Family dynamics and regrets

Last week during our session J told me a story about his childhood. At 4, his father took him out onto the balcony of their apartment, handed him a bunch of flashcards, and told him to learn to read. Then he went back inside and locked the door, leaving J outside, 4 years old, alone on a third floor balcony with flashcards to learn to read. By himself. No guidance. No further instruction. No demonstration. No supervision.

He told me the story as a contrast and to illustrate his training technique. J is very detailed, very specific, changes direction when that deer-in-the-headlights look creeps onto my face and it’s obvious I am not getting the message or I speak up and say I do not understand. He is very patient and kind in his instruction and guidance. He never yells, except in loud mimicking whispers in jest. It’s probably against club policy for trainers to yell at members, but it’s hard for me to imagine him doing so anyway. I come from a family of yellers and have fallen into that trap myself. He certainly does not seem like a yeller.

And when he told me the story, I thought his father was a dickhead. Thankfully I did not say that out loud, but I thought it in high volume inside my head. Because who does that to a 4 year old?

I asked what their relationship was like now, 20+ years later. While I do not recall the precise words, I believe “cordial but not close” is a good description for it. They get along well enough when they see one another and only see one another briefly once or twice a year.

Thinking about it later made me cry. Because he’s a nice kid and has a dickhead father moment in his history. Maybe it was the only time, maybe it was just one of many memorable occasions. I still find it disturbing. And like any occasion where I hear about substandard (in my judgment) parenting, I start my inventory of my own bad mom moments.

With my kids, I cannot imagine not always feeling at least as closely connected as we are today. I may not see them every week or have long and personal chats with them even once a month, but we are close. If they need me I am there, and vice versa. The controlling parent I am not, and I am glad for that. I am glad I raised them to be independent people, and that they are going forward and blazing their own paths. I am also glad there is still room for me, for us and our family ties.

Before their dad died there was estrangement between them, a very definite gulf and separation. I understand it – he was unwell and pushed them back and away – yet I know it haunts them both to varying degrees. They missed their dad even before he died, and I know they regret those circumstances as they evolved. When we have talked about it, I have not tried to fix it for them, only tried to let them see we cannot know what is in another’s heart unless we express it, the good and the bad. Within the framework of our family dynamic, our lives are never completely transparent to one another, and it is appropriate. But I try to listen objectively and actively, without judgment, and resist the urge to always take their side in every conflict. I am their mother, not their best friend, but above that, I am always painfully honest about what I think, how I feel, advice I give.

I have my own shameful moments as a parent, and I wonder if my kids recall those with such defined clarity. If they do, I believe they love me in spite of my failings and forgave me. It is entirely possible I am haunted by and regret my lapses in judgment, my temper tantrums, and my poor choices so much it colors all other aspects of my parenting. I made a few choice, big mistakes; I knew it the second I took the bad action, said the wrong words, and I never want to repeat those behaviors again.

Why am I thinking about this today? My son just texted and asked if I could pick them up from the airport on Sunday. Of course, happy to help. Because this is what family does for each other.

Maybe it’s the big things – the good and the bad big things – that we remember most vividly. But in my mind it is the little things that weave the tightness of life, of family, together.

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