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Moving On From an Imperfect Childhood

While some of us had more idyllic-leaning childhoods than others, no parent (or person) is perfect, so everyone experiences pain growing up. To varying degrees, we all come into adulthood with grievances, habits that don’t really serve us, and usually some holes in our lives—things we missed out on in childhood for one reason or aother. These wounds—and how they affect the people, parents, friends, coworkers, and lovers we become—are the focus of practicing psychiatrist, Robin Berman, M.D., who is also associate professor of Psychiatry at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. The tool Berman finds particularly helpful for clients looking to make peace with their imperfect childhoods centers on grateful grieving: “It’s permission to mourn the childhood we never had, power to move to a place of gratitude for the gifts our parents did give us, and even appreciation for the wisdom we gained from their mistakes,” Berman says. Here, she explains the grateful grieving concept (you’ll recognize it if you saw her panel at In goop Health), and goes deeper to show how expanding our definition of a parent can fulfill us in ways we might not expect.

From Grief to Gratitude: Making Peace with Your Own Childhood

When I was a little girl, I was enchanted by a book called The Mummy Market. It was about three children who grow up with an efficient but gloomy housekeeper, and go in search for a mom at the Mummy Market. Moms were literally on display there, and you could choose the type you wanted: the stay-at-home, cookie-baking mom; the adventure-seeker mom; the psychologically attuned mom, etc. To a young child’s imagination, this was an incredible concept. Maybe the perfect parent was waiting at the Mummy Market!

Forty years have passed since I read the book, and as a practicing psychiatrist who has worked with hundreds of clients, it is clear that no perfect mom exists. It’s also clear that part of the work of evolving emotionally is making peace with our own imperfect childhoods. It does take work: One tool I find extremely helpful is “grateful grieving.” I did not coin the term, but I like the pairing of these seemingly opposite words.

“Most of us enter adulthood with some grief work to do.”

Nobody has a perfect childhood, or a perfect parent-child bond. (If we did, it would be tough to ever leave home.) The range of difficult childhood types is broad, from disastrous to disappointing, from physically or verbally abusive parents to narcissistic, or emotionally unpredictable ones, to parents who never really saw who their child was. No matter what the suffering, all healing involves grief work. How we were treated as children informs so much of how we feel about ourselves. Were we treated with respect and kindness, or were we shamed and punished, or yelled at? Was love conditional on performance, getting good grades, being a “good” girl or boy, being athletic, good-looking, or acting a certain way? Was love withdrawn if we didn’t ”behave”? Did we have parents whose own emotional needs were so large that they overshadowed our own, so that much of our childhood involved taking care of our parents—instead of them taking care of us?

The parent-child bond runs deep; it’s layered and complex. Many experience a sense of loss for what they missed out on having. Some children did not get the selfless, calm, and loving parent that Hallmark lauds. In fact, so many of my clients over the years say that on Mother’s or Father’s Day, they often have trouble choosing a card that accurately reflects their feelings about their own parent. “My mother was always patient and kind”: Nope, my clients have said, that does not fit given their mothers’ short tempers. Or, “My dad was so selfless”: Nope, his narcissistic tendencies eclipsed his selfless ones. “My mom’s love made me feel whole and at peace,” is often less accurate than, Thanks mom for the self-loathing and guilt, I will be sure to pass it along to my daughter!

Shouldn’t there be a section of cards for the ambivalently attached, those with mixed feelings—the grateful grieving type? I suspect it might be wildly popular since most of us enter adulthood with some grief work to do. We must mourn the loss of what we didn’t receive, and then we need to try to figure out how to fill the holes left by those losses.

Healing Starts with Holes

Holes show up when we are stuck: stuck in a bad relationship, in anger, sadness, anxiety, or feeling like a victim. The first step to repair these parent holes is to embrace radical empathy for yourself. In this process, you walk through your emotions with a therapist, a friend, or a spiritual teacher. Rather than blaming yourself for your choices, feelings, and mistakes, you recognize and empathize with your lost self, the self that might be whole today had you been parented differently.

Armed with your new understanding, you may want to seek some type of rapprochement. Many grateful grievers choose to return to the original scene of the crime—their childhoods. They want to ask their parents to recognize and honor the pain they suffered during their childhood; they long for their parents to own their mistakes. If parents have evolved emotionally since raising their children, this can be quite healing. I have heard many examples of mothers and fathers who apologize to their grown-up kids, saying things like: “If I had known better, I would have done better.” Or, “If I could go back and change things, I would.” One father told his daughter, “Can you ever forgive me for calling you fat? It was so hurtful and wrong, and I am deeply sorry, you have always been my beautiful girl.”

“Adulthood actually happens when we can accept that we don’t need our parents to validate ourselves.”

Pure apologies, not paired with excuses, can be wonderfully healing. But grateful grievers risk the opposite reaction, re-injuring the original wound. I have had multiple clients whose mothers and fathers (some in the hospital on their death beds) could not give their children the love/repair they so desperately yearned for and needed.

Some parents act out when confronted by their adult children. They shout and become defensive, or even worse, deny the child’s reality, saying things like, “I never said that,” or, “I never did that” (this is crazy-making). While it is natural to want closure, one that makes peace with your parents, it is not healthy or healing to emotionally keep circling the drain. If you repeatedly hit a defensive, hurtful wall, you are only adding sadness to your soul, which will keep you stuck. It is like dating the same person who is not meeting your needs, and holding onto the fantasy that one more conversation will change everything. Adulthood actually happens when we can accept that we don’t need our parents to validate ourselves. Everyone would love to experience moments of grace and repair, but sadly not all parents can offer such respite.

Finding Wisdom in Wounds

A dear friend of mine had a terrible mother straight out of a bad fairy tale. She received a lot of attention for her physical beauty as a child, and had a gorgeous mane of hair. In a fit of jealous rage, the mother cut off all her daughter’s hair and said, with satisfaction, “Now you are not so beautiful anymore.”

My friend spent years enraged at her mother, and mourning the loss of the mom she never had. But then she did a lot of work on herself, emotionally and spiritually, to heal the wounds. “I think the turning point for me was when I really took responsibility for my own self-worth,” she told me. “I decided what kind of person I wanted to be, what kind of life I wanted, and I started working towards it. I stopped waiting for the apology that was never going to come. I no longer waited for the approval that little girl needed to feel loved. I slowly turned down the negative monologue I was fed as a child, and eventually got rid of that station altogether.”

When children have been verbally or physically abused, often repair isn’t possible if the pattern does not change, and the best path in some cases may be to limit contact with the abuser, or cut it off entirely. But even in less volatile relationships, when we depend on our parents to fill the holes, we set ourselves up to fail. We stay a dependent child: stuck, waiting, resentful, victimized, and chronically reactivating our childhood wounds. As my friend did so well, we must figure out how to parent ourselves in a positive way. Then we can begin the hard work of self-discovery, constructing a separate self, and replacing the old critical internal monologue with a new and loving message.

“Wounds can be catalysts for our greatest growth and evolution—often in life, pain and growth are paired.”

Focusing radical empathy on ourselves is step one, but we must also turn the compassion toward our mothers and fathers. Parents don’t typically wake up thinking, “How can I screw up my kid today?” Parents work from their own unhealed childhood wounds, inadvertently inflicting their shortcomings on their offspring. But the cycle doesn’t have to continue. Wounds can be catalysts for our greatest growth and evolution—often in life, pain and growth are paired. Teenage kids, for example, may experience physical pain as they grow taller. Giving birth is quite painful, but the journey is rewarded with a baby. To birth a more highly evolved self, we must endure psychological growing pains. The process can really hurt. But, as with all birth, a miracle awaits.

The process of grateful grieving is a rebirth. We start out mourning the childhood we never had, feeling sad and angry for our losses. Slowly we move to grateful grieving—a way station. Evolved adults can hold two or more feelings in their heart simultaneously. They accept that their parents are not all good or all bad, but flawed people doing the best they can, even if it is not good enough. Once we make peace with ambivalence and learn to parent ourselves, we are free to move through the way station of grateful grief and enter the space of pure gratitude, where we are grateful for our parents’ good qualities, and we understand and accept their limitations—which can serve as catalysts for our own transformation. The weight of anger, victimization, fear, and even hate, begins to lift.

From Sorrow to Joy

Part of great evolving/partnering/parenting involves catching yourself and avoiding repeating your parents’ mistakes. A client told me a story about her daughter’s first dance. In the car, on the way to the dance, her daughter was nervous and asked her mom, “How should I be at the dance?”

“Be nice, but don’t be too nice,” the mom said. “And keep reapplying the lip gloss I gave you.”

In recounting the story, my client told me, “The moment the words came out of my mouth, I wanted to throw up. I was repeating all of the insecure, toxic stuff my mom used to say to me.”

But she caught herself in the moment, and did a sharp U-turn. “Grace, can I have a mommy do-over?” she said. “Ask me that question again?”

“How should I be at the dance, Mom?” her daughter repeated.

“Be yourself, because you are so wonderful exactly the way you are.”

Cycle broken!

The Kaleidoscope Parenting Model

I’ve long since lost the book I loved (it’s no longer even in print), but the idea of a metaphorical Mommy Market still fascinates me. What if we expand the notion of traditional parenthood by embracing a metaphorical market—a kaleidoscope of parental figures we create ourselves? What if we grow our definition of parenting, so that it is not limited to the traditional dyad. We begin by collecting a collage of mentors who teach and inspire us; then build our parental figures from these people, selecting those with qualities we admire and need. We can choose among great friends, therapists, teachers, and partners, those who help us grow and heal. We can even reach beyond our immediate circles: We may be comforted by the mothering of Mother Teresa or the fathering of the Dalai Lama—why not include them in our design?

“What if we grow our definition of parenting, so that it is not limited to the traditional dyad.”

Then comes the fun. We build this kaleidoscope of parenting by inserting the pieces we’re missing in our psyches, filling the spaces that still hurt in our hearts, and adding color and light to our lives to heal our deepest wounds. How comforting to exhale into a more expansive and loving parent: Look around you—your kaleidoscope awaits.

Psychiatrist and parenting expert, Robin Berman, M.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, a founding board member of the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA, and an advisory board member of Matthew McConaughey’s Just Keep Livin Foundation. She is also the author of Permission to Parent: How to Raise Your Child with Love & Limits.

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