Friday, October 19, 2012

When Does the Blame Stop?

There was yet another painful comment the other day for the post "Finding the Balance" from the mother of two adult children saying that after her daughters' college and weddings were finished and paid for, she had become persona non grata with the kids who began to blame her for their own current difficulties -- as in "You and Dad fought all the time I was growing up and it messed me up!"

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.


  1. Oh, so true! It all boils down to what is more valuable to us; to hang onto our rightness and righteousness, or the ability to live in peace and grow.

    This is really a handicapping thing for so many people today.

  2. Thought-provoking post. Your neighbors are irreparable flakes. What Theo did was help you repair the future.

  3. Kathy I am sorry that your neighbors let you down and,
    pleaded innocent. At the very least admitting responsibility for their actions would
    help the wound.

    I have known this kind of pain. It makes me want to cling
    to my introvert ways and, stay inside. And, at times I do
    just that. Not healthy perhaps but, it feels like I am nurturing the broken places giving myself time to heal.

    I am happy you have made peace with your neighbor. I do hope you and, your husband can release the pain quickly.

    Forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves.

  4. I don't know why but we do seem to live in a world where everyone wants to blame someone else for what is their own fault. Sometimes it is the other person's fault but usually it's their own.

    Your neighbor's were wrong to do you that way. I have a neighbor that relies on me for lots of things. The one time I ask her to get my daughter from the bus she shows up late or something. Very unreliable so I don't even ask.

  5. It's hard to accept irresponsibility in others when I'm so reliable myself. Still, I'd rather be happy than right. Usually.

  6. Part of 'growing up' is learning that one's parents are human. I went through a couple of years when I first left home of finding a great deal of fault with my parents for not being perfect! It wasn't long, however, before I discovered what exceptional people my parents really were and one of the things that really helped was becoming a parent myself!

  7. Something I read over twenty years ago, that has helped me immensely in accepting other people's behavior, is the concept that people are doing the best they can do, considering their upbringing, experiences and understanding of life. People don't set out to make others miserable. They don't wake up in the morning thinking how to mess up. They may lack tools, education, knowledge that we have and take for granted. That doesn't mean they're not doing the best they can with what they have.

    It was a life-changing moment when I understood this.

    1. Next time I would make sure I was too busy for their next request.....this is how they get the message. Like children!

  8. Tapping my inner Buddha is HARD. Even at the ripe old age of 54. I do try to keep in mind that, when others disappoint me, it's probably because I have put my own expectations on them. I believe they should do things the way I would do them. Which is nuts. This is not so easy when it comes to the husband, however. LOL Really enjoying reading your blog!

  9. AMEN! My Dad used to remind me that The Lord would never give that much Control to any one person with skin on to shape our entire Destiny. I Loved my Dad's Sage Native American Wisdom... always Brief and Profound... it always stuck with me. His other Fav Words of Wisdom "If the horse is dead, get off..." made me realize that if something isn't working, it's up to me to make the Change... not my Parents, my Kids, my Husband, my Friends or G-Kids... ME. It's my horse {Life} I'm riding... sometimes we need to switch horses {Choices} and those are ours alone to make and ultimately shape our Destiny.

    Dawn... The Bohemian

  10. some adult kids blame their parents because its more easier to blame others than to blame themselves. Its much easier to pass on the blame to someone else. Adult kids should take advantage of the opportunities in life, and stop being lazy and bitter.

    1. As I look back on my parental years, I can re-live, as if it were yesterday, my getting out of bed each and every morning, for what would now be over 11,000 days (ponder on that number for awhile), and consciously giving the best I had to give to my husband, son & daughter. That giving was in spite of all of life's ups and downs and pressures that didin't go away just because I was a wife & mother. There were alot of tears & prayers through the difficult times, but there was far more laughter & fun. Unfortunately both of my children only choose to take the difficult times into consideration when they look for reasons why their adult lives are so hard for them now. One of my sayings has been "When you have all the responsibility, you get all of the blame". Yes, I'll be the first to admit that not only have I made mistakes along the way, but things have also turned out disappointingly different even when I made conscious choices I thought would assure favorable outcomes for my children. Isn't motherhood the hardest job in the world? It's so easy to be on the outside, looking in and passing judgement. It would be far more difficult to step into the shoes I've worn for the past 30 years, be faced with the decisions I've had to make as a wife and mother, choose differently and get that guaranteed favorable result you want. The paradox is there are no guarantees! Our best teacher is not a critique of the text-book childhood raising we had and what should have been done differently, it's living your own life, making your own difficult decisions along the way and being able to handle the outcome, whatever it may be with strength, courage, grace and unconditional love. This falls under another saying I appreciate: "Experience is the best teacher".

    2. I identify with your response. As a single mother, I'm sure I made mistakes. I know I worked hard, gave up a lot and tried to always put the needs of my children first. It has not worked out as well as I hoped.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. We are the easy out for our matter what happens, she can blame it on us. She speaks negatively about everybody to her 13-year-old daughter in order to make herself look like a perpetual victim....doesn't she realize how this is going to color her daughter's view of the world? No, we didn't get everything right...we admit that. But we had many wonderful times as a family. Her father has a major think she'd be a little sensitive to that. I also resent her former therapist, who seemed to have pat answers for all of our daughter's issues...which our daughter was very happy to lay claim to in order to excuse herself from adult responsibility. Our daughter is going to be has a habit of causing you to wise up if you live long enough, and it's very painful to realize how flawed your thinking was. We love our daughter, and don't want to think of her enduring that pain. Most of all, she needs to change for the sake of her daughter.

  16. Good day! This post couldn't be written any better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this.
    I will forward this page to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read.
    Thanks for sharing!

  17. This blog was... how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I have
    found something that helped me. Thanks!

  18. Thanks for your marvelous posting! I truly enjoyed reading it,
    you can be a great author. I will remember to bookmark your blog and
    will often come back someday. I want to encourage continue your great writing,
    have a nice morning!