Dumb, Smart, Mean, Nice, Fat, Skinny... The Power of Labels
I don’t like labels on kids or adults. The only labels I like are the ones on a food package, listing its healthy ingredients. Still, I know I do this. I have to fight the impulse because I grew up being labeled, and I’ve seen how labels can hurt others. To defend myself, my mom offered me every comeback I could ever need. Most of them weren't very nice.
Good ole’ Edna was always on the attack. She was the youngest of seven, raised on a farm in central California, and grew up working outside on the land, running wild with her siblings. There were 15 years between the oldest and my mom, but she and her three older siblings were only nine, two and four years apart. From my mom’s recollection, the four of them always fought. From my recollection, I saw the exact same thing. She was rarely on good terms with my Uncle Kenny, Uncle Ray, or Aunt June. As a kid, watching them interact was like a scene from The Jerry Springer Show. I think this is what made her constantly on the defensive and so quick to want to find something to attack.
I distinctly remember when I was seven years old, she and Aunt June got into a fist fight at my grandma’s house and one of them pulled out a handful of hair from the other. Likewise, she and Uncle Kenny argued until the day she died. She never had anything good to say about him. It was as if she was in perpetual competition with him and would never, ever release her grudge. Uncle Ray lived down in Los Angeles so I saw him only a couple of times in my life. Those two times, you guessed it, they argued the entire time.
Being “right” for Edna was a top priority. A high school dropout who, as a waitress the majority of her life, ALWAYS had to be right and everyone else was wrong. Even down to the chefs at restaurants. She sent her food back every single time we went out for a meal. For example, if we went to say, Sizzler, she would inevitably send her steak back. UGH! It was so embarrassing. She always made it a point to judge their ability to cook, when at home, she was no Julia Child.
My mom could pick out at least six negative qualities in someone as wholesome as a nun simply by looking in their eyes. She could turn a beautiful sunny day into a dark thunderstorm. If you didn’t live the way she lived or managed your life as she did, you were wrong. If you weren’t “organized”, “clean”, “cute”, followed her same standards and oh and, wasn’t her competition, you were “in”. True, there were a lot of people who were “in” in Edna’s small world, but there were more who gradually made it to the “out” category.
I was one of the “ins.” I was “organized” (well, why wouldn’t I be? I’m a Virgo!), I was always “clean” because I was the one to tidy the apartment, duplex, or trailer that we lived in (it was easy because the spaces were always so small). I was “cute” and I was “skinny”. Those were Mom’s labels for me. But, I wasn't trying to be anything. I was only trying to do everything I could to please and serve her so she wouldn’t yell at me.
Despite this tainted picture, I have to say that I loved my life. I knew no differently. Mom liked me and I liked her (most of the time), and my dad always made sure I had whatever I wanted. Even though my half brother and sister were out of the house by the time I was five, they must have hated me for all of the extras I got in life.
I mentioned that I have to fight my tendency to fall into the “labeling” pattern I learned. That’s why I’m so grateful that nearly 40 years later, my besties Charlie, Sydney, and Mallory still regard me as such a good friend. We have very similar qualities, yet we are also quite different. I’ve learned how to embrace and respect their differences...but, yes, we’ve all gone at it a time or two, mostly because I started some kind of argument trying to be the mom and wound up yelling at them. It still amazes me that they want to spend time with me!
As my nine year old self can attest, labels and judgement hurt. I have learned to endure the pain, ironically from the very person who was the most judgmental and handed out more labels than anyone I have ever known, my mom.
Remember... it's all about the love! See you tomorrow!