by Wendy Keller, mother, daughter, sister
It’s pretty obvious to most teenage girls that every single thing that is wrong in their life is their mother’s fault. It’s a development stage identified by psychiatrists as a necessary part of individuation – the process of separating from the same-sex parent and preparing for adulthood.
But now let’s say that girl (or boy) is 20, 30, 40 or 50, still mired in mistakes made in her childhood by people who she thinks should have loved her more or better, or at very least differently. Are we adults justified in blaming our parents – or being blamed by our children – when life goes awry?
For example, in weak, bleak moments, it’s easy for me to recall one particular thing my mother said to me repeatedly during my childhood. Her snide question has caused me so much pain and effort trying to overwrite her words. Sometimes, I still fail to do so. Because I know you’ll ask, the question was, “Who do you think you are? The princess?” She used it to shame me into doing something – usually chores or not asking for something I wanted. But how I took it was “You don’t deserve a better, easier, happier life than I’m having.” And I never, ever wanted a life like hers.
Knowing my mom as an adult, I know that’s not even what she meant. She had no idea how I interpreted her question when I was little. She herself was parented poorly – she did a better job with me and my brothers than my grandparents did with her and her sister.
And there, in my own story, is the crux of each of our problems with our parents. For most readers, my mom’s question is meaningless, maybe even comical. It has no emotional charge. But in my mother’s mouth, that particular question delivered countless times wormed into my heart and infected my budding sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
I’m a grown woman. Are my problems my mom’s fault? Nope.
In fact, nothing in anyone’s life past age 18 is technically their fault. For the most part, everyone has had a tough childhood. There are few truly happy childhoods in my observation of thousands of them. Sometimes, I’d label “creepy” the childhoods of people who say they were “always happy”. (This includes the freakishly close single mother-grown son pair who stayed overnight at my mom’s house once when I was a kid and took a bath at the same time.)
I get it. Your childhood wasn’t happy. Your parents made mistakes. Bad things have happened to you as an adult. That’s awful. Maybe in your head you can trace it back to something a parent said or did. Dr. Martin Seligman, author of “What You Can Change and What You Can’t”, wrote that as a culture, we’re raised to blame our parents for our misfortunes and maladjustments as adults, but in reality, who we’ve become has more to do with our own habits and external circumstances. Doubt it? Look at your siblings, or the siblings from any family. How similar are those people as adults? Yet all were raised in the same environment. Thus it can’t just be environment that determines happiness or success in adulthood.
If you’re an adult and you’re blaming your parents for all the bad, maybe even heinous things they did to you, figure out how to get over it. You don’t have to carry it your whole life. If they were evil and meant to harm you, avoid them. If they were just normal humans who got tired or stressed and took it out on their kids; or had addictions or frailties that negatively affected you, let it go. For your own good!
Be a better parent. Be a better person. Do one thing that’s loving toward yourself daily.
The same goes for all of us who did our best to raise children, or who are currently in the process. You made mistakes. Those mistakes caused some amount of harm to your child(ren). Welcome to the planet! We all make mistakes. You can carry the shame and guilt if you want to, but it will only damage your relationships with your children, and make you feel awful. Confess and apologize – even if your kids can’t accept it. All anyone can expect from you is for you to acknowledge your mistakes and move on. How the other person responds, well, that’s their problem.
In fact, how they respond to whatever you did or didn’t do during their childhood is their problem, too. You are not responsible for how another adult person lives, even if you gave birth to them.
The hardest person to love is often ourselves. The easiest person to blame is often ourselves. As mature adults, we have two weapons in our fight for happiness: forgive those who have hurt us and ask to be forgiven by others for how we’ve hurt them.
It’s your life now. How will you live it?