Acknowledging Our Parents Are Human
I dedicate this Thanksgiving issue, on parental acceptance, to my father, who would have been 66 today. He was the greatest parent, friend, rabbi any girl could ever have asked for. Happy Birthday Bruce. And Happy Thanksgiving everybody.
Relationships with our parents are notoriously difficult. Even after we’ve grown into adults, the same buttons still get pushed, the same grudges resurface. After years of repeatedly dealing with the same hang-ups—and for some, years of therapy—why is it so hard to accept our parents for who they are? What can we do to be better children to our parents?
I got really lucky with my parents. No seriously, they’re incredible (and this year marks their 30th wedding anniversary—no small achievement, especially for people who actually like to be around each other). I share them with my brother, which is to say two of us were blessed by being the children of a couple of insanely creative, forever wise and intensely loving people. In thinking about how we all got to have such a fulfilling, supportive, meaningful relationship, I realize it has less to do with luck than it does with an abundant amount of mutual admiration. While laughter invigorates our family (especially that with which we respond to our own jokes), respect seems to fuel it.
To accept our parents for who they are is to acknowledge them as human. Sounds simple, but it’s complicated by the seductive belief that our parents are always right, that they magically know everything and can miraculously protect us from actions they have no control over. Additionally, it often seems that they’re immune to the things we most dread—embarrassment, humiliation, even mortality. To let go of all that is to give up on a particular hopefulness; but no parent, no anyone, can meet such irrational, inflated expectations. In realizing our parents are simply people—imperfect, inconsistent, and capable of vulnerability—is surely frightening, but mostly it’s liberating. When we let go of the idea of them as our invincible protectors, providers, and proponents, we’re left with them themselves; they know us in a way no one else can or will. The moment of acceptance is not so much a defining one, but rather a redefining one.
Thinking about all this, one particular story comes to mind. After the passing of my grandfather this past spring, I spent some time at home. My family spent the immediate week deep in grief and in the strange, calm love that trails its way through grief. One morning, days after the funeral and all the rituals we’re prescribed to deal with such a huge loss, I was sitting in my parents’ living room, the one my father so precisely and affectionately designed, flipping through a book. My father came in and we talked for a moment, everything copacetic. He was on his way out of the room when he paused ever so slightly. He didn’t say anything, there was just hesitation in his movement. I asked him if he was okay and he replied that he was having a hard time. I had nothing to say. My father had just lost his parent and was experiencing an enormous vacancy that nothing could or ever will replace; the only possible comfort, it seemed, was the knowledge of the wonder that once filled the space. It suddenly hit me that this wasn’t my parent in front of me nor was it my closest friend (though he is both things). This was someone’s child and, beyond that, what he is to me was just taken from him. In this realization, in this pretty straightforward but somehow profound realization, I hugged my father and he cried for quite a while. I don’t know how long we stood there, it doesn’t matter. What matters is how safe we both felt, how honest and unabashed that exchange was.
I didn’t do anything special in that moment. I reacted the way any friend, any loved one would. The key is that I expected nothing from my father. I am often comforted by him, secured by his advice, protected by his support. In that small moment I was able to accept him completely, without wanting or needing anything in return. And, in its own elegant way, that zero expectation—that seeming nothingness—wasn’t just enough, it was everything.