September 7, 1989

My Parents Screwed Me Up

The Moving Finger writes; And having writ,

Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Whit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line

Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

One of the hardest thing that I have to cope with is the fact that it's impossible to re-live anything. I look at my past and recall, with feelings of great futility, the things that I did wrong.

It's not the small mistakes that bother me. I know that a person has to make lots of mistakes in order to learn. It's the big ones; especially what I did to my kids. The impact on them of some of the things that I did was profound.

I didn't abuse, or otherwise injure my children. What I did that hurt them really had nothing to do with them. They were just there when it happened and, being children, they didn't have the wherewithal to cope with it. What to me was merely a stage in my own growth and development, was a major life crisis to them. It is comparable, in a way, to a child loosing one or both parents in an automobile accident. The parents didn't die on purpose; they didn't set out to devastate their kids. They were just in an automobile in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When someone dies, this is obvious. What is not so obvious is that parents who break up, for one reason or another, or stay together at war with each other, don't deliberately set out to hurt their children. Yet, to their kids, it seems as if they did; "Why did you have to get divorced?" "Why do you always have to fight?" they ask.

About 18 years ago, I was at the University of Utah, doing research for the National Cancer Institute. It was a time of austerity, when research funds were being drastically cut back. It was, coincidentally, the time that I made an important scientific discovery. Since I knew a lot more about science than the politics of funding, I applied for a new grant based on my discovery. I figured that it was so important that they couldn't turn it down. What I was unaware of was that they were trying to keep existing research going, and were funding no new projects. If I had applied for a renewal of the grant for the pedestrian research that I had been doing, it probably would have been funded. As it turned out, I lost my financial support completely and my job. That tactical error radically changed my life and the lives of the rest of my family. That kind of problem isn't unique to me. Every time that a mill or a factory closes, a large number of people are put on the same spot.

I couldn't find a job either as a teacher or scientist. We ended up moving to California, where my wife got a fine position, and I ended up as a house husband. Eventually, I got a teaching job in Nigeria for a year. My wife stayed in California with two of the kids and I took the other two to Nigeria. That our family survived those years was almost a miracle; but it did. I doubt that our children will ever get over the trauma of that period. It was a learning experience for all of us, but now it seems as if it hit the kids a lot harder than it did their parents. The adults ended up stronger for it, but the kids didn't.

I spent a good deal of my youth being angry with my parents for the terrible things that they did to me. Fortunately, I achieved some degree of understanding later in life and was able to return a bit of gratitude to them for what they gave to me. My parents lived long enough for that to happen. For many, their parents die while they are still angry. They never get a chance to resolve that anger. It is much more difficult to resolve those feelings when your parents can't tell you that they understand how you felt, and that they had similar feeling about their parents.

The enlightenment that came to me was that my parents did nothing bad to me at all. There were, of course, some minor events and problems; but they didn't devastate me. I learned to live with nagging and unrealistic expectations. It was what they did to each other that shook the foundations of my existence, and I just happened to be there.

The only way that they could have avoided having their problems affect me, was to not have had me at all. If they hadn't had me, THAT would have spared me a lot of anguish.

It's a strange way to design a world, with children giving birth to, and raising, children. Some wise people are aware of this, and wait until they feel that they are grown up, before starting their families. They are faced with the reality that, when people are as emotionally and intellectually ready to have children as they can be, they are over the hill biologically.

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