I celebrated my birthday this past weekend and it got me thinking about my life. It hit me that someday I will have to explain myself to my daughter. Or, rather, add explanation to a story someone tells about me. I’m cool with this, for the most part. But it is weird to think of all the things in my life that might come back to bite me.
After I started thinking about it, I realized there are some stories that I don’t want other people to tell about me. There are some stories I want to tell for myself. But we don’t get to choose what comes out of the mouths of family and friends. Mostly it will be things to laugh about, like the time I accidentally forgot I loaned my bike to a friend and the cops were called because I thought it was stolen. My bad. Or my “creative” thrift-store-punk style in high school (I once wore an outfit to work that resulted in the dress code being re-written. That very day.).
But what about the stories I want to tell for myself? I don’t know if I’ll get the chance, but I hope I’m the one to fill in the blank for my daughter about things like these:
- I considered dropping out of high school. And by considered, it was a momentary flirtation. By my junior year I was holding down two after-school jobs, doing music and drama (I went to a magnet school) and, of course, regular classes full-time. I had to work to help my mom pay the bills or we’d be out on the street. There wasn’t really a choice about that. (Long story.) But the truth is, I was never going to quit. While I might have day-dreamed about chucking school, I knew it was my only ticket out of poverty and a life without choices. What I want my daughter to take from this is that sometimes life is hard, but you have to dig deep and hang in there. Sometimes in life you have to fight to win. But it’s always, always worth the work and the fight. Always! Even when you don’t win, you learn. The message I don’t want her to get is, “It’s okay to give up.” Or even that I didn’t think school was important (It is!). Or that other people didn’t believe in me or think I could do it. (Because if they didn’t believe in me, maybe she’ll think they don’t believe in her either.) And, for the record, I not only finished high school but I graduated early, with honors. And then I went to college and graduated from there, too.
- I used to steal things. The reason why I did this is to eat. I had to steal food (and sometimes other necessities) to survive when I was without a penny in the world. Every now and then I stole little trinkets (mostly hair dye) to make myself feel better, but 99% of what I stole was to maintain my existence in this world. I’m not proud of it. I don’t want my daughter to do it — especially not for the reasons I had to. I don’t know how I’ll ever explain it if it ever comes up. But maybe that’s when we’ll talk about how some people fall on hard times and sometimes you have to do things that would otherwise be wrong.
- I used to hoard food and binge eat. Eating disorder. Check. Yeah, that’s going to be tough to explain. It was about control, as it always is. And I wanted to fill a void and nullify the despair I felt about things in my life I could not control. (More on that in a second.) Food tastes good. It’s easy to get. It’s legal. And when you’re 13, nobody really thinks it’s weird to come home with a big bag of candy. I was blessed with a high metabolism, so I was never fat as a kid or teenager. The most important thing that I would want to tell my daughter about this is that (1) that part of my life is over and you don’t have to be afraid I will do that again and (2) you are beautiful just the way you are and to never let anyone steal your joy. Food is not a replacement for love. And, my daughter, you never have to worry that you don’t have love because no matter what I will always love you.
- I was molested. Maybe this will never come up. That’s my fantasy. The reality is, it may come up at some point. I’ve written a lot about it and I support work in a variety of ways around this issue, so there is a chance she will discover this or she’ll hear someone talking to me about it. However, it happens, it will be tough. Over the years I’ve struggled with being open about this aspect of my life. What I decided a few years ago was that to be silent was to live with a secret. And the darkest part of sexual abuse is the secrecy. It’s the secrecy that haunts you. So, for me, being open about it is about coming out of the darkness. It’s about showing that the shame is not mine to bear. It’s about taking back my power, which is very hard to do. It’s about bravery and courage, too. And at the same time, I want her to see that this is not what defines me or my life. I am not, Sexual Abuse Survivor. I am Emmily Bristol. The abuse, as terrible as it was, is just one part of many of my life. It’s just one square in my life quilt.
They say that the victors write history. But when it comes to parenthood, I think the history is just what spills out. From you. From your family. From your friends. From co-workers. And on and on. I hope that what my daughter hears about me falls into a context of what she knows to be true about who I am. I’m not perfect and I’ve made some mistakes. But most of all, I hope my daughter always knows without a shadow of a doubt that I love her. Every day. All the time. With all my heart. And the rest we can sort out later.