It turns out my parents really weren't that bad

October 1 2013 | Guest post by Eric Robillard
The author (as a baby) with his mom!
We choose our best and happiest pictures to populate our photo albums. Flipping through my baby scrapbook, you will witness my father's disgruntled smile and my mother's listless eyes. Most memories I have of my childhood resemble an under-developed Polaroid, with faded smiles and red eyes, in which no one is saying cheese. Mum and dad were raised in devout Catholic families. They met young and quickly vowed their eternal love to God and each other, and like good Catholic progeny, attempted to raise as many kids as they could. My parents were not well suited for matrimony, nor for procreation, at least not the way I remembered them before I became a parent.

Sometimes, when I take a long enough stroll down Memory Lane, I catch a glimpse of happiness on my mother's face as she's bottle-feeding me while a cigarette burns in the ashtray beside my head. If I extend the promenade, I'll come across the family car heading to Maine for a two-week summer vacation, kids without seat belts, the dog's cheeks flapping in the wind through the back window, and dad duetting with Elvis. I tread a dirt road to reach these memories, and when I do borrow this dusky path, I am reminded of the choices and sacrifices my parents made to give us the tools to be loving and capable young adults.

My father was an artist, and my mother a free spirit. He thrived in a studio among oil paint tubes, canvas, and scrap metal, while my mother danced to The Mamas & the Papas in our living room, stoned. They were born and raised in a society where education and family life were governed by the Catholic church. You could be born a man or a woman, black or white, it really didn't matter, you were first and foremost a Catholic. You would be constantly reminded through baptism, first communion, confirmation, and marriage that your place in French Quebec was to serve the Lord. God wanted many lambs to be shepherded, and a faithful Catholic family would have ten kids. Mum and dad tried hard, but out of six kids, only three survived. My father suppressed the artist and found honest work as a janitor. My mother traded her backpacking dreams for cooking, cleaning, folding socks and lullabies. My parents stayed married for their children, the way good Catholics do. They did what they could with what they had, and we had food, a roof to sleep under, and love… most of the time.

Becoming a father added colours to the snapshots of my youth.

God didn't attend our wedding, nor was He in our bedroom when we decided to have children. My wife and I had difficult and challenging childhoods. Starting a family meant giving our kids what we perceived we lacked as children: stability, security, and electricity. We were going to raise our daughter in a calm sanctuary. We were going to be the parents who never raised their voices. We were going to rewrite the past by creating the future we would have wanted as children. We were going to live vicariously through our daughter. We were armed with the best intentions, fully equipped to face and vanquish hardships, and then Life happened.

And it was with a slew of banalities that Life showed us humility:

  • The baby didn't sleep and we couldn't stay in bed all morning to recuperate.
  • Spontaneity and recklessness became fond memories replaced with schedules, packed lunches, and homework.
  • We were confined to the house before sundown in accordance with the kids' bedtimes.
  • No more late, leisurely meals as dinner hour was adjusted to accommodate the growling stomach of our daughter.
  • We stopped purchasing nice things as we watched our meagre possessions gradually destroyed by our children.
  • We stopped having extra money to buy nice things.
  • Tidy and organized were eliminated by fatigue and human tornadoes.
  • We had to ensure the well-being of other people's teeth, bums, minds, and hearts.
  • Free spirits and artists were disguised as responsible, reliable, 9-to-5ers trying to keep the lights on and the fridge full.
  • We were no different than any other parents, including ours. Life with kids and all of its trivialities altered our existence, and as grueling as this 24/7 job could be, we understood and accepted the sacrifices that must be made to give our kids a secure and loving home.

I understand my parents better now that I am walking in their shoes. My perspective has shifted. I hope that my kids in their time will receive the same gift of empathy and insight that I have been given. And if compassion takes its time to show its face, I hope they learn to adjust the hue and saturation of their digital pictures until they understand how much we loved them in our own weird and flawed ways.

  1. This makes me dreadfully sad :-\ i hope you find sparkly happy times again, not just drudgery – for my sake as well as yours.

    • Strawbs,
      There are as many happy times as hardships, but I embrace both equally. Parenthood comes with its fair share of truly hard days, but is equally rewarding. I'm keeping it honest.
      E.

  2. This was a fascinating post for me to read because I feel just the opposite — becoming a parent has made me understand my parents and their choices even less! It's not the reaction I was expecting (or hoping for), but there you go. Unexpected realizations on either side of the WTF-were-my-parents-thinking? fence.

    Thanks for sharing, Eric.

    • Laura,
      I love this. I have two kids, and I have to say both experiences have been different. It would have been interesting to write this same article the first time around… I can't say even in hindsight how it would have turned out.

      E.

  3. Being a parent definitely brings things around full circle, doesn't it? I am now amazed at what my parents were able to accomplish. I have more respect for them now more than ever, even if I might do things differently. What I probably most appreciate is that they taught tolerance and acceptance. Excellent post!

  4. Eric,
    Beautifully written and so familiar. I can't wait to compare notes on being a grandpa with you and read how you describe the increase in depth perception it brings. It is somewhat dizzying and incredibly satisfying in so many ways.
    John

    • John,
      I grabbed my calculator, and typed some numbers and came to the conclusion that I will be a grandpa in about 26.5 years. It is quite scientific I will assure you, to type random numbers in the name of science.
      E.

  5. Eric, thank you for writing this.

    As a relatively new parent (18 months in!), my relationship with my parents has changed immensely in the last few years, between losing my father right before getting pregnant and having major issues with honesty and communication with my mother. I grew up thinking we were akin to the Cleavers – compared to most families – but it took a deathbed apology for me to see exactly how flawed we were as a family, and continue to be to this day. Being a mother myself now, and dealing with the struggles and triumphs that go along with that so far, it's a little easier to forgive their mistakes. I'm personally struggling with not laying blame and moving beyond the past. It's a long journey.

    We just have to learn from our parents, but also realize that our children will hopefully learn from our mistakes and make their children's lives even better. Vicious cycle.

    • Brenna,
      Congratulations on your relatively new life as a mother! How's sleep treating you like? I am truly sorry for the loss of your father… I understand family dysfunction, it's something I write often about, but even among the most flawed there is love. It might sound like hippy-dippy shit, but given time, I myself have learned to forgive and accept my parents as they were, and I do hope you get there… Actually, I'm fairly certain you will get there…
      E.

  6. Is it odd that even though I don't have kids yet, I could relate to a lot in your post? Let's just say that I've had a lot of responsibilty while growing up and being the oldest at home, I witnessed things that made me grow up faster and take on a different way of thinking. I used to blame the parents for a lot of things, now…not so much. As a parent it's mostly about choice huh? And then the choice is based on the needs of the kids while keeping your knowledge and skills in mind. My hat is raised. 🙂 Thanks so much writing this.

    • TJ,
      Good to see you here. Parenting is about choices, and bout doing the best you can. You are a loving human being, and that will be one of the greatest gifts you will give your kids, whenever they make their way towards you.
      E.

  7. Though I don't have children and never will, I related to this post very much. I think a fundamental and important part of "growing up" fully is growing to see your parents as real people, flawed and complicated human beings. I became a better person when I was able to stop thinking about my own parents in relation to myself and start thinking about them as individuals in their own right. It's kind of like letting go of thinking of what you didn't have as a child and starting to realize what you did have, I guess. And I suppose it happens on their own end, too…or at least it should. Letting go of me as "their baby", understanding me as a real person.

    • BlueCanary,
      It took awhile to get there myself. As a young adult, it was easy (and convenient) to blame my parents' ways for my own misfortunes. Slowly with kids I started seeing them as not just parents, but human beings with a life outside of parenthood, as people who wanted to take a vacation for themselves, or eat a meal because they enjoyed food, etc… My parents the human beings had kids and added that layer to who they were, with different levels of success/failure.
      E.

    • Yes, exactly! Now that I've started relating to my parents as an adult, a lot of their choices make more sense. It turns out they were humans all along!

      What has been the most interesting to me is to also have grown-up interactions with grandparents, aunts, and uncles (their parents and siblings) and see how these people shaped who my parents were, just as they shaped me–what was modeled, what was reacted against, and how my parents figured out who they were, just as I'm doing for myself now.

      Eric, very thought-provoking post. Hopefully all the drudgery now is worth it when your children pop out on the other side as their own people. And I'm sure your parents are proud of you.

  8. I really love this, especially that you're a dude writing about it. I have many conversations with my Favorite Dude about his upbringing and how he sees his parents now, as I discuss my own views of my parents, but I hardly seem to read things written from the male perspective.

    I love gaining clarity on my own parent's struggles the older my son gets. I feel conflicted, though, as I see myself doing things TOTALLY differently and have all of my justifications for it (based on how I was raised, etc) and so I feel like my parents deserve a lot of credit…but also feel that they should own up to some of the stuff they did when we were kids, too. Maybe it's just that I wish my parents had been or could be more authentic and honest. Maybe it's naive to hope that my son sees my flaws and good bits all growing up and is able to discuss and navigate that relationship in an ongoing way, rather than waiting until adulthood? It sounds naive and idealistic just writing it, but it is what I hope for…

  9. I'm child-free, but I can totally relate to what you are saying. I had my "ah-hah" moment regarding my parents when I was about 30 years old. I don't remember exactly what happened, but for some reason I realized that my parents were human beings, making human mistakes, and doing the best they could with the limited knowledge and abilities they had. It made it a lot easier to forgive them for a lot of things that happened when I was a kid, and although we're still not close, the rage/sadness/self-pity is gone.

  10. I heard an expression once: "If you think your parents are boring, it's because you made them that way." 😉

    For the first couple of paragraphs in I wondered if you were writing about French Quebec before the Quiet Revolution, and yes, I was right. I was raised Catholic and am a practicing Catholic still, but I didn't grow up here. It was a shock to me when I moved here and saw how the Boomers who were raised Catholic in Quebec are traumatized and scarred by the sorts of things that were inflicted on their families. So much of what happens politically here is still a reaction to the tight control the Catholic Church held, even though they don't hold it anymore.
    I went through a period in my early twenties where I blamed my parents for everything I didn't like about my life. They could have raised me to be more athletic, they could have given me more experiences, blah blah blah. I changed my tune pretty quickly when I became a teacher and saw that kids have their own personalities and you can't just "shape" them however you want. How could my parents have raised me to be athletic when I hated every sport? How could they have given me more experiences when I was so shy? Yes, they made mistakes, and yes, there are things I hope to do differently when I have children, but I'm sure my children will feel the same way about my parenting if they decide to have their own kids. My parents did a great job. Thanks for this post!

    • Laura,
      Very perceptive of you. I am indeed a French speaking Montrealer, and my parents were kids during the Duplessis years. We are still dealing with the setbacks of those years, and even though the Quiet Revolution changed my province for the better, I feel many old wounds still plague many of us here… But that is another article all on itself.
      E.

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