Question: I’ve had a very strained relationship with my parents since I left home in my early 20s. They weren’t great parents in my opinion. They weren’t abusive but they were cold and my mom in particular was very negative – she was always putting people down. My dad isn’t much better – he’s very self-centered and always groaning.
Thing is, they’re in their 80s now. My mother fell and was incapacitated after being in the hospital for two months. She is about to go home and my father called me and told me that they needed my help and that I had to move home and take care of them “like any daughter would.” I would rather die. I have a brother who I haven’t spoken to in over a decade, but he’s married and lives abroad so they don’t have anyone else. I have no children and am single. I am so angry that I am being put in this position and I am also ashamed of how bad my family relationships are. Do I have to take care of them? It sounds harsh, but I don’t want to spend what’s left of my 40s on people I don’t like. There is no money to invite anyone. am I a terrible person?
Allison replies: It is poignant to see you say that you feel trapped in caring out of duty, obligation and guilt because you feel your parents were not abusive. This leaves a heavy mix of shame about you, hers, and how you think others will perceive and judge you if you don’t step into that role.
However, no one outside has the lived experiences of your family. Even your brother will have had different experiences and memories and since he is estranged this must add to the burden of responsibility placed on your shoulders alone. The stigma surrounding the concept of “family first” often does not align with the reality of family life behind closed doors.
A sense of isolation or being different from other families in terms of feeling disconnected may have caused your emotional needs as a child and/or adolescent to not be met. There’s a myopic and destructive notion of what “bad enough” is, as it leads people to believe their emotions aren’t important enough—or never were—to be validated. This cycle begins when you may have been upset or expressed strong feelings that your parents, even when distracted, were not meeting your needs.
CEN, or childhood emotional neglect, occurs when a parent fails to consistently and pervasively meet the child’s emotional needs. Emotions may have been devalued, rejected, or ignored, and a child learns to suppress their emotions, not express them, and not trust their own emotions. A parent who is not connected to themselves will have difficulty connecting to their child. If you think of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, it is active and intended abuse. It is the latent act of non-reactivity and failure to act that can make it difficult to even know when the wound occurred.
The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day in October is “Making mental health and well-being a global priority for all”. There are so many strands, but one that is so important is that this starts at and within the home. Not everyone experiences this central experience of secure attachment. The good news is that you can learn, grow, and repair.
Here’s the hard part. Not only is it difficult for you to relate to, but it can also be difficult for parents to relate to as many parents do so unintentionally. I don’t know if that was the case in your home, suffice it to say you felt your upbringing was cold and your parents emotionally absent and critical of others. If we look at this through the lens of learned beliefs that may be absorbed about the world, it will have left a mark on how you think others will think of you, which may also affect your future decisions.
Begin to notice if you have an inner “critical parent” at times of challenges and/or difficulty making decisions about how you live your life. If a parent hasn’t or hasn’t experienced open, warm, connected, or emotionally engaging parenting in their own home, how can they do that with their own child?
Bringing compassion and paying attention to the context of the time and cross-generational family patterns can really help with the why. One danger of emotionally unresponsive parenting is that if you’ve shown feelings that were considered “unacceptable,” such as anger or fear, you may label your reality with words like “You’re so dramatic” or “It’s not like that bad as you say’ and an internalization that your feelings are wrong.
Each generation of parents may have worked hard to do better than their own parents—yet it’s so easy to see how learned patterns persist as family norms when it comes to parenting. Sometimes when family relationships are so difficult, people physically leave the country. From what you’ve said, I take it your brother doesn’t talk to your parents either, which leaves only you. Life is cruel, and misguided notions of duty—especially when it comes to notions of family—can take away from the meaning of the health of relationships within that family system.
Have you ever spoken to your parents about how you’re feeling? you know your parents Sometimes these conversations can come as a huge shock to the parents and they may feel defensive, angry and/or shocked and need time to process what it all means. Sometimes it may not be heard at all and you will be blamed and shamed for upsetting your mother or father.
Knowing your parents and how you think they will react is important to your approach. After you have seen both sides, it would certainly be helpful to be accompanied and supported therapeutically in this decision and your experiences. I’ve been pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised at the reactions of parents when conversations like this take place. Once the initial shock wears off, it’s either the end of the relationship, or attempts at repair have been made from a place of not really being aware of the pain they caused, and new relationships are formed — sometimes to the first time. There’s a lot to unpack here, but I hope this will start a healing process for you.
Allison regrets that she cannot correspond. If you have a question you would like raised in this column, send an email firstname.lastname@example.org
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/ask-allison-must-i-give-up-whats-left-of-my-40s-to-care-for-my-cold-uncaring-parents-42071398.html Ask Allison: Do I have to give up what’s left of my 40s to take care of my cold, uncaring parents?