Tuesday, September 08, 2015

To My Friends Who Are Parents of Young Adults

I would like to share my young adult story. No, I don't mean the story of my kids' lives, but my own young adult story. But first, I will need to share a little background leading to that point in my life.

I was brought up a good Christian.

I was sexually abused by an older cousin when I was a little girl (young enough to be before the use of reason but old enough to remember. Even to this day - although some of the memories are fuzzy - I do remember). I told my mom about it the first time, and she thought she put a stop to it. She never realized that it continued after that, and since it continued, I then thought it was my own fault and my own shame. I was a praying child, but I hid that part of my life not only from my parents, but also from God. Of course, now I know that God knew, and he stayed close to me.

My mom tried to be a good mother, and she was...although when I was a teenager, I looked back and thought that when I was a child she hadn't been as present as I would have liked. She was physically present; she stayed home for my sister and me, but not as emotionally present as I would have liked. I wonder now if she had sleep apnea, as she slept a lot, and I believe sleep apnea was not yet a diagnosed "thing". I also wonder what perfect world I was wanting.

At any rate, with the abuse from my cousin hovering in my background – with me both thinking it had been my own sin and at the same time blaming my parents at some level - I was always trying to prove to myself that I was a good person, a worthwhile person. In the sixth grade I worked in the school cafeteria, not because I needed the free lunch but because I wanted to work; and I played flute in the band, was in Girl Scouts, and served as a Patrol Boy to help children cross the street safely. (In those days the position was called "Patrol Boy" even though I was a girl). In my senior year, I was the editor of my high school newspaper, and I also worked 20 hours a week at J. C. Penney.

As soon as I graduated, my J. C. Penney store promoted me to full time. About that time I found a note on the kitchen counter one day in my dad's writing. It said so much money per week (I don't remember how much now) if chores are done, so much if chores are not done. Yes, in my senior year I had gotten in the habit of neglecting most of my chores, leaving my mom to do most of the work (at that point there were only three of us).

Perhaps if my parents had sat down with me to discuss my neglect or their desire for me to pay my way, it would have been okay. I've even wondered, since then, if perhaps they were only considering charging me. But seeing it in writing on the counter, it seemed so arbitrary, and I made a decision. I would move out on my own.  I found an economical but nice place. In those days, I could afford that on a salesclerk's salary. I've compared the numbers a few times, and that kind of pay would not do today what it would do then. But at the time, it worked for me.

In the meantime, I had decided to become a Catholic. But my Catholic girlfriend's mother introduced us to what turned out to be a traditionalist cult instead. Of course, she didn't realize it was a cult; she thought it was the right thing. My girlfriend and I went to a ten day summer camp in another state where we were brainwashed into thinking there was no salvation outside the group. We stayed on without telling our parents why or where we were!

I, who had been so responsible, both seriously worried my parents and let my employer down. With no notice, not even a single phone call, I simply didn't come back to my job, and I never did get in touch with my boss, a dear lady. I simply didn't come back to my apartment or pay the rent either. After some time (maybe a month), we finally got in touch with our parents, and I also mailed my landlady a letter of apology, offering my furniture as payment for the one month's rent I had neglected to pay. My parents later told me it hadn't been my furniture to give, although I was sure they had given it to me. The way I saw it was that I had just been trying to be responsible, to pay the missed rent the only way I knew with what I thought was mine.  They saw it differently.

I learned the words of Jesus the hard way, "If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing." (1 Corinthians 13:3.)

At that point, my girlfriend and I went home to settle our affairs before returning. I can't even tell you how much I hurt my mother's feelings at the time, and it's still hard to deal with that shame. I think I was mad at her that I was leaving her. Go figure. Maybe I was mad at her for not really stopping the childhood abuse that had affected my life so much, even though she wasn't really aware of it. Maybe I thought she should have been more aware. At any rate, it wasn't a great farewell, and then I left.  

When a woman prepared me for reception into the Church (supposedly the Church, supposedly all that was left of the Church), she told me I had to "take a Christian name", that Peggy was not a Christian name, only a nickname. I did not want to change my name, but I didn't think I had a choice. (I did, however, choose my own new name.) It was a missionary priest who had recently returned to the States - who didn't realize what this group really was - who baptized me. He didn't realize my birth name was Peggy Ann or else I know (now) that he would have set us straight. So, not really liking it, but thinking it was necessary, I changed my name. Unthinkingly, I told my mom on the phone, "I had to take a Christian name", and I broke her heart again. Have you ever wished you could take back your words but it's too late?

After I had returned to the group, whenever I was anywhere with a phone, I use to wish my parents would call me, just to say hi, just to ask how I was doing. I told that to my father many years later, and he said, "We didn't think you wanted us to." Well, that made sense. And I wasn't trying to blame him; I just wanted him to know that I missed them and wanted them.

I only stayed with the cult for a short time, but life, and new contacts, took me in different geographical and career directions. I never went back to my home town to live, and later my father told me that had always bothered my mother. Always, although we were in touch, I felt there was a curtain between my mother and me, until our last visit before she passed away unexpectedly. That last visit was the best.

I've learned much over the years but especially I've learned that I believe in family. I believe in friends. I believe in God (I've never ever stopped). I believe in the Catholic Church. I believe in the Pope. But most of all, I believe in love!

As my son who died a few years ago used to tell me, "God is love."

What else is there, really, but love?  

And so, I don't always do well at hearing that young adult children are "awful". I was one of those awful ones!  And both my parents and I could have handled it better. I also had a young adult child who, at one point in his life, sometimes stayed out late, drinking, and sometimes worried me not coming home (staying over with a friend but forgetting to call me) who later became a great witness for God and Mary and the Faith. He died in his sleep at the age of 26. Both the visitation and the funeral were filled with people he had touched with his short life.

So when I sometimes hear parents talk about what awful things their young adults do, it kind of breaks my heart a little for so many reasons. For one thing, as parents, we signed up for this when we said "I do". Our kids didn't sign up for it. They didn't ask for us. They are trying to find their way. They have to find their way; we can be there for them but we can't do it for them. And sometimes we don't even know what kinds of past experiences, thoughts, and feelings they are dealing with.

Even when we think our hearts are breaking for one reason or another, let's keep trying to give them our best, unconditional love. It's not easy, and I think I often fail, still. But we can just keep trying, and keep forgiving ourselves, when we fail them in one way or another. We can keep forgiving them, when we think they have failed us, or themselves, in some way or another.  

And let's trust in God, who is Love, always loving all of us.