When I trained to be a marriage therapist, I learned that “you’re never too old to have a happy childhood.” My teacher, the brilliant Maya Kollman, explained that our childhood wounds can be healed by our partners. How does this happen?
Parents are imperfect people, no matter how hard they try, and no one can meet all their children’s needs all the time. We may be exhausted, anxious, or grieving, and temporarily unable to connect with our children in the way they need. Still, many parents are “good enough,” in the wise words of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. Their children grow up securely attached and they often choose healthy people to marry.
Others, many others, face obstacles. Our parents may have significant limitations, leaving us with unmet needs for safety, approval, or attention. Still, marriage remains an opportunity for a "do-over." Here is our chance to build the kind of family that we never had. For example, if we had a violent father, we can marry a gentle man, giving us the love we longed for and healing our childhood pain.
Of course, reality is more complicated than that. Instead of a healthy partner, we are often unconsciously drawn to partners who are similar to our parents. We don't intend to, but we wind up marrying people who hurt us in the exact same way that our parents hurt us. Think of people you know who were abused as children, who then married abusive partners. Or your friend who had an alcoholic father, and then married an alcoholic. We have an unconscious pull toward repetition, in the childhood hope that this time we will finally get the love we want. This pull is mighty, like Jupiter’s gravitational force, unless we work hard to heal ourselves. (For more, read "Getting the Love You Want," by Harville Hendrix.)
I have indeed worked hard to heal myself. And I guess I have gotten somewhere because something deeply healing just happened to me. But first, some background…
When I was four years old, I stood beside my mother as she tried to light a barbecue. Mistakenly, she poured a household solvent onto the charcoal briquets, thinking it was lighter fluid. (How did she make that mistake? I’m not sure. It was the first night of vacation and it was indeed cocktail hour. So who knows?) At any rate, my mother attempted to light the coals, but they did not light. My mother then poured more “lighter fluid” onto the coals. The coals erupted in a ball of flame, instantly enveloping us, trapping us in a corner of the porch fence.
Frantically, my mother, always a quick study, spied her escape. She dashed through the wall of flame into the nearby lake. But she forgot something. Or rather, she forgot someone. My mother left me, her aflame four-year-old, even though I stood right next to her. Facing death, my mother fled. Abandoned, I burned, my skin melting away. (For more on this story, see my book, Flashback Girl.)
Although I have no conscious memory of these moments, they fester in my gut and my brain specializes in every possible disaster. Hiking down a dry riverbed, I envision the flash flood, sweeping me away. I imagine automotive crashes, seeing cars slamming into my lane, or the 18 wheeler in front of me suddenly stopping. Fireworks set my spine on edge.
(I recently attended a bridal shower, in which the cake was topped with a beautiful sparkler, shooting out tiny flames everywhere. “Who doesn’t love a sparkler!” exclaimed one of the guests. “Me,” I murmured.)
I spy danger all around, assuming I am on my own and that no one will help. Raising two little girls drove me a bit crazy. Holding their tiny hands in a parking lot, I saw them being hit by the cars backing up. Bath time was a repeated risk for their blonde heads to slide underwater. It took all my willpower not to be an over-protective mother, restraining them from free play. “Yes, go swing on the monkey bars!” I would chirp, forcing myself to smile.
Julia and Anna would scamper off, while I imagined their crushed skulls and tiny snapped necks.
Perhaps all mothers sense danger around their kids. Perhaps we all live in fear. I think I carry it a bit too far, even now that my daughters are grown. Maybe I counterbalance my mother, who never saw the dangers for her children. But, my brother died, my stepsister died, and I almost died too. So maybe I see all the dangers that my mother couldn’t see, parading in front of me, waving their bright red flags.
“Walking alone in the city at night!”
“Failure to complete the antibiotic course!”
Danger, danger, danger!
One recent morning, I awoke, pet my dog, and walked into the kitchen to make my coffee. The following details matter here, so bear with me.
To make our coffee, we use a pour-over drip filter. It takes more work to make the coffee by hand, but the strong aromatic brew is its own reward. The black plastic cone sits atop a coffee mug, full of grounds. Then, we use boiling water from our tea kettle, pouring the steaming water into the filter, where it drips into the mug.
My husband Doug came downstairs, and we were talking. I stood in front of the counter, brewing my coffee. Doug needed a plate from the kitchen cabinet, and I stood in his way. So, he came up behind me, and reached his long right arm around me to get into the cupboard.
Doug couldn’t see the pour-over filter in front of me, brimming with steaming water. He brushed against it, and the filter crashed. The steaming water sprayed everywhere, on the counter, on the floor, but most alarmingly, all over me.
Instantly my pajama pants were drenched with scalding water. My right sock was also soaked. Unbearable heat swarmed me.
It would be satisfying to be able to tell you what I remembered in this moment. Perhaps I could say I had a flashback to the original fire itself. Perhaps I could see my mother dashing away. Perhaps all my memories might come flooding back in a sudden torrent, bursting through the dam of 54 years of repression.
But none of these things happened. It was a blink of an eye; a blank moment in time.
Instantly, Doug lifted me away from the counter, twisting my body away from the spill. He was hurt too, but not badly.
I ripped off my pajama bottoms and my sock. “Ow!!”
We stared at each other, aghast.
“Are you all right?”
“My foot is scalded. Thank God those pajama pants weren’t tight-fitting, and I stripped them off right away.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t see the filter.”
“It’s OK, I’m all right.”
I went upstairs to get changed while Doug cleaned up the kitchen. Coffee grounds had sprayed everywhere, like a monochromatic Jackson Pollock painting. “Put your foot in cold water,” he suggested.
I stood like a flamingo, with my right foot in the bathroom sink. I examined the skin. It was red but not bad. No blisters. No blackness. Just a mild burn.
Then, still in my flamingo pose, it hit me. Here I was again, burned unintentionally by a family member. But this time, it was so different; my husband’s instinct was to protect me. He had been hurt too. But then what did he do? Did he leave me? Did he protect himself? No. In the panicked moment, his instinct was to grab me and to keep me safe.
Something inside me feels more settled now. Something inside me feels healed, a bit. So, was that marital theory right? Is my childhood history of abandonment and trauma now healed? Did my husband, in one heroic moment, reverse all the damage done as a child? Am I finally going to have that happy childhood?
Well, I still have my history, and I still have my fears. Fireworks still come too close for comfort. Cars still veer toward me.
But it helped. It really helped.