What They Don’t Tell You About Growing Up
Lisa Handler, PhD, MFT joined Council for Relationships in 2018 after completing the Post-Graduate Certificate Program in Marriage and Family Therapy. Read on for her reflections on what they don’t tell you about growing up.
What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. … You feel like you’re still ten. And you are —underneath the year that makes you eleven.
Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three.
Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.
Rachel, the child narrator of Sandra Cisneros’ achingly beautiful short story Eleven*, understands something many of us who are older than eleven do not. Even as our chronological age advances we bring our younger parts with us, and not just on our birthdays.
Like many adults, Rachel doesn’t necessarily like this idea. For many years I didn’t, either.
I felt like a kid well into my adulthood, which was alternatingly frustrating, annoying, unsettling, embarrassing and sometimes even shameful. When I had out-of-sorts moments or stuck periods I wondered what was wrong with me. Why didn’t I just grow up already? Why didn’t I adult like others around me seemed to be doing?
In therapy in my young adulthood, inquiries about childhood experiences or explorations into family history hit a wall. I resented that a therapist would waste time on my past when my present was so pressing. I thought my earlier years had little bearing on my challenges. Besides, I didn’t remember much and wasn’t sure my memory, or anyone else’s, was reliable anyway. And, how could I trust a therapist who commented on people from my life without knowing them?
Yet, over time I’ve come to appreciate Rachel’s insight in an entirely different way. We bring our experiences and the meanings we’ve attached to them with us, especially experiences with the people who cared for and surrounded us when we were starting out in the world. Those experiences live in our bodies, our hearts and our minds; they play out in our relationships and different areas of our lives. Sometimes they stay hidden, quietly guiding us in positive and less positive ways. Sometimes they actually show up, unexpected and often unwelcome.
Which is why many of us don’t really like this idea of bringing our younger selves with us. We want to believe the past doesn’t shape who we are now, at least not in ways that limit or pain us. We want to believe we have gotten over it, moved on, grown up. Often we have. And we should. Ultimately.
But, there’s a bit of a rub.
We get older without doing anything. But growing up is harder. For many of us it takes some work. We might need to revisit elements of our past, which can be a challenging and unwelcome task. Maybe there was some Trauma – what we call Big T Trauma — in our youth. But, even when we just experienced regular everyday small t trauma it can be hard to go there.
Memory is a challenge. While some of us have vivid memories from childhood or adolescence, for many others of us memories are scattered, vague or fuzzy. Regardless, whatever we remember we overlay with our adult understandings. Not only does this make sense, it is desirable. Taking on an adult perspective is part of growing up. We come to understand why the people who raised us did what they did when we (and they) were younger as we imagine what their lives must have been like, or gather new information about what shaped or ailed them.
We’ve also learned our culture’s feeling rules. We think we shouldn’t feel how we feel, especially if we think we’re being angry, hurt, childish, or needy. They were doing the best they could do. We understand because that’s what adults do.
And, as we get older and wiser we forget. We forget what it was like to be a child… specifically, what it was like to be us as children. We forget what it was like to try to stop crying when we could feel our parents’ frustrations with us or ours with them. We forget what it was like to be scared when we saw the hole our father punched in the wall. We forget what it was like to lose our grandmother, the warmest, safest and most fun person in our young life. We forget what it was like when our mother took our favorite pacifier because we were “too old” for it. We forget what it was like to be teased relentlessly by our older brother or to worry incessantly about our younger sister. We forget what it was like in our childhood home, to hear the arguing around us, or the shouting at us. We forget what it was like to live in the silence and the denial of what we saw and felt. We forget what it was like to feel powerless. We forget.
When we’re stuck, when we’re in pain, we often need to go back to some of those experiences. We don’t have to stay there forever, or remember everything or lose our adult understandings. We just have to develop some empathy for our younger selves’ experiences. Then, at the next birthday they can join our older self who, with gentleness, appreciation, curiosity and awe, can blow out however many candles are on the cake.
* Cisneros, S. (1991). Woman hollering creek, and other stories. New York: Random House.