Most of us get one childhood to remember. I got two.
There was the picture-perfect one of my family: a mother and father very much in love, very loving parents to my older brother and me. We lived in a little town in the Midwest. My mother never worked outside of the home, but instead spent her days driving a station wagon, taking us, and all the neighborhood kids that could fit, to the public pool, the playground, and town. We even had a collie! That was my first childhood. It lasted fourteen years.
On a beautiful spring evening the Sunday before Easter of my freshman year of high school, my father suffered a fatal heart attack. Thus began my second life as a girl growing up, a life that began with an adolescence transformed literally overnight from a girlhood dream to a nightmare of loss and a new, bittersweet appreciation of life's nuances. Everything about my life changed, and with those changes came a heightened awareness of the gendered experience of everyday life for girls and women.
After my father's death, I watched my mother go to work in a factory; she was one of the few women there in the early 1960s. Since my brother was at college, I needed to get my driver's license as soon as possible because my mother worked the afternoon shift and was no longer there to drive me anywhere. An adolescent girl who drove herself to school, appointments, high school football games? I was not the only one, but -- like my mother -- I was one of just a few. What surprised and intrigued me the most was the way the rest of the world responded to the changes in our lives. My mother's best friend would become jealous when her husband came over to help my mother start the lawn mower. I proved quite able in my new life, yet without my father's enthusiastic endorsement, I felt smart but uncertain, more sensitive to what others thought, what others suggested, and what others assumed about me.
This second childhood was to become a particularly defining one for me for reasons that I would fully understand only later through my work as a child psychologist with girls. My father's death was for me a crucible event, a moment in which everything I knew and felt and was was put to a test. It was a trial by fire, and one through which I might emerge more fragile or more strong, or perhaps both. But whatever the outcome, I was changed. Without thinking consciously about it at the time, I've always separated my life into two parts: before and after my father died.
Subsequently, in my work with children and adults my sense of crucible events as the catalyst for emotional growth and development became a useful tool in helping others see the effects of life events on their own emotional development and their relationships with others. Through this lens of crucible events it is possible to get a better view of the inner life of girls. This I know from my work, and from my own personal experiences of moving from my family home out into the world. I would forever feel a particular empathy toward girls' emotional experience, and a strong desire to make sense of it for parents, educators, and girls themselves. But first I had to navigate those waters for myself, and it was a slow, deliberate journey.
My love of science and people drew me first to pursue an education in nursing, but I soon shifted my focus to teaching, earned my degree, and got the job. By my second year of teaching, when I couldn't figure out how to reach and teach some of my students, I took a day off to visit the nearest university, Kent State, to see which graduate courses were available to help me understand how the human brain worked. A serendipitous meeting and the discovery of an exciting doctoral program in preventive psychology prompted me to resign from teaching to resume my own education. With my Ph.D., I established a private practice and started a company with three other colleagues developing preventive psychological programs for schools. Soon one of our clients, the director of Laurel School, recruited me to serve as the staff school psychologist, a position I agreed to take for one year while we assessed their needs.
Copyright © 2002 JoAnn Deak, Ph.D.
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