My parents were young when I was born. From my adult and parental perspective, far too young to have become parents, but they made it work. In some ways, we all grew up together, discovering ourselves and learning about the world. However, in all the ways that counted they were most decidedly not friends or compatriots, but PARENTS. They were strict and set exceedingly high expectations for me, expectations that I internalized and pushed myself to exceed.
With the possible exception of the time I took money out of my dad’s wallet to buy myself some forbidden after school treats and the summer I was thirteen when I was grounded for all but two weeks of school vacation, they rarely got angry with me. No, what they did was much worse. They told me they were disappointed in me or my judgment or my efforts. That was worse than any punishment they could have inflicted, for once the conversation was over, I retreated to my bedroom and cried myself silly. I vowed never to repeat whatever infraction had caused them to look away from me as if I were not nearly good enough to be their daughter.
I was the oldest child, an only child for twelve years, and I embodied every single stereotype and cliché about eldest and only children. I was reliable, conscientious, structured, controlling, tightly wound, a perfectionist and an overachiever. I was the only child among my parents’ friends. Consequently, I spent a lot of time with adults – young adults in their twenties who (in many cases, I now realize) had no idea whom they were and where their lives were going, let alone how to deal with a precocious and smart aleck kid.
I learned a lot from hanging with my young parents and their young friends. I loved my role as the token kid; I got to observe a lot of things I might not have if my parents were five or ten years older when I was born. I often read or fell asleep on someone’s couch while the grown-ups were had a Saturday night dinner party, and at times it seemed as if I were observing these fascinating creatures in their natural habitat through a two-way mirror of sorts; I could see them and hear them, but they had no idea I was there.
I turned twelve in 1980. My sister was born and Ronald Regan was elected president. The following January, just minutes after Reagan took office, my classmates and I watched on television as the U.S. hostages were released from Iran. I was outraged as I thought in my childish innocence that Jimmy Carter was a good guy and I didn’t understand why he hadn’t been re-elected.
That night at home I expressed my outrage at the dinner table. I knew my parents were lifelong Democrats, so I just assumed that being a Democrat was the thing to do and being a Republican meant you were a bad guy. My parents listened patiently as I railed against how unfair it was that the Iranian government had waited to release the hostages until Reagan had taken office and that it was just plain mean. Then my father asked me some questions I couldn’t answer, about the motivation behind the hostage taking and the different political factions in Iran. Considering myself fairly well versed on the subject – after all, I watched the news with my parents! – I was embarrassed not to be able to answer. I muttered that I didn’t know.
As my cheeks burned with shame, my dad gave me a piece of advice. He said, “If you don’t know that much about a political situation, the best thing you can do is keep your mouth shut and listen. That accomplishes three things. You learn about your audience. You won’t risk offending someone you can’t afford to offend, and if you answer just one or two questions intelligently, you look like the most reasonable person in the room.”
The advice he gave me remains my chosen tactic when it comes to political issues, except, of course with my husband, who gets to hear my rants regardless of how much information I may or may not have. He’s such a lucky guy.