The issue of adults distancing themselves from their parents because of their "faults" and blaming them for their own bad traits and unhappiness is so familiar and painful that many families consider it an inevitable, unfortunate situation that can't be changed.
But in a recent "Kate and Allie" episode (the CBS sitcom about two single, fortyish mothers who live together with their children), a plot on parent-blaming became a serious, 30-minute lesson on how to change two generations' worth of angst.
Dismayed by their college-age daughters' new-found haughty behavior, Allie and Kate are guilt-inspired to get in touch with their own mothers, whom they usually avoid whenever possible.
And for good reason. At the much-dreaded, mother-daughter visit we see that Kate's mom is a pointless, incessant talker, and Allie's mom finds fault with everything from the cluttered kitchen cupboards to Allie's empty dating life.
When Kate and Allie lose their cool and ask their moms to stop yapping and harping, both moms go into a chilling silence, until Kate admits:
"Mom, I hate your talking so much, because that's what grandma does and it's what I do. I guess I hate it in myself, so I get mad at you."
Allie then asks her mom what it was like with her mother and learns that grandma was the queen of criticizers, something Allie never knew.
"Did you hate your mother?" asks Allie.
"I loved my mother very much," says her mom, vehemently.
"Just like I do," says Allie.
"Dad never gives me enough time or intimacy."
"My mom never really wants to hear my side."
"I can't stand to visit my parents. They make me so nervous."
Such complaints can come at any time during the adult child's life, but they are more apt to surface and escalate during our forties or our midlife, when we suddenly face the unresolved, submerged issues that are now being repeated in our marriages and relationships with others.
It is, for example, easier to blame your father for his nonintimacy, rather than to accept the fact that nonintimacy is a problem in your own life and marriage.
According to Michael Nichols, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at Albany Medical College and author of Turning 40 in the '80s (Simon & Schuster, 1987, $8.95), there are three related manifestations of mid-life blaming:
We want our parents to give us what we missed in childhood, such as intimacy or communication.
We want our parents to change their difficult ways.
We don't want to be like our parents.
"So many people are 40 years old and hanging onto old needs, which they feel their parents still owe them," says Nichols. This holds true for those with "happy" childhoods as well as those with parents who abused and neglected them.
Realistically, our elderly parents "are not the larger-than-life figures that can transform our lives as they did during our childhood. And if we try to force or squeeze out that extra ounce of caring or nurturing," says Nichols, we are going to be greatly disappointed.
Once disappointed, we insist that the parent-to-blame should change his or her bad habits. "We want so desperately to change others that it is hard to let go of this linear view: 'We are unhappy, because of what they do,' " writes Nichols in his book.
"The truth is that we are unhappy because of recurring cycles of what-we-do and they-do, we-do."
We can change this system, says Nichols, not by changing our parents, "but by changing ourselves."
Nichols' advice: "If your mother treats you like a kid and you can't accept this, your life may be dominated by your attempt to make her stop treating you like a kid. Once you can ... accept the reality that she is who she is -- then you don't have to fight it or organize your life around it."
Harriet Goldhor Lerner wrote The Dance of Anger (Harper & Row, 1987, $7.95) in response to treating so many women for their anger toward their mothers. When we are angry about our own lives, she writes, we judge, blame, criticize, moralize, preach, instruct, interpret and psychoanalyze our parents, not ourselves.
If we let go of that anger and then say how we feel to the parent, it will only bring "temporary relief" and no permanent change. Changing does not mean confrontation, says Lerner, a psychologist at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kan.
Instead, Lerner advises women to "get a perspective about your mother by knowing her story and getting the facts of her life." The anger won't completely disappear, she says, but "There will be a context for understanding the issue."
The logic also applies if your parent is no longer living.
Washington business consultant Kathleen Wiseman was 18 when her mother died of pancreatic cancer. "I was never able to be a person with my mother. I didn't have the guts, nor did she set up a chance for me to be myself, and I never went through any rebellion toward her," says Wiseman, explaining why for so long she romanticized her mother and lived in her shadow.
Some 20 years later, Wiseman "went home" to learn everything she could about her mother from her aunts and uncles. "I made her into a three-dimensional person rather than the two-dimensional one I held for so long.
"Once I had an understanding of her I could say to myself, 'I think I'll be different,' or 'I'll do the same.' I became my own person."
The hard part is being her own person "in a crisis," says Wiseman. "I usually know that what I'm doing would be something my mother wouldn't do," she explains.
"People often feel trapped in their genes," say Nichols, and they do everything not to "sound" or "be" like their parents, especially when they blame their parents for their unhappiness.
"When I yell at my children about their chores, I have my mother's same voice."
"I will never be as macho and competitive with my son as my father was with me."
"There is a middle road to acceptance," says Nichols, "if you can say to yourself, 'I'm more or less like this,' or 'Okay, I'm just like my mother,' even when the trait is an unhappy or unhealthy one."
Acceptance and empathy, however, take more than a phone call home. It means breaking the barriers of distance that we have consciously and unconsciously set up in miles and emotion over the years.
There are some people, says Nichols, "who moved away from home, visit infrequently and have cordial but superficial contact; they are independent from their parents only at a distance.
"Those who stay close are often equally unable to be themselves in relation to their parents," he says. They may spend more time with mom or dad but, "they are near, not close."
Infrequent visits with parents-to-blame are usually "cushioned," he says, by including other people or by "hiding behind the television set or the grandchildren."
Once home, the task is to observe, ask questions and make an effort to understand a parent's history. Allow for a parent's memory lapse or distortion, advises Lerner. If you want the whole picture, ask other relatives. But do it with consideration, she says, since the past is often painful to recall.
"There were times," says Wiseman, "when I just watched how my aunts and uncles related to each other. I didn't ask any questions, but I learned a lot."
It's a sensitive, time-consuming process that takes "tremendous patience," says Lerner, where we allow our relatives to be who they are even through the craziness akin to us all.
A patient of Lerner's complained that her mother always gave her a half-hearted and mixed message on achievement: "Her mother would praise her, but then she would be sick with a headache on her daughter's graduation.
"I asked, 'If your mother were your age now, what would she achieve? What kind of relationship did your mother have with your grandmother?' The daughter had never asked her mother. Asking was difficult because the relationship was so tense and the daughter so blaming."
A 40-year-old Takoma Park woman recalls that when her first child was born four years ago she was "eager" to resolve the bitterness and lack of intimacy between her and her own mother, who is an alcoholic.
"We sat down and I started asking her about her childhood. I knew that she had lost her mother when she was 3, but nothing else. She was so hostile to me, she froze me out. It was an incredible abyss."
Determined to learn about the past, the woman talked to her aunt and learned that her mother had to live with relatives after her mother's death and when she was 9 she "lost everything" in a major house fire.
Did this history of deprivation create an understanding between mother and daughter?
"No. It didn't resolve it for me at all. We are still separated by that emotional distance."
A changing response is not necessarily welcomed by senior parents. They may want you to "change back" to the way you were, says Lerner. The crux is to remain steadfast -- "This can be scary, if the fear is losing a parent's favor or feeling guilty, for changing."
New York editor Susan Barrows, 40, came to realize that her mother "never wanted to hear bad news," a trait Barrows had accommodated for years though it left her bitter.
After "accepting" her mother's trait, Barrows now "cuts through some of the superficiality" and talks openly to her mother about her own vulnerability and feelings. "It still makes my mother very anxious, but she's now more open about her vulnerability."
My father doesn't care about me or my divorce. He is self-centered and depressed.
Both Nichols and Lerner warn that it often is easier to label or "diagnose" a parent's problem without making the long trek home to uncover and understand a family's history.
In an uneducated diagnosis, says Lerner, "We assume that we can know what another person really thinks, feels, or wants, or how the other person should think, feel, or behave.
"But we can't know these things for sure. It is difficult enough to know these things about our own selves." Barbara Mathias is a Washington-based writer.