Friday, February 01, 2008

F is for Family or Faking It

An Encylopedia of Me blog

When I grew up in the fifties and early sixties, a normal family consisted of a mother, a father and an average of 2.5 children. The ideal dream of mom and dad, kids, dog, and house in the suburb with picket fence was alive and booming along with the babies. TV shows like Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver helped further promote the ideal.

Families always lived in their own house in the suburbs. They might have had problems (but funny ones), mom and dad might argue (but always made up), and the worst a teen could do was get caught smoking (cigarettes).

Jokes about the one-half children aside, any deviation from this norm was seen as an aberration.

Atypical families with divorced or single parents were looked upon with a mixture of scorn in the case of the divorced; and pity or scandalous outrage in the case of single (unwed) parents. Mostly, people didn't talk about it in polite company.

I remember when I was in third grade and the class found out the mother of one of the boys was to remarry. It was only then, that we discovered – GASP – she was Divorced! She and John had been living on their own without a father in the house! The older girls (grades five and six) spread talk about scarlet women and being loose (or was it loose scarlet women?). Whatever they were talking about, I could only conjure up the image of John's pretty mother in a red crinolined dress. Up until then, I don't think anyone even knew John didn't live with his father; and the only reason any of this came to light at all was because John had to change his surname to match that of his new father -- heaven forbid that he'd have to go through life with a different last name.

Which comes to me. I spent the better part of my childhood pretending to be like the other - what I thought to be - typical kids and their families. Like all children, I wanted to fit in and be liked. Never mind the fact that I wasn't white in a predominantly white community. I wanted friends to think that I was like them.

During my public school years, I lived with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in varying combinations and households. I only lived with both parents in a "typical" family unit until about age two when my mother died. I never lived with my father again, despite the fact he remarried and had a new family. From my recollection, I lived in seven different households for varying lengths of time by the time I finished high school. - So much for the typical family scenario. - Awhile ago, I found all my old report cards and counted five different "parent" signatures on the backs.

Given the reality of my situation, it wasn't easy learning how to fake it. But fake it, I did. If anyone asked me what my father did, I'd tell them he was a business manager. If they asked whether I had brothers and sisters, I'd say no (they were only half-siblings after all). I didn't lie – I just didn't elaborate. I never asked school friends to come over and play or the jig would have been up. I went to friends' birthday parties, but I always declined the offer to have one of my own. I soldiered on with my semi-truths until high school when it was quite obvious I was living with the family of louder and more outgoing cousins.

In retrospect, I'm sure the teachers and some of the parents knew my real background, but it would have been impolite to mention it back then.

Some people bemoan the decline of the traditional Ozzie and Harriet family. Maybe there was no such beast. Maybe there were more non-traditional families out there than we ever wanted to acknowledge. I'm glad things have changed. I'm glad we view families differently and that it's okay to say you have a single parent or a divorced parent, or that you live with relatives. No more faking it.


4 comments:

Kay Dennison said...

I understand this completely. My parents were together for 18 years but I don't remember they're being without conflict or abuse.

My own children who knew what was going on are in denial about my making the choice to end my marriage. I was the injured party but I am the bad guy because I destroyed the myth. Their attitude hurts like hell but I'm glad I made the choice I did.

I think at heart we all wanted our folks to be like Ozzie and Harriet or the Cleavers. I think we also knew that was pipe-dreaming.

Stella said...

Ell,
My heart goes out to you, to have grown up with these deep losses of your parents and such an inconsistency of home. That, on top of feeling so different from those in your community, must have had an impact on your being. (If I'm just being too presumptuous, please forgive.)

Have you read the book "The Loss That Is Forever" by Maxine Harris? It is a collection of people with stories just like yours, along with the author's commentary and insights.
Take care,
Stella

ell said...

All those early childhood experiences helped me on the path to become the person I am today. In many ways, I think they've helped me become a better person - with more empathy and understanding than if I'd been raised in an Ozzie 'n Harriet household. Just to reassure everyone, not everything was negative. There were many positives along the way. Good and bad - true for most people, I think.

Kay, mostly I'd like people to get over the notion of this mythical ideal. It sets people up for failure. Every family should strive for their own ideal.

Stella,
I haven't read the Maxine Harris book, but will look it up.

Joy said...

I did grow up in one of those 50's TV sitcom families - really. It gave me a foundation of safety and security that helped me later on. I wasn't prepared for big problems and had a hard time learning how to deal with them. Coming from a functional family helped me bring up my son in one even though I was a single-parent from the time he was five and I got a divorce. He didn't grow up with Ozzie and Harriet but did learn that life goes on after a divorce.