(This post was originally written on May 25, 2007.)
I receive email occasionally. Most emails come from mothers who have been estranged by their adult kids. Much less often, maybe twice a year, I get an email from someone who has estranged their mother or both parents. (I rarely get emails from men who are fathers or sons. I may have received two emails from men in thirteen years.) Invariably the reaction to my website and blog is different for mothers who have been estranged by their kids from the reaction of adult kids who have estranged their parents. (I can't recall EVER getting an email from a parent who has estranged themselves from their kids.) I've written on the baggage we all carry previously. I made a series of posts about baggage which can be found in the Creative Expressions category (see link in side bar).
As for me and my baggage, of course I have baggage like everyone else but I think I am more aware of my own baggage than many people for the simple reason that I have experienced estrangement from more than one perspective. Consequently I can relate to people who have estranged their parents while also relating to mothers who have been estranged by their kids. It is also true that it can be easier for both groups to relate to me because I have experienced something of what each has experienced. However, most people, whether mother or daughter, relate to me based on my experience as a mother estranged rather than as an estranging daughter.
I am frustrated sometimes by people who presume things about me because they pigeonhole me into a category such as "mother" or "daughter" or "parent" or "woman" or "older woman". People carry such stereotypes of people in their minds. I find this less in real life where people who have experienced estrangement meet and get to know the flesh and blood me as a human being. It is so easy on the internet to take a bit of information and draw conclusions about someone and ignore the fact that the gaps in the information are being filled in by whatever is going on in the reader's mind. We look for things to relate to and understand in what we read. The "filler" that we have is the memory of our own experience to use to create information to fill in the blanks. We use whatever we've got lying around in our minds which are loaded up with BAGGAGE!
I first noticed this phenomenon ten years ago when I began writing on the internet about estrangement. Some people began to react to me as though they knew me well.
Strangers sometimes react as though they know what I want, what I think, why I do what I do, why I've done what I've done. People react as though they know me better than I know myself and they feel sure that they can educate me about my own mind. If they met me in person I doubt that they would do this or if they did, that they'd feel some hesitation in drawing such definite conclusions. But in the more anonymous more impersonal internet, they feel confident that they are experts on me and that analyzing me and giving me their opinions on my flaws as they see them is their obligation and duty. They are most often daughters in conflict or estrangement with their mothers.
My observations of that kind of reaction, which felt quite dramatic to me when I have been certain that I haven't done anything that fits the person's vision of me, has been the inspiration for the Baggage Series in the Creative Expressions category.
What I think is interesting and sad about "baggage" is that having baggage and not being aware of baggage prevents people from understanding themselves and from understanding the humanity of others about whom they draw such firm conclusions. It's much harder to discern the truth about people when we stereotype them. It's much much harder to be angry at people when we let ourselves relate to them as human beings and as people who have some similarity to ourselves. Even when people are different in so many ways from each other, there still are things that they have in common. Maybe the purpose of baggage and stereotypes is to make it easier to put up walls between ourselves and others when we feel unsafe and angry?
Being aware of our own baggage might not change our decisions about whom we want to allow to be in our lives but we can make better decisions if we open up our minds to the possibility that we don't know everything there is to know about other people.
People are always surprising me. I imagine that those who try to pigeonhole me might be as surprised by the reality of me as I've been surprised by others. In general I think we'd all do better with a bit less baggage to carry around. Putting some of it down might be a relief.
I will say before I finish this post that 99% of the emails that I receive are from mothers who are in pain over their estrangements from their kids. They don't write to tell me about myself. Women who see themselves as mothers who miss their kids write to thank me for sharing my story on the internet. I appreciate every one of them who has written to me to say that. It is one of the things that makes my efforts feel worthwhile.