When I was about 25, my father told me: “People who like their parents tend to be happier than those who don’t.” By that age I was able to see what he meant, though a few years earlier I hadn’t liked him at all. He was controlling, selfish and bad-tempered and my mother always took his side – but he was also funny and wise and beneath my teenage fury I admired him.
I’m glad we appreciated each other before he died a few years later. But I know people who never stopped disliking their parents, long after adolescent traumas were over. “We had nothing in common. They were so boring and conventional I wanted to disown them,” says a friend in his fifties who seemed remarkably unbothered when his parents died. And as longevity increases, more and more often one hears similar sentiments about parents who are still living.
Psychologist Oliver James, author of They F*** You Up and How Not to F*** Them Up, laughs. “If it’s just dullness that’s the problem, count yourself lucky,” he says. It could be so much worse.
In Edward St Aubyn’s autobiographical novels, for example, Patrick Melrose is raped and tortured by his sadistic father. But even if your parents treated you atrociously, says James, many people can’t admit that their mum and dad have f***ed them up: “Our survival depended on our parents, so we’re often very protective of them. And whether you liked or disliked them, they profoundly affected who you are.”
Blaming them gets you nowhere either. Instead, says James, quoting Larkin, “It’s important to grasp that your parents had a story too.” (But they were fucked up in their turn/By fools in old-style hats and coats...)
He recommends writing a letter to your parents when they were ten years old. “If you can understand what their parents did to them, you can begin to move out of blame or idealisation into compassion, and from there into an adult understanding.”
If you dislike or disliked your parents for being dull, there may be some dead, dull aspects of yourself that you don’t want to acknowledge, too, says James. Psychotherapist Kitty Hagenbach was horrified when her husband told her that she was sounding like her mother (it’s bad enough looking in the mirror and seeing your mother) but she was able to move past this and say, “I am like my mother, but I don’t have to behave like her.”
The deepening ‘coastal shelf’ of Larkin’s is very real, according to Hagenbach. New research, she says, shows that intergenerational trauma can go back seven generations. Eek! Have my sons inherited the coldness that my mother showed towards her mother, and which I probably absorbed in some way?
Not necessarily, says James. We imitate some things and not others. And all children find some aspects of their parents dislikeable or worse. (Who hasn’t had the odd murderous impulse, Oedipal or otherwise?) But when dislike starts to gain the upper hand, says Kitty Hagenbach, try talking to your parents about why.
Be careful, however, and begin with your own feelings: “It’s not about ‘What a hopeless mother you were’ but more ‘I need to tell you what my experiences were’.” Often what you remember is very different from their take on things, and it can be very healing to hear your mother say, as Hagenbach’s eventually did: “I’ve been thinking about what you said and it must have been very difficult for you.”
Dealing with dislike
Start with your earliest pleasant memories, says Alyce Faye Cleese in How to Manage Your Mother. Picture the places you lived in and things you did together; look at old photos; talk to people who knew you when you were young; keep a memories notebook. De-constructing your memories, which solidify and become rigid in your adult life, can change your feelings about your parents.
Write a letter to your parents when they were ten. Appreciate their circumstances and the child that they were.
Write a furious letter to them, then tear it up, says Kitty Hagenbach. Letting the emotions surface allows you to deal with them and move on.