Many years ago, on a trip to Canada, my father lost his patience with me. He exclaimed, to my horror, “you’re just like your mother!” My father was an incredibly patient man, but more than once I pushed him past all reasonable patience, and into something else. That was just one such time. I remember that incident so well because I could not believe what he had said. And for years afterward, I made it a mission to insure that I was not anything like my mother. She and I had always had a contentious relationship, and that is putting it mildly.
My father grew up in an upper middle-class house while my mother grew up dirt poor, and adopted by an aunt and uncle who could not have made her feel more unwelcome. They were married shortly after World War 2. My father was a WWII vet and met my mother after he got back. It was a set up but a mutual friend, but a good one. My view of my parents’ marriage was that it was excellent, a model of what a good marriage should look like. I have not changed that view at all. But what I have changed is my view of them as individuals. Unfortunately, my father died right before my 21st birthday, and I never really got to know him. That was in large part due to adolescent and teenage selfishness on my part. I forgive myself that because I believe it is something most, if not all, teens go through. While teens we think how dumb our parents are, and when we get older, we discover how dumb we were.
My mother lived to age 89. I firmly believe she could have lived longer if she had desired. But I think she gave up living. Along the way she had lost the only man she ever loved, and she adored him. Of that there is no doubt. Then she suffered the loss of a child when her son, my brother, died. That almost killed her, literally. At some point after that I decided to discover who she really was. My mother was very tight-lipped, and did not care to talk about her childhood. It was miserable so why would she? Her father had deserted the family when she was only 4, and then her mother died when she was 11. She was shuffled around between relatives, not uncommon in those days, until she settled with an aunt and uncle. She graduated high school and went to a hospital that sponsored a nursing school and took up her profession. She was, by all accounts, an excellent nurse, and it served our family well during some lean times we experienced.
I was so angry with my mother for years for doing this and not doing that. But at no point did I stop to consider the tools available to her for bringing up a handful like me. She called me a bull in a china shop, an apt description, as I was my own little force of nature when I was young. I had to have my way which frequently collided with her having her way. Seldom was it a question of right and wrong, just a question of who would prevail. That made it difficult for my father, brother and sister to contend with but I don’t think either of us ever considered that very much.
In my 30s I suffered from a particularly severe case of depression. Although I know the reasons, they are not germane to this. What is important is that my mother did not take the news well. I know now that at the time she viewed it as a failure of hers. It was not, of course, but that was what she grew up believing. I found out some years later that she had suffered an extremely severe case of depression of her own that required ECT.
Then I became a parent and had children of my own, three daughters. I adore them but I know for fact that my good intentions do not always come across that way to them. I am certain they have thought of me as intrusive, and not being sensitive to their desires. It is this realization that let me know that I was indeed, in many ways, very much like my mother. We parents have this tendency to take our children’s problems personally, and our distaste for something they are doing is really our fear that they will be hurt. We do not always express ourselves well, and I know that was the case with my mother. My mother had the extra problem of having virtually not support system when she was a young parent.
The human being has yet to be born who does not have one serious problem during their life. Usually it’s many. As parents we want only the best for our children. We want them to have better lives than we experienced. We want them to be happier. We sometimes, foolishly, want to shield them from failure, sickness, and bad people. That is simply impossible.
If your parents are still alive, get to know them all over again. Ask them lots of questions about what they experienced when they were children and when they were your age. I had to learn about my father through his sister because, as I said before, he died at such a young age. And parents, just be sure to tell your children that you love them, and be big enough to admit that you are still capable of making mistakes.