In your formative years, your parents are your universe. They are your protectors, nurturers, providers, comforters. You couldn’t create a more heroic part for a person to play. For the lucky amongst us, our parents step up and fulfil these roles. Fathers become giants of men, superhumanly strong. Mothers are the font of all wisdom, and cure ills with nothing but a magic kiss.
These relationships morph, as we grow and enter our teenage years, but rarely stray far from the original bonds. A daddy’s girl at four remains his princess at sixteen. Mum’s best girl still calls her every day without fail throughout the first year of college. We find comfort in these dynamics. We leave the nest, begin the adventure of navigating our new lives, and expect our parents will stay behind, reliably unchanging.
Until they do, suddenly and unexpectedly.
It blindsides you on a visit home for the weekend. You catch a flash of hurt on your sister’s face after a comment on her weight or you overhear an off-colour joke about LGBT rights. It’s nothing more than a moment, but it’s enough. Without their even being aware, your idea of who your parents are begins to shatter. The qualities that you had cherished – their ability to keep a whole table laughing, to always offer honest advice – flip. Now, they are unable to share the limelight, they’re insultingly blunt. They are no longer the person you thought they were, and you have been betrayed by them.
I was utterly furious with my parents, outraged that they were behaving in ways I couldn’t have expected. How could they do this to me? My dad was only supposed to be funny, witty, intelligent, understanding and kind every single day for the rest of his life. That way I could be talented, beautiful, witty and hardworking, just like he had said I was. If I was to leave room for him to possess a trait that could be deemed undesirable, my faults would spring into existence too.
We view ourselves through the lenses of our parents, through the adjectives they chose to describe us. The traits they encouraged or praised or criticised give us an outline of who we think we are. No matter what else changes, we can go back to defining ourselves as ‘messy’ or as a ‘good girl’, whichever phrase we heard most regularly. Accepting the fallibility of the adults who gave us these definitions, means redefining ourselves. I had zero interest in doing that, and so I clung even harder to my concept of them both.
Who wants to admit they’re angry with their parents for being human? It’s far easier to smother this belief that you have been deceived, and let this manifest itself in other ways. We become passive aggressive, are “too overwhelmed with work right now to call, sorry”. We lash out, discussions replaced with full blown rows. Our reactions to habits they’ve maintained for years become increasingly irrational. It’s hard to deny that the only ones overwhelmed by the idea of parents as simply other adults, are their children.
My parents have never claimed to be perfect or to know everything. None of our parents have. “To be honest love, I don’t know,” is a regular refrain in most homes. They too were once young, bumbling along, we arrived, and they continued bumbling along, only now carrying us too. For our benefit, they attempted to step into the roles of mothers and fathers. How must it feel, years later, to realise that your decades of effort are being scrutinised through newly perceptive eyes? Do you then have to question your own choices – are you living up to the standard you encouraged in your children? Are you terrified of being found out as a parenting fraud? Or are you filled with pride, understanding that there is a point of maturity someone had to reach in order to see past the label of ‘Mam’?
Once all the emotional upheaval settles, what then for the future of the relationship? For some of us, it’s been too tainted, the person discovered too flawed. The hurt caused is irreparable. We realise that disengaging completely from the parent is the safest route to take, in order to protect ourselves emotionally. Or perhaps it’s not so extreme, but we aren’t willing to change so we try to half accept, half deny our parents as people. We remodel the box we originally slotted them into, fobbing off any newly seen idiosyncrasies as a sign of their slide into dotage. Every single conflicting thing about them gets filed under “Ah, that’s just Mammy”, with a roll of the eyes. Once we have them reconfined under this new label, they feel familiar to us again.
My parents will never simply be my friends, but equally, I no longer want to know them as just my parents. Wanting this doesn’t make either of them any less infuriating, unfortunately. But I have no roadmap for how I should behave with them now. I have to accept that until I adjust, there will be days when every word out of my father’s mouth gets right under my skin. I will have moments when I genuinely miss the saintly image of my mother that I created. This recalibration has been slow and awkward, less heartwarming movies, more unexpected intimacies. My dad actually swears a lot, but only around me. My mother’s David Bowie memory was of the fetching Starman-inspired mullet she sported at seventeen. The mullet and her curls made for a striking style, by all accounts.
Years are spent unconsciously seeking recognition from our parents. We need them to confirm for us, that despite our failings, we are still lovable. There is no need for us to return that favour, because this is our story, how we are feeling is the focus. They are the backstory in our epic. When we ourselves settle down to have children, we won’t realise that our past lives will be erased. In our children’s eyes, we will be archetypes – generic mams and dads. We will continue on, the heroes in our own narratives, and someday, they might see us that way too.
Áine Ní Laoghaire is an actor/performer based in Dublin. She tweets at@ainedunleary and writes mini fashion paragraphs at wantonboys.wordpress.com.