I Want to Give You the World, but You Only Want a Hug
Years ago at an awards ceremony sponsored by the Intersection for the Arts I read a scene from my memoir criticizing my father for telling me to ask my uncle for money to pay for my braces when my father really needed the money to gamble. Afterward, a gentleman about my father’s age approached me. He asked, “So, did you get your braces?”
“Yes,” I said, “eventually I did. But it was covered partially by insurance and the rest by my mother’s salary. My father didn’t pay a dime.”
He harrumphed. “Doesn’t matter how the job got done. It got done, didn’t it? No need to give the old man a hard time. You should be ashamed of yourself for writing about your parents like that. Just wait till you have kids. I hope they write like that about you.”
At the time, I felt the man didn’t know what he was talking about. After all, I was already a parent and I didn’t need to worry about what my son thought of me: he was so disabled he didn’t speak.
Now, as the mother of a normal preteen, I understand the man’s words. Parents, no matter how flawed and imperfect, often try their best to raise their children and give them everything they need to thrive. My father gambled because he hoped to win it big so he could spoil my sisters and me, but as a child all I saw was the chaos created by gambling. I didn’t see how it was related to the additional room added to the house so my sisters and I could have our own bedrooms or the air-conditioning for our home so we didn’t suffer from allergies any more than we needed to. I didn’t see how the luxuries resulted from the stresses. I only focused on the cause, not the effect.
While I may not gamble, I am guilty of other things. Things my daughter would be proud to share with you if given the opportunity. She says I’m obsessive, critical, and demanding, expecting perfection from everyone including myself. She says my ambition sometimes overshadows my devotion to my family and my need to write the truth often reveals unsavory facts she would rather keep private. She says I have my father’s flair of taking a kernel of truth and expanding it into a tall tale that may be entertaining for an audience, but hurts the ones I love the most.
I never intended on becoming my father, but as a parent I understand what I didn’t as a child. A parent must protect, nurture, and defend a child. A child doesn’t know what lengths—both good and bad—a parent will go to ensure the child gets everything the parent believes the child needs. The child only knows what the child feels, and sometimes that is more important to the child than what the parent thinks the child needs. A parent believes the child needs a new mattress, but the child would rather have the parent read to her each night instead of working overtime to pay for a new mattress.
But awareness of this parent-child dynamic allows for change. What if we redirect our behavior when we realize we are acting in the ways our parents acted when we were children? We might stop and share what is going on inside of us that the child may not be aware of. Telling our child we are working overtime to buy a new mattress so she can sleep more comfortably at night might make the child aware of the science of cause and effect. The child can then share with us her own feelings and concerns. Maybe a compromise can be made or a sacrifice can be understood. At least it will start a dialogue between the generations, which might soften the disparity between parent and child. The parent can glimpse what it means to be the child, and the child can see how complicated it is to be a parent. It will not solve the problem completely, for a child cannot developmentally appreciate the dynamics of being a parent and a parent cannot fully recall all the details of childhood, but it will ease the tension just enough to keep communication going. And that’s better than the misery of silence.