Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Goodness of Fit

When I got pregnant with my daughter, I wondered what she would be like.  I wondered what she would look like, what she would be best at, what she would enjoy.  I had no preconceived notions about who she might be.  I was so different from my own parents that I knew she could be anyone.

People in the parenting realm often cite "goodness of fit" when discussing how well a parent and child get along.  The idea is that you might unintentionally favor one of your children over the other because you have the same temperament or the same hobbies, while the other might function as a sort of stranger in your home.  I don't know how well my adoptive brother, Dante, and I fit with our parents.  It didn't seem like any of us fit well, but my mother and I bonded more than the others.  Even when she favored Dante over me, it seemed more like a strategic alliance than a familial bond.

Aside from her vast volunteer duties and some persistent personality issues, my mother almost seemed like a blank slate.  She knew what foods she liked -- steak, shrimp, lots salt, nothing green -- but she didn't otherwise seem to know what she liked.  Who she was could vary wildly.  On the plus side, this meant she fully embraced my hobbies, including buying us season tickets to nearly every live theater in our area when I showed a passion for it.  She said I made her feel "cultured." 

My dad and I had little in common.  He knew what he liked -- jazz, stargazing, bad '80s movies -- but his hobbies seldom overlapped with my own.  He introduced me to the television show "Ghost Hunters" around the time I was trying to divorce him from my increasingly mentally ill mother, and that gave us something to talk about on our phone calls until I changed cable providers and no longer got the right channel.  He liked what he liked.  He was unwilling or unable to feign interest in topics simply because they mattered to me.

I took music lessons from a young age, but I didn't enjoy them, only the attention gleaned from performing.  I dreaded the actual live performances, but people would hug and praise me afterwards, and I lived for that.  I liked museums and art galleries, though I only got to see them when a friend's parents or a school field trip would take me there.  I loved reading.  My mother read me stacks of books until I took over the job myself at the age of four.  I don't think either of my parents has read a book cover to cover since that day.  I'm also good at baking and enjoy eating elaborate vegetarian meals.  I love spicy international cuisine, despite my mother's insistence that we don't like onions or most vegetables and that everything should be served "plain" and "mild."

My daughter was born and soon gained a reputation as a smart, funny child with a sunny disposition.  She's still very young and will undoubtedly grow and change, but she fits in well with both my husband and myself.  My mother used to say, "I hope you have a child just like you someday," when she got angry, like it was a curse or a threat.  I battled depression from a very young age (maybe four?), but I tried hard to be good at things and to be kind and to overcome my many fears.  My thought was that if I had a child like myself -- kind, funny, hardworking, smart -- but happy, that would be great.  Why would anyone not want that? I thought. 

Something that I haven't heard much about "goodness of fit" in parenting is that, if a child is raised by her biological parents and they don't hate each other, it should come fairly naturally.  My daughter inherited half her genes from me and the other half from one of my closest friends.  My husband and I have lived together easily for many years, and while we have a variety of hobbies and interests between us, we have the same sense of humor and priorities.  We get along.  We are raising our daughter together in our home, so theoretically, whether you believe nature or nurture is the greater factor, we were always going to have a certain goodness of fit.  That didn't occur to me until well after she was born. 

I don't think I have the same sense of humor as the parents who raised me.  To be honest, it's hard to remember what made them laugh or made them seem happy, but I remember us all favoring different movies.  I don't know if I got my gallows humor from genetics or from my life experiences, but my mother didn't approve of it.  I had to pretend not to laugh at the things I found amusing for fear of being scolded or told I'm a bad person.  My half-brother, Hans, has that same dark sense of humor.  He's says its one of our German qualities.

My biological father reads and enjoys history and science.  My half-siblings do too.  My sister likes baking as much as I do.  These might all just be coincidences.  They're all common hobbies after all.  But I didn't share them with the parents who raised me.  I'm the most educated person in my family, but tied for least educated in my father's family.  Can a person really be more academically inclined -- and I don't mean smart, which I think a lot of my family was in spite of what they thought themselves, but loving of school and learning -- simply because she descended genetically from someone who was?  There are other potential explanations, after all. 

I'm sure I must've had more in common with my mother than I can remember now.  Surely I didn't just inherit similar hair and some maladaptive behaviors.  She liked crafts when I was little, like I did.  We only did them if there were other children around, like visiting cousins or a Girl Scout troop, but she liked doing crafts.  We did jigsaw puzzles together.  We both liked going out to dinner and a movie.  She liked making things beautiful, which was hard because her hoarding tendencies meant she could only beautify our home through shopping and filling it with more things.  I don't remember my mother very well, especially how she used to be before she went off the deep end.  I have a hard time remembering why I used to love her so much.  I'm not sure if that sounds more mean or sad, but it's true.  It is what it is, I guess.

When my daughter started developing a personality of her own, I was surprised.  She wasn't a stranger.  Nothing about her seemed to be pulled from the ether.  She was so much like me.  Sometimes when I saw her from certain angles, she looked like my childhood self.  She cocked her eyebrows and made mischief faces like me.  She mirrored my reactions and behaviors -- if I wanted her to be calm and happy, there was little I had to do beyond modeling good behavior and giving her "cuddles and kisses," as she likes to say.  She is young.  She still has a lot of growing and changing ahead of her, and she will make friends and have experiences outside my home and outside my control, but none of this parenting stuff has been as impossible or even as illogical as I was led to believe it would be.

I don't know what I'm trying to say.  I don't think living with your two biological parents solves all your problems, or even ensures goodness of fit.  If I'd had more in common with my dad, we might have enjoyed each other's company more, but I still don't think it would have been a great relationship because I think he'd still only value in me what he already values.  Having more in common with my mother would have solved nothing.  I'm confident that her self-loathing would have only caused her to hate me more, the more I resembled her.  I don't think my half-siblings get along particularly well with their parents either, though I do know they have more functional relationships than I do with any of mine.  We're all very different people though.  I blame the mental illness more than anything for our lack of good fit.  I believe the parts of my mother that weren't fundamentally broken were fundamentally good.  Maybe.  I guess I think the worst situation would be like Dante's -- being raised by two people whose love is conditional when it's present at all, who aren't related to you, who are not mentally healthy and cannot see far enough past their own pain to consistently give a fuck about you.  It does make me wonder what kind of relationship Dante might have had with his biological parents though.  Or with anyone else really.

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