Strangers at Our Table, SF Chronicle

Holiday gatherings are supposed to be a time to eat heartily and bask in the presence of our loved ones. So why do many of us leave the table feeling empty?

The holidays elict strong feelings about family — hopeful, regretful or homicidal. And Thanksgiving is one of the Big Boys — a nondenominational, bipartisan, school-excused, frequent-flyer, triglyceride-grabbing holiday that can act as a gaping black hole for family feelings and memories.
For many people, the tender images touted by Madison Avenue and the television networks generate intense feelings of sadness, loneliness, shame, guilt or anger. These media-generated, picture-perfect, feel-good families can underscore the disparity between the relationships people have with their parents and the relationships they wish they had.

Around the holidays, unresolved family issues tend to get hotter than a pan of jewel yams, because they keep us from being as close as we want to be to our families. Well, we may want to be distant from our particular family — but we want to be a member of some family where we feel loved, respected and appreciated.

Children can carry the memory of hurt or anger from family relationships well into adulthood. Many people stay away from their parents or visit them reluctantly, bracing themselves to swallow, ignore or fight over issues that have haunted them for years. Some, with time, acceptance or the help of therapy, are able to make peace with what they didn’t get — and never will — from their parents. In other families, where the parents are healthy enough to address their mistakes and change their behavior, relationships can become stronger and more resilient.
Parenting is a science of approximations. What works magically for the first child may be irrelevant for the next. Some parents are great with certain types of kids and clueless with others — better with boys than girls, better with girls than boys, better with cats than either one. I was more patient with my daughter than I was with my twin sons — her nature was calm and introspective, which freed up time for playing, talking or reading. My boys were loud, rowdy and constantly in motion; a larger percentage of my parental reserves went toward containing and corralling them so they didn’t disassemble our house and build a skateboard ramp out of the spare parts.

None of us are perfect as parents, and all of us wound our children to some degree or another. Ideally, we try to pass on as many good things as we can, but, inevitably, we pass on some of our problems as well.
It takes a healthy parent to listen to an adult child’s anger or hurt about the mistakes the parent made and not feel undone by it. And it takes a mature child to feel confident enough to tell a parent what he or she doesn’t like about the relationship. Parents often feel betrayed when their kids criticize them, no matter how warranted the criticism. They frequently react by getting defensive or by accusing the child of being ungrateful. This counter-blame is a way to block out feeling unappreciated, sad or guilty. Unfortunately, it usually confirms the adult child’s worst fears and sets the clock back for getting the relationship onto a healthy track.

Some parents, whether they admit it or not, are responsible for parenting transgressions that are extremely harmful to their children. Child abuse, incest, alcoholism or drug addiction are a few of the more egregious examples. However, people are often hurt by their parents for reasons that aren’t obvious to others. Something that may look trivial from the outside can be suffocating or damaging to the person who lives inside that family. “My mother had a pretty low standard of parenting,” a friend once told me. “Tell your children that you love them and don’t beat them. My father didn’t, so he was a success in her eyes. And everybody loved my father because he was really funny and outgoing. They never saw his subtle, day-to-day humiliations of us.”
People who grow up in families like this — where the deficits in the parenting are less overt — don’t know they’re being denied the small day-to-day acts of encouragement and involvement that create a person, layer by precious layer. As adults, they don’t understand why they feel sad or inadequate, or can’t apply themselves to things they value, or choose relationships with people who are harmful to them. They don’t understand why they don’t want to see their parents or feel so lousy after they do.

It’s common in psychotherapy to hear people berate themselves for feeling hurt and angry over childhood wounds they are barely able to identify. “It’s not like I was beaten or anything,” is a frequent refrain. “So my parents were distant and never told me that they loved me. Lots of people have worse problems than me. That’s not a reason for me to be depressed.”

But for many people, it is.
Even for well-intentioned parents, pitfalls abound. One of the cruelest ironies of parenting is that we can do so much harm even when we are trying to do our best.

An example of this is when parents damage the relationship with their children by trying not to make the same mistakes their parents made. One of my colleagues grew up in a commune in the ’60s. “I was given a ton of freedom because my parents were rebelling against their parents’ conservatism. They were worried that discipline and limits would destroy my innocence and creativity. I remember asking if I could smoke pot with them when I was 10, and they said, `You decide. If you think that it’s a good idea, then it’s a good idea.’ I was 10 years old! How would I know what a good idea was?
“Now that I’m a parent, I’m super strict. My kids practically need permission to blink, and they resent me for it, but it’s better than what I had.”
Maybe. But adopting a parenting style at the opposite extreme of our childhood experience can create other problems. One couple, for example, risked their lives to come to America so that their children could take advantage of opportunities they never had. They constantly harassed their children to do better, and loudly criticized their efforts and achievements. If the children performed poorly in school, they berated them. As a result, their kids were burdened with strong feelings of worthlessness and guilt when they became adults.
These parents did the best they could, given what they knew. But fearing that their children would suffer in poverty, as they had, made them blind to the harm they were causing.

So should their children, now adults, forgive and forget?
Sure, if they can. But there is so much pressure in our culture to “get over it” and “move on” and “grow up” that many people aren’t allowed to look back long enough to grieve what they didn’t get from their parents without someone calling them immature. They end up blaming themselves for inadequacies and conflicts without understanding how those problems came to be. And if they’re blaming themselves for all of their problems, they may not be ready to forgive their parents. Forgiveness can only come when we know, in our cranberry-colored blood, that we didn’t deserve to be treated badly, no matter what our parents’ intentions.

Yet sometimes, the worst possible betrayals can be healed. In my experience of working with families who are trying to reconcile, the best outcomes occur when adult children are able to talk about their experience in the family and the parents are willing to admit to the possibility that they caused harm.
Children — even grown-up children — need to feel like their parents can accept the full range of their feelings. Listening without being defensive is one of the most crucial things a parent can do. It shows that we care enough about our kids to take their feelings and experiences seriously, no matter how unflattering or painful it is for us to hear them.

This is not easy for most parents to do, and it’s rarely pleasant. It’s an especially tall order to accept, with love and grace, the anger of a child who has an incorrect or partial picture of a parent at the time a transgression took place. Conversely, for parents who know they were at fault, there is the added weight of managing their own guilt and sorrow on top of their child’s hurt and anger. It takes strength and courage to face that we have hurt someone so important to us. But like it or not, it’s part of the job we parents sign up for when we create a child.
Parents have a right to have their perspective heard. There are separate realities in a family, and sometimes this is most strongly reflected in the difference between a child’s view of the parents’ behavior and the parents’ view of themselves. Airing this perspective, however, shouldn’t be done as a way to prove the child wrong. It should be done after there has been considerable demonstration on the part of the parents that they have correctly heard what their child has said, and that they are open to making efforts to address that hurt.

All parents do the best they can given what they know and what they have to draw upon. However, it’s important for both the parent and the adult child to recognize that this is where the discussion should begin, not end.

As children, we don’t get to choose the family we grow up with. But as adults, we get to decide who we want to have or not have in our lives. Being a member of a family is often a challenge, even in the best of circumstances. If we are able to make peace with our family, so much the better. If not, it’s our job to surround ourselves with people who treat us the way that we want and need to be treated.
Many people are confused about whether to blame themselves or their parents, whether to forgive or not forgive, whether being mad is infantile or an appropriate labeling of responsibility. We start out believing our parents know everything and slowly begin to see what they know and what they don’t — if we’re lucky.

Hopefully, our parents are willing to admit their mistakes and hear what it was like for us to be a child or a teenager or an adult in their homes. As parents, hopefully, we have children who are willing to forgive us for the hurt we caused when we were too tired, too frustrated or too selfish to do a better job. Hopefully we can forgive ourselves if they won’t. And hopefully, we are secure in the knowledge that we deserve to have people around us — whether family or friends — who care about our worries, value our friendship and take joy in our happiness.
Having that — at any time of year — is a reason to give thanks.

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9 Comments

  1. morag
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I have four children, the youngest is 20. I have found that the separation comes as they quite naturally try to become separate people.Luckily my eldest three have come “back to me” again but in a different way.My youngest is still working out how to be him and our son at the same time. I make mistakes. I am sometimes very hurt by what is said and what is unfair.It seems to me that it is always the parents fault but I have forgiven many hurtful things. Is it too much to ask that parents can be forgiven too. None of us is perfect. My children love me and tell me and show me.I am lucky. I feel so sad for those struggling with this.Hopefully my youngest will come through like the others.

  2. Judy Myers -Turner
    Posted November 26, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    I have 2 adult children, a daughter age 48 who for the last 13 years has abandoned me along with my 2 grandchildren who at one time (up until age 7 and 8) I was really close to. My adult son is age 50 and his wife age 46. Have abandoned me for 12 years. Nothing..won’t even talk to me.

    I was a single mom after 4 years of marriage to a spoiled high profile athlete who never grew up, a chronic gambler and bookie. I was pregnant with my son and chose to get married. BIG mistake. I chose to do the right thing even though my prim and propr mother told me she would give me the choice of putting my son up for adoption or arrange an abortion. I just could not do any of those things. But mothers always know what is best. I should have listened. I would have given him up for adoption.

    But now at age 73 and all alone, maybe I should have taken her up on that after the treatment I have received from my son for the past 12 years. My daughter, I managed her career and she became a successful Broadway actress. I was even instrumental in advising her marry another actor who was successful on Broadway, went to the same kind of church and ten years older. They are still married but have eliminated me from their lives. They built a $2 million home outside of L.A. and had live in help. But they kicked me out after one holiday for no reason. My daughter that day said to me, “you are not my mother..well, uh only my biological mother”!

    I thought I would become unhinged, so I walked away. I was beyond shocked.

    I had been a single mom, and got my teaching degree so I could have the same schedule as my children’s school days. I worked as a playground director and ran a swimming program during the summer. However at age 28 I almost died with cervical cancer. My mother came and stayed with me, driving me to the swimming pools of which I was in charge with, so I could continue to support my children.

    During this time my ex husband married a woman who was financially set. That marriage lasted for 22 years until she divorced him. BUT when I was incapacitated with the cancer he and his new wife took my children from me without a court order.

    My mother could only do so much during this time. My ex kidnapped them and I was never allowed by his wife to see or speak to them. But I tried and tried. I did get them on the weekends.

    When I was totally recovered, I met someone whom I married and in hopes I could get my children back. I did get them back, but those hopes were dashed and after one year of marriage he left me and the kids. I was shattered. Anyway, I continued my contact with them and just did everything I knew to help continue to shape their life and not have them get “lost”.

    I managed my daughter’s career and used my Military Stepfather to impact my son’s choices which proved successful. My stepfather was a West Point grad and in WWII, was a commanding officer in General Patton’s Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge. This was a good move on my part.

    When my daughter married her actor husband, she was pregnant and he did not treat her great. BUT he sure made a pass at me and I was devastated. They have now been married for 22 years. I have never been contacted for the last 13 years, even though I have called them and written to them so many times. Nothing!

    I have had my personal psychiatrists over those years call them but to no avail. My son went into the Marines and became later an officer in the Air Force. He married what I thought was a nice girl from a good family. She did not attend college and was an aerobics instructor. They went together for 10 years and have now been married for 16 years. She has never called me, even though I tried to establish a relationship. I have never seen or held my grandaughter who is now 8 years old. I only saw my grandson once when he was 4. I have written, called had my doctors and a close friend call my son but nothing.

    I finally gave up, got married again, to my high school sweetheart and was deliriously happy…for exactly 36 days! He is a retired military officer. West Point grad and Vietnam War Hero. I had been single for 30 years.

    I am a business executive now and everything was going great until he tried to phone and speak with my son, but my son would not return his call. I thought they would be great for one another.

    Shortly thereafter my new husband went psycho and in the middle of the night he hired the police to arrest me for (without witnesses, etc.) writing a false criminal complaint, saying that I pinched him on the cheek.

    I then was put through hell, being unlawfully removed from our marital home 3,000 miles from my former lovely condo in Southern California and thrown in jail! I have never spent any time in jail for my 73 years! I just could not believe this was happening.

    I had been single for 30 years and never arrested before. I was traumatized and now spent the last 3 years with attorneys and I do not know if I will ever recover. My business is hovering from total disaster.

    I ended up in a homeless shelter back here in California.

    Of course the charges against me, were finally dropped BUT I have a strong legal background and have contacted the FBI and been interviewing attorneys to sue eveyone involved. (violation of my civil rights)

    I spent 2 1/2 years in shelters, transitional housing and now a studio apartment. I have a twin brother and two other brothers but because they stole my trust funds, they do not even want to talk to me because they know that I know what they did and have had them in court. They stole over $2 million from me and I am still trying to collect something. I believe my twin is involved with smearing my name so he does not beome the focus of what he did. It is awful what he did including an unsolved death of my stepfather…and it was not my mother who was invovled.

    I do have 4 very close men friends who are gay! We have been friends for 24 years and they are my key to survival.

    I did date an adviser to my company when I got back to California who adores me, but for long term, it is not possible. I did not want him to know I was in a homeless shelter.

    He is educated, handsome, smart, comes from a nice family…but much younger. I do not look my age. He thought I was his age!

    Anyway one of my gay friends told me to call my son (who is a longtime pilot for SouthWest airlines) and say to my son on the answering machine, that if he does not pick up the phone I will contact the authorities. That worked!

    However the first words out of his mouth, with all the vile of a demon, were, “I hate you”! Then he just would not stop. I said nothing, until he got out of hand and I hung up. I am a member of Alanon and decided this was crossing the line into abuse. I wrote him a letter and told him I refused to be his punching bag while still telling him that I loved him. At the end of the letter I said that if I died, I would have written on my tombstone, “She died of a broken heart”

    I was alone during Thanksgiving this past week. I had found out on the internet the email of my grandaughter who is attending college in the midwest. It was an attempt to bond with her. I never mentioned my daughter or son-in- law.

    I have not heard back from her …..yet. All in all and in conclusion, I have been abandoned in every way by my entire family. I feel they are hiding an awful lot from me.

    Pain? I ended up in the psych ward when I was kicked out of the house by my new husband and just the whole situation. I was suicidal and if it wasn’t for the services I recieved from the homeless shelter and the support, I do not know wht I would have done.

    I had a team who guided me through all of this. It was a complete nightmare and of course my family and children whom I sent e-mails and the prognosis of my psychiatric treatment which was dire, never responded.

    Nothing, not a peep from any of them. After all I did for them and well I know what death is like too. I am not loved, like you all talk about. I am alone. I have a church I go to, my support team, and I am fighting my way back to normal.

    I am in perfect physical health and look really good. Model good. All I could do these last 3 years is go to the gym every day, embrace the shelter experience and do what they told me to do and it worked out.
    ?
    I came from a long line of Military royalty with rules, regulations and lived a very sophisticated lifestyle, while traveling throughout the world and had the finest education. In school and college I excelled, was very popular and even became a stewardess when it was glamorous.

    How could these kids turn out the way they did? I remember my son saying in a very angry voice, “I know how to get in touch with you and I will if I want to when I want!”

    And these 2 kids and their spouses and their children are very active in the church..it was how I raised them. It is all very insane. Maybe they are on drugs..they sure act like it! Well hope you can relate and thanks for “listening”. Keep fighting the fight and keep the faith..everything happens for a reason..God bless! Judy M.

  3. Louise
    Posted November 25, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Josh for publicly advocating for the adult children.
    Now, if only my mother would contact you.
    Estrangement from your family is the loneliest place on earth.

  4. Karen
    Posted December 6, 2010 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    What about extended families at the holidays? I love my family and look forward to seeing them, but I know that my parent’s generation has INTESE politics going on between them. (I want to yell at all of them to GROW UP!) Some of the situations were caused by things that happened when they were children, others when 4 of 5 children left the religion in which they were raised. Still others are caused by an intergenerational household (an aunt moved in with my grandmother when her husband passed away; now their daughter and hubby have moved in, and there are two children… my grandmother is going crazy but can’t ask them to leave because she needs the help). And still others are caused by the bickering of parents, aunts, and uncles who are waiting like vultures for Grandma to die… so they can divide the spoils.
    As a result of all the politics, I hate going down for the holidays, and my husband even more so, because unlike me, he has no happy memories or relationships with that family to delve into. This causes a rift between the two of us when I suggest that we ought to go. I have told him this year that it is most likely the last time we’ll make the long journey, as Grandma’s health is fading fast and is unlikely to be with us next Christmas. It is for her sake that I wish to go.
    I’d really appreciate some advice about how an adult child can deal with so many childish adults of the older generation who simply refuse to get along with each other. And how do we handle the holidays, when we’re expected to be there… and would rather be just about any place else but in the middle of an unspoken, yet all-out family war?

  5. Mark Mencke
    Posted November 26, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Do you forgive a parent that beat you as a child? Do you forgive the mother that choked you to the point of passing out, tied you & your brother to a radiator? Hit us with a wooden cutting board? I have severe PTSD because of this and continue to see her – my abuser. She has apologized, but I cannot forgive her – ever! I see her because it is the ‘right thing to do’ but cannot ever say I love her. This is a person that tried to kill me! I felt like I was never meant to be born. That my brother and I were burdens. Should that be forgiven?

  6. Pat Jeffries
    Posted November 26, 2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Josh, I enjoyed your article very much and will be passing it on. I hope you never stop writing. You are so helpful to so many! Happy,happy holidays to you and your family.

  7. Elizabeth Volk
    Posted November 25, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Wonderful article that gives real guidance about what the problem is, AND what needs to happen to make it better. Also allows for the fact that many times, you must grieve without shame, and then accept. I have been through much of it with my parents, and now with my kids 17.20.22. Thank you for your wisdom on this universal human dilemma.

  8. Barbara Bundgaard
    Posted November 25, 2010 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    Your article was fantastic. We have three adult children, and often play the blame-game or worse yet, the silent-game. Your article touched a nerve!

    Barbara

  9. Maureen.
    Posted November 25, 2010 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    Thank-you for this article,I really appreciate it.

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