Late-in-life musings about how parental behavior shapes us
Last night shortly before I rolled into my four poster- solo, as it has been most of my life- I read the following simply exquisite article about loving our kids by Medium writer Jack Calhoun:
There’s Really Only One Thing Your Child Needs To Know
The Beatles had it right: All you need is love
As I read through, here is what bit, hard and deeply:
If you have resentment or regret about having brought them into your life, they will know it.
If your love is conditional, based on their behavior, they will know it.
If your love for yourself is greater than your love for them, they will know it.
If you are ashamed of them, they will know it.
Particularly with my dad, this is precisely the messaging I got from him, especially once I grew up enough to have my own voice. He crowed about bringing up two losers. He complained loudly about me to the neighbors while I was in hearing distance, and he knew it. He berated me for having a sex life, despite the fact that he himself had been sexually active with other women the weekend before he married my mother.
My folks were famous among their friends back in the thirties and forties for complaining about children in general, the children of their closest friends, and that they wouldn’t stoop to having “brats” of their own. The reason I know is that I had moved to Washington DC for my stint in the Army, and had looked up their friends from that era. They had a lot to say about how much my folks hated kids.
Well, I guess things got boring at Hubbel Ranch in the early fifties, for along we came. Punch, punch, two brats.
In all fairness to my father in particular, those things he did well, he did very well. He taught me to love books, words and writing. He treated my brother and me equally when it came to farm and house work, and instilled in me a great love of farm work, physical labor, animals and horses. Those were priceless.
In some ways, it’s fair to say that I might have traded some of that for my father’s love and regard. He harangued me unmercifully for the crime of having inherited the broad hips and thick thighs of his side of the family. He never let up, not even once, about my body and the shape I was in. He took my expanding adolescent body as a personal affront and proof of his failure as a father: having an imperfect child (read, with hips like his sisters), which shamed him deeply.
Calhoun writes about what happens when we know we aren’t loved:
They will know it, and they will never get over it. It will go like a cancer to the very fiber of their being. If they are lucky, they will find a way to come to terms with it and still lead a happy, productive life. But they will never get over it.
When cancer was about to take Dad, I visited him once and once only, for we were estranged. My mother told me later that the only thing he said was that I “looked good.” There was no mention whatsoever about any of my growing accomplishments.
All that mattered to him, and to my mother, apparently, was how my appearance reflected upon them. Getting fat, which I did for a while, was tantamount to a character assassination of them as parents. They backpedaled when I had various issues, such as the eating disorders which got their roots at the dinner table and my brother’s sexual attacks on me as an adolescent. And later after multiple rapes, which I could never and never did discuss with them. There is no question in my mind that my parents would have found a way to blame me for being assaulted despite the actual circumstances.
My mother admitted that when she realized I was a girl she wanted to drown me. On multiple occasions she would scream at full volume that she wished she’d never had us brats. Boy howdy, that’ll make you feel wanted.
It is genuinely difficult to mourn such parents. I miss my mother, for as she aged, and after my father’s death, she regained some of her liveliness and humor. She never lost her acid tongue when it came to looks. Mine in particular. She once told me that if I ever became terribly obese she wouldn’t be able to love me at all.
This is what Calhoun reports that his own father said of his grandfather’s death:
“I felt guilty,” he said. “Because I didn’t feel…anything.”
That sums up precisely how I feel about my father’s death. I have no idea what happened to his body, his ashes. I frankly couldn’t give less of a flying shit.
I can’t think of anything worse as a parent than to leave this earth and not have your child feel anything.
Yup. I relate perfectly.
Dad died from colon cancer in 2019. He was a complicated man, and at times we had a complicated relationship. But there was one thing I never doubted: I knew my father loved me. He told me that from the moment I came into this world until the moment he left it. (author bolded)
In a comedy riff on The Ten Commandments, George Carlin quips that of parents, “respect is earned.”
It’s a funny line, but there is some hard truth to that. Tiny kids can’t discern when their folks are being selfish assholes; they simply grow up, as I most certainly did, believing absolutely that they are the reason their parents are displeased. Immature parents- and most especially those battling addiction- are quite happy to let their kids bear the brunt of that burden.
Knowing you are loved without question changes everything.
The self-confidence that comes from such bedrock makes a huge difference in our lives. As a childhood sexual assault survivor, I knew I didn’t have the support of my parents. My dad was an alcoholic, Mom came close, and my brother was an addict. Addiction devastates families in every way possible. I am no expert on it; only on what it did in mine.
I recently finished the superb book on childhood sexual assault by Rosenna Bakari: Too Much Love is Not Enough. Rosenna and I became friends on Medium last year when I was captivated, as were many others, by her remarkable writing on Illumination. I took my time absorbing her story and her message. At times it was supremely difficult. However time after time I drew both truth and strength from her memoir.
Among the most powerful of her messages was how children who grow up in deeply dysfunctional and abusive households understand when they were not chosen. Those words in particular resonate with me. When bookended with Calhoun’s piece, they remind me that we are very aware that we are not the chosen ones when we cause our parents/family/loved ones to face themselves, whatever truths those may be. The default is to blame or attack the victim rather than do the real work.
There was a pivotal moment late in Dr. Bakari’s book when she wrote, with exquisite simplicity, that a key family member had chosen her. I had to stop reading for a while. That didn’t happen in my family. Nor can it now, for all my family is dead. Part of the lesson I learned, which her book helped me put into different words, is that when I set boundaries with people who have done hurtful things, I take the deep risk of being discarded.
I tried to set boundaries with my father, who, when drunk, had a mean tongue. He would brutalize my mother and me in front of guests. When I begged him to treat me like an adult, he refused. When I called him out on his drinking, he kicked me out of the family, rewrote the will, and then allowed my big brother to drain their bank accounts all while believing they chosen wisely.
My parents chose the abuser, as so often happens.
My dad could have made amends at the end. He chose not to.
It is then left to us to choose ourselves, a path that is sometimes strewn with landmines. My romantic life (I write that with a guffaw for that is an oxymoron if there ever was one) is pockmarked with men who used me and then chose someone else. It is very difficult to engage in any kind of healthy relationship when your emotional bedrock, from childhood on, is built on quicksand.
My life-long mentor Meg, who died at 92 a few years back, grew up with the absolute knowledge of how much she was treasured. Her life arc, her many accomplishments and a long, successful marriage and many happy kids speak at least in part to the difference that can make. She was always perplexed that my parents seemed unable to cross the emotional landscape to embrace their kids no matter how messy or challenging or complex we might have been.
Still am, at least in my case.
While I remain and will always be deeply grateful for what my folks bequeathed me, Calhoun’s piece begs the question of whether I might have had a slightly different life had I grown up convinced I was loved. I knew I wasn’t. Still know it. And as he points out,
they will never get over it.
Yes. I have had to overcome it. But I will never get over it. I can build on the bricks I have made with my hands and laid down for the house of my heart. And I do. For ultimately as with us all we must choose ourselves.
To that, if you have kids, no matter how old they may be, I might admonish you to consider the power of letting them know they’re loved. Parents screw up, they make terrible mistakes. But none so bad as denying their kids the one thing that can potentially make all the difference. I hope you do. For my part, if I’d had kids, I would love the confidence that my passing not only mattered greatly, but that I would be missed. With any luck, a lot.
For you and me to be missed, we might want to love first, last and always.