Like most moms, I love my children enough that I would probably die for them. I also enjoy their cousins and their friends, especially now that my kids are in their thirties, and the others have been coming around for a long time – to our dinners or parties. When they were younger, some hung out on our front porch.
I have loved these gatherings for many years, so I was surprised at the feelings that crept up on me the other night during another birthday celebration. Perhaps because we were only eight for dinner – a quieter one, perhaps less busy, more time to be aware and reflective.
Or perhaps because I was still feeling the impact of an event two days before. A young woman of 21 – really just a girl – talked to me about her life. Her life as it has been, as it is now. Her anguish, her fear, her hopes, her beliefs, her theories, her agonizing sensitivity to everything and everyone around her. It was almost as if she was missing skin and her experience of the world was completely unprotected by any barrier. It was easy to see and hear, in the tone of her voice, in her eyes, in the intense body language that accompanied her words.
She is living with a diagnosis of ‘schizophrenia’. She is living alone, on the usual too-low disability income, in what we would consider unlivable accommodation, far from potential emotional support because that is how she can survive financially.
Her words gradually painted a picture of the consequences of neglect and a painful relationship with her mother who was ‘never there’. Gabor Mate talks about the impact of a ‘failure of attachment’ between a child and a parent, and her description of childhood sounds like a textbook case. I remember two little kids – not more than three years of age – in my old neighbourhood. They played outdoors by themselves, without adult supervision. One was killed by a car. The other’s mother was said to be drunk or otherwise pre-occupied indoors. Back then, I had a hairdresser who would tell me of little twin boys he’d watch running everywhere unsupervised. I used to wonder what would happen to these waifs, unparented, untaught, unprotected.
And now here was this girl, a product of perhaps an even worse childhood, talking so passionately, with her deep unmet needs as visible as sunburn. I wanted to take her in my arms and rock her, like you would a baby crying with fever. I talked with her about how natural it was for her to feel this way, given that many of her basic needs had never been met. Of course she would have all kinds of intense, ‘unstable’, conflicted feelings, given the lifelong necessity of emotionally scrambling, in her effort to understand life, to make sense of it. That tremendous effort, to wring something out of nothing in a sense, had made her very smart, but also emotionally and mentally scattered and confused, left to her own interpretations of what was going on in the world around her.
My intuitive impulse was to take her home, take care of her. If she doesn’t end her life and instead lives on and on in that state, isolated, emotionally unsupported, forever misinterpreted and misunderstood, will my comfortable children have enough compassion to support her more generously through higher taxes? Or will they and their cousins, and their friends, resent helping this child, in her lonely isolation?
As I watched our little birthday celebration with its bounty of food and wine, its exquisite chocolate cake, its easy laughter, I thought about how lucky we all are, and how much they take for granted. I worried that I haven’t transmitted my values, or my passion for taking care, or my moral outrage at the injustice that surrounds us.
Or in fact, have I expressed too much, causing an opposite reaction in them, as often happens? We don’t get to do it over. Chances are, I’ll never know.