Dads . . .In a Word

Recently, a male friend of ours (trying to save his troubled marriage by attending counseling sessions) confided in my husband. During an emotional session, a provocative question was posed by the therapist. “How would you describe your father…if you could only choose three words?” Much to his surprise, he could only come up with one – selfish.  This realization led to his most insightful “break-through” session to date.

When my husband shared the story with me, it naturally made me pause and think about my own father. My last conversation with my dad was only a year ago – just a few hours later after we said our goodbyes, he passed away peacefully in the middle of the night.

In the midst of missing him and mourning my loss, I’ve visited many memories – some sweet, some bittersweet. Throughout the day, pictures of my dad’s life – a young handsome sailor to an 83 year old great grandfather – randomly pop up on my computer slideshow. With the visual backdrop, searching for the “one word” to describe my dad proved not to be so difficult, in fact, as I really observed each captured freeze frame, a common thread began to emerge. It was so obvious, at least from this baby daughter’s perspective, if confined to one word to describe my dad, for me it would have to be . . . “loving”.

Truly, I’m not blind to the fact my dad had flaws and may have been selfish in some ways – but in the area of affection he was more than generous. His arms (always available for hugs) and his kisses (sometimes rebuffed)  – sealed every hello and goodbye. Over the course of his life my father struggled with many personal demons. Which is why I am positive if you asked my three siblings the same question, they would all come up with a different one word descriptor for my dad. In many ways, he was his own worst enemy, perhaps a character flaw that the artist/lover personality types share. Interestingly, I have observed many of the same traits in my son.

Upon deeper reflection, it occurs to me that my perception of my father as “loving”, has been colored not only by my dad’s displays of affection, but also by my own personality, filters and role I played in his life. Since I was only five years old when my parents divorced, I have no scarring memories (at least consciously) of their often tumultuous interaction. I grew up oblivious to his personal approach toward parenting, discipline or perhaps lack thereof.  Time spent with my dad meant fun-filled activities, cool restaurants and shopping sprees. In a sense, from birth until the day he passed away, I was the baby daughter who climbed into his lap and flung my arms around his neck.

In the last few days, I have posed this same question to a few of my friends.  The answers have covered a broad spectrum, from “harsh” and “bully” to “aloof” and “pleasant”. If the first word that comes to mind is negative, perhaps it would be helpful to take the time to identify at least two positive attributes which could allow a different reality to take shape and emotional healing to begin. No matter what one word comes to light, I believe, at least for me. . .the life lesson is to not be held back by what my parents were or were not, but to constructively use the information to choose what kind of person, spouse or parent I want to be. Learn, change. . .grow.

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My Mother My Best Friend – Part Two

Perspective on Parents As Best Friends – My Daughter’s Turn

Me:  “Sweetie, you often tell your dad and me how much you love being with us, and since you were just a little girl, you’ve always come to us first whenever you had inner turmoil or were having trouble making a difficult decision. Can you tell me why you think of both your dad and me as your “best friends?”

Daughter: “Well, mom, it’s actually very simple. You and dad established an open, honest dialogue with me from birth. You guys always took the time to sit down and listen to me without judgement or criticism. It was your openness about your own imperfections and personal struggles that helped me deal with my own crap, which made me respect you even more.”

Me: “Wow, so cool to hear you say that, especially since we both felt like we were literally throwing darts in the dark when it came to proper parenting. As we have always told you since you were old enough to understand, neither of our babies came out of the womb holding an Instruction Manual. And not only were you and your brother different because of your sex, you had completely opposite personality characteristics. Can you put into words why you never really went through that “I Hate My Parents” stage?

Daughter: “For me, I think it all comes down to connection. Not only did I love “hanging out” with you guys, because you always made it fun, but you also created an atmosphere of mutual respect. I seriously respected you both so much, I never wanted to hurt or disappoint you with my own actions. My own internal disappointment taught me the hard lessons about taking responsibility for my own actions. You gave me the space to learn that on my own. PLUS, some of my favorite memories when I was a teenager centers around Saturday afternoons – movie, bucket of popcorn, home, pizza delivery and laughter with dad as we rehashed the flick.”

Me: “We have always loved hanging out with our kids more than anything else, so that is so wonderful to hear you feel the same way! So, how about the taboo topics, like sex, drinking…etc., why do you think you have always been so open about those things with me as well as your dad?”

Daughter: “My answer to that is one word – education, and the fact that those topics were NEVER taboo! You educated both my brother and me about sex, not only from the biological aspects, but even more so the emotional aspects that go along with having sex before you are mature enough to handle it. It seems to me, you always explained things in steps that coincided with my own level of maturity. I remember one conversation in particular regarding hormones and about the difference of what boys think about vs. what girls think about when it comes to sex and romance. Drinking, drugs, and all the rest of the stuff were the same. You taught me to make good decisions and respect my own body, so none of that really interested me.” When I finally fell in love for the first time in College, whether or not to engage in sex or not, became a decision based on personal exploration and understanding of myself – not peer pressure or heat of the moment.”

Mom: “I’m so thankful for your views, those issues present some of the biggest challenges for parents. We always wanted you to learn how to trust your own instincts and give you the tools to make the wisest choices. Anything else you want to share?”

Daughter: “One of the craziest things is everything you and dad told me during middle school and high school..I mean absolutely everything…turned out to be true. The whole mean/jealous girls – boys liking the flirty, loose girls – typical teenage angst stuff completely dissolved when I went to college. High School, and the emotional roller coaster ride that goes along with it, is one big cloud of pretension that fades away soon after you get your diploma. I learned as soon as I got to college, that you could be smart, sweet and not dress provocatively, and there are a whole lot of “cool” guys out there who will like you just the way you are…..JUST like you and dad had predicted.”

Mom: “Well, that one was easy, no special genius parenting skills needed there. We were both just telling you what we had already been through. That part of adolescence never changes. Thank you for your honesty and for taking the time to share your thoughts with I’m hoping that somebody will read this and be inspired to start the dialogue with their children early, realizing how quickly those precious years will pass by. Thank you my beautiful daughter, I am thankful I get to be your MOM, and your Best Friend.”

My Mother, My Best Friend

From An Adult Daughter’s Perspective . . . Part I

mom young

My mother, Helen

Whenever I hear so-called parenting “experts” parrot the opinion-du-jour regarding child rearing, my ears prick up -I have to stop and listen – to see if their profound advice matches my experience. I do this purely for entertainment purposes now that my two children are “off-the-teet and out the door” making their own way in this crazy world.

Dr. Phil often advises parents of troubled teens that they can not be their children’s best friends and their parents too. Obviously, this advice is situational and mainly targeted to those parents who lack basic parenting skills and have kids who are out of control. But way too often, that advice is taken out of context  by other child psychologists – relayed as a blanket statement – and the message people hear is black and white. “Parents, you should NEVER attempt to be your child’s best friend.”

Upon hearing this …my blood pressure goes up and the little hairs on the back of my neck rise up in protest! My visceral   reaction to this kind of one-size-fits-all psycho-speak is because – not only was my mother my parent and boundary setter, she was definitely my best friend. In fact, not only was she my best friend, but also the trusted confidant of many of my friends (unusual, I know). So, I surmise – perhaps, it is the child psychologist’s use and definition of the word “friend” that is lost in translation, when they actually mean buddy or pal. Truly, we all know  – as adults who have survived adolescence and beyond – a buddy is most definitely not always a friend.

mom and alison

One of our few pictures together, I was 9

Since I lost my mom to cancer when I was only 19 years old, I have to do a bit of exploring to understand how she was able to accomplish that delicate balance. What I discovered upon delving into my earliest memories, was it was “safe” to tell my mother anything without fear of retribution, judgement or even worse….the brush-off. When I was only eight years old, a 13-year-old big sister of my neighborhood pal decided it was her duty to tell me all about the birds and bees (childhood equivalent of an earthquake). In shock and horror I ran home, tears streaming down my face and questioned my mom…”mommy is it it that how babies are made?” She sat me down and calmly explained, that was indeed how I was created, but (as she always did) she retold the story with tender precision, educating me with the proper medical terminology and context for which sex would be appropriate. Her answer both comforted me and helped me store that bit of info away for another day – just like that I was back outside riding my bicycle without a care in the world (…well maybe a few “aftershocks” of …gross..really? come on).


Her last picture taken, just a few months before she passed away

The impromptu sex-ed talk would lead to many more provocative discussions between my mom and I over the next decade. Each confidential conversation sealed more deeply, my confidence in her wisdom as a parent and her “I’m here for you under any circumstances” attitude. She had been there..she had done that…she had inherent wisdom to share with me on the subject that my teenage girlfriends were clueless about. She listened without making me feel stupid for asking “silly” questions, she encouraged me to trust my own instincts and learn how to trust my gut in confusing situations, she loved me unconditionally.  Thank you Mom, for preparing me for the toughest job in life. I miss you today and every day.