It is not natural or normal or healthy or good for families to fall apart and for members to not stay in loving and supportive communication with each other (or at least to politely stay in touch as the years go by). But sometimes, parents leave their adult children no other choice but to separate—in definite terms, even if only temporarily so or conditionally so—from their parents.
Even though the analogy isn’t perfect, I’m calling this parental divorce, which is not to be confused with one’s parents who divorce each other (what I think would still be termed spousal divorce). When we, adult children, divorce our parents, we are separating from them for good—until and unless something changes that makes the relationship less toxic.
If you have experienced an on-going toxic relationship with your parents, you don’t need anyone telling you how it feels. You certainly know that, while you love your parents and want to support them and be there for them, you acknowledge that it doesn’t feel right to not be able to enjoy reciprocity in the relationship. Empathy is not mutual. Understanding is not extended in kind. And while we may have been able to carry on with this arrangement for a third of a century or so, we have gotten to a point (especially if we have actual children of our own to care for) where we cannot continue on like this. Something needs to change. But, unfortunately, the change that we need isn’t easily or readily afforded to us.
For those of us who continue in a one-sided relationship like this with our parents into our adult years, we find that it is quite draining. More than the thankless jobs we’ve done, more than the pressure-filled positions we’ve held, more than the heavy responsibilities we already have as grown adults. We could keep going at this pace. But something, as always, will need to give.
Something happened for me that switched the game for me. It was when I gave birth to my third child and first daughter. I found myself in a position where I was being forced to choose between taking care of my own children and taking care of my own parents. Sometimes our parents cannot help themselves and they do need someone to take care of them. But my parents are not in a retirement community or nursing home or hospital or mental care facility. They are fully-functioning, senior adults who know very much what they are doing and what they have done (both in terms of individual choices as well as the sum total of various “plays” in their strategy game to hold the power card(s)). They have full awareness of the effects of their actions.
It’s just that I stopped playing the role that I had been given to fill. If I had continued to emotionally prop up my parents, my children would have had no one to prop them up (and my children, obviously, are the actual children, here, who are actually helpless (as the children they are) and who actually need their actual mother to actually care for them). Additionally, if I had continued to allow myself to be a prop in my parents’ lives (both in an emotional sense as well as in terms of being objectified as an object of their lives), then it wouldn’t be contributing positively to my efforts to respect myself more and to teach my children what self-respect looks like so that they, too, can respect themselves well in their relationships, including their relationship with me as their mother. And, as it follows, if I had continued to fill the role assigned to me since my birth, then I would be perpetuating a negative and dysfunctional cycle that I did not want to find myself keeping in motion when I would become a senior adult. It was time that I let my parents live their lives while I live mine.
Why this course? Because my children need me now. I cannot change the choices that my parents’ parents made with them, but I can change the choices that I make with my children and myself and my marriage and my family now. In some Christian and church circles, I am sure, this is seen as straight-up blasphemy or heresy or sin in all caps. How dare we abandon our parents when the Bible is clear that we should not? The journey I’ve been on to reconcile my thoughts and my experiences and my beliefs is a journey that has brought me to some unique conclusions. I will attempt to divulge some of them here. These conclusions could be applied to any relationship that is toxic, dysfunctional, or destructive, but I have come to these conclusions keeping in mind the relationship between the parent and the parentified-child-who-is-now-an-adult-with-children-of-his-or-her-own. (I have previously written about parentification here.)
Conclusion #1: My love for my parent/parents is not conditional. But my participation in the relationship is conditional on whether my parent/parents contribute positively to my well-being.
This means that I am not going to participate in this relationship if I am the one who is expected to do all the work in it. How are loving and supportive parents supposed to pursue their children? With love and support (with no strings attached). And acceptance. And care. And honesty. Quite simply: good, devoted, selfless parents are supposed to pursue their children relentlessly and nonjudgmentally and selflessly. By this I mean that some parents who write or call only once or several times with no return communication and think that they’ve done their duty are profoundly mistaken. Because then what happens is that these parents who think that their children owe them (for crying out loud) decide that they are going to be the ones to stop initiating contact with their child. Their thinking may be that they are now the victim because their child (an adult child, mind you, with has children of his or her own) is being selfish or heartless or uncompassionate or un-empathetic. Does this make any sense? No it does not. Not at all. Only in a delusional world does this make sense. The following statement may be an idealized way to look at it (which doesn’t make the thought incorrect, only to put things in proper perspective), but if anyone is expected to go above and beyond, it’s the parent, not the child. And it doesn’t matter how old the child is. (Because how else is a child at any age supposed to learn how to do anything? We learn by example and by the model our parents set before us.)
Yet I acknowledge that once we become adults, we can no longer claim helplessness as an excuse for much, if anything. We can learn from other adults and from other people’s parents. But for us as the parentified children (who are now adults with children of our own) who are expected to still fulfill the role of emotional supporter to our parents, it only hurts us all the more to continue to participate in the unhealthy, dysfunctional, toxic, destructive cycle of “being there” for our parents when they choose (again and again) not to “be there” for us. How, then, can we be good and loving parents to our own children (let alone good and loving stewards of our self) if we are not free to be the child that we are (even if it’s only in title now, since we’ve since chosen to grow-up long ago) in the parent-child relationship we have with our parents?
The parent-child relationship is one that is not based on a power equality. Parents, by nature of being the parents, hold the power. All of it. Whether they know it or not or use it or not or believe in it or not or want it or not. It’s just the way it is—and it’s meant to be for the sake of good. It’s supposed to be that way so that children feel safe and secure and loved and well-guided. Children are supposed to be able to trust their parents because it’s the only way they can survive. When there is a misuse and abuse of that parental power is where things can go tragically wrong if no effort is made to address the wrong and to make things right.
To expect children (of any age) to “be fine” when the power dynamic in the parent-child relationship they have with their parents is backwards and inside out (meaning, when parents misuse their parental power by resorting to unhealthy measures like deliberate guilt trips and others forms of manipulation—many times, notably, when the parent is trying to shirk their own responsibilities of being (or at least trying to become) a grown-up parent and so they attempt to put the grown-up parenting responsibilities on their child so that the child can take care of the parent), is completely outrageous. Sometimes the only way that that message gets across is when we (as the parentified children) stop participating in the relationship until and unless the power dynamic starts benefitting us for a change. And by that I mean for magnanimous purposes.
Conclusion #2: I am not being narcissistic (in the negative, unhealthy, maliciously hurtful sense). I am taking the biggest step I’ve ever taken towards taking good care of myself and my children and my marriage (which is called exercising positive, healthy, intentionally helpful narcissism in the noble sense of the word).
I, me, and mine doesn’t always equate to narcissism. There’s the “good kind” of narcissism and the “bad kind.” The “good kind” includes caring well for oneself and extending that care to others so that others can be benefitted. The “bad kind” includes self-seeking behaviors at the expense of the well-being of others. It seems like a fine line (or that there’s no line at all) to those who are unfamiliar with the dynamics of parentification. I mean, when a child (no less an adult) breaks from a parent, that parent is probably going to feel some negative things, and there will probably be additional ramifications that may indeed contribute negatively to the well-being of said parent. However, what about the well-being of said adult child? Why is it okay for them to shoulder what they have shouldered their entire life without any thought to their well-being? Because they are “only” a child and forever will be (in the eyes of said parent, perhaps, existing for the sole reason of meeting the parent’s emotional needs)? At what point does the adult child get to have the privilege of doing—nay, right to do—what’s in their own best interest without being blamed for other people’s (such as their parent’s/parents’) misfortunes (emotional unmet needs included)?
Because if parents really love their children, don’t they want to contribute positively to their children’s well-being without unnecessarily burdening them with troubles that aren’t even theirs (the children’s) in the first place (such as wrongs done to the parent in their childhood, et cetera, however severe)? Is this too much to ask? Too much to expect? Is a parent’s love more complicated than that? I’m a parent. And yes, showing love for one’s children in practical ways so that they feel their parent’s love even during conflict and misunderstanding is tough. But it’s what you do. And it’s what you figure out how to do if you don’t know how to do it. Why do I feel like I’m asking for an unreasonable, impossible thing to say that parents need to be the ones to figure this out, not the children?
So those who want to throw a cheap shot will say that divorcing one’s parents (though it doesn’t have to be permanent—just firm until and unless there’s a heathier dynamic in play) is narcissistic, self-absorbed, self-centered, self-serving, self-centristic, and selfish. Which is all of the things that we parentified children have already been made to feel if we ever assert our own needs and wants—that we work every day to prove that we are not these things.
But I ask, how can it be a bad thing to put healthy boundaries in place, regardless of how extreme they must be (or are perceived to be)? It is a tragedy if and when parents find themselves on the outside of those boundaries—but even if the child (who is an adult with children of his or her own) is truly going too far (which, who can really determine that except the person laying the boundaries?), isn’t this an ideal opportunity for outside-the-boundary parents to submit evidence (through respectful, consistent, long-term efforts that are not manipulative) that they don’t need to be on the outside of the boundaries and, instead, would be of greater use (or, simply, won’t continue to deliberately hurt the child) inside the boundary lines? (In other words, this is a valuable chance to re-build trust. It’s a chance to begin again, begin anew, start fresh, from the beginning.) It is interesting that parents who prove the point (that the adult child is not emotionally safe in their relationship with their parent/parents) see the boundary as a personal insult instead of a chance to show genuine parental support and love, otherwise.
So what’s a child (who is an adult with children of his or her own) to do? Continue to knowingly play a game that they can never win? Not that the objective is winning (some would say it is), but that it doesn’t make sense to put yourself in a situation where you will always lose, forever, no matter what. This is not a fair power dynamic at work. This is most unbalanced, as obvious as it may be to most people. But we (as the parentified children that we are) have been trained—however that training looked, sounded, or felt—to ignore the power imbalance and to accept our existence as equivalent to the-answer-to-Parent’s/Parents’-unmet-emotional-needs.
Conclusion #3: This was a long time coming.
Parental divorce is not something that should be done quickly or hastily (obviously). Or even talked about lightly. All of this is obvious. It feels ridiculous to even have to spell it out like this, even for my own self so that I can see how everything connects and so that I feel like I have a justifiable reason to have the liberty to commentate about a topic like child-friendly parenting (for crying out loud). Anyone who has made the decision to put boundaries (in any degree) in place with regards to their own parents knows and understands how difficult this is and what it requires. And then to be, essentially, forced to make use of the ultimate boundary line (what is often termed “no contact” or “limited contact”) is an absolute amazement. Yes, forced (ultimately). I had no choice. I say that not to be “the victim” but to put things in perspective. For me. To put things in perspective for me. I have forever seen everything from everyone else’s point of view at the expense of my own. (And, yes, I know that growing up means being able to continue to see things from multiple points of view, not just one’s own—but at what point does it become ludicrous to never experience the joys (or just the generosity, nay the courtesy) of having others (e.g., one’s parents) take into consideration your feelings and thoughts—what empathy, essentially, is?) I simply decided it was time to see things from my point of view because no one else was going to give me that gift. I was the only one who could do that for myself. So I said (to myself) enough was enough and thus proceeded. This was a long time coming, and there were signs along the way since I was young.
There was withdrawal in stages over the course of over 20 years. It got the point where everything I said just couldn’t be said anymore. I stopped talking about myself and sharing about my life because I wasn’t being heard. I wasn’t being acknowledged. I wasn’t being respected—my personhood wasn’t accepted as my own. This is crazy stuff. I have a college degree. I have a freakin’ Master’s. I got married. I had a career. I have three (count them, three) children of my own. I live in a house now. What else is it going to take for me to be seen, viewed, treated, and spoken to like a real live adult? So instead of continuing to feel like I was the one with the problem, I made it my mission to sort out what I was feeling and to figure out where my thoughts about myself and my life might have originated from and how that ties into my autonomy and agency as an actual adult who can make her own choices now and live the kind of life that I decide to live. I’d prefer for my original family to be in it. Life is better (or at least supposed to be better) that way. But I simply got to the point where I could no longer continue to disrespect myself by allowing the nonsense to continue.
Conclusion #4: I was fair about it.
Everybody always thinks that they’re being so fair. But when it comes to something like this, you have to be sure that you were fair. No one says you have to be, but for me, I knew that I needed to be fair to myself and fair to those affected by the parental divorce. (And, again, remember that parental divorce as I am using it is not necessarily a permanently permanent thing. It’s permanent in the sense that I’m serious about it and that I’m not bluffing about my conditions of engagement. But it is potentially changeable because I’ve put reasonable terms into place which make the parental divorce flexible. Flexible depending upon power equality. As I’ve said earlier, parents hold all the power. It’s supposed to be that way (which is why it’s important to use one’s parental power with gentle wisdom). But when children become adults, they are adults in their own right now (who, many, become parents themselves). Now what? Does it make any sense to continue to use the unfair tactics (like emotional manipulation) of childhood to attain the sought-after and highly regarded obéisance? No it doesn’t, not one bit. It never made sense in the first place. But to continue to assume a child (who is now an adult with children of his or her own) should be treated, or expected to comply with any kind of wish or demand, using the old ways is to assume that that child is and will forever be a child. And since I know that am no longer a child, I proceeded in the most un-childish way that I could.
I was direct (about my thoughts and observations), honest (about my feelings and intentions), and I kept things achievable (the conditions of engagement) and in the present (the points of discussion). I mustered up the most assertive communication that my bones could produce. If there had not been a catalyst (all the stuff that happened when my third child was born), I probably wouldn’t be telling you this (whoever you are who stumbled upon this writing in front of you). The break would have never happened (or at least not yet). It takes something like an event a lot of times in order for us to see things clearly and for us to see things as they actually are (instead of sort of having an idea of something or staying under the protective covering of denial).
Concluding thoughts as they come.
A thought: I’ve done the hard work of sorting things out in myself. Now I have to move on if no one’s going to work with me to have a healthier relationship. I daresay that this is similar to what happens a lot of times in spousal divorce. I have been incredibly fortunate, I will admit and concede, to find myself in a marriage with a man who was (and continues to be) with me as I was (and continue to be) with him. Meaning, when things get tough as they sometimes will (not to loosely quote, ironically, from the “Don’t Quit” poem, but to quote a good phrase nonetheless), the course of action is to keep going. With each other, if possible.
My husband and I kept going (and still continue going) with each other. That’s one of the reasons why a marriage is considered a good one (and why I’m happy to say that I’m participating in a good marriage—which is a huge piece in my being able to detach with such [conditional] finality and decisiveness at this point in my life). In a good and strong marriage, the husband and wife keep going with each other, and they work things out as needed. When spouses choose to part ways, it’s often because they no longer want to (or simply can’t) walk this journey of life with each other anymore. Similarly (but differently because there are no vows binding the relationship as is the case in a marriage), when children choose to part ways with their parents, it is often because the want-to and the ability/capacity are not there anymore to continue charting the path forward in that relationship. In a parent-child relationship, however, I feel that it is the parent’s duty to do everything that they can do to make the relationship a healthy one. No one is perfect. And no family is perfect. But we can make efforts to do things well and to work towards excellence. If something is awry, it’s in our power, as the parents, to fix it. How does it make sense for parents to expect their children to fix the parent-child relationship when it’s truly not their (the children’s) obligation to do so?
Another thought is this: I am being the change that I want to see in my family (like Gandhi’s recommendation to be the change we want to see in the world). I’m not just wishing for a positive change or hoping that someday things will be better for me without also doing something that aligns with where I intend to go. If we have parents who become more and more self-absorbed as they get older (even though they may accuse us of being this way), some of why this might be is because they did not take the measures that they needed to take when they were our age. Something happens (as I am learning everyday) when we see our children occupying the age and space that we once held. It doesn’t always produce positive effects. But if we want to prevent any long-standing negativity (negativity that we find is rising between us and our children) from taking root and being a real problem in our relationship with our child, then we can take steps to actively break down and break apart and send away the negativity. We don’t just let the negativity continue to grow and become a real, live force.
All I know is that I am making choices that are in my children’s best interest, in my own best interest, and in my marriage’s best interest. My family comes first. Yes, it does. And if our parents didn’t do that when they were our age with a young family, then that’s not our fault. If they chose to handle themselves differently, then that is what stands. We (as their children, as we always will be), simply, are doing things differently from them (or how they did it or how they would prefer for us to do it). We don’t always have to do things their way or for their approval. We are adults in our own right. We have spouses and children in our own right. We have our own family to protect and care for. And if our parents (or anyone) only seek to have us and our children meet their emotional needs (for crying out loud), then that’s not exactly a healthy relationship. That’s not fair in any sense.
We can continue on as we always have (as I always have). In fact, we should try to continue on the best we can, asserting ourselves the best we can, handling everything the best we can. But sometimes, quite simply and very frankly, we just can’t do it anymore. And this is the place I arrived at after my third child was born. And I had a choice before me: was I going to give up everything (as in, give my all, my whole self) for the sake of my parents? Or give up everything (give my all, my whole self) for the sake of my children and my marriage and my family (not to mention my own self)? Because, sadly, when people like us find ourselves in a situation like this, we can’t have it both ways. We have to choose. And all I know is that my children were the actual children that took priority in my life. What parent would fault their own grown child for making choices that puts the grown child’s children first?
I am taking control (in the positive sense) of my own self (health and happiness included), my own children, my own marriage, my own family, my own present, and my own future. I can’t control everything (including the family I was born into—for all the good they provided and still are able to provide). But I can control my choices (including choices about how I respond to, and grow my relationship with, my family—both my own family and my original one). I am exercising one of my choices. I choose not to engage with others (which includes parents all the same) if and when they are not contributing positively to my well-being. I will once again say that it feels ridiculous to say it all like this. But when you never really learned that it was okay to make your own choices and be your own person and protect your own health and happiness (all to the detriment of what other people might think), then all of this is a rather foreign concept. It’s completely unfamiliar territory. It’s treasonous, is what it is. And this fuels the defensiveness all the more, so I remind myself and all of us that we don’t own anyone anything (including explanations and extravagant defenses) except to give ourselves the love and acceptance that we deserve. I repeat. We don’t have to explain anything. It’s enough to know. To know the truth as we know it. To know our truth. And to care well for ourselves with that truth intact.
In defense of why I’m taking to a public forum.
I have hung back for a long time. Privately, I’ve written and written and written. I’ve thought and thought and thought. I’ve cried and cried and cried. I have agonized. I’ve been in deep distress. I have grieved. Ever so deeply, I have felt the pain that is to be felt of a daughter—who so desperately wants and needs the approval of her parents—who makes the break (that she shouldn’t have to make) that’s needed for her to have her own life. It sounds selfish. It feels selfish. But then why does everything make sense? Why is there absolute, dazzling clarity for me? Why, then, am I able to see all the moving parts and to fit them together so exactly (i.e., correctly, in my most critical opinion)? I see it all. This is my answer. It might not be yours or anyone else’s. But it’s mine. And what has helped me along the way is to read other people’s thoughts and feelings and to read about their experiences so that I could weigh all of that against what I was already thinking and feeling and experiencing. I am not alone. And neither are you. I write publically now so that I can be one more voice in support of self-help, self-health, and self-happiness.
One more thought: My heart remains open to reconciliation.
Like the prodigal son except backwards (and—is it okay that’s it’s backwards?—is the question that I’ve come to answer with a no) – I am eagerly waiting for my parents to return to me (instead of how they would be waiting for me to return to them. They are the ones who have left the good and healthy order of things. So I have released them to take responsibility for their own lives and choices. Yet I will always remain ready to reconcile if the conditions are present that would foster a healthy relationship dynamic between me and them.
So I write all of this as a way to offer an extended explanation about (and an excavation into) where I am coming from with the child-friendly parenting notion and why it matters so much to me (even though I acknowledge that no explanation is needed or required—I simply want to offer all of this as a glimpse into what drives my writing at this point in my life). I have a passion for parenting my children effectively, in a way that contributes positively to their entire well-being. This passion didn’t come from nowhere. It came from the love and sense of family that I experienced in my original family that I want my children to experience, too. But it also came from the disconnect between appearance and reality that I felt since I was young (that is true in varying degrees in every family, no doubt) and that, since being a child, I have worked to dispel in my life so that I don’t feel hypocritical (with saying one thing but doing another—or with having one face for the “public” and another face for “private,” which I am completely aware of the necessities of but still think that the difference between the two doesn’t have to be so stark).
Things aren’t always as they appear to be. We all know this. And even if things are great, consistency and reliability are factors that play a role in effectiveness, no matter what we’re talking about. In this case with my writings here, I am applying effectiveness to parenting. Because I think that all of us deserve to know and to have reinforced and to have affirmed what parenting effectiveness is and looks like and sounds like and feels like—and I think that we all deserve to experience the joys of having done a tough job well. There is no tougher job than being a parent (which follows that we parents are the ones who should have access to the most joy that this life has to offer—joy which only compounds as our children get older). Might it be the case, though, that too many people give up in their parenting privileges before they should? When we give up, we cannot expect to experience the same kind of joys as those who stick it out. Just because we are parents, it doesn’t entitle us to the rewards that effective parenting has to offer if we are not willing to do what it takes to participate in effective parenting. This is the standard I hold myself to because I don’t ever want to think that my children “owe me”—in any regard. We can’t change how our parents think. But we can change how we respond when we are put in situations that put unhealthy demands on us.
I think we all do the best we can with our children, yes (even as they enter into their adult years). But sometimes a break—whether temporary or permanent or conditional—from those who hurt us (even if they love us) is necessary. Do we owe everyone an explanation? No, I don’t think so. We talk about it if we want to. But it’s our decision, how we handle ourselves and our relationships and our families and our lives. It has helped me to articulate my reasons and conclusions (as I’ve tried to share a few here) with words. And so I’ve done that. What remains the main idea for me is that I have ceased to have the capacity to be able to carry other people’s emotional loads. If I didn’t start carrying my own, then I would have lost myself (in a not-so-good way) for good. I saw it, I sensed it, and I did something about it because I knew that I could.
While I didn’t have the capacity to emotionally support others anymore and while I recognized that I didn’t have the capacity to really help or change others unless they choose to help or change themselves, I knew that I did have the capacity to choose this. I can make my own choices. I can help and change myself (to the extent that any of us can). I can set new, healthy, positive cycles into motion and break the old, unhealthy, negative cycles. I don’t have to be swept away by the current of destructive and dysfunctional ways. In a lot of ways, I knew better. And I had learned better. I have had the great fortune of getting away and figuring out what I wanted for my life (as well as deciding what I didn’t want for my life). So I did the only thing that was left for me to do. I made a break for good.
The boundaries I live by now are not keeping out people, per se. They are keeping out behaviors. It’s similar to what we sometimes have to do with our [actual] children. We love and accept them. We are not rejecting them, per se. We are rejecting their behaviors that are harmful or otherwise unacceptable. In healthy relationships, we value healthy dynamics. Healthy interaction. Respectful. Non-toxic. These things are learned, yes. But it’s not the grown-child’s responsibility to teach these sorts of things to their parents. This would be the epitome of disrespect and condescension on the part of the grown child and how they would relate to the parent. And so, in an effort to let go of what I was never meant to carry in the first place, and to take up what is fully mine to hold, I have freed myself to focus on fulfilling my responsibilities to my self, my children, and my husband. My family is my focus now. It has to be. Or the same cycle I came out of will be repeated. That’s how dysfunction works. It perpetuates itself. So if I want something different, I have to make different choices.
And so here I am.
Here we all are.
And this is our life.