After posting yesterday, and following some enlightening conversation with friends who reached out on social media, I realized some additional notes on the subject were in order.
Firstly, I should clarify. My parents were not explicit in their endorsement of marriage as the only or the best option. Neither of my parents overtly touted a man as the solution to all life’s problems. They didn’t groom me to be the perfect ‘wife’ or tutor me on how to select the perfect husband. Though problematic, I think this is something that might actually have been useful. If a girl’s happiness is going to depend on a man, it seems crucial that she know what qualities make a responsible, reliable, loving, sensitive, caring husband. Her ability to choose wisely might be her saving grace under such conditions.
I came to think of marriage as the final destination by default. A lack of options and an absence of guidance landed me there, as opposed to the deliberate championing of marriage on the part of either of my parents.
I dropped out of high school in grade 10 and continued to attend art classes at my high school through grade 11 and 12. I kept going to art classes because my mom didn’t know what to do with me and my dad was no longer around to weigh in. For a brief period of time I attended a daily outpatient program at Lions Gate Hospital for troubled teens, at-risk youth, ‘bad kids’ with ‘problems’. I wish I could say I had a plethora of adults in my life who provided support and positive role models, but really the exact opposite was true. Teachers at school kicked me out of their classes when I was failing, falling behind, or misbehaving. Many parents forbid their children from hanging out with me, and some particularly damaged and damaging parents disparaged me to my face and behind my back. I remember one parent asking me, full of vitriol and loathing, “and WHO, WHO, would want a gem like you?” These things were so damaging and these are the kinds of words you don’t quickly forget. There is really no excuse for any adult speaking to a child in this way and while many children are bullied by other children, looking back I realize I was bullied by adults. I’m not sure which is worse. On the one hand, being bullied by other children, or in today’s world on social media, means a daily, inescapable funhouse of mirrors, each one reflecting taunts and jabs and insults and attacks. I can imagine the constancy is exhausting and entirely depleting and profoundly wounding. On the other hand, here you have adults, the supposed repository of wisdom and knowledge about the world telling a child they are inherently “bad”. These words carry a lot of weight for the forming self of a child. I still have revenge fantasies where I encounter these teachers and parents. In these fantasies, I take my degrees, and achievements, and the perfect life they never thought I was capable of attaining, and wave them in their face. To a certain degree, so many of the things I have achieved in life, have been motivated by the damage caused by these adults, but underneath this motivation is the feeling of ‘never being good enough’ and that feeling has many repercussions, not all of them good. Many of them very bad. I have such a hard time understanding where these adults were coming from and I wish so badly that instead of inflicting immeasurable damage on the self-esteem of a child, they had been there to guide me a little, show me the way, even just give me a hug.
There were exceptions to this rule of unsupportive adults. My best friend Emily’s mom Deedee for example. She always communicated her unconditional acceptance of me. She listened and let me know she enjoyed my company. That’s powerful stuff. I still think about Deedee everyday. When I was 20 years old, I went back to finish my high school diploma. I had an English teacher, Marjorie Dunn, who stood in front of the class and used my essay as an example. She handed it out and said it was an “A+ essay”. I remember that moment. I remember thinking, for the first time, holy shit, I might be smart. I didn’t necessarily know what ‘maybe being smart’ could mean, but I had a vague sense it could be my ticket to somewhere. Ms. Dunn continued to provide encouragement and support throughout the semester. She helped me see possibilities. Five years ago I found her on Facebook. I told her about the impact she made. In the same way that I still nurse revenge fantasies towards those adults who made things so much worse, I think it is equally important to recognize the adults who changed my trajectory for the better.
I also feel it is important to say that my parents really loved me. They really were doing the best they could. They only had the misshapen and blunted tools their own parents and families had provided, and I know they were doing their best. I always felt their unconditional love, if not their guidance and when all is said and done, the unconditional love piece is most important. It’s also true that the world has changed a lot in the past 35 years. What might have seemed like a good idea for a woman (or any person) back in the early 80’s, is likely to be viewed in an entirely different light today. Neither of my parents went to college, nor did any of my grandparents or great grandparents. What did my parents know of degrees, and applications, and scholarships?
The entire blame does not rest with my parents, and really it isn’t about assigning blame anyways. We live in a patriarchal world dominated by TV shows like the bachelor and the bachelorette (I am a devoted viewer of both-a fact which is the source of much cognitive dissonance), by wedding fairs, by the entire wedding industry, by an America that would elect a thin-skinned, narcissistic, ill-informed, weak, sexual predator for president before seeing a woman president (many people claim Hilary Clinton’s loss had little to nothing to do with misogyny, but the more you know the less you can make this claim with any confidence at all). The world is not designed to give girls and women a plethora of options for what can be achieved. Exactly the opposite. The world is full of messages that reinforce the marriage narrative. It’s not enough NOT to reinforce this narrative. As parents and aunties and uncles and teachers and adults in the lives of children, it is critical to provide alternative narratives.