I will never forget the moment when I heard a friend of mine, a young mom-to-be, look down at her growing belly and utter these words:
I can’t wait to meet my daughter and find out who she is!
I’ll be honest – I looked right at her, scanning her face for the telltale signs she was really an alien in disguise.
Disappointed at not finding any such signs, I asked her to share more about what she meant. Delighted at crossing paths with such an eager audience, she went on to say:
Well, like, I really wonder what she will be good at and what she will like to do. Most of all, I can’t wait to find out and help her grow up into the person she was always meant to be.
In that moment, I felt a heartache so keen I could barely breathe. It was like I was Moses, exhausted from traveling and yearning for the “promised land” of home, and yet doomed to be forever marooned right outside the gates because it was apparently “God’s will.”
The thing is, when I was growing up, parenting standards were somewhat….different than the mindset my young pregnant friend had expressed. Or at least they were quite different in my household.
For example, in my family, you didn’t wait until later to find out who you were. No way. Those kinds of important questions needed to be answered as far in advance as possible, to leave as much time as possible left over for actually becoming that person.
In my case, it sometimes felt like who I was had been decided on before I even arrived, and if I wasn’t in full agreement, it was my own fault for not reading the fine print more carefully.
Also, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be the exemplary, hardworking, straight-A student and all-around exceptional overachiever my parents had in mind when I was conceived. I did want that – who wouldn’t want that – to make their parents proud and happy? Plus, life would have been SO much easier for me in every way if I could have pulled that off.
It was just….well, for starters, there was math. What the heck?! Not to mention science. If someone was going to dissect that huge stinky dead frog, it certainly wasn’t going to be me.
And let’s not even talk about sports. Physical education class was just one humiliation away from my next humiliation (I mean, it makes perfect sense that if someone throws, hits or kicks something in your direction, the best response is to duck and/or run, right?).
Cooking, my mom’s passion and special gift, evoked only fairly equal parts boredom and ineptitude.
As for social skills….here, it is a documented fact that, upon entering kindergarten for the first time and seeing all those other people there, I actually tried to squeeze inside my newly assigned locker to hide (sadly, I didn’t fit).
Fashion proved equally problematic. If I liked an outfit a lot, I didn’t see anything wrong with wearing it every day. Out in public. Where all my classmates could see.
My favorite attire was to put on every skirt I owned followed by a long orange tutu and go to school like that. I felt just like a ballerina. Sometimes I would also cover my hair with a long white slip so I could have “long hair.” (It goes without saying here that neither of these looks ever caught on with my peers.)
Literature, my one acknowledged strength, should have redeemed me somewhat. Unfortunately, these courses were typically scheduled during the morning sessions when night owl-me was still quite sleepy….
In short, I was “different.” I was different than my parents planned for me to be, different than what my teachers expected, different than my peers, just different.
So there was a lot of disappointment to go around during my growing up years.
But then, thankfully, my brother arrived to redeem me. He was outgoing and social, a straight-A student, loved sports and was actually somewhat keen to learn to cook. He was also a “morning person” like my mom, so the two of them working together was like four or 40 of me during those early a.m. cooking sessions.
Meanwhile, year in and year out, I just stayed different.
My favorite toys growing up were a small beanbag lobster and the long kitchen telephone cord. For pets, I had one parakeet and five turtles. Star Wars was my abiding passion, and every year for Halloween I dressed up like Princess Leia yet again. But I really wanted to be a boy, and specifically I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, savior of the galaxy and destined for a grand adventure reserved solely for me.
But try as I may have to make that (or anything less awkward than who I naturally was) happen, I just continued to stay me. All throughout the years I struggled with anorexia and bulimia, through the subsequent world travels and then a return home to multiple menial jobs and ongoing bouts of crippling yet carefully hidden depression and anxiety, I continued to remain me to the core.
In the many consecutive years when I didn’t like who I was, I was still me. And today, now that I finally mostly do like who I am, I am still me.
But today, who I am and how I am wired makes perfect sense. And today, miraculously, my parents seem to like who I am too.
I guess the reason I’m sharing this is because, truly, I wanted SO badly to conform, to live up to others’ expectations and dreams, to ease their anxiety and worry about how I would “turn out,” to participate in life in “normal” ways, to become a mainstream part of mainstream society.
There was just one problem. I couldn’t do it. For the life of me, every time there was even the barest whisper of normalcy wafting into my life, I would go and do something way out in left field that even I couldn’t logically explain.
I couldn’t help myself, and I think the reason for that is because that was just me being me.
Not so long ago, my boyfriend and I finally watched a movie I’ve been so keen to see called “The Glass Castle.” Based on the best-selling book by the same name, the movie retells author Jeanette Wall’s story of growing up in a vagabond family where the kids were actually encouraged to swim upstream, go against the grain of society, cultivate vision, do things differently.
This remarkable story was heart and gut-wrenching to watch, but also felt marvelous and limitless at times. “What if….” I kept thinking to myself as we watched.
What if, instead of being cooped up in a crowded, cluttered and claustrophobic public school classroom for decades on end in the name of “education,” I was able to learn in my own unique way under a wide open blue sky in a space where all learning styles were equally valued?
What if my parents hadn’t cared so much who I turned out to be, so long as I didn’t try to turn myself into someone I clearly wasn’t?
What if my siblings (well, sibling in my case) had collaborated instead of competed with each other for every last solitary thing?
What if there were no “winners” or “losers” but only unique, precious souls, each with their own perfect place in the world and vital role to play?
Of course, in Jeanette Walls’s case, there was also the tragedy – the hunger, the rodents, the alcoholic father, the absentee parenting, the shame, the guilt, the fear….but it was equally clear these elements of her early life also made her so very incredibly strong.
And to tell you the truth, my early life, while quite different from hers, also made me so very incredibly strong.
But I still can’t cook. I still duck when anyone throws, hits or kicks anything at me. I still rely on a calculator for even the most basic mathematical computations. I am still a born introvert, mostly perfectly content to spend my days working from home in my jammies with my parrot, Pearl, and my turtles, Malti and Bruce and my nights tucked in under the covers with a good book in hand.
In other words, I am still, to this very day, me to the core.
After my brother and I graduated from college, my mom went back to work as a teacher. One day she went to a job interview, only to discover that my first grade teacher was now that school’s principal.
The principal remembered me. My mom got the job on the spot. When my mom told me about it, she also mentioned that the principal had at one point asked her, “How did you parent a daughter like Shannon who was so different?”
My mom’s answer was to say she basically picked her battles and let me go my own way on most things.
My perception was so different – even with as much apparent freedom as I was given, I craved so infinitely much more to the point where I often felt like I couldn’t breathe with all the rules, restrictions, regulations, routines and so forth of daily life at home, at school, at church, at the grocery store, everywhere.
But looking back now after 47 years on this planet, I see it was always likely to come to this very point, or someplace quite similar. I just can’t be anyone other than me.
I also figure this must mean the same holds true for each of us. We might try for a time, and even convince ourselves for awhile, that we have succeeded in becoming everything our parents/partners/friends/professors/bosses/et al want us to be.
But at some point, and for some of us maybe without even wanting to or realizing it, we will inevitably become ourselves once again.
And ultimately, this is a very good thing.
Today’s Takeaway: Have you ever at any point in your life felt like everything about you made you stick out in awkward and uncomfortable ways? Like no matter what you said or did or wore or studied or got a job doing, it really didn’t matter, because you were going to stay you no matter what you tried? Did you like who you were growing up – did your parents like who you were? Do you like who you are today? Are you glad to be you?