Who Is Responsible?


With Oprah on her way, articles about the "mothering wars" multiplying, and a new raft of research based parenting manuals on the market, how can parents learn to navigate the minefield of blame? How do we take responsibility for our actions while ultimately allowing others the dignity of their choices? Where does blame end and responsibility begin? Did we really do the best we could?

Everyday without exception we make mistakes. Small ones and big ones. With my daughter I have of course made many. And I can’t say that I have always done the best that I could. How can we use that expression about ourselves — or about our own parents? How can anyone possibly do their best in a 24 hour a day, seven day a week relationship?

Some days I’m a lazy parent. I shut down important conversations, dismiss concerns and say cruel things without thinking. Certainly I am responsible for any pain these moments have caused my child. Do I answer her complaints with "I did the best I could at the time?" Would that be more helpful to her — or to me? I have not found these words comforting. Instead, they leave a great distance between us that we try to bridge by putting our feelings and ourselves aside. Over time it becomes hard to reach each other, because so much of who we are has been shut down.

Parenting is an overwhelming responsibility, and often in our attempts to support each other as parents, we gloss over the enormous impact our day-to-day actions have on our children, in an attempt to quell our own anxiety. The weight of this responsibility remains overwhelming because we have not given ourselves permission to face it.

The effect of this I believe is a kind of silence between parents and within families. On the one hand, we are bombarded with articles blaming parents for the behaviour of their children, even of their adult children. On the other hand, as adults, there is so much fear and shame around holding our own parents accountable for their hurtful actions. We tend to gloss over this hurt, aware that our current cultural belief is what it is we must forgive. Forgiving others makes us free. With Oprah about to visit our shores, I’m sure we are about to be reminded of this once again.

I think somehow we have skipped an important step. The step where we say "You hurt me when you did what you did, and it has had a profound effect on my life." The step where we truly listen when these words are said to us. How can we learn to hear this as parents, and to encourage our children to express their pain? How can we bear the weight of it with courage, and how can we respond? Most importantly, I think our children, like us, want to be heard. They want us to really listen with open hearts. And then they would like us to apologise. To say we are sorry, and to take the steps we need in order not to repeat the painful behaviour. Sorry doesn’t mean we can fix it, sorry doesn’t mean we weren’t doing the best we could; it means we understand and regret the pain we caused. It doesn’t change the fact that it is our children who must live and take responsibility for their own lives. But like any sincere apology it can be profoundly freeing.

Healing is not reserved for those who have suffered severe abuse. Healing is a regular physiological process. If we can accept and atone for our mistakes with our children regularly, we also give ourselves the opportunity to heal small hurts before they become lasting resentments. Often in the midst of this process, I learn that the things I worry about are not the same things that have hurt my daughter. How can I learn these things if I place myself beyond blame in the protective space of "I did the best I could?"

In over 15 years of counselling families, individual adults and young people, I have never met anyone who blames their parents for their lives today. Not one. In fact, for the most part, the people I have worked with excuse and dismiss some of the most abhorrent behaviour using the words, "they did the best they could."

Being able to hold the adults close to us accountable for their actions is a big part of learning to stand up for ourselves, and helps us to see change in relationships as possible. It protects us from feelings of hopelessness, despair and depression. When we can express our hurts clearly and we are heard, we can trust that relationships can be dynamic and that there is space for criticism that does not mean we are no longer loved and that we no longer love. Even when we are not heard, expressing our hurt openly can provide us with a sense of standing up for ourselves that is truly adaptive.

For many of us, even thinking about confronting someone with a grievance brings on a sense of despair, characterised by an attitude of "What’s the point, he’ll never change, he’ll never listen so why bother?" We believe this because in our experience it has been true. Underneath these kind of statements sit adaptive emotions of sadness, fear and anger, the acknowledgement and expression of which lead us to make different life choices.

I have a friend I call when I feel like a terrible mother. I like to call her because she makes me feel better, and she gives me hope. She doesn’t gloss over my wrongdoings, she sees their impact, but she supports me to be the best I can, and acknowledges that perfection is impossible. To be above blame is to believe and to strive for perfection. It is to be above both criticism and responsibility. What a terrible lonely place to be. If we can work to accept the responsibility for the mistakes we make with our children, I believe it can free us to further ask for, indeed to demand, the support we really need to do this work.

In my life and the lives of many adults close to me, the sincere apologies they have received from their parents stand out as real treasures. Moments when a burden is truly lifted.

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