At twelve I muddled through. I disliked my old-fashioned middle school in the rural village we had moved to and I was different, with a different accent and a different attitude. All the other children seemed so confident but I felt like I had landed on another planet, not just in another county. I went on to become a rather confused teenager. When I was 14, my mum and dad had their fourth child, my gorgeous baby sister Sophie. At home, I kind of tried to disappear. My dad worked long hours and my mum had a little baby to look after, as well as two other children, besides me. I felt that compared to the innocence of this new-born baby, I presented a less than attractive option. I was awkward, self-conscious, confused and probably a little lonely. My family were more distracted than they had been and I missed the deep and meaningful conversations I had always had with my parents. I also found my school friendships a little too claustrophobic. My best friend was too possessive and boys presented a confusing option. I disappeared into soul searching and diary-keeping and buoying up a sense of self-worth.
Our vicar, who had been brilliant, moved on to pastures new and took with him the potential role models who had been his vivacious, Christian, older teenage daughters. Where was I to turn? My sister of two years younger I had left behind, she seemed so young and girl-like, whilst I was left to cope with emerging woman-hood on my own. I felt like I had to just get on with it as best as I could, there was no-one around for advice. I dwelt more often at this time on the baby that my mum had lost before having me, I was sure that she would have been my big sister.
I clung on to my dad's praises and my mum's story of my birth, where she describes how she couldn't believe that the little baby she looked at was hers. She always describes the baby that was me as beautiful and a fighter because I was an awkward delivery but very strong. I clung onto that and my dad's positivity (when I saw him) but it didn't seem to be enough.
I quickly worked out that the best way to get the attention that I craved was from boys and my teachers. So I worked incredibly hard at school. I always chose the brightest boy in the class and attempted to match his grades. I fell short but I never looked to the girls. I never really understood myself as a girl. Boys my age, unless academic, always seemed immature. Girls seemed for the most part a little silly. So I was stuck somewhere in between, as competitive as any boy, full of drive and ambition and determination and outwardly rather girly with my fashion phases and make-up. Of course, I generalise, but I grew up a 1970s kid when nurse/secretary girls and footballer/policeman boys was the story sold to you by the TV. In the 80s, the shoulder-padded business women had presented too much of a contrast to my stay-home-mum. I didn't believe that these kinds of 'go-getting' women really existed outside of Dynasty or Dallas which we all sat glued to in the eighties.
Between the ages of 14 and 21 I was 'boy-mad' like a lot of my friends. What I needed, looking back on it, was a greater sense of self-worth and a desire to protect my own feelings rather than always worrying that I might hurt people's feelings because this motivation caused me trouble. For example, I once said that I would 'go out' with a boy but really it was only because I felt sorry for him (how patronising!), but then I didn't show up and so in vengeance he phoned up my parents (out at the time) and reached the babysitter to inform him that I had been arrested for delinquent behaviour and needed to be brought home from the police-station. I was, in actual fact, only at a friend's house of mine for tea, but this one phone call caused no end of trouble, which I probably deserved for standing him up. A search party was launched for me and my parents returned frantic from their evening out.
I didn't learn my lesson for a long time and always chose interesting people to go out with. At 14, a boyfriend was a 'Born Again Christian' and I attended his church for a 'slain in the spirit' experience but this only left me wondering at the time if I really understood Christianity at all. That relationship finished, much to my parents' relief, for no matter how much I pleaded with them 'but he's a Christian', they thought he came from a rough area.
I had worked out that the world organised its people according to gender, I was now working out that it also arranged them according to class.
At 16, I had a black boyfriend, it was almost as if I wanted to understand all of the world's categories. This was a fun relationship until he told me stories about the trouble he was in which I was too naive to believe but which were actually true, and lies about the GCSEs he had recently excelled at, which I believed, but turned out to be a lie. I couldn't trust him and so I split up with him. I was beginning to understand that I had it within my power to avoid trouble. I was finding ways to be a little stronger.
At 16, I went to Italy for a month as an au pair to two children in the mountains. This was my Maria (Sound of Music) experience. I grew up a lot, did a lot of thinking and lot of walking in star-lit forests in the dark. I was only released from my duties for 2 hours between 9 and 11pm. On returning home, it was hard to adapt back to reality but I sunk into GCSE revision. I was happy with my results, things were coming together.
At 17, I met my husband and my life started to change. He accepted me and seemed to love me for who I was, even the bits of me which made me self-conscious. It was all so freeing. Here was this person with whom I could just be myself. He was very unworldly and I found this attractive. He was very genuine and when I first met his family, and visited his home, I can only describe it as 'that coming home' feeling which I have when I am in church or in prayer. He believed in God and above the fireplace in his front room there was this glow in the dark Jesus crucifix on the wall - some Catholic iconography is a little lacking in the taste department, I know, but this meant a great deal to me.
We then had a few rocky years as we both went off to different universities. I allowed myself to become too defined by popularity or academic success. I didn't quite fit any of the groups. I was certainly no Jock, the Christian group seemed a bit too cheesy with its guitar-strumming leader and my prayer-life was very hit and miss. I didn't have the financial security of the 'Ralph Lauren wearing' placement-sponsored engineers and athletes and I think that I confused the voice of God with the voice of my 'sane mind'. I had read and reread the feminist writer Erica Jong, who describes the voice of her sane mind in her rather daring novels.
One of my lecturers was very influential though, and he was a Christian and I started to read the Bible a little for the way that it could inform my essays. But I was very much groping around really. I was always constantly broke, ate very badly, became very skinny and really most of the time, didn't feel too well which was difficult. But I loved the reading and the writing.
At 21, I decided it was time to take stock of my life and make my mind up on a few things. I knew I wanted to teach and I knew my boyfriend 'from home' would one day become my husband so it was time to remain faithful to all my callings, to him, to God and to the plans for my potential career. No more would I be buffeted and blown around by people's estimations of me - good-looking or not good-looking, there was always a range of opinion on this one, bright or just rather average, again opinions have ranged, a Christian, yes but sometimes I revealed more the uncertainty of a soul searching than someone sure that they were loved by God.
At my 21st birthday party, there was this boy pestering to dance with me (don't presume from all this male attention that I was something special, it had more to do with the fact that I went to a university with an 11:4 ratio of men to women, or so the story went, and many of the women were rugby-playing engineers, so as a petite, English student, I was something of a novelty). Anyway, I said no, I don't want to dance with you, I've got a boyfriend and it felt great. His feelings didn't matter for once (although I was polite about it), I was going to do the right thing by me. I was a new person. I got my degree and was accepted on a PGCE course and my husband and I started to plan our future together. We admitted to each other all our indiscretions. And I laugh now at the irony of me nearly throwing up when he admitted to me that he had given in to one or two temptations along the way, which he had hidden from me. This was very painful but it also helped, to share our sins with one another and apologise for our faithlessness. We had both made mistakes, not just me, we had met so young and had needed to grow up so much and neither of us had understood quite the extent to which we were loved by God. We had not internalised his odinances and statutes. I wish it had been otherwise, but it wasn't.
So these were my restless years.
Regrets - some. I wish that I had known God then like I do now. I wish I had had his laws written in my heart because I realise now that if I had lived according to his statutes I would have been able to love myself a little more, hurt myself a little less and have had an easier pathway to navigate. I'd have had a spiritual home to rest back in when I felt homeless and I would have had that confidence which comes when you really know that you are totally loved by God.
Realisations - lots. Growing-up is hard. Teenage girls need strong role-models. The world tells them that they are not pretty enough or thin enough or clever enough. The world tells them strange things about the way that they should relate to men. The world has them value themselves for all the wrong reasons. I've also learnt that no matter how great you think you are as a parent (my parents were great parents, affirming of me and good listeners), you will always mess up your children in some way.
Hopes - that my own girls grow up knowing how loved they are by God; that they can pull comfort from biblical truths as opposed to the messages of teen magazines and television. That they know they are beautiful for who they are and for the ways that they can contribute to the Kingdom, no matter what their role in life; that they have choices and they are not to be defined by their peers, other men or other women. Life is an adventure and the seas are not smooth but God is with us throughout and even when we feel far off, sinking in the deep, grabbing onto whatever floats by to buoy us up, there is a rock nearby to which we can cling, we think we are dragging ourselves up and onto its shores but we are being lifted, ever so gently by the hands of someone offering us rest, blissful and tender rest.
and with thanks to God
...for pulling me relatively unscathed out of the teenage-angst years and for having me sit on that swing, that particular lunch hour on that particular school day in the park to be whistled at by that boy from the Catholic school who would go on to become a husband to a girl he loved despite the fact she had braces on her teeth and there were things that that awkward teenage girl didn't like about herself...
...on to the me that grew-up...next post...