Rappler’s Life and Style section runs an advice column by couple Jeremy Baer and clinical psychologist Dr. Margarita Holmes.
Jeremy has a master’s degree in law from Oxford University. A banker of 37 years who worked in three continents, he has been training with Dr. Holmes for the last 10 years as co-lecturer and, occasionally, as co-therapist, especially with clients whose financial concerns intrude into their daily lives
Together, they have written two books: Love Triangles: Understanding the Macho-Mistress Mentality and Imported Love: Filipino-Foreign Liaisons.
Dear Dr. Holmes and Mr. Baer,
I have a heartfelt wish for a deeper, more open relationship with my parents. I love them and I know they love me. But I can’t help but long for a relationship where we can communicate freely and honestly with one another.
They’re in their 70s now and more or less “set in their ways,” as we typically describe senior citizens. Talking about family issues, past hurt, or even recent painful events (whether it was a minor tampo or a big fight) is a no-no. But I feel the need to talk it out with them.
I’m well aware that I don’t have a lot of time left with my parents. And it would mean a lot to me if I could make sense of things that happened in the past, to understand why our relationship is the way it is today, and moving forward, to relate with them on a deeper, more authentic, more grown-up level. I want to hear from them, to get to know them as people, not just as parents who worked hard to provide for their children and set rules for what’s right and wrong for me and my siblings.
If you ask about our relationship today, I would say that we’re generally okay as long as we stay on the superficial or the non-personal. Topics like food, celebrities, world/national events, or other people are safe. Occasionally, we can be philosophical, but the minute we cross into the personal, my parents are quick to change the topic or end the discussion by excusing themselves from the dining table or the room.
My husband, our kids, and I spend a lot of time with my parents and we go on many trips together. So I’m aware that, perhaps to other people, we’re the picture of a happy family. But I want more than a pretty picture. I want real conversations with my parents. There’s so much I want to say, so many things I want to ask, but I also don’t want to keep stressing them out (I can also come off as very intense when I’m out to find out or understand something). It has become quite frustrating for me and I’m also beginning to wonder if I’m being a selfish daughter. Should I just accept that they’re a product of their generation and be content with what we have today?
Is there still a way to accomplish my relationship goal with my parents? If yes, could you please give me advice on how?
Dear Wistful Daughter (WP),
Parenting differs from family to family and often from generation to generation. It seems that your parents’ goal was to provide their children with a stable home, a good education, and thus a chance at a decent adult life. There was probably a stark differentiation between adults and children, with emphasis on filial piety, obedience, and respect that was expected to last their lifetime.
Modern middle class parenting may still retain elements of this but tends towards encouraging greater dialogue between parents and children, less emphasis on blind obedience, more understanding of why rules and boundaries exist, etc. There may even be a desire to introduce a degree of friendship into the (adult) relationship.
It appears that your parents are old school and you are not. As with any conversation between two parties with radically different views, it is essential to understand the starting point of the other person, have a reasoned set of aims, and make a realistic assessment of what is achievable.
In your parents’ case, they see themselves as being in the twilight of their lives. Their parenting obligations are over and they want a quiet, worry-free existence basking in the warmth of their children and grandchildren. They have never engaged in existential discussions about the meaning of life and have no desire to do so now. The boundaries between parents and children are clear in their minds and they have no wish to blur either. In short, they are comfortably set in their ways.
In these circumstances the most you can achieve is to take tiny, almost stealthy, steps towards broadening the conversation, perhaps always in the guise of seeking their advice. Anything more overt will be firmly rebuffed. Otherwise, enjoy what you have together while you still have them.
All the best,
Dear Wistful Daughter (WD):
Thank you very much for your letter and for its ability to crack wide open Mr. Baer’s non-touchy-feely heart so that he 1. reassured you, WD, that you are not a selfish daughter simply because you want to be closer to your parents (au contraire); and 2. encouraged you to take “tiny, almost stealthy steps” towards becoming more deeply involved with them.
I agree with Mr. Baer that one reason for this difference is generational. Stephanie Coontz, Director, Education and Research for the Council on Contemporary Families, recognizes this too. “Never before have family relationships been seen as so interwoven with the search for personal growth, the pursuit of happiness, and the need to confront and overcome psychological obstacles…. Parents or children might reproach the other for failing to honor/acknowledge their duty, but the idea that a relative could be faulted for failing to honor/acknowledge one’s ‘identity’ would have been incomprehensible.”
In that sense, you are an outlier: we have had other daughters your age who have written to Two Pronged. Like you, they say they love their parents. However, unlike with you, weekly family lunches and the occasional out-of-town trips together are enough to keep that love alive. Oldies like Mr. Baer, myself, and anyone over 60 usually long for conversations beyond, “What did you think of that movie we just saw?” or “Did you also feel like throwing yourself off a bridge when you realized BBM won the election?”
Because you love your parents, you want to have a relationship that encompasses more than faux intimacy. Many parents would go down on their knees in gratitude to have a daughter who doesn’t run a mile once they hear the dreaded, “When I was your age…” Many adult children do not have much interest in the aspects of their parents that don’t directly involve them.
And yet, here you are, my dearest WD, eager to learn more about who your parents truly are.
The fact that your parents have not accepted your invitation to allow a truly intimate relationship to blossom between you is mind-boggling. People actually need relationships to stay alive. One reason this lockdown was so devastating was that it made connections between us so difficult.
People can become intimate with one another only if they allow themselves to take risks in the presence of the other. They cannot share their true selves with the other until they feel safe enough to do so. Alas, your parents do not seem to feel that safe — either in any and under all circumstances, or only with you.
An inability to feel safe is usually due to trauma. Not necessarily an overwhelmingly obvious, physical trauma with lives literally in danger, but enough of a devastation to have affected how deep (or superficial) a relationship has to be before your parent/s can feel comfortable being in it.
This is merely a hypothesis, of course. But a hypothesis that was needed to explain what would otherwise have been inexplicable. Your parents’ outright refusal to be closer to you is so consistent and performed at such a molecular, instinctive level it has left you to wonder if all this discomfort between you is your fault.
Please forgive me if I have come across as unduly harsh. Please also believe that I’ve tried a hundred different ways to be truthful without being unduly hurtful. But in the end, I knew that, given a choice, you would prefer honest, albeit painful, responses rather than the comfortable, convenient lies. I just wanted to give you some things to think about. If any of this resonates, please write to us again. With your added inputs, perhaps you, Mr. Baer, and I can come up with a map that can help you decide whether taking more effort and risking more pain will be worth it.
All the best,
Please send any comments, questions, or requests for advice to firstname.lastname@example.org.