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“You were a TERRIBLE baby!!!”

I truly cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told this throughout my life, it’s pretty much my family’s motto. And it’s only now – at nearly 31 – that I’ve started to recognize how to be grateful for those angry words.

My mom was only 20 years old when she had me and while she did briefly marry the guy who knocked her up, it wasn’t for love but rather a fear of judgement, mainly from her parents.

She was lucky in that her parents let my mother live in their basement, providing her with a tribe of caregivers that included her brother, her parents, and her grandmother. I would include “Dad” in that situation, but he once “forgot” to tell anyone he was leaving the house and ended up leaving me alone for an entire day when I was only six months old – a story my family loved to tell to reinforce just how awful a human being he is (as if I didn’t know that…but more on him later).

Despite a house filled with family, I apparently stressed them to no end, wanting to be held constantly and crying should anyone dare put me down. I was once almost abandoned on a neighbor’s doorstep by my frazzled mother, only to have my grandmother rescue me before the authorities were called.

terrible baby

Now before we get too deep into the dysfunction, I want to make it clear that I’m in no way angry with my family. This is not a post to rage against them or put them in a bad light, but to help others recognize that through the chaos, we can in fact emerge with clarity….even if it takes 30+ years to happen.

Regardless, I do fully believe that part of their lamenting stemmed from deflection – I’m still reminded even now that I was a “terrible baby” and a “spoiled, selfish child.” Neither of which do I believe to be true of myself, but I do think certain family members say it as a way to comfort themselves for their own character flaws.

Now as I mentioned earlier, the male involved in my conception has never been a great guy, but I tried off-and-on over the years to have some sort of relationship with him. It became clear, though, when I enlisted in AmeriCorps (the US version of the Peace Corps) that this guy and I would never be father/daughter…or really much of anything in fact.

Upon learning of my enlistment, I received this e-mail from “Dad” as he raged about my desire to serve my country:

It’s bad enough you’re not continuing on to law school, but now this? You went to college for a good job, not to “volunteer.” If you had any concern for me you would start making money now, it’ll be your turn to take care of me soon, ya know. Ever see the play or movie Hair and the song that asks how can anyone be so cold especially ones that care about justice and strangers…Amber that reminds me of you. Are you trying to find yourself, do you get a real legit sense of purpose and accomplishment or do you have a mask of altruism that makes you feel accomplished when you get others to help others or is it for your resume…I mean how long will you continue to do this to yourself….and forget about the military its one thing to serve as a socialist pawn quite another to be part of cannon fodder for Obama‘s war machine! Have a nice life.

That was the last time we communicated, and frankly I’m okay with it. My lack of a father figure reinforced long ago that I would never marry a man who would fail as a father; and despite my husband growing up without a dad, he’s the best damn father to my children that I could have ever hoped for and then some.

Not only did my family’s lamenting ensure I’d end up with a man who made for a wonderful father, but they also made me an incredibly strong mother.

As a woman with her own high-needs baby (and without a village), I spent the first two years of my daughter’s life with her more-or-less attached to me constantly. Had my family not instilled in me what a “terrible baby” I was, perhaps I would’ve been less tolerant of my child’s needy nature…but probably not.

nursing baby

See I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “terrible baby.” Every baby – every human – has varying needs, some are okay with a bit of distance while others need constant reassuring. No child should be made to feel they owe their caregivers for….well, giving care. If nothing else, I believe most babies will feed off the energy of those around them and clearly the energy of my upbringing was often anything but comforting. And even though it’s taken me 30 years to recognize this – I’m grateful for the dysfunction, because while my altruism may have originally stemmed from a need to prove I’m not in fact terrible, I’m now all the better for it.

I struggle to say this in such a way that doesn’t make me appear to be a braggart but I am in fact a very altruistic person. I believe in teaching children to volunteer and in leading the way myself however I can.

I don’t do it for a “sense of purpose” or a mask to hide behind, but because I want this world to be a better place, not just for my own children, but for all the children. Every person, regardless of country, skin color, religious beliefs, or otherwise, deserves to be able to find peace and the only way that can happen is if we all strive together to do so.

There’s an innate need in me to help others and it doesn’t stem from a need to be recognized (in fact, I’d prefer not to be) nor do I necessarily believe I need to be good to get into Heaven – but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post for another time.

I truly think I’m good because for so long I was made to feel like I was bad. By schoolyard bullies who beat on me for being poor. By my family who berated me for being a child who cried. By teachers who would punish me for my mother’s tardiness. And of course by the man who disowned me as his daughter for serving my country.

I’m not selfless because I’m good, I’m selfless because I’m terrible.