What if you just got the wrong parent bzw. kid?

In light of what we learned on Tuesday, I’ve been chewing over things.

[and this is a brief note that passworded posts always have the password in the subject line. The point isn’t to prevent anyone from reading it, but rather to keep those posts out of Google indexing.]

So on the one hand — what the doctor concluded is that dad really can’t help most of his impulsive behavior or speech. This came out in a sort of disturbing conversation. He told the doctor that (a) he had fallen last week — I did not know, because (b) he tried to move a heavy TV off a high shelf in the workshop and when she asked, when you decided to do that, did you think that all that maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea? he said (c) no, it’s no problem. Why wouldn’t it be a good idea? When she pointed out that he’s had a stroke, he asserted that nothing has changed for him since the stroke, he’s still fully capable of moving heavy things. it really does not and cannot occur to him, when he decides upon a particular course of action, that he should think about it. Extrapolating: once it had popped into his mind as a possibility he wanted to pursue, he could not have decided on his own not to drive the tractor. Or yesterday morning — when we ended up in yet another confrontation with me physically restraining him from starting the washer — it isn’t physiologically possible for him to remember or consider that he’s been asked repeatedly not to operate it, or that his laundry is now our senior helper’s job. He’d decided he needed to wash clothes and he was going to do it and there was no reason to think twice. That part of his brain is non-operational. So notwithstanding how he appears from the outside and some of the things he says, he’s not planning in the conventional sense to endanger himself or anger me.

On the other hand — what comes out of his mouth, even if it’s not something he says in the sense of intending to say it, is also true in the sense that he’s saying what he thinks — he simply now lacks the self-restraint to control its expression. So when he says I’m lazy, or wasteful, or stupid, or a pain in the ass — or whatever the complaint of the day is — that is the articulation of something real that he feels, even (if, though) the judgment itself isn’t accurate.

So — at the same time that he’s not doing it to upset me, his behavior nonetheless reflects his current view of me. This is certainly supported by his current state of mind; he also told the doctor that nothing is wrong with him, he “lets” me drive him around, and he could get along perfectly well without assistance. He has now told two doctors that I do things on purpose to aggravate him.

Even if this language is an expression of his resentment more than an objective observation about me, it’s not a surprise to hear negative stuff about myself from him. He has always thought I’m lazy and that the work I do is not real. He very much personifies the anti-elite impulse that has captured American politics at the moment — no expert knows anything better than he does. He has always objected to some of the ways I spend money (books, for instance). In many ways I embody exactly many things he finds repugnant politically or culturally objectionable. I’m not pretty or compliant. I’m single and childless. Rather than being a homemaker or nurse or a music teacher (what he thought I should do with my life), I have an advanced degree and work at universities. I don’t make things or money; I spend most of my day reading, learning, and communicating things. I have political views he detests and I am capable of defending them with much more information and vigor than he’s ever been comfortable with a woman having. And I like to make a plan and follow it, rather than winging it.

That there are certain contradictions in this position isn’t something he’s ever thought of (I suspect). As a former systems analyst, for example, he himself was the epitome of the obscure, rarefied expert (feel free to raise your hand if you know without looking what CICS does — I can assure you both the Servetus children do). Or: While we were waiting in the doctor’s office for the results of the evaluation, he saw that I’d brought a soup cookbook along with me to read from the library and said, what d’you need that for? When I replied that fall is nearly here and the term is about to start and I was looking for new soups to put into the rotation, he said, his voice and his face full of scorn, That’s really silly. Why would you do that? I put it away to think about later, and I thought two things. First, the real problem is that he does not value the labor of homemaking in the least, even though he’s quite demanding about how it should be performed by others — and now his brain injury frees him to say it. The idea that I would be planning ahead further than he would about what we’d be eating is not worth a minute’s thought, or once thought, any further consideration. Second, as much as I wrestle with whether mom would have dealt with this situation better than I do, maybe it’s actually better for her to be dead, than to become, even potentially, the target of this kind of scorn or contempt. It’s the double whammy: women should stay in the home, but / and homemaking and the things one does in the home are meaningless, subordinate activities.

Before you become defensive on my behalf — don’t. It hurts, but I spent a lot of time in therapy considering aspects of this problem about a decade ago. I didn’t resolve the issues but I’m fairly aware of them and I have a basic idea of how they shape my reactions to things, even if yes, it still hurts, and to some extent I still have the desperate need of the adult child for parental approval. He can get under my skin because the buttons he built into my personality to push for this very purpose are still there.

But as usual my own conflicts made me think about the more general problem of children and parents who (despite their obvious biological relationship and even some shared personality or intellectual components) just don’t “fit.” My dad and I are a good example of that. I think people who know us can see quite clearly what I “got” from him — and not just his poor vision. At the same time, he was not the right father for me and I was not the right child for him. He did not get past that when I was a child and a teen (or did not see the need to do so); when I left home I decided it wasn’t worth the effort to please him any more; and now, given his brain injuries it’s probably too late. Keeping him reasonably comfortable is still an important goal, but it can’t be done anymore in the hope that old wounds can be healed.

Another father who didn’t quite “get” his son: Steven Mackintosh as Elton John’s father, Stanley Dwight, in Rocketman (2019).

I found myself fascinated by this film over the summer, and it got me into reading lots of biographies of Elton John. One thing one quickly learns is that much of what Elton John has said about his father in interviews is factually false, and most of the event-level representation of their relationship in this film is also incorrect (I put some details about Stanley Dwight specifically in SueBC’s comments). Dwight made many more efforts at effective parenting than the film reveals. In essence, I think the film narrative is a psychogram that reflects the version of his past that Elton John knit together in order to get sober. I could guess, based on a critical reading of the available evidence, about what might have happened in that household and in Elton John’s relationship with his father (and maybe I will sometime). But I think in the end the basic problem was that the father never felt fully comfortable with his son, and the son never felt loved or approved of by his father (a deficit potentially exacerbated by his parents’ poor relationship with each other), and so his struggle toward an adulthood away from addiction involved accepting that he could live with himself apart from his father’s approval or affection. This is the sentiment represented in the one of the final scenes of the film, where film-Elton confronts a series of influential figures from his youth and says to his father, “I think I’m okay with [being] strange.”

The notion of the Dwight family as a group of people who were a poor fit for each other is also reflected in the film, in the early scene organized anachronistically around the song, “I Want Love.”

In it, the members of the family, at what looks like a Sunday dinner, appear disengaged and snipe at each other while each sings lines of the song that point both to their feelings of isolation and their desire for connection. I cried when I saw this the first time (and so did Elton John, reportedly). In the end, too, both of Elton John’s parents found families that “fit” them — and as the film reveals, so did the artist himself, even if much later. It was just that none of them were well equipped to deal with the conflicts in their own original nuclear family setting.

I’m not comparing myself with Elton John or even our two families with each other. One important difference is that my mother did not spend her time directly feeding the fire of a hostile relationship between me and my father (as Sheila Dwight did). My own understanding of what happened between my father and me is reasonably consonant with available evidence — and I haven’t ever wanted to understand him as a total villain in the way Elton John seems to see his father in this film. I just wish — and I really I wish this — I was less troubled by the picture of dad so often expresses. Am I worried he’s right?

Another compelling trope of this film is the bottomless need of the addict to replace what he lacks with other things (alcohol, drugs, shopping, etc.). One of the things I realized in the wake of the Tuesday appointment is that going forward, my relationship with dad will be less about how he and I actually related in the past and more about the continued building and tempering of my character. The question for me this whole summer, watching the film, and now after this appointment: how do I figure out how to fill the hole that dad built? How do I learn to accept having been the wrong kid?

~ by Servetus on August 30, 2019.

29 Responses to “What if you just got the wrong parent bzw. kid?”

  1. Dear Servetus. It is such a gripping post, that I just need to comment. We so often think, that everyone needs to get along with everyone, which just does not work. It is especially hard inside a family. But as your father does not understand you, don’t try to adjust too much to his (wrong) expectations of you. He would not be content, if you were exactly the child he thought you should be. He would not respect you then either.
    I get the impression, that your father, like many family men, tries to dominate his surrounding, to show his own importance. Whoever follows his authority, enhances his stand, but does not earn his respect. With his illness, he no longer is able to balance his motives with other considerations, but he lives out his domination, to build his own self-respect, rather than thinks about anyone else.
    I am not sure I make my intended point clear, but I hope you don’t let his hurtful comments touch you, because they are only meant to bolster his own feelings, to build them up. They are not really about you, but only for himself, to feel worthy against everyone else he can reach and dominate and so live out his ‘importance’.
    All the best to you and keep your strength!

    Liked by 3 people

    • You’re absolutely right that there is little to nothing I could have done to affect his opinion of me in the past (that was sort of the outcome of the therapy I had on this topic a decade ago: once I turned out to be a girl and smart and not cute, my fate was sealed). I was thinking about this sort of thing again recently while watching an opera with a fantastic Black singer; how galling it is / must be to know how good you are and yet be restricted in your potential by the prejudices of others.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. First of all apologies: The Tuesday post completely passed me by because passworded posts not only are not indexed on Google, but they apparently also do not show in the WP reader. I access new blogposts from all my subscriptions via the reader – and thus missed your post entirely.
    Secondly. I want to reply and offer you something positive. I don’t know what – hope, help, advice. But what you are writing – and experiencing – is far too big than for me to spin some well-intentioned but ultimately useless yarn. I just want to say that I think you have been dealt a most unfair set of cards. Even having it now explained and confirmed by authority that your dad is behaving in the most unreasonable way towards you, doesn’t take away the pain of feeling rejected. And as much as you may know what is happening emotionally between the two of you, it must be very hard to accept it. Is there anything – or anybody really – whose different attitude towards you could balance out this disrespect/rejection by your father? Does your mother’s love for you balance it out?
    I know it is not the same and it cannot make up for any of the pain, but I would like to confirm here that I am sure there are many people who like you, respect you, admire you for what and who you are. I certainly do, and I don’t think you deserve the treatment you have received. This is meaningless for your own struggle, I know that. I’d rather like to be more constructive than this, but then again, even as an unbeliever, I do think there is power in prayer/good thoughts. And I am wishing you all the best in dealing with the situation.


    • Yeah, I realize passwording’s not the best response to my concerns but I don’t have the energy to administer a private blog and actually don’t want to be writing one.

      Thanks for your sympathy. This one is hard to parse for me, insofar as the issues with my dad left lasting marks on me, but mainly in the past. Now it’s not so much that they hurt (although they do) that that’s the issue, but maybe just that there’s this constant reminder of the issues, maybe? Issues I would rather not have. In a way, I can already sense that the knowledge that “he can’t help it” is helping me a bit less angry about a lot of the concrete problems we’re having and I may get there with this, too. It’s simple fact that eventually my perspective on things takes over every situation in the long run — so it’s really fortunate for him that I’m not generally of ill will.


  3. I can relate to this so well. I was the wrong daughter for my mother. She wanted a pretty, sociable daughter with lots of friends, a boyfriend and later husband, a middling education and a simple, well-paid job plus kids. She got an introvert, a bookish loner, unpopular and mobbed, certainly not pretty but also not trying hard enough to be prettier, who pursued an university education against her will, and no boyfriend or children in sight. She despised me in many ways and didn’t always hide it.
    I propose we both start seeing it the other way round, how yours wasn’t the right father for you and mine not the right mother for me.


  4. I love cdoart’s response which is exactly what I thought but couldn’t have said as perfectly.

    So you are not the daughter he wanted and I’m wondering what the daughter he might have liked more would be like? You stated he doesn’t value domestic endeavours although he is quick enough to complain if things are not to his liking? So it sounds like even the ‘perfect’ daughter would annoy him at times? The soup cookbook anecdote struck me – if you’d been reading a book on an obscure historical topic he might be forgiven for feeling excluded and perhaps saying something snarky but a book that you are reading solely to gain ideas to provide comfort and nourishment for him seems like the book a ‘good’ daughter would be looking at. And yet he still took exception… Mother Theresa couldn’t win this one Servetus!

    On a practical note – have you thought about how you are going to stop him doing washing etc.. if he has not ability to censor himself?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I like soup, too, but he’s losing weight left and right. We don’t know why but in any case soup is something he will reliable eat, and I’m thinking now that I’m making a minimum of fourteen individual meals a week, that maybe I’m repeating some stuff too much.

      There’s a baby lock we can put on the washer, my brother tells me.


      • If he’s not drinking as much that might lead to weight loss. I have a friend who stopped drinking alcohol when she realised she was tipping into alcoholism and even though her appetite increased she lost loads of weight.


        • I agree, and I thought that was the reason at the beginning, but at this point he’s lost more than 20 percent of his body weight, and surreptitiously counting calories, even conservatively counted he’s eating 1500-1800 calories a day.


    • and yeah, you’re right, I felt ambushed by his disapproval in that situation.

      This is often the case. It’s impossible to fulfill his demands. This morning I picked up the grocery order and they didn’t have the bakery items we wanted. I got it home and he was rummaging for something to eat. I suggested all the other stuff I bought: grapes, salami, potato chips, chocolate, nuts, ice cream. No, it had to be bakery. Then I’d gone out to the truck farmer’s and gotten melons and tomatoes (they’re in their three week season here) and when I came back I said, why don’t you ask Flower if he wants a tomato or two? And I left to run errands. I came back with bakery, and then he didn’t want bakery, but he had packed up all of the fresh stuff I bought to give to Flower and was angry at me when I said I had bought some of that stuff for us / me. (It’s a long weekend here so the next chance to get any of that stuff is Tuesday, and the weather is changing so we’re not guaranteed to get it). So in the end I ended up transporting him and all the stuff to Flower’s. So then I was angry that he did it, angry that I let him do it, and angry at myself that I allowed myself to be so upset by two lost melons and three pounds of tomatoes.

      I think I need a beer.


      • And Flower is going to struggle to get through all that fruit and veg on her own. It must be incredibly frustrating – you are run off your feet trying to provide what he needs/wants and he is sabotaging your efforts. I’m not sure that knowing he can’t help it makes it any better – because you have lost hope of thinking you might be able to reason with him.


        • What the dr said was that essentially you have to not put him in the way of temptation (so sleeping with the keys is the right impulse). So in future, if I want to be nice to Iris, I should just pick out what I want to give her and send it along with him, not ask him to be involved. I think it will be okay if I don’t set myself up to fail by “preserving his autonomy” — the thing the cognitive therapist last summer kept emphasizing. That was probably the wrong approach (and is certainly the wrong approach now).


  5. Powerful post. If you are not the daughter he wanted, was he the father y o u wanted? And if he wasn’t, when did y o u realize it, and did you feel guilty about thinking as a dad, he was not so hot? Sorry for the run on sentence. Also, if you taught elementary or high school, instead of university level, would that be a “real” job in his eyes? Was he a nice grandpa? You don’t have to answer any of these questions, I am just curious.


    • Good questions.

      You know, when we were growing up, we were just not allowed to complain about anything. My mother just cut it off immediately. What I wanted most was for him not to drink. I think the issues were bigger than that but I thought that would solve my issues. Then when I was in a position to talk to a therapist, it was the early 90s and the fad was “my parents are responsible for everything wrong with me” and that always bugged me. So even now it’s a bit hard to say he was a disappointment as a parent (hence the title of this post). We were just wrong for each other.


  6. Powerful post indeed and It breaks my heart to read this. Making your peace with this must be extremely difficult and yet, for your own sanity, it’s the only thing you can do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The last day or so I’ve been a bit more energetic — there are some things I don’t have to debate any longer; I can just make the decision myself, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “What if I just am the wrong parent for my kids ?”
    There is no recipe when we both learn through hugs and cries …


  8. Such a powerful and interesting post, even if the subject matter is not happy. I am lucky that my family did seem to be right for each other. As a parent, I’ve noticed having to work hard to modify my thinking as my kids go their own way. For example, I loved school and it was very important to me to excel. I expected my kids would be the same. Instead, they both hated school and felt that “good enough” was all they needed to strive for. I had to learn to accept that. Also, I would have liked for them to pursue academic subjects, but both kids are more into hands-on stuff. I remember saying to my older son, “But you’re so smart. You could do really well at academics.” It was, to me, what every kid should want. But he said, “But Mum… I don’t WANT to do academics!” That was really an aha moment for me. And post high school, they both are pursing their career goals passionately so far. I am happy with that.. now.

    It must be very difficult to now be in the role of taking care of someone who is so connected to you and yet so different, with all the past conflicts which can’t be resolved. And as you say, it must be difficult for him too.

    I re-watched Rocketman on video-on-demand last night with my husband. Very enjoyable and interesting once again. When they showed the father with his new kids, my husband said, “So, he’s not actually a total asshole.” And the point was, of course, that he was just with a kid he didn’t fit with before. Not that that’s an excuse — the parents are supposed to be the ones that pretend there’s no favouritism and support you no matter what. The onus is not supposed to be on the child to fit with the parent. Fascinating stuff. (Thanks for the link to our conversation.)


    • One thing that came up in a conversation I had with dad’s pastor was also the extent to which parenting expectations change (and frankly, rise). It was probably hard for people who came of age in the prewar to then raise children in the postwar, where both expectations and opportunities were quite different.

      EJ: his father had four children with his second wife. EJ’s been quoted as having said it was upsetting because his mother had told him more or less that his father had problems dealing with him because his father didn’t like kids — which kind of left it as inevitable that EJ’d see his father’s decision to have four more as a verdict on him as an unsuitable kid quite personally. If you read a lot of biographies, you can kind of see the outlines of something the film hints at — EJ himself must have been one of the severe bones of contention in his parents’ marriage, both in the sense that they didn’t agree about how to parent him, but also in the sense that they used him as a tool of reproach against each other. It wasn’t only that they were ill-matched and probably didn’t (or weren’t able, because of the war and his father’s job) spend a lot of time together, it’s that neither of them seems to have been a particularly emotionally aware individual. And then they got a hypereensitive child.


      • That’s true. I always think for me it was easier because I have three much older siblings who paved the way and made it easier for my parents to gradually change.

        Yes, the three of them as a family unit were quite ill-suited and dysfunctional.


  9. […] we are again, as with my question about getting the wrong kid: to what extent am I following my parents’ projects, even now, because I think I should? It […]


  10. […] reflected before on my failure to be the child he wanted, and I tried to remind myself of that, as well as the fact that the doctors are convinced this kind […]


  11. […] my mid-level Rocketman obsession, I bought tickets for a farewell tour concert for April of 2020. I was offered the chance to return […]


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