childhood memories, adult emotions

I have few childhood memories. Is that strange? I think it’s strange. Strange enough to be a little worrisome. A few years ago my family sat around the dinner table. It was Father’s Day and my two younger brothers and I had happened to all be back at our parent’s house. In honor of dad, we started talking about earliest memories of him. My middle brother had the earliest; since I can remember he (and my parents) have talked about this night, and how astonishing it is that Aaron can remember it. He was 2. It involved an argument, a basketball game, and a reconciliation. Being nearly 4 years older than Aaron, and given the fact that this was a pretty traumatic experience in Aaron’s life, you would think I would have some recollection of these events as well. Nope, I’ve got nothing. Their stories don’t even bring it back. I can’t remember what Kean’s (the youngest brothers) earliest memory was, but being 6 years older than him I CERTAINLY should have remembered that one, right? One would think. One would be wrong.
I have clear memories of getting directions from someone who spoke precisely two words in English while traveling through French speaking Canada on our move from North Dakota to Maine: “pizza” and “white” (age 7); memories of my grandparent’s house and museum (they were caretakers of Fort Buford State Historic Site which preserved remnants of a frontier planes military post)- general memories of spending time there during the summer and picking and shelling peas with my grandmother and her beautiful flower beds and the stairway in their house that led to nowhere (age <7); spotty memories of trying to get to school in the dead of winter and, although I could see it from my house (across a few playing fields), having to be driven to the front door because with the windchill I would have literally frozen before I made it there (age 5?). I guess that’s an early childhood memory, but it’s pretty vague.  There’s nothing really concrete about it.

One of the parenting/child rearing books I’ve been reading talked about the importance of feeling- identifying and expressing emotion- especially as it relates to creating personal bonds, building relationships, and making (and keeping) memories. When I read this I was immediately worried. Does this mean that I don’t really feel? Am I not fully present in my own life, experiencing it in all its delight and disappointment? When I say this out loud it doesn’t feel right, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe. Or maybe it’s something else. Something worse? This morning (when asked) my husband told me that he doesn’t see me as someone who doesn’t feel, he sees me as someone who doesn’t express her feelings. Not fully, anyway. He sees me as someone  that chooses what part of myself to present to people: that I choose to create an image (which is not entirely honest) of someone who his laid back, and patient, and has everything under control; someone who never makes a mistake, always knows the answer, is never wrong.

It’s hard to admit that there is truth to those statements. But why? Why should it be so hard to say “Yes, sometimes I do that.” I guess it’s hard because it means that I have some serious changing to do, and that’s hard work and I already feel like I have precious little time for anything…for everything. It’s hard because I have felt unmotivated and uninspired lately, and that has left me feeling empty. It’s hard because it makes me feel like my husband sees me as a phony. But therein lies the problem- I sort of am one. At least sometimes. This has been ongoing theme in our relationship- my lack of communication- and I know that it is tiring for Tim to deal with. I know because he tells me, because he is honest with me. He is honest when he feels like I’m not being honest. You can’t be the only one in a relationship who is doing that, the relationship will not survive (that’s not to say that we are the verge of not surviving). I might not feel like I have time for anything, or everything, but I have time for this.

I digress.

The point of this post was to talk about an experience I had with E the other day. She has been sick (again; thank you first winter in daycare) and one night as I prepared her medicine, I said “Do you remember when you were sick in Tanzania and you had to take medicine three times a day? You were so brave.”

“Yeah,” she said, nodding knowingly. “More.”

I knew what she meant. It was certainly not “more sickness”.  She wanted to hear more about Tanzania (or the past more generally). So I gave it to her. I told her more stories about the time she was sick; about the weekly playgroup we attended, about Asina (her nanny) and Jo and Judith (our landladies) and Godwin and Eddie (staff). I told her how Yuda (the chef) would make lunch especially for her (even though I did too) and how she would sit with Yuda and Asina and the rest of the staff and eat lunch while they chatted away in Swahili and about how much she enjoyed the food Yuda cooked especially for her. We talked about all the time she spent playing in the yard with the dogs and the way they would greet her each morning with big slobbery kisses and how that would make her smile. She looked me straight in the eye the whole time. She nodded in agreement and understanding. She smiled. She remembered. Or so it seemed.

But for me the most powerful experience was watching her react to the emotional language that I used- I described her as brave, sad when her dad would have to leave for time in the field, as laughing when she played with the dogs, enjoying Yuda’s lunch. These were the parts of the story to which she reacted most strongly. These were the aspects that seemed to have made a lasting impression.

I had an inkling of this thought then; it was solidified today. I do not want E to wonder if she doesn’t really feel; or if she feels but cannot express those emotions. I want her to have a vocabulary on which she can draw to fully describe the complexity that is a human emotion.  And equally important, I want her to not be embarrassed or timid or overly aggressive in her attempts to convey those emotions. This is a scary thing to want for my daughter, because I don’t know how to give it to her. But I’m going to get help. Obviously I am not alone in this endeavor, I am lucky enough to have a caring and involved husband, but I need to be able to provide guidance on these matters too. As much for myself as for her. And maybe more so.


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