Always you wrestle inside me.
Always you will.
~Tree of Life
It’s never ending—the long Chicago winter, the bleakness of March—the questions we have about our parents. For me, this week was bookended with melancholy. Monday March 11, would have been my mother’s 93rd birthday, and today, March 15, would have been my parents’ 70th anniversary. (Beware the Ides of March!) Every year, I have my own personal “March Madness” as I contemplate these powerful dates and the people and events they evoke.
This week I revisited essays I have written about my mother (Mumselle) and about my parent’s marriage (Word Salad). As the years go by, I have more insight into their idiosyncrasies, and I find more material with which to emotionally wrestle.
There is no relationship as treacherous as that of parent and child—the potential for blessing and damage in equal proportion. Anyone who has parented knows the question is not nature or nurture, but what combination of each. Children are born into the world with their own agendas and their family DNA. Add in the innate ineptness of youthful parents, the crapshoot of the culture into which we’re born, and siblings—at best it’s like creating a recipe from ten different cookbooks then having the ingredients do their own thing! The real question becomes how is there not more disaster?
As adults, there is a point in healthy development when we come to the shocking realization that our parents are people, too—with experiences and emotions that will never be known to us—and that can be appropriate. In all healthy relationships, we have a right to privacy—and there is a distinct difference between privacy and secrecy. Privacy is our business, ours to own and protect—secrecy is what can harm and deprive others from lack of sharing.
Looking back at our parents’ lives as a whole, can give us much needed perspective on each of them as individuals. Taking a few steps back to gaze up the genealogical ladder can also help, but it isn’t always possible to have that kind of perspective—especially when hot raw emotions are involved. Over time, if we have children, we gain even more perspective on which of our parents’ choices were right and wrong and which were simply inept. There are things we can never reconcile, and things we must accept to stay sane. We do have choices.
Many times, I’ve given my patients the assignment to go home, find a quiet space, and light a candle to mourn the (mother, father, fill in the blank) that they’ve never had and are never going to have. I did that last night.
In the end, it’s a wonder any of us make it out alive—parents or children. Also in the end, most of us (parents and children) will never feel like it was enough to have done the best we could. The thing is, we cannot go back and do it again, knowing what we know now. But we can go back and look at it again. And sometimes that perspective is enough to give us peace—until next year.
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