Over the years I’ve heard a lot of stories from my friends about their parents, and for some of my friends I’ve even gotten to witness those stories in action. I no doubt have my own tales to tell, but for the most part, my friends haven’t gotten to witness any of our “loving exchanges.” Thankfully. I heard somewhere that the reason why parents can push our buttons so easily is because they’re the ones that installed them. So true. For the most part we all love our parents, though admittedly some only tolerate their folks, and still a few others cannot have anything to do with them. But generally speaking, we love our parents even though they drive us crazy sometimes – or all the time. Parents are mostly well-intentioned, at least mine are. In fact, much of what I interpret as annoying is them simply trying to help. My folks are the king and queen of unsolicited comments and advice, and after 40 years or so, they’ve become pretty predictable, and often repeat some of their same preferences; you’d figure either they would learn or I would: neither of us is going to change, so the other might as well acquiesce. And therein lies the problem. You can’t teach stubborn old dogs new tricks.
My folks are very generous too. They live by the oath of helping their close friends and family as much as possible, and while I believe it starts from a place of sincerity tinged with altruism, there always appears to be hidden motives, or at least I interpret them as such. Control is one, though that might be too strong a judgment. I think it might be more accurate to say that their generosity earns a voice if not a vote, at least it should from their perspective. A truly autonomous being would neither seek nor allow outside intervention. Though it isn’t that I always or ever need their assistance, in the many forms they take, but some of my acceptance comes from a lack of desire to fight on the issue. If their extending a hand makes them feel better and more connected to me, than who am I to say otherwise? My relationship with my folks is complicated, in large part because I’m complicated (something is wrong with me but I haven’t been able to figure out what exactly – yet). So in light of that recognition on my part, I try to be the “good son” where I can; and this often comes in the form of accepting their generosity. Sounds narcissistic when I see it in print…
I was talking to a friend of mine about her frequent conversations with her mom, and we found that we both have a “rule” for our respective interactions with our respective parents: “Don’t shut down.” For me, it means to not put up roadblocks in the conversation as a default. My tendency, and I learned it over the years from constant interactions (empirical observation at its finest), is to share only the minimum amount of information necessary. I’ve found that I’m not rewarded for oversharing – I’m “punished” by creating fissures for them to peel back and pry into my life more and more and do what I always try to avoid: get more unsolicited advice and opinions. I find, though, that I come off as a stubborn, punk of a teenager with my one word responses and vague details. The thing is, I know they catalog all the information I share, and they invest a lot more in my declarations than I do, sometimes. They, of course, also are more measured and insightful about a number of things that I am not, so their impending advice and “guidance” can come across as prying and paternalistic. What doesn’t help is that seven times out of ten they’re right (maybe more, but I won’t cede that ground here, today…). And maybe seven times out of ten I agree with them – but this often causes me to do something different out of spite (?) – yes, the typical teenage brat.
When I see people who have very intimate and endearing relationships with their parents, I wonder where I went wrong. I often ask myself if I’d want to be that tight with my folks; the answer is typically “Why not?” yet I never take any attempts to cultivate those bonds. And I’m well aware time is everything. We’re all getting older, and the time I have available is finite in the big picture. I think my inner-apathy likes the carefully cultivated man-of-distance I’ve created of myself, and this extends to everyone, my parents included. In fact, as I think about it, maybe that man-of-distance grew first and foremost of that primary relationship; maybe that default position has been groomed since birth…? What I dread, though, is that on the day I finally decide to invest in that relationship in a different manner, it will be too late. And to prevent that thought from rolling around in my head driving me crazy, I just wall it off, like I do everything else in my life…
By the time of press Mother’s Day and Father’s Day will have come and gone. And yes, I’ll have sent cards and called on those days. The same is true for their birthdays and their anniversary. Around these dates when it is time to say something nice, I think back to the time before I grew so cold and cynical, to that innocence of childhood (which if I’m being honest wasn’t too innocent for me because I was always in trouble for one thing or another) and the things I enjoyed doing with my folks. Those memories seem to run out somewhere in high school though, unfortunately. That means I’ve spent the last 20+ years not making any significantly valuable memories with them, though that doesn’t imply I haven’t had fun or enjoyed their company in that time, simply that nothing of recent resonates as overtly memorable. But maybe it shouldn’t: I imagine the things I fondly recall from my youth were not viewed as importantly at the time they happened, or even a few years after they happened. Maybe it is upon reflection and future growth that other valuable memories will bubble up to the surface. I hope so.
One of my friends, while a pretty diplomatic fellow, has a very contentious relationship with his mom because she’s crazy. He’s convinced she has serious undiagnosed mental health issues, but also that she’s just plain crazy (I do believe the two can be separated and are distinct, and certainly all the more powerful when they occur in tandem). But he tries a lot. He makes far more effort than I do. While his efforts might seem as a chore or a drag from the outside, he doesn’t usually approach it as so. He has a good relationship with his dad, but his dad has some serious, and also undiagnosed, mental health issues as well, serious OCD being one of them. His dad carries around a bottle of water and cloth to clean everything before and after he touches it. He can’t be in a room with chocolate. I could go on… The stories he tells me about his folks and his interactions are worthy of a reality show. He gives me a hard time about the petty complaints I have for my folks.
I often wonder if the fault is all mine. I can come up with any number of reasons why it isn’t, but what if those are just my defense mechanisms or plain denial of responsibility. I was grabbing beers with a new friend recently – we were introduced by a mutual friend – and towards the end of our chat he said, “You know, I think why ____ introduced us is because we’re both difficult.” I agreed and wore it as a badge of honor. Maybe it is time to take off that badge and wear another one: civility.
Teenager of the Year