I was invited to this site by someone who I saw often while I was in graduate school. He was always extremely helpful and supportive in a place that wasn’t always easy to be. Reading his story has reminded me of what I have always tried to teach the young people I work with: “You don’t ever know what a person is feeling on the inside and you can never know what experiences someone may have had by the way they look on the outside.”
After surviving graduate school, I took a position working with adolescent mothers who lived in a group home and were in foster care. In working with these young ladies, I learned about some of the most difficult experiences parents and families put their children through and the after effects of those experiences. I was also able to act as a role model for them.
Because I am a professional (a psychologist), I speak articulately, and I dress a certain way, my young mothers viewed me as someone different to who they are. They assumed that I could not understand where they’ve been and how they felt. Furthermore, they couldn’t see themselves ever being like me.
I proved them wrong.
As part of the program in the group home, I led a parenting group called Parenting Journey. It explores attachment and how experiences we have had in our own experience of being parented and is our own existence affect the way we then parent our children. In one activity we are asked to right a letter to one of our parents. My young mothers often think that I grew up in some suburbs and with the perfect family. “This must be why I was able to finish school.” During that activity, they learn a but about me.
I was born in Crownheights Brooklyn in the 80’s, in a time and a place when we weren’t allowed to go outside to play. The hallway was my backyard. My parents worked hard and my maternal grandmother did most of the raising. They kept us away from things that they judged would get us off track… things that they saw cousins and Aunts and Uncles succumb to… drugs and alcohol.
My parents worked hard and rely relied on each other. They were able to eventually move us to Canarsie Brooklyn where the house was bigger and there was an actual yard. But as pretty as the outside was, the inside grew very strange. My parents grew apart and whether the stories my mother tells is true or not, the facts still stand that it occurred as my father’s once invisible family became more visible. My mother worked nights so that she could be home for us during the day while my father was at work. I’m old enough now to appreciate that sacrifice because for a relationship to work, that was not the way. And so it didn’t.
Around the age of 11, my father’s mother moved into the house. Although nice, she had the tendency to take our clothes and give them away to other family members. That wouldn’t matter too much but she also had the tendency to keep track of everyone’s movement and relay them to our father. This caused a lot of friction between my parents. And suddenly, my father was taking trips to other states without us or with my siblings, who unlike me did not hang around with him as he “did adult things.” I was always interested in learning and watching… learning my father’s language which he refused to teach me… watching how people interacted. I was also a social kid, very outspoken and active. All that changed when I learned that my beautiful existence in our beautiful house was not beautiful at all.
That occurred on one night when my parents were arguing. My sister, whose older and I know now always tried to shield myself and younger brother from everything, was again trying to shield me. However, at 11, I stood face to face with my 18 year old sister. I barged past her, getting up the stairs and running to my parents bedroom where I was able to force the door open. Finding my parents physical fighting each other. It was the first of many instances where I knew my parents put their hands on each. One such instance occurring on the front lawn as they rolled around for the neighborhood to see. And were both eventually arrested after my mother cut up all of his clothes. The once spirited me seems to have lost that spirit in those moments. Parents don’t realize what they do to their children when they hate each other. I no longer believe in “staying together for the kids.” And I have a hard time trusting people. I also lost my voice. I have difficulty speaking up, especially when I’m anxious. And I’m always anxious. I’ve learned to hide that very well as others comment on how strong I am, how well-spoken I am, how inspirational I am… no one notices how scared I am. And to keep myself calm, how I must plan everything, push hard to be perfect at everything, organize everything, and be extra motivated so that I don’t have to trust anyone and can rely on myself because other people can turn into something else suddenly and without warning. And I’ve made it as far as I have because of this. At some point, I came to the assumption that if I tried hard enough, I can escape the past. I know now, and I tell my young mothers, you never escape your past; you only learn how to work through it and with it. You take what you need and manage the rest. So I’m sharing my story because I was invited to, in hopes that it’s message can help someone else. Thanks for reading!