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Coming to Terms with Your Parents

November 25, 2010 | by Marnie Winston-Macauley

Why should a perfectly competent adult suddenly revert to the fetal position in the presence of her parents?

Melinda’s all grown up, most days of the year.

Somehow, her children make it to school unscathed, her husband seems content, she’s lost 35 pounds, and she has a tag team of good friends who admire her pluck. This capable, reasonably sane, working mom manages to enjoy life's marvels while muddling through mini-crises with maturity and only a modicum of self-recrimination.

Then she visits mom and dad. With the precision of the philharmonic, the strains begin from the mouths of her parents to the driving beat of that old standard, What Do You Do With a Problem like Melinda?


Mom: “Look, Al. Melinda’s on time for a change!"

Dad: “You’re too thin. You’re overdoing again.”

Mom: “She obviously isn't busy sewing on buttons."

Mom, the Sherlock of shirts, has already noticed her grandson’s Izod. "Come here baby," coos grandma to Melinda’s 10-year-old. "Grandma will fix it. Get out the sewing kit, Melinda. Dinner will wait -- even if the turkey’s a little dry.”

By the fruit salad, a frozen smile replaces adult conversation as 38-year-old Melinda finds she’s slowly folded into fetal position. By the time she carries out the five pound bag of leftovers (so her son will have a decent meal), not only were buttons sewn, but yet another stitch has been yanked from Melinda’s hard won self-confidence as she waves goodbye to mommy and daddy, nursing yet another emotional 'boo-boo'.

Why should a perfectly competent adult suddenly revert to babble in the presence of her parents?

We feel like a child because we once were a child, and we possess the necessary memory buttons should our folks be expert pushers. On Everybody Loves Raymond, despite Marie Barone’s meddlesome mom's all-purpose protest “It comes from love” -- it doesn’t. It comes from need, and fear.

These parents send the garbled double command, "Grow up. How dare you!"

The good news is, whether mom or dad plays the martyr, the critic, or the hysteric, most parents are at least conflicted. The mature part of them wants to support our adult independence. It’s the fearful, needy child within them that wants to bind us through emotional manipulation. These parents send the garbled double command, "Grow up. How dare you! "

Even when the curtain has long rung down on childhood, many of us, like Melinda, are still caught up in the old songs and dances of yesterday, as our inner child dreads mommy’s or daddy’s disapproval. And despite reassurances from mates, friends, and colleagues, these early songs are forever replayed, at the cost of our own solo. Listen:

Mom: "How come I never hear from you?"

You: "I'm sorry, Mom. I was sick last week." (Shrug, head hangs.)

Dad: "If you're so smart, why do you always screw things up?"

You: "When was the last time I screwed things up!" (Migraine starts.)

Mom: "I’d better pick out your wallpaper with you."

You: "I know what I want. (Silence.) Alright, see you at noon.” (Grimace.)

Related Article: Forgiving My Father

Getting Out of the Sandbox

While all parents and adult children slip into the occasional pas de deux, when protecting your parent's feelings takes precedence over your own preferences and good sense, it's time to stop the music. Here’s how:

  1. Know you’re dancing. The beat of the childhood cha-cha is guilt, fear, or shame, rather than your own beliefs, wishes, needs, or sense, and sensibilities. Be aware whose needs you're serving. If they’re not yours, you're twirling.

  2. Know the dancers. Tell yourself it’s the frightened, possessive little child in your parent that’s dancing with the insecure, guilt-ridden little child in you.

  3. Reach out to the mature adult in each of you. Allay and then bypass your parent's "childish" fears by standing your ground -- with empathy. For example:

"I know my decision to take a job out-of-state scares you, mom. You're afraid I'll forget to call. But I love and care about you, so keep the guest room warm."

"I like my job, dad. But when you run-it-down, it makes me sound worthless. I don't believe that's the way you really feel about me."

"I know that you think a ‘lady’ shouldn’t travel alone. I respect you, but I've formed a different opinion. I'll call you when I get back."

While these new responses may stop the music, brace yourself for some rough riffs. Old tunes waft on. It will take time and maintaining your ground before the grown-up in your parent emerges (or gives up). Accept this fact: you can’t satisfy the child in your parent by sacrificing your adulthood.

When old songs end, new ones begin, liberating songs of self-discovery and growth. Songs that will allow you to march forward to the beat of your own drummer.

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