The Parent Trap
June 7, 2022
I have been collecting information.
The intelligence I’ve gathered is untouchable, unutterable stuff. We are permitted to scream these things into a pillow. Only someone ungrateful or disrespectful would go further. What I’ve done is against the damn commandments. Even the grave is no place for these words.
Blessed are the peacemakers, even so, amen.
Here’s what I did:
I took it as given that any person of around my age has had some time to rage against the machine. When we were teenagers, our rage was nameless and potent, far more “irrational”. We could not have named our emotions; we could barely spell the words.
And now we are different. We’ve read a bit. Our vocabularies have grown with our noses and ears (which apparently do not stop growing. What witchcraft is this?!) We know fancy sh*t. We’re old enough to have made our own mistakes. We’re young enough to hope we may yet escape greater ones. We’re clever and utterly rational now. And many of us have a propensity for drink, which makes gathering delicate information easier. (That is a downright joke. I applied rigorous journalistic standards to my dirt-gathering.)
I audaciously asked some fellow millennial creatures:
How did your parents screw up? What, in your perception, did your parents get wrong?
Like a stone-cold b*tch.
My many contributors will remain anonymous even if you torture me.
And before you get all hot under the collar and offended by what you’re about to read, just know that I have a few really excellent points to make at the end, so buckle up, buttercup. I offer no judgment on whether any of these things is right or wrong, good or bad; I’m merely sharing them as they were told to me. Here we go:
Couldn’t accept my mental health challenges
Used “Stop complaining; be positive” against me
Slept around while married to each other
Lost all their money before I turned 30
Lost all their money before I turned 10
Joined a cult and took us
They continue to hold racist beliefs
Never gave me a chance to make my own decisions so I fell apart when I eventually had to
Never argued in front of us so I don’t know how conflict resolution looks
Argued way too much in front of me
Encouraged critical thinking then criticized me for applying critical thinking
They got married to each other
They don’t talk to each other
Slagged each other off to me
Gave little room for emotions so I disconnected
My mother is currently a cult leader
No sex conversation - not at a young age, not now, never
Domestic work imbalance left female children doing a lot more than male children
Gave their lives to a pyramid scheme
Hid money things from each other
Used me as a pawn in their divorce
Called my home birth plan “barbaric”
Put me in the middle of their disastrous marriage
When I told them early in my marriage that I’d made a mistake, they insisted I remain married, offering no help
Said I was looking for attention when I said I was suicidal
Tried to shield me from hard things
Never spoke to me about money
When I made a life decision that was different from what they thought was best, it felt as though they tried to stage an intervention
Stigmatized negative emotions which I wish they’d normalized
Used the Bible to justify homophobia
Told me on my 10th birthday that they wanted a divorce
Sent me to boarding school
I needed more open-mindedness
I needed them to say sorry
I needed them to admit their mistakes and acknowledge faults
I needed freedom to give my honest opinion
I needed them to do the work on their marriage and heal it rather than letting it and us suffer
Taught me that I am responsible for the emotional states of the people around me
Taught me that I am a financial commodity
Go get your tissues. Breathe. All feelings are valid: hurt, empathy, anger, or even oppugnancy (one of the fancy ones you’ve learned since puberty).
I am grateful to those who answered my question and helped me create what I find to be a painful thing. I hope that I held space for them and honoured what they shared with the reverence I genuinely feel beyond the light-hearted, bantering tone I’m attempting.
There were long pauses before and after each revelation in almost every exchange. There was a degree of reluctance to share and give voice to these experiences that I found surprising and humbling. “I’m writing a blog post about how our parents have effed up. Would you like to contribute?” You’d think that everyone would be ready to start piling on. We’ve had decades to really think about and find vocabulary for these things. We long to be understood, after all. We want to tell the story of the things that happened that we didn’t sign up for, that we didn’t want, and that we didn’t deserve. The things that broke us before we even knew we wanted to be whole.
But, if you knew how little of my own experience has been put in this list, how little I have been willing to share myself, then you’d know that I understand it all too well.
At some point in our lives, the screw ups of our parents begin to look eerily familiar, as though the movie has rewinded all by itself and the opening sequence is begining again. We can see, with a degree of clarity impossible at a younger age, how strait and narrow the path is to doing precisely as they’ve done.
The day you realize that you are your parents - a combination of the genes, experiences, hurts, passions, breakdowns and breakthroughs that make them - is the day your mix of compassion and fear sober you up.
Will I end up making these mistakes too? Haven’t I already shown again and again how I’m prone to the very same things? What if I can’t do better?
What if they couldn’t have done better?
I’m not convinced we can do it differently unless we first tell the scary, border-line sacrilegious truth. Not out of spite, not out of hatred, but out of a real desire to change what we can’t accept for our future.
Because here’s the thing: even if our caregivers have been misguided, lost, well-meaning but foolish, ridiculous, bizarre, blind, damaged and damaging, or even cruel, with each passing year we see them staring back at us more and more when we look in the mirror. Your mother’s crooked grin and your father’s bad posture. Your mother’s beautiful eyes and your father’s impressive nose.
It may be that making peace with them is the same thing as making peace with ourselves. It may be that forgiving them (whatever that may look like in your book) is the same as forgiving ourselves.
Someone down the line with our face staring back at them from the mirror may get to tell a slightly less broken story.