives of their lives with me implicate me in ways that go beyond picture book and birthday bicycle memories, venture into “you never” and “you always” memories, and move wholly out of synch with the memories I thought I was shaping for them.  How our children narrate their lives is an element of mothering over which we finally have no control.  And letting go of the desire for it is one the greatest challenges of motherhood for me.


Posted by on June 16, 2011 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting


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7 responses to “On Memory and Motherhood

  1. Christy Buckles

    June 16, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    What about the loss of memory? No, I’m not referring to senior moments or my great uncle who thinks it is 1973 and that that “damn crooked Nixon should just resign already”. I’m referring to folks like myself that don’t seem to have many childhood memories for which to speak. I’m talking about healthy, middle-aged, intelligent, and (seemingly) mentally whole adults who cannot recall hardly any memories from the past but yet seem to have surrendered to the memories of others who have such great and vivid recall that we decide to adopt theirs in loo of our own.
    I do have a few basic memories that stick out such as moving to another state when I was 10 and kissing a boy when I was 13 but I don’t have a great deal of said ‘childhood memories’. I can’t remember all of my grade school teachers or when I got my ears pierced or even a trip to Disney World that our family took when I saw 7. I know all of these things occurred because I have evidence in old grade cards, holes in my ears, and vacation pictures but I cannot really recall these moments.
    I know what you’re saying. I must have suppressed a horrible childhood or done too many drugs in college but I think I am just one of many people out there who have memories that fade quickly and brains that don’t work hard enough to hang on to them. I’m really not sure why I don’t or can’t remember much of my childhood but as long as I have people around me to remind me of all of the names of the Smurfs or the different kinds of icecream you can get from the icecream man, I think I’ll be just fine.

  2. Dr. Mama

    June 17, 2011 at 12:32 am

    Well first of all, the only kind of ice cream from the ice cream man that matters are bomb pops and screw balls. I don’t care what anybody says. And I don’t know what to tell you about the lack of memories..I don’t think it’s necessarily an indication of childhood trauma, though I’m no psych prof. I have a relative who doesn’t seem to recall much either and this troubles her. I feel like I have a good many memories, but never the ones my sisters have or my mother has. They’ll recite these things we did and relatives we visited and I feel like I must have lived in a fog because I can access no such memories. So I think I sort of know what you’re saying. I think I’ll ask my therapist about it.

  3. Honey Comer

    June 17, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    I relate very much to this post! The last time I was home, in fact, my mother and I had a far too drawn out disagreement about my eating habits as a kid. I remember HAVING to choose from value menus and day-old-bakery cookies and King Vitamin cereal. I’m talking, living extreme couponing before it was a cool new show on TLC. I told her I thought perhaps the years of forced frugality may be why, as an adult, I tend to overindulge when it comes to luxury goods that are often outside my budget. No more constraints!

    My mother, on the other hand, claims the “you-would-only-eat-chicken-sandwiches-until-the-day-they-went-on-sale-at-which-time-you-decided-you-liked-cheeseburgers” argument. She thinks I have always preferred what is out front, new and shiny and have a general aversion to anything out of season or on “sale”. I’m the perfect target for visual merchandisers!

    I’m realizing that there is probably some truth to both sides. It’s interesting to think that this is a common phenomenon. I will definitely share your post with my mom! 🙂

    • Dr. Mama

      June 18, 2011 at 11:06 pm

      Thanks Honey for reading. and posting! and sharing with your mom! You are probably right, there is likely truth to both sides. Probably the frugality played a part in shaping the frames you’re using now, and probably your personality and inclinations as a kid shaped the frames your mom used then and uses now. Tricky thing, this reciprocal influence of human communication. I wouldn’t say that our memories of our childhoods aren’t useful or trustworthy, I will say though, that at 48 years old (!) I put a little less stock in my own recollections and frames than I used to, since they were shaped by a young and inexperienced mind (and then recast probably a number of times as I viewed them in retrospect as I got older). And aside from the ‘accuracy’ of a given memory, my most recent additionto trying to understand life’s complexities, is just to kep in mind that there were probably a bunch of othe rvariables going on in mymom’s world that I couldn’t have understood back in the day, so at the very least, this story I’m remembering is more complicated than I know.

  4. r4dic4lf3mm3

    June 18, 2011 at 7:47 am

    My two oldest children and I were talking about some of their early childhood memories recently, and I am still disturbed about their recollections of them. After divorcing their father I remarried rather quickly and it took awhile to get the new blended family dynamics straight. In fact we never really got them straight, and at this point I have pretty much given up on trying.The kids were used to being able to touch, borrow, or play with nearly everything in our home when I lived with their father. Everything in the home was shared property. However, their step-father pretty much grew up as an only child and never had to share his property. So, my new husband would always get ridiculously upset if my kids took one of his pencils, played with his hacky sack, or any of his other toys (I’m not talking about anything expensive or precious here). It was quite ridiculous really. Trying to make this marriage work and still hold onto my sanity, I just kept the kids out of the downstairs area for the most part unless I was able to watch their every move. The downstairs was where mine and Jeff’s bedroom was, along with the den, and mini kitchen. Upstairs was where the girl’s bedrooms were, the kitchen, and the living room. Jeff spent the majority of his time downstairs and the girls spent the majority of their time upstairs. I spent my time floating back and forth between the upstairs and downstair trying to keep everyone else happy. As my daughters remember the early years of my marriage to Jeff, they were not allowed downstairs. They claim that they had their apartment upstairs, and that Jeff and I had our apartment downstairs.They recall that I didn’t want them around and didn’t love them then. My memories of this year were quite different. I recall protecting them from Jeff’s rants, trying to spit my time equally between him and them, and gently encouraging he and my daughters to forge a healthy step-father-step daughter relationship. Needless to say, this was a stressful time for me. I wish they were able to see and appreciate my efforts in trying to make things run smoothly, and in protecting them and myself from having to hear the rants about feeling that his space and property being violated. Over time we all learned to compromise and work together a little better, but I doubt that the kids will remember the lessons in compromise when they look back at the four year that we all lived together. In discussing their memories of that time, all they talk about is feeling abandoned, unloved, and unwanted. At least they do say that they feel better about the mother-daughter relationship we share today.


    • Dr. Mama

      June 18, 2011 at 10:50 pm

      Kelly, thanks for boldly sharing this post. This is the kind of non-synched memories I was talking about. Nothing to be done about it from your end, for the most part. I don’t think their understanding is possible until they are older and in complex relationships of their own, whatever those might be. I don’t think we know as children or young people just how complicated human interaction and relationships are, or how conflicted life can be, so we don’t have a frame for considering variables beyond our own immediate perceptions. And it’s also possible that they’ll never really move from the frames they’re using now. This is one of the great struggles of parenting I think., this relinquishing; so necessary if we are going to live not steeped in regret. But so hard, painful even.

  5. K.A. Dorgan

    June 30, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    This post about memories dovetails nicely with some decisions I’m trying to make in my own life. Over the years, I’ve expended so much energy on narrative-conflict: which story best captures reality (mine!). Now as I parent my son and hear his “You never” and “But I always wanted” comments, I hear how he’s constructing his larger narrative about his place in the world and in the family. Listening to him, I’m resolving to not take my childhood narratives so seriously. But it’s hard–Those narratives provide such a (seemingly) clear picture of the rights and wrongs I’ve encountered. I guess this is why Chodron says to drop the storyline…No story, no matter how detailed, will be about to capture with clarity the messiness of human existence.

    Thanks for the wonderful dialogue about a difficult topic


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