All parents feel vulnerable to their children. Between the longed-for praise -- "You did a great job, Mom" -- and the dreaded guilty verdict -- "You were a lousy mother" -- lies an almost limitless area of doubt and self-recrimination. The more regretful parents feel, the more watchful they are for signs of lingering disrespect or longstanding grudges. Hearing that a son or daughter is seeing a therapist may itself feel like an accusation, with the parents worrying that their failings are being subjected to detailed analysis. When grown children ask about the past, parents may fear that ammunition rather than understanding is being sought. Many parents retreat when confronted by pointed questions, as the need to avoid scrutiny supersedes their hope of getting closer.
The solution to this dilemma is a paradox. When grown children approach their parents without recrimination, they may be able to locate the hidden sources of their grievances. A mother is most likely to bare her soul when she senses that her children have dropped the barrier of hurt and anger. When they show her that they are willing to enter into her story with sympathy, leaving behind their own bitter narratives, she may feel safe enough to reveal herself at long last.
Unfortunately, the enthusiasm of blame tends to be more compelling than the effort to summon sympathy. Holding parents responsible for the pain that they caused is much easier than attending to the patient work of compassion. Decades may pass before an adult son or daughter is ready to hear a parent's story. Most of us have to make our own wrong turns and see our intentions go awry before we are able to concede that our parents may have faced disappointments and frustrations similar to our own.
Finally seeing our parents as people is similar to reading a novel at 20 and then reading it again at 40. The reader changes so much in the intervening years that the book seems entirely different. In the second reading, passages that were barely noticed before become significant and moving, and chapters previously skimmed become central. In the trajectory of coming to perceive our parents' humanity, being humbled by life's twists and turns propels us more than anything else. The wisdom of humiliation is indispensable.
Experiences that rattle us to the core are most valuable in this regard, such as becoming a parent. Parenting is comprised of discovery and surrender, of bowing to mistakes and compromises, and improvising makeshift solutions from day to day amidst the joys. A 40-year-old daughter, mindful of her own hopes deferred for the sake of raising her children, asked her 75-year-old mother about sacrifices she had made for the sake of parenting: "Mom, how come you never went back to school to become a teacher, like you wanted to?" This daughter may have asked the same question 20 years before, but this time her tone contained a world of acquired understanding. Her mother readily recounted the marital conflict that kept her from living out her dreams, finding that she was looking into the face of a fellow woman rather than an angry daughter. She then offered more details about those frustrated years than she had ever dared before: "The afternoons before you kids came home from school were so empty. That's when I started drinking."
The ultimate inducement for any mother to speak is to sense that her daughter regards her as a human being who has suffered, rather than merely the party responsible for pain. This daughter's tender question about a missed opportunity opened a door just as assuredly as an accusatory question, "Mom, why were you drunk every day when I came home from school?" would have closed it. The shift from fault-finding to compassion is the magic wand of disclosure.
A sympathetic stance cannot be faked. Parental radar for resentment from their children is just too acute. Quick assurances such as, "Mom, I really do want to hear your side of the story," cannot assuage a mother's sensitivity to any residual spite. If beneath seeming commiseration lies a still active eagerness to blame, parents will feel it. Most will withdraw into old self-protections rather than risk exposure.
People often complain that their parents will not talk openly to them, without examining the manner in which they are asking their questions. They do not realize that how they are feeling toward the parent while bringing up painful issues is more important than how they word the questions or even which questions they ask. A parent's story almost always emerges to the degree that a son or daughter has softened their approach.
The hope of being seen with our own suffering taken into account is no small encouragement. There is no other answer for shame, no other solace for impetuous errors or careless lapses. The daughter who was able to put herself in her mother's place 30 years ago granted herself consolation. By feeling how urgently her mother must have blocked out emptiness and disappointment with alcohol, the daughter freed herself to examine her own ways of evading pain. If instead she had held to a rigid condemnation of her mother's conduct, she would have obscured her own revelations.
Even small shards of family history can provoke understanding. At 54, a woman learned a single biographical detail about her 80-year-old father that altered both her view of him and the grievances she had sustained about him all of her life:
I never even knew that my father once had a brother. He died when my father was 12. He was only 8 years old, stomped to death by a horse. This means my father had grief-stricken parents when he was a teenager. Now I can see where he might have gotten the idea that you have to fend for yourself in life. That was all he ever said to us when we needed help. I always thought he was made of ice. But maybe he has felt alone for a long, long time. That's all he might have known, growing up with heart-broken parents.
A daughter who can imagine her father's lonely grief at the age of 12 begins to liberate herself from the hurt of what seemed like cold fathering years later. By seeing how desperately her father must have tried to cope with his brother's death and his parents' emotional removal, she can finally glimpse him as a father trying to do the best he could with what he knew about life and loss. The once injurious refrain, "You have to fend for yourself" is now heard in retrospect as a lesson in survival rendered by a father who never stopped feeling lonely.
Our parents are the people in this world who we see least clearly; no one's hurt is harder to visualize. It requires a great deal of effort to shrink those who once wielded so much power over us to ordinary human dimensions. Reflexively, many people claim it is impossible for them to approach their parents with a clean emotional slate, even if they know this is exactly what their parents most crave from them and what would expand their comprehension of themselves.
A common error is the conviction that we already know our family's history, without realizing that we may have misperceived events as trivial which were pivotal, or we may have assembled information without applying emotional textures to the facts. Knowing which questions to ask, how and when to ask them, and what to do with the information gleaned is fraught with complexity. It may be necessary to find out what happened in our grandparents' childhoods in order to begin to grasp the way they parented our parents. Seeing a mother or father as a person often requires knowledge about several generations, mixed together in a special alchemy of grace and persistence, as well as a readiness to grant amnesty rather than sit in judgment.
Accordingly, it can take a lifetime for us to understand our parents. Our comprehension deepens as we are ravaged and rewarded by experience, reaching its peak as we face our own dying. We may lay on our deathbed, finally resonating with things that a parent said or did years ago. In this sense, our parents die twice: first, with their actual deaths, and then again as we re-live their dying during our own last days.
Many adult children say, justifiably, "I'm just not going to forgive my mother. My childhood was hell and it can't be undone." True, what happened cannot be altered, but the story of what happened can be told in fresh ways. The "length of days" promised in the Fifth Commandment to those who honor their parents has everything to do with the power of this changed perspective. Honoring is not the same as forgiving. Honoring means seeing parents' failings in the context both of their humanity and the story of previous generations. This shift is literally life-giving in that it gives us hope that someone may do the same for us.
Copyright 2014 by Wendy Lustbader. Adapted from the introduction to Barry Grosskopf's Healing the Generations , currently in print as Hidden in Plain Sight: Getting to the Bottom of Puzzling Emotions , Vander Wyk and Burnham, Acton, MA, 2007.