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Relationships • Parenting

Coping with One’s Parents

A few lucky ones among us get on easily with their parents, but for most of us, mothers and fathers are the source of continually complicated and emotionally-draining trials. One strategy to try to simplify matters is to confront them. We may come to feel that we have said too little for too long and must – finally – have our say. We will pick a moment and then explain how they hurt us and what they still misunderstand. We will lay out how their inadequacies took a toll in our childhood and continue to damage our chances today.

It is a moving ambition, but rarely a very successful one. Instead of meekly agreeing with our verdict, parents have a habit of turning around and, with surprising and humiliating authority, blaming us for being ungrateful and immature. Or at the final moment, sensing their vulnerability and inability to understand whatever we are trying to say, we may have to pull our punches, because it would be unbearable to inflict pain on them. Or they may seem to take it all on board, they may thank us for our candour, and at the very next encounter, express an opinion that makes it obvious that they have understood nothing at all. After another wounding conversation, it may feel as if the sane thing would be never to have anything to do with these dangerous people again. 

The situation can be especially complex when a parent isn’t an outright monster. They may be maddening in truly debilitating ways but they can also at points be sweet or bright, funny or tender. Unfortunately, we can’t merely dismiss them as catastrophes. In the background, often out of sight, we may have deep reserves of love for them: there’s a favourite photo of them helping us build a sand-castle at the beach when we were seven which brings tears to our eyes. We are moved by their familiar smells and routines. We hate them and, even more troublingly, care for them rather a lot. We want them dead and will be devastated when they are gone.

To simplify our relationship, it may help to depersonalise the pain. The exact reasons why we can’t get on with our parents will be specific, the fact that we can’t is very and cathartically general. Every parent brings a great deal of trouble into their child’s life; every parent substantially harms and burdens the small person they would – in theory – wish simply to help. If they are unduly irritable (because of their own background terror and disappointment), the child will be cowed into timidity. If they are highly gentle and indulgent, the child may fail to notice or temper its own aggressive and egoistic tendencies. If the parent is (from concern) overly controlling, the child will struggle to acquire an independent sense of direction and won’t learn to face the obstacles to the realisation of its better potential. The possibilities for error are infinite. We naturally resent the unique mistakes our own early care givers inflicted but we are, in truth, through our development, participating in a more or less universal fate. It’s not our parents who were particularly the problem: it is that infants have no option but to allow their minds to be formed by a random set of averagely but very consequentially flawed big people.

Because a parent is a generation older, much of what shaped them stemmed from a world with priorities, values, anxieties and hopes that seem strange – even reprehensible – to us, but that were, and still are, urgent and real for them. Given where they came from, it isn’t a surprise that they cared so much about money or status, manners or education,  but also so little about honesty and trust, warmth or calm. Should we have a child, we can be sure that they’ll feel the same boredom, resentment and bafflement we currently do, around a host of attitudes that we haven’t even thought to notice or reign in in ourselves.

It’s perhaps unsurprising if our parents retain a vision, as irksome as it is constant, of us as children. They remember, as we can’t, how long it took for us to mature. Our first tumbling steps and our earliest attempts to string a few words together are still, for them, vivid and perhaps deeply fond memories. At some level, it’s almost understandable if they are condescendingly amazed that we have a job or can drive a car and doubt whether we should ever really be allowed to make our own choices around whom to marry or where to live. 

A greater degree of simplicity in our dealing with parents must spring from a recognition of the inherent complexity of what we’re trying to do, which is get on well with someone who has unavoidably damaged us and whose outlook on life can never reasonably align with our own. 

Resignation can sound bleak but it also brings with it limited, but mature, hopes. In a simpler relationship, we anticipate that certain occasions are bound to be difficult and thereby help them to be slightly less so. If we spend a holiday with them, we know that they will within minutes put a finger on our most vulnerable dimensions. If we have lunch with them, we know they’ll steer the conversation to our ineptitude (as they see it) about money or love. These occasions are no longer to be dreaded, because we’ve already forced ourselves to consider them understandable and beyond our control. 

In a simpler relationship with our parents, we wouldn’t keep trying to get from them things that they had evidently shown themselves unable to offer. We would know that we would never be able to get them to understand our childhood sorrows or why we had chosen a particular partner, so we wouldn’t launch into futile attempts at explanation. We would focus, as much as possible, on the few areas where we could be peaceable together. We would remember that they liked talking about their friends, so we would be sure to ask many open ended questions about how they were getting on. If they were keen on gardening , we would draw them out on their tomato plants. 

We would be strategic too about where, and for how long, we would meet them. If they had a tendency to grow fussy and snobbish in restaurants, we would suggest a walk in the country. If we liked their taste in kitchen utensils, we might fix up a trip to a department store to get their advice about a new breadboard. We would know never to stay overnight with them. With a clear sense of all that could go wrong, we would be free to focus our attention on the few things that might reliably deliver mutual satisfaction. 

A parent and an adult child are emotionally intertwined, in intricate ways, for reasons that have nothing to do with personal preference. We’re tied by history and biology – rather than by choice – to a being who was a god-like giant when we were tiny but whose flaws we have since come to know in great and very painful detail. Outside families this never happens: we’re never forced into a death-bound union with someone who – given our divergent temperaments, tastes, habits and attitudes – we would never dream of selecting as a friend. It is in the end simply a strange, yet constant, feature of the human condition that we are tethered emotionally for life to someone who is both an irritating stranger and the person who wept for joy when we were born.

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