At least once or twice per year, in some holiday or other gathering of my parents, brothers, and sometimes extended family, my parents love to drop in one of their seemingly most beloved stories about me as a child. It’s not really even a story so much as a recollection, but it manages to sneak its way into family conversation like an ignorant uncle with his dirty jokes.
I’ll be just be minding my own business, trying to coax my kids to eat more than the dinner rolls or helping clear the holiday dishes, and I’ll hear my dad call from across the room to ask me if remember that time when I was turning 13 and had a “fit” about my parents being away on a vacation for my birthday. “Yes, I remember,” I respond, an air of annoyance in my tone. I usually pair it with an over-exagerated eye roll to emphasize just how over this anecdote I am.
“We had the chance to go to Hawaii!” he continues, as if I didn’t just confirm that I know all the details. “It was once in a lifetime! And you cried about us not being there on your birthday!” He laughs now, shaking his head, the memory for him representing the nostalgia of long-past parenting challenges. It’s as if he’s saying, Now that you’re a grown-up, come laugh with me at how ridiculous you were. Isn’t it funny?
But I don’t laugh, and never have, and it’s not because I’m still upset they left me for Hawaii on my 13th birthday. He’s right to believe that the gift of age helped me shed my ill-will toward them for making this decision. For full context, they’d won this trip based on sales my dad has made for his company, and it was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My parents didn’t go on trips like this. I actually can’t recall them having gone anywhere without kids before this.
But as an angsty 12, soon to be 13-year-old, their telling me that they’d be leaving for their island adventure and missing my birthday, my first teenage birthday, felt like a totally justified reason to give them shit. I do remember making a very big deal of this slight. I cried. I challenged just how much they cared about me. And when they had my mom’s dear friend stay with us for the week, I wasn’t particularly nice to her.
For a very long time, remembering this experience filled me with shame. As I think about it now, it’s easy to see why. Over multiple decades it had been presented to me at family parties and in jovial conversation as evidence, evidence of what I perceived as how self-involved I was.
And that was the narrative of me, at least the one that I perceived as I heard my parents recount to friends and family all the other little anecdotes of my youth – stories of me breaking down when I didn’t get the Christmas gift I was expecting, stories of me being bossy with my little brothers, stories of me talking back to my mom in a tone that they could never have imagined using with their own parents. Look, they seemed to be saying, look how hard you were to raise. Look how challenging you made it.
The 13th birthday Hawaii story had become a favorite though, and I cringe inside every time I hear it, still. But I don’t cringe from the feeling of shame anymore, the way that I used to, when I would be filled with the embarrassment that I had been such an ungrateful and selfish child. Now I cringe in sadness, both for the emerging 13-year-old who wanted to be with her parents on her birthday, and for the girl and woman who followed, believing that desire was evidence of her badness.
Part of the mind-fuckery of doing internal work and attempting to parent in a more emotionally evolved way is that it makes you look back on the hundreds and thousands of examples in your own life where your own parents missed the boat. For me, at least at this stage in the process, that experience doesn’t come with anger and frustration as much as with sadness and grief, though I want to name that anger and frustration are perfectly valid emotions in doing this too.
Maybe I’ve done enough of the work to process my anger around it. Maybe I’ve contextualized how I was raised within the framework of my parents’ own family systems and their collective cultures. Both have been important parts of the journey. So anger isn’t the primary emotion at this point, though I can’t say it’s totally absent when they tell the Hawaii story.
But sadness, yes. I feel a lot of sadness. Because of the work of done, both personally and in my professional training and because our culture has evolved, when I think about a 12-year-old acting out about something like a birthday, I get curious instead of judgmental. I wonder what it means to that 12-year-old to have her parents across an ocean for the first time, how she feels about this milestone seeming to mean more to her than to the ones she loves, what it felt like to be disappointed in a vision for how something would go. I think about her tears not as manipulative, but as part of the well of loneliness that she was carrying at the time. I see her stand-offishness toward her babysitter as a part of her that was trying so hard to shut down her vulnerability so that she wouldn’t be overwhelmed by it.
In short, I see her hurting, and I ache for her.
No, she wasn’t going without food or shelter and she had everything that she needed to be perfectly well cared for – like so many kids didn’t, the implication seemed to be – but she was in some pain, and that deserved to be seen and not mocked. In fact, with everything that I now know, I believe that if that girl had been sat down by her parents and invited to share her feelings without shame, they probably would have dissipated. She might have still missed her parents on her birthday, but she would have felt seen and understood by them, and what a gift that would have been.
We all have our own collection of stories that get told about us. Our parents, or our siblings, or our childhood friends pull out their favorites and we cringe at the ick of them. Often they seem to describe a person we barely recognize anymore, someone so far from who we are that it seems they must be misremembering. Part of this is because we are human, and we evolve. And part of it is because the people we love can get stuck in holding narratives of us that are or were never true.
My dad needed – maybe still needs – to see himself as overcoming the over-the-top feelings of a demanding adolescent. He needs to see himself as a good dad doing his best, which – to be clear – he absolutely was. And so the story he tells to support that internal narrative, to protect that sense of himself, involves casting me in the role of angsty and selfish teen.
We all cast each other in the roles that we need each other to play. My dad is hardly alone in holding an outdated and skewed version of me. And I, especially when in a less healthy and in a more reactive space, hold plenty of these for others in my life too. My ex-husband becomes the “uncaring asshole” when I need him to be to protect my ego or an old boss becomes the unreasonable tyrant. In reality, none of these caricatures are complete. None honor the humanity of the person.
I’ve decided that it is an act of self-care, of self-love and of sovereignty, to set boundaries around the stories that get repeated about me. I can have a conversation with my dad about how this story feels for me, and how while he can maintain his version if he chooses, I won’t have him tell it over turkey and mashed potatoes every single year. If he continues to, I’ll have to decide how to respond to enforce the boundary. If he calls me overly-sensitive or otherwise minimizes my feelings on the matter (and to be transparent and fair, he has not and I don’t expect he would), I would have to use my own self-tending skills to recognize his truth isn’t mine.
And then there are the situations in which addressing the story-telling directly isn’t so much the point, and the more important work is in rewriting the stories for ourselves. Because so often these versions of us are so entrenched in the narratives of others that they have unconsciously become our own, and extracting ourselves from those takes time.
That’s the beauty, though, of inner work. That’s the beauty for those of us doing this work while actively parenting a new generation, as well. We have the opportunity to be for ourselves the new storyteller, the one with so much more context and information, with so much more compassion.