I was once the whipping boy in an evil round of workplace politics. This was when I was twenty-five. One of those “reorganization is the illusion of progress” episodes.
I wanted to quit, but I had an emotional block–a terribly painful one the memory of which makes me flinch to this day–that I couldn’t understand.
But I got spectacularly stress-boozed one night and in a flash of drunken clarity realized that the major reason I was sticking around was because my parents expected me to “succeed,” which included having a “good job,” and to “earn their love” I had to live my life according to their definitions and expectations.1
So I mulled this realization over until I finally worked up the nerve to approach each of them in private and say, look, this obligation I feel to the two of you is killing me and to feel healthy I need you to release me from it. In writing.
I’ve treasured their ensuing letters for over twenty years, and as now I’d like to share with you my Mom’s. She wrote it by hand. I still choke up a little when I read it.
December 21, 1996
Dear [Early Retirement Dude],
A question like this one you’ve asked, “Mama, do you love me unconditionally?” calls for a quick answer, “Yes!!”
And then it calls for some thought about why the question was asked. And that, in turn, calls for some soul-searching from me. So, even though you might not have expected or intended the answer to take this direction, this is the way it must go.
A confession: my self-esteem for many years was tied up in being accepted by other people. To win their approval, I’d perform and base my actions on their expectations. I made good grades in school because I could get praise for it, sang in the chorus because I could get praise for it, and on and on. And guess what? Then you came along, and if you were perfect, I could get praise for that too!
You see, there are social expectations about what a good mother is and what a good mother’s child does. My love was not based purely on loving you for your own sake. When you accomplished good things, it made me feel good about myself.
You see, [Early Retirement Dude], we kind of grew up together, you and I. I was 19 when you were born. I hadn’t been around children or babies much or even studied their development. I had to learn — and you were the guinea pig. I had to learn about you while I was learning about me.
And I had to learn spiritual lessons, too. It was slowly that I came to understand that in God’s eyes I’m a clumsy, reckless, sometimes hateful and rebellious child, but that He loves me unconditionally anyway. So slowly I began to see and understand the grace and patience He has with me. That’s when I began to give up on the perfectionism and performance expectations I have of myself and others. (Have because sometimes the motives are still directed to myself.)
When you were a young teenager, 14 or so, I can remember thinking how much I was enjoying all of you three guys.2 Yes, enjoying, even though there were some really hard times in those years. I because aware of you for your neat self, and since then my joy and pride and love for you as you has only grown. Now the pride in your accomplishments is for you, not just for me.
So, if you sometimes delve into emotional history and catch a ghostly glimpse of me as someone who loves you on condition, based on performance, because you agree with me, those are your roots. I’m sorry.
I wish we could change the past. You not only had a mom who expected you to perform according to her expectations for approval, she also role-modeled that behavior of performing for others. it’s no wonder you wonder! But now, as you grow older and so do I, stop wondering. I love seeing you as a competent, compassionate adult. I love your wit and humor, your thoughtfulness and many talents. There maybe be disappointments to come, sadness, and separation. But there is always love.
In the Bible, English Version for the Deaf,3 I Cor 13:7 says this:
“Love always trusts, always hopes, and always continues strong.
I love you —
And there you have it.
Now that I’m forty-eight and raising a child of my own—a daughter, thirteen years old—I find myself sitting in the sun reading back over these ancient letters and finally understanding how my parents weren’t only releasing me from the obligations I felt to them, but also the obligations they felt to their own parents. And there’s an unexpected wisdom in that.
See…Pop’s in his mid-seventies. Still active as hell, and judging from what Mom says, eeeww, an absolute tornado in the sack.
And Mom’s pushing seventy. Bit frail now, but she can whip a Sudoku’s ass in ten minutes, and she does crossword puzzles in pen.
Still, I’m gonna be losing them soon.
But they’re deeply religious people, have been their whole lives, and the best I can say about that is: after they die they get what they’ve been seeking for all these years. As they both implied in their letters,4 your parents are your models for God. So if you can find it in your heart to forgive your parents, you ought to be able to find it in your heart to forgive God too.
But for what?
That’s where I get stuck, man. It puts me in mind of a poem by Philip Larkin entitled “This Be The Verse.”
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had,
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Well, this is the heaviest piece I’ve cranked out in quite some time. I bought into Larkin’s last line for a very long time, but—OK, it’s like this:
I didn’t want to have a child in the future, but I most definitely want to have one now. Not sure that makes sense, but it’s true. And as my daughter has slowly become my own model for God, if I fuck her up in her turn, as I most likely will, I’ll read back through my own parents’ letters and—regardless of what it costs me—do my best to release her from the obligations with which I’ve burdened her, and to forgive myself for having done so.
And daughter of mine, I address you now.
Please…please, please, please…don’t make me your model for God. I’m just a guy, fallible, making it up as I go along.
So I hope you’ll forgive me for when and where I’ve fucked you up. If someday in a time when your job—or anything else—is slowly driving you up the cuckoo tree, and you want to end it and move on, I say have after it. Happiness is out there. And in whatever way it may help you find it, you have my blessing…and as always, my eternal and unconditional love.