Women need to know that the only way to have a relationship with someone is one-on-one. We stay safe and connected by understanding the people around us, their needs and their fears, their desires and their dreams, their triggers and their terrors.
Certainly that’s what I had to learn very early to have relationships with my parents. They weren’t like any stereotype I saw on TV or read about in books, not like any standard held up for mommies or daddies. The characters I saw fit nicely into expected roles, but my Aspergers parents never learned to play those roles, growing up without the theory of mind to understand how others were seeing their performances.
My mother’s disappointment, pain and rage were always just a breath away and my father’s sweet and loving cluelessness meant he couldn’t grasp what you needed in this moment. Society didn’t offer me any formula for dealing with people like them, so I ended up switching my brain onto full analytical to try and both understand them and control my own choices in a way that kept me as safe as possible.
My father’s lack of understanding kept us moving around the country every few years while my mother’s narcissism kept us inwardly focused and isolated wherever we went. Opening her home to others was just a path to more pain for her so there was no extended family or social groups in our lives, as much as that was tough for my father who grew up in a small farm town with a loving mother.
I had no way to explain my family to others who only understood stereotypical models. Like most Aspergers people, learning to pass in social settings was important, so my parents looked normative to those who saw what they expected to see, vision limited to conventional assumptions. No matter how much I tried to explain, well, what could a kid know?
My relationship with my parents always had to be one-on-one, not falling back on any set of norms, be they ethnic, racial, religious or whatever. I wasn’t even one of the boys or one of the girls, instead just being me. My parents were clearly and profoundly unique creatures, never having understood the scripts of those around them so they never could have absorbed the social conventions of others.
Of course, this meant that they couldn’t teach their kids about social conventions either, couldn’t help them fit into group patterns. I was always walking into walls in relationships, never getting what was expected and appropriate for the role I was supposed to play.
Not having been immersed in any comforting and defined social identities meant that I had no conventional habit patterns to let go of when I started to engage my own queerness and the queerness of others. There was a reason I could shepherd the team taking care of a gay floormate in trauma during freshman year; I knew how to deal with people one-on-one, knew how to observe and analyze, knew how to modulate my own choices.
It also meant that I couldn’t trust my own emotions, couldn’t make choices of performance and release, couldn’t expect to be understood without hard work, and couldn’t easily fit into social rituals and expectations. My mind was my defence and it was always, always on guard.
My challenge was to explore who I was behind those mental defences, but finding someone who could engage that space eventually proved beyond my capabilities. I had to learn to explore by myself, unpacking and reshaping myself alone.
The comfort of group identity, of feeling immersed in “people like us,” following the group think and expected conventions is only understandable to me by seeing how much others hold tightly to their own group patterns. Instead my stance is more like the one attributed to Groucho, who “wouldn’t join any club that would have someone like me as a member.”
How much do patterns and expectations mean that we can’t engage with other people one-on-one, just as they are? “The only sensible person is my tailor, for he measures me anew each time we meet,” wrote George Bernard Shaw. To me, a queer approach to life means seeing others as individuals, knowing that their beliefs and choices tell you about them, and that you don’t have to see their views as attacks on what you hold dear.
Attacks, though, can often be taken as validation of the need to hold more tightly onto group identity, wrapping yourself more tightly in whatever flags you value and more loudly wailing about the difference between the good us and the terrifying them. When we hold negative identity forms, knowing more about who we are not as a group than who we are as individuals, finding links to our continuous common humanity is hard, demanding that we transcend our own projected walls.
I am very grateful that I learned to deal with others one-on-one early, even if those lessons did come at the cost of not feeling safe and protected in a welcoming group identity. Being open to the gifts of others has allowed me to treat others like I want to be treated, seeing, understanding and valuing their unique contributions to the group.
The loneliness that comes with that stance doesn’t erase my humanity, rather it affirms it. I can see and understand not only others but also who I am and where the deep and profound connections exist. Shamans walk through walls others think are real, so only by moving beyond even comforting convention can we even try to transcend the limits of our own inculcated vision.
Good mothers know that understanding your children as individuals, having deep one-on-one relationships with them, even when those relationships demand you move out of your comfort zone, beyond your own expectations and desires, feel your assumptions shatter and your heart break, experiencing pain & fear but staying present, is the only way to support them in becoming intensely themselves.
Staying connected to the truths others hold, even the scary or challenging ones, is the only way to stay safe and growing.