Parents: Then and now

parenting

After ..ummm…. 6 years of therapy and untold hours of private musings I can finally say – out loud – I love my parents.

Yes. Big deal to your average American who grew up with the sound of a daily ‘I love you’ echoing out the door. Me.. not so much. We tend to save the ‘I love you’s’ for death beds and dudes trying to get into your pants. Parents saying ‘I love you’?  Give me a break. That’s for Oprah and the movies.

But its not just me. Without completely conforming to the stereotype that is a Brit, parents in the UK back in the 70’s were somewhat ‘stiff’. Not that forthcoming with the love and the supportiveness. In fact, mostly happy with the ‘you’re NOT going out in that’ and ‘who do you think you are?’ comments. Parents, back then, were for discipline, rules and making sure that you didn’t die from malnutrition or cold (though my mother challenged the ‘no hypothermia in the house’ convention by only turning on the heating when my lips turned blue and we weren’t able to move our fingers). Parents were there to toughen you up, prepare you for the ‘real world’ and largely, berate you for not following the rules or complaining that green beans should actually be green (not grey).

Most of my conversations as a kid involved the following lines from my parents

  • ‘If you think that, you’ve got another thing coming’ (still.. makes absolutely no sense)
  • ‘ You don’t talk to me like that young lady’
  • You’ll be laughing on the other side of your face in a minute (my face has two sides?)
  • I’ll wipe that smile off your face
  • You’ll get square eyes (used against tv watching and reading)
  • Do you want a smack? (ummm… no?)
  • If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about  (I can’t wait!)
  • What’s that silly look on your face for? (ummm.. my face?)
  • Don’t come running to me when you break a leg (ummm.. how?)
  • Eat your dinner, there are people starving in Africa who would die for that (not these beans they wouldn’t)

Funny yes.. but hardly ‘I love you’ territory. Parenting back in the 70’s was all tough love and rules. Parents weren’t there to be loved. They were there to ruin your fun and generally blame you for stuff you didn’t do. We didn’t expect to assured, or comforted, coached or counseled. We just had to keep our elbows off the table and our mouths shut.

No surprise that I spent most of my adolescence rebelling against everything my parents stood for. Rules, all of them.

I had bigger aspirations where there wouldn’t be any rules, I’d get to make it all up for myself. And I’d eat with my elbows on the table if I bloody well wanted to. The thought of their life – nice semi detached (duplex), 2 kids and a solid job with a good pension-  made me want to run screaming. Which I guess I did. Albeit quietly and in a very British low key way. (I went on a business trip and didn’t ever come home).

But with time and maturity you reflect and gain perspective. The notion of parents as mini jailors and dictators dissipates (or maybe its just hard to ground you from 3,200 miles away). You realize your parents were just doing what they knew and that honestly, they did ok. I’ve managed to avoid jail, the pole or drug abuse so I guess they’ve overlooked the divorce, the tattoos and the motorcycle. Clearly all those curfews and requirements to eat my greens paid off somewhere down the line. I still make myself eat kale even though I hate it, and yes, I know a kid in Africa is starving for it.

And while the ages of 14-18 caused significant scarring to my self esteem and anxiety levels, 17 years of American optimism and good medication have certainly helped limit the damage.

But over the past few years I’ve managed to put away the petty grievances and wishes, and just appreciate my parents for the people they are. The woman who gave me an iron will and an extremely faulty set of DNA. The man who proved that kindness and respect towards women doesn’t make you less of a man (and that nodding is often the easiest way to end an argument). Two people who, while they might not like each other very much sometimes, still sit down for a cup of tea together every morning and muse on life.

I would wish for such a partnership.

In fact these days, if I worry about anything I worry about them. About one day not having that voice in my head telling me ‘money doesn’t grow on trees’ or that ‘you’ll live’. That while I certainly don’t miss being asked ‘who do you think you ARE?’.. I do get nervous at the thought that someday.. no-one will remind me of the rules I now find myself living by  (‘were you born in a barn?’) or assure me of my place in the world – ‘stand up straight’, ‘elbows off the table’ and ‘take that silly look off your face.’

It might not be ‘I love you’ but its the only kind of parenting I know. And one day, hopefully a long, long time from now…I’ll miss it.

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