Chapter 1.Relationships: Parenting


On Being Angry with a Parent

One of the more shocking and difficult emotions one may feel towards one’s parents is anger. It might have been acceptable, as a toddler, to have had the odd tantrum in front of them or even to have been a bit sulky as a teenager, but as an adult, one is meant to have developed a broadly benevolent and friendly relationship to them. Society keeps enforcing the message by presenting us with situations where one should be keen to get together: holidays, birthdays and the inevitable Mother and Father’s Days. But for some of us, these demands are intensely oppressive. We cannot smile as we should. We can’t write the card that so-called normal people would write. Our manner is strained around the parental dinner table. We can’t wait to head back to our lives. We find aspects of chatting to them unbearable. We know our parents love us and despite everything, we love them too. But their company is in a practical sense truly untenable. We feel at once guilty and oppressed. We call far less than we should. We’ll feel devastated but also not a little relieved on the terrible day when they’ll no longer be around.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Black on Gray), 1969/70. Acrylic on canvas, 80 1/8 x 69 1/8 inches (203.3 x 175.5 cm)

Might there be a way of clearing the atmosphere? We probably long – deep down – to have it out with them and explain more about our avoidant manner, whose roots lie in childhood. Instead of sending them the usual meaningless cheery postcard, might we not – for once – try to speak the awkward truth to them? It can take a very long time to be clear in our own minds about our feelings – and to develop the courage to speak.

Dear Mum and Dad,

I know this could sound like a very weird message. I’ve often thought of sending you something like this – and then stopped myself. Partly that’s because I love you so much and would hate to cause you hurt and upset. And partly (and I know this could strike you as odd) because I’m somewhere inside still a little scared of you.

But I’ve also come to realise that if I don’t say anything, it just corrodes our relationship and stops me being who I want to be with you. I know I must sometimes come across as a bit distant, or cold or distracted. I’m none of those things really. I just struggle with feelings I have about our relationship that I’ve never been able to articulate before. So if any of what I say sounds difficult, please know that it’s only because I am at heart trying to get things to be as good as they can be between us.

The range of possible complaints is broad. Some of the following might be relevant:

I know how much I must have disappointed you at times. But the process went both ways. At many levels, you provided me with everything I needed. There are so many children who had it far worse. But sometimes I craved things nevertheless: simple acceptance, raw affection, a feeling that I mattered – truly mattered – to you. You tell me often enough now that you love me, and I’m so touched that you do, but there were gaps back then, times when that wasn’t at all what it felt like and I carry the legacy of that to this day. Without me meaning for this to be, there’s a part of me that rages against you still – even though all I want to do is love you.

I know that you didn’t mean any of what went on – but it marked me profoundly. It’s made me less than I should be. It’s affected my relationships and my work. I try not to burden you with this, but I wrestle with the past more than I should.

I don’t want to be angry; I want to be close to you and to love you without inhibition. I want nothing more than for our family to be at ease. I am dutiful, perhaps too dutiful. But if all I ever am is dutiful, then my feelings will be fake or strained. I need to let out a little howl, I need to be properly myself with you – and to see that you can take that side of me, so that later my affection can be as warm as it should be.

Don’t think me too mad, or eccentric. What matters is that I love you, that I am doing this because I care – and in the hope that we can in the years ahead be as happy around one another as can be.

Even though all this might be addressed to them, you’re not – fortunately – doing it for their sake, you’re doing it for yours; as a sign of maturity, and evidence to yourself that you aren’t scared  any more in relation to the errors of the past. It’s a demonstration that you have found a voice. You cannot lose. Either they will understand – and you will be closer. Or they won’t understand – and you will be free.

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