The heartbreak of outgrowing our parents

If you ran into my dad in a theater or at a coffee shop, you would almost certainly end up having a long conversation – whether you had the time or not – and walk away chuckling. If someone asked you about him, you’d tell him that he was a sweet guy, maybe a little goofy, but harmless and kind. Growing up, my family would give dramatic eye rolls to his never-met-a-stranger routine, but I think we also felt a kind of pride that my dad was so beloved. 

And indeed there are so many things to love about my dad, starting with the fact that when he met my mom, a single 20-something with a young daughter still living in her own mom’s house, he quickly fell in love with both of us. He never batted an eye at the idea of becoming an instant father to me. On the day he adopted me several years later, I had wrapped up a small framed needlepoint that read, “Any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a Daddy.” He kept it on his dresser for the better part of 20 years. 

My dad took his role as Daddy to heart, coaching my basketball team and directing the parish play I loved acting in each summer. I remember a day that my kindergarten class was sheltering in place as a tornado threatened to rip through our town and I was panicked and inconsolable. My teacher must have gotten in touch with my dad because within a few minutes he was kneeling next to me by the lockers, having disregarded the blaring sirens to get to me. 

He sent my mom flowers for no reason, and when in my pre-adolescent angst I told him that I was jealous that she got this kind of attention, he started making sure to give me cards and flowers too. He worked hard to earn the love of his family, and he really didn’t ask for much in return. He relished the times that my brothers and I would tell him we loved him or extend him a compliment, but regretfully that wasn’t very often. Not as often as he deserved. 

If he sounds like a wonderful dad and person, it’s because he is. Which is why I’ve spent the last several decades trying to understand this snarling feeling of frustration and anger that shows up in my belly almost every time we interact. 

My own childhood was far from lavish and would be best described as solidly lower-middle class. We took vacations, but we never flew places. My dad was laid off when I was six and the year he was unemployed was fraught and frightening. We had a reliable minivan, but when the paint was peeling off, we couldn’t and wouldn’t have spent the money to fix it. We always had presents under the Christmas tree, but I remember the tension when my mom and dad would sit at the kitchen table to sort through the bills. 

This life we had was far more extravagant than my dad would have ever dreamed for himself, though. His childhood classmates considered him a near-celebrity for rising so far from their stations in their tiny Ohio River town. He’d grown up in what we would now call rural poverty, but they just called the home of the good ole’ boys, where making it for most meant jobs tending the tobacco fields. When he graduated as valedictorian of his high school and earned a scholarship to college, he was celebrated as a semi-hero in the local papers. 

He was a kind of hero, and the woman who raised him, an unmarried babysitter-turned-mom, made sure he knew it. She’d taken him in after his own family fell apart and told him that they didn’t have the resources to take care of him anymore. His dad had left and his mom was addicted and dyfunctional, wholly unable to care for herself, much less him and his siblings. If I let myself picture this – my dad being forced out of his family as a young boy to go live with a poor woman several towns away – it’s almost too much to feel. Now as the mom to three of my own young boys, it seems impossibly gut-wrenching. 

But it’s really not at all, if you asked my dad. If you brought up his childhood, as I tried to do at various points during my own and later, he’d shrug you off while maintaining a bright smile. “It was what it was,” he’d say, that being the closest he’d get to acknowledging the strife, grief, and loss inherent in his upbringing. Most of the time, though, he wouldn’t even go there. He’d wave his wand in the air as if to wash away the uncomfortableness that hung there and crack a joke. “I was lucky,” he’d laugh. “I had everything I needed.” 

But he didn’t, really. He was missing so much, everything from a sense of stability to feeling precious and wanted to having a father at home. It was true that he made due with what he had, but it wasn’t without a cost – a deep one, if you ask me. He wouldn’t agree. 

When he went to therapy for the first time several years ago when my parents split up following a drawn out and painful undoing, I was relieved. It felt like the first time he’d acknowledged having any emotional needs whatsoever, and I felt hopeful that this was going to be the season where he could finally be safe enough to unpack the trauma of his youth – not to mention the sticky divorce he was experiencing. When he told me after just a few months that the therapist thought he was just fine and could wrap up treatment, I think my jaw literally dropped. I was direct with him and asked, “She knows your whole story? And you wrapped that up in a handful of weeks?” 

“Yep!” he said seemingly proud of his clean bill of mental health. “She said I could come back in the future if I needed to, but I think I’m good.” 

My mind pictured the therapist in her office sitting across from my dad and internally banging her own head against her skull at the layers of defense in front of her. Maybe I’d have called it too. 

One might argue that my dad just has a sunny disposition, a propensity to see the glass as not just half full but overflowing. It drove me absolutely bonkers, and it took me a very long time to understand why. It was Dr. Becky who helped me connect the dots. 

If you don’t know Dr. Becky, which I feel silly even suggesting, she’s essentially the Dr. Spock of our generation. Just as Dr. Spock essentially took Freud and distilled his complex theories into bite-size advice for parents, Dr. Becky has revolutionized parenting in recent years, drawing on Internal Family Systems and self-compassion research. 

I find myself listening to a lot of podcasts where she’s featured, and in one she reminded listeners that kids essentially need two things for their emotional health. First, they need to know that they are “good inside,” which happens to be the name of her bestselling book. And second, they need to know that they are real. 

Knowing we are real might sound weird or a little silly, but it’s an essential ingredient in emotional development. It means a lot of things, but most importantly, to me, it means that we have our emotions and experiences and awarenesses reflected back to us and validated. It means that when we touch something hot and get burned, our caregivers don’t look at us and say, “That’s not hot. Why are you crying?” It means that when we see our parent crying in the bathtub and we say, “What’s wrong, mom?” that she doesn’t put on a bright smile and say, “Nothing! I’m fine!” 

As you might recognize, understanding the need for kids’ perceptions to be validated is kind of a novel idea for most in our culture. Most us parenting now were now raised with this principle, and so our subjective experiences of reality were regularly dismissed or outright contradicted. There’s nothing to cry about. You don’t really want or need that cookie. You are just fine. There’s no reason to get so upset. This isn’t a big deal. 

As has been much discussed as of late, many of our own parents didn’t have the interest or ability to sit in the muck of hard feelings, and so they did what they knew to do – deny them. 

The result of all of this emotional gaslighting – and yes, I realize the risk I am taking by using that term – is that we learn to distrust our own observations. A bodily sensation or a gut feeling or reaction pops up inside of us and we hear our parents’ voices in our heads shooing away the discomfort. I’m making too big of a deal of this. I need to just accept it. I’m such a crybaby. 

In my case, my dad wasn’t conscious of brushing aside my perceptions. In fact, I didn’t often bring them to him. But I could see clearly, even through the eyes and mind of a very small child, that doing so would have gotten me nowhere. If I were to bring my sadness or worries to him, he’d at best brush them off and at worst make light of them. To his credit, he wouldn’t shame or punish my pain exactly, but it still didn’t have a place to land. 

In the same vein, when I’d point things out to him that I saw as upsetting or problematic – including ways in which he himself was struggling – he’d imply that I had it wrong. Nothing bothered him, he claimed. He was so lucky, he insisted. He pointed to his natural cheer. Now that I have the language, I’d say instead that he has a fierce protector part of himself that doesn’t allow anyone’s pain to get close. 

What happened for me in the constant repetition of this pattern is that I found myself with knots in my belly whenever I talked to him. My body was holding – and feeling viscerally – the conflict between what was happening and what he was willing to see and acknowledge. I also felt angry, if I’m honest, the little girl inside of me wanting to scream for him to open his eyes and tell me he could see the hairy, scary monster too. 

But even then I knew he wouldn’t see it. Now I know he couldn’t see it. To see it would mean to open himself to a floodgate of pain that his own inner child wasn’t resourced enough to bear. 

In recent years, the concept of emotionally immature parents has taken flight in the mental health world. There are books and podcasts that describe the experience of growing up with caregivers that were stunted in their own developmental process, and I really like when we can give language to an experience that previously felt vague but painful. 

Emotional immaturity sounds harsh, I have to admit, but it also feels apt, especially if we can put the emotional immaturity in context. Rather than a moral failing, we could think of it as a heartbreak. None of them choose to get stuck at an early age of emotional progression. It happens almost always because of trauma and unmet needs. 

It makes perfect sense to me that my dad, abandoned by his family of origin and growing up in poverty, would have missed out on the core needs and skills necessary to do things like tolerate ambiguity, acknowledge mistakes, or face weighty emotional topics. And yet… 

And yet the result of this trauma – what we can now call generational trauma – is that he arrived at adulthood and at parenting without these skills, meaning that I as his child grew up with a pit in my stomach. In many ways, the pit is a good sign. It meant that my mind and my body hadn’t given up on sending me signals that something didn’t feel right. It meant my own alert system was still working. 

I realize as I write this that I’m framing this in past tense, perhaps implying that I’ve done all my work to resolve these feelings. I haven’t. My dad is still with me, and I feel lucky for that. I’m no longer attached to the idea of him becoming something different than what he is, while also holding space for the possibility of evolution. It’s a delicate duality, to be honest. 

I know he’s not my person when something nuanced or deeply painful is going on, and that’s now okay because I have others who are. He still drives me crazy when he seems oblivious to social cues that I think should be obvious. 

But I’m learning to feel more gratitude for the way he can see the glass overflowing. I’m grateful too on some level that his psyche was loving enough to give him such a staunch protective part, however hard it may be at times for me. He may not have had the chance to be who I always needed him to be, but he came pretty darn far. For that, I too am lucky.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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