Parents just don't understand... or wait, maybe it was me...
I had no idea what it meant to truly love and honor my parents until I had babies of my own. Before that, it seemed there was an unbridgeable disconnect between us, made all the wider by soft-focus memories of my childhood, where parent-worship was indigenous, natural, simple. Adolescence felt like a fall, and suddenly their foibles and flaws and incorrigible “themness” stood out in sharp relief. To my myopic teenaged eyes, it was like they’d been born into middle age.
Sure, there were rumors of their alleged youth. There were photographs of them in a ragged Neiman Marcus hat box in one of their bedroom cabinets where they were all fresh and toothy and smooth-skinned in their denim bellbottoms. There were some tired stories that I’d heard a hundred times about my dad’s misadventures while growing up in LA with his three brothers and some vague, wistful allusions to what my parents called their “beach bum days”. But despite the evidence, I don’t think I truly believed they’d ever been under the age of 30. I didn’t believe they’d ever breathed that same adolescent oxygen that I did, fraught with giddy anticipation and electric possibility and cataclysmic drama. When my mom held me and smoothed my hair the night I’d come home from a school dance crying because all of my friends had been approached by boys while I watched in growing horror, knowing I’d be the last one, left all alone, bereft and loveless - and I was - I didn’t trust her well-intentioned perspective giving. I was a late bloomer too, she said, and once you bloom none of this will matter anymore. You’ll be beating them off with a stick, my dad offered, with what seemed to me an absolutely delusional air of confidence. They couldn’t possibly grasp the tragedy and utter mortification of being a 15-year-old reject., which I was certain was a permanent and indelible stamp of identity.
My love for them was mercurial, selfish - one moment I clung to them desperately as the tether to childhood that could keep me from drowning in the swells of adolescence, and the next I scorned them totally.
In young adulthood, the tension eased somewhat, but things still weren’t reconciled. I didn’t feel known by them anymore, nor did I feel like I knew them. The division rent by my ugly adolescent rebellion and their incomprehension of the dark, moody person I became was still deeply felt, If submerged.
And then I started dating a magical man with the most uninhibited laugh I’ve ever heard and we got engaged and married in the span of a feverish two-and-a-half months, and our first child was born a little over a year later. I was broadsided by the raw reality of birth and newbornhood. This, I thought? This is it? My pregnant delusions of spending my days drawing or writing with a peaceful, sleeping newborn in a basket by my side seemed dangerously laughable as my very soul was nearly pulled asunder by the darkness of postpartum depression. Still, as the darkness finally cleared and our family began to heal, I held tight to my childhood wounds and my belief that I was incompetently parented and I was going to be different for my child. Better.
Underpinning it all was this stubborn belief that my parents hadn’t really loved me, really loved me in the infinite and heartbreaking way I loved my child. I looked at my infant son and felt this oceanic devotion and exquisite tenderness that I didn’t believe they could have possibly felt for me.
When the revelation came it came swiftly and weepily and beautifully, as revelations do. This love and that love are one and the same. It took my breath away, to realize that my parents looked at me with that same gaze. They kissed my irresistible infant cheek, too, wiped my bottom (if that ain’t real love…), they clapped and grinned and squealed when as a toddler as I grew and tentatively explored the world, they praised me as I learned to read and write, they wrestled with answering my impossibly big seven-year-old questions about God and the universe and all the endless “why”s, and they watched with grief and worry while I zigzagged a reckless path through my late teens and early twenties. They rejoiced as they watched me become a mother. They delighted in me.
The most profound revelations are those that should have been apparent all along, but are hidden by our error, our egos. There wasn’t space in the shallow mindset of my youth for a love that is human, that fails sometimes, that needs forgiving, but still loves - really, truly loves - until I had children of my own. It was like I blamed my parents for not being perfect, fully-formed people when they bore me. The thread of motherhood knit together the wound caused by being imperfectly, sacrificially, sometimes blunderingly, but lovingly parented through my own imperfect, sacrificial, mistake-saturated and above all love-filled parenting.
Now that I am a mother, I know - parents are people, too. Now I can finally love, appreciate, and yes - honor- my parents, in their glorious, beautiful, broken “themness”. I used to long for the untainted parent idolization of childhood. But I don’t anymore, because the full circle love is more sumptuous and full. Our children’s love for us as the heroes of their small worlds is precious and pure. But the whole story is even better.