My parents are still married. They just celebrated their 28th wedding anniversary. But when I saw them again it was separately, first one then the other. It had to be this way. Seeing both of them for the first time in over two years would have just been too much.
See, I broke up with my parents two-and-a-half years before this visit. I called them on Halloween, after avoiding voicemails for weeks. My teeth were chattering. “I need a break from this relationship,” I said and my mom burst into tears. My dad, quiet, mirrored back what I said … then tried to turn the conversation to normal things.
It has to be something every parent knows you can do, though usually it doesn’t seem like a real choice. But at 23, it dawned on me that your relationship to your parents is voluntary, and I didn’t want the one we had, with its fights and sadness and anxiety after phone calls. Individuation is something every person goes through in their 20s, and I am not sure that most of us succeed. Parent-child interactions are hard to change, but I was determined to do so. My path hurt, and caused a lot of hurt too. But, there was value along the way.
What I remember about being a kid is that it was so lonely—interacting with other kids was brutal. But my childhood was also magical. It was my parents having parties with friends who played guitar, them taking my interest in art and writing seriously, even when I was I eight. It was s’mores in the backyard under skies full of stars.
Being a kid is having the same emotions and depth as an adult, without the ways to explain them. Too many parents don’t have the tools to help kids communicate.
On the phone call when I broke up with my parents, my mom cried on the other end of the line and said, “We did the best we could.” Maybe, with where she was mentally, that is true. But, parenting is a job that takes a lot of self awareness. There is a morality here, I began to think. That old adage about loving yourself before you love anyone else seemed true. If you can’t parent yourself, how in the hell are you gonna be able to parent anyone else?
I flitted back and forth between anger and longing during the two years without my parents. But whether I was lamenting over wonderful Christmases or looking down on their parenting, I was able to figure out a lot about myself and my past. But it was in black and white—my parents were good or they were bad. And my heart, not black or white, felt confused.
I ran it through my head over and over. The time my mom drunkely bullied me for being upset when my ex-boyfriend came to a family party to announce his new engagement. When I slapped a hamburger out of her hand that night because I really wanted to slap her face. The fights as a teenager when my Mom or Dad did slap me in the face, and my childhood when I was so quiet and full of sadness and worry and resentment towards them.
I looked at it again and again, and I held onto the wonderful things too. How cool and interesting my parents could be, talking about books or music. How they fostered my creativity, my intelligence. How they sent me to art school. My mom writing ‘Happy St Patrick’s Day’ or ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ on the mirror in marker and her little gifts at breakfast. The birthdays made magical with themes. There was so much good inside them.
And finally I caught up with my heart. The truth was both. The good and the bad. And looking at these truths over and over became self work. I was able to empathize with my past self, love myself, parent myself. Not returning to the relationship was an option, but there was more self discovery to happen here. And returning to the root of myself—my parents—could be a way to truly to understand myself more, to grow.
But, I couldn’t control how they would react to me wanting to be back in their lives. Their role in the old dance might not change. I could only control myself and my reactions.
Re-connecting with my parents was as scary as leaving. I called, my face was pink with tears. It was shaky and heartbreaking and wonderful.
I still sometimes feel anxious or angry when talking to them, but I’m able to say, in the moment, that I feel anxious or upset, and not get into fights. And they’ve changed too. When my Mom said she was grateful, that without the break she might never have stepped out of the “Mother” role, I knew I had made the right decision.