Undiscovered country

I think I’m venturing into undiscovered country right now. I know that at some point in our lives we expect our parents to pass away, but there are those who choose to carry on with their lives without their parents in them while they are still very much alive, for a variety of reasons, and I’m one of those people.

In my case, several years ago I told one of my parents how their words and actions upset me, and asked them to consider curtailing that behaviour when I was nearby. I did this in a very kind and caring way: or so I thought. I had expected response along the lines of “I’m sorry, I had no idea how upsetting my behaviour was. What can I do to put things right?”, but I was badly wrong. Let me tell you the story.

When I was growing up, I thought my parents were good people, who always seemed to be busy helping others, serving on local committees for social events, volunteering with charity organisations etc, on top of their regular day jobs.

I didn’t consider it odd that there was a strong push to be relatively independent at an early age, which included having a job outside of school hours, having chores at home from my early teens, and having a strong work ethic instilled in me. It involved spending summer holidays in a different country than my parents, so I could “experience life elsewhere”, so I could do different things and learn new languages.

I wasn’t aware that most actions were done for show, so you could be seen by friends, family and neighbours to be doing “the right thing” all the time. Their good opinion mattered, almost to the detriment of anything else. Certainly all thoughts of doing what is morally right went out of the window when faced with “what would our peers think or say”.

I didn’t think it odd that we as a family spent little time together, or that we didn’t talk about anything in any meaningful way. Conversations were always superficial, with no thought or room given to talking about feelings. Affection was demonstrated by teasing, or by making jokes at each other’s expense, not so much by hugs and being told you were loved. That’s just what everyone did back then, right?

Growing up, I was in a well protected bubble, where the worst aspects of life were hidden – or at the very least, never spoken about. Homeless people were not to be spoken to. Drug users, ditto. People who didn’t pass my parents’ scrutiny and judgment didn’t stay in my life for long. Everything was very “safe”, and hard conversations just didn’t happen.

Sure, I was brought up believing in gender and racial equality, with no religious baggage, which in those days and in that part of Scotland was a major achievement. But I’ve also recently found out that one of my parents has a deep hatred of one nationality, despite the fact that I knew they had friends from that country who they socialised with before I was a teenager. I’m pleased to say that hatred was not instilled in me.

I married when I was quite young and stayed married until a couple of years ago, when I ended the relationship. I’d had a realisation that I wasn’t happy with my life in the bubble, or with my wife, or with my job, and I was determined to put all three right. Soon after I separated from my wife, I started a relationship with someone I’d known for a very long time and who I’d always got on with. I introduced her to my parents and that’s when the trouble really started.

Instead of the kind and helpful reply I’d expected to the request I made, I was presented with a very vitriolic and aggressive response. After many phone calls, meeting up and emails, all contact was cut off for a year, briefly resumed for a family event and then silence for the best part of another year.

Recently conversations have started up again. Throughout I’ve maintained that I just need to have an answer to that first question, and throughout that request has been ignored or sidestepped. The conversations have ranged from an attempt at empathy on their part, to “You are our son and we are your parents,. Just do as you’re told, you’ve been a very naughty boy” – or words to that effect. Legally I’ve been an adult for well over 30 years!

One parent swings from acting as a peacemaker to being totally on their partner’s side: the other continues to claim this is all my fault and demonstrates what I now know to be very narcissistic traits. I’ve also come to realise that they use gaslighting techniques against me almost as a matter of course.

It’s been a hard road, with several false dawns of hope. Just as progress appears to be being made, one or other of my parents will demonstrate with remarkable prowess just how unkind and uncaring they really are. I’ve been told “so and so doesn’t want me to change, they like what I say and how I say it”, which missed the point. I’ve been told to “toughen up”: that’s what bullies say to their targets.

So, today I’ve drawn a line in the sand. There’s nothing wrong with asking people – expecting family – to be nice, civil or kind to others. Today I’ve said “enough” and have told them that I won’t be in contact again. The undiscovered country of life without parents starts here.