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18 June 2012 @ 03:44 pm
The Real LJ Idol: "Regrets"  
real lj idol | week 30 (prompt 4) | 1854 words


I can't pretend this is any sort of tragedy, when both my parents are still living and I know that they love me. But at the same time, this is the part of the year when I always find myself feeling melancholy over how different I wish things had been.

Shopping for Mother's Day cards is what always sets this off. I know many other people have it harder, those who have lost their mothers and cannot escape the pain this holiday reawakens every spring. I know that my situation also doesn't begin to compare with that of people whose parents abused them.

But still, it hurts.

Every year, as I look at the selection of cards celebrating mothers' support and tenderness, I am reminded of why I always wind up buying a blank card or one with a simple "Happy Mother's Day" greeting, instead. My mother is not the nurturing kind, at least not of me. After those early childhood years, anything resembling tenderness was long gone, and my choices—no, even my transient passions—were to be judged and discouraged to make sure they went away.

I was grudgingly allowed to take ballet, even though I would "never be any good at it," and violin and piano lessons were warmly endorsed up until the point where I committed the sin of actually majoring in music at college (surely making my mother regret everything that came before). My mother was fixated on my becoming a doctor, and she actively dissuaded anything that deviated from that path. Never mind that I had told her continually from the sixth grade onward that I was not going to be a doctor and had no interest in the idea—it had been her dream and she had achieved it, so surely it would someday become my dream, too.

My 8th-grade basketball fever was a waste of time, in her mind, because women couldn't make a living playing basketball. Neither she nor my father ever came to a single game—nor to the 8th-grade girls' Portland Metro free-throw competition my coach signed me up for (where I wound up getting third place).

My parents did come to my orchestra concerts. After a 9th-grade one where I had a violin solo, my mother's criticisms triggered a lifetime of performance anxiety (and 35 years later, it's still going strong). They came to my plays in high school, but always seemed pained as to why I was involved in drama in the first place. Given my mother's patterns, it's probably fortunate that I never had a leading role.

It was around the time I entered sixth grade that she settled into a solid vein of, "That's very nice, but…" How I looked and what I did somehow always fell short of the mark. My sophomore year of high school, I got As with a single B+ my first semester, and she wondered why they weren't all As. The second semester, when they were all As, she dismissed them with the comment that I should be taking harder classes.

My junior year, I discovered that my 7th- and 8th-grade advanced courses in Algebra and German counted as high school credit. What a lifeline! I seized the opportunity to graduate a year early, and went off to an out-of-state college at the age of 16.

Can you believe my mother still wonders why?

Her behavior didn’t let up in the college years at all. I got so sick of her repeatedly asking, "What are you majoring in?", that soon I was down to a simple two-word answer: "Music. Still."

The economy in Oregon was terrible when I graduated from college (in music. Still). My readily employable skill was as a radio announcer, thanks to working at the campus station. I entered the profession at a public radio station in Illinois.

For a shy person like me, that move was hard, but getting farther away really improved my relationship with my mother. Not on my part so much, because I'd stopped hoping for her approval long ago, but because it helped her let go of the idea that my future was hers to control.

She still brought up the doctor-dream from time-to-time, but being away from her scrutiny left her fewer things to criticize. Surprisingly, she happened to mention that her own mother had been very critical of her, and that the same was true in her mother and grandmother's relationship, but that she hoped she hadn't done that to me.

I think that blinding lack of self-awareness angered me more than anything. After having been victim to her ongoing criticism for most of my life, I could not let her comment go unchallenged:

"That defines my entire relationship with you."

I didn't scream or yell, but she knew I wasn't kidding. Somehow, after all the things she had refused to listen to, all the ways in which I'd tried again and again to express the concept of "me," those words finally made it through.

Though my difficulties with my mother are obvious, my regrets are not just about her. My father was fairly supportive of our interests (in a more intellectual and low-key kind of way), and rarely prone to criticism. But while he balanced that aspect of my mother, he drove the overall tone of our upbringing in a direction that caused a different kind of pain.

Growing up, almost everything centered on what my father wanted (even in the short-term), and most of the time he wanted to do adult things and not 'kid' things. Aside from a single trip to Disneyland, my parents were usually uninvolved in any child-centered entertainment unless our fun was a side-effect of something my Dad already wanted to do. My sister and I still got to do many things kids enjoyed, like going to the zoo, the science museum, or the skating rink. But we were driven to those places and then dumped off for the afternoon, with only each other for company. It probably sounds ungrateful to resent that, but it points to a larger truth that colors everything:

My mother and father were 'disinterested' parents.

I remember that somewhere in my late twenties, my younger sister asked if I'd grown up feeling that our parents loved us.

"Yes," I said, "I always knew they loved me. I just thought nobody else ever would."

I still remember her response: "Don't you think that's kind of sad?"

I knew what she meant. How do you manage to communicate your affection to your children while also giving them the impression that they're so flawed, they're completely unlovable?

I police myself constantly with my own children, to make sure I never accidentally pass that kind of message along.

The twinges of pain I get looking at Father's Day cards are slightly different. For Father's Day, there's the different problem of finding cards not centered around fishing or golf. I don't have to be so careful with the sentiments inside the cards, with avoiding words that feel like lies. What hurts instead is looking at the cards for grandfathers.

My disinterested parents… are also disinterested grandparents.

Pictures of old men blowing bubbles for toddlers—or the man in his sixties out on the bike path, riding behind his young grandson and towing his little granddaughter in a bike trailer—bring tears to my eyes. My parents have never spent any real time alone with either of my children, nor have they wanted to. Other grandparents babysit, or take children to the park or out for ice cream. My parents only did outings with the kids a couple of times—under duress, and only because I was also there.

My parents live out of state, but they're not strangers. They visit us and vice-versa several times a year. That's not the issue. My parents interact with their grandchildren primarily by talking at them, and always within the cocoon of having me or my husband present. Doing child-centered activities doesn't cross their minds—any more than it did when I was growing up. My parents are healthy, and have a good amount of energy, but my father has always been focused on himself (and making sure he keeps my mother on his chosen path).

On my husband's side of the family, the kids were lucky to have a doting grandmother. My father-in-law passed away the year we got married, but he was a loving grandfather to our nieces and nephews beforehand. My husband's mother, now gone these past two and a half years, was six years older than my parents, and wanted to squeeze in as much time with her grandchildren as she could. She was the grandparent who wanted to take the kids to the movies or zoo, and it hurt so much to have to tell her that we just weren't comfortable with her driving abilities by then. (She took the news gracefully, as hard as it was for her). So instead, she had the kids over to make cookies or play in the kiddy pool, and took them by stroller to the neighborhood parks near her house. She had them overnight once in awhile (at her age, a single night was all she could manage). Baths, bedtime, and breakfast were a completely different experience from day visits, and she and the kids loved it all. As her health grew worse, she moved to a senior care apartment across town. We took the kids to see her, or sometimes brought her to our house for the day. She still wanted to have the kids stay overnight now and then, but it was more tiring for her, so she did it one child at a time. Right up to the end, she was incredibly creative about balancing her fading energy with the things she valued most. We were so fortunate to have her.

My parents often say how nice it would be if my family moved up to Oregon. My responses were always agreements inside a lie while my mother-in-law was still living, because the truth was that I would never have taken my kids away from her. Never. I couldn't have done that to them or to her.

The topic of moving still comes up, and even though my mother-in-law is gone (and all other logistics of jobs, friends, and stability aside), the answer is the same. I'd like to return to my home state someday, but it won't be soon.

I'm sure my parents realize their own time is limited, and they wish we were closer. I understand that, but I also know the result would amount to proximity instead of emotional understanding. I wish things were different, but my parents are in their mid-eighties, and none of their behavior is going to change. It's simply who they are.

It really hurts to say this—to know this—but I often think my kids and I are lucky to be farther away.

It's much, much harder to see what a relationship is missing when the truth of it isn't sitting right there in front of you every day.

LJ Idol voting for this round is open to all current season participants. Details here.

Jemima Paulerjem0000000 on June 19th, 2012 06:53 am (UTC)

So very well-written.

Edited at 2012-06-19 06:56 am (UTC)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on June 19th, 2012 07:11 am (UTC)
That is SO nice to hear. I got so stuck on trying to make the second story I'd started creep along, that the remaining four all came about fairly late.

I really hadn't expected to be writing about this particular non-fiction topic at all, but with Mothers' and Fathers' Day so recently on my mind... it was hard NOT to have "Closer" remind me of all the ways I wish my parents were emotionally closer, but how their past behaviors have guaranteed this distance.

I used to wonder why I had trust issues with men, back when I was still dating, and whether there was some forgotten abuse trauma behind it. In writing this entry, I realized that I have trust issues in general, and that all the things I've discussed here make the reasons for that incredibly clear.

Not sure whether to be happy or sad about that. Just continuing to try to assume the best about people rather than the worst-- that helps all by itself. I think you're more often right than not, which is self-reinforcing.

Thanks for reading, and sorry for the long-winded reply. :0
Jemima Paulerjem0000000 on June 20th, 2012 06:19 am (UTC)
*hugs* I still have trust issues from my mom flip-flopping from "ok" to "not ok" at random intervals, and she was otherwise usually a pretty attached parent. I totally understand thinking a lot about it this time of year. *hugs*

There's a benefit to knowing where the issues come from, IMO, because that gives you more understanding. *hugs* And I agree that it's often better to assume the best.

You're welcome, and no problem; I like chatting. :)
Lose 10 Pounds of Ugly Fat...  Cut Off Your Head.n3m3sis42 on June 19th, 2012 08:49 pm (UTC)
My mo was the same as yours when I was growing up. My parents are very involved grandparents, though. I always wonder if some shift will occur one day and she will start criticizing my son too.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on June 19th, 2012 10:47 pm (UTC)
I know, from things other people have posted here and there, that several other people have a parent like this. It's surprisingly damaging, and it kills me that my mother knew this pattern was in her family and had even suffered it herself, and then inflicted it upon the next generation.

Or more to the point, me. She never did this to my younger sister at all!

It's possible that your parents might not (I hope) eventually treat your son this way. Sometimes, not having it be your own children causes critical and ultra-controlling people to "disinvest." It's not 'their problem,' in whatever way they thought their own child was. That can be a real blessing!
whipchickwhipchick on June 20th, 2012 12:41 am (UTC)
Really well-written - and yes, it's probably a lot healthier that you're farther away.

I hope you find some peace in your relationship with your parents - it sounds like maybe they just didn't like having kids, and maybe shouldn't have done so.

Glad you are breaking the pattern.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on June 20th, 2012 12:53 am (UTC)
I see you're processing these the same way I'm doing it-- each author chunk at a time. I have to organize a system somehow, or I'll never make the voting deadline. :0

For my parents, I'm sure some of it was generational. They are both Depression-era, and that was a very grim era to grow up in. Not much "fun" or understanding of that.

For my mom, she didn't think she wanted kids but so very much enjoyed us when we were little. She was the laissez-faire parent then, and she resisted my Dad's controlling nature more. As I got older, they swapped. My Dad was all about micro-controlling young children, and letting the reins out as they got older. But he was also "cold" when I was little, and I found him kind of scary.

As for the now, well... We get along so much better, now that my mother has given up on running my future. But one of the reasons they don't do much with the kids (or will visit us for a day and then drive off to the next person on the list) is that my Dad is a narcissist. Life is all about him and what he wants, and it's all about making my mother make the choices that he wants. That includes her being with him at all times. If she'd ever visited on her own (unthinkable, to my Dad), she'd probably have been a lot more one-on-one and doting. But I don't see that dynamic changing, any more than I see them changing. They're 86.

You know what the real irony here is? They're both psychiatrists. If my Dad saw his behavior in someone else, and likewise for my Mom, they'd correctly label it in a heartbeat.

My older sister (half-sister, really) thinks that's one of the things that's made all of their children so self-examining-- the fear of being as freaking clueless about our own motives/choices as my parents are. ;)

*koff* Must restrain self from long TMI comments.

Thanks for reading!
minnesattva on June 20th, 2012 10:15 am (UTC)
You're writing some honest, brave, touching stuff this time. I admire you for it.

I'm sorry you and your kids are let down by your family-of-origin. I hope you and they have better luck in the family-of-choice :)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on June 20th, 2012 05:39 pm (UTC)
I like that way of looking at things!

My sibs always understood me pretty well, and my Dad understands my feelings and motivations far better than my mother. She knew I was nothing like her, and yet thought she could create a mini-Me toward my future. How does that make sense?

I miss my MIL, both for myself and my kids. I wish my FIL had lived to meet my children, and that's a constant source of pain for my husband.

In understanding the basics of "me", my MIL was not so attuned. But despite her own flawed childhood (god, her mother was mean to her), she somehow learned to love unconditionally. My own mother never has.

Boy, when I look at how this round turned out (especially with the surprise-to-me last prompt), I really thought I'd be writing more fiction, and not half of it as non-fiction. Especially some of the more painful areas, but the response from other Idolers is reallly supportive. Thank you!
(Deleted comment)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on June 20th, 2012 10:01 pm (UTC)
Thank you.

I wondered if a little bit of this might sound familiar to you. I've had people on my friends' list post about incredibly similar experiences with a criticizing parent, which isn't quite your case. But the only solution for that situation that I know of is to "give up" on pleasing that parent. A high-school friend, after the incident with the grades, came up with a really good phrase to describe that:

Ceilingless Expectation Syndrome.

Doing well only raises the bar of what you could be doing instead. Funny thing is, his labeling phrase really put that whole issue into perspective for me. That was the point when I gave up, and concentrated only on pleasing myself.
medleymistymedleymisty on June 20th, 2012 10:44 pm (UTC)
I don't know. It may not be physical abuse, but constant criticism is emotional abuse. It left scars.

Thank you for sharing this with us.

Parental relationships are so complicated. My mother...well, I've posted about her a fair bit recently. But I will say that I know she loves me, and I think she taught me a lot of things of value.

My husband is the oldest of five. The youngest just graduated from high school. All five are of the opinion that their father will never have grandkids. As my husband says when it comes up - his father will never realize it, but part of the reason why none of them want kids is that he was not so good at the parenting thing.

The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on June 20th, 2012 11:09 pm (UTC)
It's hard to know which was more damaging, the criticism on my mother's part, or the sense from my father that the things you wanted just didn't matter. And by extension, neither did you.

I think 'disinterest' is a form of neglect. It just happens at the emotional rather than physical level. Reading your "appropriation" post, I couldn't help thinking that having to parent your own parent must also feel like disinterest. Because for the kids' sake, a parent needs to grow up and move forward. I hate to judge someone else's grief, but I think that when your grieving causes you to abandon your children's best interests, you need to do better.

All five are of the opinion that their father will never have grandkids.
Oh, this is SO sad. Virtually all of the people I've met who don't want kids (not, didn't happen to have kids but actively do not WANT them) are people who did not enjoy being children themselves. Alcohol and/or abuse are often factors in what made their childhoods so awful, but the reasons don't matter as much as the result.

It's as if their parents robbed them twice, when that happens.
m_malcontentm_malcontent on June 21st, 2012 04:53 am (UTC)
My mom still likes to control my life, but it is a much warmer relationship.

This is a really strong entry. It seems though you learned from your parents mistakes and are doing better by your own children, and that is kind of what it is all about.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on June 21st, 2012 05:47 am (UTC)
I get along much better with mine, now that she's stopped doing that. It's funny-- when I was really young, she showed no signs of any of that. She was pretty laid back. It was at the point where she seemed to decide that "things were on the way to permanence" that all the criticisms surfaced, and that relentless drive to try to push me in the direction she thought I should want to go.

I still have periodic frustration with my Dad, partly because the issues are all within him, and they're still the same. Still expects the world to revolve around him, still rationalizes reality to what he wants, still controlling my mother (more, since she's the only one left at home).

I love them both, and there is a lot that's wonderful about them. But at the same time, I still remember all the reasons I needed to get the hell out at 16. I'd do it again, in a heartbeat.

I hope our kids are getting a better result! And not (as I've heard before), that we're simply making _different_ mistakes. ;)
Ellakiteellakite on June 21st, 2012 05:12 pm (UTC)
Very potent.
My mother was very similar, though my father was a loving decent man (though flawed in his own way).

One major difference, though: My mom *NEVER* showed affection to any of her children... but I must admit that she was an affectionate and attentive grandmother. I always found that very strange... and somewhat hypocritical.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on June 21st, 2012 06:13 pm (UTC)
Re: Very potent.
but I must admit that she was an affectionate and attentive grandmother. I always found that very strange... and somewhat hypocritical.

My mother's parents were like this, and I almost detoured into some of that but felt it was away from the main focus.

I'm not sure why this happened to your mother, because she has to be many generations younger than my grandparents. For them, raising children in the 1920s, the predominant thinking was that too much affection would "spoil" children and make them weak. My grandmother once wrote in a journal that she SO wanted to pick up her first baby and just hold him and cuddle him, but she knew it was wrong and so she didn't.

That just seems tragic to me. And in talking to my mother's younger brother, the only one who didn't have children, I once mentioned how loving and affectionate my grandparents had been with their grandkids. Having no children of his own, he'd never seen that and hadn't known it. That news was a shock to him, and I still remember how crushed he looked. Seventy years old, and he'd just discovered that the only thing worse than having unaffectionate parents was having parents who had that capacity and had never applied it to their own children.

He was the "charming" child, as my mother puts it (her older brother was the "good" child), and much as the world loved him over and over, the lack of that from his own parents was what really mattered. SO sad. :(
alycewilson: Alice hidingalycewilson on June 21st, 2012 09:35 pm (UTC)
That must be incredibly painful. You write about it well.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on June 24th, 2012 04:05 am (UTC)
It honestly has been easier since after college, because I haven't lived in the same state with them.

Seeing some of that distance repeat with my kids sure hurts, though. I'm so glad their in-town grandmother adored them so much. They were so lucky to have her nearby, and also lucky that they can assume their other grandparents were less involved because they lived too far away, or only visited for a single day when they came down here (one of my Dad's other issues). They'll never know that had we lived closer, it really wouldn't have been much different.
alycewilson: Red Queenalycewilson on June 24th, 2012 04:50 pm (UTC)
At least you have some contact with them that is positive and haven't felt the need to cut off ties completely. While I sympathize, I have difficulty imagining what you go through. My family, if anything, errs on the side of being too involved in each other's lives.