My parents should have never been parents. While I’m thankful they got together and had me, this is about as far as I will go in praise of them. I’m not going to spend the length of this column disparaging them. I’ll offer that my mother valued her string of boyfriends over her son, but suffered under their multiple right-hooks. I met my father a handful of times; the final time I ever saw him, we got into a fistfight. (He wanted to see “what kind of man” my “silly country girl” mother was raising.)
It's kind of a tough admission to publicly declare, but what others perceive as my being a “great parent” is partly motivated by fear. I’m afraid that I’ll be the parent my parents were.
It would be terribly easy to list the horrible events that comprise my memories of childhood. Anger, fear, lack of attachment, loneliness, violence and uncertainty swirled around me like seductive phantoms, inviting me to embrace and normalize the despair. But the bad events aren’t nearly as important as how I eventually responded. I distinctly remember being in a couch cushion fort, praying to a God I wasn’t too sure existed at the time, and promising I’d raise my kids better than my parents did.
“God, if I have kids, I promise you that I will always love them. They will always have enough to eat, and they will always be able to go on field trips at school.”
At first, everything I did was in reaction to how I was raised. I’d force myself to do the opposite of what my parents did, and what I imagined they would do. But you can’t live a life based on anger-fueled reactions. The only thing I accomplished was burning myself out. Being angry while allowing negative thoughts to constantly occupy your mind is not only exhausting, but it’s toxic to your future relationships. The shift in this mode of thinking came when I did something that I thought I would never do—I forgave my parents.
When my daughter came along, I was still in my reaction phase. I made concrete plans, plans to not make the same mistakes my parents did. Parenting isn’t a concrete activity, meaning that if you can’t be flexible in your parenting style, you run the risk of making similar mistakes to the ones that you’re so ardently trying to avoid. The more steadfast I was in my ways, the further and further I pushed my wife away. I pushed her so far away that we were about a half-inch from divorcing not more than two years prior to this writing.
I thought about the abuse, the absences and all the rest, and came to terms with the idea that my parents weren’t perfect. I had no right to expect them to be.
The turning point came when I did a kind of review of my life and took the time to actually look at the good things that have happened, instead of magnifying the bad. I worked hard to get all kinds of alphabet behind my name; our house is nice and livable; the cars are nice; the refrigerator is stocked; our daughter takes gymnastics, Capoeira, and other stuff; I have a decent job.
I’d never done this before, and it’s truly bothersome that it took the near-implosion of my marriage to realize that I had it pretty good—although something continued to stifle my ability to truly (without judgment or qualification) appreciate what I had, and what I had to offer. Some kind of weight was still holding me down.
I wish I could tell a beautiful story about how I had some kind of cosmic epiphany, heard God’s chimes or was visited in the night by an angel who gave me the wisdom needed to be the better person I was supposed to be. It was a bit more boring than that.
I thought about the abuse, the absences and all the rest, and came to terms with the idea that my parents weren’t perfect. I had no right to expect them to be, and I was on an upward trajectory, despite my past. I thought about the future that I wanted with my wife and child, and forgave my parents. Simple, yet powerful. Weight lifted.
While I’m still attacked by childhood memories that coax me into becoming angry, I now have the presence of mind to see them for what they are: recollections of a past life I’m no longer living.
I smile at them, wave, forgive my parents (yet again) and keep it moving into a brighter future.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.