Tell Me About Despair, Yours

As Claire gets older and encounters the world, I find myself thinking that I need an exorcism of my past. That sounds drastic, yes? Claire displays an intensity and sensitivity that I recognize. I observe how she interacts with kids at school, and I feel painful echoes. I want so much not to project my past hurts and memories on to her — she needs me to be confident in her and for her.

Yet I struggle. When I think back over my childhood and school experiences, I don’t wax nostalgic. The first memories that come to mind are not happy ones. In a perfect storm combining my personality, family milieu, and the outside world, I entered kindergarten absolutely not ready for school or the world.

I was a timid, docile child, perceptive and agonizingly sensitive. I had older sisters who were in school full-time when I was pre-school age, so I had no experience playing with peers and navigating the conflict that arises from this. My first day of kindergarten I was so scared I refused to eat snack and cried. Throughout elementary school I seemed to attract unkind treatment. By the time I entered middle school, my way of dealing with peers was to bury my nose in a book and remain detached. I didn’t socialize much with people in or out of school. My self-confidence measured near zero.

One evening I talked with Hub about a school memory that still causes tears (and if I get started, I recall others that do too). My husband asked, “What would you have wished for?” The six-year-old me had a ready answer: to feel safe.

I have since written in a private post at least 20 events at or near school through my youth that generated a lot of pain then and have the power to still. Now, I know that many people experienced bullying or hurtful incidents in school. My husband has even described memories. However, he (and others) don’t carry the pain as I do, and don’t project it all onto their child’s life. Re-reading my list, I have to remind myself that these incidents occurred over thousands of days of school. I’m certain that many of those days were at least neutral, and just as many were happy days, or contained happy moments. My life wasn’t a torment every single day. My list of injuries strikes me as banal.

So what the hell is the problem?

The pain is not something I nurture; I don’t ruminate anymore over my past injuries. It comes unbidden, rising and engulfing me like a rapid tide whenever I observe my child encountering difficulty (e.g., rejection — whether perceived by her or real). I am transported instantly to childhood and respond accordingly, but this is overlaid with the protectiveness of a mother, and so all my energy goes awry. I personalize Claire’s experiences as my own. It interferes with my ability to be present for her.

Part of this pain is just a parent’s burden. We worry about our children. We ache for them. We want to protect them. Yet I feel that somehow I respond internally in a way that many (most?) other parents don’t. I feel raw and unable to maintain composure. Claire detects and absorbs my anxiety.

Observing Claire deal with her hurt feelings brings a mixture of pain on her behalf, irritation that she’s not tougher, and fear for her well-being in the world. I cannot control what she encounters out there when she starts school full-time this fall. However, I can provide a loving, peaceful, supportive home environment; home can be safe haven. But only if I manage to separate my angst-ridden ego from its Herculean attachment to my past.

So here is my question (italicized below), arising from a Mary Oliver poem, “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Tell me your despair. Tell me your childhood school memories. Are they happy or harsh, or a mix? Tell me if they still rule you, and if not, how did you win freedom?

making wishes
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3 Comments on “Tell Me About Despair, Yours”

  1. Kathy in San Jose Says:

    As the oldest of 4, I cried for 2 weeks at the beginning of kindergarten. It wasn’t familiar, my mom wasn’t there, and even though I knew Maria from next door, I was being asked to do things by myself. I couldn’t be pried out from under the table I held onto for dear life. Eventually, it became better and I was familiar with the routine of school. Yes, there were moments, but with the friends I made, it was pretty smooth sailing. Or maybe I was so oblivious to life that I didn’t recognize the rough patches for being “rough”.

    On D’s first day of kindergarten, he was so ready, even though he never went to preschool. It was a “Go Away, Mom, I’m busy” type of moment, and I dissolved into tears that my baby was old enough and comfortable enough to make it his new world immediately.

    You are making changes in yourself and your reactions to events. Being cognizant of those reactions and what potential new responses you will need to create, will be the litmus test for you. Yes, there is only so much that you can do to prepare Claire for the bigger world. She will have to learn some of the negotiations for herself. You just hang on for the ride and pick up her up for cuddles when the situation needs hugs.

    Hang in there!

  2. Cydney Says:

    I was the type of kid that cried silently at the table until my mom returned. I had a couple years of preschool and that helped. I also only had 1/2 day kinder. I don’t know how and why schools expect kinders to be full day …drove E to not eat because she was so tired ALL through kindergarten.
    Don’t we all try to give our kids what we were lacking in our own childhood? There isn’t anything wrong with that. Being a mom is a growth process too and learning your child is not you is something some parents never get. Just remember to control your own reactions and allow her to explore her own. Helps with bug phobias and so much more! 🙂

  3. acm Says:

    well, in answer to Cydney, kindergartens are full day because it’s been shown that that makes a *huge* difference in how well the kids adapt and are prepared for actual learning in first grade, especially for the kids who are least prepared. also, most parents work, so half-day school leaves them in a terrible predicament.

    I don’t know what to tell Kathryn — if the childhood pains were regular visitors before parenthood, then maybe they really need to be talked through and exorcised. if they’ve returned mainly as reflections of your concern for Claire, then that seems a not-abnormal response to the experience of parenting, but obviously one that, as you already realize, needs to be moderated.

    I don’t really have many bad early school memories, saving most of that angst for junior high and highschool — I have no doubt that I’ll be trying to innoculate her against the inherent insensitivity of those years and prepare her for the loss of perspective that adolescence often brings.

    all we can do is try to get away from Worst First thinking about the risks that our children face (imagining the worst possible outcomes rather than the more likely average course), and maybe try the “whistle a happy tune” approach to modeling confidence (“you can be as brave as you make believe you are!”) for our children and ourselves.

    good luck!