Welcome Storytellers, to The Parent Project. Over the next few weeks, we’ll bring you stories, both fiction and otherwise, centered on parents and parenthood. What does it mean to be/have a parent? Stick around for the next few weeks as we share very different experiences.
Today’s post is about one person realizing the humanity of her parents, and how she got there.
When I was growing up, my parents took parenthood very seriously. They subdued every other aspect of their lives until they well and truly became just parents, and not much else. As a child, the comfort of being someone’s priority is taken for granted because, let’s face it, you know nothing else; this is all your reality. As a young teenager, you’re old enough to want to grow up fast, but still so juvenile as to be selfish and not perceptive.
My dad and mom are unbelievable people. An inspiration to their children, they taught me everything I know. How to be a man in this world, even though I’m a woman. How to never depend on anybody but God and myself. How to appreciate music and books. How to organize. How to pick battles. How to prioritize and be responsible. How to be a functional human being, in general. They are honestly two of my best friends, and the wisest people I know. We’ve had a long road, coming to this point, and I’ve been rigorously schooled by life on the way.
At the time my siblings and I became teenagers, our parents became our archenemies. Gone were the hundred-times-a-day-cuddles and easy smiles from my father. My mother seemed to harden along with him, and though she was still the benevolent parent, she had lost most of her seemingly boundless patience. Our situation transcended the clichéd teenage angst vs parental haplessness; we had the extra ingredients, generously donated by life, of personal and emotional issues.
My father was having a hard go of things financially as the economy sunk to unprecedented depths, and as an adult (who now fancies herself to be an amateur psychologist), I can now see that the frustration of not knowing if he could keep his family above water bubbled over into his treatment of us. We must have appeared to be the biggest ingrates since Lucifer’s rebellion, what with our refusal to bow and scrape after all the sacrifices he made for us on a daily basis. Every imminent gaffe of ours was stopped cold in its tracks by a few scathing, soul-rending choice words, or on very bad days, one of us would get a beating the CIA would be proud of. To heap hot coals on this already disastrous inferno, the man gave up smoking, cold turkey, at that time, with all the grace of a starving bear. Coupled with him being a difficult, temperamental person to start with, let’s just say that being a teenager at chez nous circa 1998-2003 was no picnic. My dad would smack you into next Tuesday for even cutting your own self with a knife. At the time, we didn’t know that anger was his way of showing fear, and we couldn’t fathom the callousness of hitting a person who was already hurt.
It felt as though they hated us, Dad and Mom. Flammable, unpredictable dad and his yes-woman, who was still nice to us on the down-low but knew what side her bread was buttered on, thank you very much. We used to hold hushed meetings, the four of us downtrodden children, always feeling sorry for ourselves, rehashing the sharp words that sliced our tear-ducts and hearts wide open, filled with both cold-eyed resolutions on how to make them pay and wobbly resolutions to be better children.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. On good days, you never found anyone more jolly and willing to do anything for a laugh than my folks. When the parents were good, there were very very good, sparing no expense to keep us comfortable, always putting us first, but when they were bad (which, in our melodramatic minds, seemed like every blessed day), they were horrid to us. It seemed like we were the kicking boys for whenever life dealt them a harsh blow, and we had nobody to pass the ball to.
I’m in my twenties now and I’m full of hindsight wisdom. What I’ve realized is nothing new, as the wise man from Ecclesiastes drummed into us, but it’s an epiphany for me all the same.
My parents are people. People with personalities, identities, quirks. Ordinary people, winging it through a situation they’ve never been in before. People, they are, who probably went into parenthood with resolutions not to make the mistakes of their own parents, but we all know life and the way it fosters amnesia. They are people thrust into unpredictable phases of their children’s development that no self-help book can prepare you for. People who remember wistfully, and with a measure of resentment, who they were before they had to give that up to fully become my parents, to assume the tremendous role of teacher, guide, pastor, protector, keeper, warrior and mini-god.
My mother loved to read. They both did, but my mother had the same all-consuming love for books that I do. She is the reason I love African literature and romance novels, because, for me, her smacking of my chubby little hands away from these ‘adult’ books (she wouldn’t let me read Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine when I was about six) is one of the milestone moments of my life. But she had to give it up, probably unwittingly, along the way, because when you have four hell-raising toddlers so close in age, they could be quadruplets, and you don’t even have the time to check the time, reading becomes a bit of a frivolity. I try to imagine not being able to read a book every day and I feel actual pains in my chest.
Parents are people. Flawed, irrational. One minute, sharing a bottle of wine with you and dishing all the deep family scandals, the next, setting impossible curfews and harassing you about why you don’t have a boyfriend (I mean, the irony). They can’t seem to let go of the need to protect, to cage, because they’ve done this for so many years, they don’t know how to go back and be who they are. It’s like being institutionalized.
And so, I have come to be very tolerant of their apparent personality disorder. My siblings ask me how I get along so well with my father, who has to be the most difficult human in the universe. (There’s a saying in my house that even Google cannot answer my daddy’s questions. Even Jeeves cannot soothe his ruffled feathers.) It’s because I know who to be whenever he needs it. I know when to be his child and when to be his fellow adult. When to be his best friend and his ally.Where there would have been resistance and head-butting, there is now understanding and acceptance. Because I love him more than anything, I’m willing to shape-shift around his mood.
Let us hope that our own fervent promises to not repeat mistakes remain fresh, and that when we do forget and drop the ball, our children don’t judge us as harshly as we did our parents.