This poster hung on our wall when my children were growing up and still graces my bathroom today. I hope it’s in the public domain, but if not, here’s a link.
I grew up as a princess. Born to parents who were already in their forties, I was pampered to a high degree. Unlike my four older brothers and sisters, I was not compelled to compete for resources as children in a larger family must. My father, a steelworker in the heyday of workers’ unions, brought home a good salary with plenty of money to lavish on one little girl. My mother made me beautiful clothes, handknit my sweaters, and sent me off to school with homegrown bouquets of flowers for the teachers. I had no job other than to excel in the schoolroom, a task in which I had the full support and active help of my mother. I’d like to say I used these advantages wisely. The truth is, I was pretty insufferable.
Life has taken care of that. The moment my charmed childhood ended, the difficulties poured in and continued unremittingly for over 20 years. I almost went under beneath the burden. Today, however, I’m grateful for every one of these life experiences:
I believe that one of the main purposes of marriage is to sand off each other’s rough edges. The process can be painful. Even after 35 years of marriage, Mark and I are totally dissimilar in almost every way. Mark was not prepared to pamper and indulge me in the way I had come to accept as my right: he called me on every one of my princessy behaviours. Raised by a homemaker at a time when women were just beginning to storm the job market, I was highly ambivalent about the idea about working for a living. Part of me was prepared to let Mark do 100% of the work while I enjoyed 100% of the benefits. Mark, on the other hand, took it for granted that I would use my excellent education to contribute to the family income. Today, I’m grateful to him for challenging me at every turn, always insisting that I could be so much more than my own, limited version of myself. My novel is dedicated to him.
Lesson Learned: Even prickly relationships can bear good fruit. Good marriages may take a long, long time to reach their fullest potential. In the process, we become different, and better, people.
By this, I don’t mean poor by Canadian standards. (That, as I know from personal experience, is troubling enough.) I was poor in a poor country — not as an aid worker or a missionary is poor, sharing the people’s poverty by choice. I was just one of millions of poor residents, which is quite a different thing. None of my life experiences had prepared me for the shock of it. I washed diapers on a rock. I pawned my wedding ring multiple times to buy formula for the baby. And when I went into labour with my second son, I took the bus to the hospital, there being no money for a cab. Thankfully, the grinding poverty only lasted a few years. Again, it was the advantage of good educations that pulled us out of it.
Looking back, I see those years of poverty as the final nail in the coffin of entitlement. I know what kind of monster Susan-With-Money would have been. I, and my loved ones, escaped that fate.
Lesson Learned: Our most painful experiences can be put to good use. One of the things that landed me my first job as an employment practitioner was my hard-won knowledge of how challenging it can be to find work. I had been in the trenches and my clients knew it. I also know the painful invisibility of poverty, when prosperous people look through and beyond you. Today, while walking my dogs, I’ll stop and chat with people on the street who are visibly struggling to make it through another day. Our common love of dogs unites us, breaking down any barriers of clothing or education.
Through no fault of my very hardworking parents, the princess in me saw working for a living as something slightly shameful. I even resented being born on a Saturday! (Saturday’s child has to work for its living.)
Gradually, over time, I came to love my work. I learned to establish morning routines (wake up, do my devotionals, make the kids’ breakfast, shower, leave at the same time every day). In them, I found the structure I was missing in life. I learned to set daily goals and achieve them. My job taught me how to deal with conflict. And I discovered, finally, the satisfaction that comes from a job that is really well done.
Lesson Learned: The shot of endorphins that I get at the end of a highly productive work day can be as invigorating as chocolate or sex.
4. Emotional Chaos
Walden was one of my favourite books as a young person. In it, Henry Thoreau wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” (In later years, this quote has been expanded to include “and die with their song still in them.”)
I owe an immense debt of gratitude to three institutions: Parents Together, 12-Step programs, and puppy school. Thanks to them, I will not go to my death with songs unsung.
In Empty Nest Romance, I spoke of the year or two that Mark and I spent in a parents’ support group. Through it, we learned to communicate in a whole new way. And because our children were still young enough at the time, they picked up this new mode of communication by osmosis. I believe it helped us raise a generation who is far wiser than we were ever capable of being.
My career has also given me the opportunity to study my emotions. Almost 20 years ago, I was taught to facilitate behaviour and communication workshops. Through them, I gained an understanding of my own emotions and how to use them for my benefit as well as the well being of those around me.
Lesson learned: At Parents Together meetings, I was always amazed to see how few of us were gathered around that table, considering how widespread the problem is. In today`s world, there is no need to suffer in silence. Help is available. Your loved ones will be the ultimate beneficiaries of your courage to take that first step.
In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway said, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”
Romans 5:3-4 says it even better: “We know that suffering
produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Hope: that is my wish for you in these years of living backwards.
Susan Young de Biagi is a regular contributor to prdn.
“As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou—my first novel—I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction, and authored a number of digital, educational products.”