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When parents are angry, critical, and baffling

25 November 2009

Advent is a good time to address flawed relationships with parents, and to try to forgive them, says James Woodward

At Advent, a time of fresh begin­nings and expectant preparation for the nativity, we might reflect on the relationships with our parents which shape our living and loving.

A group of ten-year-olds share what most makes them cross about their parents. The top five are: “They talk about me to my friends’ parents;” “They make me go shop­ping with them;” “They tell me to do several things at once, and expect me to do them all at the same time;” “They are too busy to listen to me when I want to talk;” and “They al­ways interrupt me while I am trying to explain.”

These are small grievances, but they can shape our irritability, feeding into family rows.

A son of elderly parents and his wife are refusing to pay their fees for a care home. In our conversation, they are not able to make the connec­tion between the need of the parents and their anger at the perception that there was little love in the home when they were younger.

The son remembers how irritable his father was, and how he felt that his father was always disappointed in him. His wife never felt accepted by her mother-in-law, criticism of her wedding dress remains as fresh in the memory as the day it was made nearly 40 years ago.

Our parents can remain both a baffling and an overwhelming presence in our lives. We can feel that we never live up to their expecta­tions. There is both an economic and emotional indebtedness of chil­dren to parents, and parents to children. We wonder how our parents can be both so like and so completely foreign to us.

When faced with trying to under­stand our parents, we can feel anger, disappointment, frustration, and sheer confusion. We can store up those many small causes of irrit­ability to feed into a picture of re­sent­ment and even neglect. Some chil­dren have reason to feel neglect, when the causes of pain may be physical or extreme emotional abuse.

Forgiveness does not come easily to most of us. Our instinct is to recoil in self-protection when we have been injured, especially by those who are supposed to love us. Parents do not always do what is best for their children. They can hurt them. We need to learn to forgive our parents. Some people do not want to forgive them. They carry resentment and pain for their whole lives. In this, they can hurt them­selves.

None of us have or had perfect parents, and very few of us were easy, complete, problem-free children. Forgiveness is going to work only if our parents are willing to accept responsibility for what it is we think they did or did not do. This may not happen, because parents frequently have an entirely different view of how they raised their children from the one that their children have.

Acceptance is a radical and life-changing stance. Our parents may have done the very best they could, within the limited range of their capabilities. This kind of acceptance might enable a healthier and happier life. This acceptance will mean some acknowledgement of the impos­sibility of a tidy set of relationships.

Forgiving our parents is a core task of adulthood, and one of the most crucial kinds of forgiveness. We see our parents in our friends, in our bosses, even in our children. So when we have felt rejected by a parent and have remained in that state, we will inevitably feel rejected by these important others as well.

Unless we forgive our parents, we can never fully grow up: we might behave still like children victimised by the “big people”. This profound dislocation can be projected on to all kinds of authority. And because, like children, we have this underlying resentment, we cannot be wise in rearing our own children. We relate to our children in reaction to our parents. How much freedom to give to children, how to exercise author­ity, in what way to discipline — all are part of the perilous geography we have to negotiate in our loving.

We will know that the work of forgiveness is complete when we experience the freedom that comes as a result. Most times, however, for­giveness is a slow journey. We must continue forgiving until the matter is settled in our heart.

To carry this out, first we need to name and resolve resentment. Unless we do this, we can get stuck there, too, forever the child, the victim, the have-not in the realm of love. A grudge is a kind of clinging, and a way of not separating. The result is that we can stay locked into the bad­ness, and we do not grow up.

Second, we should develop real­istic expectations. Nobody is perfect. Our parents are products of their environment. Sometimes people just don’t know any better. Christians might look for the good in them. A more realistic estimation might make it easier to forgive their mistakes.

Third, we can try to hold on to the good. Most parents love their children, with surprisingly few ex­cep­tions. If we are lucky, our parents were good enough for us to be able to grasp the knowledge of their love for us and our love for them, even in the face of the things they did that hurt us. Remember the happy moments — the times of laughter and care.

Fourth, we should foster true separation. To forgive is not to con­done the bad things our parents have done. It is not to deny their selfish­ness, their rejections, their meanness, their brutality, or any of their other misdeeds, character flaws, or limita­tions.

It is important to separate from our parents — to stop seeing our­selves as children who depend on them for our emotional well-being, to stop being their victims, to recog­nise that we are adults with some capacity to shape our own lives, and the responsibility to do so.

Fifth, we need to be kinder to one another. Let your parents back into your heart, and learn to forgive them their humanness and failings — in the hope that we can nurture places where our own failures are embraced with grace and patience.

All this is hard work, and a journey that perhaps never ends. Along the way, we might have to express our protest, and to be angry and resentful. Perhaps it may be possible to begin to understand the limitations they laboured under, and recognise the good­ness in them that our pain has pushed aside — feel some compassion, per­haps — not only for the hard jour­ney they had, but also for the pain we have caused them.

The Revd Dr James Woodward is a Canon of Windsor.

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