When I about 4 years old, I was in a large, Center City Philadelphia department store with my mother and sister. It was Christmastime, and the place was truly packed: I was surrounded by a sea of legs and winter coats. I was expected to follow my mother as she shopped. After a while I became more nervous, fearing I’d lose her in the crowd, so I took hold of the hem of her coat. I followed like this for what seemed like a very long time in my tiny mind. We wove in and out amongst the strangers and then she stopped and turned to look down at me. The person whose coat I was holding was not my mother. I don’t remember many details after this. Just the sense of horror that my mother had morphed into a stranger. I was eventually returned to my mother.
She was angry and chastised me for getting lost.
It became an ongoing family joke that I’d grabbed onto the wrong person, like some kind of pathetic street urchin, an idiot.
I bought and internalized the story with my family’s spin, complete with shame and embarrassment. It’s what we do as children.
When my family would chide me about this event, and I’d feel uncomfortable, they’d insist I was just too sensitive and had no sense of humor.
It wasn’t until many years later that I revisited the incident, with the clarity that good therapy and time afforded.
At such a young age, why had I been expected to keep my mother in my sight?
Why hadn’t she been holding my hand?
How was getting lost my fault?
Why was my trying to keep safe turned into some kind of wretched character defect?
Once I became an adult and extracted myself from the chaos of that family, I understood that this moment in time was a perfect illustration of their dysfunction:
My mother was not the safe protector I needed. All attempts to come to my own rescue would fail.
okay normal that small children don’t have the skill necessary to save themselves with finesse. My family’s firmly held and twisted logic that children are expected to care for the adults in their lives was evident here in this story.
No one ever suggested that my mother might have made a mistake or that she should have been responsible for my safety and care.
No one ever held her accountable for this (or years of) negligence.
She was never able or willing to do the important things necessary to keep me safe.
It was only in realizing this awful truth that I could pull away from my family and parent myself with the compassion all children deserve.