“Tell me a story about when I was a baby.”
This had become a part of our night time ritual, this request from my soon to be 7 year old child. We had a short menu of family favorites. She often requested stories with funny sounds or ones featuring her dad. I often ran out of the easy material, as those baby stories with her dad ended soon after her first birthday. The rest were stories that I wrestled with... whether to tell her, or how to reframe for the least amount of potential harm. I also wrestled with the truth of it all, how I didn’t want to be the type of parent that lied (without good reason).
Like many divorced parents, this is complicated terrain. I am holding three things, if not more: the truth, as I lived it, her relationship with herself concept, and her relationship with her father. I wanted to help her build a foundation of confidence and story flexibility such that she didn’t feel stuck with only my version as she gathered nuggets of self identity. There’s a the sense of her needing, in some way, to have a grasp of the truth of the larger story, the larger why aren't mommy and daddy married, even though it wasn’t pretty, not pretty at all.
That night, like many from years 0-now, I’m tired, and I went for the easy ones.
“You were very energetic. You loved to play and laugh,” I answered, knowing she would want hours of content, and, as it was a school night, less specifics were key to getting her to sleep on time.
“Tell me more, please? A funny one. Please?”
She’s persistent. I’ll give her that.
She kept her big doe eyes on mine, sat up in her bed, and pretended to eat popcorn like she was watching an actor on a stage.
I had a decision to make.
“Tell Me A Story” Part 2
Our stories told to us about us are particularly fertile territory for developing human brains.
These stories attach to sticky places where core beliefs begin to build and cement as fact. We humans then gather data and with the thought physics of things attract like things, sticky thoughts and beliefs form entire villages buried in our subconscious. Our actions are led by these belief villages like a ghost writer holding the pen of our life story.
For many, especially those not represented in the dominant cultural narrative, it’s easy to get stuck in secondary character thinking and behaving. We get stuck in side roles, and play them out with gusto: girlfriend, sister, victim, antagonist, black sheep, other. We get stuck in the secondary or auxiliary character roles, and, thanks to a strong cultural pressure to “be useful,” we can run from one supportive role to the next, never questioning the scurry.
So often we lose our locus, our center. It's easy to do in the business of work, family, eating many meals life. It's so easy to forget that we are the protagonist of our precious life. We forget that we could be doing the writing of the responses to the arrows of our outrageous fortune (thanks Shakespeare).
We can also, at any time, remember.
We can get very curious about ourselves.
We could even take a good look at what we find out.
We could begin to ask questions.
Recently, on the phone with my mother, I asked if she would help me gather family stories about natural disasters for my solo show. She told me about a story that she and her mother shared, one of a fire and her stepfather’s business.
“I should let her tell you” she sidestepped.
I agreed to hear it at a later date, but heard a familiar concern in her voice. I asked her if my asking was making her nervous. “Yes, because I don’t know what story you will ask me for.”
I’ve only ever wanted to know the true one, I said. Her side of it. Her story.
I never got that story, as, like many times before, she changed the subject.
In some families, we avoid the hard stories to protect others. At least, that is what we tell ourselves. From my experience, we are most often protecting ourselves. In other families, there’s a concrete narrative with certain bad guys and other victims that is completely different on the other side of the family. For those who fall into the space between, side picking can determine if you are trusted or if you are the next subject of a story.
In the end, the stories are passed down and around and then die with us. So rarely are they examined, brought to knowing, so that they could inform or reframe our experiences.
As is our pattern, I tried again to gently coax more stories out of my mother, promising to hold it in confidence. She told me she, too, had tried to get stories from her mother. She had even given her mother a journal to fill, but my grandmother had said that she couldn’t complete it, as it brought up too many painful memories.
During the process, though, a powerful new story that my mother had never heard came up, a story so powerful that it reframed how she thought about her birth father. I won’t share that here, out of respect to her, but what she told me she gained from it is a knowing, even secondhand, of a man who went to great lengths to attend her birth. She told me that with that knowledge, she might have made different choices about her interactions with him later in her life. Having that story now gave her some amount of peace knowing he did love her enough to make a Grand Gesture. The story of his grand gesture towards her showed a side of him she rarely, if ever, saw.
We pass these processes down the matriarchal line in my family. There are some that my daughter intuits that I side step, but with the caveat that I will tell her if it's needed when she is old enough to hold a complicated story with adult information in it.
The kids know, y'all. We just like to think they don’t.
I've been trying to get info out of my mother since I was quite young, and not getting it has informed my...well, maybe everything.
“Tell Me A Story” Part 3
My child hungers for the grand gesture stories. She was so little when we split that even stories of our sleeping in the same bed seem like fairy tales.
“Did my daddy change my diapers?”
“Did he rock me before bedtime?”
“Did he make me laugh?”
The power of narratives I share is palpable in our little home. Psychologists make it clear that to speak ill (even as truth) of the absent parent harms the child in profound and fundamental ways. Holding the truth of what happened alongside my desire to raise a confident little girl can be heavy after a long day of working and solo mothering and adulting.
“He did. He loved you so much, and even played guitar to you when you were in my belly.”
She sighed, hugged her bear to her chest, a contented look on her little face, and rolled over to her usual sleeping position.
“Mama, I can’t wait for him to be at my birthday party,” she murmured.
Me, too, sweet child. Me, too.
For you, and for me.
The narrative of her father I choose to share with her has hope in it. I’m not abandoning the truth of what occurred, continues to occur, but temper it by choosing things that I can say with honesty and integrity. I tell her of his talent, his likes, how he was in our courtship, and the life I wanted to build with him. I tell her about how her eyes look like his, like the Atlantic Ocean, all blue and green and brown at the same time. I remark about her skin and hair color, her eyebrows and chin...all his. I champion the skills she has that are genetically linked to him, and send photos of it to him to remind him of this undeniable link.
This, my friends, is my daily grand gesture.
This is how I hold the space/time between them linked by the genetic code they share.
This is how I actively forgive.
This is how I create and hold the future for them.
May you, dear one, find places of grand gesture in your own life. May you valiantly hold the space between the inherited narratives and aspirational ones. And, may you, if this becomes too heavy, find support that can shoulder it while you recharge your own batteries in the way that only you know you need.