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.