Why We’re All Messed Up By Our Childhoods
No one intends for this to happen, of course, but somewhere in our childhood, our trajectory towards emotional maturity will almost certainly be impeded. Even if we are sensitively cared for and lovingly handled, we can be counted upon not to pass through our young years without sustaining some kind of deep psychological injury – what we can term a Primal Wound.
Childhood opens us up to emotional damage in part because, unlike all other living things, homo sapiens has an inordinately long and structurally claustrophobic pupillage. A foal is standing up thirty minutes after it is born. A human will, by the age of eighteen, have spent around 25,000 hours in the company of its parents. A female grouper mother will unsentimentally dump up to 100 million eggs a year in the sandy banks off the north Atlantic seaboard and never see a single one of her off-spring again. Even the blue whale, the largest animal on the planet, is sexually mature and independent by the age of five.
But for our part, we dither and linger; it can be a year till we take our first steps and two before we can speak in a whole sentence. It is close to two decades before we are categorised as adults. And in the meantime, we are at the mercy of that highly peculiar and distorting institution we call home, and its even more distinctive overseers, our parents.
Across the long summers and winters of childhood, we are intimately shaped by the ways of the big people around us: we come to know their favourite expressions, their habits, how they respond when they are late, the way they address us when they’re cross. We know the atmosphere of home on a bright July morning and in the afternoon downpours of mid-April. We memorise the textures of the carpets and the smells of the clothes’ cupboards. In middle-age, we can still recall the taste of a particular biscuit we liked after school and know intimately the tiny sounds a parent makes as they concentrate on an article in the newspaper.
During our elongated gestation, we are at first, in a physical sense, completely at the mercy of our caregivers. We are so frail, we could be tripped up by a twig; the family cat is like a tiger. We need help crossing the road, putting on our coat, writing our name.
But our vulnerability is as much emotional. We can’t begin to understand our strange circumstances: who we are, where our feelings come from, why we’re sad or furious, how our parents fit into the wider scheme, and why they behave as they do. We necessarily take what the big people around us say as an inviolable truth; we can’t help but exaggerate our parents’ role on the planet. We are condemned to be enmeshed in their attitudes, ambitions, fears and inclinations. Our upbringing is fundamentally always particular and peculiar.
Being children, we can brush very little of it off. We are without a skin. If a parent shouts at us, the foundations of the earth tremble. We can’t tell that some of the harsh words weren’t perhaps entirely meant, or had their origins in a tricky day at work or are the reverberations of the adult’s own childhood; it simply feels as if an all-powerful, all knowing giant has decided, for certain good (if as yet unknown) reasons that we are to be annihilated.
Nor can we understand, when a parent goes away for the weekend or relocates to another country, that they didn’t leave us because we did something wrong or because we are unworthy of their love but because even adults aren’t always in control of their own destinies.
If parents are in the kitchen raising their voices, it can seem as though these two people must hate one another inordinately. The altercation the children overhear (there was a slammed door and several swear words) can feel catastrophic, as though everything safe is about to disintegrate. There is no evidence anywhere within the child’s grasp that arguments are a normal part of relationships; and that a couple may be entirely committed to a life-long union and at the same time forcefully express a wish that the other might go to hell.
Children are equally helpless before the distinctive theories of the parents. They can’t understand that an insistence they not mix with another family from school, or that they follow particular dress codes or worry as much as they do about dirt or being late represent a very partial understanding of priorities.
Children don’t have a job. They can’t go elsewhere. They have no extended social network. Even at its best, childhood is an open prison.
As a result of the peculiarities of these early years, we get distorted. Things within us start to grow in odd directions. We find we can’t easily trust, or need to keep cleaning the room, or get unusually scared around people who raise their voices. No one needs to do anything particularly shocking, illegal, sinister or wicked to us for very serious distortions to unfold. The causes of our Primal Wound are rarely outwardly dramatic but its effect is rarely anything short of momentous and long-lasting. Such is the fragility of childhood, nothing outwardly appalling need have happened to us for us to wind up inwardly profoundly scrambled.
We know the point well enough from tragedy. In the tragic tales of the Ancient Greeks, it is not enormous errors and slips that unleash drama: it is the tiniest, most innocent errors. From seemingly minor starting points, terrible consequences unfurl. Our emotional lives are similarly tragic in structure. Everyone around us may have been trying to do their best to us as children and yet we have ended up now, as adults, nursing certain major hurts which continue to make us so much less than we might be.
Lastly, and most poignantly, it’s a feature of the imbalances that stem from childhood wounds that they don’t cleanly reveal their origins, either to our own minds or, consequently, to the world at large. We aren’t really sure why we run away so much, or so often get angry, or have a proud, haughty air, or underachieve or cling excessively to people we love. We simply assume this is the way we are – and are assessed accordingly. Because the sources of our ailments escape us, they don’t feature in the explanations for why people are as they are and we miss out on a vital source of sympathy. Our problems begin with a wound which, if it were known and adequately explained, would naturally elicit tender understanding. But because the consequences it breeds tend to be so much less appealing, and explanations are lacking, we are left open to disdain, sarcasm and our own self-hatred. Our wound may have begun with a feeling of invisibility, but now it looks as if we’re just show-offs. Maybe it began with being let down, but now we simply come across as crazily controlling. Perhaps it started with a bullying, competitive father, now it seems as if we are simply spineless.
We make our lives tougher than they should be because we insist on thinking of people, ourselves and others, as evil and mean rather than, as is almost invariably the case, primarily the victims of what we have all in some ways gone through: an extremely tricky early history.