What happens when your parents let you down? Dealing with hurt at the family dinner table

Woman walking away with suitcaseThe holiday season places huge emphasis on family coming together, which is extraordinarily difficult for people who have a fractured, or non-existent, relationship with their parents. And even for those who are on reasonably good terms with their parents, the idea of returning to the family home where there are expectations, set roles and probably some entrenched judgement can be a real source of anxiety. No one pushes our buttons quite like our parents do, amirite?
I want to share the story of a wonderful friend of mine from New Zealand – I’ll call her Mel – whose mother walked out on the family when Mel was only four years old. Her mother, who was very young, simply didn’t have the emotional capacity to be a parent. So she left.

I have many friends with absent fathers but the backstory of Mel has always tugged at my heartstrings in particular. Perhaps that’s because mothers are regarded as the primary nurturers in families (although I think this is changing to encompass a more even gender division of roles) so a mum’s departure seems like a greater betrayal.
Mel’s mother’s desertion has cast a shadow over her life, affecting her choices and beliefs around relationships, parenting and self-worth. But she is incredibly resilient, and has done her best to glean positive lessons from the heartbreak. In her words:
“The biggest impact was it made me question whether I would be a fit mother for my children. But, at the same time it also made me want to prove that you can break the cycle and I wanted to be everything that my mother wasn’t. I wanted to be the best mother possible to my children. Be present, loving, someone they are proud to call mum. Sadly, having my mother leave me at such an early age has meant I have abandonment issues, which I never learned about until my marriage ended and I felt the same abandonment.”
She is, by the way, a wonderful mother and her kind-hearted daughters are a real credit to her.
Bomb wrapped as Christmas present
I can’t even imagine what it feels like to be abandoned by someone who brought you into the world. When Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland passed away recently, Rolling Stone magazine published an emotional open letter penned by the mother of Scotts children where she said that her children had lost their father years before his death. She described how a deep-rooted mix of love and disappointment made up their relationship with him, and the mourning that children will one day go through when they realise they didnt get the parent that they deserved. Heavy stuff.
These are obviously extreme examples of how parents can disappoint, but to a lesser extent all of us feel like our parents have let us down at some point. Christmas does tend to bring that tension to the fore – particularly if alcoholism or marriage breakdowns are at play.
In a spiritual sense, our relationship with our parents is integral in shaping how we feel about ourselves, and the type of relationships we attract – essentially our parents teach us how to love and to respect ourselves and other people. Which is all very well, but since our parents are actually just human beings with their own shit to process and overcome, they sometimes can’t show up for us in the ways we need them to. It can be helpful to remember, in the words of Louise Hay, that “everyone is doing the best they can with the information and knowledge that they have.” Some people are carrying tremendous burdens and hurts that block them from expressing love freely and without fear. Some just arent able to grasp what a monumental responsibility it is to bring children into the world. This does not, of course, excuse bad behaviour. But understanding the emotional landscape of a parent who has let you down can help you resolve to make different choices about how you approach relationships with your own kids and partner, rather than feeling doomed to repeat the cycle.
Field of sunflowers and rolling hillsForgiving your parents for not being all that they could have been does not mean you’re saying that their behaviour was OK. It doesn’t mean you have to be best friends with them or make more space for them in your life either. It just means you’re choosing to let go of your resentment, and replacing that with peace. The saying is true: holding onto bitterness is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die. Of course, this is far from easy, but it is a very necessary part of our personal growth. (Click here for my post on forgiveness.)  
If you’re anxious about disagreements and old rifts rearing up at the Christmas dinner table, this quote from the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi (my favourite poet) may be helpful: “Out beyond ideas about right and wrong there is a field. I will meet you there.”
You may also find it useful to remember that your value is not determined by the way other people treat you – their treatment of you is really a reflection of how they feel about themselves. It can still hurt though, I know.

I’ll meet you in that field.