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Did you have a happy childhood?

July 2, 2011

For whatever reason, I’ve been thinking about my childhood recently.  Partly it’s the post I wrote about why I chose to call myself “mathbabe”, partly it’s an old essay of Jonathan Franzen’s that got me all riled up (in a good way).  Plus I’m traveling to the math camp of my youth to teach, and stopping on the way in Harvard Square at my parents’ house; that’s enough to make you reconsider your memories in short order.

I have never understood what people mean when they talk about carefree, happy childhoods. I think I’ve always assumed this to be some kind of ironic joke, or maybe a plastered-over memory, a convenient approach to pain management. While it’s true that children have fewer responsibilities than grown-ups, it’s really not the responsibilities of adulthood that weigh me down (says the woman with three kids), or ever did. For me it was the constant awareness of my helplessness and impotence, my inability to decide my own fate, my feeling of having to wait forever for freedom, that got to me. I was also teased, but not relentlessly, and I did have friends, and moreover I wasn’t thought of (I don’t think) as a worrying child. From the outside people may have imagined me as a normal albeit nerdy kid. However, I always identified with the oppressed, and I had a keen sense of fairness which was constantly being challenged by reality. When we studied the “Manifest Destiny” in third grade, it killed me to think of the white man’s assumptions. When I saw a kid getting bullied at school, it tore me up that I didn’t know how to put an end to it and no teachers bothered. The list goes on, you get the idea. Also, I had an internal standard that was painfully high- I wanted to become a musician, a pianist, but never thought I’d be good enough, and I questioned my creativity, since what I really wanted to do was compose.  When I decided to become a mathematician I started worrying about my thesis (I was 16). By the way, lest people get the wrong impression, my parents never put pressure on me to play music (in fact they openly discouraged me since it was expensive) and thought my worrying about my thesis was downright amusing. This was all internally generated. In short, I was a struggler, at best of times a striver, but never ever carefree and happy.

I have always been attracted to other people who struggle and strive; for the most part my closest friends are, like me, in constant flux with respect to their identities and their goals and even the interpretation of the most basic cultural assumptions like toenail polish and the role of the FDIC.

This brings me to the Franzen essay, where he talks about being isolated in childhood as a reader, and spending the rest of your life trying to find and form a community with other isolated readers. As an aside, Franzen makes a distinction in this essay between isolated readers and isolated math or technology nerds. He basically said that math nerds are isolated because they are autistic, incapable of social interaction, whereas readers are isolated because they feel more deeply and can’t relate to artificiality.  I’m not sure whether to argue that math nerds aren’t all autistic or just count myself as both a reader and a math nerd and be proud of out-isolating Franzen, no easy task. Basically, I agree with Franzen. From my perspective upon meeting someone I am always looking for that inner torture, the hallmark of an examined life. It doesn’t make you happy, perhaps, but it makes you real, and moreover interesting.

But here’s the thing, I was blindsided this week by the discovery that my husband, of all people, had a happy childhood. He insists on this, even when I ask him if perhaps he’s misremembering his inner turmoil– he claims no. He moreover avers that, at the age of 12, he decided to become a mathematician and has never looked back, never once questioned that decision. Is this possible? That I’m married to a man who had a happy childhood? For all I know, it is true and moreover it may be exactly why I have a happy marriage. Maybe strugglers need to be married to non-strugglers to maintain some kind of balance. I don’t know, I’m still thinking about it. It does explain something that I’ve always been confused by, though- when my husband comes across an ethical or moral decision, he does so painlessly and makes a decision instantaneously. I now think this is because he just doesn’t think about things like that in between those moments, and so he’s got a clarity of consciousness which allows him to make snap decisions. When I come across such dilemmas, I am much more confused and ambivalent. I usually decide it’s a matter of opinion. I’m wondering if it’s this element of our differences that makes our marriage work.

Categories: rant
  1. July 2, 2011 at 9:02 am

    I can say that I was kinda happy in my childhood. Yes, in retrospect and with hindsight, I can see some of the pains that afflict me now being brewed at that time, but in a way I was unaware (or maybe not as aware) of the process.

    Ps: Do you think you can allow the facebook share button on your posts? That way sharing them would be a lot easier.


  2. July 2, 2011 at 9:05 am

    Ohhhh. Is this some kind of poltergeist? Now I see the facebook share button… Sorry for the spam, but I can swear that I didn’t really see it the first time…


  3. karen Burnes
    July 2, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    I’m definitely a struggler, and it was such a revelation in high school to meet you and find a kindred spirit. Love you


  4. Julie Lynch
    July 5, 2011 at 9:55 am

    Great post but it confuses me about my own identity. I think I am some kindof cross between you and Johan – making snap decisions related to morality (fully acknowledging the greyness of each side). Yet, perhaps due to forces beyond my control, I have struggled and strived, with my personal/professional identity in constant flux, despite having a happy childhood….Maybe that is one of the great things about our identity as mothers – We have little confusion or ambivalence about what is required of us – even though we are often not appreciated, not do we always enjoy the tasks required!


  1. July 3, 2011 at 2:03 pm
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