The other day, I looked around at the world, its problems and crises and progress, and realized that this is the world in which I'm living my adult life. This is it. All I do to create my own reality, to grow and evolve, all of it is happening in this context, which is a defining force on me and my life. Some people were Russian Jews who birthed their babies during the pogroms, and some people were lucky enough to be in their early 20's in the late 60's and they had a lot of fun and casual sex and maybe had gotten to see Jimi Hendrix live, or at least see the Talking Heads in a small venue a few years later. Some people were born into the dust bowl, or the Chinese cultural revolution.
Turns out when I hit my stride as an adult and was raising young kids, this just happened to be what the world was like. When I say this, I mean all of this - an economic crisis, the first black president, gay marriage as one of the more polarizing issues, invasive burmese pythons in the Everglades, climate change, and things still unknown and unknowable. All this influences my work, whether and how I can save money to pass along to my children, and the development of my psyche (which, itself, influences what my children will discuss in therapy.)
Why was all of this such a revelation? Well, for one, it was just a moment of awareness - profound in its mere occurrence. When I was really young, 5 or 6, I had these existential moments where I would think to myself, "I am me." It blew my mind. I had to work really hard to get my brain to be that self-conscious, and I remember, vividly, that feeling of effort expended to step aside from my consciousness, and to separate it from my identity. I like to think of myself as spiritually precocious.
Another reason, I think, that my realization about the world kinda floored me, is that the world in which I am living, and in which I am trying to make a living, is fundamentally not what I expected or envisioned when I was growing up and thought about being an adult. Some of that difference between expectation and reality is inevitable, since the future, and adulthood, are so unknowable from way back in the past.
But the specific difference between this world, and the one I somehow expected (though maybe never articulated) lies in the existence of limitations and in the lack of a linear progress toward goodness and things being better than they'd been before.
In the 70's, when I was a child, people were getting all equal on each other, and the brainwashing was heavy: I could do anything I wanted to do, be anything I wanted to be, just as long as I didn't hurt anyone. Society was evolving and soon these truths would not only be self-evident, but also universal. I then came into adulthood in the 90's, when the egalitarian dreams of our parents were realized, somewhat, in the internet and in Bill Clinton (who at least didn't go to Yale for undergrad), and prosperity became the norm.
There was this expectation that things would continue to grow and get better, and, more importantly, my efforts alone could determine so much about my own life. The subtext of course, has so much to do with class and race, but wasn't that one of those good ones we figured out back in the 70's?
Progress continues to be made, but there is also some serious tower of babel action happening right now. The weaknesses in our society and in our whole global system are revealing themselves, and things have contract and move backward in many ways. Toward something simpler, community-centered and without so much packaging. Like the olden days.
I'm not saying this is a bad thing - I'm happily making sauerkraut and preserving fruit like other urban homesteaders, trying to minimize that which is disposable. However, as the scale shifts, other areas of our disposable culture are under scrutiny - I have less disposable income, my own time is more consumed with supporting myself (even if it is just a result of my dedication to pickling and preserving everything from my garden), and I, at least, can no longer easily ignore the enormous resources that world travel requires.
Again, I really do think all of this is good, but I did not expect the world, or my world, to shrink it the way it is shrinking. Until now, the sky not only seemed the limit but the goal. Now, many of us are staying closer to the ground, or at least seeing the wisdom in trying. Even when you throw the internet and communication devices into the mix, many of us are responding to the glut of global awareness by connecting with neighbors, discovering community (physically, not virtual) and getting our hands dirty. Literally.
As I gained my composure after the duh-piphany that my life is, in fact, heavily influenced by the external, global circumstances of my time here on the planet, it occurred to me that human history can in some ways be seen like a never-ending saga of birth order. Like my son (the first born) sees things in terms of what has been taken away, and my daughter (the second born) sees things in terms of what she did not receive, each of us being shaped by having been born after the prior generation, or having been born before the ones that we must raise. My great-grandparents were immigrants, caught between two cultures; my grandparents were obsessed with assimilation and conformity. My parents' generation broke the chains of the 50's and told the Joneses to go fuck themselves, the race was off; my generation is rediscovering manners and is realizing that the Joneses are part of the fabric of our community, like it or not, so we should at least be polite.
My son, Huck, was just over 3 and a half when my daughter, Trudy, was born. One day, when Trudy was a few months old - I believe I was still home on maternity leave - I realized the sum total of everything I needed to know about birth order, at least for my own narcissistic purposes. Trudy was on her changing table and I was across the room. On the phone. Poor child was totally left to roll over to her death and I was blabbering away about clothes or something. Honestly, I had probably forgotten about her existence completely for 10 or 30 seconds - a phenomenon I experienced exclusively with my second child.
In a moment, I caught sight of her and a wave of guilt washed over me: Poor baby! How could I be so careless? This precious little thing was getting nothing from me - no playing or singing names of body parts or attention of any sort. I was being so totally, totally lame.
Humiliated and remorseful, I hung up the phone and rushed to her side, only to discover that she was emphatically happy. She was staring at the black and white pictures I'd put up next to the changing table (probably the ones that were actually stuck to the changing table and had been there since her brother was a baby). She was engaged and stimulated. She was just hanging out.
Then the second wave of guilt washed over me: Poor Huck! I never just left him alone to do his own thing.
I've told this story many times. It sums up, entirely, my experience of having two kids. Until today, however, I'd not really looked at this little story from my kids' perspectives. Without entertaining myself and anyone else by describing the particular ways my children have been traumatized by the differences in the ways I've treated them, I'll simply note that they have been treated differently. They were each born into a unique reality in that respect, and the external forces - my level of relaxation (or, neglect), the presence, or not, of a sibling and all that gives and takes away, parents who were 35 instead of 31 - influence so much of who they are.
My story about being a parent of two may not provide the definitive analysis of birth order, and the related syndromes, but it really does say it all. How we are all fucked, and how lucky we all are not to be as fucked as our younger or older sibling, 'cause they are really fucked. Or, more generously, how little we can do about the circumstances of our births, how those circumstances define and shape us, and how, knowing this, perhaps we can confront the future without expectation.