Lately, I've had cause to wonder...what does a healthy parent/child relationship look like? Why is it often elusive? How can something that usually starts so blissfully go so terribly awry?
As anyone who follows this blog knows, my relationship with my mother was turbulent, my father nonexistent.
My mother's relationship with her parents was somewhat of a mystery. She never said, well...she said...but her stories were fantastical, fiction. From what I could surmise from her sisters, her father was an abusive alcoholic and her mother...well...she was a woman of her time, looking the other way. Let's leave it at that.
My father's parents were both alcoholics who slept in separate bedrooms and yelled a lot. I don't remember a lot about them other than that.
Do these complicated family ties weave through the generations? Are they like dominos? One difficult relationship falls onto the next and the next until we all fall down?
Perhaps. I don't really know. There's a lot about this topic I'm in the dark about.
I have loving, close relationships with three of our four adult children. It might be important to note that two of my four kids are stepkids. I'm not sure how relevant that is since the most troubled relationship isn't with one of them.
I know many people who are in the same predicament. I am not alone in the disappointing parent/child relationship boat.
What's up with that?
Whatever we don't have, we tend to romanticize. I'm an only child, so my whole life I envied kids who came from big families. Their squabbles with their siblings seemed like a kind of Nirvana. I assumed it was all fun and games, that even the squabbling was a sign of a deeper bond, a love that could never be shaken. They were a unit, had each other's backs. To my chagrin, I've discovered that is often not the case. Siblings stop speaking to each other, abuse one another, even kill each other.
When I was a kid, my mother worked. In the late 60's, early 70's this was not commonplace. I felt neglected, jealous of my friends with stay at home mothers. Several of them made homemade cookies, sewed, headed up the PTA. I was shocked to hear these blessed, lucky kids bitch and moan about their "homemade" lunches and clothes. Their embarrassment when mommy dearest showed up at the school for her committee meetings in her frumpy clothes and mom perm, floored me. They looked longingly at the house key I wore around my neck, certain I'd live it up unsupervised as soon as I got home to an empty apartment, while they suffered, still tethered to the umbilical cord. They'd actually trade my seran wrapped Twinkie for their "made with a mother's love" chocolate chip cookie. "What idiots," I thought.
When I entered high school, my mother quit work. And guess what? I hated that too. The last thing I wanted was my mother breathing down my neck while I tried to sneak cigarettes and skip school.
Does our predilection to want what we don't have make us ungrateful? Unrealistic? Do we all spend our adult lives getting over whatever we feel we didn't get in our childhoods? If so, are we ever successful at it?
I know with all my heart my mother was the very best parent she knew how to be. I know she loved me and I loved her. I did the best I could as well. I was the best 17 year old parent I knew. Need I say more? What I've discovered is that well meaning and doing your best is often not enough in the parenting arena.
I think the trouble starts when a kid first realizes his parents are flawed, human. In this day and age, that usually happens with the divorce announcement. So, at least half of us found out the whole thing was a ruse, we were left rudderless, frightened, unsure of our place between two warring parents. The addition of stepparents often adds insult to injury. I've observed that it's not always the presence of a stepparent that's so offensive - it's the influence they have over the biological parent and the resulting changes in their behavior that's the sticking point. I don't think anyone comes out the other side of a divorce the same. Sometimes the changes are for the better, sometimes not. Resentments start, build, come to a head and often stay there.
Parents indulge in an array of embarrassing behavior. They drink too much, take too many prescription pills, have affairs, have too many boyfriends/girlfriends, get married too many times, they have less money than their kids friends, or more money, they dress too weird, or too stylish, they hover, they're absent, the list goes on.
The uncomfortable realization that people are inherently flawed is not just the purview of children. It's just as jolting when parents realize their little darlings aren't so darling after all.
Kids disappoint their parents in spades as well. There's just a stigma to saying so. It's fine, even encouraged, in our Jerry Springer/Reality show culture for kids to air their parents dirty laundry, lay blame, and otherwise voice their criticisms. When a serial killer makes himself a poncho out of his neighbors skin, it's usually his mother's fault. When a kid goes wrong, all kinds of fingers point at the parents. It's not cool or politically correct to blame the kid...for anything.
But you show me a tight lipped parent and I'll show you someone who's been embarrassed by their offspring at least once in their lives. Tantrums, mouthiness, mohawks, tattoos, unfortunately placed piercings. They don't go to college, they never leave college, they marry losers, they never marry, they take drugs, go to jail, a whole plethora of disturbing possibilities. Nobody's boasting about Little Johnnie's upcoming parole in their annual holiday letter.
Perhaps it's evolutionary. Parent and child conflict is necessary for the continuation of the species. Kids have to leave home to start families of their own so a little friction makes that more likely. If we felt the same way about our grown up children that we did when they were babies we'd never let them leave. But often the friction turns to something ugly and crippling that leaves us stumbling and broken.
So, what are we left with? A whole bunch of disenchanted people. And, what can we do about it?
Do we bring it all out in the open? Shake our fists at each other and bellow out our grievances? Call out everyone we feel has wronged us? I can tell you, that doesn't work. A great way to crater any relationship is getting things off your chest with insults and cruel criticism aimed at the jugular. But, is sweeping it under the rug healthy? Is there a happy medium? An unhappy medium? Do we grin and bear it?
Must we stay in relationships that cause us only grief, or are abusive, just because they're family?
Again, I don't know. It's a choice between shitty and shitty. Neither choice is painless.
Perhaps my daughter Kayla's theory has legs. She says that when everyone is grown up, we're all just people then. We're not just mothers, children, etc., we're fully formed human beings. We have our own opinions, quirks, we make our own mistakes. And sometimes, our personalities just don't mesh. We simply don't always like one another.
That sounds so reasonable, grown up. Enlightened even.
So why do so many of us go to bed with aching, heavy hearts and regrets, pining for the relationships we've lost or never had to begin with?