When I was in third grade, I was waiting for my mother to pick me up outside my elementary school after rehearsal for the school play. It was winter and it began to get dark. Despite the fact that my mother was always on time — always — I never seemed able to shake my doubts that she would actually show up. I would wonder what I would do if she never showed up and begin to panic a bit. I felt rather helpless looking out at the dark road, straining to see the unmistakable outline of the family car’s headlights, heading toward me. Only then would I exhale.
My classmate, Jennifer, was also waiting for her mother — and her mother was already half an hour late. Jennifer seemed completely unconcerned while trying to balance on one foot and keep her backpack straight at the same time. When I asked her why her mother was late she paused briefly, shrugged her shoulders and said that her mother was always late. She switched to balancing on the other foot. I stood there, staring at her, wishing I could be so confident that my mother was actually going to show up.
Even my third-grade self could see the irony of Jennifer and I. Her mother was technically unreliable, but Jennifer still had no doubt her mother was coming for her. My mother was technically reliable, but I had serious doubts that my mother would ever come for me. I wondered why.
The short version of my story is that I had a less than peaceful upbringing. Looking back I realize that I did not develop any sense of consistency or stability in the people or environment around me. From the outside it probably looked like the opposite — I grew up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, went to a private school and took piano lessons.
But, my earliest memory is my mother screaming that she was walking out the door and leaving us forever. The “us” she was referring to was me, my older sister and my older brother. We would be playing around, making noise and my mother would tell us to stop. My brother was particularly rambunctious and it never even seemed to occur to him to behave, as if what my mother had to say could not have been directed to him. After several warnings, my mother would completely lose her temper and threaten to leave. As the youngest, I was at an age where I believed her.
My sister and brother, on the other hand, paid my mother no attention. I didn’t understand why they thought she wasn’t serious. When I would run after her begging for her to come back, she would do so only if I promised to tell my sister and brother to behave. I would promise and my mother would smile triumphantly as if she had won. The whole thing felt like a betrayal and a manipulation. I learned to never trust my mother because of this and I kept my guard up around her permanently.
When I was a freshman in high school I was elected as my homeroom representative and was required to attend an overnight, week-long summer leadership program somewhere out in the middle of the state. My heart sank upon learning this, since I had rarely been allowed to be away from home overnight and had not learned how to be comfortable with the idea. On top of it, I felt so ashamed of having this particular problem, because I knew there was nothing normal about it. Everyone else my age had years of experience of being away at Girl Scouts, summer camps, friends’ sleepovers and visits with relatives and had little concern about being away from home.
My mother drove me to the small college where my leadership camp would be held and dropped me off. She was to return in just five days to pick me up but it might as well have been a year. The next evening we had arranged for me to call her to check in. I realized that when I was calling my mother I wanted to feel reassured that everything was going to be all right and that I was perfectly safe where I was.
The problem was, my mother was not the sort of mother who realized this reassurance is something I needed. I believe that even if she had said something meant to be reassuring I don’t think I would have believed her. She herself was someone who felt unsafe and insecure much of the time and wasn’t one to venture too far past our own living room as a result. She was not an old pro about wonderful adventures like heading off to leadership camp.
How could the feeling of safety and security been instilled in me by someone who didn’t feel it herself? We cannot give what we don’t have.
Every child needs at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult in order to develop a fundamental sense of security and stability in oneself. Some parents are able to provide this. However, many of even the most well-intentioned parents are not able to do so. If these parents didn’t experience a stable and committed relationship in which to develop their own sense of stability and consistency, they cannot model that behavior for their own children. And so on and so on.
I think it is normal for any child heading off into the unknown to have some anxiety and homesickness. However, the part that turned my situation from basic homesickness to full-blown anxiety was my sense that I didn’t have a solid foundation — anywhere. The irony is, the less children feel they have a solid foundation, the less comfortable they feel venturing out into the world. The more solid of a foundation they feel, the more comfortable they feel venturing out into the world.
I felt incredible grief while sitting on that phone with my mother, searching for clarification of why I felt that way — and searching for the words to tell her what I needed. I needed her to be my mother — the person who tells me everything is going to be all right and the person who I could trust in implicitly. I needed to have the kind of confidence in my mother’s abilities so that even if I were to wind up lost in the middle of China, I could trust that she could and would come and find me. I needed to feel that and believe that for a very long time until it became a belief that governed my attitude when venturing out into the world.
Instead, I felt as if I had been left completely alone — in the middle of the vast farmland that was central Pennsylvania. I felt insecure, unstable and with little trust that the people closest to me had any ability to do anything to help me.
When Jennifer’s mother was late, she wasn’t concerned because Jennifer knew and trusted that her mother was coming for her. Her mother must have provided Jennifer with the stability, consistency and commitment her daughter needed — something the imperfection of running late could never threaten.
In contrast, since I never had a sense of stability, consistency and commitment from my mother, and, in fact, experienced instability, chaos and a lack of commitment, even her obsessive punctuality would never convince me that she was there for me when I truly needed her.
What I began to learn from that difficult time in my life going forward was that I could find everything my mother could not give me in myself and in others. I could build my own internal foundation and rely on myself and that would make me feel peaceful and confident enough to venture out into the world as far as I wanted to go.
I also learned that I could find friends, mentors, teachers, counselors, colleagues, extended family, neighbors and romantic partners who, when all pieced together, created for me the support system I really needed.
I began to see a counselor whose calm and steady presence began to feel like a balm for me. We would have really good talks and that fuzzy feeling swirling around me began to come into focus. I learned to identify my own feelings, how to cope with my anxiety and I even learned how to have some fun.
Finding a counselor can take a few tries. Mine seemed interested in helping me and was genuinely happy to see me when I walked into the room. As time went on and I sought her out more and more, I found myself modeling her straightforward and relaxed approach to life. I felt that as long as she was in my corner I could go anywhere in the world and feel like somebody somewhere was looking out for me.
As a result, the person who used to feel so unstable in an unfamiliar environment was now able to venture out into the world with excitement. I was able to internalize my counselor’s view of the world as generally a safe place and have confidence in my own ability to navigate it if it wasn’t safe. 30 years later, I can still be in the middle of nowhere and be perfectly at peace.
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