The Stories We Tell Ourselves

My book CALLING HIS BLUFF (The Tylers, Book 3) released recently and one of the reviewers commented that she enjoyed the “remember when…” moments. Sarah and JD, the main characters, have known each other from childhood. JD is Sarah’s brother’s best friend and he spent years practically living with Sarah’s family, due to the chaos in his own home. Their memories of each other are very different though. She remembers him as the older boy she had a crush on who never wanted her. He remembers her as the quiet place to land in the middle of the noise. These memories influence them as adults, to the point where they don’t see each other clearly because of them. This reviewer’s comment started me thinking about the stories from our childhoods that we tell about ourselves, to ourselves, about our families and friends, and how we use those stories to define ourselves as adults.

My son has been asking questions about his dad since he was less than three years old.

For seven years, I’ve been talking with him about why his dad isn’t a part of his life, what my son might choose to do about the situation when he’s older, and how to manage the emotions that often rumble beneath the surface (or not so beneath) of his generally calm nature.

“Do I have a dad?”

“Where is my dad?”

“What does he do?”

“What’s his name?”

Deciding which questions to answer, at what age my child is capable of understanding what I share with him, is like taking the most important test of your life, again and again, without ever being told how to study for it or even what the questions might cover. It is like telling a story serially, but in layers instead of episodes. Each time I tell him the story, I decide whether or not this time he’s old enough to hear new information. To be told things that I previously withheld from him out of protectiveness. He knows, because I am brutally honest about this part, that I am not telling him everything. That I will tell him everything. That I think this is one of the hardest things he will ever do, figuring out how to negotiate this big empty space in his life, and that I give him the tools and the information I think will not hurt him.

As he gets older, the tools are sharper, the information more complicated.

I know there are stories from my childhood that define me still. The one about the time I got a fishhook stuck in my hand and didn’t cry. How I watched Halloween at a fifth grade sleepover party and then spent the next few years checking in my closet and under my bed before I went to sleep each night. That my grandpa drew to an inside royal flush in the stock car poker game on the Army cavalry train. That my dad and his best friend started skipping school to attend the Cubs home-opener in elementary school and continued the tradition for years. How my mom and her best friend moved to Hawaii in their twenties with no jobs and no place to stay, planning to get a room at the YWCA.

These are stories that define my childhood. Of adventure and loyalty, of bold action and anxiety. I tell these tales to my son now as a way to help him know his family, especially the people who weren’t alive to see him born.

I know that my son will grow up with his own set of stories. His memories of his childhood will be different than my memories of it. Moments that seem huge to me might not register as blips on his internal radar. And the most important stories he remembers might be ones that he never shares with me.

I wonder how many of his stories will be about his dad.

I wonder how my son’s stories of his dad, and his dad’s absence, will influence him.

I know people who have gone to great length to track down family members—fathers, mothers, lost siblings—because they feel as if there is a gaping hole in their life without some kind of resolution, even if it’s the resolution of learning that you are indeed not wanted.

I also have a friend whose dad was never a part of his life and my friend has absolutely no interest in ever speaking to the man. “Good riddance, bad rubbish” is his philosophy regarding the man who abandoned his mom.

My son’s father has an open invitation to contact me at any time, but has not yet chosen to do so. I type ‘yet’ in that sentence as a promise to myself that nothing is ever certain and anything might happen. Someday. I fantasize while I am writing this post that he might occasionally search me out online, although I don’t think that he does. I think that he closed a door and has never looked back.

I told my son’s father about my pregnancy while sitting on a bench across the street from a Starbucks in Andersonville. I stopped in the coffee shop first and bought a frozen mocha coffee thing, even though I rarely drink coffee, because I was pretty sure giving myself something to do with my nervous hands was going to be a good idea.

Now, whenever I go into a Starbucks, I think about that day. When I drive through Andersonville, I pass that corner and see the bench and think, “That’s where we sat when I told him.” I wish sometimes that they would remove that bench, or move it down the block, so when my eye is drawn to that corner as I pass, as it inevitably is, there would be nothing there. Just an empty concrete pad where a bench used to be on which I once sat and offered someone a chance to make their own judgment call.

The story I told my son when he asked me about his dad for the very first time went like this:

“Sometimes people become parents when they aren’t ready to be parents. It doesn’t make them bad, it just means they weren’t ready. Your dad isn’t a part of our lives, but that doesn’t mean you can’t think of him and hold him in your heart with love.”

And then I listed every aunt, uncle, grandparent, and cousin my kid had ever met—and all of the friends that we consider a part of our family—all the people who loved him, in an effort to make sure that our family of two didn’t feel small. I did that every day for years. I do it still. I have always wanted my child to feel surrounded by love.

I’m guessing that this story I told, which was as simple as I knew how to make it, didn’t make a lot of sense to an almost three year old, although my kid is pretty damn clever. But he’s figured it out since.

He’s also made his own additions to the story at times. He told me once, when he was about six, that he thought his dad had died and that I was concealing it from him.

I almost wished it were true. This makes me feel like a horrible person. But death is so much more manageable than explaining to your child that yes, his other parent is alive. Yes, that person knows he exists. No, that person does not seem to have any desire to know his child. There is no way to tell that story that does not make a child feel less than.

My son has speculated about what his dad’s job might be. About where he lives. About what his full name is. I have answered more questions every year, but reserve the full story still for “when you’re older.” We debate about what “when you’re older” means. Kids are too internet-savvy these days and it’s not that hard to find my son’s father online. I don’t want to put my child in the position of being able to initiate contact before he’s capable of handling the fallout if that goes badly.

So I wait for my son to write his own stories and then bring them to me, or not. He is of an age now where he talks to his closest friends about important stuff. His friends are good kids and, because they are human, many of them have important stuff of their own to share in exchange. I hope the stories he tells himself, and them, from his childhood are about many things. About the time I took him out into the ocean and the giant wave “made us go swimming” (how he remembers it…far more gently than I do!). How his uncle’s dog once raced around a corner so fast she knocked him on his butt and ran right over him, and he got up, saying, “I’m not crying! I’m laughing so hard the tears are coming!” About how his uncle skied into a tree and could have died and we spent night after night distracting him from the pain by watching every episode of Top Gear and Storage Wars ever made. That he comes from a family of pool hustlers and poker players and trivia fanatics.

I hope that whatever stories my son tells himself about his dad, they are ones in which my child sees himself as worthy of love and a person of value, despite this early rejection that haunts him. I hope that these stories, the ones that I know are made of anger and pain and loneliness, are a skinny thread in the world’s biggest fucking afghan of love and laughter and poop jokes. (Let’s be realistic: It’s my family. There will always be poop jokes.)

It’s funny how hard it can be to see the things you’re writing about while you are putting the words on the page. When I was writing CALLING HIS BLUFF, I wanted to do something fun and light, with a Vegas adventure and a woman who keeps her wild side close to her chest. Turns out that I was also writing a book about something else, as always. I was writing about the stories that we tell ourselves about our own lives. How they follow us, define us. I was writing about something real.

This entry was posted in Life & Wonk, Shameless Self-Promotion, Writing Wonkomance. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to The Stories We Tell Ourselves

  1. Such a beautiful post! I just relayed some stories from my childhood on my blog this week. I sent it to my mom early and there was one poignant memory I had (about making small plates of food for a hamster) that she didn’t remember at all. It’s so true that we create our own stories and memories. Thanks for sharing so openly about your son’s father and how you are handling this with him (which is to say, wonderfully).

    • Thank you! It almost bothers me sometimes, knowing that he’ll remember things differently. I don’t mind that he will remember things that I won’t, but that the things I remember so vividly might not be important to him at all. That’s my ego talking, of course, (“If it’s important to me, then it MUST be important to you too!”), but it is indeed strange. I remember when it really hit me, that my five year old (in kindergarten and aftercare from 8am to 6pm every day) navigated his entire day, problems/successes/moments of confusion, all by himself. And how amazing that was to me. That such a tiny person could do so much, because he was a real *person*. He’s impressed me ever since. And I know that in all of those thousands of hours in which he figures out how to live his own life, there are stories he’ll remember that I will never know. It’s a fascinating idea.

      • willaful says:

        I’m still surprised — and my son’s in middle school — at what he knows about, his vocabulary, and the ways he remembers things.

        Sam Lamott’s father eventually contacted them, though he was probably influenced by how public the story become, because of _Operating Instructions_. But people do change as they get older. I think it’s admirable that you’ve done your best to leave that option open for your son, rather than put anger on him, even though anger is an entirely appropriate response.

        • I love Operating Instructions! I read it long ago, and thought of it constantly during my pregnancy. It stays in the back of my mind these days, as a reminder that people do indeed change. I have hope. :) My goal has always been to do anything I can to make an eventual connection possible. I’ve taken some criticism for not forcing a relationship upon my son’s father (by not pushing for an acknowledgement of paternity or asking for child support, which was only possible because of the tremendous support of my family) and I know that sometimes my son’s options were fewer because of that. I could never have afforded to let him play hockey like one of his friends, because there just wasn’t money for an expensive sport like that. But I imagined my son interacting with a father who *hated* that I forced this upon him and thought, No. I won’t do that.

          I just hope that by never doing anything to draw negativity to this father-son relationship–because it is a relationship, even if they never meet–I will succeed in making a space for something positive to take place. We’ll see…

  2. Pingback: Wonkomance: The Stories We Tell Ourselves | Amy Jo Cousins

  3. Alexis Anne says:

    I love this post so much! We were just talking about our boys and how much change we are putting them through this year. How I want their lives to be an adventure and how I want to smother them with love because I know from my own childhood that love covers everything. I doesn’t erase it, but it covers it enough that it makes the hard things bearable. You have the key right there. Along with well-timed honesty. Smart kids appreciate that so much.

    Side note: we were watching Chasing Classic Cars and the host (?) talked about a story from his daughter’s childhood the whole episode. How much this little incident meant to him. He ended up buying her this tiny little microcar that was just like the one she sat in and enjoyed one day as a kid. It meant a lot to her, but it was him that was so fascinating to watch. It meant everything to him. To recapture that moment with his little girl and to be able to relive it as they renovate the car together with her husband. These stories we tell ourselves shape so much.

    Thank you for this post. It is going to stick with me for a while!

    • Oh, I love that story! That’s it, exactly. How we make connections by telling these stories about ourselves, to make sense of the vastness and confusion of life. There’s a BRILLIANT book by Graham Swift called Waterland that is all about trying to make sense of life via narrative. I wrote my thesis in undergrad about how that theme runs through all of Swift’s books, so it turns out that I’ve been thinking about this for a very long time. (Weird to realize that only as I am typing this comment!)

  4. I know how hard this is. I had to separate myself from my father in 97 because he was dangerous physically and emotionally to be around. My children have heard bits and pieces, but they don’t know all of it. I’ve slowly let them know why I don’t, but the questions are still there. They only have one grandfather in their lives as my step-father passed away in 98.

    So yeah, I get that. Explaining something like that to a child is hard. Sounds like you are doing it the right way.

    • I’m so sorry, but glad that you were able to prioritize your safety and remove yourself from that relationship. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do and does not, of course, keep the effects from lingering. And it *is* strange, figuring out which bits can be shared and when. Kids are smart. I think they usually know that we aren’t telling them everything and sometimes I worry that that makes the whole thing more irresistible to them. But we just have to make our best guesses and hope for the best. :) As you said on Twitter, as long as their lives are filled with love, we’re good.

      • keller anne says:

        I had to separate from my entire family for similar reasons (before my kids were born). Now that they are teens they know some of the story and I have reconnected with some of my siblings. They have almost no relatives on my husband’s side. I still feel guilty even though I know it was better to protect them. It sounds like you are doing the right thing!!!!
        I can tell you it gets easier as they get older.

  5. Sarina Bowen says:

    This was beautiful. I loved that you mentioned the bench and the Starbucks. The gravity we assign to mundane things, and the way it sticks around, those details can be so unforgettable.

    • That bench has a fricking homing signal in my brain. If I get within a half mile of it, I start to picture it and I’m aware of every inch of distance as it disappears. Almost eleven years now. You’d think it would eventually stop being such a magnet for my thoughts, but no.

  6. Ana says:

    Beautiful post. You are doing a beautiful thing for your son, trying to protect him from resentment and anger, he might not understand it now or appreciate it fully later, but you have protected him.

    The last family trip my parents took us on before their divorce involved a long car trip all over the East Coast. In Boston my father bought himself a fancy captain’s ball cap on the U.S. Constitution. He loved it and wore it for most of the trip. Till one of us accidentally knocked it out of the car on our way to Niagara Falls. When the loss was discovered hours later he was very very angry, and ended up walking 10 feet ahead of us for the whole of our stop at the Falls. For years whenever one of us was in Boston we would buy him a cap and mail it to him. He would accept the souvenirs without comment. He finally asked us a few years ago (25 years of cap-sending later) why we always sent him caps from the U.S. Constitution. Turns out he had no recollection whatsoever of the “cap incident” which was one of our favorite vacations-go-wrong tales among my siblings. After that we ended up all sharing childhood stories, and it was so funny/surprising/touching and sometimes sad to hear what he remembered vs what we did.

    • Ana, this is my favorite story. :) How amazing that he had no recollection all of those years! And so patiently accepted those hats! I love it.

  7. Huge hugs to you! I think every child has family narratives that shape their childhood and there is always that moment when you look back and wish maybe the narrative had been spun a little differently. My dad is disabled and the narrative that was spun around that really defined my childhood. As an adult, I see all the ways it could have been framed differently. But also, as an adult I see that my mom was just doing the best she could with the tools she had, and I’m sure your son will see that too. The stories parents tell are really limited by their own childhoods and experiences as well–each generation’s narrative shapes the next. You are an AMAZING mom and he is so very lucky to have you.

    • Thanks, lady. And you’re absolutely right. We do the best we can with what we know. And we do shape the next generation. I can only imagine how amazing my kid’s kids, should he choose to have them, will be…

  8. AL Parks says:

    I am always amazed when my brother and I get together and share stories from our childhood. The different perspectives is mind-boggling, at times. I especially love when one of us starts on a story, and the other has forgotten it. Searching your memory for anything that will remind you, finally getting to it, and wondering how you could have ever forgotten it. The mind is a funny thing!

  9. Piper Vaughn says:

    Great post! *hugs* It made me think of my own son and how he’ll remember things and the stories he’ll tell and the things I’m glad he won’t ever know.

    I hope your son will always see his own value and self-worth, despite the actions of his father, and know that the fault doesn’t lie with him, as easy as it might be to ask the questions “what’s wrong with me?” or “what did I do?” I do think most of his stories will be about the love he was surrounded with, and hope that when he’s older he realizes sometimes a person choosing not to be in your life might be better than that person only being there grudgingly.

  10. HJ says:

    I do so admire you for talking to your son about his father and for doing so neutrally, even positively, given the circumstances. I think you’ve done the right thing in every way, both in not forcing a relationship between them and in being truthful but mindful of your son’s ability to understand.

    Telling him stories about his relatives as you have done is reinforcing his sense of identity in an important way, too.

    • Thanks! I read an article when my son was little that talked about how it was easier for a kid to resist peer pressure when they felt like they belonged to a group of people who all did whatever it was that they wanted to do (not smoke or do drugs, study hard, whatever). I took that to heart for many of life’s challenges. We always feel better when we’re supported. So I tell me kid, “Your family are all big readers. We’re athletes. (That one was harder to get out w/a straight face, since I didn’t start running until 4yrs ago!) We don’t smoke. We like to help put in our community. And look at how many of us love you!” It makes him, and me!, feel good. :)

  11. Audra North says:

    I love this post because of the many, many layers of perspective and emotion going on here. I’ve been trying to figure out what to say and all I can come up with is, “I love you and you’re awesome.” Which, in the end, is the truth.

    Your boy is also amazing. He’s such a cool kid and so emotionally mature. You’re doing a fantastic job as a mom and a person. xoxo

  12. I love this post – and your Starbucks bench! It is just so powerful, to see that, and it must be weird to think of all the people who sit on it and they DON’T KNOW!! What a great response to your kid, to name all the people who love him, and I suspect/hope that the way it worked out is a blessing in disguise in some way.
    I was listening to a podcast (the Good life project interview with Erika Neapolitano) where she was talking about life stories, but at some point, your write your own story, but when you feel bad about yourself, you sort of join somebody else’s story, you put it on like a suit. I thought about it because I had this thought as I was reading, AJ’s boy won’t need to do that.

    • It is possible that writing that post may be the best thing I’ve ever done for my own feelings about the situation. Thank you so much for writing this.

  13. Edie Danford says:

    I’ve been thinking hard about the issues you so eloquently express here–especially how despite what stories we set out to write (or think we’re writing), and how different they seem to be from our own lives, that we can’t help but end up writing from some deeply personal space that informs our creativity, subconsciously or not.

    Right now I’m writing a story about two guys who unexpectedly become parents to a son and, yep, I’m finding that all kinds of images (both hefty and light) are seeping into the story as a result of my own experiences with a father who threw himself into the part of devoted dad when I was a tyke, but who chose to vacate that role when I was a tween. (Interestingly, I had trouble just now writing that word “chose”…guess it’s still hard for me to not make excuses for him and admit that it was a choice he made. And, yes!, that notion is in fact a driving force behind my writing on this very day. Wow.)

    Writing is such a puzzle–we shift around images and memories and random bits of information in our brains and spew them out as words we hope will resonate with other people’s lives/hearts. And all the while we’re learning about the puzzles in our own hearts too. Thanks so much for putting a few new pieces together for me. Loved how you did it by sharing your experiences here. Big hugs to you and your son. :)

  14. This is just lovely, Amy Jo. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Ruthie says:

    This is such a powerful post, AJ. I’m not sure how to contribute to this lovely comments thread except to say that your strategy around sharing information with your son not only seems sound and loving to me, but also that I suspect that as he grows up he will learn so much from it about you and how you loved him, too — because your love and protection, as well as your respect for his humanity, independence, and needs, all shine through here.