Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived in a beautiful, four-storey home with her mother, her grandmother, her grandfather and her dog, Skipper. The little girl grew up surrounded by love and attention. Her home was the safest place she could think of, and though loved reading and learning at school, she always felt a total sense of ease and relaxation when she arrived home.
Her grandmother would walk her to and from school every day; her mother, who had to work, would come home by 4pm every afternoon and they would all sit down to a home-cooked meal with her grandfather every night. After dinner she and her family would sit at the table and she would do her homework while her mother paid bills, her grandmother read a book, and her grandfather read the newspaper.
She had the easiest life imaginable, and the most supportive family. They never asked her to do a single chore; they didn’t want anything to distract her from her studies. They knew she was smart and hoped she would grow to do great things one day. She knew she would never let them down.
She excelled in school, and even though she didn’t have a lot of friends, the friends she did have were loyal, honest, and supportive. They would study together all the time, help each other through exams, and save seats for each other at lunch.
The little girl grew to be confident and happy. She graduated high school, attended college, and married a wonderful man who always told her to follow her dreams. She had two beautiful children and lived a very fulfilling life of love and laughter.
Once upon a time there was another little girl. She grew up in a small house in the city. Her mother and father divorced when she was only two years old, and her mother had to work long hours to support her family. The little girl had no brothers or sisters, and few friends, and as an only child she was often very lonely. She was so bored, some days, she’d play board games with herself. Sometimes she would even cheat. The Dog was such a cooler Monopoly character than the Thimble, so she always made sure the Dog won.
She hated going to school. She was fat, so many of her classmates made fun of her. She always did very well in her classes, but that often made the bullying worse. In second grade she started to be so terrified and anxious before going to school that she threw up every morning. That lasted until she was in fourth grade.
For years, she did absolutely nothing but study. From the minute she woke up, on the bus ride to school, to the minute she went to sleep, she was always reading, writing, memorizing. Her mother took her aside quite a few times to tell her not to work so hard, saying, “I would be proud of you even if you failed.” Failure terrified the little girl. If she wasn’t an ‘A’ student, she wouldn’t be anything at all.
School was her rock, the only thing she knew. After high school, she went to college, then graduate school and got a teaching job. But eventually the job she trained for paid her so little compared to what her husband made, there was almost no point in working at all–because especially after the kids came along her salary would barely cover the cost of child care. She started volunteering to keep herself busy, and while that was great, there was a part of her that knew she was capable of more. She just didn’t know what it was.
Which story do you like better? The story of the first girl or of the second? Which girl do you better relate to? Which one do you want to read more about, if any?
Here’s the thing, though: the girls in those stories are the same girl. And that girl is me.
A long time ago I learned that we all have a narrative, a story that we tell ourselves and others. When I was young I read a book entitled We are the Stories We Tell. I forgot pretty much everything about that book, but the title has always remained in my head. When we tell a story about ourselves, we get to choose which details to emphasize, and which to skirt over.
Some of us will be more drawn to the first kind–stories of joy, gratitude, and sweetness. Others prefer the second kind–tales that include pain, sadness, and fear.
But no matter which story we prefer, we all have both types of stories living within us, all the time. Which do we choose to tell, and why? Is that the version we should tell? Does “should” even enter into it?
I will admit I hate the story of the second little girl. It’s so negative and whiney, and seems so much less true to who I am than the first version. While I struggled as a kid, my struggles had nothing on things others have lived through. I was never abused. I was always fed, clothed, sheltered. I was always loved and supported. So many people can’t say that in any version of their story. So I always choose to tell or emphasize the first version because it’s the truest to my view of myself.
I’ve had a terrible time lately struggling to define who I am, what I do, what I want to do–mostly to myself, but also to others. This coronavirus lockdown has brought me to feel the worst kind of useless–unnecessary, unneeded, like a ghost that’s overstayed her welcome. Maybe it’s because I am always caught in this tug-of-war, this pull of absolute gratitude and this push of acknowledging my life is far from perfect. In my story, I am not a hero, but I am not a victim. I have both privilege and pain. Is it a story worth reading? Is it a story worth writing? Maybe not. But I think it’s the beginning of a story I need to tell, if only to encourage others to share their perfectly imperfect stories, as well.