Time to Give Them a Break
Some of us get along great with our parents. ‘They’re my best friends.’ Really? Who are these people? Those people won’t be reading this article, so this is for the rest of us who, well, have ‘complicated’ and emotionally-exhausting relationships with our parents.
It’s strange. Our parents are definitely one of the most unique and significant relationships we have in our lives. So many mixed feelings and we are just so unsure of how to deal with them. If we have a therapist or one of those friends that’s really into psychology, we may have been told that it’s a good idea to confront our parents about these feelings.
We have kept quiet about our resentment towards them for too long and now we must finally say our piece to have our peace. We plan out what we are going to say. We pick the moment as best we can. Maybe we even write it as a letter.
Whatever the case, we feel we need to explain to them how they hurt us, and how they still, to this day, misunderstand us. We feel righteous as we think about how we are finally going to tell them how their shortcomings as parents continue to damage us today.
It’s a touching thought. And even if you have a way with words or are very much in touch with yourself and your needs, the ambitious gesture is rarely met with success.
One of three things will most likely happen:
Instead of our parents conceding that they could have done better as parents, they manage to flip the script and tell us we are ungrateful and childish. They would say that we have no idea how difficult we were. That we were lucky we had it as good as we did. Obviously, for them, it was so much worse. They cut us down and put us back in our place as their children with shocking and humbling jurisdiction.
Or maybe, at the moment, when it is time to share our rehearsed feelings, we feel their vulnerability and predict their inability to understand whatever it is we want to say. So we withdraw our desire to climb the walls of delusion for fear that we may slaughter them in our attempts to do so.
Or lastly, they may hear our words and seem all good about it, even thanking us for speaking so openly and honestly about how we felt. Only to find that on our next visit or phone conversation they understood nothing of what we said.
Whatever the case, it will be a conversation that will leave us feeling bloodied, sick, and ready to raise the white flag. It may seem like the only sane thing to do would be to never really talk with them again. Just leave that mess in your hometown and carry on with your life.
Yet, we can’t do that exactly. Not unless our parents were truly monsters, which they most likely are not.
They may drive us crazy. Drive us so crazy that it seems to put our entire lives on hold in a frenzied moment of despair. Yet they can also be so gentle and kind at times. They can even impress us with their wisdom, or make us laugh with their observations.
So, no. We can’t just entirely cut ties with them as complete disasters of the human race. Plus, as angry or misunderstanding as they may be, we still love them. Somewhere, there is that hidden lagoon of love we hold for them. Perhaps that love is hidden in a memory we stumble upon and smile at when we think about it; how they took us to the ballgame for our birthday, which was our best birthday ever, or that graduation picture that reminds us of the warmth of the hug they gave us that came from a place of pride and profound sadness as they realized we were growing up.
Perhaps even going to visit them, we smile a little on the inside at the familiarity of their habits and smells. They haven’t changed and we love that we can always find that with them in our chaotic and constantly changing lives.
All this makes the feelings so damn complicated. We kind of despise them for how they’re different to us, yet we care so much about them and admire them for the exact same reasons.
The truth is, our parents did ‘harm’ us in some ways. They put some burdens on us that we now have to deal with as adults. Yet, they didn’t do it with malicious intentions. In fact, they are quite possibly, in theory, the people that wished to help us the most in life.
Yet it isn’t easy to leave a person you love undamaged, especially your own child:
If a parent is always irritated (because of their own underlying fears and disappointments), they will end up with a child scared into fragility and timidness.
If a parent is very gentle and gives in too easily to their child’s wants, they may simply overlook their child’s aggressive behavior and egocentric impulses.
If a parent is too controlling (due to concerns for the welfare of their child), the child will, unfortunately, struggle to become independent and will probably fail to develop its own sense of direction while being unable to take on the challenges of reality to realize what s/he is truly capable of.
The chances of messing up somewhere, somehow, are infinite. Obviously, we particularly hate our special cocktail of mistakes that our parents made. But to give our parents a break for once in a world where everything is always their fault, let’s consider the idea that maybe the problem isn’t with them.
The problem isn’t that our ‘big’ people caregivers are flawed, but that our baby brains are so easily formed by every random, yet consequential, event that happens to us.
Beyond seeing the big picture of nature, we are the more psychologically enlightened generation. As such, we should take it on ourselves to be a little more understanding and aware of how our parents are flawed and how it isn’t entirely their fault they messed us up.
Speaking of generations, our parents came from a different one. Their values, anxieties, and hopes spring from a well of a different time and perspective. These values and ideas may very well be outdated, weird, or even disgusting to us, but for them, they were very much real and necessary at one point.
For them, money and status are important. As well as education and table manners. Yet, honesty, trust, warmth, and keeping your calm come second if at all.
No doubt, if we spawn our own little demons, they will surely grow up one day and look at us as backward as we currently look at our parents. They will feel bored with our interests. They will feel resentment for our moral codes. They will feel confused about how we like to enjoy ourselves.
Something else we could be a little more considerate about is the very fact that as horrible it is that our parents always see us as ‘their babies’, we kind of are in their eyes. We can’t see what they see, but they no doubt have a very good memory of watching us grow and mature.
They remember the first steps, and they remember us putting words together to form entire sentences for the first time. It’s a bit condescending for us when they shockingly realize we know how to cook or have people that work for us or that we are even capable of deciding who is our best match to marry.
Yet, they still remember, fondly, seeing us so unknowing and vulnerable. A part of them will always wonder if we truly know what is best for ourselves.
Rather than trying to change our parents, we should try to ‘depersonalize’ our relationship. Not to resign to the degree of never speaking to them, but just to the degree that we recognize the natural complexity of having a relationship with them.
This person that has hurt us, but loves us. This person that we want to approve of us but will never have the same views as us.
It may sound like a downer to step away from our parents in such a way, but it should be looked at with a light of mature hope. We are predicting that there will be some friction between us, and we are doing our best to make it a little less so.
This means knowing that when we go to visit for Thanksgiving, our mother will say something in front of our spouse that will make us want to scream like a child. They have that magic finger to push our buttons through unseen dimensions.
If we are aware of this and a little detached emotionally from it, we won’t throw our dishes in the sink as they casually bring up our failures in love or lack of ability to make good money. It’s expected, so why really dread it?
By not allowing them to bother us, they will stop asking things of us we are no longer willing or capable to give them. And we should do the same in return.
They may never understand how hard it was for us in school with the hand me down clothes we had to wear or why we chose the life-partner we chose. So why bother trying to explain it to them.
Rather, we should focus on the things we know we can handle peacefully together. For my mother, that is cooking and watching old movies on TV. For my father, it is sitting and drinking. Is it healthy? Maybe not, but it is what they do and something I am happy to do with them to share what few moments I share with them.
And it doesn’t have to be silent activities. I know my mother loves her garden and her flowers. Do I like flowers? Not particularly, but I always ask her about them, and she loves to tell me about them. To this day, she will send me photos of her favorites and the ones just blossomed, or tell me how proud she is at how tall her tomato plants are getting. She uses Miracle Grow.
Beyond choosing what to do and talk about with our parents, we should also be mindful of how long and where we spend time with them. My mother likes sitting in restaurants (for a certain amount of time). My dad seems to get a bit restless and awkward in restaurants. My mother can get awkward after long moments of talking. My dad doesn’t really open up until there has been a long moment of talking.
Whatever the case may be with your parents, choosing what to do with them and for how long, and where, is something we should be able to figure out and strategically plan accordingly.
By doing a bit of this, we can put our attention on the mutual satisfaction of being together… and not arguing about it.
We, as adult children, are forever intertwined with our parents. It isn’t by choice. It is beyond anything of personal predilection. It is something intricate and forever bound by history and biology.
When we were tiny, our parents were giants in every sense of the word. As we have grown, we have painfully come to learn all their nuances, annoyances, and shortcomings.
Besides marriage… which most of us choose, we are not bound to anybody else in this world. Truthfully, we probably wouldn't choose our parents as friends if we had a choice and met them as strangers in the outside world.
Yet, there is something strangely beautiful about this human entanglement of child and parent. There is something magnificent about this death-bound union to another human that is both the most frustrating creature we’ve ever had to deal with, but also the same creature that shed tears of joy due to our very existence.