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I’ve been struck, many times and especially lately, by the way that the feelings of childhood stick with you. It could be argued, I suppose, that this isn’t all that striking, since we’ve long known that the early years of anyone’s life profoundly shape the later years. We know from studies of the psychology and sociology of family life and from studies of human interaction in family contexts that what we process as children sticks with us in some way for many many years, maybe even all the ones we have.
It’s a scary thing for a parent, for me at least, to reckon with the fact that the slightest offhand remark, the truly playful tease, the short-tempered snip at the end of stressful day may be the very thing a child ends up hanging onto. It’s mortifying to recognize that the seemingly most innocuous comment uttered in the front seat of the car might well, once it’s landed in the backseat with the little people back there, be the very thing they hang their future self esteem, or teenage years, or twenties, or career choice on. One begins to see just how golden silence is. Of course it’s all more complicated than that; multiple other intervening variables, some that fuel and some that temper, modify the impact of all kinds of childhood experiences. Our perspective changes, probably perpetually, and the narratives we tell about our lives from those changing perspectives shift what we see and remember and therefore what we hang our future on. But a single moment can sure stick with you. I’d wager any one of us could identify a single sentence, or nickname, or label that stuck with us for a long, long time. We can probably identify some phrase that we still can’t shake. Sometimes those have had far-reaching effects in a negative way, and sometimes they’ve incited all manner of motivation and drive and self-respect. Even so, it is a heavy burden to bear as a parent knowing that something you said but didn’t really mean, or didn’t mean like that, might be the hook on which your children hang their future. Or impale themselves even.
Beyond words though, I’ve been struck recently by the ways that adults never really shake the feelings and insecurities of youth. Several years ago, when I was ascending the stairs of my university’s administration building to get to the president’s office where I would argue on behalf of the Women’s Studies program, I thought to myself, “I’m too little to be going to the president’s office.” I didn’t feel like I even knew what I was doing, much less how to argue on behalf of what I was doing. I’ve never fully shaken that feeling that everyone else that surrounds me knows what is going on and knows their role except me, who is faking my way through all of it. The great imposter about to be pegged as such at any moment. I am still stunned when I get feedback from students who say they are intimidated by me. Intimidated by what? I think. I don’t even know what I’m doing! Now, as head of an academic department at a university, when someone says—someone just said it to me two days ago—“Here’s what we’d like to do, with your approval….” It still strikes me as strange that anyone would need the approval of someone who is too little to be doing what she does, and doesn’t even know how to do it anyway. My colleague was paid to speak at a major event on her area of expertise and she was mortified; “I’m too little,” she was saying. She took a picture of the hall where she would be speaking and texted it to me, horrified at being given such a significant role when she felt so small. When I got the promotional postcards for my first book, the Mothering in the Third Wave anthology, the first thing I did was send one to my mother with the note “Mom, look what I can do!”
I don’t doubt for a second that most people struggle to keep the insecurities of youth at bay in adult life. I suspect that the struggle for some is greater than for others, but I imagine it’s tricky terrain for most folks in any case. I’ve been noticing the pics of my Facebook friends lately, especially those I’ve known for a number of years; I’m seeing lifeyears and experience in those pics. Age even. I see that they have kids and some graying temples and lines, that they own homes. Didn’t we all just…sortof…get big, I thought.