A friend commented recently that I talk about childhood a lot. Specifically, childhood memories of home and how our childhood experience often leads to our adult preferences. The concern, he said, is that people sometimes pull from the past things that aren’t so good – things that are better left in the past. As an architect, he finds that preferences based on past experiences aren’t always the best options.
He’s right. When it comes to home – and life in general – we need to strive for the best. Yet, all too often we create our present and our future from our past, even when we know the past wasn’t optimal. Why do we do this? Because the past is familiar, and familiarity provides comfort. Even when something (a place, a job, or a relationship) is painful, the familiarity of it is comfortable.
But lasting comfort, true comfort, often requires us to move beyond the past.
It’s true that we can mine our childhood experiences to understand what makes us feel at home as adults. We can learn how to find and create home by looking at the people, locations, and landscapes of our childhood.
When we do this consciously and with intention, we are unpacking the good experiences, the happy experiences, the moments when we felt safe, protected, carefree, and loved. But let’s face it, we didn’t always feel that way. And sometimes, the means for feeling safe or protected or loved weren’t the healthiest, the most optimal, or the best.
Unfortunately, the bad or unhealthy experiences can stay with us just as long as the good ones do. We don’t want to repeat the bad imprints. But we can certainly learn from them.
Several years ago, a friend’s daughter stayed with me for a month. She was a teenager then, who had been placed in foster care at eighteen months old and adopted at age three. (My friend was both her foster dad and her adopted dad.) My friend was a good man, a very talented and creative man, who had an unstable childhood and, though he hid it well, struggled with anger and addiction. He was the best father he could be – which, compounded by being a single gay man, wasn’t easy.
This daughter was acting out a lot, as teenagers often do. Her father needed a break. I had been in her life since her first days in foster care, so he sent her to me.
About two weeks into her visit, I lost my temper. Instead of staying cool (as was my norm during her spin-outs), I yelled back at her and slammed a cabinet door. She went to her bedroom, slammed her door in response, and I retreated to mine to compose myself. After 10 minutes or so, I had calmed down enough to go to her room and apologize. “I shouldn’t have yelled like that,” I said. “I’m sorry.” She looked at me completely unfazed, shrugged her shoulders and said, “That’s ok. That’s how I know you love me.”
I was dumbfounded. I stared at her. Then the lightbulb went on in her head. “I guess that isn’t healthy, huh?” she said.
The M.O. between her and her father was to yell. To scream and shout and slam things. Since she loved her father dearly, as he did her, she had come to believe that yelling showed you cared.
Her father was everything to her, he was her home – her only remembered experience of home. She had no other family. My friend’s mother and his brother, both of whom the daughter was close to, had died by the time she was ten. These deaths had profoundly affected them both and their relationship became even more complicated as they individually struggled to deal with their emotions and loss.
Yelling, screaming, slamming and throwing things was how they let off steam. She had come to associate their fighting with love – as proof of their love. She rationalized that if they didn’t love each other so much, they wouldn’t get so angry with each other.
This pattern – if not identified and examined – would likely lead to future volatile relationships where yelling, drama, and even abuse are the norm. This is not good. These are the patterns we don’t want to keep. But before we can move past them, we need to acknowledge they are there.
When it comes to home – to creating home and feeling at home – we don’t want to pull from the past just because the past is familiar – we want to strive for the best.
If our child self only knew love through yelling, that doesn’t mean we need to settle for that behavior as adults. Inherently we know that love – real love – is shown through acceptance, kindness, and respect.
Acceptance, love, and self-worth are components of home. They are aspects of the ideal home – the archetypal home – and are reflected in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maybe these needs weren’t met for you as a child, or not met consistently. Maybe your home life was volatile. Maybe your parents didn’t pay much attention to you. Maybe you felt judged or even rejected. Inherently you know that your needs were not met and while this may have been the only home you knew, you also know this wasn’t the best home experience. As an adult, you can choose your family. You can surround yourself with people who love and accept you. And when you find those people who enjoy and celebrate you, those with whom you feel comfortable, you realize you are home.
Feeling safe and protected is another aspect of home. But if you grew up in a home where the feeling of being safe was achieved by bars on your windows, is this really the way you want to live as an adult? With windows closed and doors never opened for sunlight, fresh air, or cool breezes? This may feel familiar, but is it optimal?
As adults, we can make better choices. Sometimes finances restrict these choices, but awareness prepares us for moving away from what is familiar into what is best. Best for our physical body as well as our emotional body, and really, the two cannot be separated. As the saying goes, “You are basically a houseplant with more complicated emotions. Remember to drink water and get some sun.”
We need sunshine and water and fresh air. We need nature. Even if we grew up in a city and still love the sounds of traffic and the proximity of so many people, we need to see growing things like flowers and trees.
Whether you are looking for a new apartment, buying or building a new house, or searching for friends and a partner in life, remember the ingredients of the optimal home – the archetypal home: shelter, protection, safety, acceptance, love, and celebration. To find this, strive for the best. Don’t settle for less out of convenience or familiarity.
Use your past to help guide you into the future. But don’t let your past define you -or your choices.
Some questions to ponder:
What home experiences from your childhood did you have to learn to let go of because they hurt more than helped you as an adult? How is the way you live now different from, and better, than your experience as a child? Were you lucky to stumble on something better or did you consciously have to change an old pattern from your past?
What would you tell your young self about home, now that you’re older?