The holidays, those time-warped and distorted periods of time when we’re forced (or force ourselves) to spend time with family, can be a literal reversion to the past — to the children we were, that is , in the presence of our parents. It’s not unusual, and both adult children and their parents somehow manage to rewind and step into their old habits with equal ease, neither able to avoid the traps of bringing up things that weren’t resolved back in the day, or treating each other as if the intervening years, responsibilities, and events had never happened.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
It’s easy to blame the neuroses, belief systems, and baggage in general on our parents. They’re the ones who took a clean slate of a child and scratched all over it with their own poisons and baggage, after all, right? It’s easy to forget that for most new parents the levels of anxiety are high — there’s no training course beforehand, no manual, nothing but the questionable lessons of their own upbringing to fall back on. Does anyone believe the outpouring of how-to-parent advice in the late ’60s right through to the ’90s was due to anything other than a massive, rabid anxiety about getting it right for that generation as they stepped into having families?
Anxiety and ignorance are not a couple that do well together. Small things become huge things, and mistakes are the inevitable consequence. Parents and children alike wish it were different. But be real: Your parents are just people. They are not wiser, stronger, more capable or intelligent than most other people. On a bad day, they make mistakes, and like most people, confronted with their mistakes, they justify, rationalize, try to make it seem less than it was. It doesn’t make them monsters. Just human.
There are a number of milestones people look to in an effort to understand the maturing process. Finishing school. Moving out of home. Having a serious relationship. Getting married. Having children. But one of the most overlooked and most important milestones you’ll recognize in becoming an adult, independent and truly responsible for yourself and those under your care, is that of seeing your parents as just people.
For some, having children of their own brings this revelation, seeing firsthand how mistakes with impressionable young minds can and do occur. For some, it might be seeing your parents stumble closer to old age, the cycle turning to them needing your help as they gave you theirs. For many, that step just never comes. Parents remain parents, circular patterns resume the second they set foot over the threshold of the home they grew up in, and all the old battles rear their ugly heads, ready for the past to go on repeat.
Have you asked your parents about their lives? Listened as if to a stranger or friend or acquaintance? You might think you know all about them, but the chances are very good that you only see the tip of the iceberg; the rest has been submerged because you are their child, and they don’t really want you to see the real life under the involuntary facade they built for you.
I was 15 when I had my first “adult” conversation with my mother. We were talking about relationships in general and the expectations inherent in them when she casually mentioned she was married when she met my father and had, in fact, had an affair with him before divorcing her first husband.
That little bombshell rolled around my head for minutes before I could respond with a single question. My mother! An affair! It changed the way I saw her in that instant. Changed the way I saw both of them, to be honest. Not as the middle-aged parents with responsibilities and demands. In my mind’s eye, they were now a young couple, passionately in love, but held back by her marriage.
She managed to shock me further by admitting she hadn’t loved her first husband — she’d married him because he had a boat, and she loved sailing. Not just a young woman swept off her feet by a passionate stranger, she was now also a young woman in a failed marriage of pragmatic convenience, swept off her feet by a passionate stranger. It was hard to get a grip on.
From that moment on, however, they stopped being just my parents and became people with lives unknown to me, whose motivations I didn’t yet understand, and who were interesting in and of themselves, without the connection to me.
As no one is all good or all bad, and no one is an archetype or just one shade of anything, neither are our parents just parents and nothing else. Getting to know them as people does one thing that is essential to maturity : It destroys the patterns and habits of our upbringing. It’s impossible to slip back into those patterns once someone is seen as a person instead of a one-dimensional character, and the very act of changing one’s own responses — automatically and finally — changes the responses of the other person. That was a lesson I found particularly applicable to any relationship as well. Destructive patterns do not survive when one person notices and changes them. A new pattern might emerge, but that, too, can be derailed.
If nothing else, getting to know your parents as people, who had a life before you came along and have built another life since you left the nest, means that the holidays can be evaluated objectively instead of subjectively, for their value as reunions or get-togethers. There are, undoubtedly, many parents who cannot or will not change, even in the face of having those old patterns of behavior destroyed, and perhaps relationships like that are better severed, the toxic love in them bad for both parents and children. But for those who have inadvertently dropped back into the old patterns whenever the family comes together, it can be a way to draw closer, to understand more, and to finally let go of childish things, resentment, and disaccord and find out where you truly came from?
This post previously appeared on PS I Love You.