I am the mother of three young children, and it inevitably comes up in small talk on playgrounds and Sunday school, or wherever moms congregate. “Do your folks live nearby to help out with the kids?” I usually deflect with a comment about my in-laws, who live out of state. I throw in a reassuring word about how much we miss them, which is true. They are normal grandparents who love and care for their children and grandchildren. Sometimes that will be enough to satisfy the person and I can change the subject quickly. Other times, I brace myself for the next question. “And where are your parents?”
The in-law deflection bought me time to consider how much to share. If they are a total stranger, I usually say something vague, like, “Oh, they’re not around.” It’s awkward enough for most people to stop asking, but the obnoxious ones will persist. If I’m feeling bold, I might continue. “They’re mentally unstable, and I don’t feel safe around them.” After a few “Yeah, that sucks” nods, they usually walk away or change the subject. I wish I could say that they are dead, but I can’t bring myself to lie.
If I feel like I need to give a softer reply, I will tell them that, after years of trying to be in their lives and make things work, it didn’t. I wish them well, but they are not in my life any more. I don’t really like this answer, because, although it is true, it offers a fluffy version of the effects of abuse in my life. And I can’t stand fluff.
I have grown used to the sting I feel when I hear sweeping comments about a parent’s “unconditional love,” because it references a club that everyone belonged to except me. As a mother, I now understand what it feels like to love my children unconditionally, but I do not know what it’s like to receive that kind of love.
Addiction and mental illness contribute to my parents’ abusive behavior, but maybe the bigger reason is that they are also jerks. I know many people with all kinds of addictions and diagnoses who are actually nice people. Many are capable of being humble and self-aware, struggling to love their friends and family in spite of their illness. It’s difficult to determine whether nature or nurture is the cause of my parent’s abusive behavior. Probably both. Perhaps there was a time where they were “sane” but the series of choices they made in life contributed to the cognitive dissonance. In my family history, addiction, mental illness, and abuse go back for generations. They’ve always stood together, so it is hard to say which came first.
On my good days, I am relieved because I said no to the abuse. I can acknowledge that the decision to protect myself and my children took a lot of courage. I am grateful because my kids are happy, healthy, and safe. On my bad days, I feel the burden of guilt and shame for having to cut them off. Even though there is no realistic, safe way to include them in my life, I have absorbed the blame for the situation. After all, I made the choice to put a boundary between them and their grandchildren.
I’ve analyzed it enough to know that the misplaced blame is a symptom of the very abuse I experienced and escaped, but on my bad days, it doesn’t make the feeling of burden go away. I am sad that they do not get the privilege of seeing their grandchildren. Their grandchildren are amazing little humans full of love and joy. I get to see every day what they are missing, and I ache for them. I doubt my parents would be capable of appreciating my kids as complex individuals with their own personalities and ideas because they are incapable of seeing me that way. However, the guilt is hard to shake. I ask myself often if there isn’t a way to make it work, but unfortunately their particular type of abusive behavior makes it impossible. I have more work to do in this area. I wish it were as simple as letting go of the burdens, but there are whole thought patterns that keep those thoughts snugly in place. But I am slowly improving, shifting, and sorting what’s mine and what’s not.