So I just dropped the boys off at home after picking them up at school, & am in the car dictating this on my iPhone…
I have a few errands to run and decided drop my kids off so they can do their assigned errands and start homework. I’m now stuck in traffic after stopping by Starbucks to pick up three Bacon Gouda Sandwiches since I am just too darn lazy to cook.
This particular Starbucks is in a very busy area, so I wait for my food about 15 minutes and unobtrusively people-watch. There are several small groups of high school and college students studying. Wandering in and out are full-time working adults, picking up something to go really quick.
As I finish giving my order, I notice this lady walk in. She’s about my age and has two children with her. The oldest is boy about 12, I’m guessing. He is carrying a school bag and is wearing khaki pants and a button up shirt. His hair is perfectly combed. Her daughter is about 5-6 and dressed in a pretty sunflower dress with matching bows in her hair and matching flats with white hose and a little purse.
As they walk by me, I notice her perfectly crafted appearance. She has her hair pulled back into a neat bun. Wearing a professional business suit, expensive shoes and fancy handbag, I notice her makeup is perfect down to the bright red lipstick and expertly drawn eyebrows. Together they look like the absolutely perfect family you find in empty picture frames at the store.
I then begin to think what sort of first impression I must leave…
I was up late last night finishing up some internship paperwork. My husband ended up taking the kids to school so I could sleep in until 9 o’clock. When I woke up that morning, I spent about fifteen minutes on my appearance before walking out the door. I threw something on that fit my personal standard of comfortable while still falling within the “business casual” dress code. I recall looking at my reflection that morning and cringing. As I got dressed, my lumpy out of shape body was truly a depressed sight. I berated myself for getting out of shape and longed for the day when I can find time to exercise. I pushed these thoughts out of my mind and told my inner critic to shut up. I reminded myself that I was working 65-70 hours a week. As a recovering shlumpadinka, I’m unfamiliar with daily makeup and hair routine. I try my best to cover-up my uneven skin and apply light eye shadow while leaving my hair as the last task, before walking out the door.
A feeling of sadness wells up inside as I gather the remnants of my once-long hair into a ponytail.
It was down to my waist last year, when I asked a friend to layer it a bit. I was hoping for a more professional appearance that fit my future counseling career. Anyway, my instructions to leave the length at about my shoulder blades were ignored as she made the executive decision to cut it at the shoulder. I now struggle every morning to get every last bit of shorn hair into a neat ponytail. I simply have no desire to look at it, and the ponytail is my only option….
By the time I reach Starbucks to pick up the Bacon Gouda Sandwiches, it as almost 4:00 p.m. and I had given up on the hair by that point. The ponytail was falling out and I looked like a disheveled mess. As this lady makes her way to the register she throws a quick side-glance in my direction that kind of spoke volumes in a way that words didn’t have to. I politely smiled at her and walked to my car.
On the way home, This experience reminded of some cousins on my dad’s side….
My dad is the oldest of four boys and has two brothers that are close in age. Throughout their lives they hit all major life milestones around the same time. After finishing their degrees, they married within the same year and got their wives pregnant shortly thereafter. For this reason, I have one cousin a month older than me, and another who is eight months younger than me. Since we are all female there was an upper-middle class success-based comparison between us growing up…
What stands out to me most about this experience, is a feeling of less-than-ness that I intuitively knew had some sort of historical component.
It was also clear to me, that we weren’t allowed to talk about it openly with anyone. For this reason, these experiences burn in my mind as unresolved questions that residing in the attic of my mind. My father was raised in that perfect all-American family. He grew up in a cute gingerbread house that stood on the top of a hill overlooking a creek. It was built in the late 1800s and on the historical registry. Every year we visited around the holidays and I marveled at how perfectly decorated everything was. My grandmother had a love of all things beige, and I was impressed at how clean she was to keep everything. The routine was always the same. We visited every thanksgiving and endured a 13-hour drive in the ’77 t-bird with no legroom. My dad and his brothers would gather in the kitchen with their parents and talk at the same time in loud booming voices. As a young child, they were all imposing figures, standing at around 6 feet in height and always perfectly groomed.
My grandmother, always reminded me of June Cleaver. She cooked thanksgiving meals in nice dresses & high heals in at perfect house, creating the perfect family meal.
I have to admit overall I’m pretty lucky. I believe the most profound legacy in a family is psychological in nature. In this respect I can’t complain. Nobody in his family has ever divorced and I am stranger to the idea. Everybody in the family is an “upstanding citizen of the community”. The ladies stay at home and the men hold respectable jobs, (i.e. lawyers, bankers, dentists, college professor, etc). They are able to uphold the upper-middle class lifestyle, and attain their own perfectly decorated homes. Coming from this background, if all I do is repeat what I know I’m doing pretty well. I am happily married, an upstanding citizen, well educated, and living a good life.
However, I am a firm believer there is a “shadow side” to everything in life.
I have always enjoyed digging deeper to expose the hidden underbelly of things. I suppose it is an inherent character trait or personality quirk. What I’ve discovered is that against this perfect image is something hidden that the family colludes together to conceal. So what is meant by the term shadow??? The term is based on Jung’s concept of the shadow. At the Society of Analytical Psychology in the U.K., I found a great definition:
I noticed the small things each visit that indicated there was more to the story of than meets the eye & longed to know more…
The first indications of this came from my father. My dad’s brothers all wore suits and ties like my grandfather. Together they presented a perfect image. However, for whatever reason, my dad bucked tradition and did his “own thing”. He lives in jeans and button up plaid shirts, (always un-tucked), with the sleeves rolled up just below the elbows. He never fastens the top two buttons and stained t-shirts are always visible above his collar. Completing this ensemble is a thick leather belt with keys hanging on the side that make a klinking sound when he walks. He also loves gaudy rings. My favorite is the one of a grim reaper riding a motorcycle and large ruby eyes. My earliest memories of my father are of playing with his scraggly beard while watching his untrimmed nose hairs wiggle when he would breathe. I always imagined that they were huge wooly bear caterpillars crawling up his nose.
While this description paints an “interesting picture”, I’d like to add that as a child, he was larger than life.
I looked up to my father as a hero and was proud to say I was a lot like him. As a bullied child who never fit in, his unique unapologetic attitude towards others’ opinions gave me comfort. I remember wondering what was wrong with me and why nobody liked me. I hated myself for being different and standing out like a sore thumb. My father’s stubborn refusal to be anything other than who he was, provided a feeling of comfort. It gave me hope that I could survive the bullying, if I could only be myself in the world, just like him…
Anyway, I recall an incident one year while visiting the grandparents on thanksgiving.
My sister was just a toddler so I’m guessing I was about 7-years-old. As my father took off his jacket and hung it in the kitchen closet, my grandmother began giving him the “once over”. A look of disappointment fell across her face and she turned away to stir the food on the stove. Once my dad left the kitchen to join his brothers in the den, the ladies sat down to chat a bit. My grandmother took a spot next to my mother and commented, “I was never able to get him to wear a suit but always believed his wife would succeed where I failed, I guess I was wrong”. My mother sat there with a stunned look on her face as my grandmother looked at her with disappointment.
And then there were assorted side-comments & stories about my father, alluding to his “differentness”.
I remember being asked on several occasions by younger male cousins during the holidays, why my dad was “so weird”. Then there was one year, when we visited my uncle’s house & my aunt said something interesting. This was after dinner & the ladies were sitting down in the living room. Since my aunt knew my dad from a young age, I had many questions. According to my aunt, there was a point in high school when my father just decided to stop talking to everyone and spent all his time in his bedroom. Apparently this happened during his last two years of high school when he was having trouble getting along with his parents. I wanted so badly to ask my dad about this, but my mother warned me, under no circumstances was I to discuss it with him….
So against this backdrop, I endured the emotional impact of thisconstant comparison. The fact that I stood out like a sore thumb didn’t help matters.
I couldn’t help but wonder about this feeling that history was repeating itself, yet frustrated that there was no opportunity to talk about it. When we were little, I recall no real feelings of being different from them. We all enjoyed playing together. However, as we reached our pre-teens, evidence of my odd-ball-ness became painfully clear.
One Thanksgiving on the way home from grandma’s house we stopped by my uncle’s house.
He was just 15-months younger than my father. As, almost-Irish-twins, they have lots of stories to tell. The adults gathered in the living room, as my aunt suggested I go bicycling with my cousin. She was just about one month younger than me at the time. A look of anger flashed across her face as she stormed out the garage. Encouraging me to follow her my aunt continued insisting we go on this bike ride. Sensing my cousin’s discomfort, I told my aunt that I was okay and started walking inside. However, my aunt was insistent. A heated discussion continues for – what seems like an eternity…
…To make a long story, my aunt wins the argument and this cousin ends up being forced to take me on a ride around town on bicycles. She first grabs an old bike for me to ride and tells me she needs to “adjust the gears a bit”. She then warns me not to bicycle next to her because she has friends in the neighborhood and doesn’t want to be seen with me. As we start riding, I notice that the bicycle doesn’t go very fast and begin to realize she screwed with the gears so I am unable to keep up. I try my hardest to stay within eyesight of her, but it’s useless. She peaks her head over her shoulder every so often to make sure I’m keeping up. However, I have difficulty maintaining a steady distance from her since I don’t know how to readjust the gears. My eyes fill with tears, as I realize that it is officially undeniable that I am an oddball. Her figure gets smaller and smaller down the strange and lonely streets until I’m completely lost.
By the time we reached high school, it was an undeniable fact that I was Raggedy Ann standing next two perfect china dolls.
My mind is chuck full of memories like the one above, that gnaw at my gut like day-old sushi. There was that year when a cousin got mad at me for going to a mall she frequented, out of fear that her friends would see me. Then there were the family dinners on thanksgiving in which my cousins would sit close together and exchange stories of their life. I could see our differences most painfully in that moment.
We were on opposite sides of an invisible fence that defined who was and was not “socially acceptable”.
Today, as I recall these experiences I know the how come and why of it all. I am able to provide an explanation of things here, here, here, or here or here. However, this clinical explanation does absolutely nothing to wipe away the twinge of sadness that fills my heart when I type this. The nail on the coffin to this story was my sister’s advice when I shared this with her recently: “Just ignore it, it’s years ago.” That’s easier said than done since the pain still burns in me as if its yesterday. It amazes that while we lived in the same home, we remember the experience in highly divergent ways.
If I have my way, I hope to never lay my eyes on those two *&%#@ again!!
Perry, Christopher (n.d.). The Shadow. Retrieved from: http://www.thesap.org.uk/resources/articles-on-jungian-psychology-2/about-analysis-and-therapy/the-shadow/