I have been reading about childhood shame. Those of us who knew from the age of seven or eight, maybe earlier, that our sexuality was not “normal” tend to have a bit of that. My early awareness of my sexuality, coupled with early sex acts and the great God of religion looming like a dark cloud over my Scarborough house, created a serious monster of shame that is rising up to bite me in the ass now that I am an adult.
One of the books I’ve been reading, Shame and Guilt: Masters of Disguise by Jane Middleton-Moz, suggests that one of the ways childhood shame manifests in adulthood is through the relentless seeking of unconditional love. The author believes that it is actually impossible to receive unconditional love from another adult and, unfortunately, dishearteningly, I tend to agree. Everyone’s love is conditional. Everyone’s, that is, except Gracie’s.
Gracie is my daughter. She is six months old now, starting to eat cereal, bang on the piano and walk on my feet in tiny steps around the kitchen. My therapist recently asked me to identify the last time I felt like I could just be, without trying, without questioning, and I answered without hesitation, “When Gracie was born.”
Is that why we have kids? So we can feel again (or for some of us, for the very first time) that sense that we can do no wrong, that all of our past mistakes have been erased, our future errors already forgiven?
As a queer person with a history of guilt and shame I feel flawed — because the world sees me that way, or at least the world I was moving through when my precarious self-worth was forming. It is amazing how deep our roots go, even the ones that have not been nurtured in ages.
I feel like a tree that has formed rings around the painful core beliefs that were instilled in my childhood. Every year there is another ring, a wider buffer between them and the world, but they haven’t gone away. Removing them from the core of my beliefs about myself seems like a monumental task — termites or beetles or a forest fire would be just the beginning. And I wonder, will I lose part of who I am? I have always lived within the context of my own self-doubt and self-hatred — who in the world would I be without it?
But it isn’t true that I have always lived that way, and I have Gracie for proof of that. Gracie has none of those feelings. I think I had at least six good years where I felt like there was nothing wrong with me, nothing different about me, nothing shameful. I spend 23 years not feeling that, and then here is Gracie in the simple act of gazing up at me, bringing back this precious long-lost feeling for minutes, sometimes hours at a time. Having a child is forcing me to confront the possibility that I am loveable and acceptable despite what I’ve done or who I’ve been. Having a child is making me feel like it is possible, not to start over, but to clean the slate and move forward, engage in self-forgiveness and begin to learn self-love.
It is no coincidence, is it, that I became a parent at this time in my life? I was reaching a breaking point in my need for approval, testing the people closest to me for forgiveness and acceptance because I have become so desperate for a way to forgive and accept myself. I want constantly to ask, do you love me? Do you love me now? And now? But what am I really asking is am I loveable now? How about now? Which of course no one can tell me but me (and a therapist, and maybe Paxil or Clonazepam or whatever that prescription was).
By the way I haven’t killed anyone. But the gravity of my behaviour in my eight-year-old mind is relative, and sometimes it feels like I killed someone. Maybe because my sister died when I was nine. Or maybe because I have been killing time by watching way too much Dexter.
I know that Gracie’s love will become increasingly conditional as she gets older. Not that she won’t still love me but it won’t be that pure, completely nonjudgmental kind of love that we exchanged when she was a baby. She will be seven and compare me to her friends’ moms, she’ll be 13 and not want to walk beside me on the street, she’ll be 16 and tell me all of my rules are completely unfair, she’ll be 21 and hate the way I make scrambled eggs or interrogate her dates on their way out the door. Will my love for her become conditional too?
My therapist is encouraging me just to remember the feeling Gracie gives me right now, to bask in the reality that, like everyone, I am worthy of being loved unconditionally — queer, sexual, imperfect, exactly as I am — by my child, by my family and by myself.