Accepting Our Parents, Accepting Ourselves
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’m no expert in either the spiritual or psychological realm, so take my answer with a grain of salt. It’s just my perspective. I think that accepting parents for “who they are” is intertwined with accepting ourselves and recognizing the role parents play in our adolescent lives. As much as it can be comforting to attribute “who we are” to our upbringing, when it comes right down to it, we all write our own back-stories. For example, you’re equally likely to hear a famous chef claim, “I’m a great cook because my mother was a great cook and she taught me everything I know” as you are, “I’m a great cook because my mother was a lousy cook and I was sick of eating crap food.” Think of Alice Waters’ story versus that of Ruth Reichl. Great cooks are great because they developed an interest, chose to pursue it, learned how to do it, practiced, and got a few lucky breaks along the way. In effect, your life is your own to screw up or make successful. Although it’s tempting to insert parents into the narrative, for better or worse, you are responsible for what you’ve accomplished.
“In effect, your life is your own to screw up or make successful.”
Parents want the best for their kids, but sometimes, without even realizing they’re doing it, they conflate their own insecurities, disappointments, and dreams with those of their children causing everyone to feel like they don’t measure up. This, coupled with a life-long history of bumbling around each other, gives fuel to button pushing. Getting along with your parents requires a conscious choice to avoid the buttons, which is easier said than done as anyone who has ever watched a three-year-old on an elevator can attest.
“I think that accepting parents for “who they are” is intertwined with accepting ourselves and recognizing the role parents play in our adolescent lives.”
My mom and I learned how to do this best when I had kids. I’m sure in some ways our situation is unique since my mom is a spiritual leader and travels the world teaching things even after reading her books and hearing her speak, I can only barely grasp. Still, it wasn’t until I saw my mom reach out to my children and teach them useful life lessons that I was able to see her and the gifts she has to give the world from the perspective of others. As a result of mom’s influence, my six-year-old now “meditates” while having her hair put in ponytails and her older brother used his “jedi warrior attention training” to handle a recent broken bone with remarkable calm. That goes a long way in the process of moving on from past mistakes and looking forward. As a parent, when I feel this same thing begin to happen with my own children, I think of my mother-in-law who tells the story of her nightly prayers for my husband as he was growing up. In his childhood her prayers contained high aspirations, hoping for the right schools, good grades, and future career successes and all the typical hopes and dreams of a loving mother. By the time he was a teenager her prayers simplified. “Dear God. Just keep him alive.” Amen to that. So, what can we do to be better children to our parents?
Don’t blame your parents or give them too much credit for the person you are today.
Try to separate your successes and failures from their own and engage them with the same interest and respect you’d show a friend.
Be curious and ask them questions now because it can all of a sudden be too late and their history is important.
Give them as much access to your kids as you can. Grandparents have the benefit of hindsight coupled with a lack of the general parental anxiety that we all carry. They will most likely do a better job with your kids than they did with you. Let them!
And finally, here’s a wacky, but perhaps useful exercise… sit down and write your parents’ resume. Think about the frame of mind you’re in when you write your own. You present yourself in the best light, highlighting your strengths and accomplishments and leaving out the faults. In that light, when you see your parents on paper, you just might realize how fortunate you are to have them in your life.
– Born into a family of artists and mystics, Gweneth B. Rehnborg, daughter of Cynthia Bourgeault, learned early to make practical logistics her strong suit, specializing in the nonprofit and health sectors. Gwen earned a masters degree at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and has worked in humanitarian relief, public relations, and health and fitness. Currently Gwen lives in Hong Kong with her husband and three children and aspires to write a book.