Growing Up on Eggshells
Listening to Brene Brown on her 4th installment of the Summer Sisters Series inspired this post. In it she and her sisters talk about uncertainty- how their growing up was like living on eggshells. When life is built on tension and doubt it changes who you are.
At one point she says "Don't underestimate the trauma of growing up on eggshells."
I don't. I grew up like that, too.
Growing up on eggshells is like everyone knowing the secret and you don't. The secret can love you or hate you, help you or hurt you, but you can't crack the code, ever. Day after day you look to your parents to let you in on the secret, but they can't and won't. It's a childhood spent endlessly playing the hot/cold game- there's silly suspenseful shouting "Hot! Hot! Oh oh oh you're almost on FIRE!" and you're laughing and looking and then suddenly "COLD. You are ice cold." The laughter freezes in your mouth and you're confused and they're mad but you don't know what the hell happened. When one or both of your parents are mercurial and unpredictable it creates a constant feeling of being an imperfect clumsy human balancing on a thin tightrope.
I would crumple like paper when my mother, interrupted after another long day of chain smoking and soap operas, yelled at me, annoyed that I'd come home from school. Another day she'd greet me with a June Cleaver sort of friendliness- not warm exactly, but preferable to the shouting of the day before. Maybe things were fine until dinner, then my father would be late for the third time that week. I'd get nervous and accidentally spill my milk all over the tablecloth. "GODDAMMIT!" my mom would yell at me. "I didn't mean to," I'd say in my choked up little girl voice. "Go to your room!" she'd yell. I'd run away, sobbing, not able to see that she was actually mad at my dad, and so much more, only a little bit at me.
Once when I was about 7 my uncle was visiting. I'd gone out to roller skate, zooming down the sidewalk with the courage I brewed because we had company and he might be watching. I flew too fast over the big ramp in the sidewalk made by a large tree root. I launched into the air, coming down hard on my head, not saved by my Dorothy Hamill haircut. I saw blackness and stars. I crawled the three houses up the sidewalk to home, shakily skated up the front walk, clambered up the porch stairs and fell into the front door sobbing.
"What's wrong with you?" my mom sneered, used to me coming home upset about something. One of the boys in the neighborhood picked on me almost constantly.
"I ffell!" I sobbed out.
"Oh," she said dismissively. "I thought someone was picking on you again."
My uncle came over to me, looming over me with wide eyes. "Are you okay?" he asked. I didn't know how to answer. If I said no I might get in trouble for being sensitive. If I said yes I might get in trouble for making a scene. That's the eggshells: there's not a good answer. There isn't an answer. There's just the black hole of fear and doubt- on one side annoyed and put out, on the other furious and outraged. You're screwed both ways.
I'd get yelled at because I was "too sensitive". "Do you want something to really cry about??" I'd get asked when I was crying. Wait, I'd think...I'm already crying...why do I need more to cry about? I stopped knowing how to judge real hurt- oh, nothing really hurts.
Eggshell living is heartbreaking for children. The rip current of tension is just as unsettling as in your face tension. In some ways, harder- because it's under the surface, invisible, unpredictable. One minute things are fine, the next they're totally not- but you can't find reasons. Asking for a snack after school is welcome yesterday, an insult today. It's so confusing when something is not fine, then fine, then not fine again.
I can remember doing this as an adult myself to my own husband and children- getting upset about something (say, clutter on the counter) and then exploding about it. In the middle of the explosion feeling ashamed and guilty and taking it back "oh, actually it's okay, no big deal" then getting pissed about it again and going back to berating. Like Brené Brown says, "I can be scary when I'm scared."
It feels so affirming when someone you don't know out in the world describes your childhood experience. I felt so seen and understood because I deeply know that feeling- a child hunting for certainty in an uncertain world. What's going to happen? I don't think any of us knew. My parents both grew up in alcoholic homes (welcome to the perfect 1950's) and then became parents in 1971. People didn't openly talked about mental health issues or ask for help. Who the hell would do that? I mean, my mom saw a psychiatrist briefly in the 80's, but didn't keep going because it was an hour away and there wasn't anyone to take care of my younger brother. It makes me sad and mad thinking of the opportunity she didn't take, and more determined to take my own.
There are reasons my parents behaved the way they did, and their parents, and me, too- I behaved that way too. I feel incredibly grateful that I'm able to recognize my behavior and change it. I work diligently both in therapy and in life because I don't want to pass the suck ball eggshell lineage of fears and doubt on to my own boys. Giving my children a steady stable mothering, being a place of safety and security for them is one of my highest priorities.
Understanding the way I am in the world is a lifelong process. This part, this eggshell piece, is a huge piece of who I am, why I am the way I am. Taking that apart, dismantling it and creating a malleable surface instead of a shell is what I work towards every day. Becoming a home in my own body, a refuge in my own mind- and both of those things in my own heart, steadily loving myself and who I am.