Should Parents Blame Themselves for How Their Kids’ Lives Turned out?

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Columnist and writer Bryony Gordon penned a memoir titled The Wrong Knickers: A Decade of Chaos, published this June. In it she chronicles her hedonist twenties in London, replete with dismal flings and growing addictions. The book has received a lot of press and praise here in the UK for her honesty and bravery in telling of many humiliating tales, not the least, after spending the night with a stranger, Gordon was sent home with the wrong underwear that clearly another girl had left behind. That is one of her milder tales. Gordon is now a happily married mom of one and only felt she could write such lurid tales after settling down and making peace with her past.

But what of her mother, Jane Gordon, who last week wrote in The Daily Mail of her guilt and despair and she she feels responsible for her daughter’s tortured decade? She describes how the book spares “no detail of the debauchery — there’s binge drinking, several one-night stands, a disastrous love affair with a married man, and drugs (lots of them).” So how does Jane feel when she reads about the emotional fallout her daughter endures in her quest to find love?

According to Jane, it was shattering. “As proud as I am of her talent, reading the truth about what really happened in her 20s has had a shattering effect on me. After all, what kind of mother could be unaware that her daughter’s lack of self-confidence had led her to believe ‘the more lovers I have, the more attractive I must be’?”

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 2.44.49 PM.jpgJane blames the fact that she divorced Bryony’s father when Bryony was 21. Although Bryony had a stable upbringing with two younger siblings and a private education, Jane says, “Our break-up shocked and upset Bryony more than I had expected, and I feel certain it undermined her sense of identity and had a disastrous effect on her self-esteem.”

Bryony, for the record, has stated that she doesn’t blame her parents for her reckless twenties at all. After the divorce, Jane Gordon met a new partner and then devoted much of her time to her much younger step-children and thinks this played a part in how Bryony’s life unfolded, largely because she feels she wasn’t there for her daughter. She wishes she could turn back time and says, “I’ll never stop berating myself for my emotional absence during Bryony’s decade of chaos.”

But is Jane really to blame? After all, she hardly neglected her daughter, who by then had moved out of the family home and was forging a career and life in London. She also gave Bryony a great upbringing and says they spoke almost every day on the phone. Some children who have suffered poverty or neglect would think Bryony had a rather charmed life and that it was her own low self-esteem that caused her to behave in such an outrageous manner.

Not every child from a divorced home goes on to have meaningless one-night stands or to take class-A drugs. However, the question remains: Are we responsible for our children’s happiness, not just as children, but when they have flown the nest?

I would say a resounding NO. Of course, as my eight-year-old son and three-year-old daughter grow up, I feel completely responsible for their well being, happiness, and security. I absolutely believe 100 percent that I need to make them my priority in life and make sure (to the best of my ability) that their every need is cared for and that they are fed and watered emotionally and physically. But by the time they’re both teenagers and on the brink of heading off to college (if they do choose to go), is it up to me to be responsible for their happiness?

By then, I hope I will have equipped them with enough self-respect and life tools to venture off into the world and explore it. Sure, I hope that they’ll know that they can always turn to me for support: financial, emotional, or what have you. But I also hope they’ll take responsibility for their own happiness and be adult enough to make decisions for themselves — to budget their money, take care of themselves, follow their own dreams, and have their own goals. But who knows what they will do. There comes a point when it is no longer in your control, nor should it be. If we’ve done the job right, isn’t it right that our children go off and have their own lives, leave the nest and fly?

Last night I watched Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s amazing film that was filmed in 39 days across a span of 12 years. In the film we watch as Mason goes from a cute six-year-old to a thoughtful 18-year-old, heading off to college. I found the film deeply moving and visually stunning. It made me reflect how quickly life goes by and how in about three seconds, my son will be a man. It also made me realize that as parents, we have no guide book; we, like Mason’s mom (played brilliantly by Patricia Arquette), are trying to do our best, even when we make life decisions that ultimately turn sour. Should we be blamed if we pick a soulmate who turns out to be an alcoholic that our kids have to deal with, too? Is it our fault if we can’t quite pay all the bills despite trying our best and working so hard? Life isn’t easy. Surely that in itself is a lesson we should be teaching our kids.

Of course we want the best for our children. We strive to have their lives filled with joy and learning. But we have our own lives, too. Our journeys are still ongoing, parallel to theirs. We are going to make mistakes along the way and at some point, that will have an effect on our kids. It is unavoidable. My hope is that we can live with our mistakes, make peace with the moments where we messed up, and still come out the other side with our relationship with our kids intact.

There comes a point in life where I think we should all grow up, should all stop blaming our parents for how things worked out and for the blunders and losses that we experienced because of them. Eventually, we should all take over the controls and lead the life we want to live, on our own terms. If that means having a decade of chaos, so be it. Bryony Gordon’s story has a happy ending. It’s time her mom forgave herself and had a happy ending, too.

Photo credits: Bryony Gordon via Twitter and Amazon

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