Thursday, January 27, 2005

the best they could do

[first apologies for those who originally came here from wasted birth control because of my trackback only to find a missing post. i was writing this from school and it wasn't finished, but it was class time, so as i was moving around to save the post as a draft, i apparently hit enter and it saved as a live post. i quickly reclassed it as a draft and so you didn't get to see it, but the trackback on cecily was already sent. anyway, here it is.]

cecily said something that really really bugs me. i'll let you read the whole post, but in talking about some of her mother's deficient parenting mechanisms, cecily observed, "she did the best she could with the skills she had."

i hear this a lot in meetings, when people try to avoid playing the blame game with their parents. what it's intended to mean is that we all play the hand we're dealt, whether it's five aces or a shitload of nothing. and that our parents did just the same.

i have a severe problem with it, though.

i've gotten past the point of blaming my parents for the mess my life became in my teens and 20's (even well after i stopped drinking), and on how hard i'm having to work in my 30's to clean it up. i cheerfully say it, and will say it to their faces if they need it: two of my three parents were hopelessly fucked up and would have been better off using birth control. the third, a loving step-parent, really did do what she could to make the best of a terrible situation, and in retrospect while she had her own problems, she was the best parent i could have ever had.

my other two parents, however, remain at arm's length because their little whirling dirvishes continue to run amok, and while my mother's is considerably less violent than my father's, i still think some of her priorities are way, way fucked up, and i want nothing to do with them.

here's my problem with what cecily said: it's bullshit.

parents' behavior and coping skills affect, and can severely fuck up, their children. children are incapable of protecting themselves from it, and don't even know what's going on most of the time. (by the time i realized what was going on in my own family, i was already approaching miserable-piece-of-shit-ness and i couldn't have turned the ship around without lots of help and cooperation from my -- haha -- parents.)

it's parents' jobs to find the skills to be better, by whatever means necessary. "doing the best you can with what you've got" is a cop-out. it means that you're unwilling to learn something new and do even better. it means you're unwilling to stretch and grow and try and even fail sometimes.

"doing the best you can" means going on with your life the way you've always lived it, repeating the same mistakes your parents made.

one of my dad's criticisms of his parents was that they were always too busy for him, working in an army surplus store they owned that provided them a comfortable but not rich living. my dad said something along the lines of, when i have kids i will be around for them.

great goal. he even recognized part of the problem.

but he completely, utterly failed to follow through. daycare ended at six. it was common for me to be left there until eight or 8:30 pm, sitting there doing nothing, waiting for him to come get me. he was too fucking busy to make what i now know to be a 10 minute trip to come get me and take me home. what does that say to a child? it says you're not important enough for me to spend 20 fucking minutes to come get you in the afternoon.

when i had things i wanted to do outside the house, like weekend school activities or extracirriculars, i learned very quickly that if i wanted any prayer of arriving before the program ended, i needed to figure out how to get myself there and back without any intervention from him. if it required him to stand up and put on pants, it was too much bother to take him away from his business.

beyond even that, everything had a monetary value, and it was necessary to constantly remind me of that value, so that i would be properly appreciative. it wasn't a television. it was a $200 television. it wasn't a bed. it was a $20 bed he bought at a yard sale. it wasn't a set of braces for my teeth, or a visit to the doctor. it was a $5,000 set of braces or a $150 visit to the doctor.

the example i remember most vividly of being left out to dry in ways that made me feel worthless and secondary was for my bar mitzvah. for those of you who don't know, it's the jewish rite of passage, and for boys it happens at age 13 (for girls at 12). if you live long enough you get a second one, at 83.

for mine, i was point-blank promised an external floppy disk drive for my macintosh. at the time it was a significant purchase, something on the order of $300. he said if i found one for less than like $250 he'd get it for my bar mitzvah; i did, he didn't. he said when the check came in from so and so slow-pay client, he'd get it. it came, he didn't. i'm pushing 31 and i'm still waiting.

i got something on the order of $3,000 in cash and bond gifts from people for my bar mitzvah. we put most of that money away into a college savings fund, except for the bonds. the bonds are now lost, gone forever since you have to search by social security number, and since they were gifts, my ssn isn't on them. and he stole the college fund the monday after i moved out; it's totally gone forever. something on the order of $25,000. i could really use that money now.

this from a parent who swore he wouldn't be the parent he had.

every parent wants better for their kids than what they had. at least the ones who i would like to respect do.

but the ones i really respect are the ones who put some fucking effort into at least acting like it, not like mine who didn't bother to even put on a show. if all he had was a bullshit model, he needed to find another model and put some work into learning how to be a parent. he didn't; he just repeated what he said he hated, without even trying to do better.

the truth of "he did the best with the skills he had" is that it lets us act like we're being grateful and recognize our parents' human limitations, when really, all it does is let us overlook their failure to try to do better. when i'm still cleaning up the mess in my 30s, and being miserable while doing it, he doesn't deserve to get off the hook. yes, i am responsible for my part; but not everything i am today is the result of my choices; some of it is the result of my childhood.


  1. You hurt about it so badly, and I'm sorry that your pain is so intense. But the past can't hurt you now. (It's fun to have fun but you have to know how)

  2. Your point is valid, but the truth is, I said she did the best she could--not that she did a good job. In fact, the best she could do was pretty fucking shitty.

    I don't want to let her off the hook, but I find spending a lot of time being angry about how I was raised hurts me, and doesn't make it change. Somedays I'm really pissed off about it, and some days I can forgive her (at least for what she did when I was a kid. There are a couple of things she did once I was an adult I can't find forgiveness for--yet).

    And while what she did sucked, it could have been so much worse. She was raped and beaten by her parents--and she didn't pass that on to me. So she DID work hard to change. But she was 19, poor, and therapy wasn't an option--so I think she changed as much as she knew how.

    Glad I could write such a provacative post. :)