I want to share some recollections of my youth and while this is therapeutic for me, I hope you’ll find it informative and at times entertaining. Throughout, I try to describe how I felt then and upon reflection how I feel today and the impact of growing up in the home like ours.
I did not really speak until I was three years old. Experts told my parents this was because I didn’t have too! Between my gestures and my sisters speaking on my behalf, I felt no hurry to speak.
At three and a half, I expressed myself in complete sentences, which sounds impressive, but they were mostly gibberish. It was extremely frustrating to be understood, so I started to lash out with lots of temper tantrums and by hitting my younger brother.
When I started school, I had a hard time making friends and the words in my head were mostly those I was not allowed to say. Sometimes it felt therapeutic to yell them in kindergarten and I realized “poop”, “ugly”, and “boobies” were words I could say quite well. My parents (understandably) were upset with me, but I have to admit I liked the attention.
My parents had four kids: my sisters Kim and Diane, then me and finally my brother Drew. My mom was not a typical mom. We basically had no rules; except that she was a maniac about chores and loved to progressively raise her voice, quite a few decibels until we were done. If we really got out of hand, she did spank us but that was the norm, and she would always feel horrible afterwards. She would play a game called happy face vs. sad face. She would raise her hand over her face to show she was sad but then her face became happy, and she would want us to do the same. But I would hold onto my sad face refusing to turn into happy for as long as I could. I guess I built up this anger as I did not like how things were then and still have a hard time letting it go.
She wore a T-shirt that read ‘F… Housework’, which was so embarrassing for me. I wanted to steal the shirt and throw into the dumpster. Getting high marks or playing sports was never expected of us, but she did expect us to be good socializers and kind to people. At the time, I found her empathy frustrating, as she always believed people who did harm likely had harm done to them. This makes perfect sense now as an adult, but for a kid that was bullied it sounded like she cared more about the other kid than me.
Of course, the irony is that this is something my son now tells me I do; so, I try to be more aware of this and do it a little differently by empathizing with his side of the situation, clearly state the person was wrong and then slide into why they might have behaved like that and why he should choose to be the bigger person. Who knows if my approach was better? I think it depends on how he will write a post about me in his early 50s. I am sure, like all parents, I was not, and am not perfect.
I was the opposite of my mother. Growing up, I wanted structure, peace and quiet. My side of the room I shared with my older sister Diane was always super clean and organized but Diane’s side was not. We were similar to the roommates from The Odd Couple. I was Felix and Diane was Oscar. Later in business, I created countless binders, files and processes to maintain a highly efficient and orderly system and demanded the same from my teams!
I secretly longed to be an only child and get all my parents’ attention instead of the ten percent I felt I received, at best. I wanted to have my own bedroom and a bathroom I did not need to share with sisters. I dreamed of a quiet house where I could relax without so much fighting going on. My older siblings’ friends came over to our house just to observe the Stephens arguments and try to guess the outcomes.
At age five, my world changed when I met my soul sister and life-long best friend Marla. She was everything I was not: athletic, charismatic, confident, and basically an only child since her sibling were much older and had already moved out and married. Her mother dressed her in beautiful dresses and kept her hair long with curls and her dad bought cookies! In my mind, this was magical compared to the chaos at my home.
That is how I saw the world at five. I wanted to be adopted and for the two of us become true sisters. My mom bought our clothes at a discount chain called BiWay or made them from scratch. She thought pink and purple were too girlie. She wanted me to be “a free thinker”, which apparently meant wearing brown pants, odd skirts and only drab dresses in earth tones. Inside I wanted to express myself with soft summer colors, glitter, and lace. Now perhaps Mom was ahead of her time regarding gender equality etc. but me, the 5-year-old wanted the real girlie stuff. I still don’t know if these choices are innate or a consequence of the advertising industry’s influence, but back then I knew what I wanted and I wasn’t getting it! FYI I still love all things pink! Upon reflection, I also bought my son clothes from places like Walmart as opposed to high end boutiques rationalizing that he outgrew every item so quickly. I did this with only one child, so I hate to venture how I’d have handled 4 kids in this respect! Maybe Mom had a point, but it was not well communicated to me and most likely I would not have bought that argument! But for me, a few girlie pink items would have been great!
Marla was the only person who understood my non-coherent speech. She would translate my phrases for my siblings and even to my parents and at school. It was as if we had our own language. I used Marla’s voice to be my voice. I became dependant on Marla and leaned on her for many things. In first grade, they decided to create two classrooms and Marla and I were split up as they were concerned about my co-dependency. This is when I started speech therapy. It was years of learning how to pronounce r’s, s’s and h’s, among other things. My name has an r in it, so I could not even pronounce my own name correctly. I called myself Kawa Stefans.
If you ask my siblings, as I did, they might offer slightly different points of view about our early years, so obviously the memories are in the eye of the beholder or in this case the brains. But, let me assure you my memories are quite vivid! Ironically, Marla told me she envied the chaotic goings on at my house; how social it was, how something was always happening and the noise levels! Maybe we two should have been switched at birth! But I remind her that she only visited the chaos while I lived it 24/7.
Within a few years, everyone could understand me 80% of time. I think I just got good enough at faking it for people to stop paying much attention. Sometimes, I still feel like I am speaking a language all my own that only a few people seem to understand. Marla would say that my brain is faster than my mouth, an analogy I still use today.
Though it was not uncommon in my family (several of my siblings and family members also were in speech therapy at one time), it was difficult to have so many issues with speaking. It is a big part of how we socialize, how we learn about others and how others learn about us. Sometimes, I still plan out what I would like to say in my head and how best to say it; but when it comes time to speak, somehow it gets jumbled up and people fail to understand. This can be very frustrating, isolating and was especially so when I was young.
I still refuse to read a document out loud, or anything prepared for me to read as a speech. I need to understand the goals and key information I need to convey and then I more or less adlib it. Al always tells me that I am a great motivational speaker and probably it’s because I learn what message I have to convey and do it in my own words and style. Reading out loud is hard, especially if I see a word that I cannot pronounce. I have learned to quickly look for replacement word. This is also a tactic I use to manage my dyslexia.
I think that as we grow, we each bring along these bits of memories that are unique, both good and bad and overtime we laugh at the pleasant ones, likely supress certain ones which may resurface from time to time. In adulthood I believe it’s best to air these out as opposed to continuing to repress them, as this is not healthy. While we do learn to acclimatize within our world, there is genuine relief and sense of freedom to get those repressed feelings aired and off your chest, to put life into perspective.
We each have our own language.
We are flawed humans who each have our own thoughts and language.
Instead of suppressing it, try to find others who understand, are empathetic and can communicate it with you.