They might not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you. The Elwell Press investigates the legacy of poor parenting and asks, are we compelled to forgive a parent that hurts us?
In the past, politicians railed against single mothers, blaming them for the decline of modern society. But which was worse – for one parent to be entirely absent, or for them to be present, permanently or periodically, casting a pall of intimidation and control over the household? You were a child, you reacted based on the developing emotional intelligence you had at your disposal. Maybe you hated them. Then hate turns to contempt, contempt to scorn, and scorn to pity. From there, pity may turn into a total absence of feeling, or it may become forgiveness.
Each had their own reasons for acting the way they did. Whether through mental illness, the scars of their own bad childhood, or countless other reasons, their behaviour was both damaging and incomprehensible to the people around them – maybe not through their own malice, but by the nature of their psychology. Because you’re a decent person, you tried to help as best you could. But you were never going to be able to fix their problems. Only they could do that.
This isn’t an excuse to insult or dismiss people with mental illnesses. Many mentally ill people make wonderful parents in spite of their conditions. But some parents, not deliberately but as a consequence of their illness and their circumstances, unwittingly provided home lives that were unstable, stressful, or frightening for their children. This article isn’t about them. Many people without mental health problems provide harmful environments for their children. This article is about those parents.
This article is about the parents that behaved disgracefully for no apparent reason; violent, controlling, abusive, uninterested, manipulative, neglectful, selfish, or fucked up in their turn, their behaviour was as incomprehensible as it was hurtful. Like many children in this situation, Laura felt she was responsible for her father’s erratic and spiteful behaviour, and felt like adapting her own actions would help heal the deep wounds.
“My father was never really around and when he was it wasn’t a pleasant experience. I spent years as a child trying to fix the situation, trying to forgive him for leaving me and treating me so badly. I gave him far too many chances to change, but he never did. I’ll never forgive him for the way he treated my brother and I. I have severed all ties; I couldn’t stand the constant promises of change and the disappointment.”
The absent parent, whether dead or living separately, represents potential. They may be a saint, they may have loved us dearly, every moment could have wounded them like a knife to the heart. The present parent was no such benevolent unknown quantity. Their behaviour, even if erratic, was usually reasonably predictable. Perhaps there was a point when you decided your life was better without them in it. Perhaps they just disappeared one day, and you moved on. Either way, you haven’t seen them in years.
When you explain this to people, they ask you stupid questions. Who do you take your boyfriends to for approval? They’ll come to your graduation though, surely? Who will give you away when you get married? What will happen when you have your first baby? As if you need, or would even want, their presence at the high points of your life. When people say that cessation of contact is their loss, not yours, it’s these days that they’re talking about.
Natasha* hasn’t seen her mother in over fifteen years. “She tries to get in touch every now and then, but I don’t ever want that woman in my life. I just can’t bring myself to forgive her for how she treated me whilst I was growing up. I’ve had friends who understand and some who don’t; even family pressure to forgive and forget. They tell me that she’s changed. Whether she has or not, I can’t forgive her – as far as I’m concerned there is no excuse for what she put me through.”
Young women in particular feel unusually pressurised to rebuild the familial bond, to forgive and make peace. Perhaps it’s the idea that women should be family-orientated, or the notion that weddings and births will bring the family together, or the desire of outsiders to see their idea of a happy ending made manifest in your life, even if you tell them that’s not what’s right for you. Whatever causes it, even people who know you well can still sometimes wish that you could make peace with the parent that hurt you, for your sake if not the parent’s.
Well, here’s a revolutionary piece of advice that therapists and self-help books won’t necessarily give you: you don’t have to. It’s okay; you don’t have to forgive them, to welcome them back into your life with open arms like nothing ever happened. Maybe you’re not even still angry, although no-one would blame you if you were. You just want nothing to do with them. It’s fair enough that you don’t want them in your life. That’s the really critical point; it’s your life. If you don’t like your job, you leave it. If you don’t like someone new you meet, you don’t see them again. And if someone you happen to be related to treats you like shit, why would you want to be around them?
The only person you really owe any loyalty to is yourself; sometimes, that’s the person we treat worst of all. You don’t have to forgive the person that hurt you, even if they’re your dad. You can walk away, start again, pretend they don’t exist. You can move on, refuse to follow their bad example, and define yourself. You can do better. You can do so much better.