Making the Most of Life, Even Without a Perfect Childhood

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

L ooking back, what would you most want to change about your life? The question is posed to a group of older men and women in Greenville, S.C., who have been meeting every week in a continuing education program for more than a decade.

The most frequent answer? Parents! Roughly 20 percent of the group replies that their parents are what they would most like to change in their lives. Oh, to have had a better childhood, a cleaner start. After more than half a century, the hurt is still raw. After successful lives as artists, teachers, business managers, ministers, government leaders, they hold on to simmering rage. After becoming parents and grandparents themselves, they let their judgment harden.

A man in the group explains it to me: His father died when he was a teenager. His mother was needy, demanding and angry. Nothing he did was ever right. He left home at 16 and never looked back . . . except in anger.

I'm shocked. I think of my own childhood, its sorrows with a depressed, alcoholic mother. There were times growing up when I wished I had parents like my friends', the good mothers who drove carpools and brought cookies to school. But now a photograph of my parents rests on a table, a black-and-white of a young attractive couple, sitting side by side, playing a duet with recorders, and I know, in so many ways, I am my parents' daughter. At this point, long after my parents have died, I can't imagine wanting to change them -- to return them to the parent pool and get some better models, as a way to revise the darker scripts of childhood or protest the ancient suffering.

Yet for some, the shadow of the early years is clearly long. The emotional experience of parents, researchers tell us, lays down the framework for adult relationships. People who experienced a safe harbor of love and support as children go into marriage with an advantage of knowing what to expect and how to behave in a satisfying relationship.

But those with bleaker pasts don't feel so safe in adult relationships. When you were a child, did you get comfort if you were upset or frightened? If not, and you're still upset about it, "you won't expect to get what you need in the [current] relationship," says California psychologist Carolyn Pape Cowan. And so the pattern of disappointment and rage may continue.

People with difficult childhoods often set out to do just the opposite of their parents. Many are able to build safer relationships in adulthood despite a painful family legacy.

But who has a perfect childhood? The dysfunctional family has become an icon in pop culture. Look at the movie "Little Miss Sunshine": It's hard to see where the dysfunction begins or ends. But as the French would say: Cherchez mom & pop. Indeed, a high proportion of men and women who get married have negative feelings toward their parents.

In a study of middle-class couples in California, an amazing 75 percent of the participants reported having had very difficult childhoods. How can couples go through the predictable stresses of a long marriage and flourish into old age if they start out with such negative feelings toward their past and their parents?

"How do you achieve forgiveness?" asks Philip A. Cowan, who with his wife, Carolyn, headed the study: "If you don't, you can't move on."

Forgiveness, Cowan says, comes when you put a negative relationship in perspective. "Can you say: 'They were doing the best they could. They didn't know any better?' " Those who can, Cowan continues, "do better in their current relationships with partners and with children than people who are still angry."

It's hard to heal old wounds. Some do it in therapy, some by forging a loving bond with a grandchild, some through art. Whatever the pathway, the process leads to a richer experience of love. ยท

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