I can relate to Matthew’s experience, having a parent who so obviously needed psychological help but never sought it out. To make matters worse, people in our parents’ lives who could have lovingly pointed out the problems just chose to back away. It takes a lot of courage to confront someone about psychological issues, but so many stand to benefit from it. In this case, five children could have enjoyed a restored relationship with their father. –Zipporah
What’s your age?
Are both of your parents living?
My father died in 2003; my mother is still living.
Marital Status of Parents:
Married, never divorced.
Number of Siblings:
How often do you see your parents?
When my father was alive, we lived far apart. So, every 6 to 8 months. My mother–We see each other two to three times per week.
What are some of the ways you spend time together?
(Father)–A good portion of our relationship was based on disagreement; we saw each other at family events. We’d hang-out, make casual talk.
(Mother)–We see each other at events that I am hosting, talk about things on the phone, do things together–usually something activity-based
On a scale of 1 to 10, how much did you enjoy your father’s company?
Three. He could be fun, but the majority of the relationship was based upon fights. There were two phases of my adulthood–the last three or four years, we got along better, but I was living abroad. The last 1.5 years were times of consistent, healthy interactions, enjoyable.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you enjoy your mother’s company?
Seven. When she’s not being self-righteous or sanctimonious.
Did spending time with them together affect the dynamic of the visit?
Yes, very much. They rarely came alone, but together, they each had their roles. My dad would be goofy, then intense and throw a fit. My mom would try to be caring and present, a good mother. She would often shut down when my dad threw a fit.
What were/are some of the positive aspects of your relationship with them?
(Father:) Periodically, we could have fun, but rarely. He was always doing something crazy, which made for an interesting dynamic. I think it’s why I enjoy lots of different types of people, because it forced me to find something interesting rather than being depressed and stuck in an abusive relationship.
(Mother:) More recently, it’s a lot more open. There is a fair amount of honesty, which is still relatively new. We can talk about most things. This, again, is all very new in the context of our relationship. I feel like my mom gets me more than my dad did. He thought I was weird. He had no basis for understanding my life. My mom is a bit better of a listener and an understander.
What about the negative?
(Father:) It was just a highly complex relationship based upon a tumultuous childhood. It was a pattern that he knew and passed on to us. Of the kids, he was very difficult on the oldest and a lot easier on the youngest two. I’m the fourth. The second in line was obviously his favorite.
(Mother:) We have the ongoing morals, ethics and worldview dilemma. She’s very much a puritan and that becomes challenging. There are many things that we do the same, but for very different reasons. We are often trying to align on “letter of the law” and “spirit of the law.” She lets people take advantage of her, too, and it makes me crazy. Part of that is because I’ve helped her a lot and it’s frustrating.
Honestly, which weighs more–the positive or the negative?
(Mother:) Overall, my mom is positive. I feel like, with my mom, growing up, it was like, “Mom is good, dad is bad!” In my 20s, I had a backlash of thought and a bit of resentment; I felt like she had done so much bad. Now, I feel like I see a broader picture that includes the good and the bad. I think part of that–which is key–is our (my siblings’ and my) ability to relate to them. We tend to look at them as “they did this and that”, but with emotional maturity as an adult, the way I relate to them is more based upon me and how I interact with them.
If the relationship is positive, what are one or two of the most important aspects of their parenting that contributed to a healthy relationship?
Acknowledging mistakes that they made. Asking for forgiveness. Listening to understand what the barriers to a healthy relationship are. Those are the two things my mom has tried to do.
If the relationship is negative, what are one or two of the most important factors that contributed to a fractured relationship?
Propagating a bad relationship is knowing that there are tensions and ignoring them. Continuing to do the same things year after year after year.
What do you wish they had done differently?
Humility allows you to change. One thing that addresses that would have been to have a counselor or good friend who was deeply involved in their parenting. Someone they sought out on a regular basis for help. Secondly, trying to have consistency or to apologize a lot.
What do you most appreciate about their parenting?
They were strict. We did not run the house. We knew our place and we had roles. We had jobs to do, but unfortunately, it was one-sided. My dad had zero coping or emotional maturity.
How well do you relate to your siblings?
It ranges from medium to well.
Do they share your same reflections?
No, because most of them are still caught in the emotional loop, or storm, that we had with my parents. In our 30s and 40s, though, I see some of them coming out of the storm.
Can you share an example of a defining moment with your parents?
I was around 12 and we couldn’t afford new clothes, so we got a lot of hand me downs, trash clothes. We always looked like ragamuffins. My parents had bought a new shirt for my brother and for some reason I had borrowed it. I had short sleeves and buttoned up with blue and maroon stripes. I was sleeping in that shirt because we never had pajamas. My dad got home and he woke me up and slung me across the floor. It broke the buttons off the shirt–I was more upset that the buttons were broken than the fact that my father slung me across the floor. My dad has been dead for 8 years and is fading from my memory, but that moment will never fade. Another one–Dad and I went crabbing in Texas City, but the waves were coming in so we just spent all afternoon picking up shells. They all had hermit crabs in them and died.
I remember my mom getting mad at me for not getting good grades at school. She kept yelling, “You can do better than this.” I knew that I could do better, but I just didn’t want to. I didn’t care about school. Also, Mom making us go to creative dramatic summer courses that she taught.
Has anything happened in the recent years to change your relationship?
When I realized that I had to take responsibility for the relationship, my relationship with both of them completely changed. My dad and I fought all the time, but at least we were talking. In the last few years, I feel like a sense of maturity that I have something to offer people when it comes to relationships, which has come through the difficulties of my familial relationships.
I don’t think parents understand that their parenting programs their children in a way from which they may never deprogram. The fortunate few see it, and only a small percentage of those are able to get out of it.