Lately I've been given cause to think about parenting. There are all sorts of parents and parenting styles out there. Yet another favorite movie quote of mine is from the movie 'Parenthood', in which the teenage father-to-be expresses his feelings about his abusive father: "You need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car - hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they'll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father." Abusive parents are, of course, the extreme. Model parents are the other extreme, and somewhere in the middle is where the rest of us can be found. We are a mixture of environment, genetics and luck.
What is it that causes some people to be great parents? Fundamental goodness and values, of course... but is it more than just that? What if parents seem to do the "right things" but their children can't seem to connect with them in a real and meaningful way. It's not any one's fault, is it? Isn't it just the hand of cards that each of us is dealt, and just maybe it is what we do with those cards as adults that tells the real story.
I loved my parents. But I was not ever friends with my parents, even as an adult. There was something inside of me that felt like I was always a child and always trying to measure up. I don't ever remember hearing words of encouragement from them. Expectations were set and it was assumed that I would live up to them. Anything less was an inconvenience. Their focus was mostly on my performance in school. I was ranked in the top 20 in my class and was in the National Honor Society, but I don't remember hearing praise or encouragement, because I was merely living up to expectations. Same thing with college. My Junior year in college was incredibly difficult and I remember practically giving myself an ulcer for weeks before I got the courage to call my parents to tell them that I simply could not maintain 18 credit hours of classes and also work -even part time. There was minimal understanding in my mother's voice when she gave me her approval to quit working. I remember hanging up the phone and feeling like a failure, even though I had just been offered a spot in the National Honor Fraternity for undergraduate accounting students.
Things went from bad to worse when I embarked on my new career. I began my new job as a staff accountant at one of the 'Big Eight" accounting firms in September of 1987. I immediately discovered that accounting professionals were expected to maintain a certain standard of living even at the entry level positions. Our starting salary was $21,000. Not awful by 1987 standards, but not exactly a prize salary when, as I soon found out, one was thrust into a professional world with high standards. More expectations that I struggled to meet. We wore those hideous "dress for success" suits, and only tailored suits and crisp cotton menswear blouses from Kleinhans or Joseph Banks were acceptable. Cha-ching! Then there were the cars. Certainly we could not be seen in "starter cars". Honda Accords, Mazda 626's, or Toyota Camarys - these were the standards for us. I reluctantly purchased my very first Honda Accord, and I remember so clearly the nervous rat chewing at my insides when I signed the paperwork and was handed the payment book. Yes, nervous..... because we also were not allowed to bring our lunches to work - ever, even if we were working in the office instead of being out on an audit. CPA's don't do bag lunches, I was told. We ate at places like the Glass Abbey or other sit down restaurants. Cha-ching! On Fridays, it was expected that we would meet after work for dinner and drinks - cha -ching! In the summer came the joys of the Accountants Softball League, and if you didn't play, you were expected to attend and be a cheerleader and go out for food and drinks afterward, once or twice a week - cha ching! And really, I still had friends that I wanted to socialize with now and then.... and I rationalized that I really wanted to have a good time with my real friends who were my escape from the horrors of a job that I detested. Cha-ching!
I had been working for about a year when my parents dropped the bomb that I was being given six months to find an apartment and move out of their house. I thought about my mounting credit card bills, but there was absolutely no way I could tell them how scared I was or that I needed help of some sort - not when my father hd completely flown off the handle when he saw the bill arrive in the mail the first time I even used a credit card a year and a half earlier.
I found an apartment with my best friend. And as exciting and exhilarating as it was to be out on my own, calling my own shots, I knew I was in trouble. But I thought - "OK, I can do this if I just find ways to change some things and not spend money." I was actually feeling pretty optimistic when the next shoe dropped. My employer had lost a large client shortly after I was hired. A year later, for some unfathomable reason, they hired another big pack of college graduates. Result - I was laid off along with four other people. I had just moved into my apartment. Truth be told, I'm sure I made the choice easy for them. I hated that job, and I was like a square peg in a round hole, and everybody knew it. I had a terrible poker face even back then. So, while I was relieved to be gone from that place, I was thrown into financial turmoil. The bottom line for me was that my parents could never, ever know that I had been laid off. The very thought of telling them turned my stomach into a thousand knots, made my pulse shoot up and made me break out in a cold sweat. I gamely applied for unemployment and embarked on a search for another job - doing what, I didn't know, for I surely did not want to be an auditor in an accounting firm ever again. My friends were sworn to silence, and my plan was that I would find another job and tell my parents that I had moved on voluntarily to a better opportunity. What I could not handle were the bills - car payment, credit cards, rent, utility bills, food ......???
I recovered from all of this. The timeline went something like this - girl finds new job. Girl meets new boyfriend. Girl starts spending too much money again because of the new job. Girl and boyfriend get engaged, and only after this does the girl have a nervous breakdown in front of the fiance when she confesses her spending and debt issues. Fiance puts girl on a budget. They are married and live happily ever after. I finally learned, at the age of 25, what it was like to be able to confess to someone that - yes - I screwed up, without fear of feeling like a total failure. A little understanding and compassion goes a long way, but I think that this was a foreign concept to my depression-era parents. They both went to their graves never knowing that I was laid off from my "dream job" and that I had an out-of-control spending habit fueled by my desire to keep up with the Joneses. To this day, I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't found another job right away and hadn't met my husband. Even now, the thought of actually telling my parents the truth is completely incomprehensible to me. Never an option.
So this brings me back to my musings about parenting skills. I know that I made mistakes with my daughter, but the one thing that we drilled into her head was that she could come to us with anything, and we would work it out together. You see, my parents..... they just didn't want to know about problems that I might be having, and if they found out about anything that they perceived as being a problem ........ I was made to feel ashamed, as though whatever it was that I had done (or not done) reflected poorly on not just me, but that it was inconceivable to them that their child had done ...... or not done..... whatever infraction it was that I had committed. Everything was like the end of the world.
My parents were not abusive by any stretch of the imagination. But they succeeded in taking an already shy girl and raising her to be a cowardly adult. Too cowardly to succeed and scared to death to admit failure. Yes indeed, parenting is a complicated business. And no, parents are not supposed to be their children's best friends while they are raising their children. I might be oversimplifying this but, is it as simple as trying to remember that your children are human beings and not little clone robots? Maybe. Things could have gone so badly, so much worse in my adult life. I just think that I am so lucky to be surrounded today by people who treat me like a human being - imperfect, flawed but me. Just me.