Baby, Soothe Yourself: formative years

Here’s more context, backstory, for my rambles next month with Ruby. If you perceive me to be whining from time to time, I’m trying to be dispassionate. I’m not always successful. I realize that everyone I write about has their own stories, justifications – some warranted – for being as they were. It was what it was, is what it is. Just because I point things out, doesn’t mean those I write about are unforgiven. No, I tell you these things, to tell this story. For me, for you, and maybe for those you love and don’t understand.

There have always been things I guard myself from vigilantly. You may have noticed underneath my words and actions, an emotional disconnectedness. If so, you were right. I’ve lived with it for the last 62 years, unaware, manipulated by a suspicious mind without understanding that I was.

In terms of gravity, my internal dysfunction is probably on the lower end of the spectrum. I thought I was just like everyone else, actually. I’m not. In fact, if statistics are true that 50% of society is similarly afflicted, maybe I’m more normal than I think. Scary thought.

Rosemary holding her children. I’m the one on the outside.

For a child to separate himself emotionally from his caretaker, there must be trauma of some sort: physical, mental, or emotional abuse, neglect, or a combination of these. It can be horrific, it can be passive. Any of these will do. Mine was casual, passive neglect. I feel guilty to put myself in that category. I wasn’t beaten or sexually abused. Not starved, tortured, or without Maslow’s Basic Needs.

No, what I experienced was the turning away of a series of caretakers in my formative years. What ruined me was a brief and meaningful connection with an adoptive mother who embraced, then rejected the parts of me that needed her. My mother taught me not to trust, to be on constant, vigilant watch. I learned to soothe myself since she was busy soothing another, unsuccessfully it turned out.

Rosemary expected me, from the day they brought my brother home, to put his needs first as she did. To her death she tried to make me pick up that burden. I did not, and to this day will not.

I was a toddler when they brought him home. Everything changed. But because I was an easy baby, compliant in my early years, she assumed I was handling things well.

My earliest memory is of her shaming me for crying because returning from a trip, they brought my brother something and me nothing. She chalked it up to sibling rivalry. It was more. I was horrible and selfish, she stormed. They were just pants, for heavens sake. I didn’t need to get something every time they went away.

What I understood from this was that his needs were greater than mine and would always be her chief concern.

“I put you in your crib a lot in those days. I didn’t know,” she later explained. “I thought you liked being there. You reached for it.”

We didn’t start out like that. Don and Rosemary were unable to have their own children. They were desperate for a baby. In fact, in the hospital after a hysterectomy when they got the call from Children’s Home Society, she bounced me on her stomach without wincing so they wouldn’t give me to someone else.

This was the first of many stories she told me growing up to convince me and perhaps herself that she wasn’t giving more to one child than the other. She would get angry if I questioned her loyalty, she sacrificed for me she said. After all, didn’t she stay up late at night sewing my dresses, helping me with homework?

Those weren’t the sacrifices I needed.

I came to Don and Rosemary at six months old. My birth mother had relinquished me at birth without ever seeing me – that would have been too difficult for her and the agency likely advised against it. So she had me and then went back to Oregon. For a time the adoption agency couldn’t obtain her husband’s signature on the relinquishment papers so I was placed in Foster Care.

At two months, I had emergency surgery for a thyroglossal cyst. I stayed in the hospital for several months, alone except for the busy nurses that presided over blood transfusions and the incision on my neck.

When months later I was finally delivered to my parents, I came with a note from the Foster mother who warned, “Don’t hold her too much. It spoils her.” Coming off several lonely months in the hospital, she’d probably heard a lot of crying. In her estimation, the best way to reform a stubborn infant was to ignore it.

But she was wrong. Here’s what modern research has proved – a friend posted this today. In short, you can’t hold an infant too much. When infants need attention, they cry. Hold them. Feed them. Change them.

Over time, if infants are unsuccessful in attracting their caregiver, they learn that they have to meet their own their needs and that some of them will go unmet. They learn to self-soothe, retreating into themselves, rocking. So, like the photos we’ve all seen of Romanian orphans rocking in their cribs, they check out emotionally and eventually display aggression or avoidance.

I avoid. Although I’m now aware and work hard to override the urge to flee, I still find myself unable to trust, even those closest. A friend once observed that I had a long string of best friends in high school (she was one of them). It’s true. I wooed and then abandoned them before they could leave me. That the Professor and I are still together baffles me sometimes.

Children who experience trauma of whatever sort, who are not loved back from the brink, run. Or, if they are aggressive, they intimidate, wound, or murder. There are so many of us. I’m worried about how we turn this around: 50%. Is it any wonder we’re such a mess?

This trip I intend to visit places that are meaningful. Though most of the people who formed me are gone now, I need to stand in those places again to make peace with my memories. Many of the places I go will be ones where I can begin to see things differently, reorder my thinking, reject previous false conclusions, and start to set things right in my mind.

I guess I’m still self-soothing. I can’t wait for this trip.

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I like going places: out West, west of the West, and all the way around the back of the globe to the East. I like to go by train, plane, automobile, horseback. Whatever. And I like writing about what I see, feel, hear, smell, and touch all along the way and once I get there.

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