I started writing a memoir recently after a terrifying thought struck me: My infant daughter doesn’t know me.
More to the point, she won’t ever know me accurately unless I make myself known to her.
It all started during a sleepy morning conversation I had with my husband. Our daughter Charlotte was a tiny, eight-pound newborn who slept in short spurts of a few hours at a time, which meant equally short spurts of sleep for us. He glanced up from his morning coffee, looking a little sad and very worn. “I just realized that my life isn’t about me anymore,” he said. “That’s a good thing, right?” And he laughed wearily.
Morning conversations can be breathlessly weighty when you’ve been up all night with a newborn, so at first I couldn’t answer. I may have been asking this question too. It’s part of the rocky transition from person to parent.
“How do you mean?” I finally asked.
“I don’t plan for my future anymore, I plan for hers,” he answered. “I’m only in my thirties, and I already feel like I’m the past.”
That conversation revealed to me why our children don’t know us. After becoming parents, we find ourselves and our pasts overwhelmingly mitigated in the face of this incredible potential, this tiny promise of a future that will continue long after we’re gone. We stop thinking about our own stories, and orient our lives completely around the lives and stories of our children.
Does she need to know me? I would say, yes, because otherwise my daughter’s perspective will be skewed with that same self-important filter of youth I had as a child: she will see me only as her parent, and will remain unaware that I had a past and a life before her.
It’s an art to tell your story to your children.
It’s an everyday art, one that requires grace and perception. But I think, perhaps, few of us have mastered this art to include the pain, vulnerability, and rawness that true art brings. We construct our stories carefully, glossing over the messy parts and boiling truth down into didactic sound bytes to illustrate life lessons. I struggle to articulate my story in a meaningful way, especially with those closest to me. Non-fiction is messier than the safe fables of fiction that end with a moral.
It’s easy to let our past go when we become parents. As my husband and I realized, parenthood brings with it a unique selflessness that is innate, natural, and painfully necessary. But we forget that our past is also our children’s heritage; our story is their history. Our personal backgrounds are the genetic fabric that—in part—make them who they are, and our pasts shape how we parent them. Our personal histories are as pertinent to our children as our medical histories: a genetic predisposition to heart disease is no less life-changing than a familial predisposition to infidelity, mental illness, or greed. We pass ourselves down in our DNA, our actions, our words, and unconscious communications.
Of course, we can’t in good conscious burden a five-year-old with realities of adult life that she can hardly understand. But our pasts pull at our kids strongly—the good and the bad. I’d venture to guess that there’s something incredibly powerful about dropping the facade with our kids, about being ourselves and telling our stories while we’re still living them—day by day, year by year, building deep relationships with our children.
Maybe another, deeper reason we don’t tell our stories (I mean our real stories, with all the nonsense and the bad decisions and the embarrassing details) is because vulnerability isn’t modeled in our typical understanding of parenthood. Maybe that’s why our kids don’t know us, and we don’t know our parents: because knowing requires transparency, and transparency seems off-limits in our construct of parent-child relationships.
Imagine how powerful it would be for our kids to know us—really know us—throughout their lives, catching glimpses every day. Imagine living out the art of telling your story in a vulnerable, transparent way for your kids’ benefit. Imagine telling a three-year-old, “I’m sorry you get so angry at your big brother. I struggle with anger too.” Imagine telling a 12-year-old about your past with bullies (or bullying), or a 17-year-old about how you have wrestled (and won and lost and still struggle) with lust. And I’m not talking about the safe snippets—those preachy parenting anecdotes from soccer moms and dads that sitcoms parody endlessly. I’m talking about honesty, openness, and vulnerability.
A friend of mine, Peter Lawson, recently began transcribing his deceased mother’s diary in the form of a blog. His mother was an incredibly personal writer who documented her days with an admirable consistency. He says this of why he chose to publish her diary:
At her passing, I was left with a series of journals, notes, and memories. It has taken me the better part of the last 19 years to finally open them up and go through them. I have decided to share them with the world … as atonement, perhaps, for not being a better son, or perhaps as a way to reveal that my mother was neither the ‘poor person’ deserving of pity and the Charity of Church and Community (though we could not have survived without the generous and giving souls that entered our lives over the years), nor was she the ‘crazy cat lady’ that people may have encountered in later years. She was, in point of fact, a layered and complex person filled with passions beyond what I ever could have realized, but willing to sacrifice nearly everything for her Family—for her son… Maybe, too, I’ll learn more about myself in the process.
I think Peter touches here on a deep truth: we may never truly know our parents, but the effort to know them reveals much about ourselves. We are so intertwined with our parents that we cannot help but gain from knowing them more.
I started my memoir as an exercise in transparency. I don’t know if I’ll finish it, and I can only hope my children won’t find a badly-written, unfinished piece when I’m gone.
But I do know this: Writing the memoir reminds me that my story is my children’s history, and that being honest and vulnerable with them will be a transformative power in their lives. Whether it’s in the form of a memoir or in the everyday art of honesty, we owe our children that vulnerability.
Image by Giu Vicente via Unsplash.
Emily Fisk is a mom, wife, and writer living in beautiful Boise, Idaho. Writing marketing content is her paying job, but she much prefers her other job titles like Chief Activity Director for her toddler, Starving Artist/Writer, and Household Director and Gardener.