It was one of those absolutely dreaded events of parenthood, and I can say it was as bad as feared, if not worse. Sooner or later most of us will be called to account by our children as part of their passage to full adulthood. I’ve done it and most of my friends have done it, and a few wish they could do it.
I’m speaking of being called to account by our children for the myriad of ways we have failed them. According to several models of human development, children have to flip parents the bird in order to let us go and become fully grown on their own. In many cases this happens in the teens through acting out, being extraordinarily disrespectful, and telling parents off. But part of that process can also be the need to sit the parents down and tell them how badly they messed up. It turned out that my daughter needed this, and it’s a hellish place to be.
My daughter is an amazing, brilliant, artistic, creative, gifted woman who has struggled with some significant mental health issues over the last few years, and in her mind her parents are to blame, at least partially.
We met in her counsellor’s office, everyone took their places, and with real anxiety and dread (every child fears rejection when they know they are about to unload both barrels), she told me what it was like to grow up in our family, what it was like to live through my separation with her mother, what it was like to have a man like me as her father.
Her words were like bullets.
I had heard some of what she had to say before, but not all, and it ripped my heart to see the depth of her pain. Wanting to support her, I listened in silence as she unloaded years of dark emotion. I could not understand where so much of it was coming from nor why she thought many of the things she described, but it didn’t matter; for whatever the reason this was her experience. After she finished I was asked to leave, so I hopped on my bike and made my way home.
That was three days ago and I still haven’t recovered, and I don’t know that I will. The thing is, I know I am a deeply flawed human being, and that applied even more so when I was still young myself. Incomplete doesn’t begin to describe it. But I myself had been raised in a deeply dysfunctional and troubled family, and since my early adulthood I had pursued healing for myself through various forms of counselling, determined that I would transcend the ugliness of my history.
And I adored my children, with both myself and my wife throwing ourselves into raising our children with the absolute best we could muster. There was no violence in our home, there was no shaming. We supported our kids without qualification, and exposed them to a whole host of experiences and opportunities. We indulged them in so many ways, determined that they wouldn’t experience the same lack that we did. We played so much, did so much as a family. But none of that seemed to overcome the fact that we were both spiritually damaged people, and somehow our daughter picked that up.
That is the real tragedy for me. An acutely sensitive child (rather like her father), somehow she was able to feel the damaged, dark parts of me, despite all the attempts at healing, despite our attempts to hide it and despite that it didn’t come out in overt behaviour towards her or her brother. That’s the only way I can explain it. If we had called her stupid, or bullied her or shamed her, I could understand the depths of her pain, but we truly loved and supported her.
Still, I know I was impatient and too judgmental. And I failed her enormously when I split up with her mom. It was a time in my life of enormous personal upheaval and change, and it swept all of us up. I had no choice, it was something I absolutely had to do, and it is a mountain of grief to me that it hurt my daughter so.
What are we to do? As parents all that is available to us is our very best, but what if our very best simply isn’t good enough? I swore that the darkness of my past (and my parent’s past) would not carry through to another generation, and I failed despite a massive amount of very difficult personal work. And this is with deep awareness and intent; how inevitable is it then that suffering shall pass through the generations of those who didn’t have my luck to know about psychology and emotional healing? Is it impossible to prevent the transmission of trauma? It certainly seems to be, and is easily the greatest failure of my life.
It’s difficult to know where we go from here. I’m hoping that this unloading will help her healing, and I will do it again in a heartbeat if it will help. As we go through life we encounter various mirrors, each with its own truth and its distortion, and that provided by a child is one of the most honest. I know that the narrative of my daughter’s life is complex and what she shared with me that day is only one part, but it’s a part that’s that hardest to view.