By Frank Pittman, published on November 1, 1994 - last reviewed on June 19, 2012
You may be the CEO and manage a whole company perfectly well, but chancesare the relationship with your parents turns you into a blathering child. It's your job to (gently) dismantle the family hierarchy and see that you achieve equality with your parents.
"You know what my scenario was for this whole thing? I was gonna move away, get rich and move into a luxurious mansion. My parents were gonna come visit me--once--and say 'Oh, what a nice mansion. We love you, Dave.' And I was gonna say 'I love you too, More and Dad.' And then they were gonna go away and die. Does this make me an asshole?"
Tom Hanks in Nothing in Common (1986)
"Hello, Arthur. This is your mother. Do you remember me?...Someday you'll get married and have children of your own and Honey, when you do, I only pray that they'll make you suffer the way you're making me. That's a Mother's Prayer."
Mother and Son, Mike Nichols and Elaine May
In Nichols and May's Mother and Son skit from the late Fifties, the son is a NASA scientist interrupting a countdown at Cape Canaveral to take an emergency telephone call from his mother, who is calling to tell him she's going into the hospital to have her nerves X-rayed because he hasn't called lately. Within minutes, this competent adult is reduced from desperate apologizing to infantile blathering. The message that has made the skit such a classic is that no one, however powerful and successful, can function as an adult if his parents are not satisfied with him. In the presence of an angry parent, don't even the best of us become a child again?
In a similar manner, even the best of us feels awful guilt when we realize we don't want to repay our debts to our parents. Swinging bachelor Tom Hanks did not want to become an adult and a parent to children of his own, much less to his crotchety father Jackie Gleason. Surely all of us have times when we want our parents to give us their blessing and their approval--and then leave us alone.
Do we all, like the woman in the headache commercial who was being harassed by her mother's supervisory efforts in the kitchen, find ourselves wanting to cry out: "Please Mother (or Daddy), I want to do it myself!"
Yeah, I guess we all do, at least some of the time--if we are lucky enough to have parents around who want to be part of our adult lives. Parents come at a price.
The problem is simply this: no one can feel like CEO of his or her life in the presence of the people who toilet trained her and spanked him when he was naughty. We may have become Masters of the Universe, accustomed to giving life and taking it away, casually ordering people into battle or out of their jobs, comfortably cutting up and rearranging people's brains or machines or governments or corporations, and yet we may still dirty our diapers at the sound of our mommy's whimper or our daddy's growl. At least in part we are still children all of our lives, but never so overtly as when we are in the presence of our parents.
STRIPPING OUR MASKS
We never really are the adults we pretend to be. We wear the mask and perhaps the clothes and posture of grown-ups, but inside our skin we are never as wise or as sure or as strong as we want to convince ourselves and others we are. We may fool all the rest of the people all of the time, but we never fool our parents. They can see behind the mask of adulthood. To her mommy and daddy, the empress never has on any clothes--and knows it.
Parents can make us distrust ourselves. To them, we seem always to be works-in-progress. A parent's work is never done--we are never finished and ready to face life on our own. I remember going to see our oldest daughter off on the train to college. As the train pulled out of the station, one of the other mothers took off running behind it, trying to catch the train and stop it. She had suddenly remembered a piece of advice she hadn't given her daughter.
Parents can make us distrust the world around us. Parents can intimidate their children, sometimes bullying them into submission, sometimes awing them and making them feel weak and foolish by contrast, sometimes terrifying them into doubting their ability to get along on their own. The parents might be trying to be helpful, or they might be deliberately making their children too insecure to wander too far from home. The dangers parents see might be the real dangers of the world, or just the fear of any distance coming between parent and child.
A child of any age who feels intimidated by a parent can't determine what is dangerous or what is safe, and absorbs the parents' fears. People don't become grown-ups until they realize their parents, however wonderful, were misinformed and at times stark, raving mad.
HOW THEY REDUCE YOU
Parents may undercut our sense of mastery by making us distrust our values. Each generation's job is to question what parents accept on faith, to explore possibilities, and adapt the last generation's system of values for a new age. Parents may feel betrayed when their children adopt different styles and habits, when the daughter chooses a different career or language or sexual expression than the mother, when the son grows long hair and wears earrings instead of the crew cut and tattoos that signified manhood for the previous generation. Matters of style may turn into matters of morality, health, or safety.
Parents who would like to strip away their child's mask of adult-hood and expose him or her as a still imperfect child, still in need of parents in attendance, have a variety of time-honored techniques at their disposal. They can simply remind you that you are not quite who you pretend to be. They can bring up stories from your childhood at the most amazingly deflating moments, like telling stories about your toilet training at your wedding reception or telling your new boss how your kindergarten teacher thought you didn't have enough sense to get out of junior high.
Parents can offer a sanctuary, not just as a pit stop along the road of life, but a permanent alternative to adulthood. They can make regression to childhood so deliciously inviting, nothing could be sweeter. They can give you or offer to leave you more money than you can make, so you never have to plan an adult life, and cannot truly respect the adult life you have been able to achieve. They can devote their lives to milking it possible for you to never grow up. They can provide you with a lifetime occupation, perhaps taking care of them or living the life they fantasize.
I'm seeing a man who is almost 40 but doesn't work, still dresses like a college kid, and centers his life around his college. He didn't graduate from the school (he cut too many classes) but he hasn't missed a football game in all the years since he left. His father, who left school at an early age to start working on the fortune with which he keeps his son infantilized, keeps telling the son how lucky he is to have a life of leisure as a full-time college "boy."
A young woman in my practice caught her husband in a brief affair, saw a couples therapist, fought it out with the contrite young husband, and reconciled. She then told her parents, whereupon her three-times-divorced father gave her the money for the best divorce attorneys and the two-times-divorced mother offered the other half of her fancy duplex. They insisted that she needed more time with her parents before she chose her next husband. They hinted that taking her in and raising her and her brood of children might bring them back together again.
At any time, your parents can call in their investment in you and demand repayment for giving you life. The classic approach to this is guilt. King Lear was our expert at this, bewailing about "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." His kids fixed him.
Parents vary in their sense of what would be suitable repayment for creating, sustaining, and tolerating you all those years, and what circumstances would be drastic enough for presenting the voucher. Obviously there is no repayment that would be sufficient. The guilt is there, inescapable and even irreducible, but the effort to call in the debt of life is too outrageous to be treated as anything other than a joke. My mother used to tell me, as often as needed, how she had to lay in bed flat on her back for nine months to give birth to me. If I displeased her, she'd remind me that all she had had to do was stand up and I would be a messy spot on the floor, so I should be eternally grateful that she didn't do that. I'd thank her, but assure her it would be O.K. for her to stand up now.
Your parents can claim your children and tell you how to raise them. This can be useful. Every child needs more than two parents, so a full set of grandparents can come in handy. Still, there are seemingly adult children who are so frightened of their parents' interference in their own parenting efforts that they carry on wildly when they get advice. They don't have to take the advice, of course, but the more rattled they are by the challenges of child raising and the less secure they feel that they are doing the right thing, the more they resent efforts to help.
Finding out how your parents or your partner's parents thought out the issues of child raising can give insights into them and you, how they came to do what they did, and how you came to be who you are. Of course it can rattle you. I know I'm more comfortable getting advice when I know what I'm doing than I am when I am trying to fake competence. We are all amateurs at child raising.
I have known grandparents who bypass their children in laying claim to their grandchildren, including a few who have actually disowned their child for giving the grandchild a name other than theirs. One woman was outraged, and wrote one of the most prized disinheritance letters in my collection, when her son named his daughter Tiffany, or whatever was trendy that year, rather than naming her Grimgerde after the grandmother. I urged the adamant and heartbroken grandmother not to disown the child but to call her whatever name she liked and let little Tiffany in time tell her grandmother whether she wanted to be called Grimgerde or not. Grandparents are important enough in their grandchildren's lives to call them whatever damn fool thing makes them more attached to one another. Parents have to get over the idea that their children belong just to them; children are a family affair.
Parents have subtle ways of humbling you, or reminding you of your origins, perhaps by showing up at the moment of your greatest glory and reminding you where you came from and demonstrating that you still have some of it between your toes. They can just show up and be themselves, or worse, they can try to be something they are not. Everyone has a few relatives who are closet cases because they are so real, so truly of the family and the heritage. I went to a wedding in which the grandfather from the old country cut through his family's WASP pretensions not only by making a toast introducing the family by the old name, before it had been changed, but by bringing pictures of the old family nose before everyone in the family except himself had had it carved down. He then led the crowd in Mediterranean dancing. It was a wonderful beginning for the new couple.
Parents can deflate you just by appearing, either in person or in your mirror, as an older version of yourself, reminding you what is in store for you. They can point out how much you are looking like your grandmother, especially around the eyes now that you are getting those little crow's feet, or like your uncle now that you have put on the extra weight. Your family, to a greater degree than your tailor, your doctor, and even your personal trainer, feels your body is public property, to be discussed at will.
Parents can fail to cheer your successes as wildly as you expected, pointing out that you are sharing your Nobel prize with a couple of other people, or that your Oscar was for Supporting Actress, not really for a starring role. More subtly, they can cheer your successes too wildly, forcing you into the awkward realization that your achievement of merely graduating or getting the promotion did not warrant the fireworks and brass band. You family's love for you, rather than your accomplishment, has become the main attraction.
Parents can criticize you so sensitively and astutely that they remind you that you aren't perfect yet. Even as the world applauds, your parents can take your victory away by reminding you that you might have done better in some way. When I was about 30, I called Mother to tell her I had been written up in Time magazine. She said, "Nobody in Autauga County, Alabama, reads Time anymore. Why didn't you get written up in U.S. News and World Report?" That meant, "Don't get too big for your britches around me, Sonny Boy. I knew you when." After a few minutes of reflection, I realized that it also meant, "I'm so afraid you'll be so successful and so acclaimed by the world that you won't need us anymore, that you'll feel too good for us, that you'll be ashamed of us. Please love me, even in your moments of glory." I could have wondered why she didn't put it that way, but I'm actually just grateful that she didn't stand up all those years ago.
Children give parents this deflating power to take the wind out of our sails when we are in adolescence, when we are so sriously self-conscious we become male and female impeersonators, trying to convince somebody out there, mostly ourselves, that we are no longer children. We have enough trouble carrying it off when we are doing it in front of a mirror, but it becomes impossible to look like an adult when our parents are telling us what to do. Our parents know most clearly just how immature we are. One way adolescents try to pose as grown-ups is to make a show of not needing parents--at just the point of greatest confusion and disorientation of our lives, right when we need them most.
Once the older generation has raised us to about the level of adolescence, we are so full of hormones, piss, and vinegar, we don't like to think we need the wisdom of the ages. It is true that the world is changing so fast that each generation's wisdom has expired by the time it can be put to use. Our parents might have money or things to leave us when they die, but this does not make us value them; it makes u impatient with them for continuing to live. If we can't find a use for them and they don't have anything for us, we might merely want to find an escape from them. We might even come to fear them, as if their active involvement in our life were proof of our characterological weakness--and maybe even dangerous to our mental health.
FACING THE MUSIC
One solution is to hide from parents, even if we have to run away from home, in whole or in part. It is hard to look like a grown-up, much less feel like one, when you are busy running away from home. Yet we have a society in which adolescence is, for some insane reason, seen as the most desirable time in life. People get into the middle of the stream of life and paddle like hell trying to stay in the same spot as the world flows by, equidistant from childhood and adulthood, terrified of both.
The most common and natural way for children to repay their parents for giving them life is to invest that debt in a child. When a child becomes a parent, he or she gains responsibility and authority.
In considering the ledger equal, understand the greatest gift you have given your parents is the opportunity to rais eyou. The things a child gets from parents can't compare to the things a parent gets from raising a child. Only by experiencing this can you understand the degree to which children give meaning to parents' lives.
Hands-on, fully invested child raising is the main event in life, the experience that tkes you out of the child generation, where you are only able to take, and puts you squarely in the parent generation, where you are able to give as well, and thus become able to take deservedly, without the guilt children of all ages feel over taking more than they give back. But those entrenched in adolescence often try not to make such a dramatic move into the adult position.
The end product of child raising is not only the child but the parents, who get to go through each stage of human development from the other side, and get to relive the experiences that shaped them, and get to rethink everything their parents taught them. They get, in effect, to reraise themselves and become their own person.
For those who can't arrange parenthood, active aunting and uncling seem the next-best choices. The usual things recommended for making a man out of a boy (and perhaps for making a woman out of a girl)--war, football, fighting, and prison--just create a fiercer boy.
If you would move into the adult position with your parents, you can do severla things. Your parents can't do these things for you. They cannot grant you your adulthood; you must claim it for yourself.
(1) The child who would be an adult must take responsibility for his or he own life, not necessarily doing it perfectly but accepting the blame for the missteps: "I did this and I did it wrong. Now I want to learn from my mistakes. What do you think I could do different next time?" A newly proclaimed adult shows eagerness to accept well-intentioned counsel from those who know and love you, even if neither their love nor their understanding is ideal. A hallmark of maturity, and surley the biggest factor in success, is the willingness to seek and accept expertise, coaching, and supervision, and then the willingness to make your own decision after hearing the opinions of others. People, especially parent,s love to give advice, and they will honor your maturity in asking for it.
(2) The child who would be an adult must give up any lingering childlike sense of parental power, either the magical ability to solve your problems for you or the dreaded ability to make you turn back into a child. When you are no longer hiding from your parents, or clinging to them, and can accept them as fellow human beings, then they may do the same for you. They cannot turn you into a child; that is something you are doing to yourself when you collapse, run, or hide under the spell of your childlike awe at their. presumed power. You must move in dose, and unmask them as Toto did the Wizard of Oz, who turned out to be a silly old man hiding behind a lot of sound and lights. As he said when told he was a bad man: "No. I am a very good man, just a very bad wizard." Parents and wizards are all faking it.
(3) The child who would be an adult must forgive the parents for all the ways they didn't raise him or her just right, whether their errors were in loving too much or too little. All parents, as parents of adults, do the deflating things that make you feel like a child. If you have children, you'll do those things too and eventually laugh about them.
But all the things parents do are not so benign. Parents sometimes do horrendous things to their children--beat them, rape them, sell them into slavery, even try to kill them. Still more parents abandon their children, break up their children's family to run off with someone who did not have the best interests of the children at heart, and leave the children with someone they could not tolerate living with themselves. Those things must also be faced, and when they are finally understood, must be forgiven. Even if your parents tried to kill you some of the time, they obviously kept you alive much more of the time.
The hardest part of becoming an adult with your parents may be this: to come back as an adult and get close enough to truly understand your parents and why they did what they did. You must understand their life and yours from their perspective before you can truly forgive them. It may take a lifetime. Some of it will happen automatically as you raise your own or other's children, but some of it can happen only as you examine your parents, living or dead, present or absent.
If your parents are not available, you may have to understand them through the eyes of those who knew them. Or if your parent is a homicidal maniac, you may have to bring armed guards with you as you hang out with him and demystify him (or sometimes her--mothers are far less likely than fathers to rape their children, but somewhat more likely to murder them). Even if your father has to be kept in a cage like Hannibal the Cannibal, you cannot continue to avoid him and still come to peace with the world. As long as you fear your parent is out to do you in, you can never feel safe in the world. No matter how awful the incestuous or homicidal parent, he must be faced and understood, not for his sake but for yours.
One of the most highly valued functions of used parents these days is to be the villains of their children's lives, the people the child blames for any shortcomings or disappointments. But if your identity comes from your parents' failings, then you remain forever a member of the child generation, stuck and unable to move on to an adulthood in which you identify yourself in terms of what you do, not what has been done to you.
I know your parents, like most parents, made a lot of mistakes. A lot of parents came into adulthood as they raised you, and are better people now than they were then. There are great advantages to seeing yourself as an accident created by amateur parents as they practiced. You then have been left in an imperfect state and the rest is up to you. Only the most pitifully inept child requires perfection from parents.
Some parents were awful back then and are awful still. The process of raising you didn't turn them into grown-ups. Parents who were dearly imperfect can be helpful to you. As you were trying to grow up despite their fumbling efforts, you had to develop skills and tolerances other kids missed out on. Some of the strongest people I know grew up taking care of inept, invalid, or psychotic parents-but they knew the parents weren't normal, healthy, or whole.
Children of imperfect parents might be grateful to their parents for the opportunities to develop unexpected strengths. My sister and I are firmly convinced that our mother's alcoholism made us stronger people and better caretakers. Such a tragi-comic existence certainly did wonders for our sense of humor.