I grew up on a fruit farm. Ten acres to roam around on, climb trees, build forts and generally live outdoors. We also had a bunch of farm cats who lived outside and every year, had litters of kittens.
I loved those kittens. Really loved them.
From the time the mother cat allowed me near them, I’d watch them and snuggle them and pretty much spend most of my waking moments being with them. I watched them squirm around and search for milk with their eyes still glued shut. I would wash their eyes with moistened cotton balls as they got kind of gummy and started to open. I played with them. I took them for walks in my doll carriage. I’d sneak them into my room so they could lay on my lap while I read my books (until my Mom would find them indoors and make me take them out!)
But it was a farm, after all. And these weren’t coddled house cats. Inevitably, many of them died.
I remember one summer, I was particularly attached to two little kittens I named Pinky and Fonzie. But Pinky, a sweet little calico kitten, got run over by the farm truck as she tried to run across the driveway.
I was devastated.
And that night, I lay in bed, trying to sleep but silently sobbing into my pillow. Eventually, I got up and walked to the kitchen, where my mom was still working, to get some kleenex and blow my nose. I may have been looking for some comfort too – I don’t remember but that would make sense.
My mom looked at me as I walked in. She took in my red-rimmed eyes and sniffly nose. And she said “Oh quit making such a big deal about a cat. What would you do if I died?”
That was it. I got a message that day, and through more subtle signs over the years, I’m sure: feelings aren’t for sharing in this house. Suck it up, don’t make a fuss, keep it hidden. Or, better yet, just don’t feel it.
Even when one of my closest friends was killed in a car accident during my Grade 12 year, I didn’t share anything at home. I cried at my friend’s house. Or walking alone. But when my mom sat on my bed and said “you know, if you want to talk about it, I’m here…” – I almost snorted. The thought in my head was simply “no thank you!” Of course, I just said “thanks” and rolled over to indicate I was going to sleep (and hopefully to signal her to leave).
As the parent of three intense, sensitive and highly gifted kids, I’ve made different decisions. I knew how it felt to be afraid to feel. I also knew the physical effects of bottling up all those strong emotions that I felt (as a highly sensitive person, myself) – reading “When the Body Says No” by Gabor Mate made me realize the effects of stress on my body and mind! And a life lived trying to learn how to feel again – after years of trying not to, keeping people at a distance and feeling nothing but depression and fear. So I’ve strived to be very different with my own kids.
I’ve encouraged feelings. I talk about what I’m feeling. I help my kids self-reflect and identify their own feelings. I try to create a safe place for them to be honest – with themselves and with other people in their lives – rather than hide or avoid discomfort, fear, anger, sadness, etc…
Because ultimately, feelings are feelings. When I hide my “ugly” feelings and try not to feel them, I turn off my access to joy and wonder as well. You can’t selectively turn feelings off – it just doesn’t work that way!
One day, while visiting my mom’s house during summer holidays, my daughter had a meltdown about something. I don’t remember what. She’s a sensitive kid who feels deeply, which isn’t always easy for her to handle! I focused on her, helped her work through her feelings and the issues at hand, we talked, and eventually, she moved on. All good!
Afterwards, my mom was sitting at the table, looking pensive. I sat down with her. She quietly said “You know, you have to make her stop doing that. She can’t do that – get so upset.”
Inside my head, I kind of laughed. Yeah, right. I’ll just make her stop doing that. Stop feeling. Why in the world would I do that??
I looked at my mom. And I had one of those light bulb moments.
“Mom,” I said. “You’re exactly like her. And you were exactly the same age as she is now when your family had to pack up what you could carry in a wagon, moved to (Nazi) Germany and lived as refugees all over Eastern Europe. Fleeing bombs. Travelling at night. Running from the advancing Russian line. You were twelve and starting puberty. Your brain was developing. What did it do to you to have to hide all those feelings you felt? It was truly life or death for you – you HAD to learn not to feel.”
She looked at me. Said nothing. And quietly started crying. She couldn’t talk about it. And, well, my family just doesn’t talk about things like that. We talk about the weather. Or the evening news. But not feelings, that’s for sure!
I realized in that moment, and have often pondered since, that war doesn’t just affect soldiers being shot at or families running from bombs. It isn’t limited to the time and place where a war happens.
War ripples through generations.
My parents and their generation learned coping mechanisms that helped them survive World War II.
Their coping mechanisms don’t work for me and my kids anymore. What served them well, to keep them alive when the threat against them was so severe, just doesn’t work in this time and place. The threats now are different. It isn’t bombs that will kill us – it’s the silence and avoidance, the internalizing, the fear of vulnerability and the lack of secure relationships that is killing us. It’s trying to hide from ourselves that breaks us down. It’s the shame that comes from feeling like we “shouldn’t” feel or do the things we do that whittles away at our hope and passion and joy.
Though no one really talks about it, there has been a lot of mental illness and struggle in my generation within my extended family. Divorce. Breakdowns. Even suicide. Depression. Anxiety. This is no coincidence, I’m positive.
I’m trying to break those patterns, because I don’t want these ripples to flow down to another generation. My children deserve better. I deserve better.
My mom deserves better too. But I’m not sure if we’ll manage to move past the weather to talk about feelings again. We’ll see…