Live Through This

Parental Guidance

Why do I feel lost when I talk to the supportive, loving people who raised me?

Collage by Dylan.

Collage by Dylan.

The last time I saw my dad cry was over a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. It was only the third time he’d broken down in front of me; the other two were at the funerals of his mother and his father, where his face crumpled and I saw tears fall from his eyes. But this time was different: This was a loud, full-bodied sob. And this time, I was the cause. I sat behind him in the car, stunned, unable to process that the most stoic, old-fashioned man I had ever met suddenly seemed so vulnerable.

We were in Georgia, where my parents had moved after I went off to college. I was home for the summer, but this home was one I’d never lived in. I’d grown used to flexing my newfound freedom in New York, and was frustrated at the regression to childlike dependence on them, especially in terms of mobility—I couldn’t go anywhere I wanted, not having my own car. So there I was, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car on the way to a family event that I wasn’t allowed to opt out of, feeling like a cranky 12-year-old. I made no secret of the fact that I’d rather be hundreds of miles north, at school—or at least alone in a dark room on my laptop, messaging friends who were surely having more fun. Just a few minutes into the drive, my mom and I were already fighting about my attitude when my dad pulled off to grab some coffee, leaving the two of us to go at it.

Unlike my mother, my dad is not the type who wades willingly into confrontation. But when he got back in the car to find me still complaining about having to hang out with them for an entire afternoon, he lost it. “I don’t even know how you take your coffee,” he said. “I don’t know anything about you.”

Then we were all crying. When we calmed down, my dad explained through sniffles that my grandfather—an Italian baker who spoke in broken English, and whom I’d known almost nothing about, thanks to the language barrier and his deeply private nature—had never shown much interest in his son’s emotional life, never cared about his hopes, dreams, or fears, and passed away with little personal knowledge of his own eldest child, let alone his grandchildren. (He died just before I turned 18.) My dad didn’t want us to end up the same way. I didn’t, either.

It’s been five years since that first (and still, so far, only) real heart-to-heart. I wish I could say it had a dramatic effect on my relationships with my parents, that it tore down the walls between my dad and me, and that the three of us are all best friends now. But the truth is, although we’ve taken some small steps in that direction—I know, for example, that they keep up with my writing these days, though I don’t know what they think of it—I’m still mostly a mystery to the people responsible for my existence, and their inner lives are as unknown to me. We love one another and try to express that to the best of our abilities. They’re proud, supportive, and wise when I ask for advice—my dad is especially good about work stuff, like how to negotiate raises and such—and they give me the space I need to be my own person. My parents are healthy, successful, still happily married, and hardworking. I’m exceedingly lucky to have such a well-adjusted, happy immediate family. But when I’m with them, I still feel lost.

My parents both grew up in immigrant households (my dad is from Italy, and came to the U.S. as a kid, while my mom is a first-generation Dominican-American). They were, from what I’ve gathered, gruff and strict homes, where feelings were largely suppressed, except through occasional angry outbursts from their fathers. I guess my own preference for solitude and stoicism may be in my blood, passed down from my grandparents. It definitely didn’t come from my parents, who have tried to make our family different from the ones they grew up in, encouraging us to talk to one another about our lives. Despite their sincere encouragement, I never talked to them about friends, girls, or my writing. My father, in turn, never really shared anything personal with me—we mostly talked about baseball. And when my mother tried to pry things out of me, I recoiled.

They can at least boast of one success story: my younger sister, who could not be closer with them. She and I live in the same city, but our ties to home are completely different. I rarely talk to my parents, while she calls them almost every day. They could probably name, like, three of my friends; she tells them everything about her social life. I rarely visit them; she goes home every chance she gets. I feel a little guilty admitting that I feel zero jealousy over her relationship with them. After all, I chose my own outsider status. I could easily call them more often; I just prefer not to. I know they all wish I would try a little harder. And I know that I “should,” because it would make them feel happier—and I do care about their happiness—and me less guilty. The prospect is just emotionally daunting. I don’t even know where I’d start.

I’m very grateful to my parents for all they’ve taught me over the years. From my mom, a former professional ballet dancer turned yoga instructor and personal trainer, I’ve learned compassion and emotional balance. My level-headed dad, who was a baker by trade but became a high-level sales manager, has imparted endless lessons about leadership and loyalty. (I also got his scrawny chicken legs.) So I’m not scared that I’ll turn out like them. The problem is that I know I won’t.

My dad ran a pizzeria and sold cars to make sure we were taken care of. Neither spoke English as a first language, and neither graduated from college. As far as I know, neither has anything more than a passing knowledge of the political issues I’m interested in and the kinds of culture I like to consume and think about. It may seem superficial, but from a young age, my interest in reading and writing, and my decision to pursue a career that included those things, set me apart from the rest of my family. I know that I can afford to be a dreamer and to pursue an uncertain career as a writer only because, if they had such dreams, they set them aside to raise me and my sister in a stable suburban environment. They married young and put everything they had toward providing us with opportunities they never had. But I zoom past the age when they started creating that life together, I find it almost impossible to relate to their idea of happiness. I can’t remember the last time I saw either of my parents express excitement about something outside the family sphere—something that was totally their own.

When I was in high school, a close friend’s dad seemed to recognize my budding curiosity about and appreciation for books and music. He played me records, loaned me novels he thought I’d like, and showed me movies I’d never heard of. This was the cultural education I never got from my parents, and I admit that I resented them for it. I envied kids whose parents had graduated from Ivy League colleges and read the newspaper, discussed current events, and maybe even taught at a university or wrote books themselves. Those kids had a head-start toward the kind of life I wanted, while I lagged woefully behind. I know that thinking your parents just don’t understand is totally a normal part of teenage angst, but I’ve never outgrown it.

It’s hard to feel different from (and, I admit, occasionally a bit snobby toward) your parents, especially if, like mine, they helped make you who you are and did an admirable job. I know that the only thing keeping us apart is me. I’d love to hear stories about when they were young, when they were wild and free and maybe had dreams like mine, but I haven’t tried very hard to get them talking. I’ve always imagined that those things would come out eventually on their own—but that’s just me procrastinating, because I’m scared of dismantling the walls I’ve so carefully erected around myself. I’m afraid of giving up my outsider status and being expected to be more like my sister, calling them all the time and being driven around to family events I have no real interest in.

My parents, in turn, never nag me to open up or visit more (though my dad does send a lot of “call your mother” texts). And even though we may not connect on an emotional or intellectual level very often, my mom and dad’s unconditional love is a comfort. Sometimes it’s the little things, like remembering how your kid likes his coffee, that make you feel close. My dad knows now that I take mine with a little milk, no sugar. He knows because he asked. ♦

18 Comments

  • itsaoifedahling April 18th, 2014 3:37 PM

    I relate to this SO FRICKING MUCH!! I don’t really get on with my parents that much, out of lack of effort rather than differences (though there is that too). I just don’t feel the need to have them there as my BFFs as I embark on my adventure of life.

    Thank you for letting me know that that’s ok (:
    http://itsaoifedarling.tumblr.com/

  • drmcatcher April 18th, 2014 5:13 PM

    Tried to read this at work…MISTAKE! I got three paragraphs in and started bawling :(

  • April 18th, 2014 7:20 PM

    It’s a wonderful feeling when someone puts into words what you feel but didn’t know how to express. Thank you for that :)

  • akacatalina April 18th, 2014 8:41 PM

    This is a beautiful expression of the same type of relationship that I have with my parents. I tend to get jealous of my friends who are able to open up to them about anything, while I feel too uncomfortable to tell them about my personal life. This piece of writing really opened my eyes and made me realize that it’s not necessarily a bad thing!!

    http://www.oddsntrends.blogspot.com

  • April 18th, 2014 10:56 PM

    this is so me. SO ME. i am a little sad that my parents and i aren’t closer, but i’m also too afraid of being emotionally vulnerable to try to connect with them now. it just feels too late. thanks for making me feel a little bit less guilty and alone. xx

  • thebrownette April 18th, 2014 11:34 PM

    Thank you for this.

  • hectares April 19th, 2014 12:26 AM

    This is the first article, or any piece of writing for that matter, that I’ve related to regarding my relationship with my parents. It seems like all my friends have close ties with their parents like your little sister, and I’ve never found anything that I felt accurately expressed my relationship with my parents. It makes me feel more sane that I’m not the only one who feels that the cliche “my parents don’t understand me” isn’t just a phase for me. I know they’ve sacrificed so much for me as I’m a first-generation American, and I feel guilty for not connecting with them. I love them and I know they love me, but there is a missing element that I don’t feel with them. Thank you so much for writing this. I’ll try to make more of an effort and make sure they know how I take my coffee.

  • gems April 19th, 2014 9:09 AM

    this is kind of reality for me, thanks

  • obeykid April 19th, 2014 9:54 AM

    I think you can’t fix people. Your parents have their own lives and they make their own mistakes and we make our own and it’s not up to anybody to do anything about it other than offer comfort and support.

    https://www.etsy.com/shop/obeykid

  • withhandscoveringmyeyes April 20th, 2014 4:07 PM

    Thank you so much for this.

  • Ruth-Ann April 21st, 2014 5:52 PM

    Wow. I can relate to this so much. It’s freaky. Thank you.

  • brandazzle April 21st, 2014 9:28 PM

    as a 30 year old gal who lost her mom a few months back (she had just turned 60), procrastinating on taking those walls down can hurt a LOT if you never get to. i’m not saying you need to make your parents your priority by any means, but lives are precious and we don’t get them for as long as we’d like, and you never know when they’ll be gone. you can start small, but it’s a good idea to start, or at the very least make sure they know they didn’t do anything wrong to create that distance… my mom and i weren’t close, and i always assumed i’d fix that as i got older, and then she died before i ever really got to know who she was. now i see hints of her in little movements or things that i do, and wonder what she was like, who was that woman in those photos from the 60′s before i ever came into the picture? it’s made me closer to my dad in the last few years, watching her fade away, but there will always be a lot of questions about who she was now.

  • martinmorning April 22nd, 2014 11:12 PM

    I identify with this so much.Thanks you for this.

  • muffy April 23rd, 2014 1:33 AM

    This is such an amazing article! so deep yet relatable

  • Alexandra T. April 23rd, 2014 4:43 PM

    I really connected with this article. Me and my parents aren’t very close, so even if I want to be more open, I don’t know where to start! Although I suppose I might just be procrastinating like you are. At least I know I’m not the only one. Beautiful article, Joe.

  • krypting April 24th, 2014 9:20 AM

    It’s so comforting to know that I’m not the only one to have this kind of relationship with my parents. I’ve never read any kind of article before that I’ve actually been able to relate to over this subject – I don’t outright hate my parents but I find it hard to be vulnerable to them at times, even though they are the people who fundamentally probably know me better than anyone else. I also relate a lot the kind of resentment of lack of “culture” – I was always jealous of my friends who’s parents had great taste or were interested in art and literature. I’m an art student (“how’s that gunna get you a job?”) and my parents always patronise me for being “young and liberal”, but I love them all the same. Thank you for this great piece of writing!

  • maiag April 29th, 2014 8:48 PM

    I’m stunned that this made me cry I really appreciate that you wrote this, thank you

  • mollythemuffin May 25th, 2014 10:00 PM

    Oh, the old “I’m getting older, and I feel I should relate to my parents but I don’t story”. So very relatable.
    I had the same thing happen (mas o menos) but instead my gigantic fight was right before I was to go on a student exchange to the UK (I’m from Australia). I thought that the distance would change me and my view of them, but when my Dad come over to visit, I found it very awkward and unsettling, and when he had to leave, I bawled my eyes out. This was not because he was leaving to go home, but because I felt like I had no idea who this man was. I was crushed.

    After he left, I dealt with the the way I knew how: To have a wild night drinking red wine and trying to pretend that these feelings were not there. After, I wrote my parents the most honest letter I have ever written to anyone, and a week later emailed it to them unedited.
    These days, 2 years on, we are much closer. Of course there are some things I wish we could relate to more i.e my love of festivals, community, the natural world and general disorder of things, but I have begun to recognise the great thing’s I have required from them and that we share i.e vast amounts of sarcasm, love of movie quotes, cooking quality food and discussing various issues, television programs etc… And the great thing about it is that I am constantly discovering more things we share and more things that we don’t. I have learnt to love what we do have, and getting to this point is a beautiful thing. Be patient.