Thoughts from the Couch – The Sins of Parents

There are things that happened, or didn’t, in childhood that seriously impacted the way some of us think about ourselves and the way we have lived our lives. We often, unconsciously, live out the core beliefs, we have come to know so well, based on our childhood experiences. For most of us, there are defining moments such as becoming a parent, the loss of a parent and therapy that make us stop and recognise that we are adults with some capacity to shape our own lives and the responsibility to do so, rather than blaming our parents and childhood for our life choices. While many people find that this is one of the hardest tasks to accomplish, some are lucky enough to discover that it is freeing in ways that they hadn’t imagined.

For many, our lives may not have been of our choosing as children and it is helpful to have your feelings and perceptions validated as a step towards healing from a difficult childhood. Learning how to shift from self blame to rightful anger at our parents can be a useful second step, but that is not the end of the process. A life changing experience for me was an exercise which challenged me to arrive at a fuller understanding of my parents and their histories that, in turn, allowed me to have a more tolerant and compassionate view of my upbringing. This didn’t detract from my feelings of hurt and betrayal or condone anything that happened, but what it did was to remind me that in the world of family, traumas often beget traumas. By looking at what is left when we work through the feelings we carry around about our childhoods we can make changes that will change our lives with ourselves and others for the better. 

I remember reading this poem (the word father can be replaced with mother) and stopping to consider the final question; 

How do we forgive our fathers? Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us often? Or forever, when we were little?

Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage, or making us nervous because there never seemed any rage there at all?

Do we forgive our fathers for marrying or not marrying our mothers, or for divorcing or not divorcing our mothers?

And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness? Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning, or shutting doors?

For speaking through walls, or never speaking, or never being silent?

Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or theirs?

Or in their deaths, saying it to them, or not saying it?

If we forgive our fathers what is left?

Perhaps it is as a result of age, or being a parent and now grandparent myself that I am able to more accept the concept of the ‘good enough parent’ which derived from the work of D. W. Winnicott.  Through Winnicott’s eyes, perfect parenting wasn’t merely unattainable, it wasn’t desirable. His thought was that a good enough parent still meets the needs of their children, but, and it is a big but, by the parents being less than perfect, the child learns to adapt and develop the skills needed to manage their disappointments. Of course, society has to accept that some parents are ‘not good enough’ by recognising the problem of child abuse and neglect thus setting up structures to deal with it, and where appropriate providing alternative parenting. But, for us to demand perfection of ourselves as parents and our own parents, is both unhelpful and unrealistic and undermines the efforts of the vast majority of parents who are in all practical respects ‘good enough.’ As parents we need to let go of perfectionism as it is not within the grasp of ordinary human beings.

So, if I go back to the final question in the poem above. What I believe is that by developing compassion for our parents it makes us more compassionate towards ourselves as people and parents. Getting to a forgiving place can be a long and complicated journey, the deeper the wound, the more difficult the process. But the act of forgiveness gives us permission to let go and release the pain and anger and when we get there, the forgiveness we achieve will be a forgiveness worth having. 



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