I was raised with the notion that bodily needs, all bodily needs, were, at best, an inconvenience and, at worst, a sign of moral degeneracy. I was the second of two rather docile girls, born five years apart. Since my mother didn’t work outside the home she had time to keep us immaculate. We were bathed, sometimes twice a day, even as big kids. We washed toys that fell on the floor. We fought daily battles with invisible germs that lurked everywhere. Since I was not allowed to play on the floor, I apparently spent my toddler years either in a high chair, crib, or playpen. Apocryphal stories have it that I was potty-trained at nine months. The message that came through to me was that the body, with all of its annoying flaws and weaknesses, was to be either suppressed or subjugated, at times rather mercilessly.
I once explained to a colleague that Bob and I had both experienced difficult childhoods. I said that Bob had World War II, and I had…my mother. In retrospect, I believe that she was the most anxious human I have ever known who was living an apparently normal life. When a parent is intensely anxious, a child has no choice but to feel it. The child is not capable of processing it mentally—explaining it, making sense of it, recognizing that it belongs to the other person and not to her. It is overwhelming to the child—overtaxing her mind, her body, and her senses. It may engender in her a continuing state of trauma. This is because a parent is playing out her anxiety in the ways that she holds a child, changes her diapers, and embraces her stiffly or not at all. It is reflected in a tone of voice that is shrill or too rapid. The caretaking parent is the only world the small child knows. If that parent is frantic much of the time, the child perceives the world as a dangerous place wherein she must protect herself as best she can.
My relationship with my mother was only one piece of the story. In retrospect I realize that her frantic behavior was in part an attempt to compensate for my father’s failings. Like many men and fathers of his generation, he communicated very little in an interpersonal way. He was a successful attorney and was a good provider, but outside the courtroom and those highly charged meetings with colleagues or legal adversaries, he would lapse into silence. Occasionally, he would order us around in that huge bass voice, or tell interminable stories that we’d heard a hundred times before. But when it came to quiet give-and-take conversations or listening, especially to his little daughters, he seemed clueless, unable even to begin.
There is much about my relationship with my father that I cannot retrieve. It is lost in the dim recesses of memory. Yet it has affected me greatly, leaving deep emotional scars that I have spent many years trying to repair. The early scars are often the most difficult to mend. They can become entrenched in that irrational “child-brain” that we all possess, and from there exert enormous power while they remain inaccessible to ordinary logic. So it was with my image of my father. Though powerfully built, he was not a large man, but to me, as a small child, he seemed huge. He was domineering, with a gruff and frightening voice that commanded to be obeyed. He wasn’t around a lot of the time, and when he was, he waved me away from the legal briefs he was working on. He seemed to lack the capacity to provide tender and appropriate affection to his small daughter. To my child-brain he became less a loving father than a fearful presence. I had little data to prove otherwise.
How does our “child brain” affect our parenting? How does it play out when your mother was a “clean freak” and you are parenting for sons? It’s not always pretty! Next time: Bob’s childhood in Nazi-occupied Prague.