How Does Childhood Shape Your Identity?

This article draws on the power of metaphor and personal story to explore how your early life and social context can influence your identity development.

A Child of the 70s

I was a child of the 70s, raised in a small, displaced community set in South Africa’s complex socio-political climate. If walls could talk, they’d tell of a little house squeezed into a cul-de-sac alongside fourteen other families of all shapes and sizes that made up our fishbowl community.

Everyone knew each other by name. Moms became friends who shared more than their meagre supplies. While the children played in the streets, the moms kept a watchful eye close by. They’d whisper their sorrows to one another over steaming cups of black coffee under wafting spirals of cigarette smoke.

After school, we’d quickly shed our stuffy school uniforms and shoes, and grab a slice of bread while rushing into the freedom of the outdoors. We wiled away carefree afternoons playing hopscotch or hide-and-seek. The only interruption from our endless childhood games was to run errands for the neighbourhood ‘aunties’.

Carefree Summers

In summer, with moms away at work, we roamed the hills on the outskirts of town, picking wild figs and collecting pinecones falling from the spiky pines. We gathered sticky gum from the cracked barks of the sweet thorn trees. The neighbourhood boys, including my brothers, scrambled effortlessly up the scratchy trunks to tie the ropes of the tyre swing. Or fearlessly tackle the thorny bushes of the prickly pear trees before returning home with a bounty of nature’s best treats.

On scorching summer days, we strolled in groups to the nearby beaches to cool off in the tidal pools and collect black mussels on the rocky shores. My mom stuffed the fresh mussels through an old hand-cranked meat mincer with soaked bread, onions, parsley, and salt, turning the humble shellfish into a mouthwatering meal.

My love for cooking and baking started right there in my mom’s humble kitchen. I’d quietly watched her for years as she stretched her meagre daily wage to feed our family of seven. The smell of freshly baked bread always reminds me of how she supplemented her income by selling homemade bread and rolls to the neighbours.

The Blackberry Tree

Soon after we moved into the dusty cul-de-sac, our elderly neighbour, Mr Daniels, gave us a young Blackberry tree. My mom planted the tree along the walkway leading to the front door. The young tree grew taller with each passing year. Eventually, the branches reached so high, they towered like a shaded arch over the pathway.

I often climbed the branches as far up as I could. There, hidden among the berries and leaves, I felt safe and content. I’d peer through the branches to catch a glimpse of the world stretching off in the distance over the rooftops.

In summer, the blackberry tree showed off a harvest of juicy berries to the delight of the flow of visitors stopping by. They’d pause in the driveway to pick a berry or two on their way in and out. The berries that remained eventually splattered to the ground, staining the path with nasty purple blotches. It was impossible to overlook the smudges and berries that stuck to your shoes as you walked up to the door.

Eventually, the winter rain would come and wash away the stains, along with the warm summer days. Until, the following season, when the cycle repeated again, and then again.

It felt like a lifetime of summers and winters, celebrations, weddings, and funerals unfolded in the shadow of that blackberry tree. All the while, it echoed the bittersweet realities of its surroundings.

Stains of a Displaced Community

The unsightly berry stains on the cement path were a lot like life in my displaced community back then.

While my earliest memories are scented with the innocence of carefree summers, family, and friendship. As a child, I was blissfully unaware of how institutionalised racism, prejudice, and generational trauma were weaving into my identity. It’s an identity tainted with the harsh realities of life in a social system that altered the landscape of lives, communities, and an entire segment of the South African population.

In its own unique way, the blackberry tree offered me refuge in my youth. I often climbed the branches as far up as I could. There, hidden among the berries and leaves, I felt hidden from the harsh realities surrounding me.

I’d peer through the green leaves to try and catch a glimpse of the big world stretching far into the distance. Beyond the grey asbestos rooftops lining the cul-de-sac, I didn’t know what the future held beyond my childhood.

Losing My Father

Like those bitter-sweet berries and stains the blackberry tree produced, my father’s fragile frame carried the physical and psychological scars of racial discrimination, chronic poverty, unresolved trauma, and terminal illness.

One fateful Saturday morning, those burdens finally took their toll. While the community buzzed with the usual weekend routines—moms tackling arduous bales of laundry, and children gathering to play, my father’s life quietly slipped away.

While my father silently endured until death offered him a reprieve. My mother survived for decades longer.

Complexities of Motherhood

The added loss of widowhood deepened the stoic lines etched in the creases on my mom’s worried face. She fought valiantly for her family’s basic human rights while doing her best to protect and care for her children.

How do you identify yourself in a social system that stripped you of your home, community, quality education and adequate healthcare? Or how do you overcome chronic poverty when access to work is intentionally restricted? And how do you reach your full potential when your life is entrenched in ongoing discrimination, prejudice, and inequality? My mother battled all of these.

Enmeshed Family Systems

Enmeshed family systems are often rooted in trauma passed through generations. It can result in blurry relationship boundaries, role confusion and placing the needs of the family system above individual well-being. Such families struggle to cope with conflict in healthy ways, and individuals battle to form a sense of autonomy and emotional independence. Individual members find it difficult to pursue their own paths.

I Wasn’t Good Enough

Among the many social ills that flowed from my sombre socio-political history, a distorted belief seeped into my identity that I wasn’t good enough. I moved through half my life without a clear sense of who I truly was or where I fit.

Instead of valuing my needs alongside others, I felt guilty for needing physical and emotional space and privacy.

Without the tools to unravel and reframe my earlier developmental influences, I lived with low self-esteem and chronic insecurity. I played it safe with my life and goals, staying small and compliant.  I sought validation, acceptance, love, and approval in my environment instead of within.

How Does Childhood Shape Your Identity and Future?

I left home in my mid-twenties to start a new life beyond the confines of my childhood. But I’d soon realise that wherever you go, you take your identity with you. Who you believe you are, and what you’re capable to achieve, follows you like a shadow. Until you decide enough is enough.

Several years ago, I returned home for a visit to find that my mom had cut down the blackberry tree. After decades, she’d finally had enough of those ugly purple splashes staining the pathway and spoiling her home.

Where before the tree had blocked the sun, the house was suddenly brighter, and more visible. The stained pathway was clean. And in the place of the blackberry tree, she’d planted a new lavender shrub. In the blooming season, it sprouted delicate purple buds and filled the air with its floral scent.  

When Do You Decide Enough Is Enough?

Iyanla Vanzant writes: When you can look a thing dead in the eye, acknowledge that it exists, call it exactly what it is, and decide what role it will take in your life, then you have taken the first step toward your freedom.

Although it was a shock to find the blackberry tree was gone, my mom’s struggle with living with a stained pathway was finally over. By removing that troublesome tree, she freed up space to grow new things. Every spring and summer since then, the garden sprang to life with new plants, bursting with colours and fragrances for all to enjoy. But this time, without the stains of the blackberry tree.

It took me much longer to free myself of a stained self-view shaped in childhood.

Years later, as I stood on the brink of midlife, I still wondered if I truly belong anywhere. I faced the same turning point my mom did years earlier when she cut down the blackberry tree. I had to decide what role a stained identity would take in my future. 

Making sense of our lives and the influences that shape our childhood identity often unfolds only when we look back on our lives from a different vantage point. Unconnected, simple things like the stains of a blackberry tree sometimes help us connect the dots in the mystery of our life stories.

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