I was asked recently at a grief counseling session whether my missing people who have died might be tied to other events in my life. Thinking aloud, I mused that I struggle with a chronic feeling of not being enough, and wondered whether it was due to a feeling I often had in junior high and high school that my parents had more important demands on their time. I still can’t help looking with envy at kids whose parents lives rotate around them like merry go rounds, attending every game and school activity of their precious progeny. I read their glowing Christmas letters bragging about the minutiae of their lives and wonder whether it was my moral bankruptcy that caused little notice to be paid. My memory is that when I won the social studies and language student of the year award as a high school freshman, my parents were not in attendance. Whether that is the case and how much of my memories are selective, I don’t know.
Recently my step father was doting on his grandson, telling me about his stint on the debate team in high school. A few days earlier, I had sat for hours listening to my aunt, who regularly waxes nostalgic about her wonderful children, without whom she would surely die from neglect. Despite the fact that I regularly visit and listen to her ad infinitum, she never recognizes or thanks me for that. Normally I don’t need thanks, but her glowing words about her compassionate progeny leave me cold. Especially because they are anything but to me, not even bothering to respond to repeated requests to get together.
Back to my step father. I’d had enough of being silent, and decided to self advocate. I told him I’d been on the high school debate team in 1976, debating creation of a comprehensive federal energy policy. My partner and I won many debates. I described participating on the high school speech team in impromptu and extemporaneous events. In one particular extemporaneous event, boys and girls competed in the same pool. Normally, genders would compete separately. I had the sense that they thought boys would have an unfair advantage. I had to ride my bike 45 minutes to Blackford High, and ended up winging the tournament. I’m not sure my mom ever knew, as both parents were very distracted at that time (they had just divorced).
I can’t imagine how hard it must be for kids now who experience fierce competition just to get into college. I didn’t have any anxiety about doing well, as my parents didn’t ride me about grades. It probably didn’t hurt that I got straight A’s, was enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, played classical piano and clarinet for five years, as well as participating in marching band, theater, track and cross country, field hockey, soccer, tennis (played Varsity as a freshman), Girl Scouts, long distance cycling (I competed in 100 mile rides regularly), and had Spanish and French language fluency. Yet I was and continue to be plagued by a great sense of inadequacy, the feeling that my accomplishments meant nothing, and more significantly that I can’t rest on my laurels and am not accomplishing enough now. I think my parents did the best they could for me, and my mom in particular wanted to make sure that I was a happy child with good self esteem. She tells me that that was her question to my teachers during parent-teacher conferences, not how well I was performing academically.
Looking back, I felt tremendously abandoned when my father left my 12th year to start a new life in San Francisco. Even though his treatment had been punctuated by verbal abuse and rage, I pined for him. Despite his temper and the arbitrary way he meted out punishment, I was very close to him as a child and would follow him around, helping him fix things, garden, anything. For most of my sixth grade year, I sat alone on the back steps of the classroom during lunch and recess. I was inconsolable. Not only had I lost my dad, but my mother, a strong intelligent woman, fell into a deep depression at the same time. She had just finished a masters degree at Stanford in Environmental Engineering when my father left, and with new job responsibilities, had less time to spend tracking my activities. Nevertheless, I know she did her best. It was a hard time, and we were both in survival mode.
Last night before bed, I read a few lines of a letter my mom had written on my birthday some years back. I keep it framed next to my bed. Her letter ends with these words: “Thank you dear Lisa for being who you are. I love you with all my heart.” My eyes filled with tears, remembering how it hurt that she hadn’t been able to be there for me.
Oh Lisa, this is so hard. Hugs.
I will say that having parents seem to love you for your accomplishments may not be all it is cracked up to be either. I see a lot of that today–parents kvelling about this or that award or trophy or college acceptance or whatever– and kids also chafe under the high expectations and fear of failure and not living up that can ensue.
My own feeling is that you’re right, achievements aren’t enough. It’s because achievements aren’t what really matters. And you aren’t only your achievements and accomplishments, you are so much more than that. You are enough.
Thanks Karen. I appreciate your words. I can attest to the painful aspect of feeling like only one’s accomplishments are what makes one good. I got that message too, not sure how. I chafed under fear of failure, and still do. I used to have the statement “I am enough” on my mirror. To counter that feeling.
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Listening and sending hugs… I have had trouble with over-enmeshment of a narcissistic rageful parent… it can be hard to try to love them through their anger, and through not being Seen as more than a piece of them. You are a worthy person whether or not your parents see it!
Thanks Geri – my empathy towards you as well. You’re right, one’s worth is inherent. Just learning how to internalize that.