Seeing our Parents as Human

IMG_2086 [878459]Over my years of clinical practice I have met many people who either blame or idealise each parent. A parent can be described as ‘toxic’ with a resultant avoidance of relationship. Conversely when one parent is labelled as the ideal it can lead to setting impossible standards for self and for others to live up to.

At a special birthday celebration late last year for my father in law, my husband remarked:

“My father is not an exceptional man but he is my Dad and so for me he is exceptional.”

It was a moving comment to hear.  A comment he had heard made by a father who had lost a son in the Paris bombings that had resonated with him.  I reflected back on when I met my husband well over 30 years ago and heard of the challenges in their father- son relationship. There had been a growing distance in the relationship as my husband experienced a sense of his Dad’s disapproval for some of the decisions he had made. At that time my husband’s narrative about his Dad was dismissively negative about how he had fallen short as his ideal role model. As with most young adults he was not considering his own contribution to this.

Over the years I have watched my husband make an effort to get to know his Dad better – to understand his growing up experiences and to learn about the generations of his family. It has been a privilege to watch a relationship change over the decades, from negative distance to warmth and affection. Interestingly my father in law had a tense relationship with his own father when he was launching into the adult world. There were very similar tensions around life decisions that played out  in the next generation.

I reflect on an analogous journey with my own Dad. At the time that my mother was dying of cancer I was angry and judgemental towards my father. When he went on a weekend away with friends while my mother was very sick, I viewed him as irresponsibly avoiding his duty to help with her care.  At one level my Dad’s decision to take a holiday when his wife was in latter stages of metastatic cancer is not particularly admirable. What I’ve come to see however, is how this choice reflects the pattern of my parent’s marriage. My mother would have encouraged him to take this break while she ‘soldiered on’.  Considering my father’s relationship to his own strong mother and then to his highly responsible wife has softened my judgement of him. In its place I’ve developed a broader understanding of how his relationship interactions have shaped him. This greater understanding brings a sense of grace and warm acceptance of the less mature aspects of his character. In turn I am better able to have such an accepting, honest posture towards myself and others.

What are the effects of continuing to carry narrow labels of our parents through life? Over my years of clinical practice I’ve met many people who are holding onto either blaming or idealised labels for each parent. Many describe a parent as ‘toxic’ with a resultant avoidance of relationship. With such distance a person carries their reactive judgments into other life relationships.  They may become quick to blame and label and slow to see the impact they have on those around them. Conversely when one parent is labelled as the ideal it can lead to setting impossible standards for self and others to live up to. It also prevents a deeper, honest connection from developing in the relationship with that parent. When a parent is idealised the adult child tends to play out a pretend positive self with that parent – and to others.

Seeing our parents as human beings rather than as narrow ‘good’ or ‘bad” labels, doesn’t mean excusing any damaging actions (I acknowledge that for some people they have had a parents who has been abusive – which should not be minimised). For me it also doesn’t wipe away seeing the flawed and selfish aspects of being human. However most of the judgements we develop about our parents are not actually in this category of ‘wrong doing’ but about their relationship sensitivities and maturity gaps. Getting to know more of what shaped our parents can enable us to see how most of the characteristics that we found challenging can make sense. We can also begin to see how our reactions to that parent provided them with significant challenges.

As I reflect on the changes in my Husband’s relationship with his Dad and the shifts in my perceptions of my parents I can affirm the value of getting to know members of our original family in a more objective way. Both our Dads- alongside other extended family- have been an important resource to us on multiple levels. I understand that this is what Dr Murray Bowen meant when he wrote:

‘Gaining more knowledge of one’s distant families of origin can help one become aware that there are no angels and devils in a family: they were human beings, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, each reacting predictably to the emotional issue of the moment, and each doing the best they could with their own life course.’

What would be your next step in getting to know each of your parents as human beings and as part of a multigenerational family system that has shaped them – and us?

‘Seeing our Parents as Human’ – Jenny Brown