I have a weird family question that I couldn’t find an answer to, so I turn to you.
I’m 30 years old, raised by my mom and my stepdad. Hopefully brief context: my stepdad and I have never got along. There were many instances of emotional abuse – he’s the kind of guy who would excitedly volunteer to tell me when I was in trouble because he delighted in bringing me bad news, and was jealous enough of my relationship with my mom that he would come up with chores for me to do whenever he caught me sitting and talking or reading with her. There were also a few occasions of drunky physical abuse; I got slapped and thrown around a fair bit. He’s still incredibly rude to me a lot of the time, which is why we don’t really talk. They live in another state and that’s the way I like it.
By contrast, my relationship with my mother is… good, but problematic. She is the strongest, classiest, most brilliant and brave woman I’ve ever known, and I practically worship her, but I also know that I can’t be around her and retain my adulthood at all. She loves me ferociously but spent most of my childhood pushing me away. “Love me from afar!” was her favorite line. We can talk for years about books, movies, history, science, ideas… but I cannot tell her things that matter to me, because she will either ridicule them or simply tell me, “Oh, honey, you know I don’t care about that.” Yes, she actually says exactly that.
So! Here’s my issue:
Every time I talk to them on the phone (usually about twice a month for an hour or more – my mom and I LOVE to talk) one or the other of them will say something like, “Do you think we were good parents?” I never know how to answer that question. I don’t think they were great parents, but at this point, there’s nothing they can do about that, and they’re not likely to agree with a lot of my criticisms anyway. Answering that question honestly would ultimately involve me DEFENDING my memories of neglect and abuse. I’m happy with my life now; I have a family I love and I am finally discovering the person I want to be. Why make both them and me feel like crap when it doesn’t really matter now?
But it keeps coming up. They won’t stop asking, and I hate comforting them about it when I can’t feel genuine doing it. How can I make this question go away without opening up a whole can of emotional nonsense when my life is finally getting better?
Thank you for your time!
Loving From Afar (she/her pronouns)
Dear Loving From Afar (WUT? Ugh, your MOM),
A lot of people who were emotionally abused as kids walk in your same shoes. How to reconcile the demogorgons of our childhoods with the mellower, grayer, almost fragile-seeming fellow adults in front of us now?
This question that your parents keep asking you is deeply strange. If they are concerned about how they treated you and they wanted to have an actual honest conversation about it, your stepdad could say (for example): “I’m in the ‘make amends’ step of recovery and I’d like to apologize for [specific things] I did back when I was drinking.” They could tell you specifically what they want to talk about and why instead of making you play some weird guessing game. They could include, I dunno, an actual apology? None of this is an apology. Their question is a trap, so, good job for knowing that it’s a trap.
- “You’ve been asking this question a lot. Is there something specific from the past that you want to talk about?”
- “You’ve asked this a lot. What’s prompting this?”
- “Wow, what a question. What’s really on your mind?”
- “Wow, what a question. Is there something specific that’s bothering you?”
- “I could have done with 100% less being slapped around by [Stepdad] – is that what you want to talk about?”
- “If I said ‘not really’ what would you say?”
- “Wait, are you asking me to reassure you about your parenting? I have no idea how to do that.”
- “This feels like a trap.“
- “I don’t know how to answer that, but I’m a pretty happy adult.”
- “Do they make comment cards for family relationships now? Let’s talk about something else.”
- “What an awkward question. Why on earth would you ask me that?“
- “No, but we can’t change the past. Why do you want to talk about this now?“
- “Do you think you were good parents?”
- “Wow. What brought this on?”
- “I don’t know how to answer that.”
- Edited to add: “Oh, Mom, you know I’m not interested in talking about any of that.”
If a lot of the scripts above look like answering a question with a question, yes, correct! Think of this as “If you’re going to bring this up, then you’re going to be the ones to do the work of explaining why.” Your parents are almost certain to pass on answering your counter-question or give a “no reason” non-answer, which gives you an opening to ignore the question entirely, like, “Ok, I have no idea how to answer that, but if you think of something specific you want to talk about let me know.” Return awkwardness to sender!
This is such a fucked up question from fucked-up people that there’s no right answer. But (good news?), that means there’s also no wrong way to answer. Answering honestly and giving them an opportunity to have an honest conversation doesn’t mean you have now agreed to discuss or defend or rehash anything. Alternately, saying “If I say ‘sure,’ will you stop asking me?” doesn’t undo all the true things that happened.
My thinking is, no matter how you answer you’re gonna feel weird and bad for a little afterward while because these people are experts at making you feel weird and bad, so you might as well be genuine and honor the life and the self you’ve created. Maybe your script is: “Not really, but I like our relationship how it is now.”