Saturday, October 30, 2010

Give me a rudder to steer by

Hi Everyone,
I do so enjoy reading other people's Meme's. Skippy and Teresa have been writing Memes lately. Hearing them talk in detail about their lives helps me to know them better. I really love that.

So I am going to write about how I grew up in the face of some difficult circumstances.

Recently I have been reading Barack Obama's autobiography, "Dreams of my Father". I am up to the part where he is about 15. He is living in Hawaii with his grandfolks, who are white, and he is going to a school where all but 2 other students are white. His mother is white. His father is black, but he lives in Kenya. Barack is struggling with the usual adolescent questions: "who am I?" and "what shall I do for a career?" But he is also struggling with the question of how to grow up as a black man without role models. He is ambitious, but he must struggle very hard to forge an identity for himself that is not as a 'pretend' white man, and also not a hostile (disempowered) black man. At this point in the story, he says, "I realized I was utterly alone."

In the family I grew up in, I was the eldest child. My mother suffered from depression throughout my upbringing. Her condition went undiagnosed. Even if it had been diagnosed, in those days (the 1970s) there were no straightforward medications, such as there are nowadays. My mom's depression meant that she was generally gloomy. She had trouble making friends, so she was very isolated. Her moods went up and down. Something that you did might make her laugh one day, but then if you did it again the next day, she might yell at you. My mother was extremely cranky and touchy, not to mention critical. By the time I was 6 years old, I figured out that I could get in trouble for making any kind of noise, even for laughing. I realized this was unfair.

My mother had three daughters in 3 years. We were a lively bunch, and we fought bitterly for attention and affection. Mom should never have had so many children. My mother told me many times, "If you have any sense when you grow up, you will NEVER get married, and you will NEVER have children."

She also used to say, "You make my life miserable."

My father worked hard. He was kind to us kids and very affectionate. He lived with constant anxieties that were rooted down deep in his childhood. He rarely spoke about his upbringing, except to say that he grew up in poverty, and that his father returned from the war a stranger who drank every weekend and beat the kids. At night, my Dad had nightmares and he would get up and run out to the living room, to chase imaginary burglars. In the 1970s my Dad started eating. He ate and ate. Entire pints of milk. Gallons of ice cream. I don't know what drove him to eat so much. His stomach got bigger and bigger, like a huge Santa Claus. Then, there was a health crisis. Ever since, my Dad has been on a diet. I remember my childhood as a series of chapters named after Dad's diets. There was "Dr Atkins" (1977-1979), during which I woke up every morning to the smell of frying steak. Later, there was "Mediterranean" (1980-1983), during which Dad used a pressure cooker to cook the heck out of beans and lentils. The pressure cooker let out great hissing eruptions from a valve on top of its lid. It never actually burned anyone, but it sure sounded terrible. My Dad is still on a diet to this day, but I do not know what it is called.

I was the kind of kid who always wore clothes that were un-ironed, stained, or missing important buttons. Our house was dirty and chaotic, with far too many animals. My mother cut our hair. My least favorite thing about school was the playground. I could not for the life of me figure out how to play with other kids. I was scared of some people. The games seemed nonsensical to me. Sometimes I was stupid enough to say so, which did not make me popular.

I dearly longed to return to the classroom and sit as close to the teacher as possible, preferably on her lap, although this rarely happened because I did not want to look like a baby.

By the time I was 11, I had figured out that one the thing that I could do to get praise from my parents was do well in school. I had no idea how to study. But in school I was bright and I loved learning. This was my 'umbrella' in a world where not much else was going right. I had also figured out that my mom did not like me very much. In fact, the older I got, the more my personality seemed to irritate her. I was growing up to be a happy, confident young girl who enjoyed singing, acting, public speaking, and playing music. What is so bad about that?

My Mom decided that we should all go to private school. This was the all-time worst decision she ever made. My Dad of course could not afford it. I got a scholarship, which paid some of the tuition. No doubt she used this to whittle down his resistance. It was a bad decision from all points of view:
1. It was a very long commute (1.5 hours each way).
2. It was not actually a great school, in fact it was antiquated in many ways, and it had a terrible snobby atmosphere.
3. It alienated my Dad, who played no part in the decision, and it made him feel irrelevant.
4. It forced me to conform to a mold that did not fit me.

From the time I started junior high school at age 11, I was completely alone. Every morning it was my job to get up at 6am. I had to get dressed, do my hair, eat breakfast, do my piano practice, and pack my lunch by 6.45am. The bus left at 6.55am. My mother always stayed in bed. My father never spoke to me in the morning as he was frantic with anxiety about getting himself ready for work and leaving on time. (This was normal for him; he is a very anxious person.)

In the evenings, I returned home at 5pm, did my music practice and some homework. I helped my mother get dinner. She was often in a foul mood after her day at work. Dad was not in a good mood either. Interest rates were high, and our mortgage payments had skyrocketed. Sometimes my parents argued about money. Often they hated each other in a way that was silent but very palpable. My Dad had withdrawn from me once I went to the new school. There was no more kindness and no more affection. We had become like roommates, except that sometimes he yelled at me to do my chores.

It would have been nice to have someone to guide me or help me. I was constantly in trouble at school for being disorganized with my homework, my books, and my uniform. I still had no clue how to study. I was bullied at school by quite a few students and even one of the teachers. Before long, I collapsed into myself like a deflated balloon and became extremely shy and remained that way for a few years. I cannot recall much about Grades 7 to 10 at all. Later when I had therapy I realized that it is NOT a good sign to have years of your memory simply missing. It is a sign of trauma. I was destroyed as a person in a way that cut very deep, for a very long time.

I have asked myself many times, "Did my mother do that to me deliberately?" I think the truth is complicated, and it has a lot more to do with her doubts in herself, and not so much to do with me. Now when I spend time with my mother, I see her as a person plagued by doubts. She has realized some of her ambitions (to make a difference to our environment), which gives her confidence. Thanks to antidepressant medication, there is a lighter side to Mom these days, and she can actually be quite funny. She laughs at my jokes, as well. On the other hand, she finds it very hard to communicate with my father. She doubts herself and sometimes she even doubts her own perception of situations. I know this comes from having been affected by depression. It helps me to understand this, because it means she also doubted her decisions as a parent.

What I see nowadays with some of my fellow parents is a deep uncertainty in their own ability to guide their children to adulthood. It is too scary and too hard, expecially if you do not feel completely adequate yourself. Some people believe they can buy this guidance by sending their children to a particular school. I don't for a moment believe it. But I think my mother was out of her depth when it came to raising me and my sisters. I think she made a choice that she thought was going to be for the best. There was a heck of a lot of evidence that it WASN'T going well. But when a person is depressed, they don't necessarily see what's going on for others, and that includes their own children.

When I was 15, I realized, "These people do not have anything more to offer me." What I meant by that was, my parents did not have any of the skills that I sensed I would be needing, to make my way in the world. It was a stark moment.

I started looking for other role models. Something inside me told me I was destined to not only regain the person I used to be (funny, clever, musical, confident), but also become a whole lot more than that. A woman full of warmth; capable of inspiring people. I do not know where that image came from, but it was there.

By the time I left the school, I had started to distinguish myself. I won a creative writing competition run by a large Sydney newspaper. A sum of money was given to the school. They decided to establish an annual prize for creative writing (with my name on it). So to this day, that prize is awarded to some lucky customer. Ironically, the school left its mark on me, but I also left my mark on it.

Somehow, I grew myself up. I like the phrase, "Give me a rudder to steer by." I think we all need a rudder, but sometimes you have to make your own.


  1. it's really something how our childhood can make or break our adulthood if we let it. you and i did not! what an amazing woman you have become.

    and one thing about obama, it bothers me so much that he only talks of being black. he is half white. he never says that. why? why does he SO much not want to be white? i think that is racist. i really do. i think he had the opportunity to meld the races together that is so needed but sadly he did not choose to do so. just my two cents...

    hugs, bee

  2. It makes me sad that your mother told you not to have children and that you made her life miserable. I'm glad you were able to get past that!

  3. Michaela is this is very moving and so sad at times. I like that you have made your own rudder tho' - I think a lot of us did.

    Hugs and love girlie. xoxo

  4. Thanks for sharing this with us Michaela. Such a personal look into your childhood. I am soo sorry you had to go through all that! I am also so impressed that you grew to be the wonderful woman you are now.

    Your mother reminds me of mine... definitely some differences, but a lot of similarities also.
    Do you ever wonder if she sent you to that school because she saw you were growing up to be what she couldn't? Outgoing, confident, ect. and wanted to try and push that down so you would be like her? Misery loves company they say...

    That really had to have hurt for her to say you made her life miserable. No one should ever say that to their child :( You are so very kind and gracious about all of this, realizing it is her disease... I have to try and be more like you in that way (probably in a lot of ways :) )

    Thank you for this post.
    Everyone sure is getting up close and personal huh? I love it too :)


  5. Empress Bee:
    I was thinking about what you said about the president... I thought he claimed both white and black, and hadn't noticed him ONLY talking about being black... I will have to pay attention.

    BUT I was wondering... if he does do it, maybe it's a reaction to how he has been treated by white people. White people DO NOT except a mixed person as white. Never have- never will. So no matter what race they are, they grow up leaning towards the race other than white. It reminds me of the question "What are you?" White people ask that. it's not bad to be curious, I don't mind one bit, but it shows that even if you're half white-you are NOT white. (White people loved to ask me that growing up :) )
    Also, he probably faced a lot of racism from white people. I didn't read the autobiography, but I'm taking a guess, since he was one of only 3 non whites at his school.
    So maybe, if he does this, it's not on purpose? It's just who he is and has always felt he was?

    I agree that this is an unprecedented chance to TRY and 'meld the races' and I hope that he tries a little harder... do I think it will make a difference? That's a whole nother story :)

    But I guess my point is: If he calls himself black, I don't really blame him at all... and in my opinion it doesn't make him a racist. I've seen racism, and in my mind that doesn't qualify.

    Lol, didn't mean for that to get so long, guess I'm in a talkative mood this morning! :)

  6. It takes a lot of guts to share this. The ability to do so, especially in a forum such as this, demonstrates a supreme resiliency and a true strength of character. I suppose it's trite to say, but your youth obviously made you the strong woman you are today.

    Well done.


  7. Michaela,
    I would have never guessed that your childhood was like that because you seem to be such a warm and caring person. I'm sorry you had to go through all of that, sorry for the little girl who felt so alone. :(
    Perhaps this is why you ARE as caring as you are now...I would imagine this makes you very intuitive not only with your own children, but also with your students.
    Thanks for sharing this- I am sure it was difficult to write!

  8. Most times I feel like a total failure as a parent, but when I stop to consider where I came from it doesn't feel so bad.