To Love in Spite of Everything

Most of us have stories about our parents. When I get together with my brothers, we always call up funny incidents or their witty sayings.

The folks have been gone over 20 years, and I can assure you not all the events were rosy. These days, however, at a more than two-decade distance, we don’t care much about our old complaints.

Like water against the rock, they have been worn away.

Had you asked me about my early years a few decades back, I wouldn’t have spoken as often about the fun times as the dark ones.

They grew up in the Great Depression, and nothing about the economic survival of the Fabians (Jeanette Stein’s family) and Milton Stein’s home in the same period was easy. Nor did their parents win childrearing awards.

I was a therapist to people who still carried the psychological wounds of childhood. My understanding of their experiences sometimes grew out of my own youth. 

A number of my patients wished for different parents, a desire I never thought about but could grasp from the stories these women and men told me.

That raises questions.

Did you long for alternative guardians? Do you believe such a solution could have saved them from each other? Would it, at least, have prevented a portion of the emotional injury you incurred?

Of course, almost all of our caretakers did considerate things dumped in the same garbage can with the bad ones worth erasing.

What else would have lodged in the discard pile if the wish became real?

All your school friends, including a magnificent classmate met in fourth grade and held close to the present day. The games you enjoyed, especially those you won.

Remember too, the people who recognized the lovely voice you possessed, how fine your drawing was, and the teachers who displayed kindness or demanded more academic effort until finally, you gave it.

You’d never have encountered the next-door neighbor who played catch with you because he knew you missed your dad and the kindly owner of the corner candy store. He called you “son” and shared baseball stories. 

Don’t forget another adult who saw the goodness in you when the folks at home turned away in disgust.

In this imaginary vanishing of the elders, your first love departs, too, along with all the joyous, light, romantic dates with others.

These and 1000 other experiences — absent from your life.

Well, I hear you saying your life would have been even better with an alternative Mother and Father designed for each other and you.

Perhaps, but you’ve forgotten one missing ingredient to that superior life.


I’m speaking of your life itself because if the same imperfect pair hadn’t made love when they did, you’d never have been born. Imagine a different growing sperm/egg couple taking your place on the bridge to the world.

Your parents gave you life, a chance, even if the winning ticket didn’t seem worth the paper it was printed on. Since you are reading this, it means you’ve found value in the time and the opportunity.

Much as we curse the darkness, the door exists to seek the light.

Do you doubt this? Read or listen to the thoughtful short poem by Sharon Olds, I Go Back to May 1937.

If the author’s apparent autobiographical details are her own, she describes how she invented a way to manage despite her parents.

There are many ways of overcoming.

Take one.


The top image is Georges Braque’s Still Life with Ace of Hearts, 1914.

The first recitation of the poem includes the text as read by Guy Mulinder. His version allows you to read along with him or turn off the sound and read silently.

The second, by John Lithgow, is also very fine.

Guilt about Betraying Parents: “They Did the Best They Could”

Young children are not the only ones who believe that their own mom and dad are the best in the world.

You know the sort of thing I mean: “My dad is stronger than your dad” and the like.

Adults do this too. Or, at least, try very hard not to think the worst of them.

Any therapist with experience has heard many heartbreaking stories about children who have been abused, deceived, lied to, cruelly and unfairly criticized, used, mistreated, and neglected. He has heard from the adult children what their parents did do and didn’t do — about folks who perpetrated the abuse directly and others who looked away or simply told the son or daughter to “try not to upset dad” rather than protecting him or her from dad.

The now-adult children will make up lots of excuses about such things: “They did the best they could” or “They didn’t know any better” or “Lots of parents were that way when I was growing up” or “How can you expect anything better when my folks had even worse childhoods themselves” or “They were having so many of their own problems at the time” or “Other people had it worse than I did” or “They’re old people now and I wouldn’t want to hurt them (by bringing this up)” or “It happened a long time ago; what is the point of talking about it now.”

Or simply, “It feels wrong to talk negatively about them.”

Most of the patients about whom I am speaking come to therapy with some sense of personal inadequacy, low self-esteem, and unhappiness, if not depression. Some have these feelings despite a considerable set of personal achievements. They may be captains of industry, millionaires, doctors, lawyers, college professors, and professional athletes. Many of them have a good and loving spouse and adoring children. But, no matter what has been accomplished or how good their current life is in an objective sense, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

Others try to fill themselves up with acquisitions: a new car, a new house, a new spouse, a new watch or appliance or piece of clothing; and, for a brief period — an hour, a day, a month — this might even boost their mood. But then, things return to the steady-state of emptiness as the shopping-therapy fails.

For these people, the ones who seem to “have everything” but remain unhappy, the Marilyn Monroes of the world, the solution usually requires that long-standing internalized negative self-attributions (critical thoughts or beliefs about oneself) be reviewed and challenged. Sometimes cognitive behavior therapy is able to achieve this.

But there are other instances when the negative verdict of a difficult childhood is so indelibly stamped on the soul of the patient, that he must look back at the original painful source of his injury, grieve his losses, and reevaluate who his guardians were and what they did, or didn’t do.

In cases such as this, the set of excuses I mentioned earlier becomes a problem. Words like “They did the best they could” stand between the patient and his ability to look frankly at his early life without feeling that he is betraying his parents in so doing.

Here is what I frequently say to those of my patients in this predicament:

First, you will do no harm to them in talking to a therapist. There is no rule that says they must be told what you are relaying to a counselor. Indeed, if your parents are dead (as is sometimes the case), then they cannot be told and are safe from any injury that you believe you might do to them.

You need not concentrate only on what they did that might have hurt you. It is equally important to look at what they did that might have helped, and at the complications in their own lives that made good parenting a challenge.

But, even if they showed you some consideration and kindness from time to time, if it really wasn’t so bad, why are you careful to raise your child differently than you were brought up?

Realize that good child rearing is not simply the sum total of all the positives and negatives of your parents’ approach to you, such that the former will always balance out the latter. Imagine that your parent gave you a million dollars and put it in your right hand; and then said, “Now in return, you must allow me to disable your left hand.” Would this be an example of good parenting? Would the provision of a million dollars compensate you for the lost use of your left hand? Not to just anyone, but due to the behavior of your parent?

Yes, it is likely true that some others had it worse than you did. But does that mean you are free of injury? Imagine that you are walking down the street. You pass a man in a wheel chair. He is moving the vehicle by use of his two arms and you think to yourself, “Poor man.” But, a few blocks down, you now encounter another wheel chair-bound individual. Unlike the former person, this man’s arms are incapacitated.

If you are to measure the physical state of these two men against one another, you are likely to evaluate the second man as worse off than the first. But, just because the first person is better off, one must admit that he still is unable to walk.

As I said, there is almost always someone worse. But that doesn’t mean that your injury counts for little or nothing.

Finally, the look back is intended not to keep you focused there, but to liberate you so that you can live more fully in the present; it isn’t to be angry with your parents or to harm them (although anger might be involved in the grieving process). Rather it is to free you from the weight of a childhood that you still carry, the sense of your own falling-short that you can’t otherwise shake, to leave you lighter and less burdened by the long reach of your youth.

Wouldn’t loving parents want this — for their child to be happy and free from any hurt they might have caused? What would you want for your child?

You see, the heart has no clock built into it. Even though you may think very little about the time elapsed, the heart still keeps a living record of the damage, as fresh as the day it was inflicted. You’ve tried ignoring it; you may have tried other types of therapy. Perhaps it is time.

You needn’t feel guilty. You needn’t feel disloyal. Your heart waits patiently for its cure. The therapy is not intended to place blame or to harm your parents, but to heal you.

Looking back may be able to help with that.

The image above is Parent with Child Statue, Hrobákova street, Petržalka, Bratislava by Kelovy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.