Last week my good friend and I were discussing our grown-up children and she asked me an intriguing question: “Do your children remember incidents from your past in an entirely different way?” My reply was, “Oh, my goodness yes!” I was so relieved to hear that someone else had experienced that strange phenomenon. Sometimes when I listen to my children tell a story I think to myself, “did that actually happen?” or “where was I?” Then when I hear the same story from one of their siblings it takes on another perspective.
Any memory is recalled in the way that we experienced it, but childhood memories are especially vulnerable to interpretation based on our emotional reactions at the time. We have the classic family dynamic: the first child (who always felt responsible), the middle child (who always felt neglected), and the baby (who always felt entitled). Such has been the way of mankind since the garden. I can tell you as a first child and first grandchild and only girl that the most dreaded words of my childhood were “you have another brother” and “watch the boys for a little while”. I was the one who cared, nurtured, worked, behaved, got good grades, and listened to my parents, while my brothers “got away with murder”- my favorite whine of childhood. The stories I tell of childhood are completely different from those told by my brothers! And my version is the truth!
Each of my children also has their version of childhood events and theirs is the truth…at least as they recall it.
And that is the bottom line. The truth really doesn’t exist- only our interpretation of it. We aren’t capable of telling a story in a totally objective way. Our feelings immediately change details and embellish reality in a way that makes sense to our psyche.
I’m not sure my parents were fully aware of my childhood feelings, nor do I think it would have made a great deal of difference to them. They raised us the way they had been raised, with a lot of love and discipline, and not much psychology. I led the privileged life of first and only for four long years and it was a good run. I remain to this day the only girl and on one side of the family the only female grandchild (although my grandparents are now gone). My first brother had three good years as the first and only boy before being dethroned. Our next brother never had a chance for any glory- being raised forever with his “near twin”. The middle boys were born eleven months apart and for most of our childhood were simply referred to as “the boys”. Mom even dressed them as twins sometimes. The last to arrive was born when I was sixteen. To hear him talk of his childhood one would think he was an only child! The universe revolved around him and he never had to work like I did or behave like his oldest brother. He was the classic “last child”, born when my mother was completely comfortable with and tolerant of the ways of children.
And that brings up another point that few people consider when recalling the events (both good and bad) of their childhood. No matter how many children are in a family, each was raised for at least a short time by a different parent. My oldest daughter’s mother was young and inexperienced, despite years of babysitting with siblings and friends. She was fearful of making any mistakes or falling short of anyone’s expectations. She got up every morning and mopped the floor so her precious baby wouldn’t get dirty! She was constantly vigilant for any danger. She read all the books and considered all the newest child rearing theories. She was also in a marriage that was falling apart and had a home life that was fraught with chaos and controversy. Her sister was born to a divorced mother with more experience and confidence. Her mother worked while she stayed at home with her sister and grandmother. Her mother was happier and more relaxed and more understanding, but also a little overwhelmed by the responsibility of raising two children. My son was raised by a mother happily remarried and doing what she had done for years- raising a boy. Very little bothered her and she was an old-hand at the rigors of parenting. My son was lucky if his mother mopped the floor once a week, and he was always doing something dangerous that made at least one of his sisters wince!
So our memories are based not only on our emotions and our position in the family, but how that family functioned at the time. Our childhood memories are grounded in our relationship with our parents and other significant adults.
Of course the real problem with childhood memories is letting them influence our current relationships. There comes a time when we have to let go of some of the events of our youth and see them for what they really were- experiences based on who we were at the time. None of us is still that child, that fragile human being stuck in the family situation he or she was born to. I may still be the oldest girl in my family, but it is no longer my responsibility to “watch the boys”. They have their own lives and I have mine. We have become self-sufficient adults and it does us no good to harbor resentments about the selfish children we were, or the times when we were less than kind to each other.
Although I have to say again, Mom- he slapped me first, and that’s the truth!