There’s a perceptive Philip Larkin poem, “This Be The Verse,” that begins, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.” Truer words have rarely been woven into poetry and sold to the masses.
Some parents do horrible things that don’t bear repeating. But for most, their fucking up is much more in the realm of the prosaic. They yell at their kids too much. They hide their feelings. They denigrate their children. They ignore clear signs of mental illness brewing. They don’t give their kids the time and hugs they need. Their offspring grow up and feel unloved.
My parents did all these things and more. I was yelled at regularly, miserably, often coupled with a “What’s the hell’s wrong with you?!” The one time I saw my mother cry, I fled in terror because she never cried, and I didn’t know what to do. I was derided as overly sensitive, as having no common sense.
I actually suffer from a severe anxiety disorder, depression, and mild ADHD. I never felt hugged enough, cared for enough, loved enough. I went to college 600 miles away, almost chased my parents out of my new dorm, and readily started my new life without them, without their yelling and emotional issues.
And after all this, we become adults, and we have to make a choice: Do we jettison our parents, the ones who fucked us up, or do we turn back and embrace them? It took me a long time. It took me a lot of soul-searching, a lot of pain, a lot of talking to my psychiatrist and even the counsel of a high-flying advice columnist (no, I won’t link; it’s pseudonymous). But I finally made the decision, ironically in the midst of the miserableness of my parents’ divorce: I will keep them. I will embrace them. I need to — for myself, for my kids, for them.
Yes, they can be toxic. My mother and father will both talk to me regularly for two weeks, then radio-silence me for months. If I call them during these times, the conversation will be brief, terse. But I’m usually too angry to call. I feel used. I feel as if I’m an asset to them when I’m doing well, for example, when I landed an article in the Washington Post or when my oldest made his first communion, and a liability they’d rather ignore when I inform them I’m in the middle of a mental breakdown.
And yes, they have their faults. My mother doesn’t deal well with my mental health issues, and I highly suspect that she thinks my ADHD is fake. My father, well, my dad thinks that if you say racial slurs in Italian, it doesn’t really count. And he drinks — a lot. His health prohibits him from drinking, but that doesn’t stop him. He cheated on my mom. He calls me crying, demanding that I assure him he’s a good person. He doesn’t ask after the kids, remember their birthdays, or send any presents.
But they did their best. My parents’ generation didn’t talk about mental illness except to either mock it or cloak it in euphemism. My dad has apologized for not getting me the treatment I needed when I was a kid. Of course, he blamed it on my mom, but at least he apologized. My parents were chronically overworked, underpaid, and tired, tired, tired. No wonder they snapped at us so often. They truly wanted the best for us; they wore their fingers to the bone working (my dad) and working and going to school (my mom) to make it happen.
When my depression and anxiety became clearly debilitating, my parents bought me a horse. A freaking horse that we couldn’t really afford, but that slowly brought me out of the dark cloud. They were always proud of my academic achievements. They cheered me on at track meets, at riding shows (at least, my mom did). They tried, dammit, to the best of their abilities. I refuse to look them in the face and say they didn’t try.
And it’s that try that makes me stay with them today. There have been, of course, major bumps in the road, long periods of time when I didn’t talk to them because I was angry about something they did or said. So long, in fact, that my grandfather has been known to phone me and demand that I call my mother. I’ve gotten deeply pissed at being left out of the family loop regarding health issues. I’ve gotten really mad that no one seems to ask to talk to my kids when they call.
But I stay. I stay because, just as they tried with me, they deserve the chance to try with grandkids. And my kids, no lie, adore them. Without my baggage, they see Nana and Poppy as benevolent, beneficent beings whose meeting heralds toys and love and affection and day trips to museums, to zoos, to battlefields.
My mother is the only person who can get the boys to sleep aside from my husband or me. And when Sunny was born, she took time off, drove 600 miles down here, and carted a 3- and 1-year-old around town alone for two days, all while using cloth diapers. She even took them trick-or-treating. When I was suffering pretty bad mentally about two years ago, she took some time off to come down and help. She cares. She tries.
And my father, for all his faults, deserves the chance to be a grandfather within limits (no drinking, no girlfriend allowed). He’s dying to take my boys fishing, a pastime that may be their raison d’etre. He looks at a particular photo of my oldest son, running through the leaves in the fall, and he cries. He says it’s just such a perfect image of happiness. He cares about how my dog training is going and asks about it. He was proud as proud could be when I got in the Washington Post. He tells all his friends I’m a writer and makes it sound as if I’m penning New York Times bestsellers. He cares, in his own proud way.
So I’ll keep them. They may have some toxic tendencies, but I find that as they age, those toxic tendencies seem to soften at the edges a bit. But before I could realize that, I had to forgive them for my childhood — no easy feat. It took a lot of therapy and a lot of realizing that they did the best they could with what they had for me to come to that place. And I had to forgive them for their imperfections today.
If your parents’ imperfections aren’t deeply injuring anyone, then it may be best to keep them in your life. This is all a deeply personal choice, of course. Cutting them off may absolutely be the right decision for many people, especially for those whose parents are truly toxic and narcissistic. For a long time, I thought that choice was the best for me too. But that severing tends to put pressure on other familial relationships as well.
So I decided to keep my parents. It wasn’t the worst decision I’ve ever made because I still have a family. And that deep gift makes the sometimes-difficult, sometimes-hellish, sometimes-wonderful experience of them worth it. And perhaps this example of forgiveness, of put-up-with-it-ness, will seep into my kids. And perhaps, one day, they will decide to keep me in turn. Because I’m not immune. I am not my parents, but somehow, I’m sure I’m fucking them up.