Most people I know yearn for their childhood, for those so-called “simpler times” when naps and playtime were fundamental parts of our busy schedules and when our biggest responsibility was making sure we brought the right toy for whatever playdate our parents had set up for us. Nowadays, we hear a lot of talk about nostalgia and adults dreaming about the days when life was better, with no social media to distract us and kids could just be kids. As children, we tend to see the positive in everything. The good, the bad and the in-between are all filtered through the rose-colored glasses that our innocence and blissful ignorance grant us.
Whenever I think back on my childhood, the first thing I can remember is wearing poofy dresses, huge hats with flowers on them and hair bows twice the size of my head. I remember getting birthday presents from every single member of my extended family and spending every holiday possible running around my great-grandmother’s backyard with my many cousins. There were yearly trips to my grandparents’ summer house in Texas and a few trips to SeaWorld and Disney World. I had a favorite stuffed toy the size of an adult and a favorite cow costume that I refused to take off—yes, I was very into cows back then. I had more Barbie dolls than I could ever play with and every snack a kid could ever want in the kitchen, ready to be devoured. I guess I was what many would consider a somewhat spoiled child. Not that I don’t agree now, but back then my life seemed pretty average.
While most of those quick memories are seemingly happy ones, upon further reflection, there were some very dark parts to growing up the way I did. See, the thing about children’s innocence is that those rose-colored glasses aren’t great when it comes to filtering out trauma. We might think that a trip to Disney World is nothing more than a nice family outing, but really it’s your parents’ last attempt at giving you all the memories of a happy family before they break the news that they are getting a divorce. And, sure, my life as a kid was nothing short of privileged. But behind every Barbie doll and every makeup kit I received as gifts, there was a darker reality I couldn’t yet understand.
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I Avoided Contact With My Mother
Growing up, I knew exactly where my favorite dulce de leche cookies were hidden in the pantry; they were next to a small acrylic box containing my mother’s vast collection of caffeine pills and over-the-counter painkillers, her favorite snack. Every day after I was done with my schoolwork, I’d sneak away to the kitchen, grab a few cookies and run back to my room, leaving a trail of crumbs behind me that my nanny had to clean up quickly before my mother got home. While enjoying my cookies, I’d hide away in the room I shared with my younger sister, take all my Barbie dolls out and hope with all my heart my mother would get home, take her pills and quietly go into her room for the night.
I learned at an early age it was easier to avoid contact with her as much as I could. Some days were good. If she was in enough of a decent mood, she’d take me and my siblings out on picnics to one of the prettiest public parks in our town, or we’d spend the day lounging at the country club pool and ordering as many french fry plates and tomato juices as we could stomach. She would talk to my teachers and plan “princess for a day” days for me at school, a weird attempt to make me hate the private school where I was constantly bullied over my weight a little less. Looking back, though, these extra-special treatment days I got only made kids bully me harder. At least she tried sometimes.
Going to My Grandma’s House Was the Highlight of Childhood
Most of the time, though, she’d get home “too tired” to deal with her kids and would either lock herself up in her bedroom until the next morning or take out all her frustrations from work on us. I remember standing in front of the gold entryway mirror wall in my underwear a few times and being told I was too fat to ever be loved by anyone. “You’re nine and you look pregnant.” Mind you, she was never around long enough to make sure I had healthy meals but always long enough to make sure I knew I was somehow wrong for not eating healthily.
There were days when I’d be dropped off at my grandmother’s place after school, and I honestly can’t remember a better feeling than seeing our driver take the turn to Grandma’s street instead of driving straight towards my house. At Grandma’s house, nothing could go wrong. I’d eat all the snacks I wanted, I’d spend hours watching Disney Channel and playing with all the vintage toys that used to belong to my mother and her siblings. The best part? I usually got to sleep over at her place and got to continue the fun and relaxation until late at night.
Aside from days at Grandma’s, the only thing that would keep me sane was counting the days until I got to spend a weekend at my dad’s place. Those six days a month away from all the drama and fear of my mother’s house were always the highlight of my young life. It didn’t matter if all we did was hang out on the couch and watch “movies with a message,” his favorite genre. For a few nights, I was happy.
How Much Happiness Did I Actually Have as a Kid?
Now, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad. Most of it, maybe. But I do remember being a happy child, despite all that I had going on. I fondly remember being an absolute show choir nerd and reading books upon books, filling up my time with fun adventures and characters. I remember sneaking into my grandpa’s study to watch some scary movie my cousins and I were way too young to be watching and helping my grandmother make her famous quiche.
Sometimes I can’t help but wonder, though, how much was actual happiness, and how much of it was just my brain protecting me and covering up the painful truth with a happier memory? I guess I will never know for certain, so all I’m left with is the knowledge of what was, what should have been, and how I can be better because of it.