As I looked down the long aisles of the grocery store, I felt a sense of exhilaration which I hadn’t expected.
For the first time in my life, I could buy any food I wanted. My father would never know. He would never be able to lecture me about it.
I felt giddy. I felt like a rebel. It was an emotional high that felt like dangerous freedom.
I had just moved to Tuscaloosa to start college at the University of Alabama. I was living completely on my own for the first time in my life. I didn’t realize exactly how controlled I had felt until the moment when there were suddenly no controls on me.
For many years, I associated parenting with oppressive control, because that’s the parenting I experienced. (My mother wasn’t around, so all my parenting was from my father.) I was trained to be an obedient robot. I eventually came to understand that wasn’t the healthy way to raise children, but it’s taken me longer to start understanding some of the things that are missing in me because of the unhealthy parenting I received.
At long last, I’ve realized I still need some parenting — and the only thing I can count on is “reparenting” myself.
I’m not talking about a formal kind of therapy which went by that name a few decades ago. I have in mind something broader and more informal.
You see, I got the parts of parenting related to control — the kind which is actually necessary when a child is very small and could hurt himself easily without such control — but I didn’t have those controls relaxed in gradual ways that let me start the guided process of making small mistakes and learning from them.
Instead, what I had was complete and utter control — until the day it was gone completely.
Given the severity of the control under which I grew up, it’s probably surprising that I chose — completely voluntarily — to live a very conservative personal life. I’ve never smoked or even tried alcohol. (When I was a teen-ager, I looked around and saw the effects it had on people and decided it was a bad risk.) I don’t care for wild parties and obnoxious friends. Nobody’s ever even heard me speak a word of profanity. That’s just not a part of my vocabulary.
My father would have loved my decisions about those things, but what he wouldn’t have understood is that I made my decisions about those things in spite of his wishes, not because of them.
In other areas, I’ve always been a bit out of control. Not from the outside, of course. But because I was so controlled as a child, I have rebelled at anybody putting controls on me. Of any kind.
My aversion to control is so complete that the only times I’ve ever been happy with work have been the times when I was self-employed. If I was going to work for an idiot, it might as well be me.
But as Sam Phillips sang in an old song, “I’m not good at things that I don’t want to do.” I’m not disciplined. I’m not good at telling myself no. I’m not good at setting limits. I’m not good at a lot of the practical skills that I should have learned with a more effective parent — someone who released controls gradually and let me make small mistakes and learned as I grew up.
When I went to that grocery store to buy food for my own apartment for the first time ever — and I felt that sense of unbridled freedom — that was the beginning of my struggles with eating poorly. I weighed about 180 pounds at that point, but by the end of my first year away from home, I’d gained 20 pounds. I didn’t think that much about it, because most people go off to college and gain a bit of weight.
For me, though, it was much more. My father had always micro-managed what I ate. If he didn’t like something, we never even tried it. (For instance, I never even tasted cheese until I had a pizza in college, because at that point in his life, he said he didn’t like cheese.)
Some people express their rebellion by smoking or drinking or growing their hair out and running with wild friends. I didn’t do any of those things. I simply lost control of things I’d never learned to moderate. Including food.
My grandparents gave me that little red rocking chair you see above on my first birthday. I loved it and have held onto it all my life. That little chair is about the only thing I have left from my childhood. I’ve been saving it for years — so my own children might one day use it.
I feel as though there are a lot of really basic skills that I need to teach myself, mostly related to simple self-control.
I associate any limits with oppression, because that’s what I experienced as a child. I need to learn that some self-imposed limits aren’t about oppression but rather about loving yourself and taking care of yourself.
If I could go back to that first birthday and start teaching myself to love myself and to give myself permission to fail in small ways, I think my life could have been remarkably different in some ways.
I still have the little boy in that picture and I still have the chair. I can’t sit in it, at least not physically. But I can put myself back into that time frame and I can try to teach myself the things I would want to teach my own children.
For those of us who had dysfunctional parenting, something such as this can be good practice for learning how to teach children in the future.
So even though I can’t sit in that chair right now — and the bottom is pretty frayed even if I could — I’m going to imagine I’m that little child. I’m going to imagine I’m happily and safely in that rocker. And I’m going to pretend that I’m a loving parent. I’m going to be working on trying to have the adult part of me teach the child part of me some things which I never got to learn.
I hope I can one day learn to be as happy and self-controlled and contented as that little boy was on his first birthday. I’ll never have the parents I really needed, but I’m going to start filling in some gaps as well as I can figure out the ways to do it.