It's so ingrained, it won't change. (I'm in my 40s.) Do you have any advice on how to accept the limitations/frailties/flaws of people, like parents, to whom we have always looked up? I am so disappointed in them . . . and it's fresh.
I keep thinking if I had to write a eulogy tomorrow, I would have trouble with it.
— Rethinking My Family
Rethinking My Family: Well, sure, it’s still new. Makes complete sense.
But as you settle into this new awareness — and emerge from your postpartum emotional struggle, which is no small thing — I suggest not getting into a detailed accounting of your parents’ flaws against the accrued balances of your filial piety or admiration.
Instead, I hope you’ll question the admiration, the “looked up [to]” part, itself.
There’s a dissonance built into it when it comes to nuclear families.
First, there’s a voice of culture — that children are supposed to respect their elders, to look up to their parents, to follow their example — even, simply, to love them.
Next, though, is individuality: Not every person behaves in a way that’s worthy of respect, emulation, love.
In fact, try this exercise sometime when you’re around a lot of people you know reasonably well. Ask yourself, “What if I were his kid? Or hers? What if that couple had me instead of my parents?” Envision it. You’ll say no thanks or even flinch at some of these musings, unless you’re at a gathering of the finest people on Earth. Maybe even if you are.
And of course you’ll realize, some of these people actually have kids — as you’re thinking how badly you wouldn’t want to be one of them. It’s an exercise that really drives home how growing up in the parental home is an intensely intimate experience with “limited” and/or “flawed” people we don’t get to choose.
I suggest coming at your unhealthy-family-dynamic question from that angle — though not to wipe away a bad family experience as if it were inevitable or nobody’s fault, of course. Bad choices have consequences, and your pain is real. But when you take an unsentimental look at what “family” entails, what human fallibility means in that context, and how many opportunities there are for things to go wrong, you might soften the impact of your current disillusionment.
For extra credit, revisit some of your own bad choices, and trace how good intentions got you there.
Another potential source of optimism: Wrestling with this now could help you become a better, less anxious parent. What can any of us do, really? You show up, you love, you try.
Dear Carolyn: I've been in my stepdaughter's life for 12 years, since she was 11 and I was 23. Obviously, I was never really a mother figure, but "Dani" and I have always been great friends and remain so after my husband's death two years ago. She didn't always have the best relationship with her mother, but they seem to be getting to a better place lately.
Recently I got a line on a gem of an apartment in a fantastic building. I moved very quickly to buy it since it won't stay on the market long. Dani is very upset that I'm selling the house and moving to a one-bedroom apartment. I've told her she's welcome to crash on my couch whenever she wants, but she claims I'm selling "her home" out from under her. It's hardly her home since currently she and her cousin share an apartment owned by her aunt and she still has a room in her mom's spacious house.
Am I doing anything wrong? I really don't want to hurt Dani, but this new apartment is the right place at the right time for me.
Moving: Dani’s father died and you’re selling her home. That’s just as true for Dani emotionally as it’s true financially that you’re entitled to make this transaction.
But instead of acknowledging Dani’s emotional connection to the house — and, by extension, to her late father — you’re going extremely literal on the idea that she has other shelter so what’s she so upset about? It verges on obtuse, though it doesn’t seem willfully so.
Apologize to Dani. Not for selling the house, but specifically for failing to anticipate her emotional attachment to it, and for not talking her through it with that in mind. Apologize for being so cavalier about her having a spot on your couch, as if that would fix everything.
She may hold on to misplaced anger over your ownership of property itself. But it’s still important to set right the part you got so wrong.