Thursday, November 4, 2010

digging deep

Day 4 truth: what happens to an infant matters later in life.

When a baby is born, there are some pretty basic things it needs: one end kept full, the other end kept empty, warmth, no loud noises, and being held and cuddled and cooed over.

When I was born, I was the sixth child of a single mother 23 years old. I was the only one sired by my father, the first three having one father, the next two another, and then me. No high school education, no job skills, and the year was 1965. Birth control was illegal in Massachusetts back then. A woman in my mother's situation didn't have a lot of choices about how she could support herself. Chances are good she hooked up with men who could take care of her and her kids. My parents never married. Indeed, they split up early in my life. I did not get a lot of regular attention as far as I can tell. What probably happened was I woke up yelling, was changed, given a bottle and stuck in a playpen. When I yelled, chances are the pattern was repeated, but not always, and not regularly.

When I came to live with my father's sister and parents, I was eight months old and could not sit up on my own. I thrived on the love and attention I got there, but some pretty basic lessons had already been learned. Life was not secure. Sometimes I got hungry and nobody fed me. Sometimes my diaper needed changing and nobody did it for a long time. And sometimes I was left alone in my playpen, with no stimulation for a very long time. I was not held or cuddled or nurtured much at all, I bet.

Psychologists tell us that the first year of a baby's life is when she learns that she is loved and safe and that people care for her and keep her warm and fed and dry. I didn't get that until I was 8 months old. Irreparable damage was already done. Much as I absorbed the love and affection and nurturing heaped upon me by my aunt and grandparents, there was an underlying desperation that made me want to crawl inside their skins to be with them and be held and loved. It is only now that I am able to identify and name that need.

I remember when I was little, after my father married and took me away from my aunt and grandmother, how I longed to go back for visits, how I loved to be held and cuddled and hugged when I went! My father and stepmother did not hide their disdain for my need for physical affection, and instructed me not to hug my aunt and grandmother (my grandfather had died by then) like I wanted (needed) to. I was scolded and punished if I was too affectionate with them.

The pattern was set. My source for love and affection and physical touch for my formative years was going to be my aunt and grandmother, and my father controlled when I got to see them and get my need for love met. I don't know whether it was fortunate or not, but my grandmother loved me very much and would insist that I come visit during school vacations. That set things up for me to be used as a pawn. My father extracted all kinds of things from his mother in order for him to bring me to her. He needed money to fix the truck. He couldn't afford my braces, so she paid, and countless other things I heard discussed in tense tones over the telephone in the kitchen as I lay in my bed praying that I please, please, please God, be allowed to go to visit over the holidays.

Thus, love became a bargaining chip, a thing that was withheld as punishment, a thing that could be denied if I misbehaved, or if my grandmother did not pay up. It was never guaranteed. It was always something I didn't dare hope for, for fear of having my hopes dashed. But my heart hoped anyway, and often it was broken. Often I was denied.

I remember wanting my father to love me. God, but I just wanted him to be happy with me, to be proud of me, to tell me he loved me for no reason but I was his daughter and he was glad of it. But it didn't happen.

I still want it.

Inside, I am still a very hurt child who wants her father to love me, to show affection, to hold me just because and to tell me he's proud of me.

As far as I can tell, he has never been capable of that. The truth of the matter is, he probably will never be capable of showing me the kind of love I needed from a father.

And now I have an opportunity to go see him on his birthday. He will be 69 years old. He has Alzheimer's. He's never going to be better than he is now. And what he is now is not great.

This will take some more thinking.

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