“He lets me down every time. Why did I think this time would be different? Was it because I needed him so much?”
We sat in silence, in my office, while I gave my client the space she needed to have her tears. She had just crossed the country to Oregon to visit a father she barely knew. The visit was intended to give their relationship another chance, but sure enough he was worse than ever – drunk and abusive. His first comment when she stepped off the plane was about her weight. She was crushed.
I was reminded of another client I’d seen the week before, preparing to come out as gay to his Venezuelan mother.
“I can’t tell her. It’s killing me to live this lie, but she’s all I have – my only family. If she disowns me, I’ll be alone.”
He, too, shed tears.
These clients are two examples of people navigating parental separation.
You will go through this, too, like everyone else. It is inevitable.
You might be close to your parents. They might be wonderfully supportive, and good friends. You may love them deeply. But love and anger go together – two sides of the same coin. If you love people intensely, you must also have your anger towards them. A child cannot own his anger at his parents – he requires their care to survive, so if there is any disruption in that care, he blames himself for failing to please his care providers. In the child’s mind, it must be his fault that the parents are failing to provide the care he needs. Above all else, he knows he cannot survive without his parents’ care, so he must please them, and that means he cannot have anger towards them. As an adult, you can own your anger at your parents – and so you must, just as you must begin to provide care for yourself.
As an adult, you digest the reality that parents are people, no different from yourself – not the omnipotent gods of your childhood. Your parents will fail you. They will disappoint you – even the very most well-intentioned parents. All parents disappoint their children, because parenting is an impossible job.
Just as a child depends upon parents for his survival, a parent’s primary task is to provide basic care and love for his child. But there is an additional existential task. It falls under your watch as a parent to witness your child’s awakening to adulthood, and to the reality of death – and with it, the stark fact that you will someday fail that child, if only by leaving him alone. You, a parent, are human. You are not perfect. You will die and abandon your child. There is nothing you can do to prevent that.
Your child is also different from you – a unique individual, like all individuals – and as a parent, you cannot provide any child with all the care he needs. No one can give anyone else all the care another person needs. A unique individual can only provide that for himself.
With parental separation, you let go of your parents as life-support devices, and begin to breathe on your own. You learn to parent yourself. The child is still there – but an adult is there too, developing the ability to provide, as well as to receive, care.
It is frightening to experience the transition of parental separation. It can be overwhelming and you may attempt to flee it. But once you adapt to the reality, it can be enormously empowering. No one can take better care of you than you.
A child can be abandoned, and as a result, he may die.
An adult cannot be abandoned, because an adult is self-sufficient.
Both of these clients experienced painful feelings during this process, but that pain is necessary, and unavoidable. It’s best to let the pain in, so it can do what it has to do. The pain will pass in time, but it will change you, produce insight, growth and maturation.
My client would eventually accept that she could say anything to her father in Oregon, but she couldn’t make him hear it, or make him comprehend it – or make him understand her. There was nothing she could do about that situation but accept her father as he was.
My Venezuelan client would, in time, see that he could no longer live a lie. It was killing him, and a mother who rejects you for who you are is not a mother capable of offering care.
Both of these people learned to rely upon a new strength they discovered within themselves.
I employ the analogy of a tree to describe the adult consciousness that emerges after parental separation.
You are a big, strong tree. You begin as a seed, dependent on chance for your existence. Life is tenuous at first. You require tending and watering. Your progress is slow and unsure.
But in adulthood, you grow strong.
You provide what you need for yourself. Your roots draw water and nutrients from the soil. Your branches soar high into the sky for light.
Night turns into day turns into night again. The seasons change in their slow progress through the years.
Wind blows. Rain falls. The snows come. You stand tall, strong, anchored in the earth.
You are self-sufficient. You tower above the ground.
Your solitude is not abandonment. It is the representation of your dignity and strength.
You are a big, strong tree.
You shall endure a long while because there’s nothing you cannot handle. You may be hurt, but you shall not be damaged. Nothing is going to break you. There is no opposing force that will not step back and pause in the presence of your dignity and strength.
Wind blows. Rain falls. The snows come. You stand tall, strong, your roots anchored deep in the earth beneath you.
My new book is a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls in love with a blue alien from outer space. I guarantee pure reading pleasure: Bad Therapist: A Romance
Please also check out The People’s Therapist’s legendary best-seller about the sad state of the legal profession: Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy: Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy