It seems that some adult children, faced with undeniably difficult challenges in launching their careers and independent lives, are angry and at a loss -- and may blame their parents in a variety of ways. Maybe they blame them for not preparing them for the rigors of adult life, for praising them to the skies and raising them to believe that anything was possible. Maybe they blame them for lagging self-confidence or for not encouraging them more in one direction instead of another. And some may blame parents for trauma and torment that continues to cripple them as they try to take on the world.
Whatever the basis for the blame visited upon parents, all of these adult children have a choice. They can continue to be miserable, underachieving, angry and outraged. Or they can decide to make their own happiness.
These adult children need to reach a point in life -- sooner rather than later -- where they take an active role in shaping their own lives and stop the blame game.
In all of our lives, there comes a decision point: am I going to be unhappy and held back in life because of what my parents did or didn't do? Or am I going to make my life my own, take responsibility for my own happiness and achievements and mistakes?
Taking ownership of your own life and destiny can free you in so many ways, even from the sadness and terror of a tortured childhood.
I was talking with my brother Mike on the phone the other day about the strangely positive aspects of our horrific upbringing.
"Sibling rivalry didn't happen," he said. "What we were facing from Father tended to unite rather than divide us."
And, we agreed, the hideousness of life at home was like a catapult to our ambitions and inclination to independence. Despite my shyness and fear, I chose a college nearly two thousand miles away from home -- and it was absolutely the best choice I could have made. Mike had left our California home to move in with our maternal grandmother in Kansas while still in high school. My sister Tai ran away from home when she was 17 and never returned. All of us were haunted by the specter of our unemployed, violent, pill-popping, alcoholic father. So very much on our own -- working, with scholarships and loans and teaching assistantships -- we acquired a variety of degrees and marketable skills in order to get and stay employed and solvent. And, mindful of his addictions, we have been cautious about using alcohol and other substances.
We've worked hard to build happy, productive lives and mutually loving and respectful relationships. We've always been clear what we don't want and the direction of our lives has been in living quite different lives than we lived and saw in our family of origin.
Making your life your own means not blaming others for misfortunes or setbacks, not expecting others to respond the way you might wish. It isn't easy. But it can be empowering. And the chances to create our lives and our own happiness happen on a daily basis.
Every day we face challenges and choices about personal responsibility. It's humbling to be reminded that just when you think you have all of this mastered, something happens that shows how much more there is to learn.
Recently, my husband Bob and I had a briefly bitter conflict with a neighbor couple. In short, we've had a long-time reciprocal cat care agreement with these neighbors, carefully balancing each other's travel plans to accommodate the other. We cared for their cat for 7 weeks this summer and they had agreed to care for ours during our 2 week Maui vacation in September.
It fell apart 36 hours before our departure for Maui when news reached us from another neighbor that our neighbor/cat-sitters planned to take another vacation of their own right in the middle of ours. We were the last to know. And when I called to inquire about their plans, the response was "Oh, yeah. We meant to call you. You'll have to find someone else to take care of your cats while we're away."
What? When were they planning to tell us??
Under stress and scrambling, we found a wonderful professional pet-sitter for our cats. It cost us an unbudgeted $400, but the peace of mind, at this point, was worth it. Our friend Kim also offered to take in our mail and play with the cats while we were gone. So our animals were well cared for in our absence. But our continuing feelings of disappointment and anger toward our original cat sitters was ignited further by their total lack of understanding about why we might be unhappy with them. The wife wrote an adamant email that they were not to blame in any way and that we needed to take responsibility for our own problems. The husband insisted that he had visited our cats to play with them every day he was home and didn't understand, then, why we were upset. For several days, a chilly stand-off persisted.
Finally, our friend Theo put the situation in perspective. He quietly took Bob's hand and said "Bob, what they did was selfish and thoughtless and it's a shame that they don't realize it or at least empathize with your pain here. But you have to live next door to them for a long time. I don't think you want to live with this kind of tension. So make peace. Apologize for yelling at them on the phone. Do it for you, not for them. Tap your inner Buddha and do the right thing."
Bob thought about it and picked up the phone. On the other end, our male neighbor was friendly, but still puzzled. "You know," he said. "Every day we were home, we came over to visit your cats. I still don't understand why you are so upset."
Biting his tongue, Bob said "Well, we'll just have to agree to disagree on this. It's over and done with. And we'll just go on..."
Hours later, this neighbor dropped by our house after taking his wife to the airport to go visit her mother in Oregon. It was like old times -- sort of. We talked of everything but what had stood between us. And as our neighbor sat there, our kitten Hamish ran into the room and onto his lap, purring loudly. Maggie was right behind him, rubbing against our neighbor's legs.
An angry part of myself, not wanting to let go, silently cursed the kitties for their obvious affection -- "Hey, you little traitors, get back under the bed where you belong!" -- but it was undeniable that he had built a bond with them, including Hammie, who had seen little of him before our departure.
It was a lesson in letting go, in humility and in acceptance.
Theo is right. There are times when we have to give up our righteous view of what should have been and make an alliance with what is. There are times when being the first to apologize -- even when that seems outrageous -- is the right thing to do. There are times when we have to accept another's offering as good enough even when we think it falls way short.
In many ways, the process has been similar to resolving issues from our parents: for our own inner peace, we've had to look past what went wrong and focus more on what went right. Our parents did the best they could at the time. Our neighbors did the best they could at the time. Even if we think that their choices and efforts should have been far different, that reality is not ours to decide.
We do this for us, not for them.
What matters in this instance is that our beloved cats are alive and well and feeling loved by all around them.
What matters, in the long run, is not what happened in our homes of origin or our neighborhoods of the present, but how we respond to and learn from these experiences.
What matters, on a daily basis, is making the decision to be at peace with what is and to make our own happiness.