The doctor was a short, round Asian man, who never spoke directly to me, only to my mother. He would incessantly clear his throat. His eyes looked everywhere but my face. He began with taking my temperature, then asking me to breathe in and out while he listened to my heart.
I was ten. My mother was so excited we finally had some “good health insurance,” so she took me to a new doctor for a checkup.
While I knew it was normal check-up procedure to press on all areas of a child’s abdomen during the exam, as a child, I had no clue this doctor, this older man, was going to touch me like that. I was extremely uncomfortable. He seemed extremely uncomfortable.
As I looked to my mother to for answers, the exposure I felt at that moment was amplified when he looked at her and told her, “She needs to stay away from the sweets.”
He had no idea my parents were going through a divorce, that my parents were fighting each other for full custody, that we moved several times that year, that food had become my distraction and my security, that I couldn’t make sense of the world at age ten.
I saw my mother politely smile and nod when the doctor told her.
She didn’t reprimand him. She didn’t disagree with him. She didn’t offer prescriptive options to help me lose weight as small talk to alleviate the pressure in the room.
Only a smile and nod.
I was humiliated and disappointed – both by my mother’s lack of words and by the doctor’s inability to see me as a person.
The mom I loved, the one who would pay attention to us, cuddle us, take us on the back of her bike to the library, let us house any loner cat in the neighborhood, made us extra-special egg sandwiches with drippy mayo – that mom went missing for awhile. That mom didn’t show up in the doctor’s office.
Her marriage of seventeen years was falling apart. She had two teenagers and almost a tween to be concerned with. Her identity had been completely shattered. How could she even worry about parenting when she didn’t know what she would do next, how all the broken pieces would finally fall?
But I admire her answer to the wake-up call from the universe. She became determined never to let her children receive less than adequate care, like what she experienced in her childhood. This was her parenting lens I remember from those days.
Her father hated doctors. He hated dentists. Thought they were all crooks. When my mother developed scoliosis as a child, Grandpa didn’t take her to specialists or spend any more money than required to give her the basic care for her condition.
Maybe that’s why she was blissfully happy that day she took me to the doctor’s office while her world was crumbling down around her. She was nurturing her inner child, but this may have blinded her to the uneasiness I was experiencing on that exam table.
This doctor visit from my childhood has stayed with me. I find it a remarkable coincidence that those little blurs of memory provide such insight today.
But it isn’t the whole story.
I sometimes wonder if lately, as my mother was during the divorce, I am too distracted with rebuilding my identity beyond “just a mother” (where does that pressure come from?), and I haven’t given my son what he needs.
I know part of taking good care of a child is respecting them – be it with our actions or our words.
Sometimes when I’m not paying attention and the people-pleaser guilt is thick because we’ve had such a fun time with family or close friends, they tell Lars to give them a hug as they leave. I don’t stop them as they scoop him up even though he screams “NO!” They hold him down, slathering him with kisses, their arms wrapped around him like a straight jacket.
He looks up to me confused and upset: “Mama, I thought my ‘No’ means ‘No?’ ”
I have been inconsistent. I used to make it a priority to remind him and our family and friends about respecting his body and his words, but I’ve been lazy.
I cringe when I realize now how I’ve disrespected his boundaries during these times. And that doctor office experience from my childhood chastises me too. I know what it feels like to have no voice.
My son needs me to explain what is going to happen in unfamiliar situations – like the doctor’s office. I need to respect his boundaries, especially when that involves affection he doesn’t want to give. I want to be his advocate even if I am oblivious to his needs because my wounded child is being healed at that moment.
It’s a significant quest to observe and learn from the past. It is even more momentous when you realize there’s never just one story.
Parents are just people who do the best they can with the knowledge they own at that moment. The story changes from day-to-day as my perspective changes. Complications I couldn’t see as a someone’s daughter alter the view I now have as a mother. My son will see things singularly until his perspective changes.
These threads of my childhood, my mother’s childhood, and now my son’s childhood, weave together a unique patchwork of conjecture, memory, and awareness that I offer myself today. That’s what my mother’s determination taught me – to learn from the past and work hard to provide what we yearned for as children.
Underneath it all, I’ve come to understand I am sometimes still that voiceless child in the doctor’s office, looking for ways to be respected and noticed, just as my mother was the helpless child who needed more care from her father that day she took me to the doctor.
It seems I parent two children even if I’ve only birthed one – my baby who walks around outside of me and the hurt child I carry inside.
The hard part is discerning between and balancing the two, being the parent my child needs while reconciling the lingering wounds of my childhood self.