Monday, July 16, 2012

Becoming an adult

I remember approaching my 30th birthday still wondering when I would finally start to feel "like an adult".  I was married, we lived in our own house, I was working full time and going to graduate school... it appeared for all intents and purposes that there was no question; I was an adult.  And yet I didn't "feel" like it.

Now, several years later, I've been able to isolate the feeling and rename it.  It's not so much that I didn't feel like an adult, but rather that I felt hindered by my past experiences.  Sadly, this continues to this day.  My own personality has limited my being able to fully experience life.  I'm slowly figuring out where this sense of incompleteteness is coming from, so that I can address it once and for all.

Growing up, I was an only child in a household full of adults for 2 very crucial years of my life.  At the age of 6, my father emigrated out of Poland in search of better economic opportunities.  Shortly thereafter, my mother and I both got carbon monoxide poisoning in our condo, and we moved in with my maternal grandparents.  Also in the household were my maternal great-grandmother and my mom's 22 year old sister.  I had 4 cousins at the time, but all on my dad's side, so in this household, I was the apple of everyone's eye.

I was regularly told what a great little girl I was - well-behaved, intelligent, pretty.  So far, nothing wrong with that, right?  In fact, I know plenty of people would have happily switched places with me.  I was never left with a babysitter, since there was always a relative around to take care of me.  And when I say "take care of me", I literally mean it - take an active interest in me, play with me, teach me things.  No one just sat me in front of the TV... cable was having 2 channels back then, and children's programming only came on at prescribed times of the day (namely, "dobranocka" shortly before kids were expected to go to bed, around 7pm).

I accompanied my grandmother out on the town to the farmer's market, downtown, to the park.  On one such outing, she managed to sneak me into a private music school interview, where I listened to a lady play some keys on the piano as I named them.  Before I knew it, I had been admitted to start "0" grade there.  It may sound like just another name for kindergarten, but make no mistake about it, Zero Grade had an academic curriculum, with pre-algebraic concepts and everything.

I followed my great-grandmother around the house as she went about doing her chores.  Hanging laundry outside to dry stands out in my mind, as it took up most of the front yard. She kept a vegetable garden in the back, and we'd go there to pick ingredients for dinner.  We also had plum trees lining the sides of the house, which I climbed for fun and picked for food.  There was a huge walnut tree in the front, and no walnuts you can buy in the store compare to the freshly picked and cracked walnuts that are still moist and slide right out of their thin coating.

My aunt used to play various games with me, "Post Office" being one that stands out in my mind.  It's a wonder I didn't end up working for the post office when I grew up.  My grandpa worked nights, but I do remember watching soccer games with him on TV.

Whenever my mom got a letter from my dad, we'd sit around coffee for adults and tea for me, with some delicious tort or other sweet delicacy, as my mom put on a show by reading the letter out loud, acting out any parts that begged to be acted out.  In fact, I actually coined a term for these sorts of gatherings: "kawka", or "little coffee". We'd also go to her friend's house for scheduled phone conversations with my dad.  We didn't have a telephone at home, so we'd go over to Ciocia Gosia's and wait for my dad to call.

I have always referred to my childhood as idyllic, because I don't remember any drama, I was healthy and safe, and have lots of pleasant memories to boot.  So why am I talking about this as some sort of hinderance to my feeling like an adult at age 30?

When my mother and I immigrated to the US when I was 8 years old, you can imagine that the people I spent a lot of my time with at school in this new place did not share my family's high regard for me.  Not knowing the language, I couldn't have been called intelligent by people who didn't know what I thought or understood.  Good looks were apparently based on a different standard here, starting with name brand clothing and premature sexualization of  children. (It was appropriate to ask preschool aged children if they had a "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" here, something completely unheard of in Poland. Dating was taken seriously, and children do not date.)  And my previously polite behavior would do nothing in the way of teaching me how to stand up for myself to being bullied.

In one incident I remember early on, I was outside our apartment complex playing with some neighborhood kids in the snow.  This was the winter of 1986 in the DC metro area, and there had been a huge blizzard with tons of snow.  I don't remember the details of how it came about, but one of the boys punched me in the face.  Bizarre, I know.  I remember not crying, but standing there for a minute completely shocked, having never been in a violent situation before.  Once I shook off the shock, I went home and told my dad, who followed me outside and asked who punched me.  But when I pointed at the boy who punched me, I did not see the reaction I had expected.  Instead of my dad going up to the boy to give him a talking to, or to locate his parents, my dad admonished me under his breath for pointing my finger.  You see, pointing was considered rude, and apparently politeness was king, even when you were punched in the face.

At any rate, this set up the drastic culture shock that would shadow me for years to come.  I had to learn a whole new set of values from my peers, and unfortunately my parents were not privy to the new information. They didn't understand the new culture any more than I did, and I couldn't turn to them for help in navigating the often confusing terrain.  Trying to live up to two different sets of expectations, one at home and one at school, I didn't end up perfecting either one.

And so I grew up a shy child, one who kept to herself and never learned to defend herself from bullies.  My parents never knew I was being bullied in school.  I didn't think they'd understand, or worse, believe me.  I don't know why I thought this, but I did.  So my self-image went from being the center of everyone's attention in a good way to being the butt of Polak jokes, with the worst insult coming in 8th grade from a boy who called me "it", putting my budding femininity into question.

My adult years, I now realize, have been spent trying to regain that first sense of importance that I got from my family in the first 8 years of my life.  I am now coming to terms with the fact that while idyllic, that self-image was not realistic and did nothing in the way of preparing me for real life. For years into my adulthood, my grandmother would continue to insist that I was "smarter than", "prettier than", "better behaved than".... but what good was it for me to walk around looking down my nose at everyone else?  Life has to be lived among others, not trampling on top of them.

To be fair, I do understand that my relatives only taught me what they felt was missing in their own upbringing. Now that I know why I am the way I am (shy yet snobbish), the hard part is trying to undo or redo years of thinking and believing and acting one way, and learning a whole new way of being.

One of my early claims of adulthood, during Army's basic training.

Luckily, I have my husband for that.  Yet it is nonetheless a difficult process.  Starting to feel like an adult won't magically happen because of a PhD, a respectable job, a certain amount of money, or being a mother, goals I previously thought would do the trick. No, it has to come from within.  And this will involve removing myself from my comfort zone and taking risks.  To do that, a strong faith will be indispensable, so I am trying to lean heavily on it. 

Phillipians 4:13
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

1 comment:

  1. I like your thoughts on this theme. I too was bullied, especially in middle school, and all through high school I was an extremely shy and reserved teenager. My mother was overprotective and in this, she sometimes didn't let me speak up and she always "defended" and spoke for me. I have out grown that for the most part, but it's funny that til this day, she tries to answer for me. I hate it when she does that, but that is who she is and love her for that too. Ok, that was more of an insight to you that I wanted to give, but hey there it is. Do I consider myself an "adult", well, yeah I think life has taught/and still is teaching me, and of course Rachel taught me too. I will also value her lessons and apply them to my future endeavors.