Few human beings have or are ideal parents. As a species we are too complex to be ideal in any of our relationships, never mind that most exacting one of parent and child.
Yet the vast majority of parents really do want to do their very best for their children and are hurt and bewildered when their children, especially their adult children, make it clear how far from ideal they are.
This bewilderment can coexist for many people with resentments about their own parents. And if the irony of this seems absurd, perhaps it helps to remember that most of us want to do better at parenting than we believe our own parents did. We want – consciously or unconsciously – to make up for some of our own childhood hurts in the ways we raise our own children. Yet often this is not what happens. As our own children grow and become separate and sometimes unexpected people, with their own experiences, values, needs and desires, misunderstandings creep into the Garden of Eden. And another generation of parents risks feeling judged or even excluded by the very people they most cherish and adore.
Much of what goes on between parents and children (at any age) is visible and real. Much of it also lives and grows in the murky realm of subjective interpretation. You may say that you don’t want your child to go to on holiday with a group of friends because – with good reason – you are worried about her friends. You may believe you are demonstrating your love and absolute care for her wellbeing. But your child may well “”hear”” that you don’t trust her. Or that you are not prepared to spend the money on her that’s “”no problem”” for the other parents. This is a trivial example. But our emotional lives – and especially the way we interpret other people’s feelings about us – are made up of countless trivial moments. There is the moment you had to cut short a heartfelt story to take a call from work; the moment you laughed inappropriately; the moment when you looked or sounded “”all wrong””; the moment where you were distracted by your worries or your lack of experience in being the best possible parent to this child. Those moments add up.
The ideal parent is – need I say it? – unfailingly present, flexible, appropriate and wise. Few of us make the grade. Nevertheless, even into adulthood our children may well compare us unfavourably to an internal idealisation of that “”perfect parent”” – or perhaps just to their best friend’s parents with whom they have never lived. At the same time – and again, often unconsciously – they may well be responding to a limited and highly subjective image of who we are – rather than to the real-life person we believe ourselves to be.
The power of those internal images is huge. This may go some way to explaining why some of us see our own parents so differently from the way our siblings do. It also explains why there can be such huge and painful gaps between our best intentions and how those intentions are interpreted. On the plus side, it can explain why our children may continue to idealise us – and we, them – long after there is any objective reason to do so.
In tough moments – when your adult child has said something wounding and unjust, or you are tempted to see your own parents from the perspective of an aggrieved child – it can be extremely useful to remember how powerful those internal images are, and how tempting it is to respond to them without questioning them. Looking at the big picture helps: checking out assumptions; making allowances; practising forgiveness. So does remembering that while our most intense relationships can and do arouse our greatest internal confusions, they also bring our greatest experiences of satisfaction and of love.
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