Last week I read some comments after an article about Oliver Sacks, the recently late brilliant and influential neuroscientist and physician, and his lifetime of chastity and abstinence.
The article detailed that when he was quite young, 12, his mother excoriated him after she learned he was gay. This blast fell on the heels of a conversation his mother had with his father. It turns out his father had betrayed him after he’d promised he wouldn’t share Oliver’s confession that he made during an earlier discussion about the birds and the bees and young Oliver’s budding sexuality.
According to the article, the conversation went along the lines of:
Dad: You don’t seem to have any girlfriends. Do you like girls?
Oliver: no; not especially. I like boys, but I’ve never acted on it. It’s just a feeling I have.
The resulting excoriation from his mother, to Oliver’s face was, “You’re an abomination. I wish you had never been born.”
I admired Dr. Sacks, I didn’t know he was gay; it didn’t matter. Why should it? The man was a gifted and loving observer of humanity and his work provided immense insight into who and what and why we are.
The comments on the article were mostly sympathetic to Dr. Sacks and conveyed a sense of tragedy for his life; that his mother could be so hateful. Lots of people, cited an irony in Dr. Sacks’ inability to move past his mother’s comments: he was quite adept at psychology and through his study and life experiences he clearly might / could / should have been able to see his mothers’ comments for what they were: a projection of her self-loathing and rigidity. Her comments had nothing to do with Sacks himself, they were about her.
Then later on the thread, someone said that those who’d never been chastened by their mothers in the severity of Dr. Sacks clearly was, will never be able to understand the carriage and shame and weight from a mother’s words.
I found myself nodding softly in agreement, while I also felt a pull in my gut.
Mothers say some pretty mindless shit. My mother was no exception. To the people out there who knew my mother and were fans and supporters of her, I will repeat my refrain: she was complicated, you aren’t her daughter, you didn’t live with her and you really didn’t know her.
I had a neighbor who told me (without any irony at all) that her son didn’t know his name was James because she and her husband always referred to him as “boy” so when she was calling him one time when he was about FIVE(!), he never responded until she fumed, “Boy! I’m calling you! Don’t you hear me?” and he got up and said, “I only now just heard you call me; who’s ‘James’? Is someone here?”
Right? I also know someone who thinks that calling his kid “psycho” is a nice nickname. Yet they wonder why the child is so unpredictable and wild and summarily come down on him when he is.
I will concede that no one is all of one thing and none of another. We are kaleidoscopic.
I hear Dr. Sacks’ mother’s words in my head, it’s like they are large, black, heavy and broad: like the Chicago Daily Tribune’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline. Oops. While my mother never said things that severe, there were some pretty heavy contenders. But now I know the truth about my situation and her condition, and I don’t carry that stuff with me anymore and I’ve released it.
However, I am brought back, swiftly, to moments when *I* say really stupid and reactive things to my children. The level of things I say aren’t even close, but I do say stupid things like, “Please try to act like a normal person and _____ ___ _____.” Or, “You’re crazy, there is no ____ ___ ______.”
Why? Why do I say such stupid shit?
Do you remember when you were younger, a child? You wanted appreciation and acceptance from your parents; it’s the same for our kids from us. All our kids want is for us to see them. We don’t have to agree with them, we just have to see that they are their own people and to accept that they likely will think and do a whole bunch of stuff that we mightn’t agree with or care for.
That’s on us.
It can be exhausting to not be a dick. It takes awareness and mindfulness to not react like a horrible human being. If you’re unkind to yourself, you will become unkind to others. It’s only natural. And if you have kids, count on it that you will be unkind (a dick) to them.
“Until we have met the monsters in ourselves, we keep trying to slay them in the outer world. And we find that we cannot. For all darkness in the world stems from darkness in the heart. And it is there that we must do our work.”
― Marianne Williamson, Everyday Grace: Having Hope, Finding Forgiveness And Making Miracles
If our kids end up doing things we don’t expect as a traditional (conservative?) thing: getting a tattoo, a piercing, eloping, coming out, making performance art, dropping out of ____ school, dating someone we don’t like, preferring another parent over us, marrying someone we don’t like, running for office, buying a gun, advocating pro-choice, canceling out our vote… our reaction is ours.
Some of this stuff comes out of us because we feel a certain way about ourselves, and that’s a deep habit we need to unbraid. Before saying something caustic and life-changing to our kids (or simply adding to the verbal crap we’ve unwittingly heaved on to them because we don’t hear ourselves) we need to take a pause and learn to watch the things we say not only to our children, but to ourselves. When we can hear what we say to ourselves and put into practice the art NOT saying it, then we will find we can be smarter and kinder with our kids.
Wake up…our kids are teaching us. Get out your red pen and edit yourself.