Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust III: The Passive Parent
The good but passive parent's effect on trust in later life.
Posted September 8, 2017
Note to Reader: As a licensed psychologist, I strictly adhere to the ethics of confidentiality; therefore, I do not use/make reference to any patient/client information in the pieces I write. The only data I use to explore these psychological issues is my own. The Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will include several pieces related to the effects of early relationships on the development of trust and intimacy.
As unpredictable as my mother was, my father was that predictable. He was a devoted father who worked hard and spent all his free time praying and helping neighbors with various plumbing and construction projects around their homes. (My parents emigrated from Ireland each at 18, just weeks before the Depression, then worked at odd jobs, went to school, met, married, and settled eventually in a small bungalow community in Throgs Neck, the Bronx.) None of the homes were winterized when we moved in, so all the dads gave their weekends to raise a house, add a cellar or bathroom, extend a living room, add sheetrock dividers to separate beds. Living, as my parents called it, "hand to mouth" in the Bronx in 1954, neighbors were vital to the life of each family: all the mothers watched the kids and the fathers build our homes, their only payment, as many bottles of Ballantine or Rheingold as it took to beat the heat of a sweltering parade of Saturdays from April through November. We were one family and were happy in that life—all but Mom (she was content to stay inside the house rather than “gossiping with a bunch of women”).
A loving father and husband, Dad seldom, if ever, raised his voice. Evenings after dinner and the family rosary, he’d play the harmonica for us, then carry us piggyback to the bathroom for that final pee before bed. We adored him and Mom knew it. She often complained that we never listened to her but one look from him and we were all in tears. She was right. And he was no disciplinarian. He left that to her and tried to keep out of our wars. But on occasion she caught him at the door when he came from work with a long list of our offenses.
His attempts to corral us were perfunctory—a simple reprimand in a slightly raised voice. But after a day or two, we’d be back to our old routine.
"What’s the point in talking?" she’d say, "The only thing they understand is the strap." And she used that often.
One day, to satisfy her, he changed tactics ordering us into the Back Room—a clear sign we were getting a beating. But it was always Mom who beat us; Dad never did, so we were really scared.
“You’ll get the licking of your lives for not listening to your mother,” he roared as he pulled off his belt and slammed the bedroom door. “Lay down on the beds!” he ordered.
Safely in the beds though, he’d cover us with my brothers’ thick comforters to protect us, whispering, “Cry out like you’re hurting,” then raising his voice, “This will teach you!” he beat the blankets and we screamed. Mom, in the kitchen, I imagined, satisfied and victorious, making herself a cup of tea.
This seemed to us a clever resolution (and a welcome relief!) since any attempt on his part to stand up for us resulted in such rancor over his siding with us. The prior week was the last of his attempts to stand up for us.
"You’re supposed to be disciplining them, not siding with them against me," she cried bitterly.
“I’m not siding with them. I just meant that what they did didn’t seem so bad.”
"How can you say you love me if you take their part against me?"
A man who seldom cried, Dad cried that day, “Why would you ask that?”
Eventually, Dad stayed out of these confrontations completely. As we grew older and were too old to spank, his earlier "tricks" were outdated. He was powerless to help us anyway. He kept quiet, I rationalized, not only to save himself but also us, short-circuiting the rage that surely followed his defense of us. The result was that we never expected protection from him. We didn’t expect it from anyone. We were on our own. I don’t even remember being angry with him (I’d repressed it if I was). Rather we felt sorry for him; if anything, we saw him on par with us when it came to Mom. He was as crippled as we were.
In retrospect, I feel sorry for my mother, handling all the discipline of four kids in six years with no help from him. Like most kids, we listened less to Mom—probably because she was always there, mornings, after school, at dinner, bedtime, checking up on our chores, our homework, what friends we hung out with, what comic books we read, smelling Sonny’s breath to see if he’d been smoking, did we take our cod liver oil…it was endless. Mom was the warden and Dad was the Pied Piper.
And we hung on his every word. Nothing was worse than the thought of his disappointment. Each of us turned ourselves inside out trying to please him and the way to do that was to pray. So each of us prayed a lot. Even my rebellious older brother became an altar boy and joined the Holy Name and Nocturnal Adoration Societies to pray beside Dad and make him proud. My sister and I often went with him to dawn Mass in The Poor Clare Monastery. Besides the pleasure it obviously gave Dad, I loved the feeling of holiness and purity that came with it. There were scores of saints I could call on to intercede for me, along with The Blessed Mother, Jesus, God the Father, the Holy Ghost, and of course, the Poor Souls in Purgatory. I loved having such a huge loving family always listening and understanding. I finally had what I’d always dreamed of. No matter how sad I was or how bad things seemed, I never really felt alone.
It took until I was well into adulthood to be angry with my father. And that’s not uncommon. Children of passive parents have a very difficult time getting in touch with the anger associated with emotional abandonment. In the eyes of the child, the parent is helpless, often the victim themselves (particularly mothers). They’re certainly not at fault for the discord or abuse that exists in the house—in fact, their silence may be said to minimize that by not introducing another variable into the hellish mix. The child/adult tells him/herself that he/she should feel sorry for the downtrodden parent. This protection/pity of the passive parent often lasts a lifetime. It’s less painful to see the parent as a victim and to feel compassion than to see the parent as inadequate. The truth invites guilt for blaming the helpless parent (we expect ourselves to be better than that) and great loss at the admission that the one parent the child identifies with is flawed. It takes considerable work and time (usually in therapy) for an individual to face his/her unconscious anger toward this parent—he/she is very reluctant to view the self as aggressive like the abusive parent.
Though I didn’t expect my father to protect me from my mother while I was growing up, as an adult I did expect him to confront her when she invented stories about us. In her effort to keep us embattled with each other and exclusively hers, she’d often color the truth or out-and-out lie about one of us to the other. Often in front of him. But he wouldn’t correct her; he’d just stand by silently as she recounted her fictions of abuse at our hands. One particular time, I arrived for a visit to my brother and his family in England, and there was a scarcity of beds, so my friend and I were set to sleep on the floor. That was fine with us, but not with Mom. She insisted that we were tired from the long flight and needed a good night’s sleep, so she and Dad would sleep on the floor and we’d take their beds. We refused, multiple times, but she kept insisting. Exhausted from the trip and touched by her generosity, I agreed. When I got home, however, I heard from my younger brother that she’d told the story in reverse. We had just ‘taken’ her bed and left her and Dad to sleep on the floor. Remarkably, Dad, who was there both times—for the incident and when she relayed it—never refuted her account. He just kept silent while she maligned us. My brother was incensed that I would be so selfish and treat my parents so shabbily. That kind of thing happened more often than I’d like to admit. I finally got so angry with my father (I had by this time begun to get in touch with much of the rage that I’d repressed for so long) that I actually slapped his face for his refusal to stand up for me. That slap carried rage for a lifetime of his emotional abandonment. That’s a hard word to associate with my father—he was so present in so many ways, but it’s accurate. It’s also a terrible memory—one I wish never happened and for a long time didn’t remember until it revealed itself when I was writing my last book, Orphans, which tells the stories of my parents, individually and together, and my relationship with them.
Besides the lack of protection that the child of the passive parent experiences, such parenting can reap damaging results later in childhood and adulthood. For one, the child may conclude that protection doesn’t exist in any relationship. So the child is determined to count on no one. The world is not a safe place; one is out there on his/her own. Bonding is difficult because it requires trust and this child/adult has little reason to trust. Perhaps most critical, the child does not have a model for standing up and speaking for oneself, for fighting for what he/she believes. Children need positive role models, and they learn from their parents (particularly the parent of the same sex), how to be a woman, a man, a substantive human being. The parent, through his/her behavior teaches the child not to speak, not to have opinions, or if they do, to keep them to themselves, to not strive for uniqueness, to be compliant rather than independent. The child learns to remain on the outside of any vital conversation or dialogue where he/she might be blamed or judged. So the child mimics the parent and becomes a shadow of the self he/she could be. There’s great sadness in that.
Though we had found the formula for pleasing Dad, his holiness presented another variable in our struggling sense of ourselves. We were a deeply religious Catholic family with Dad in charge of our spiritual life as Mom was of all else. Truly Christlike, Dad was as close to perfect as anyone we knew (except perhaps for the nuns and priests), and as hard as we tried, we were aware we could never measure up. We could never be as good as he was—or the saints were. I for one was aware that as much as I prayed and went to Mass when I didn’t have to, there were also times I wished I didn’t have to. On the contrary, I was sure Dad never felt that way; he seemed to love every movement he made toward God. What made me particularly sad and guilty was that I knew he desperately wanted one of us to become a priest or nun, and I was terrified that I’d be called by God to do so. I didn’t want to—any more than I could imagine giving up my life to defend God as I knew the martyrs did and surely Dad would.
Sadly, we came up short once again; for Mom, we could never love her enough; for Dad we could never love God enough. We were a disappointment to our parents, to God and to ourselves.