The role of a parent is a difficult one. First, there’s the burden of the mother to carry a child. Then, that child must be birthed. The next two years of its life that child is completely helpless (note: on occasion this timeframe can extend much further, sometimes into adulthood). Then, you must instruct, teach, guide, discipline, and educate your child, maintaining perfect balances of love and affection with sternly worded instructions on how to behave.
While you’re at it, you probably want to teach them some values (so they’re not total heathens), teach them some manners (so your friends can tolerate being around your little miscreant), and provide them with a worldview with which to process big questions, such as the meaning of life and how one should properly frame pop-culture controversies (ranging from women’s marches to Miley Cyrus swinging nude on a wrecking ball).
And you must do all of this while trying to survive and find some sort of enjoyment with your own life. Often, this means working long hours at jobs you don’t like for bosses you like even less. And, as soon as you’re off the clock, you must rush home to maximize your time with your child. And, it’s not simply enough to be there and to play with them. No, now you need to focus on being fully present and engaged, somehow disregarding that mounting pile of bills on the fridge, the stresses caused by your aforementioned boss, and that sinking feeling of dread you have in your stomach that you should be doing something bigger, better, and more important with your life.
But that’s not all of it.
No, you have an audience.
An audience consisting of your parents (who will often feel judged and hurt if you make different parenting decisions than they made), other parents (who all attended Google University and received PhDs in everything ranging from vaccination schedules to cosleeping), your children (who you desperately want to convince that you’ve got it all together), and our culture at large (where it seems the number one cause of women ending up as strippers is fathers who missed a ballet recital or two).
All of this to say, being a parent is hard. Really hard. And we tend to make it as hard as possible on ourselves along the way, often beating ourselves up for not being this or that enough for our children.
And somewhere along the way children do have a tendency to grow up.
Parents who have hopes of being repaid for their decades of service with abundant gratitude from grown children are often summarily disappointed.
Those children will often look in the mirror and won’t like what they see. They will find themselves riddled with all sorts of manufacturing defects, some caused by nature and others caused by nurture. It’s the defects caused by nurture (read: parents) that are most infuriating. After all, how could parents be so ignorant and naive to allow this to happen or raise them to believe such-and-such was true.
Children will often then become quite angry at their parents for the shortcomings that exist, recognizing all of the ways that the shortcomings of their parents have now carbon-copied themselves onto their own character, personality, temperament, and disposition.
This anger towards parents often sounds something like:
“If they had told me they loved me more, I wouldn’t feel this insecure.”
“If they’d told me they believed in me, I wouldn’t feel this inadequate.”
“If they’d just been there more, I wouldn’t have a fear of being abandoned.”
“If they’d helped me develop healthy habits, I wouldn’t be this overweight.”
“If they hadn’t shamed me, I wouldn’t feel this way about my body.”
“If they’d only encouraged me to go to college, I wouldn’t be working a job I hate.”
“If they hadn’t encouraged me to go to college, I wouldn’t be in this much student loan debt.”
“If they’d just let me have normal relationships, I’d be happily married now.”
Often, when you dig beneath the surface, there’s some apparent connections that are quite logical in nature. It all results in an equation like this:
My parents did X resulting in Y consequence in my life today.
And, from this sentiment, even more anger, resentment, rage, and relational pressure can build, causing adult children to often want parents to atone for their shortcomings as parents, inflicting maximum pain on their parents in the process.
Yet, while often the X->Y relationship expressed above between parents behavior and children’s actions can seem quite logical and watertight, one must always be willing to ask the question:
How do I truly know that the reason I feel this way is the direct result of my parents’ actions?
Causation, after all, is notoriously difficult to nail down, especially when things are as complex as the human psyche. Resentment towards your parents is not an easy burden to carry. So, given that it’s not an easy burden to carry (and its certainly much less easy for your parents to carry), then you had better be damn near certain that you are right before you pick up that burden and go about seeking your parents repentance for their own shortcomings.
The trouble with causation is that we view history in reverse and interpret it constantly. Thus, if I feel Y today, I search for X in my history that caused it. If you seek then ye shall find (so, by extension, you better be careful what you seek). You may find something that perhaps didn’t actually cause Y but that you believe did because that’s the closest match your brain could come up with to explain the occurrence of Y in your life today.
If you ask any question, your brain will always return an answer. We most often want people to blame for our problems. And, aside from ourselves, our parents are often the longest-running and most complex relationship we have.
Thus, parents are the natural culprits for the defects of the children.
When you have a relationship that expands across decades and has as much interaction as parents do with their children, you will always find a great deal of evidence that your weaknesses are, in fact, your parents’ fault.
And, on one hand, you have a point.
Your parents almost certainly did let you down at some point. They most certainly were not perfect. They likely did a number of things that you find odd in their raising of you, often out of some sort of parental concern. Your mom and dad almost certainly didn’t fill your soul up to the brim with all of the joys and pleasantness in life. They may have had vices, such as anger and addiction, and modeled bad behavior for you. And there may have been a thousand other shortcomings along the way, each one small in its individual contribution but great in its overall cumulative impact on you.
And, in some instances, your parents may have been downright malevolent towards you.
But, the question remains, how do you know, beyond the shadow of reasonable doubt that it’s your parents fault for your current state?
Are there other possible causes or factors at play, rather than simply pointing the finger one rung up the family tree. Is it possible that you would have experienced a similar feeling or state even if your parents had made different choices? And, even more importantly, what about your own role in all of this? Are you simply the output of your parents’ decisions? Have you exercised no willpower or control at any point over the last many decades of your existence? Does it not thus make just as much sense to, at a minimum, share in some responsibility with your parents, rather than blaming them 100 percent?
And, to put it another way, if parents are truly the root cause of all their children’s problems, then, does this mean that perfect parents would have children that had absolutely no problems to face? Can we cure all of human evils simply by having parents behave better? Is there not some flaws that run bone-deep and are a core part of the human experience, to which you would have had to face no matter what sort of parents life handed you?
Part of the problems that come from blaming parents is that it removes personal responsibility for you who are today and the decisions you’ve made that have resulted in your state of being. You are not simply the product of your parents’ decisions. No, you had a key hand in a lot of it (and in your interpretation and actions relating to it today). You play the lead role in your life, so don’t go hastily removing responsibility from yourself in an effort to soothe your existential anxieties.
Rather than imagining a life where your parents made different choices that produced a better outcome, you should instead imagine a life where you made better choices that produced a better outcome. And then go and live it.
Your life will only improve to the degree to which you take ownership and responsibility for the problems in it and your role in creating them.
We are all too quick to definitively blame our parents when other compelling explanations are available. And there’s more to consider.
How do I know that a better parenting strategy would have guaranteed me a better oucome?
It’s also important to recognize that you actually have no way of knowing whether your parents making different choices would have actually improved your life. Certainly, we can analyze macro-level data and draw some conclusions about parenting strategies that work and then try to deploy those in our own parenting journeys. However, you have no way of knowing what the alternate path may have been if your parents had parented differently. You can’t definitively know the ripple effect of the consequences that may have had.
Imagine that there existed the perfect set of parents. Abounding in love and energy for their child, they gave it all of the nicest things, experiences, and emotions they had. They never spoke angrily to their child or to one another. And the child eventually grew up.
Would that child necessarily have a better life?
What may be true on a macro-level does not apply to the individual necessarily. In fact, you have no way of knowing whether or not your life outcome would have been better. There are simply too many variables at play.
And what advantage is it to have imperfect parents?
Perhaps a significant one.
As a historical example, John D. Rockefeller had a horrible father who was absent nearly all of his life. Would John D. Rockefeller have been the man of history that he became with a healthy, loving father always there and present in his life? Perhaps so, but probably not. I read a biography of Rockefeller in which the biographer argues that it was his own father’s shortcomings that resulted in Rockefeller being as tenacious, self-sufficient, and business-savvy as he became. He was, by reason of his circumstance, thrust into a huge amount of responsibility at a young age, which resulted in him having some significant advantages over his business rivals.
To be clear: One shouldn’t use Rockefeller’s father as a template for fatherhood in a vain attempt to make your son an oil tycoon (though if you do, let me know how it works). Yet Rockefeller was given distinct advantages as a result of the shortcomings of his father. And I think there’s something valuable to be gained with this insight.
Our parents are the first complex relationship we have, beginning with the relationship with our mothers in the womb and extending long after we make our triumphal entry. Our parents teach us a lot in their imperfections (at times on how to be and at other times on how not to be in the world). These failings of our parents teach use a lot about how the world really is–not how we sometimes wish it would be.
And, perhaps the most significant thing we stand to gain is the chance to recognize what our parents did that hurt us and then learn to forgive them for it. The imperfections of your parents are opportunities to grow in love and forgiveness
Being a parent is a massively difficult job and no one does it perfectly. Parents can no more be perfect parents than children can be perfect children. In this sense, the parent and the child are both amateurs, playing their roles for the first time. So, we should expect some mistakes and some bumps along the road.
If you are going to be mad at your parents about what went wrong, you should be grateful to them for what went right.
If you only tell yourself half the story, you can end up in a dark place. Instead, you should counterbalance the narrative by telling the rest of the story. For each mistake, there were likely many moments filled with joy while growing up. For each moment of selfishness, there were probably dozens of moments of selflessness. For each angry word, there were many loving words.
Don’t tell yourself half the story. Tell yourself the whole story.
You should see your parents as whole, entire people with histories and feelings and emotions and struggles. You showed up well into their particular narrative, and often the forces that shaped their own lives remain invisible to you. When you take this perspective, you will find a chance to be grateful to them for the many things that went right (beginning with your existence). And they did all of this against a backdrop of struggle, hardship, and stress which you yourself were ignorant of as a child.
So, what if it’s not your parents’ fault?