Daddy's Childhood Stories: Not Safe for Children or Other Living Things
I don’t like to brag, but I had the kind of entertainingly traumatic childhood that people write tragicomic memoirs about. I sure did! We didn’t have a lot of money or resources or connections growing up but while we were poor when it came to money and having things we were rich in bleakly funny anecdotes.
We didn’t have trust funds or summer homes or fancy cars or boatloads of caviar but we had stories. Oh sweet blessed lord did we ever have stories. We had funny stories. We had sad stories. We had stories that were equally funny and sad, and consequently deeply human. I wish I could say that my childhood stories covered a broad spectrum of emotion but they were mostly just sad and funny and a lot of times they weren’t even funny except in the bleakest, “Why does God and the universe hate us?” sort of way.
Now that I am a father myself I see the value of these stories of childhood woe, of suffering, of doing without, but also their limitations.
As a dad, I have a strong internal desire to share with my boys stories of How Things Were When I Was a Boy. This is a universal impulse I reckon, but it is particularly strong for me because the gulf between my life as a small boy and the lives of my children can feel unfathomably vast some times.
To put things into perspective, my four year old has, at minimum, three rooms full of toys, two in our home and one in his incredibly indulgent, generous grandparents’ apartment. By comparison, when I was four years old, I possessed three or so toys.
If I received a present on my birthday that I did not need to gently, or not so gently, coax my impoverished father into “giving” me I considered myself lucky. Hannukah was a bitter lie; as a Jew I was supposed to get eight modest gifts to the gentiles’ one for Christmas; in actuality I got nothing and the goys seem to get everything, culturally and gift-wise. My son can reasonably expect someone in his life, mainly me or his grandparents, to give him a present of some sort, what us Jews call tchotchkes, pretty much every day, whether he’s done anything to deserve it or not.
I’m overjoyed that I’m able to give my son the stability and security that I desperately lacked and longed for as a child but what’s the point of suffering as a child, and a teenager, and an adult, if you cannot lord that suffering over your children? What’s the point of enduring a Great Depression-style upbringing full of abandonment, rejection, poverty and agonizing loneliness if you can’t harness the awesome power of the Jewish Parental Guilt Trip?
Yes, I am tempted on a regular basis to let my children know How Things Were When I Was Their Age and consequently How Incredibly Lucky They Are in comparison but I generally either restrain myself of my own accord or my wife keeps me in check.
Because my stories of childhood suffering and deprivation are ultimately not family or kid-friendly. At this young age, my son does not need to know how I suffered as a young man. He doesn’t need that heaviness in his life. It would not be appropriate. Instead of making him feel grateful for everything he has that I desperately lacked, these depressing tales of youthful angst would probably just be depressing.
I want to protect my son from the ugliness and the darkness of life, even when that ugliness and darkness exists in my own past. So it looks like daddy’s many, many wonderful stories about how bad he had it as a child, and how much better his own progeny have it will remain in cold storage, possibly for good.
Besides, if my boys are really curious about my lifelong struggles with mental illness, there are multiple self-indulgent books on the subject they can read, like The Big Rewind and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me and that way, I get sweet, sweet royalties in the process.
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