New Mama Musings

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Doing the Best You Can

“The joys of parents are secret, and so are their griefs and fears.” – Francis Bacon

When I was a child I thought I knew my parents. I knew them well enough, anyway, which is to say I knew them in relation to me. My father was short-tempered, given to explosive rages about things like the tape being misplaced. He was larger than life and not in the good way. My mother was controlling and demanding. If we didn’t do a chore to her satisfaction, she would show us how to do it right and we’d have to do it again. Neither of them showed us much affection.

As my three sisters and I got older and began to realize that some parents were better than others, we reacted in different ways. My oldest sister threw herself into school activities and was rarely home. My second oldest sister cared for me and took on many of the household responsibilities. The third in line rebelled covertly, cursing my parents behind their backs and sometimes standing up to my father, usually with unfortunate results. And me? I was quiet. I often hid in corners of the room, hoping no one would notice me, always listening but rarely offering an opinion.

Well into my twenties I felt a bubbling anger under the surface when I thought about my childhood. The few times my mother was confronted about it, she snapped, “We did the best we could.” I never bought it. My parents were well-educated professionals -- both teachers -- for God’s sake. How could that have been the best they could do? I grew even more angry when I realized that my parents were either unwilling or unable to see the reality I saw.

And then, slowly, in baby steps, I began to let go.

A few years ago my parents sold the home I grew up in to build a more open, lighter, and cozier house than the one I remember from my childhood. It holds no associations for me. When I visit them, I visit them in their house. It was never mine.

Somehow, too, stories I’d heard from my parents about their own upbringing began to sink in. My mother had been the oldest in her family, with five younger brothers. Because she was the only girl, she alone was expected to help with all the housework. My grandmother became an alcoholic and agoraphobe later in life, which probably meant that my mother was responsible for running the entire household. Meanwhile, her father, generous to a fault, gave money and food away to extended family at the expense of his own.

My mother had always seemed cold and ungiving to me as a child, but I began to understand why she may have seemed that way. Maybe she just couldn’t give anymore.

And my father? His own father died when he was very young; his stepfather died when he was a teenager; his beloved older sister died of pneumonia when he was just a toddler. I think that his life must have seemed very much out of his control.

Now as an adult I can see the things my parents gave me instead of the things they didn’t. I am responsible, hardworking, good with money, organized, and independent. And while I may still carry the scars of my childhood in the form of neuroses and insecurities, as an adult I alone am responsible for dealing with them. For I’ve come to believe that my parents did the best they could.


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