*Disclaimer…this one’s super long…1877 words to be exact…
Dear Chris (age 5),
It’s not your fault.
In only 5 days of writing this blog series, a few thoughts keep rattling over and over again in my mind.
#1 – There is no way to change the past. (This is not a surprising discovery unless you truly think that Back to the Future is real…in which case, seek help…but also mark you calendars for October 21st.) I cannot change my past and I don’t mean to try, but I’m a firm believer in this:
“I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be… This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages…the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on…” ― Madeleine L’Engle
So when I write the words to my 20-year-old self or my 5-year-old self or to my self last week, I believe that there is healing in that process. I believe that it’s a way of showing compassion to myself…because all the thoughts and fears that I’m speaking to still bounce around inside me like a pinball machine. The stuff I’ll share this October and beyond is stuff I’ve dealt with (can you say therapy?) but is by no means stuff that I’m completely over…because the healed (and not-so-healed) places are the scars we carry with us to make us who we are.
#2 – Even if I could say this stuff to my younger self, I wouldn’t have had the capacity to listen then (whenever then was)…and if I would have had someone teaching me these things then (which people probably tried to do), I wouldn’t be who I am now having learned life lessons that I could only learn along the journey. Talk about a time traveller’s paradox. We know everything until we realize we don’t know everything…but knowing everything then doesn’t allow us to know what we know now. (Does that make your brain hurt as much as mine?)
#3 – Not all my posts will be dreary…in case you were starting to worry.
And with that…today’s word of truth…to little 5 year old me sitting in a dark brown corduroy recliner in the living room of my mother’s new home, bawling my eyes out all alone.
When I was 5 years old, I believed that my father left my mother because of me.
Psychologically speaking, young children (and some adults, let me tell you) are not yet capable of abstract thought, so when something bad happens around them, they don’t know how to assimilate it except to believe that it somehow had something to do with them.
No matter what their age, children have a limited ability to understand what is happening during a divorce, what they are feeling, and why. That doesn’t stop them, however, from trying to figure out “the big picture.” Younger children see things from their own perspective, that is, they see themselves as the cause of events. This is why younger children often blame themselves or invent imaginary reasons for their parents’ separation and divorce.
5-year-old Chris believed that her dad left because he didn’t want her.
I honestly don’t know how I picked up this idea, or why it took me so many years to be able to come to terms with it, but it was deep and rooted in me. I don’t remember life without it. I have no memories of my family together as a unit before he left. I have a memory or two with my dad and a memory or two with my mom during the years they were still together and many with each of them since but not one solitary memory of the four of us (my 10 years older brother included) in the same space.
I do, however, have a memory of a suitcase sitting by our front door. It’s often the first image that pops into my head when I think about the pre-divorce years. (Well, that and one recollection of a horrible nightmare where a giant grasshopper is eating me while I’m stuck in my crib…I know…pleasant.) In my memory bank, the suitcase is my dad’s and it’s just sitting there like a bad omen, waiting to be walked out the door. My brother has no recollection of this. Neither of us knows if it actually happened.
I can still feel the clarity with which I knew this lie to be true. If I allow myself, I can feel the same sadness of that little girl sitting alone in that recliner. I could be a puddle on the floor right now, I know her that well. But her voice doesn’t get to trap me (see Madeleine L’Engle quote above). My voice gets to set her free.
I’ll never be exactly sure where this “knowing” came from. My father certainly never said this to me, and I had a lot of fun with my dad when things were fun. I think I knew my dad loved me but maybe I wasn’t sure how much or how little. I’ll never know what I perceived in the air around me that may have caused it. Or maybe every kid who has an every other weekend dad has at least a hint of the “knowing”.
It probably didn’t help that I have no recollection of a family conversation where we talked about what was going to happen. The Krebsbachs did not have the movie moment where mom and dad call a family meeting and tell the kids what’s happening but that it’s not their fault and everyone cries together and somehow they figure out how to cope together.
Because I “knew,” I found evidence of this “knowing” everywhere in my childhood and teenage years. In the way my father and step-mother seemed to favor my brother, in the house rule of having to leave dad’s belongings at dad’s (I once had to change my clothes in the car at the park before I got dropped off at home), in the way my father’s relationship shifted away from me in my late teens and early 20s.
I know now that none of these things had anything to do with me at all.
When I was in my 20s, far away from 5-year-old me, my relationship with my dad was basically nonexistent but I still struggled with the question of whether I was the linchpin reason for his departure. I wondered if it would have been better for me never to have been born. (There was other stuff going on too…I don’t blame all these feelings on my father…for another post.) I still needed my dad to want me and I still didn’t think that he did. I buried those thoughts most of the time, but sometimes they would surface as all buried thoughts and emotions tend to do.
When I was 25(ish), my grandmother confirmed my fears in an off-handed, not thought through comment. We were watching a talk show together and a man had left his wife with their kids and she said…”that’s why your dad left. He didn’t want you.” I cried myself to sleep that night, in a bed instead of a recliner this time; still alone.
It’s hard to recover from a lie that is allowed to grow in the darkness but is never exposed to the light.
It took me until my mid-30s to gather the courage to ask my father why he had left my mother. How he could have left our family. How he had stayed so close in miles but how we had grown so far apart anyway. By this time, my dad and I barely had a relationship at all but I had to ask because he had a health scare, and I realized that if he died without me knowing, I would carry the sadness of this little girl for the rest of my life. And to be completely honest with you, I was still so scared to ask that my sister-in-law offered to (and did) bring it up for me.
It turns out I was right…and I was wrong. But at least I didn’t feel crazy anymore.
I came along 10 years after my brother did. I’m not 100% sure when the beginning of the end was for my dad, but I believe now that it was before I appeared on the scene. After years of trying, when my mom had given up on her hopes for a big family and my dad had had a vasectomy (we didn’t get into details), they found out that she had gotten pregnant before the procedure. (I also had always suspected that I was a miracle baby, so…) My dad didn’t want another child…but he also said that changed the minute he saw me. And he made it clear in this moment of honesty that I was not the reason he had made his exit.
I believe him.
My father is not perfect, nor will he ever be. He has made a lot of mistakes and he often has not known how to show love for his family. I have a choice about how I react though. I love him. I’ve always loved him with that unquenchable love that little girls have for their daddies…even when it’s not “deserved.” But I don’t need him to want me anymore.
And now, because I am still every age I have ever been, I’m at a point in my life that when I catch a glimpse of that little girl crying in a brown corduroy recliner, I can snuggle in to the open space next to her, sit her in my lap as my eyes start leaking along with hers and say…
This is not your fault.
You were not a mistake. You are not an accident. You are not unwanted.
You are loved. You are cherished. You are seen.
You were created with purpose and intention.
You’ll grow up to be strong and compassionate and oriented toward relationship. You’ll take tests and find out that empathy is your strongest strength. You’ll learn that every story has more than one side and that every side should be taken seriously. Your heart will break for people who feel the way you feel right now and you’ll do your best to sit with them just like this. You might not be as good at these things if this lonely chair wasn’t part of your journey.
But…You will not always be good at these things because to reach out to people who feel unwanted, you have to push through that same feeling in yourself. Sometimes you’ll hurt other people because of how you feel right now, but you will get better at love and openness and you will learn what it is to forgive and be forgiven.
You will be given the gifts of friends and family and the breath of the Creator of the universe who will fill in the gaps of what you have lost and teach you to see who you really are.
You are loved. And it is not your fault.