Question: My mother always said that she only had two children because she hated sex, and that my father was free to look elsewhere.
Apparently he did, as they divorced when I was 10. But I recently heard some other news from a reliable source, and my older brother reluctantly confirmed it. This person said that my parents only had me to keep my father from being drafted in World War II. That was the rule in our rural Midwest county: If a man had two or more children, he didn’t have to serve.
Of course, I’m happy to be here; I’m glad my father didn’t die in the war, and though this country strongly supported World War II, I imagine that a fair number of children were born because of this exemption. Nevertheless, this information makes me see my parents differently. Somehow they now seem unpatriotic, self-serving and hypocritical because they strongly denounced the men who stayed in school or fled to Canada to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War.
Can you help me get my head around this contradiction? I feel foolish for not having thought of it sooner, and now I wonder how many people know what my parents did. Even though I’m 72 years old, I just can’t seem to move on.
Answer: The truth often hurts, especially when it’s about the people we loved first, knew longest and thought we understood better than anyone else.
Your news hurts even more because it has torn apart the picture you had of your parents — and to some extent of yourself — and now you must put the pieces back together in a whole new way. This has to be quite hard for you to do since you are also mourning the past and grief cannot be rushed.
You may find it a little easier, however, if you ask a few people who knew your parents to tell you more about them so you can write up their story for the children in the family or because you want to know what they were really like.
Even if they don’t mention what you’ve just discovered — and they probably won’t — these oral histories will surprise you because each account will be a little different. No two people see the past in exactly the same way because we all have different values, different memories and different points of view.
Although you now know that you were conceived so your dad could avoid the draft, there’s bound to be more to this story than that. Maybe his parents needed him to help out on the family farm or to run their small business. Maybe your mother was afraid that he would be killed or wounded and that she couldn’t earn enough money to support their little boy.
Or maybe it was your dad who was scared. No matter how patriotic they were, very few men wanted to shoot anyone in that dreadful war, and they certainly didn’t want to get shot. If a man couldn’t face those possibilities and he didn’t have the courage to be a conscientious objector, he did whatever it took to avoid the draft. No one was perfect in the 1940s any more than they are perfect in 2014.
People do evolve, however. Perhaps your parents were being hypocritical when they denounced the men who stayed in school or fled to Canada during Vietnam, but maybe they were simply looking back and wishing that your dad had also been in World War II. Or maybe they were embarrassed by the decision they made when they were young. All of us change our minds, for better or worse, as we get older. With luck, we don’t get chastised for it.
You can’t really know why your dad wanted to be exempted from the draft, but you might accept his behavior better if you can give him the same understanding that he and your mom gave to you when you did something that was wrong. We all make mistakes, but if your parents were around today, they’d be quick to say that you weren’t one of them.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns.