My father did the best he could.
He was bigger than life, had a whip crack sense of humor, and was thoughtful. He was generous with his money, and on the day of his funeral, people recounted story after story of times where he gave of himself to help others find jobs, pay bills, or welcome new grandchildren. Through tear-stained faces, my father’s friends told me how much they loved his gentle temperament.
As much as I appreciated their kind words, the little girl in me recoiled at their descriptions of his kindness and generosity through the years.
Because while, yes, my father was all of those things, he could also be abrasive, hurtful, and downright mean.
And he was a master at the art of passive-aggressive parenting.
My father’s emotions swung hot and cold on a dime. As children, my siblings and I never knew what would set him off, and when he flew into one of his moods, the entire household was affected. Something as simple as running late or a flippant remark could set him on a fiery path of irritation and annoyance. Our home was a minefield some days, all of us tiptoeing around my father so as to not to be the one to trip the wire that would set him off.
As a child, I distinctly remember sitting in the back seat of the car on the way home from a family dinner, wondering why my father had suddenly stopped talking to the rest of us after the waitress brought him the wrong meal. I wondered why he made a loud show of tipping the waitress less for a mistake that wasn’t her fault and why we had to skip dessert because he was so annoyed by the situation.
I knew my father’s behavior was wrong, but at the age of 8, I held no power to change his moods, though I often tried with humor and lighthearted behavior when he acted this way.
My father’s discipline style was to withhold affection when I misbehaved or to use passive-aggressive statements to dance around what was really bothering him. Rarely, if ever, did we discuss our feelings openly or directly to the person who’d hurt our feelings. I learned to use the silent treatment as a way to convey my hurt and anger largely because that’s how problems were solved in our house.
I stayed silent until eventually the argument blew over and simply moved on, never having resolved what caused the friction in the first place.
I was able to fool myself for years, thinking that I suffered no ill effects from my father’s passive-aggressive parenting style.
But the signs were there.
When my husband and I would argue, I’d shut down, silently fuming rather than angrily discussing my feelings.
I put pressure on myself to be on time for everything, no matter how much disruption it caused in our house to get everyone ready. By the time we’d arrive at a family outing, I’d be irritated, frustrated, and in a foul mood, much like my father was when I was a child. But because I was able to quickly shake off my irritation when we’d get to our destination, I congratulated myself on not being like my father.
“My dad would have stayed mad for the rest of the day. I was just annoyed on the car ride here. I’m nothing like him,” I’d say to my husband.
But when I heard my kids whisper to each other, “Mommy is in a bad mood; we should be quiet until she’s happy again,” after I’d exploded because of a mess in the kitchen, the reality of my childhood came crashing down around me — because it wasn’t the first time I’d heard them talk that way.
I was, in fact, just like my father.
And that realization broke me.
Yes, I’d inherited my father’s cleft chin, his sense of humor, and his love of road trips, but I’d also inherited the worst parts of him: a passive-aggressive and angry parenting style that, if left unchecked, could damage my relationship with my kids and husband in the long term, if it hadn’t already.
I knew I needed help to break the cycle of passive-aggressive parenting.
But realizing you are a passive-aggressive parent is one thing.
Taking the first steps to change your parenting style is terrifying. And exhausting.
With my husband’s help, we found a marriage therapist who worked with us for over a year to find not only better ways to communicate but also to help me face the hurt from my childhood.
Facing passive-aggression head-on means recognizing the physical symptoms that trigger your mind into wanting to shut down. It means realizing that hand-clenching, body tension, and sweating are the ways your body is telling you that the little girl deep down is feeling scared and threatened.
It means breaking down the walls you’ve built around you, sometimes one brick at a time, and letting your husband join you on the other side. And realizing that little girl finally feels safe.
It means setting boundaries for the people in your life who still treat you as that little girl, the people who still withhold affection when you have disappointed them in some way.
It means talking to your kids openly about why you are afraid to communicate and looking them in the eye and saying, “Mommy doesn’t always have the right words, but I’m working on finding them.”
It means giving the little girl inside you a voice that says, “I want you to know my feelings, and I want to be heard.” And then taking a leap of faith to speak your truth.
It means doing the hard work and heavy lifting of unpacking the emotional baggage you’ve stored for the better part of 30 years. And asking your partner to help you have a huge garage sale to get rid of all of the emotional junk.
It means realizing that you don’t have to leave overabundant tips everywhere you go as a penance for your father’s poor behavior in restaurants. (I still tip heavily though. Some habits will never die.)
It means telling yourself that you aren’t a monster or a bad parent just because your parents made mistakes in the way they treated your emotional health.
It means forgiving your father when you realize his father treated him the same way.
It means letting yourself admit that you, too, are doing the best you can with what you’ve been dealt along the way.
And facing passive-aggression head-on means taking that little girl’s hand and walking toward the kind of family life you, your kids, and husband deserve. Breaking the cycle.