[edited for clarity]AWB
started a conversation over on her blog about familial relationships and honesty, and I guess that was the last bit of motivation I needed to finally post some of the things I've been mulling over. The thing with my family, and my parents in particular, is that things are generally quite good. Which sometimes makes it difficult to talk about the fact that I managed to get fucked up anyway. You see, both of my parents got a bit nuked during their own childhoods (Mom's dad was a violent alcoholic, Dad's mom is extremely unstable, borderline psychotic, and incredibly manipulative and emotionally abusive). So the fact that they managed to become functioning adults at all rather impresses me. And I'm hyperaware of their purpose and effort when it came to raising us, which also probably made the times when they failed to manage and transform their own baggage stand out more.
So AWB presents the discussion in terms of a spectrum, specifically in reference to telling your parents the truth:
Do Not Care ------- Would Protect Their Feelings ------- Adore Them
It's true, I generally fall in the Adore category, though probably with an unhealthy dose of idolize thrown in. But I also fall in the would protect category. My Job within my family has been, for as long as I can remember, the fixer*. The smoother-over of controversies and arguments, the negotiator of compromises, the one who doesn't rock the boat, who tries to take up as little space as possible, need as little as possible. As it so often works in families, my personality lends itself to this role, I'm good at it, it makes the family run a little better, so we all end up reinforcing it. And it results in me being less than truthful with my parents about the important things. They know way more details about my life than they probably need (or want) but very little about me emotionally. I protect them from things that stress me out or upset me or scare me. They're among the last people I turn to to vent frustration or confess weakness.
In therapy I'm working on the idea that this is, perhaps, not best for any involved. I'm working on all the cliche issues of being ok with needing help and asking for help and feeling like I deserve to receive help. In the context of my parents, this gets played out in terms of me trying to find more of a kid role, and looking for them to play more of a parent role (we've been buddies and colleagues for a while). And just as Amelia points out in comments to AWB, this sort of work doesn't happen in isolation, and within relationships when one person moves along the spectrum, everyone else reacts.
So what am I getting at? During the whole cat fiasco a few weeks ago I ended up in a place where I really needed my parents. I just did. I was stressed out and worried and feeling particularly alone and wanted my Mom and Dad to reassure me that everything was going to be fine. And they didn't. In fact, they were a little callous. Now, prior to therapy I would have just translated that for myself, convinced myself that what Dad said was really what I needed, inferred between the lines to make up something resembling reassurance, and convinced myself that I wasn't both disappointed in and a little pissed at them.
(now we get to the truth part) So I found myself at a turning point - I could either settle for being more honest with myself but not with them, in an effort to spare their feelings...or also address my relationship with them. Tell them that I had needed them and felt like they had let me down. I sucked it up and decided on the latter and braced myself for an awkward conversation. It actually wasn't as hard as I had feared, but their reactions were surprising. I couldn't have asked for a better response from Mom. Dad on the other hand... (if you know me and my parents you'll know that I was prepared for the opposite). Mom really rose to the occasion - said she was glad I had told her how I felt, she wants to be there for me for everything that happens in my life, etc. etc. Dad sent a chatty e-mail from work the next morning, and buried in the middle of it a sentence about how he was sorry he wasn't as worried about my cat as I seemed to think he should have been. Doh! It wasn't about the damn cat! The damn cat just happened to be a catalyst for my particular set of issues! I wanted him to be worried about ME! His little girl who had spent the past hour crying! I sent him a slightly less dramatic response, but hit the key point that I was looking for him to be concerned about and supportive of me. He hasn't mentioned it since.
Becky (my therapist) says that most of her patients are in their 30s, and it's been her experience that they are much less likely to put effort into working on parental relationships, primarily because by then there's so much distance. I, still in my 20s, still have need to be a kid once in a while, and a kid with present parents. And I'm lucky enough to have an otherwise pretty strong relationship with them, so it seems completely worthwhile to suffer through some awkward patches to go from good to better.
It's worth noting, with respect to Dad, that he has come through for me at other times. When my laptop was reduced to an expensive paperweight 48 hours before my masters defense and I called him at work hysterically sobbing he said all the right things and was generally pretty great. But that was about education, something he knew how to deal with because it's the holy grail in my family. Open up about being emotionally attached to something else, and he gets a little uneasy. Or maybe just confused.
So I'm working on it. I'm working on presenting a more honest picture of me to them, and I'm hoping that they'll change along with me.
*I'm also prone to falling into this role with my friends. I'm a little more aware of it when non-blood-relations are involved, and succeed a bit more in consciously avoiding that particular set of actions...but there's a bit of tension happening among my friend group now, and I'm tangentially involved, so I can have some conversations on my own behalf...but I can already feel my desire to try to fix the whole thing, to jump into interactions where I don't belong, act as translator, smoothing out the edges...