This is a revised and expanded version of a post I wrote two years ago about my father.
Was she seven years old? I don’t remember my eldest daughter’s exact age when she asked the question:
“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend in school) said he isn’t.”
I had learned long before this, the value and importance of being honest.
I looked at Jorie, but perhaps could not see just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.
What I could see, however, was that she trusted me. And, in the few moments before I answered, I quickly determined that I could not break that trust.
“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”
I can still see her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.
It was not the last time that I caused pain to someone I love, but I think it was the first time I’d done this to any child of mine.
Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” tells you something that breaks your heart into pieces.
That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead; something to save this little person from the pain of a message that could have been postponed.
Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was there a possible Socratic dialogue — an artfully crafted sequence of questions that would have led her to the same truth and not hurt so much?
Could I have tried to change the subject, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?
Or, should I have simply lied? “Of course there is a Santa, Sweetie.” And then left her open to the potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.
Janet Landman, in her book Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen road for a while, before you realize that it isn’t quite as good as you had hoped. Eventually you conclude, “I probably should have taken the other path.”
It really doesn’t matter which road you choose. Nothing in life is perfect. But in your imagination, the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind, in the world of abstraction and fantasy, does perfection reside — the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.
And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.
Sometimes in life there is no ideal solution, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. And, of course, we never know what it would have been like to choose the other road at that precise moment. Because, as Heraclitus said, “you cannot step into the same river twice.” Meaning that with the passage of time, the river has changed, and so have you.
No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.
We must live with the inevitable heart breaks, whenever they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain what would have happened had we lived it differently.
Ultimately, one can only accept the terms life allows. The contract we (metaphorically) sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at the moment of our birth allows for no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.
I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge that I delivered so innocently that day, not just the knowledge about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think about it, it isn’t the knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, it is from the pain of life itself.
But, such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also have the compensations of beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.
Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.
The good news?
Our love abides.
Well meaning parents don’t always do well.
Or, to put it more bluntly, you can mess up your children without really trying.
Take the following example: two caring, well-educated, good people. They were in love with each other and loving toward their children.
One child was handsome, outgoing, and had a sunny disposition. Other children and adults were drawn to him. He awoke every morning with a smile on his face and brought cheer to those around him. Although not a great student, this boy was certainly bright enough; he made his way more than adequately in the world of friendship, study, and eventually, work.
His brother, however, did not have it so easy. To start, his body was ungainly. Even as a kid, he lumbered and lurched in locomotion. His cumbersome, block-like (not overweight) form caused him to stand out. Because of a lack of refined adroitness in matters of balance and dexterity, he was always the last boy picked in the choosing of teams on the playground and in the gym class.
To the good, he was astonishingly bright and intellectually curious, but this only fueled the separateness he felt, to which his graceless body also contributed. Outgoing though he was, peers tended to shun and ridicule him. Social skills did not come instinctively and this young boy’s efforts at outreach neglected the usual questions that facilitate social contact: queries like “How are you?” or “What did you do over the weekend?”
Monologues rather than conversations were the result, further emphasizing this kid’s peculiarity and securing his status as an outsider.
His parents were at a loss. Certainly, they treated their dear son with kindness and affection, and applauded his prodigious intellect and curiosity about the world. But, when they saw his unhappiness and discovered that peers marginalized and ridiculed him, each of the parents tried to put a good face on things. While they defended him when they actually witnessed the cruelty he received, the boy’s hurt was not discussed very much at home. The parents minimized or ignored his pain, believing it best to encourage him to believe that things would soon get better and telling him not to let the ill-treatment of the other children bother him.
Soon enough, this child tended to his wounds by himself, confiding little in his parents, as if he instinctively realized that they would not or could not offer him any response that would feel good. Those times late at night, often just before bed, when a child is most vulnerable and open to spill his pain, passed without the flow of consolation. Thus, like many children (especially boys) who find themselves feeling empty and alone, deadening his emotions was preferable to exposing his heart to further injury.
To be fair, mom and dad figured that their boy would come to them if he needed or wanted to talk, and read his attempts to kill his emotions as a lack of need for the solace that can be achieved by having a shoulder to cry on. Indeed, they thought that he would be angered by any attempt to invade his privacy and bring up uncomfortable topics.
Nor did the elders provide guidance in how to be more reciprocal with people or give him direction in how to create conversations rather than monologues. They never pointed out that it was important to show interest in what others were doing or saying, despite the fact that both of them routinely displayed this with their children and in their own social lives. Instead, the parents reasoned that their son was already feeling hurt and rejected; and they feared that they might injure him further by telling him that his conversational style could be improved.
By the time of his adulthood, our subject had become what one might expect based on his early life. Surpassingly bright, he went to an elite college and had a coterie of those who admired his intellect and creativity, but no real friends. The pain of rejection had long since been pushed down deep inside, to the point that he might not have recognized the need or value of “closeness.” He was as out of touch with the emotional side of his own life as he was with the feelings of his conversational partners. Our young man seemed to have little need to find out about what was going on “inside.” Nor did he understand that his failure to ask questions to peers could be seen as arrogance, indifference, or peculiarity.
Still, our youthful gentleman led an interesting life because he sought out intellectual stimulation and threw himself into numerous activities within the world of the sciences and the arts. But, it remained a solitary existence, even if it was no longer clear to what extent he felt marginalized, so cut-off did he seem from the matters that connect head and heart.
His parents still tried to put a good face on their son’s way of living, as much as they knew about it, since they continued to be hesitant to ask him sensitive questions. But deep down they wondered whether he could possibly have any close friends (not to mention lovers) given his way of talking to people. Even now they felt that it was too late to bring up things that might cause him pain or trigger his anger at them for prying into his life.
Instead, the parents would occasionally comment to friends about their unusual son, make good-natured jokes about him, and simultaneously take enormous pride in his considerable intellectual and vocational success in the very stimulating, if strangely disconnected life he had fashioned for himself.
In defense of the elders, it should first be said that they could have done much worse. Their son didn’t do drugs, steal cars, embezzle money, or trip old people crossing the street. They parented him instinctively, as most of us do with our children. They certainly did not want to hurt him but, in their tiptoeing around his emotional pain, they failed to recognize opportunities to provide needed consolation and guidance concerning the social skill he lacked.
One can imagine that things could have been different. Had the parents been comforting and validating of his early humiliations rather than choosing to minimize them, perhaps he would have felt less isolated and not cordoned off his feelings even from himself. Had mom and dad gently guided him in how to converse, he might have had more social success and seemed less odd because of his penchant to prattle on about himself. If the parents encouraged their child to salve his own and others’ unhappiness by first providing that soothing themselves, maybe intimate relationships would have flourished.
It is impossible to know for sure. Child-rearing isn’t like a laboratory experiment, with an experimental and a control group. The “what if” questions are never answered with certainty. Sometimes nature has its way, no matter a guardian’s best and most understanding efforts at nurture.
Raising children isn’t easy. If you are lucky, you have a child like these parents’ first born, who responded well to the instinctive default parenting style of mom and dad.
But, for those of you who have more than one child, it quickly should become clear that they do not come out of the womb as identical sprouts, each needing just the same amount of sun, temperature, water, and nutrition. No horticulturist would treat a tropical plant in the same way that we would care for one that can only flourish in a more temperate climate.
And yet, even today, parents too often believe that “one size parenting” fits all children, and that it is the child’s job to adapt to the parents’ approach to upbringing rather than the other way around.
Put another way, you can be a good parent to one child and a less-than-good parent for another, simply by taking the identical approach to each of them.
The rule is simple: be the parent your child needs you to be.
Search yourself. Ask what your offspring requires. What will work best for this particular little human being?
Then, if you discover that the required approach to child-rearing doesn’t come easily to you, learn and stretch yourself.
You are responsible for a human life.
No job in the world is as important.
The above image is Vincent van Gogh’s Mother Roulin With Her Baby.
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.
“My children are the most important thing in my life.” I know you have heard that before. You might well have said it yourself, believe it, feel it, and it might be true.
But are you injuring them anyway?
What I’m talking about here is the tendency to confide in children; to tell them things that they shouldn’t have to hear.
Feelings of depression and loneliness, criticism of your spouse, and details of your sex life (whether good or bad).
Questions to them about how you should handle your relatives and friends. Disclosures of insecurity about your abilities or your appearance.
Why not talk about these things?
First, you are the parent, not a friend. Even when we are older, we want to see our parents as people who are capable, strong, reliable, confident, and who will always be there. As children of whatever age, we want to know we can, in a pinch, go to our parents — count on their wisdom, and depend on their honor. We really don’t want parents to be friends, although it is good if they are friendly. We shouldn’t have to “take care” of the parent’s emotional life, serve as a confessor or a therapist; or function as a go-between for one parent in order for one alleged adult to get along better with the other nominal authority figure in the house.
Our children shouldn’t come to feel we are an emotional burden on them, the one who needs parenting rather than the other way around.
If our progeny are to separate from us, become independent, create healthy families of their own, take good care of themselves, and navigate the white water of twenty-first century life, it does not help them to take on the parenting role of their own parents.
I have known children who were required by one parent to retrieve the other from a neighborhood saloon. I have known children who were expected to accompany one parent on her detective work in an attempt to discover whether her spouse was cheating on her. I’ve known kids who were told to ask for the child support (much too common), expected to mix the parent’s favorite alcoholic beverage, smoke pot with mom, lie to the other parent, or cover dad’s money mismanagement; and when older, double-date with a divorced parent and take over the job of being the isolated parent’s social life.
It is usually the mom, not the dad, who cries on the child’s shoulder, gives too much information, and creates the emotional burden for the child. Dads are less likely, even today, to talk about their emotions and their weaknesses and insecurities. A father’s stoicism can be a problem for a child, but not usually in this particular way. Nor are fathers as likely to compete with mothers for a child’s attention, interest, and camaraderie.
Instead, when dads become a burden it is usually a consequence of their misbehavior, addiction, or life failures. Regardless, neither parent should communicate that the child must “choose sides” or take over the psychological role of a spouse, because one parent is estranged from the other and needs support. While such parent-child relationships are not frankly incestual in a physical sense, they can be emotionally incestual and contaminating, fraught with a sense of something not right and a feeling of complicity in the usurpation and betrayal of a much-loved guardian.
Even after childhood is over, we still prefer our parents to be bigger than life, ideal models capable of solving any problem, all deriving from the same instincts that caused us to say “My dad is better than your dad” when we were little. Of course, as adults we know it isn’t true.
A funny story: my dad told his three sons (when all of us were still small) he’d been a famous Chicago Cubs pitcher, but somehow, quite mysteriously, all record of this time in the Major Leagues had been lost! Moreover, he’d been so reliable, hard-working, and constant that he could pitch nearly every day. And so, his teammates came to call him “Rain or Shine Milt Stein.”
Soon enough we realize stories like this are not true. Soon enough we become aware our parents do not embody the perfect mix of human qualities. Eventually, we see that our elders have failures of judgment, imperfections of mood, and suffer from doubts and worries just like everyone else. We realize even our parents cannot protect us from heartbreak, failure, and injury. Soon enough we see them aging and grasp they will not be around forever, and might even come to a point when they cannot fully care for themselves. Life reduces everything to size sooner or later.
If you are a parent, don’t accelerate this process; know that your children need protection not just from the outside world, but from you — from your intimacies and personal problems and sleepless nights just as much as they need their own privacy and the permission to fail, to learn, and to grow on their own — to come into their own and own their lives, not to be hostage to your judgment, your worries about them, or worries about you due to an invitation or requirement to know you too well.
A parent is a guardian and a custodian, not an owner; a loving authority, not a buddy. A child is not on the planet for the purpose of fulfilling your life, but rather, to fulfill his own.
Your life is your job, not that of your offspring.
One of the greatest favors a parent can do for a child is to take good care of himself or herself both physically and emotionally, not expecting anyone else to achieve that result for him (or worry about the fact it is not being adequately accomplished). And yes, this means even such things as eating well, following medical advice, and making oneself as physically fit as possible.
How important are your children to you? Not in words, but in deeds — in the way you relate to them and the care you take of yourself?
If you haven’t put your words into action, might it be time to start?
(The reproduction at the top of this page is Rembrandt’s Young Woman Sleeping)
Nurturing, caring, loving, concerned, patient, compassionate, expressive, reliable, watchful, tender, giving, interested, independent, graceful, affectionate, accepting, enthusiastic, encouraging, strong, wise, and kind
preoccupied, worried, stressed, indifferent, cold, selfish, shrill, overwhelmed, judgmental, angry, impulsive, erratic, hard, numb, inconsistent, weak, troubled, vain, dependent, clumsy, clueless, and cruel.
As a parent and as a child, here’s hoping you came out and come out on the right side of this.
Rest on the Flight Into Egypt (detail) by Caravaggio
Before his marital infidelity discredited him, John Edwards spoke eloquently about “two Americas.” He talked of differences between the health care, financial stability, education and housing available to these two different parts of our society.
But there is another American divide that has created two other Americas: on one side the fighting men and women in our armed services (along with their families) and the rest of us on the other.
If you are unhappy about the polarization of our society, look no further than the differences that have been institutionalized by the volunteer army. However much good was achieved by the decision to eliminate the military draft, surely the absence of shared sacrifice has contributed to the ease with which we take opposing positions to our fellow-citizens on matters that have to do with national security.
No longer does the USA pull together for the long haul in the way that was possible during World War II. In part, “the Good War” was good because enough people believed in the values for which the USA fought, knowing that their children, husbands, and brothers would defend those same values with their lives; and it was good because the people of this country (regardless of class) shared in the rationing of goods and the sheer terror of having their loved ones abroad and in harm’s way.
If a war is worth fighting, it should not have merit only because the children of other people are fighting it, even if they do so voluntarily.
These thoughts occurred to me as I listened (on CD) to the book Final Salute by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jim Sheeler. This book is about the officers who inform families that they have lost a loved one, and of the families who suffer the unspeakable pain of the death of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, or a sister; a dad or a mom.
The book takes no sides on the question of the War in Iraq. Yes, you will hear occasional comments in support or opposition, but you will not think as much about these policy questions as about the human beings you meet along the way. Several families will become your acquaintances as well as the warriors — the Marines — who died serving our country. And you will also get to know Major Steve Beck, a Marine tasked to inform the families of their loss, the man who delivers a message nearly as shattering as the projectile that killed their loved one.
Major Beck and the Marines live by the creed that they shall leave no comrade behind. And, consistent with this value, Major Beck leaves no family behind, providing comfort and support long after the knock on their door that changes everything, that creates a “before and after” without end.
I wish I had the words to convey what is in this book. I don’t. But I can say that it is plainly written, eloquent in its simplicity, aching in its beauty, profound in its impact. It does not work to make melodrama of what is already poignant enough. Rest assured that you will think about war, any war, differently after reading or listening to Final Salute; unless, of course, you are a member of the “other America,” the one that fights the wars and sends its loved ones into conflict. If you belong to the bereft group within that group, then there is nothing contained in this book that you do not already know at a level too deep for words.
If you have lost just such a one as the young men portrayed in Final Salute, I can only give my condolences to you and your loved ones. It is thanks to the willingness of the few to serve on behalf of the many that the rest of us are safe.
We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, too detached from something of desperate importance: the work done far from home in our name by the children of other people. And too removed and distant from how these “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.
We need to remember that, for these families, the human cost never fully goes away.
They are out there, these inhabitants of “the other America.”
We walk by them unaware every day…
Kafka said that “a book is like an ax, to break the frozen sea within us.”
This is such a book.
The maps above are the work of Allstrak, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.