I have generated a hundred and one new family traditions to compensate for how I was raised. My husband and I make a big deal out of birthdays and holidays. We always take summer vacations at our favorite destination, always stopping at the same lunch spots along the way there and back, always pointing out the same landmarks along the route. We do holidays in the same ways year after year. We celebrate our children and their successes. A million times a day we find ourselves saying “we do X every year and it’s coming up soon!” or “Remember the last time we did that and Y happened?” or “Someday your great-great-great-great grandchild will say, 'Our family has done this for as long as we can remember!'” and we all smile because we hope it is true. Nothing has been more deliberate in my parenting than my desire to distance myself from the tough-love approach my parents took. That stops with me.
Both of my parents are depression-era New York Jews who grew up without abundance. They were raised in difficult times. When they were children, they were taught "waste not, want not." They weren’t coddled. There was no room for excess. Their families did things simply because they’d always done them, and conversely, they did not rock the boat or do anything that other people might find questionable. In my mother’s family, girls did not get bat mitzvahed. They also did not have jobs, unless they were teachers or nurses. (My mother became a nurse.) And of course, they all had children, so when getting pregnant proved challenging, a closed adoption was the only option. I was meant to pass as their biological child and, as I grew up, was instructed not to discuss my adoption with anyone. I did anyway.
In my father’s family, things were hard and their solution was just not to talk about it at all. My mother’s baggage made her very disapproving of anything that was not socially acceptable and my father’s made him essentially silent unless provoked to anger. The product of this was a very tough-love, no-talk approach to parenting me, an only child, an adoptee, and someone who was neither emotionally stoic nor silent. I often felt like the baby bird in Are You My Mother? because the authority figures in my life could not be less like me than they were, and I was sure I was in the wrong house, that they’d somehow gotten the wrong kid. I felt surrounded by strangers whose language did not speak to me of love, or really of anything at all.
I wanted to be talked to. I wanted to be held. I wanted to be listened to. When I tripped and fell, I wanted my mother to hug me and kiss my boo boos and tell me everything was OK. Instead she’d say, “Come on. Get up, you’re fine.” Never once did she tell me she loved me.
I wanted them both to praise me, admire me, encourage me. They did none of that, so I felt invisible.
My father was brilliant, I thought, the smartest person I’d ever met. He knew everything! I wanted him to notice me, to think I was brilliant, too, to initiate conversation with me. He never did. I always went to him, and it was anyone’s guess if he would be in the mood to let me interrupt Wall Street Week or his after-work gin and tonic, thus I did so timidly, always hoping for a warm invitation to “come here and tell me about your day!” that came rarely, if ever.
I wanted them both to praise me, admire me, encourage me. They did none of that, so I felt invisible. I was a straight-A student and got into excellent schools all my life; never once did they say they were proud of my efforts. Later in life I asked my father why that was, and he said simply: we wanted you to do well because you wanted to, not because you thought that’s what we wanted.
I stared at him blankly. When my parents ignored my achievements, I felt like I could not possibly achieve enough to garner their attention, to warrant praise. When my mother did not, could not, tell me that she loved me, I deduced that meant she must not love me. I grew into a rebellious teenager, angry, sullen, and frustrated. I also became a desperate and chronic overachiever. I performed constantly, wanting approval, attention, rewards of any kind, from anyone authorized to provide it, and became resentful and felt abandoned when my efforts went unnoticed. This was not a good combination. My interpersonal skills were terrible. I was manipulative, or I tried to be. I wanted people to intuit what I wanted and give it all to me because I was too scared to ask for it, and I tried to give people exactly what I thought they wanted or needed from me in order to like me, in order to admire me, be impressed by me, all without actually asking anyone what they wanted or needed from me.
When none of this worked, I felt like I was 14 all over again: angry, hurt, rejected. In my teens this made me depressed, as a young adult I was felt so misunderstood I became suicidal. Who knows if I really felt like I should end my life or was just acting for want of attention — but wouldn’t the end result be the same if I’d acted on those feelings?
My own feelings scared me and have stayed with me. I was holding everyone in the world responsible for what I did not get from my parents. I knew I just needed to feel like I deserved my place in the world. How could I not give that to my children? When I became a parent, I let go of the tough-love no-talk approach. When my girls were babies, the internet was full of book reviews and articles about not turning your kids into praise junkies and how too much of the wrong kind of praise and reassurance resulted in entitled, talentless kids and poor results overall. I thought a lot about showing unconditional love instead of tough love, and what it could look like to validate my children, show them love and affection, and make sure they felt seen and heard, without going to the extreme and ending up with the spoiled brats described in what I’d been reading. It might be a fine line, but it was one I was determined to walk.
I was hard-wired this way. I came to the world coded to need affection, affirmation, validation, conversation.
I would start a new family tradition. When they are sad or scared or hurt, everything else stops. I remember how I wanted my mother to hold me when I was little and just let me cry, safe in her embrace, so I gather them into my arms, I kiss boo boos, I stroke hair, I sing softly. I tell them how much I love them and how sad I am that they are unhappy. Sometimes we cry together. I want them to know that while I can’t keep life from being challenging or even downright awful, I can validate their feelings and support them enough that they can find the courage within themselves to keep going. When they are excited about something or proud of their efforts in art class or on an essay, I channel the anti-praise champions and give honest and specific feedback. “Tell me more,” I will say. “What excites you?” or “I love the colors in that drawing! I can see how hard you worked on this.”
I also make sure there is enough time for us to just talk. “What questions have been on your mind lately,” I will ask while I am with one child at a time. “Is there anything going on that you would like me to know about or that you think I would want to know about?”
This is how some of our most interesting conversations have come about, because they feel safe enough to ask a hard question or say a hard thing. (“What’s AIDS, Mama?” was one, or “I think I want to read the book you got me on friendships with you, because they’re getting harder,” was another.) I let them know I like them and like being with them. When we spend time together either one-on-one or as a family, I tell them what I liked best and I thank them for spending time with me. Every evening we all go around the table and play Rose-Thorn-Bud, which means we each get a turn to describe the best part of our day, the worst part of our day, and what we are looking forward to tomorrow. We practice this way talking about good things and bad things and it prompts a lot of thoughtful questions and answers that give us glimpses into each other’s lives. Each of the four of us has an equal place at the table and in our family. We have regular family meetings that always mean a tough conversation is coming, but we announce them in a way that is fun, and everyone gets a chance to speak their mind. To my surprise, we all have come to appreciate and even look forward to them.
When I met my birth parents, I learned that I was hard-wired this way. I came to the world coded to need affection, affirmation, validation, conversation. It’s hard for me to have to generate all of that for myself. Now I don’t have to. Because this is how we have grown as a family, my kids and my husband are like me, and they provide me with exactly what I need. My girls are empathic but not overly so, warm and validating without being inauthentic or motivated by guilt or a desire to please. We can have easy conversations, and we can have hard ones. Getting rid of the tough love, no-talk approach once and for all has made me more authentically me.
I finally feel like a part of the family I’d always wanted to have.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.
After a very frustrating first birth experience, this Deaf mother wanted a change. Will the help of two Deaf doulas give the quality communication and birth experience this mom wants and deserves? Watch Episode Four of Romper's Doula Diaries, Season Two, below, and visit Bustle Digital Group's YouTube page for more episodes.