I am eternally grateful for therapy and my current therapist, but working through some of the stuff in my head is often painful and grueling and not at all fun. But the good part about that is when all that work yields something ultimately insightful and useful. Digging through parental stuff again this morning, I mentioned how I never felt like I fit in with the rest of my family, extended and otherwise. And I realized something that’s obvious in hindsight, but really affected me: no one in my family was interested in my internal life. We didn’t talk about the books I liked to read, or what I was learning in school, or what I loved. I don’t ever remember showing my parents a drawing, or a school paper, or anything I was proud of. I know kids do that–and I have to wonder how old I was when I stopped trying. When did I stop volunteering something I was excited about? How old was I when I realized that no one was interested?
That breaks my heart and makes me so angry. I was such an internally focused kid, with a head full of ideas and daydreams and stories, and none of that seemed to matter. What mattered was how things looked: was my room clean, did I get good grades, was I still fat? I know that my parents were proud of having a smart, good kid. I even know they loved me, and would be horrified to know what their parenting resulted in. But it doesn’t change the fact that no one saw me as a kid.
I learned to keep things to myself. Talking about what I wanted, what I hoped to do, resulted in getting a talk about “reality”. I got super interested in ballet when I was seven or eight, like girls do, and wanted to take classes. I could never be a ballerina, my mom told me, because those girls started dancing much younger than me. It was too late. (With the unspoken: “And besides, you’re fat.” Never mind that dance is, you know, exercise.) There were similar responses to everything I wanted to try, because I “didn’t stick with anything”. When I decided I wanted to take voice lessons in middle school, I got the same thing: “you won’t stick with it”. I agreed to pay for it out of my allowance (it pretty much cost my entire allowance), and got to do it. I paid for those lessons for about a year and a half.
It got worse as I got older. In high school, I wanted more than anything to be an actress. Sure, it’s nothing terribly realistic, but I got some encouragement at school, and I dreamt about it. I mentioned it to my mother and immediately got shot down. I’d never be able to do that, I needed to just worry about getting a job. (“And besides, you’re fat.”) The last time I told her about something I was thinking about doing, I was 29 or 30. I’d finally gone back to school to get my bachelor’s degree (which I still don’t have, for the record) in Literature, and found a professor who was amazing. She praised my ideas and told me I should really think about grad school. I started thinking about it, wondering if maybe academia was a good place for me. I’d often thought about teaching, and so I was considering it. I mentioned it to my mom, and that was one of the biggest fights we ever had as an adult. “You don’t need that much school to get a job.”
Everything, for my mom, came down to “will it help you get a job?” It’s not like I was perpetually unemployed–although I did do a lot of job hopping, I was never unemployed for longer than a couple months, and not that often. But in my mom’s mind, the spectre of “a job” loomed large: getting one, keeping one. She worried from the time I was in high school that I wouldn’t be able to do either. It was one of the sticks she used to try and get me to lose weight, telling me in high school that no one would hire me. (Also on the list: “boys won’t like you”–boys also wouldn’t like me if I didn’t wear makeup every day and always have my hair done. Oops.)
Basically, I stopped telling her much of anything. She barely read any of my writing. I think the only thing she read was a short story I wrote her for Christmas one year. The only time she was visibly impressed with my writing was the first time I got paid for it. Really: my mother didn’t know me. And I didn’t know her.
That hurts. I can make excuses for why it happened all day, but the end feeling is, my mother didn’t recognize me as a person with a full internal life. As long as my life looked okay, then that was all that mattered. “How’s your job going?” That was the question I got asked. It didn’t mean “tell me about a project you love, tell me about your coworkers”. It meant “are you about to get fired?”
The big “lightbulb moment” I had in therapy this morning was that growing up that way, not feeling like anyone was interested in what was going on in my head, has made me very very close mouthed about my interests. It’s made it hard for me to get and keep very close friends, because I don’t know how to have that sort of closeness with someone. It’s getting better, but it’s still a problem. Finding fandom was such a strange feeling, to see all these people talking passionately about their ideas and what they loved–I think that’s why I fell into it so hard, the relief of being able to do that, and finding out that other people cared. I don’t think it’s an accident that the closest friends I’ve made in the past several years have been fandom or fandom-adjacent.
This is one of those realizations that I’m going to have to sit with a while. I can feel like this is a big shift in my head, to finally clearly recognize the patterns I learned early on and how I repeat them, but I don’t know how to dismantle them yet. Or work around them, if they’re hardwired at this point. That’ll be the next step. Or the step after that.
(And yes, I realize the connection between not feeling noticed as a child and wanting to be on stage in front of everyone, and I realize the connection of not having my thoughts recognized, and turning to writing–which is really just another form of performance.)