Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 14, 2009

Stretching the Parent-Child Bond

“You didn’t give me a hug and a kiss!”

Graham said this tearfully and fearfully the other night, after I had tucked him in, but was frustrated with him over one of his nicer toys that he had destroyed (a solar system mobile). So I went back in, and explained to him that when he mistreated a gift we had given him, it felt disrespectful… so I wasn’t exactly in a huggy mood with somebody who had treated me that way. Then I hugged him anyway, since he was so sweet and apologetic, and since it was suddenly obvious to me that he didn’t take our bedtime routines as lightly as I apparently have done.

I’ve been more conscious than usual this week of the ways that, often beyond the words we say, parents and children establish and need a strong bond with each other as a basis for security and strength throughout our lives. Other situations where I became conscious of these connections:

  • My mother gave me some nice clothes for my birthday, which is in August, because she said she wanted me to be able to wear them on my upcoming trip to Switzerland and Italy. I’m 43 years old, and she still wants to dress me. It’s sweet, but I struggle to maintain boundaries with my mother, so it feels a bit odd also. The clothes are fine, if a little boring (JC Penney is not known for occupying the cutting edge of fashion), and I’ll probably bring them. But in Milan, fashion capital of the world, I will choose my own clothes. (How’s that for a statement of independence, Ma?!)
  • My nephew Bill had his eighth grade graduation party. One of the things I heard my sister Laura discuss was how weird it is to think that in just four short years, he’ll be eligible to hit the streets on his own. It remains to be seen what he will actually want to do (or be able to afford), but it had never been so clear to me till yesterday that the process of parent-child separation could potentially begin in earnest as early as age thirteen. Of course, we’ve heard stories from past generations of boys going to work as young teens, or of child brides, but it isn’t so “theoretical” when it’s my godson who’s taking these first steps toward manhood and independence.
  •  I read a beautiful, heartfelt obituary of a father by the singer-songwriter Bill Mallonee  of  the Americana/indie Christian band Vigilantes of Love. Like my late father-in-law Richard Nickerson, Bill’s father was also an Army veteran, a career polymer chemist somewhat taken advantage of by others, and a deeply wounded individual. Also, both seem to have been very involved parents, encouraging and creative with their families, setting aside many of their own priorities on behalf of their kids. My own more working-class father had at least some of these same qualities, as well as some of the addictive tendencies of Mallonee’s hard-drinking father (tho in Dad’s case it was a gambling addiction, since he was an ACOA and a tee-totaler). I could do worse than to learn from these elders… most of all, from Mallonee (more a peer than an elder), in celebrating what gifts I have been given instead of just griping about ways that my parents messed me up.

All parents make mistakes and have their wounds. No need to rub salt in them.

Now — if you can– go call your mother, or more importantly, your father, who may not want to talk on the phone. But you gotta make him, while you’re able.


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