When we imagine our own children grown up and making their way in life, we hope that they will stay friends with us, and that we will continue to share warmth and pleasure with them until the end of our days. It doesn't seem too much to hope for yet the past record, expecially between fathers and their adult sons, hasn't been good. Some therapists and writers now suggest, that if we want to find peace of mind, let alone make good intergenerational relationships, we might have to “get it right” with our own parents first. For many of us hoping to “put the past behind us” this is not good news. The prospect of achieving some serious honesty with our father or mother is daunting.
Next time you're with a group of men, if you want to get into deep water, ask how they get along with their fathers. I've done this with several thousand men this year, and I can tell you the results. About thirty percent of men in Australia rarely, if ever, speak to their father. “It's history”, “pointless”, “a waste of time”. They are, to put it simply, estranged. Another thirty percent still see their fathers, but have a hostile, prickly relationship. They might proclaim themselves close, but every exchange is negative, full of put-downs, like two bears in a pit slashing at each other. The women who love them watch this in dismay, and see the results in hurt pride and residual tension.
Another thirty percent of Aussie males, the “nice” men, have a token friendship with their dads visiting once a fortnight, but rarely discussing anything deeper than lawnmowers. A curious mixture of utter boredom, and a yearning for something deeper that never happens.
That leaves ten percent, if you're keeping count. Ten percent of men, at most, have a sustaining relationship with their fathers. To these men, a father is an ally, a source of emotional support. When problems get them down, they talk to their dad. This kind of thing is rare in modern families, yet surely it should be the norm? Women and their fathers have differences too, and sometimes women and their mothers, though to a lesser degree. Sometimes brothers and sisters too are badly estranged. It's possible, with care, to heal these rifts, and important to our ultimate happiness that we do.
Since writing my last book Manhood, a steady flow of mail has arrived, much of it reporting breakthroughs between adult men and their fathers. It's an area of enormous emotional power for men the supposedly unemotional gender, and the letters reflect this more than once my wife found me wet-eyed on the verandah reading the morning mail. More and more men and women are diving into the void, and swimming for the other shore, wanting to find the human being behind their father's mask. Gerard, a friend of mine, at 41, was having trouble in his life. His marriage was staggering, his career was disintegrating. His kids were getting into trouble at school. As sometimes happens for men around this age, his life seemed to be going down the tube.
But what filled his thoughts as he tossed in bed at night, or sat fuming in traffic jams on the way to work, was not his present troubles. His mind kept going back to scenes from childhood all of which featured a common theme. He was recalling with great resentment the ways that his father had treated him, and certain episodes which came to mind again and again. He wondered if he was going crazy.
When we talked, I asked if his father was still alive; and in fact he was, though the man rarely saw him. I asked if he had considered going and “having it out” with him. At times of crisis new possibilities sometimes are taken up more easily. My friend took up the suggestion, and bought a ticket to Perth. When he got to his parents home, things were naturally awkward. At the meal table he broached the question of his childhood, and his father took on a stoney look. After a few seconds, the old man simply stood up, and walked from the room. My friend was angry, and walked after his father. To his amazement, the older man took the car keys and drove off down the street. Discussion was impossible. My friend made the long flight home several days later, dejected.
A few months later, his mother phoned to say that his father was in intensive care, after a major heart attack, and "not looking too good". My friend girded himself up, flew back to Perth, caught a cab to the hospital, and walked into the room where his father lay. He remembers an odd feeling in his body, like it was on fire. He stood over the old man and began lashing out at him verbally , “Why did you do this, "Why did you do that?”
The old man “rallied”, sitting up in the bed. He began to bluster out his defence. Missing parts of the story came out. They talked for several hours. Some of it was comfortable, some less so. Eventually things reached a natural ending. The two men shook hands, and said goodbye, knowing it probably was goodbye. My friend returned home. He told me he was enormously pleased to have had the conversation, not least because the old man died soon after. When I next met Gerard, his face had softened, and he seemed slower, easier in himself. His life too, was starting to work out.
Clearly death-bed confrontations are not the best way to do this. And the initiative does not have to be made by the younger person. Older men and women are also opening up these conversations now. They ask their offspring - “What do you think of your childhood now?” “Are there things you have always wanted to tell or ask me? ” “What haven't I told you that might make things clearer?” These brave souls reap all kinds of benefit from increased honesty, and the resolution of old misunderstandings.
How do you know if you need to really talk with your parents? Here's a simple test. Imagine you learn suddenly, that your parents have been killed in an accident. They are gone, and you will never speak to them again. After the initial shock dies down, how do you feel? What do you regret not asking them? Not telling them? What is left unsaid? Even a few minutes of thought here should be enough to tell you if you have work to do.
To reopen communication with a father, mother or other family member, and do so safely, takes real care. Here is what we have learned from talking to many people who have made the trip.
First you have to set the scene. Get away from familiar environments. Find neutral ground taking a day trip or a weekend away together is a good idea. Good conversations are not like in the movies they come in fits and starts, and need breathing space to digest what is being said. Fathers in particular respond better if you do something together shared activity relaxes men, and lessens the intensity of face to face confrontation.
If you are around your parents a lot in the first place, then opportunities sometimes just arise. Old patterns of behaviour will occur which you find deeply irritating or upsetting. Choose your moment, and speak up. Describe the behaviour, and its effect on you. “When you compare me to my brother it makes me feel very bad. I remember you doing that often when I was a child, and it made me hate my brother even though he's a good bloke. I would like you never ever to do that again”. Don't expect to be heard the first time. You may encounter blanket denial, and so have ready some clear instances to illustrate your point. Cornered like this, a parent may have a tantrum, stage an emotional collapse, threaten to throw you out, cut you out of the will!
One man recalled writing a letter, telling his father that he had been critical and negative throughout his childhood, and he wished that he could hear some praise. That he loved his father but he did not feel in any way close to him. The father wrote back saying “If that's how you feel, then obviously I have no place in your life. I won't bother you again.” To his great credit, the son wrote back and said “Don't be stupid - these are small but important changes. Lets meet and work on it some more”. The birth of an infant son had been the prompt for this whole episode, and both men had a big stake in working it out.
We've been conditioned by TV shows like “the Walton” to think that this is all resolved by falling into one anothers arms with cries of “I love you!”. The detail is important, doing the work, not just arriving at the destination. Two questions seem to form the core of this conversation. These are “What was it really like for you when we were children - what were you really experiencing, what was the whole story we couldn't be told as kids ?” And the second question goes further back still - What was their emotional history, their childhood, their wartime experiences, the truth about their marriage. The things they cut out of the “official history” cutting us off from their real self in the process.
This will almost certainly be a one-to-one conversation - good communication rarely takes place in groups - especially family groups. When the whole family is together, old patterns usually take over and overwhelm individual good intentions. Occasionally two siblings can tackle a parent together if they are “on side” and the task is difficult. Don't have your partner or children around at the time, or your parent will feel they must keep up appearances.
I suspect that you cannot do this work when you are young - under thirty, say. A degree of emotional independence has to be achieved, and a degree of humility that is not common in the young. Living in your own home, having a spouse who supports what you are doing, is very helpful. If you are materially or emotionally dependent on your parents, you can hardly afford to rattle the cage . If you have been wounded by childhood abuse, neglect, or have been suicidal or under psychiatric care, then concentrate on healing and support, first. Encountering your parents in this way comes much further down the track. Get a counsellor's help if you are in doubt.
Does this mean me?
Does everyone have to do this? Probably. This sorting out with parents may be the major mid-life ritual, the final step into complete adulthood. This, at least is my impression. As this creeps into the collective mind, one pictures millions of elder parents waiting in trepidation, for The Conversation - just as we waited as teenagers for The Big Sex Talk ! Perhaps they wait in anticipation - since a kind of "report card" on the end of childhood allows everyone off the hook in the end.
Woe betide the younger person who thinks that they sit in judgement on the elder's performance, without self-examination or sharing of responsibility . You may well have angers, sorrows, wounds to declare, but begin with the commitment to understand the story of the other person's experience. How their recollection differs from yours. Why they acted like they did.
A friend of mine went through a cancer scare, when his children were four and six. He found himself unbearably snappy, having some furious and almost violent outbursts as he strove to contain his stress. Yet he did not feel he could tell the children what was the real reason for his fears. His cancer was treated successfully, and two years later he is still “all clear”. He is wondering whether to explain to them the reason for his outbursts. One of his children still wets the bed, and has done since that time. There is no such thing as an uncomplicated family life.
We must do the best we can to explain ourselves, and grow closer as understanding becomes possible with greater age and experience. Too many adults patronize their parents with the rationale “They did the best they could”, which in practice means a lifelong charade of polite behaviour covering festering wounds that would be better explored.
Expect some resistance,or at least skilful deflection. Comments like “Its all in the past” ,“You don't understand” should be met with “What don't I understand? Give me a chance”. There is no doubt that this is a dangerous exercise. Tackling the wounds that were inflicted accidentally or on purpose, opens those wounds wide.
You may fear physical or emotional harm, either to you or them. If so, you may want to start with small issues only. If you find yourself losing the plot, go for a walk on your own, or phone a friend before getting on with the conversation. When I first wanted to tackle my parents about aspects of my childhood, I found it deeply frightening. My partner helped by asking two questions what was the worst that could happen? (Which of course was total estrangement. This was not likely, and since we had become quite distant, I had little to lose and everything to gain.) The second point was to keep one eye always on the goal. That the aim of this (and it is worth pointing this out in the course of the conversation, often if need be) was simply to get to a better place. To have a win-win result.
What returns in the end is perspective that most glorious of mental gifts. Once resentments are cleared, what often remains is a huge appreciation for our parents even the sheer physical care they gave us. Another compelling reason for “fixing it” with our parents, is that we owe it to them. Many older men and women go to their graves feeling that they have failed as a human being, precisely because of these intergenerational rifts. They know they are not liked or respected by their offspring, and this makes for great bitterness and sadness.
A man wrote to me from England this week, where he went to farewell his father. I quote from his letter - “We sat during the last three weeks of his life in splendid silence, but with total understanding. His only words would be that he was not very good at conversation. The most amazing thing was that towards the end I had to help him go to the toilet, and we always held hands, and not in the way I had ever held hands with anyone before. If I say the roles of father/son were reversed I think you will understand. Even now as I write this the emotion of wellbeing wells up inside me”.
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This is a big Story
But I have talked with dad
My Baggage, His Baggage
Steve on Peters Question
It's not easy for me
Well at least it was a talk.
Silence can be golden
How do you find out?
Worth a try