Did your parents read Love You Forever by Robert N. Munsch to you when you were young? “I’ll love you forever. I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.” What a lovely sense of well-being that story of unconditional love has given to children since the mid-1980s, a mom loving her child despite his childish antics.
Well, you’re not a baby anymore, and you’re not nine or even seventeen. You could be 50 years old with kids who are young adults, but for most of us, when we are with our parents or siblings we are treated much the same as when we were children.
Our family of origin, the family we grew up in, versus the family we create as an adult, is where we develop our sense of self. We learn how to process emotions and how to communicate. It’s where our values and beliefs start to take shape. Regardless of whether you grew up in a safe environment with lots of love, or in one deprived of opportunity and security, whether you’re married, single or divorced, when you visit your parent’s home, or at a family gathering, the patterns of that period resurface and family members assume their old roles. You automatically revert to being a child.
Jessica and Charles have a good marriage, except for one challenge. Jessica’s relationship with her parents is strained. Her father has always been critical of her and her mom, a cold and rigid taskmaster. Jessica’s visits with her parents trigger arguments with Charles. She takes out her frustration on Charles, finding fault with everything he does, blaming him for the way being with her parents makes her feel.
Holidays are especially stressful for Jessica and Charles, torn between his family of origin and hers. Charles’ parents home is cozier and feels more relaxed. Their two children love both sets of grandparents but gravitate toward spending more time with Charles parents. Jessica’s siblings and parents accuse her of abandoning them, choosing her in-laws over them. She resents Charles, blaming him for taking her away from her family even though subconsciously she would rather spend time with his family. Jessica is jealous of the relationship Charles has with his parents and wishes she had the same with her family.
Growing up, Jessica’s mother dominated the household. It was her way or the highway. Her dad didn’t have much say. He went along with his wife’s strict rules and took on the role of co-enforcer. They spent holidays with her mother’s parents. That was it. Holidays were a busy time, always work and obligation. Jessica does not remember any cheer.
At the onset of her therapy with me, Jessica asked her mom about her experiences growing up. She was surprised to learn that her grandmother was loving and very lenient. Three of four daughters ended up getting pregnant and dropping out of high school. One of the three was addicted to drugs. Jessica’s mother, the fourth and more wholesome daughter, decided the best gift she could ever give her children was to enforce some rules, so they would grow up to be successful in life.
After struggling for a long time to understand why her mother was cold toward her, Jessica now knows why her mom parented the way she did. But, learning the story and understanding her mother’s motivation is not enough to change her feeling towards her mother. She has spent her entire life interacting with her parents in specific ways. The patterns are fixed. Only new experiences will facilitate a shift. Jessica set out to do just this.
The Goal: Overcome Jessica’s anger toward her mother.
I am not advocating forgetting what has happened, but most of us depending on the situation can work towards some level of forgiveness.
The Plan: Visits and Phone Calls
- Jessica planned two trips to visit her mother. The first was to observe how she interacted with her parents. The second was to alter how she interacted with them.
On the first trip, if her parents commented on her wearing the same blue pajamas three nights in a row, or criticized how she unloaded the dishwasher like they did when she was a child, she merely noted the comments and the reactions.
On the second trip, when her mother made the same kinds of comments she did not just observe. Jessica politely and loving told her mom why she did what she did, and that this is the way she is. Jessica stood up for herself and at the same time worked on making her parents see her differently. She did not do this from a position of anger or defensiveness.
- Jessica called her mother at least twice a month, just to talk. Initially, she simply asked questions to get to know her mother better. Then she started asking her mother for parenting advice. Even though Jessica did not follow the guidance, the seeking of it opened up a soft spot in her mother’s cold persona. When her mother saw her role as an advice-offering grandmother, her relationship with Jessica shifted.
Family of origin struggles affect most families. They can go deep and sometimes are too hurtful to mend. There are reasons why your parents treat you the way they do, good as well as bad. If you can understand, even though you may never forget the hurtful things they have done, then you have a chance of redefining your role in the relationship with them. It is worthwhile mending these relationships.
Of course, you will always be your parent’s baby and your children will always be yours. Still, it’s possible for children to grow up and have adult relationships with their parents.