I think I was my father’s little boy.
I say this tentatively and with an apology to my younger brother Will. Both because I may have misunderstood–and that makes me sound queasily grandiose–and because it might sound like I am blaming him for not being chosen as heir. Maybe I should apologize to Gwen as well. If one daughter could be his son, why not the other? I believe it had little to do with our individual merits.
Maybe birth order is to blame since both my siblings are loveable and gifted individuals. Looking through my adult vantage point and my therapist goggles, I see that my father was prone to bending logic when it suited him. It is deforming to spoil, provoke, or ignore a child into brazenness, neediness, or despair and then point at that child’s behavior to justify your concerns about his or her goodness or stability.
The fact that I learned to negotiate the shifting shoals is both an achievement and a source of shame and guilt. I rarely ran aground in any obvious way. While I was astute enough to figure out and operate within the rules of engagement, I did not save or defend my siblings when I might have. Instead, I stood quietly by and watched as they were branded with various labels and then punished for bearing them. Older and stronger, I sometimes even threw them under the bus.
I know, I know. I was just a kid. But it still feels bad sometimes. Back and forth, back and forth I go. Was I a victim or an accomplice? This is how I wear my damage. They wear theirs differently.
Allowing myself to contemplate my brokenness brings self loathing. If I claim I am damaged, I selfishly compete for balm at the expense of those who need it more. I have shown I can manage. If I claim I am undamaged, I smell superior and condescending. There is no way out. Thankfully, the reverberations have become dampened over time. I don’t spend a lot of time or tears on this matter. It generally stays in the back of my mind, held comfortably in check by God’s cleansing and my adult logic.
Occasionally old feelings still build and threaten. Writing this–right in this moment–I feel the edges of madness pressing in. That slow sinking. Eyelids falling shut. Bad Jane, bad Jane. Time to take a break…
…The brands I received were different but no less constricting. Though I never struggled with sexual preference or identity, being Junior and being entrusted with my father’s inside views on my mother’s shortcomings caused me to associate my womanly emotional makeup with weakness and disown it as inferior. I was just as uncomfortable with my body.
I got to be the Good Student, the Responsible One, the Dutiful One. Whoop dee do. These labels came with the designations Stoic One and Stick In The Mud. I think in time I also got Sneaky One, and sometimes that one fit.
Gwen got to be the Feminine One, the Cute One, and the Artistic One. Sigh. Sadly, those were padlocked to the brands Dramatic One (never to be taken seriously, even in extremis) and Messy One (“She can’t help herself. It’s because of her artistic temperament.”). How would you like to labor under those prophetic burdens? And what do you think happens when two girls, so differently regarded and so close in age, have to share a single small room? This was not a recipe to cultivate sibling love.
Will had other brands but those escape me now. The comparison between me and Gwen was sharpest given our 18-month age difference.
Dad labeled me because he knew he knew me and what I was about. Looking at me was looking in the mirror. It was a Fun House mirror–wavy and distorted–but only one of us seemed to realize it. I was supposed to be an engineer like him. He knew it was a fit for me. I knew I would never, ever, do it. Even the thought of it made me clammy.
I stood up to him about the engineering major but compromised by giving in to his expectation that I enroll in 21 credits my first semester in college. He had done it. No problem! Never mind that I was participating as a scholarship athlete on a Division I sports team. I lasted a few weeks before quietly adjusting my schedule and doing my own thing. To his credit, he was entirely supportive. This marked the start of a better phase in our relationship. On the cusp of my adulthood, I began to understand him differently. I came to view his behavior as motivated more by a lack of insight than a spoiling for malice. More on that soon.
I ended up studying Bio and German. I said I might try for medical school though I knew I never would.
In retrospect, this may have been the most Jane I was able to be at this time in my life. The finding of Jane has been a molasses-slow and ongoing process. Bio was not my thing. German, I love, but not as a profession. Years later, I ended up in counseling and then in grad school for counseling. It’s a great fit.
As for writing? Too artistic for me to even contemplate.
This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here. For the next post, click here.