Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Gift of a Less Than Wonderful Childhood

A friend recently told me that her daughter -- a freshman at a major university -- will be returning home  to stay this June, dropping out of her dream college and choosing to attend our local community college next year. This decision isn't based on academics. She's a smart kid and has been doing fine, though B's mostly have replaced the A's she used to make in high school. There are no romantic ties luring her back home. The issue isn't money: the family is affluent and can afford the tuition, room and board. She hasn't had any traumatic setbacks, though she hasn't been keen on sharing a dorm room, hates dorm food and hasn't made many friends this year. She just loves the idea of being at home with her parents, her dog and living in her own room once again.

As I listened to my friend's mixture of disappointment and weary acceptance of her daughter's choice, I struggled to understand. Why would a young person give up a chance for an excellent education and the experience of living in a very different, stimulating environment to come back home to dusty, rural Arizona to attend the local community college? Now that she has had a taste of being on her own, why is she heading home?

While I believe that this young woman knows what's best for her -- and it could well be that she just isn't ready to be so far away right now -- or ever -- from those she loves most, I felt a twinge of sadness for her.

I felt sad for her both despite and because of the fact that her parents are so wonderful, her home so beautiful and comfortable, her dog so endearing. With a home atmosphere so inviting, it might well be difficult to break away.

Sometimes, it seems to me, becoming an independent adult is easier when you don't have such wonderful parents. Certainly, parents who encourage a young adult to be independent and who also provide a safety net for those times when he or she truly needs one are the best. The young person can go out into the world, secure with the knowledge that she has a worst case scenario option that isn't bad at all.

But there are some of us who have thrived because we didn't have such an option.

Growing up in a tiny, cluttered, over-crowded house and in a volatile, abusive family atmosphere, I started planning my escape early.

When I was only 8 or 9, I would grab the Sunday want ads and, in a blissful hour of fantasy, would pretend I was a new college graduate and would look for a job, an apartment and a car, totaling up what I could afford and making a practice budget. I dreamed of living and working in New York City - just about as far and as different from L.A. as I could imagine at the time.

And when I actually made the break to go to college -- even though I was scared and cried the first day -- I was in heaven.

I had chosen to go to a college -- Northwestern University in suburban Chicago -- nearly 2,000 miles away from my Los Angeles area home. I had never visited there. I didn't know a soul. I was terrified -- but determined to make a new life for myself, to build a family of friends, to become more independent. And, indeed, all of that happened just as I had planned and dreamed.

It wasn't easy: I worked throughout my college years to supplement my scholarship and loans. The classes were challenging and the atmosphere of Northwestern's famous journalism school was both competitive and supportive. At first, I was stunned and a bit depressed when I realized everyone was at least as smart as I was and I wondered if I'd ever feel special again. But, only a few weeks later, I was excited and happy to be among accomplished peers who were quickly becoming treasured friends.

While other students, who had grown up with rooms of their own, might have bemoaned the sudden lack of privacy, I reveled in the fact that I shared a room with only one other person -- my wonderful roommate Cheryl -- and that I had my own bureau drawers and my own little closet -- a major step up from sharing a tiny bedroom, drawers and closet with my brother and sister.

And dorm food was a major improvement over the fare at home. In bad times, we went to bed hungry.  Even the good times weren't splendid. My mother, mortified by her lack of organizational skills, didn't want an audience in the kitchen and so consistently refused all offers of help in meal preparations. She could never quite make all the elements of a meal turn out at the same time. So we grazed through the evening. "Does anyone want green beans?" she would call from the kitchen. "The meat won't be done for an hour or so and I have to go to the store to get butter for the mashed potatoes, so why don't you all go ahead and eat the green beans now."

At the dorm all the components of a meal were there for my choosing -- main dish with sides and salad -- all at once. And there were bonuses I had never had at home, like crusty rolls and dessert. It was divine.

And while professors could be demanding and some dorm mates harder to like than others, there was no criticism or psychodrama that came close to what I was used to at home.  People could be cranky or indifferent. But they never threatened my life or general well-being. People had good and bad days, but no one had mood swings, screaming rages or physically and emotionally abusive rampages like my father did. There was no constant atmosphere of anxious vigilance and fear. I could breathe. Despite my crammed schedule, I could relax inwardly and feel warm acceptance. I was convinced that I had won the roommate lottery with Cheryl, a delightful kindred spirit, and was truly blessed with a wonderful group of friends.

I felt I was living a very good life.

Looking back, I think I had a significant advantage: my home life was so uncomfortable, so bizarre and, occasionally, so horrific that just about anything -- from a small dorm room to, later on, a grungy studio apartment -- was better.

In fact, my parents' reassurances that if I wasn't happy, I could always come home only increased my resolve to maintain independence.

Once, two weeks into graduate school at Northwestern, I had a banner bad day: I found out -- through a classmate I had never liked -- that the love of my life had fallen in love with someone else over the summer and was now engaged, a fact that he had yet to share with me. And a visiting professor who didn't know any of us well mistook me for another student and screamed at me in front of everyone that I had no writing talent whatsoever. I was totally shocked. I was already selling articles to national magazines. I had won a special award at graduation the previous June. My classmates clustered around me and told the professor "There must be a mistake!" There was.  And, when he discovered his mistake, there was no apology, just more yelling, this time at the poor soul who was the real target of his displeasure.

Angry, shaken and generally distraught, I rushed back to my apartment and called my mother in tears. She spoke the magic words. "Oh, Sweetheart," she said. "You could get a perfectly good job without a Master's degree. Why put yourself through this? You know you can always come home."

My tears dried up instantly. "No!" I cried, a bit more vehemently than I had meant to. "I can't...I have to finish. I just can't come home...."  I could feel my mother's puzzlement over the phone. But the fact was that no matter how hard life was or would be during that difficult year, the thought of going home was infinitely worse.

And while my brother Mike, sister Tai and I sometimes talk about what our lives might have been like and what more we might have achieved with less pain and hardship in our shared childhood, it occurs to me lately that those of us with less than wonderful childhoods may well have some unique advantages in making our way through life.

  • Freedom has a much broader meaning for us.  As young adults, and even later on, we celebrate our freedom from fear and abuse and chaos as fervently as our freedom to make our own choices. And we've learned to treasure all of these freedoms throughout our lives.
  • We don't expect others to be perfect. After a childhood with extreme behaviors all around us, roommate (and later, spouse) personality quirks or habits that might unhinge others don't register with us. While most of us don't seek out friends and partners sharing the dysfunction of our families of origin (though some do feel drawn to the horribly familiar, consciously or not), we also tend not to be quite so picky about personal habits. Unlike some bickering couples on the Dr. Phil Show, we tend not to go ballistic about towels not hung our preferred way or toothpaste tubes squeezed in the middle. Our requirements are different. My own personal tolerance limits are simple: I don't want to be with someone who doesn't treat me kindly and I could never tolerate a partner who, like my father, was addicted to alcohol or drugs. But I don't require friends or my husband to share my political or religious beliefs or all of my interests or inclinations.
  • Our motivation can be fierce and undeterred by setbacks. Our freedom feels hard won and we may be more motivated than most to maintain it. While moving back home during a time of financial, occupational or relationship upheaval may be an option, our horror at such a prospect may keep us moving forward. Thus, I was able to grit my teeth and stay on for my journalism Master's at Northwestern. It was one of the worst years of my life -- mostly due to my unrequited love for a classmate and a truly punishing work schedule in addition to school -- but fleeing back to L.A. would have felt much worse. And I would have missed some valuable lessons in writing and in life. 
  • We are infinitely grateful for small -- and not so small - things. We don't take freedom or happiness or functional relationships for granted -- ever.  To this day, I find myself thankful for the quiet -- either the silence of solitude or the comfortable feeling of quiet time shared with someone dear. I'm still grateful for the freedom to plan and organize my own time. I continue to treasure time with friends (as well as with my husband, my siblings and cousins) -- time to get close, time to hang out, time to laugh and enjoy each other -- all pleasures that tended to be elusive when I was at home and not allowed to have friends over or to spend much time with them outside of school. As a young adult, I treasured the freedom to be myself, to discover who I was outside of my troubled family of origin -- and that still means so much and has also enabled me to embrace anew the surviving members of my family  - Mike, Tai and my cousins Caron, Jack and George. 
 One college summer when I was uncomfortably back at home and working, my sophomore year suitemate Lorraine and her new husband Bruce stopped by my parents' house while honeymooning in California. My parents wouldn't let any visitors in their house, so we sat out on the front porch, talking and laughing. My mother quietly joined us for a time. Later, after Lorri and Bruce had left, she smiled at me: "I had no idea what a sense of humor you have," she said, with a trace of wonder. "I'm seeing a whole new part of you now with your friends. I guess it has been hard to express yourself freely here. And I guess it's hard to find much to laugh about here at home, too. I'm so glad you have a place -- and friends -- where you can laugh -- and be yourself."

I looked at her with gratitude and love and a touch of sadness. For, in that moment, we both knew that I could never, ever really come home again.


  1. What a poignant, wise piece. You truly know how to recognize the good that's nearly always there, even if only in tiny amounts, in any bad situation. And what a wonderful thing for your mom to get to see you blossom and recognize it.

  2. Computer wouldn't let me comment. I will try again. I am so impressed that you turned negatives into positives. So sad however that your mother realized that your home life was not a place for humor and enjoyment. That would be hard to bear.

  3. Kathy, this is so wise, so warm. You have a magic combination in your prose, a good dose of personal narrative to make your point-a singular voice guiding the reader through-and a clear sense of what is needed under the circumstances.

    I can see how your young readers from Seventeen ate up your posts.
    (We do too!)

  4. I have never looked at it from your perspective ... I certainly will now. Thank you for writing this, for sharing with us.

  5. I love close families and I think every one learns that times change. The old have to give some and the young have to take some. I think if families stuck together its easier in the long run. Your children don;t have to be dumped in day care. Every one shares with the bills. They young can save more for later. Someone is home when you go on vacations. Lots of reasons to stay home and if you move move somewhere close so family can meet for dinners and such. Today its not a good thing people do. They move away and its like you never had kids or family so then what's the point. May as well be single and live your life and die alone. It's the same thing except better cause you live just for yourself. Lol

  6. Very interesting! We certainly are a mix of where we come from and our goals/dreams!

  7. Very interesting, Kathy... I have gotten criticized all through the years because of the way I raised my 3 sons. I was a single parent working hard to make ends meet. I was ambitious and was able to go to graduate school gradually and get my master's degree---even while raising my kids. They were my 'life' ---yet not ALL of it.

    I taught my sons about independence and working hard, even when they were young. All of my boys worked during high school. My goal was to provide for them the best I could and then set them out of this big ole world --with my love and blessing...

    There is no way that I would ever have allowed my kids to move back home once they were on their own. They knew that --and all have done well.

    But--as I said above, I have friends whose ENTIRE life revolves around their kids--no matter what age they are... These parents almost seem to become addicted to their children --and want them HOME...

    I think that is so sad... Kids need to be taught independence and maturity, which helps them to grow up and be able to stand on their own two feet.

    I've heard of many college kids moving back home... And, in most cases, the parents have encouraged this.....????? Makes no sense to me.

    I was THRILLED to leave home when I went away to college... AND--I seldom went back. Even during the summers, I either went to Summer School or worked.... I adored my parents and had their support, yet I loved being independent.... There definitely needs to be a good balance.


  8. Every time I read about your childhood by heart aches for you. I too had a rough child hood but sadly yours was worse.
    You always amazes me how you were able to not only survive but turned everything around and now look what you have accomplished in life. How I wish I had been like you and stayed in college.
    I admire you Dr. Kathy so much and thank you again for writing about what has to be painful for you to write.
    Isn't it something what your mother saw when you came home.
    My mother would never admit to anything like that.
    Have a wonderful week

  9. I have never thought about it this way. Something to ponder ...

    1. If you feel like answering, I have thought of two things I would like to ask. First, do you think this is a North American phenomenon? (and how do kids in your sister-in-law's home country fare with seeking independence, because the family is very important there, is it not?) And second, what advice would you give new parents on how to encourage independence yet remain supportive?

  10. This is truly a touching piece. It really gives one insight to disfunctional families. It is good reading for all of us, as all families are disfunctional in some way. It is good to be reminded that the human spirit can still rise above major hurdles in one's way.
    I always enjoy your writings. I hope it gave you some peace that your mother was able to see you find happiness and freedom.

  11. Interesting idea. I've also pondered what would create the best environment to achieve maximum potential.

  12. Thank you for all your insightful, compassionate comments! I so appreciate what all of you have to say -- from those celebrating close, warm extended families to those who commented on my own situation -- which was helped greatly by the fact that my mother supported my independence and realized that I had to leave home in order to thrive.

    Specifically, Jenny O -- you have some very interesting questions! I think that independence as we define it is a North American phenomenon. Immigrant families and families in most parts of the world view family togetherness quite differently.

    My sister in law, who comes from a rural area of northern Thailand, says that family is everything in Thailand. That doesn't necessarily mean that all generations live together all the time. For example, when she was a small child, Amp lived with her grandparents in their Upcountry small town while her young parents went to Bangkok to work and save money so that they could buy land to farm up north. Her sister, who is eight years younger, grew up after their parents were more affluent and lived with her parents from day one. Both Amp and her sister moved away from the family to attend college in Bangkok. When Amp had graduated and was working, she lived very modestly -- in a dorm-like setting -- so that she could save money for her sister's college tuition. I've noticed that she feels strongly about offering unconditional love to family and never, ever criticizes anyone in her extended family or ours. She always has something positive to say about all of us -- and anticipates caring for us in our dotage. For her, it's a no-brainer. That's just what one does.
    A lovely example for sure!

    I think, by expressing love and support while encouraging independent thought and action is the best thing parents can do for them kids -- besides, of course, loving each other.

    1. Thank you, Kathy, I appreciate the reply to my questions. I, too, love the example set by your sister-in-law and her entire culture with regard to families. They have their priorities in order.

  13. I love to visit your blog and read your posts that are full of wisdom from someone who has lived through experiences that some of us can relate to and others find interesting to read about and ponder.

  14. A most thoughtful post, Kathy. I had the great family and went to school in town -- and indeed, lived here after and still do. I don't recommend it. My parents were very protective and a bit needy. Wonderful, fun people -- but they didn't know how to let go, and I didn't want to hurt them by leaving. Daily calls (sometimes more than once) were a little constricting and as my dad aged and needed me more, would panic when he couldn't find me. I don't regret that time and being here for him, but there were dreams deferred that were never pursued. I suspect if I'd done my theatre major out of town, I may or may not have continued in that career path, but I probably wouldn't have come home. Good or bad and who is to say? I don't suppose there is a right answer, but it is indeed a mixed blessing and a bit of a dilemma.

  15. How wonderfully written, and how right you are, Kathy. While my early childhood was lovely, mid-childhood and my teen years were marred by repeated death, moves and alcoholism. I left home a month after graduating from high school and never looked back. Difficult, but you're absolutely right: also a gift.


  16. IN BC We have many ethnic families.
    They live together for convenience sake.
    They save money and then they go and buy expensive homes
    The children marry well and are richly endowed to begin life together. Every one pitches in to help everyone, not just family and every one prospers.
    It helps a lot when you need to fix a pipe, not to have to pay the plumber for example lol
    Other families have kids and they can't wait to leave home for all of the above reasons. They are swamped with bills and side track. Then they have kids and suffer because there is no money. They run to government and make demands which then raises the costs of living for every one.Mean while parents have all this time to give and would love to see their grand children.Then there are those parents who reject family because they want to be free. I never understand these kind of people.
    I took care of my Mother when she had Parkinsons and alzheimers. I was robbed of having this time to enjoy her company but I still enjoyed that she sat there because it gave me comfort knowing I still had family. Once its gone, its gone and you miss it. It's one thing to go away and complain about it because its there but quite another to one day wake up to find you are totally alone.Even if you want to talk to them, you can't.So every minute you have with The people who raised you leaves you with wonderful memories to fall back on when they are no longer there.

  17. Oh Kathy......This was such a great post....and has touched many of us with events from our own childhood's. My childhood home was frightening, abusive, alcoholic and sexually abusive. Oh I can relate. I am convinced that my horrible childhood has made me the strong woman I am today..

    thanks again for this post.


  18. Your wisdom shines through yet again. I wish I would have had your courage at a young age and been more independent. Yet, like you, in many ways I was. I left for college and never really came home again either. I was forced to quit college just before my junior year. (Long story...I will blog about it someday.) The short version is: my financial assistance from my parents was withdrawn; my father came and withdrew me from school, and I was told I must pack and leave with him. This was because they (mostly my mother who manipulated my father) were upset over choices I had made. I had no choice but to leave. I had no financial resources. It never even dawned on me that I could have gone to the college administrators and tried to get assistance, a job, who knows what. In fact, I only wondered why I didn't do that when I was in my early 40's or late 30's.

    My home life had always been comfortable. I had few responsibilities. My father wouldn't allow me to work or to drive. I just didn't have the confidence to strike out on my own when a crisis hit. Instead, I married six months later to a man I just met and left home that way. I should have had the confidence to make it without a father and without a husband, but I was not raised to think that way. I had confidence in myself in almost everything except in being able to provide for myself. I wish we'd been friends back then. Maybe I could have learned a thing or two from you.

  19. I certainly will Send gifts to Pakistan from UK. Thank you for writing this, for sharing with us.