Parenting with the Weight of the Past

By Craig Idlebrook
Web Exclusive – November 7, 2008

Father and daughter laughingI found myself screaming at my toddler again, repeatedly telling her to shut up until the only sounds she made were little gulps. This was not the kind of father I wanted to be, and watching her frightened reaction, I knew I had to change.

When I first learned I was going to be a father, I vowed to be kind to my child in a way my parents weren’t always with me. I grew up in a home where fights were personal, explosive, and frequent. Both my parents had short tempers, and fights sometimes lasted days. Hitting was extremely rare, but my mother often dragged my brother and me into the middle of conflicts and demanded we take sides. It was a tactic that terrified me.

I thought I could avoid this with my daughter. My wife and I had waited a decade before deciding to have children. In that time, she proved that yelling would never work with her; whenever I tried to raise the volume of an argument, Frances would simply walk away. I eventually became conditioned to approach disagreements in a quiet and, at least, semi-rational way if I wanted to get anywhere.

But soon after Clara was born, I found myself raising my voice at her when Frances wasn’t around. At first, I assumed I was just overtired and needed earplugs. But as Clara grew older, I began to bark at her when she wouldn’t leave Frances’ side and play with me. The rejection stung, plus I worried she was draining my wife. I sometimes stole Clara away under protest. Usually, we ended up having fun, but twice I yelled when she continued to call for her mother. Once, she tried to defend herself with the only word she knew, tearfully saying “baby”. It broke my heart.

I must have yelled at my child a dozen times during her first two years. It may not seem like much on paper, but it was a dozen times more than was warranted and it was affecting our relationship; each time I yelled at her, she trusted me less. I knew my window of opportunity for establishing a good relationship with my daughter was closing and I grew desperate to find a way to change the pattern.

I’m a facilitator for a program that helps men learn to be compassionate and effective fathers, an irony that isn’t lost on me. One of the key lessons taught in the program is that we father with the ghosts of childhood on our backs. If there was past abuse or addiction in the family, those traumatic experiences color how we behave as parents, whether we want them to or not. We first learn how to treat our children by how our parents treated us, and it’s hard to undo past lessons.

But by acknowledging a childhood trauma and seeking therapeutic release and closure, the program’s text assures a father can move away from hurtful models of parenting. The first step begins with talking about what happened and bringing it out into the open.

But what if your childhood wounds lack specific clinical terms or don’t qualify for a therapy group? How do you talk about the smaller traumas that leave little scars and hang over you as a parent?

I tried talking to my brother about our childhoods, but he’s always dismissed such conversations; all families are dysfunctional, he said. To him, our experiences fell into the comforting bounds of normalcy. For years, I couldn’t seem to find the words to talk to my parents about it either.

It is fortune that my wife listened whenever I tentatively broached the subject, and over time I began to slowly verbalize to her what I couldn’t say to myself. (It helped, I admit, that she and my parents have never gotten along.) In the past year, that process has accelerated and I find myself blurting out simple truths about the painful moments of my childhood-that it wasn’t okay for my parents to involve me in their fights, to lie to me, to call me names, or to hit me; that though I love them and I know they tried their best, some of what they did was wrong.

Ever since I’ve spoken these sentiments out loud and written them in a letter to my parents, I stopped yelling at Clara. Somehow, admitting my own wounds has stopped me from inflicting the same wounds on my daughter. Our relationship has vastly improved; she now seeks me out to play and asks me to take her on adventures around town. Recently, she and I had our first overnight together without Frances; I didn’t raise my voice once.

I wish I could say my relationship has improved similarly with my parents. They’re still mystified about my letter and don’t seem to want to discuss it. I hold onto the hope that speaking truthfully about the past will help us grow closer as a family someday, but I also know there’s a possibility our relationship may never recover.

It’s a risk worth taking. If the choice comes down to holding onto the ghosts of my childhood or giving my daughter a childhood with fewer ghosts, there’s really no choice at all.

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