For so many of us, parenthood is as much about raising a child as it is about “reparenting” ourselves in the process. I know a lot of moms who vacillate between empathy for their parents and sadness about the emotional or material deficiencies of their own childhoods once they become parents themselves. Sometimes, as we measure the exquisite care taken to every detail of our children’s lives against the absenteeism, neglect, narcissism, lack of psychological awareness, or fill-in-the-blank human error of our own parents, we become those children again ourselves—precisely at the moment when we need to be most adult. Or so we think. What I tell so many moms from my own experience is that this is a necessary “regression.” It’s okay to say to yourself, or even to a parent if he or she is receptive, “What in the world were they thinking, leaving us alone with that emotionally disturbed uncle for a week?” or “How could they not have noticed that I had a learning disability?” I believe it’s better to address the feeling, to become, momentarily, that sullen teen or wounded 6-year-old, in order to mourn what parents were or weren’t. It is only in the processing of disappointment, anger, or sadness that one can possibly have enough consciousness to truly move on and, in so doing, not repeat the pattern.
We all have our family mythology that we replay throughout our lives, over casual or deep conversation and in the wee hours in our heads. Mine goes something like this: “My mom was a bit of a wreck after (okay, before and after) my dad left, and there were some tough years, but I was loved enough so that I ended up fine.” However true that might be (I consider myself lucky to have two parents whose love I felt deeply, and I am relatively fine), the story was immutable. Stereotypes were cast—Mom was the responsible if frazzled worrier who did all of the heavy lifting; Dad was the irresponsible good-time Charlie who would show up unexpectedly, magically, at games. I realize now as a parent just how much stress my mother was under as a single mom. Her anxiety, while her great motivator, was also toxic. And while I was forever critical of my father’s peripatetic and not-so-fatherly ways, I realize now just how quietly concerned he was about shielding my sister and me from that anxiety. It is only now that I’m a mom that I can see how they were both responsible and reckless in totally different ways. Recklessness in a glass-half-full universe was sometimes the perfect antidote to soul-crushing anxiety. It’s all in the framing. Whereas my mother made sure we got to college, my father made sure we weren’t afraid to take the tiller on our small sailboat in rough waters. It turns out both were equally valuable parenting instincts in the rearing of fearless and, yes, educated children. It is only in the shedding of stereotypes that I am able to see how different and complementary their ideas were about what it meant to launch us into the world. Allowing family narrative to evolve, however painful the initial reopening of the wound, allows you to cherry-pick the best of your parents’ gifts with clarity and pass them along to the next generation.
(photo: Matthew Hranek)
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