In the days and weeks just before my father died, we had many conversations. In some of those conversations he expressed regrets. He hinted that my sister and I have made a better job of parenting than he did. He thought perhaps he’d done things that weren’t kind; he said he hoped he could be forgiven.
I told him that anything he had ever done that hurt anyone had been outweighed a thousand times by the kindness and love he gave. I didn’t say this to appease him, but because it’s true.
It didn’t feel good when my lovely father compared himself unfavourably to me. Yet, so often, especially if people haven’t had happy childhoods, they spend a huge amount of time and energy trying to compare themselves favourably to their parents. They want to do it better, they want avoid the same mistakes, or give their children what they never had. But they also want to be better.
I’ve had those sorts of thoughts in the past too, so I know how that feels. But your children aren’t you so don’t need saving from your childhood.
Besides, trying to be better than someone else doesn’t work. Try this short exercise and you will see why. (It will only take just a few seconds, but if you aren’t used to observing your own mind, it may surprise you!)
Think of something you think your parents didn’t get right and that you want to do better. (Or you choose something you want to do better than a sibling or any other person.) Pay attention to what comes into your mind: notice the images. If you are more of an aural person, notice the sounds you hear – the voices, the thoughts. Notice too the feeling of all of this: how your body feels and the overall atmosphere.
How was that? My guess is those images were of exactly what you don’t want to do, the sounds were what you don’t want to say and the feelings were uncomfortable and your body tense. When we want to do better than someone else – even if that someone is our former self – we hold in mind whatever it is we don’t want. This means that we are no longer fully connecting with what is here right now.
As parents, this means we miss what our kids need. It also means we experience internal conflict – our minds are torn between the old images of what we don’t want and the desire to do things differently. There’s then very little room for what is right here in front of us. For instance, if you were left alone a lot as a child, and longed for your mother to play with you, in your determination to make sure you are always there for your child you might miss her longing for solitude. If I think I have to avoid the same mistakes that my parents make, then quite simply, I have to hold in mind the things I think my parents did wrong. Whereas, when I let go, my mind is free.
Wanting to do better than your parents is a form of anger. There are few of us (if any) who have never felt anger towards our parents, and anger is an appropriate response when we are hurt. But holding onto anger over something your parents did twenty, thirty or forty years ago is toxic to you. I know a woman in her nineties who still resents her mother. Even while your parents are alive you may or may not get the apology you want and you will suffer, while holding onto anger after your parents are dead definitely hurts only you.
Some of you might be thinking: my parents abused me, so why would I not want to be a better parent than them? Why would I want to do what they did? I’m not suggesting that you should do the same thing they did. Far from it. Instead it makes more sense to gently heal your feelings about that abuse, getting appropriate support if need be. Not so that you can be a better parent and treat you children how you wish you’d been treated, but so that you can heal. You are worth it, not just your kids. The added bonus is that as you heal, you will naturally become more able to deal with whatever challenges your family brings.
Einstein is often quoted as saying, “You can never solve a problem on the level of thinking on which it was created.” This is quite probably not an exact quote and it’s more likely that what he actually said was: “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels.” (From: The Real Problem is in the Hearts of Men, New York Times Magazine – June 23 1946) Nevertheless, the sentiment is similar and in my experience it is true.
What is that new type of thinking that can help us to move to higher levels – in parenting and in life? It’s the type of thinking that creates compassion and love. It’s the type of thinking that leads to us letting go of trying to be better than others to feel good about ourselves, it’s the type of thinking that values co-operation rather than competition. It’s the type of thinking that allows us to connect with what and who are here right now, and to let go of dwelling on what happened years ago. Instead of looking for who is to blame or who is right or wrong, this type of thinking notices who is hurting and seeks to heal.
I’m not naive: I know this is not an easy route. On the surface it’s easier to blame someone else for causing hurt than it is to face our part – even if our part is simply replaying hurtful memories in our minds again and again. But in my experience, the work it takes to shift perspective is worth it a thousand times over. When I let go of trying to be better than my parents I began to see that the memories I had clung to as evidence against them were memorable incidents because they were not the norm. I now realise that almost certainly when my parents said or did things that they later regretted they felt under stress. So they were the same as I am, as we all are.
I’m going to leave the last word to Mother Teresa. As parents, we can do no better than her suggestion here:
Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.