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May 6, 2022

Written by Anna Thornley

Every so often, my mum asks me if I had a happy childhood. She only seems to ask this when she is feeling particularly guilty; it’s usually after a conflict where she did something she is ashamed of and needs to soothe some sort of existential guilt related to her performance as a mother. I try to answer as honestly as I can while keeping her feelings in mind. I did not have a happy childhood, and she is also a good mother. These truths are not mutually exclusive. Each time she asks, I give a slightly different answer, but none of them ever satisfy her. She can’t understand why my childhood was so unhappy. As a preschooler, I had urgent tantrums where I would throw all the toys out of my room and scream about the mess. When our house was cleaned, I would panic about a stuffed animal being moved an inch out of place. I would not rest until everything was in its proper place. I felt out of control. From age five or so, when my mum put me to bed each night, I would cry and tell her that I was sad. When she asked why, I would say I didn’t know. Anxiety and depression are considered adult illnesses. 

When children display symptoms, they often present differently. Anxious children can be controlling, and depressed children can be irritable. These symptoms are often written off as qualities to be grown out of, parts of an unpleasant phase of childhood. And while it is retrospectively clear that I was not going through a phase, I think the reasons for my unhappiness were more complex. I’ve been told many times that I read as a child of divorce. That could say something about my adjustment or affect or general disposition, but it is definitely true. Without getting into too many details about what went down, I will say that my childhood was full of dysfunction: from custody battles to step-families to addiction and estrangement. While these events were certainly traumatizing, I think the main issue was my level of awareness of my position in the world. From a young age, I was aware of my powerlessness. In an old journal I kept when I was nine, I found pages and pages of lamentations. The journal starts with this sentiment– “I am keeping this journal because I want to save it and see it when I am older. I want to remember my childhood when I am older.” I remember documenting my childhood, hoping one day, I would look back on it from a great distance. The journal covers a series of similar themes– I discuss the details of my day-to-day life, focusing on the friends, crushes, and hobbies I thought I would have forever. I wanted proof of how long I knew these people, how our relationships evolved over time. “I still love Corey, and I’ve loved him for three years,” I said. Each entry is overshadowed by the same sentiment; I say “childhood is hard to get through and even though I am nine, I already know I want seven kids. Life is sooo slow when you are not having fun.” In another, I said that “life is heavy and it really ways me down. I am staying with Dad and it's really hard. Mostly my friends are keeping me company but I still feel lonely.” There’s a certain sweetness and innocence to the journal. I did not know that I wouldn’t speak to Corey after elementary school, that I wouldn’t fall in love, real love, until I was twenty, that my friends and crushes and hobbies would change hundreds of times over. I did not know how to spell or that seven kids is too many. But I did know that I was stuck. I knew I was lonely. I did not get to choose what I ate for dinner or whose house I slept at. I wanted not necessarily to be an adult but to no longer be a child. Now that I am an adult, albeit a young one, I’ve thought more about the role of powerlessness in childhood. For someone who hated being a child so much, I love children. I can’t wait to be a mother, I am a preschool teacher, and I babysit. With the girls I babysit, I try my best to remember how I felt at their ages. I try to give them real choices, not just the illusion of choice. I do not want their power to be limited to what kind of vegetable they have for dinner. I do not want to condescend; I want them to have real agency. When the twelve year old is trying to hide her computer from me, I tell her I can see what she’s doing, and I don’t care. I trust her to make her own decisions, and in return, I ask for transparency. I don’t think powerlessness needs to rule childhood. Whatever power they can have, I want to give them. But there was a specific powerlessness to my childhood. I can see now that my feelings of unhappiness were valid. While I wonder what things would’ve been like if my situation was different, I’m still not sure I would have been happy. For example, if I had seen a therapist, I would’ve been validated by a supportive adult, and my mental illness would’ve probably been identified. However, and perhaps this is cynical, I can’t imagine the bolstering provided by a therapist would’ve changed my happiness dramatically. No therapist could have changed the conditions of my childhood; I just would've been more certain of my powerlessness. Clearly, the question of having a happy childhood is not so straightforward. The only other time I can think of where we use the phrase “Did you have a happy…?” is asking “Did you have a happy marriage?” In both cases, the question is only asked when the situations are over. However, the way that we define the period of our childhood is highly individual; there is no anniversary to mark the passage of a childhood. Recently, an old friend and I were reminiscing about how we first met. Our big sisters were friends, and they introduced us when we were four. I was nervous about how similar she would be to her sister, and she was nervous that I wouldn’t like her because of how different she was. It worked out perfectly, and sixteen years later, we are still friends. At one point, I said to her that there was no amount of money in the world that would convince me to be a child again. She said she would do anything to be a child again. My friend and I experienced and defined the eras of our childhoods differently; this determines what we think of when we are asked to reflect on how happy things really were. Another child of divorce, my friend remembers her childhood the way it was when we met– idyllic and simple: her childhood was pre divorce, pre dad’s eventual ex-girlfriend, pre dad’s cancer diagnosis, pre dad’s passing. Of course she wants to go back. Of course I do not.

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