My mother died in my dream the other night. I have been trying to brush off the residual feeling of grief and the nagging thought that I wasn’t there to say goodbye. Unsuccessfully, even though I know it was just a dream. What makes the dream real is the possibility that it can be. Watching a horror movie you think can happen to you is a lot more terrifying that some sci-fi flick you know is entirely based on fantasy.
Parents. That word is complex, loaded with memories, values, emotions, teachings that sometimes become lessons.
There is so much talk about what it’s like to be a parent. The experience, the thrill, the challenges. The joy. Being the child, especially being the adult child of a parent is a world we all know but we don’t talk about.
In my work, the world of a child is only uncovered when parents really screw up. Otherwise, if parents can provide for a child, get them through life, school and the horrible teenage years with the least amount of damage and conflict, they are off the hook. So to speak.
Until that child turns 35 and comes to see me in therapy.
And then an entire world of dysfunction, emotional incest and psychological damage is uncovered. To everyone’s surprise. A child rarely questions the sanity of his parents. Their good intention, love, trust. But even when good intention, love and reliability are present, parents still screw their children up.
I know, I know. I’m not a parent. How dare I be so harsh towards parents? Do I even know how hard it is to raise a child? My client’s mom believes therapy is driving a wedge between them. The thought that I’m a powerful evil, interested and capable of indoctrinating my client with negativity towards her is actually more believable than the possibility that she might have screwed up. Don’t most of us believe that parents are to be respected no matter what? Even my client. When are “good” parents bad? What does that even mean? So here it is. From a childless adult to another. What I’m about to say applies to you whether you are a parent or not. Because we may not have children but we all had a parent. Or two.
Providing for a child’s basic needs does not make you a good parent. It simply fulfills the role and responsibility you took on when you conceived. Sure children need to be able to depend on you for their needs. But having grown up very very poor, I can tell you that an adult child remembers very little about material things they did or did not have. Instead, they vividly remember being loved or not. They remember their growing pains. And that one time you lost your shit, smacked them across the face and called them a name.
If you don’t show your child you love them, they will grow up believing you don’t. Also, you may find yourself not loving your children. Not liking who they are. It’s possible. Making them feel responsible for this is the worst damage you can do to a human being. This reminds me of a recent movie “We need to talk about Kevin” which revolves around a mother’s struggles and grief after her teenage son went on a shooting rampage at his school. The movie uncovers the ugly truth that some mothers never really develop the magical “mother instinct”. When the nurse brings them their baby for the first time they feel nothing.
Just because you refuse to see the truth does not mean it doesn’t exist.
The quickest way to break a child’s soul is to criticize them. There is something to be said for the power of unconditional love. Be careful not to dismiss this too quickly. Most parents think “Of course I love my child unconditionally”. But do you know what that looks like? What that feels like to a child? Were you loved unconditionally by your parents? Parent view their children as an extension of themselves. They project on them their own expectations, values, world views, religion, interests, likes. They want their children to be a certain way and they get disappointed when their children are their own person (as they should).
Too much loving will ruin a child’s ability to self-soothe. When they hurt don’t rush to make their pain go away. Life is pain. Don’t smother your kids. They are not there to provide you with constant emotional and physical warmth and affection. Your partner is. Hopefully. If you do, they will be petrified of being alone. They will have zero tolerance for loneliness, their inherent human condition, and will have no chance of learning to comfort themselves in times of great loneliness, pain and despair.
Your children are little people. Give them space to figure out who they really are. Be curious, open and interested. Ask questions. Find out who they are. Get to know them. Help them get to know themselves. That’s the greatest lesson in life. Sure, values and manners matter. Especially so you can show off to other parents what a well-mannered, respectful child you have. That’s great. But that’s for you. I’m all for behavior modification but don’t leave your child in the house alone for an entire weekend just to teach them a lesson. At least if you do, stop wondering why they don’t like you as an adult.
Take care of your mental illness. You depression, anxiety, Bipolar, borderline traits. Your alcoholism or substance abuse. Your control issues. Your own childhood baggage. Please parents. Your children are not your therapist nor should they be.
Finally, believe it or nor, your children DO grow up. Fast. Believe it or not Child, you’re all grown up.
If you are thinking that your parents may have screwed you up somehow you are probably right. It’s also perfectly OK to be angry and disappointed in them. They probably did the best they could but it wasn’t good enough for you. That doesn’t mean you are a bad person or an ungrateful child. That does not mean you have to put up with their dysfunction as an adult nor should you feel guilty for simply living your life which they so generously gave you.
Hopefully when they do pass away you will feel sadness and grief but you will have no guilt, shame or nagging resentments because of who you have become.