Yes, Inconsistent Childhoods CAN Build Character
What’s the old adage? Consistency is the best thing you can offer your children…or something to that effect? Well if that’s the case, then I’m the poster child for inconsistency. My parents divorced when I was 7, and following that I had a new place to call home almost every year after that for 11 years.
I now have two sons – ages 6 and 3 – and I’ve started to think about the day when we’ll eventually move from our first home. The thought of house hunting is a few years away, but I worry deeply about it.
For some of you this may seem like a strange thought, but there’s much that goes along with changing the roof over your head. It’s not just the new, fun street name or the exciting feeling of walking into a clean palette to begin decorating. It’s the significant change that will fall from the sky, reeking havoc on the routine and order in my childrens’ lives. When I consider this, my mind begins buzzing with fear and a familiar, uncomfortable feeling starts filling my whole being.
That probably sounds dramatic. But when I give you a taste of my experiences with moving as a child and into my adolescent years, you may begin to understand.
Move # 1
I was 7 and it was hard. Our new place was a small garden apartment. There was so much going on with mom and the divorce that there was no time for playdates or get-togethers with brand new school friends. I don’t recall having any friends in second grade. The feeling that I was a fish out of water never seemed to go away. It’s obvious now that a lot of that had to do with my parent’s divorce. We’d left our ranch home in a cute little cul-de-sac where we’d play outside until dark. The neighbors had become our close family friends. School was a close enough walk for both Kindergarten and First grade.
Move # 2
I was 9 and happy! Mom was getting re-married to a guy my sister and I really didn’t know or care for, but hey, I really liked my teacher and all my new friends. But…there was this psychopath girl that followed me home, accused me of stealing her cousin’s bike and beat the snot out of me. And then there was the group of 10 or so kids that followed me home and about five of them “jumped” me. But hey..I was the new girl so maybe that’s to be expected right? You get crap from everyone when you’re new…or so I thought.
I was 10 and angry. It sucked leaving my friends. The rich boys in the back of the bus teased my sister and me often. How did I know they were rich? The bus dropped them off in front of large houses in the wealthy neighborhood on the bus route, very different from our modest homes. One boy once teased us for having the “smallest house on the block” and for being “poor”. As the first girl wearing a bra, I was the 5th grade joke. One boy even spread a rumor that we’d “hooked up” in the woods behind the school. I didn’t even know what “hooked up” meant. Did the other fifth graders really believe this? My nickname became “slut”. I didn’t understand why the kids were so mean. My fifth grade teacher called me a “wench” because I made another girl cry. What this teacher didn’t realize was that the girl had cried when I finally stuck up for myself! This little ten year old bully of a girl teased me relentlessly each day about my clothes, my boobs, my hair; everything right down to my name. I finally snapped at her about still wetting her bed at 10 years old. There was my sinking feeling that when you’re the new girl, even the teachers don’t know you well enough to give you the benefit of the doubt. I felt jealous of the comfort she received from my teacher. She’d been at this same school since kindergarten. What did it feel like for people to have your back within a school system? I certainly wouldn’t know.
I was 11 and thrilled. We were getting out of this place! No more teasing! Or better yet, maybe other girls would be wearing bras at this school? Then my mom shared the most wonderful news…we were moving just a few streets down from our old place so we’d be attending our old school! I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven, at least for a few months. Then the psychopath from fourth grade (please refer to move #2) started leaving me letters saying how much she wanted to be my friend. She followed me home a few times and threatened to have a gang beat me up. There were a few inescapable scuffles (since it was sort of hard to avoid someone who followed me home so often). Sadly, she did eventually have me cornered and alone. An off duty police officer happened to see her stomping on the back of my head and saved me just before I passed out from lack of oxygen. This was by far the toughest few years for many reasons. My mom divorced again, and worked crazy long hours as a hairdresser; she wasn’t home much. Money was extremely tight. The junior high I went to was rough and the bus rides to and from school would consist of fist fights, hair being torn out and – if you were lucky to escape a foot to the head – gum mixed with phlegm dripping from your hair.
I was 14 and it was dramatic. We were moving in with our Dad…there was just one problem. Mom didn’t know. Dad picked us up and off we went. New home, new school, and new fiancee. A custody battle ensued. Things got ugly quick. We remained with Dad and our new Step-monster. Oh and did I mention all the kids from that school I went to in fifth grade attended this high school? Freshman year was pretty much the same as fifth grade. Rinse, wash, repeat. I daydreamed on the bus ride home everyday about graduation and when the time would come that I could leave “home” and make my own decisions.
I was 15. Dad changed his mind about custody. He kept my sister, but drove me to mom’s new apartment and said goodbye to me forever. The amazing news was I was back to the high school I’d spent my first three days at as a Freshman! I was relieved and overjoyed to see my long time friends again. The amazing thing was just about every elementary school I had attended was in this high school’s district. I felt like I knew EVERYONE. This high school felt like HOME. I tried out for the cheerleading squad and made it. Things were looking up!
I was 16. Mom was having a tough time making ends meet. Dad’s unexpected ditching of his firstborn on her doorstep had sent her finances into a tailspin. When he decided he didn’t want to be my father anymore, Mom had been living in a small apartment and not expecting me with just a backpack to my name showing up on her doorstep. She had to buy me clothes, eyeglasses, contacts, a mattress, food, and spent lots of money on gas to drive me to the school district where most of my friends lived. Money ran out and we got evicted. I lived on a friend’s couch…well, mattress on the floor of his brother’s room to be exact. Ironically, it was the home of our wonderful neighbors, just one house away from that cute ranch that my parents had lived in when they were married. More than anything, I was thankful for a roof and home-cooked meals. What was supposed to be just a month turned into several months. Mom stayed at a friend’s house until she’d saved enough money for a place. I got a job at a movie theater a few miles away and started to think about my future.
I was 17. A senior in high school. This home wasn’t too far from the other two streets we’d lived on. The blessing was that there was no need to switch to a new high school. I fell in love with my first real boyfriend. The movie theater gave me lots of hours and I was able to buy food and clothes for myself. My relationships in my life were plentiful, solid, good. My closest friend’s parents had become like second parents to me. Life was pretty good. There was a roof over my head, Mom and I were together again, and I was only a short time away from independence. My junior year had been so emotionally unstable with the whole eviction; there hadn’t been much of a parental presence since mom and I hadn’t been living under the same roof. I called my sister from a payphone while I was at Prom and told her to rub it into Dad that I’d been given the Prom Queen title. I was walking on air. A year before, I’d been tossed out of my Dad’s home like yesterday’s garbage and now here I was in one piece with the crown.
I was 18 and finally headed off to college. It was exhilarating and I was scared as hell. What was I going to be when I grew up? I’d think about that later. I moved to the Westernmost side of the state and went to school about 4 hours from home. College was fun.
I was 21 and on the fast-track program so I could complete school a semester early. I was more than eager to get out into the real world and make a buck. There was a deep-seeded anxiety about never amounting to anything and I wanted to jumpstart some kind of career right away. After graduation, I moved back in with mom who was at a new residence, different than the one where I’d spent my senior year.
Shortly after moving in with mom, I headed out to live with my sister in Boston. Officially, I was ready to take on my adult life and elated to have a place I could (maybe?) call my own.
These experiences are definitely not the norm for most. Obviously. Do I think my children will be traumatized by a couple of moves in their young lives? Probably not, and these days I do firmly believe growth stems from hardship, but that doesn’t mean I don’t worry about how they will FEEL when it happens.
Dissecting my history – move by move – brings me to the realization that the places which truly felt like “home” weren’t the actual bricks and mortar that I slept beneath. It was without question the people and the rich relationships cultivated along the way that fueled my hope.
At the end of the day, my constant exposure to different environments rounded me out in so many ways. It made me adaptable to difficult situations. It made me strong. It taught me how to pinpoint the good people from the bad quickly, along with a handful of other solid life lessons.
Maybe instead of focusing on that old “consistency is the best policy” adage, I’ll forge ahead and not worry, reminding my kids that life is a journey, and it would be pretty boring to stay in one place for all of it.
(Artwork by Torrie Lockwood Rohling, talented sister of one of our writers. https://www.facebook.com/torrie.rohling )