May 9, 2012

The Critical Eye

I hadn't realized how many novels have characters who casually or seriously evaluate/criticize their parents until I found myself getting worn out with all the mental arguing I do with them: "Well, you know your parents were HUMAN, right? I mean, they absolutely HAD to have SOME flaws, and these were the ones they happened to have. Would you have preferred DIFFERENT flaws? No you WOULDN'T have, because if they'd had THOSE flaws you would have criticized those TOO. It's not as if your parents COULD have been perfect if only they'd TRIED. What is it you expect them to DO with their flaws, anyway? You think that just because it would have been better for YOU, the child, if your dad didn't have a short temper, that he could have easily and completely pulverized that part of his personality? 'Oh, it's better not to struggle with temper! I'll just STOP DOING IT, THEN!' And what about your criticisms of things that aren't even flaws? You think that just because you would have preferred the kind of mom would would RUN and LAUGH and PLAY just like a golden retriever, that she could have changed herself from the quiet, bookish, indoorsy type she was? And you think that she SHOULD have? Why shouldn't YOU transform YOUR active, social, outgoing personality into a quiet, bookish one? Does THAT make any sense to you? NO? You see how ridiculous that line of thought is, then! Why not focus on what your parents did RIGHT, instead of what they did WRONG? Or on the ways they were a GOOD fit for you, rather than the ways they were a BAD fit for you? Why not see if you can bring yourself to realize that your parents had the same limitations as any other human being, and were not required/able to be custom-made to your rigid specifications? Why not meditate on the idea that they didn't choose your temperament any more than you chose theirs, and that ALL parent/child relationships are a total crapshoot and we're lucky any of us get along AT ALL beyond the biological instincts to love each other? GEEZ."

Ahem. I may be a little touchy on that topic recently, with a teenager in the house.

It's been hard having that kind of light turned onto ME so fiercely. Every book I read reminds me of how he seems to see me at times: as someone who at every turn should have made a different decision; as someone who is willfully unfair; as someone who willfully fails to control her flaws and is not sorry about them and doesn't even TRY to change; as someone who COULD be perfect if I'd bother to TRY. It seems like so often he chooses to see me in the worst possible light.

I've gradually realized the only way to escape that variety of critical stare (their eyes! like gimlets!) is to die relatively young so they instead idolize me and pine for me and speak only of my virtues and how much they miss me and wish they could talk to me. Which reminds me of those things older people say when you ask how they're doing: "Better above ground than below it!" "Welllll, can't complain---it's better than the alternative har har!" "The only way to get my kids to remember me in a glowing light is to die young, so I guess this is better than that har har!" Har.

28 comments:

Nowheymama said...

I'm also finding this stage makes me more sympathetic to other parents I may know who may have, say, parented my spouse.

Swistle said...

Nowheymama- ME TOO. It's a little...uncomfortable.

leenie said...

Being childless, I can only respond as a kid who had the STRICTEST, MEANEST, MOST DEMANDING parents ever, who I (and all of my siblings) totally idolize and think were actually really really good at parenting. So, beyond dying young, hopefully give them 5 or so years and you'll be back in the sweet spot, and I swear, they'll call you for parenting advice. I know that doesn't help much now, but maybe it can provide at least a second of "maybe this won't be this way forever."

el-e-e said...

Hunh. I had to look up gimlet. I have heard that expression but only knew gimlet in the "gin" sense.

Maybe some gin might help, though.

Suburban Correspondent said...

Hang in there. Most kids mature and that phase ends. Most. The rest of them write books where they criticize the parents. Looks like I'll have at least one of both...

Tess said...

LIKE A GOLDEN RETRIEVER. Oh I love that so hard. Outstanding.

Anonymous said...

It sounds as if your son is temperamentally not very like you, which can cause problems. my two sons are both very like me, whereas my daughter (15) is so very unlike me that in bleak moments I wonder if she truly is biologically mine or a changeling. Have you done myers-briggs on yourself, ever? I've discovered this recently, and it's helped loads with parenting. Once you discover your own 'type' and then work out your child's type, you can understand much more where the gulfs of understanding and style come between you. There are loads of free online tests and useful articles in relation to parenting particular types of child. If you're ahead of me, I'm INTP and my daughter is ESTJ, which makes for fireworks

Swistle said...

el-e-e- There's a Terry Pratchett book where it's one of the running gags, so now Paul and I say it all the time, pretty much anytime eyes come up. His eyes! Like gimlets!

Maureen said...

I really hope your son grows out of this, for your sake and his. I honestly have never heard of a boy criticising his mom like this, it sounds horrible. Do you feel like you are walking on eggshells around him, or can you rise above his attitude? Hopefully this will pass, or he is going to end up being one of those controlling men you read about in Dear Prudence.

Sarah said...

Oh dear Swistle. Your son sounds like ME as a teenager, and I look back and shudder with pained embarrassment. It never seemed to occur to me that parents perhaps WERE trying to overcome their personal flaws and were failing sometimes because they are in fact PEOPLE and not saints on earth. So if it's any consolation, in about, oh, twelve or thirteen years, give or take, perhaps you'll get a sheepish apology for having been given such a constant, thorough and unforgiving Character Assessment during his teen years.

StephLove said...

I think this should be a ways off for me as my oldest (11) is easy-going and not critical by nature. The 6 year old, though? A whole other kettle of fish. She has a deep skeptical and suspicious streak, I imagine will be turned on me full force when she's older.

I hope it's a quickly passing phase for you or that you gain some good coping mechanisms.

Robbie said...

I still remember the moment I realized that my parents were actual people - and it wasn't until I had my first child. It was a stunning moment of clarity. Now I'm terrified that my kids won't realize this about me until THEY have kids. Being a grown up is hard, yo.

Alexa said...

I am still laughing at the Golden Retriever bit, and suspect I will be, on and off, all day. Thank you for that.
(Also, I agree with the previous commenter who suggested ACTUAL gimlets. In fact, every time child says something critical, take a sip of your drink! Make it into a game! A horrible, horrible game.)

Maggie said...

I think it was possible for me to accept my parents various flaws only once I got some distance from them. I moved 3,000 miles when I was 22 and got some much needed space. After being away for a time (or perhaps growing up or a combination thereof) I realized my parents are only human and their personal issues don't have to have any reflection on me. I am not them etc. I was able to appreciate that they did many things right as parents that made me who I am in many respects. I think most children of relatively reasonable parents have this revelation at some point, but me is just took being away and being independent for awhile. Now it's not that I don't notice their flaws (as I notice my own), but I accept them and they don't upset me anymore for the most part.

jen(melty) said...

I <3 this post. I wish I could save it for my kids. But I guess they'll figure it out someday, right??

Anonymous said...

I agree with the drinking game idea - in fact, I just told my husband that I was going to start taking a drink every time my daughter gave me the look, i.e. OMG how can my mom be so lame! And never ever get me! Which, unfortunately, is exactly what I thought about my mom at that age, and for a horribly long time after. Sigh...payback...

Bailey said...

My dad died when I was nine, and my brother and I spent the next decade absolutely certain that our lives would be full of TEH JOY if ONLY he had been around and HOW COULD my mother be so AWFUL, GAWD. I'm ashamed at how long it took me to realize that (even though they were divorced) being a single parent completely alone in the world maybe wasn't what she had in mind for her life. Then I had my own daughter and about three weeks in I had a full-on meltdown wherein I apologized to my mother and begged her forgiveness. It was pretty rough.

On a different note, I totally troll your comments looking for new blogs to read. You have the best commenters ever.

Nellig said...

You would enjoy The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend. So might he. Anyway it's pretty funny and you could use a good laugh.

Alice said...

gah. that sounds... horribly un-fun. as another teenaged parent-loather, i can assure you we come around, though!

Cherie Beyond said...

Oh my heavens. Recently I've been reading a blogger who is still saying mean things about how her parents fail her. And she's an ADULT. With CHILDREN. Um, isn't it time to accept that they are human too and move on?

This kind of thing is also why I find it really hard to read modern fiction, which is chock full of crazy mothers and abusive dads and parents who are failing at every turn.

Just...let's lighten up on the parents, folks. And find another symbol for this crazy world other than the depressed, crazy mother, okay, authors?

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about Cherie Beyond's comment and my own tendency to still criticize my dad (not out loud to him, of course). At the risk of sounding self-justifying, I think that as we get older (I'm 40) we realize that everyone has flaws, but we also recognize when someone (my dad) has -- for lack of a better term -- asshole tendencies. For example, for years he has always gotten my brother an anniversary card to celebrate his wedding day. He has never, ever gotten me one. It still irritates me to this day, even though it might be petty. I have learned to let stuff like this go, but I do think there's a difference between being wildly critical of everything your parent does (a la William) and recognizing when someone just isn't that great of a person.

phancymama said...

I think I am going to print this out, put in an envelope, and open it eleven years from today when my daughter turns 13. Just so I know I am not alone.

I do remember being a difficult teenager. In part because I did realize that my mom was human, and no longer some sort of divine someone who could fix everything. And I was mad about that, and since she was available, I took it out on her. I also hold tight to the theory that as children turn into adults they have to separate and distance themselves from their parents. And that process can be quite unpleasant . So that turning you into "other" and "wrong" provides him a path to separate himself. I remember thinking that I was NOT my mother and I was DIFFERENT and SPECIAL (and I thought it in all caps too). Now I am pleased to be like her.

Well, that doesn't help you get through the next years much though. I like Miss Zoot's plan of getting into something your kid does. It may not be anything you were interested in, but learning about it gives you at least some common ground. Does he do this to Paul too?

Oh, and yes, lets find some books without the parental blame game.

Bibliomama said...

Interesting. It's not something I've noticed a whole lot in books (lately, anyway, and I have a crappy memory). My son, who just turned 12, seems to worry about me more than he judges me, which is sweet and a little weird, and my daughter, who is nine, would love to be surgically attached at the hip with me - but I do fear what will happen when the worm turns for her, because she has a razor-sharp sarcastic side. Of course, I do too, so I'm hoping it will be mostly trying to one-up each other with witty one-liners rather than trading insults. It's true, though - there are bad parents and then there are parents who were only human.

katie said...

I got to that last paragraph and I laughed so hard and loud and abruptly that I farted. I just really though you should know that.

Also, I came to these same realizations very early on and have watched my sisters struggle (older sisters, mind you) with how to forgive and move on from a lot of sh...tuff that happened in our childhoods. It's life, dude. It made you who you are. Accept it and move on.

And then I kind of feel like a prat for putting my own zen move-on timeline on other people who might need more time to come to terms with stuff. Who am I to judge? Besides, like, the best person ever? Who farts at blogs?

Emblita said...

their eyes! like gimlets! LOVE Terry Pratchett! and love the use of the quote. Also- Teens can be horrible to their parents. My kids are still very young- but my sister who is 14 years younger than me has been truly terrible to our mother. I keep asking my mom if I was ever like that and that if I was that I am deeply sorry. I just hope my sister will come to the same conclusion one day. Oh yeah- looking forward to the teen years :/

Leeann said...

I love every single stinking thing about this post.

This morning as I was driving my two teens to school, I was nearly drowned in a flood of teen hormones and snarkiness. By the time the doors opened and they got out, I was gasping for air.

"Yeah," I was thinking to myself, "YOU were worth a C-Section! NOT." :-)

This too will pass...

MonkeyBusiness said...

Just the other day I was having a discussion with my Mom about this, and I was like "I don't remember hating you, was there some time where I was a complete pain?" And she was like, "No, you were smart. I told you that either I could be on your side or I could not be on your side, and you had to decide what you wanted permanently. Bc if we were on opposing sides, there was no switching to the same side at times you wanted me to be, like at the mall when you wanted new clothes. So you decided to not be a pain in the butt because you didn't want me to be a pain in YOUR butt"

Kind of made me laugh.

clueless but hopeful mama said...

Like many of your commenters, I love "like a golden retriever". I have a golden retriever and I DO think my children would WAY PREFER to be parented by her, though my kisses are not quite as slobbery as hers.

I had a friend who lost her dad when she was nine (Whee! No easy segue here!) and she basically reamed her mom every single day of her teen years and idolized her deceased father. I remember - even as a critical and self-centered teen myself- feeling so badly for her mom, who was clearly just doing her best. So yeah, I'm with Bailey, the worst would be being the parent left behind with the critical eye turned on you.