How normal were these childhood experiences for the 1980's-mid 90's?
August 11, 2016 11:14 PM   Subscribe

If you have a sense of "normal" middle-class family dynamics in the the 1980's-mid 90's US, I would appreciate your perspective. I don't think my family was abusive, but probably emotionally neglectful. I'm struggling with depression and anxiety, am in therapy, and I am considering going no-contact with my family. I want to better understand the context of some experiences. Please help me calibrate my dysfunctionometer.

I'm a middle aged woman. Oldest of 2 girls. Both planned. Grew up 80's-mid 90's in a small, conservative, affluent US suburb with competitive schools. Parents had an affectionless marriage. Dad worked, mom stayed home. Both parents valued appearances, conventional success, tradition, and were very involved in our education. They loved us, put a lot of work into raising us, and did they best they could given their own limitations. They believed me to be highly gifted and poured intense effort into helping me realize my supposedly unlimited potential. I never became a doctor scientist nobel prize winning billionaire, but I am reasonably functional and self-supporting. Parents are still married, disappointed in me but it will hurt them if I cut off contact.

These are the experiences I'm struggling to contextualize in their time and place.

1. My parents' nearly complete disregard for mental health. I started having issues at 5 or 6. By 8-9 had frequent thoughts of suicide. By 10-11 was struggling with what I now know is depression, began self harming and became socially isolated. My parents made no attempt to help - not talking to me, not changing anything about their parenting. Yet, they paid intense attention to my performance -- must do well in high school to get into a good college to get into a good grad school to...! etc. It was a lose-lose system where I felt nothing I did could ever, ever be good enough. As a teen I had a mental meltdown and dropped out. My parents sprung into action: instant psychiatrist, psychologist, therapy, medication.

So for 10 years they had the knowledge and resources to get help, but just watched me get worse. It wasn't important until it affected my performance. Maybe they didn't see depression as an illness, but didn't they care that I was so unhappy? Weren't there child psychologists in the 80's-90's? Was that normal?

2. Physical violence. Not sure how common for the era. They disciplined inconsistently, more for their benefit than mine. I remember mom egging dad on, both of them angry and disgusted. Once dad hit me on the head with a broom handle and knocked me down onto a concrete patio. (I was not injured.) This was not common or frequent, but sure memorable. Some incidents happened with "disciplining" pets which I'd call police on today.

Possibly related - lack of physical boundaries. You eat this even if it makes your throat feel funny (I was mildly allergic to nuts). You play this game even though you hate the smushing part where you can't breathe; I'll get angry when you predictably scream.

3. Psychological stuff I'm not sure how to categorize - was this normal or common for the time in a conservative/traditional household?
  • Harsh reactions to age-appropriate questions, mistakes, or lack of knowledge: "Don't be so stupid!" Drawings ripped up, ideas mocked. Unsafe to ask questions, try things, make mistakes, take risks, assert myself (ironically, all qualities that would've helped in my astronaut doctor cancer-curing billionaire career)
  • Children expected to manage adults' feelings / No respect for children's feelings. Crying ignored, instructions issued as orders, no apologies. Promises broken or forgotten.
  • Lying/meaningless words. Dad is really good at saying the right thing, the socially appropriate thing. Confide in him, ask him for something, he'll reassure you and you'll feel you shared a nice moment! Two hours later he'll do exactly what you asked him not to, or tell your secret. Confronted, he laughs it off like a cute joke. (It is weird, and disrespectful, and has continued into my adulthood. I no longer have serious conversations with him.)
  • Also: Coded meanings. "You're too thin!" (broad, accepting smile) = You look good. "Do what makes you happy" = Do something lucrative and prestigious (eye roll when I brought up a not sufficiently prestigious career).
  • Passive aggressiveness. Angry silence, refusing to say what's wrong, then bitter shouting and anger. Expectation that everyone pretends nothing's wrong.
My parents could also be very kind and loving, and a lot of this stuff was sporadic. But the family narrative has it that I hit a rough patch but otherwise had a happy and normal childhood. I was not happy, and now I don't trust my judgment of what's "normal" and "okay" behavior or not. I'd appreciate any insights you may have.
posted by asynchronous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up in a slightly different situation, since I was raised by a single mother until I was almost eighteen.

What you've described is a dysfunctional and abusive family situation. I'm not sure what you're looking for when you say you want to contextualize it to the time and place--it's not as though this behavior was normal or excusable. Parenting hasn't changed that much.

You clearly describe your parents' behavior in a negative way. This post reads less like a question and more like a list of (justified) grievances. You know that the behviour you describe here is wrong. So, I would urge you to trust yourself on this. You're right.

1. My parents' nearly complete disregard for mental health.

My mother was concerned for my mental health. I was chronically ill, and in addition, we suffered some family losses when I was a child. She took me to a child therapist to make sure that I was OK.

Awareness of mental illness has grown, and it's probably the case that families are more likely to take mental illness seriously now than before. But it's not as though there was no awareness back then.

2. Physical violence.

Norms surrounding physical punishment varied by family. It was a topic of debate, with more conservative families being on the pro-physical punishment side. The idea that physical punishment is necessarily child abuse was far less widely accepted than it is even now. My mom tried spanking me (with her hand only) a couple of times. It didn't accomplish anything other than damaging our relationship, and she stopped.

But here is the thing: Hitting a child on the head with a broom handle was never considered acceptable. What you're describing would still be considered child abuse back then, even among people who believed in spanking.

3. Psychological stuff I'm not sure how to categorize

Attitudes toward these types of behaviors probably haven't changed much. These are just generally shitty behaviors, not really tied into how aware you are or your philosophies about parenting. None of these were OK back then, and they're not OK now.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:33 PM on August 11, 2016 [13 favorites]

Yup, sounds pretty normal to me (70s uk and friends with similar experiences). With mine, the violence was only from dad (and directed at mum on occasion) but she was mostly not prepared to stand up for us unless alone. All mental issues were the property of the kids and none of us ever questioned that. I gave up contact with them as there was no emotional reward.

You can't choose your family, they say. But you can choose whether you have any contact with them, I say.

It's not "okay". It was perhaps "normal" then, but it isn't considered normal nor okay now. Try to move on in the way that's best for you. Hope things go well for you...
posted by tillsbury at 11:41 PM on August 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

Hmm. Is the mention of cutting off contact because you kinda want to? Or because AskMe sometimes advocates that and you want to prevent any suggestion of this route? Ask yourself. I'm just posing the question.

As to your 80's/90's question - Ding Ding Ding. You nailed it.

I grew up 70's/80's, with a similar economic background. I like to think Oprah (sorry) started a national dialogue on child abuse and mental health, but basically, not much changed until very very recently. So you are correct. Plus, yeah, some parents are just like that.

Some of what you describe is absolutely your parents being really stressed out and having zero parenting skills. When times were tough, they emulated their parents and grandparents. In historical context, and accepting that abuse gets passed on generationally... A lot of families were dealing with members returning from war (WW2, Korea, Vietnam) who suffered from trauma (today termed PTSD.) The effects of that were pervasive. I could go on and on.

(You know that fantasy that was pushed in the 50's about the happy family and wife making a PERFECT home? That was code for how to keep things even keeled and pleasant so your PTSD suffering and likely alcoholic husband wouldn't fall into a rage and beat you. Yep. Isn't that an eye-opener.)

You were there. You know what you experienced. You don't need permission to validate your memory or experience! I'm gonna give you permission anyway. You know what happened :)

I'll add one more thing... Your parents became parents at the end of a relatively stable economic period. The idea that you might work for one firm or factory and be able to fully support a family comfortably was coming to an end. People really thought having a good education was everything and all you needed. Your parents were scared. The world was changing around them, and they were scared.

Wait. You know what else?

Just to validate your perspective, goodness YES. Happiness is more important than class or money. Quality of Life and a Live/Work Balance are A Thing. Good for you that you knew this so early.

I'm not making excuses for your folks. But maybe some context helps you put their parenting and family style into perspective? Also, it is possible to have a tremendous amount of compassion and understanding for them, and still severely limit any relationship you have with them.

You are an Adult. This is your Life. You get to make the rules for your life now. Isn't that an eye-opener?
posted by jbenben at 11:47 PM on August 11, 2016 [31 favorites]

I had some similar experiences, though in the UK (inadequate parents: they're everywhere!) and I found this book helpful. Though, in typical fashion, I read it as far as feeling validated that my parents were indeed shitty and neglectful and then drifted away from it when it came to the bit about changing things for myself in the present day. It's still hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I need to re-parent myself on certain things and I don't really have a lot of the skills or temperament for that yet (because hey, look at my role models) but with lots of therapy some of it is slowly starting to shift.

On the mental health stuff, my parents not only ignored my obvious anxiety/bipolar symptoms from an early age but by dad actively blocked and undermined my attempts to get treatment when I was a teenager. Through therapy, I ended up figuring out that this was most likely because of the fact that the mood disorder stuff came from his side of the family (his mother and five aunts all had some flavour of mood disorder, and at least one of all of their kids have as well) - his perception was that his own mother had been pandered to and allowed to behave badly by his dad and others, and I can only assume he decided he was going to be tough with his kids when it started happening us. Conflating "pandering" with "adequate treatment" right there. I think watching me and my sister both be obviously mentally ill made it harder for him to repress and ignore his own depression too, which only really ever got expressed as anger (the only negative emotion we were allowed to show at home).

He's dead now and has been since I figured out the pattern, so I can't go and ask him how he justifies the ten years in which he said medication and doctors were unnecessary and a waste of time for me while my progressive illness got significantly worse than it might have if I'd had adequate treatment as a child - I'm still absolutely furious that he got to make my life so much harder for such bad, craven reasons - but at least I vaguely understand what was motivating it and it doesn't just seem totally random behaviour. I can understand even if I can't forgive.

The point of that rambling, angry story was to say that I've found therapy very useful for getting to understand some of the reasons why my parents were so inadequate. It helps on an intellectual level and it helps me see them more as people who were struggling with something they really weren't emotionally equipped to do a good job of rather than just as monsters. I still think they were wildly unethical for having kids they couldn't raise well when they basically wanted us for status/show reasons, but hey. I'm here now and I have a tentatively okay relationship with my surviving parent. It's not the best but it's better than it was before I began therapy.
posted by terretu at 11:56 PM on August 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

Even if this behaviour was common, it doesn't mean your experiences aren't valid or traumatic(and the physical stuff and direct antagonising is not normal. Even 50 years ago a psychologist would have considered hitting/holding down someone to be unhealthy).

"Normal" implies that something was at least somewhat healthy or neutral, none of the things you listed could be called that. "Common" is a better word. Lots of unhealthy,awful things are commonplace but that doesn't diminish their damage. We know now that physical abuse impacts children's brains in a very real,very bad way(like reduced grey matter). That fact isn't going away just because it was common to beat your kid only a generation ago. We're now beginning to understand and see the effects of emotional abuse as well, and it's not looking good.

You're parents may not have known better, they may have tried to rationalise. But now that we live in a time when anyone has access to information on abuse and it's effects, they can't claim ignorance forever(also, this info was totally out there 20 years ago,just in book form). What they did was abusive and it has negatively impacted your life, that can't be changed just by making the excuse that it was "normal". You don't have to forgive anyone, or try to make excuses for them, or rationalise their bad behaviour. Just because other people may have suffered in a similar way does not make it normal or okay in the least.

Be safe and good luck.
posted by InkDrinker at 12:32 AM on August 12, 2016 [11 favorites]

I'm going to address the mental health part alone (some of the rest sounds kinda awful, but parents vary and mine had their own, very different, flaws).

I grew up around the same time, maybe slightly earlier. Things were radically different from now. I was very anxious from an early age. My mom told me later that she did notice and actually talked to her therapist about it, and the therapist basically said that there was nothing to be done until I was an adult. There were no medications for anxiety in kids, and therapy for kids was just starting as an idea (and probably not available where I was). There were also no antidepressants for kids. Doctors knew a lot less about mental illness, and the general population knew almost nothing.
posted by mkuhnell at 3:21 AM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hi asynchronous

Not American middle-class– first-generation English working-class here, but I suspect there’s enough common ground 

I very much felt a lot of your post – I too am middle-aged and had an upbringing which has scarred me massively, and yet, because it doesn’t fall under the auspices of terrible physical abuse or sexual abuse, and because I am fortunate enough to do well in my life now, I sometimes struggle with really believing it was that bad.

But it was that bad. And it wasn’t normal and it wasn’t ok.

The main differences I would say between your upbringing and mine were that your parents were interested in you and your performance (clearly only in as much as it served them to keep up their appearances), and occasionally showed loving behaviour, whereas neither of my parents were interested in my performance in any respect,nor in being loving; they were lower-functioning. And I thank the gods for that because if I’d had that on top of the other stuff, god knows what I’d be up to now, because at least I know they were low-functioning and struggled to hide their mental health problems, so it makes it ‘realer’. Everything else you’ve described, to a greater or lesser degree, rings very familiar.

So, in terms of your question/s as I have understood them :

• If having your parents in your life is preventing you from fully digging in to this stuff with your therapist and reaching a productive mind-set then cut them out, even if it’s only temporarily. They are (wittingly/unwittingly) serving as constant reminder of what you went through, and at the same time, they will be presenting a different version of events as to what actually happened: “the family narrative has it that I hit a rough patch but otherwise had a happy and normal childhood. I was not happy, and now I don't trust my judgment of what's "normal" and "okay" behavior” . I cut my mother out of my life when I was 23-ish – as did both of my sisters. My brothers have an on-off troubled relationship with her from what I understand. I have never regretted it and I rarely think of her. I see my father about twice a year max, even though he only lives about an hour away. He gets more of a pass as he never laid a finger on me or spoke particularly badly to me – but equally, he watched whilst my clearly mentally-disordered mother did whatever she felt like and pretended it wasn’t happening.
• Was this normal for the 80s/90s? no – of course it wasn’t! The idea that beating family pets, hitting children with objects whilst being egged on by another (also thing that happened in my house) or ignoring a child who has suicidal ideation is somehow….decade-specific is nonsense. As I said above - it was that bad. And it wasn’t normal and it wasn’t ok. Because I struggle to know what actual ‘bad’ behaviour is and I am sometimes too accepting, this has led me down some difficult roads in my life until I started to come to my senses. When you’ve been told explicitly or more likely implicitly that your feelings are either wrong or of no consequence, this is what happens.

I wish you so very well in your recovery.
posted by mrmulliner at 3:31 AM on August 12, 2016 [9 favorites]

I was raised in a lower middle class family, married parents with 3 kids in the suburbs during the late 80s/early 90s. I was the oldest of three. My parents had a difficult marriage and are still married now, but sometimes I think they'd rather not be. So a lot of the 'main' details in our lives match -- but my parents never ever treated me the way that you are talking about. Trust your gut -- it's not right what they did, and they're telling themselves another narrative so they don't have to feel guilty about abusing you.
posted by possibilityleft at 4:37 AM on August 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

My parents are liberal, Ivy-educated progressives who raised me in NYC and my family in that era sounds like your family.

1. Nearly complete disregard for mental health. Check. I was sexually assaulted as a child and there were no mental health services put in place for me at all. I had to actually completely fall apart at 17 and come out of a locked psychiatric ward for that to happen.

2. Physical violence. Check. Hitting was common in our family. Hitting people on the head with a broom handle not so much, but at one point I turned to someone who would today be a mandatory reporter and still, nothing happened.

3. Psychological stuff I'm not sure how to categorize. Check; some overlap, some differentiation.

I'm not totally sure what you're after. You are entitled to your feelings about your childhood. You can also acknowledge that these things happened but decide that since you are no longer small and powerless, you want the relationship you can have with your family today. Labling a childhood as abusive does not obligate you to go no contact as an adult unless that is a conscious choice you make.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:45 AM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm probably a decade older than you, and I grew up in a rural area. My mom told me as an adult that one of her biggest regrets was not taking us kids to therapy when we had a death in the immediate family, but that it was very uncommon then, to the point that it was either unavailable or she just never thought of it. So that may really vary regionally.

Are you in therapy yourself now? I would absolutely start therapy in your place, because a therapist will be in a position to help you figure out if cutting your parents out of your life will improve it far more than the Internet telling you whether your childhood was "normal." It has only been through therapy that I've realized how much of the type of behavior you're talking about can be internalized and turned on your own immediate family as an adult. As you discover your own perfectionist tendencies, for instance, you'll learn how to NOT do that with a partner or kids, and you also learn how to engage in a healthy way with your family of origin.
posted by instamatic at 5:47 AM on August 12, 2016

For calibration purposes: "Oldest of 2 girls. Both planned. Grew up 80's-mid 90's in a small, conservative, affluent US suburb with competitive schools" fits me perfectly, although both my parents worked. I believe my mom and stepdad did (do) have an affectionate marriage but they rarely showed that in front of us, and I also believe it to be a very troubled marriage in some ways, although I didn't really understand that as a kid. Traditional success was important to them, and trying to achieve it for them really fucked me up for a long time. But they have done a pretty good job as adults of realizing that neither of their children is headed down the traditional-successful-life path they would have imagined for us, and supporting the lives we actually want instead. They're good people who parented as best they could given their own fucked-up childhoods, and I do not believe them to have been abusive.

Given that context:

Mental health: This is a sore point, somewhat. I had my first major depressive episode around age 10, I believe, although there's no way to know for sure now. I've had a series of mental health struggles for the rest of my life. I wonder, sometimes, what would have been different had my childhood emotional pain been recognized and treated. But I recognize that a) awareness of children's mental health struggles, at least in the context of where I grew up, wasn't really a thing and b) I was so good at hiding it. I still am. I don't think they had a clue how bad it was until I melted down in college. When I did, they helped me get the help I needed. So personally, I don't blame them - or myself, anymore - but just the whole mess of family dynamics and the time/place of my childhood for me not getting help I could really have used. I've more or less opted out of being upset about it anymore. It took me some years to get there, though.

Physical violence: Never, ever ever. As my mom tells it, she spanked me exactly once when I was about three, and I got over it but she never did, and never did it to me or my sister again. I have a sense from talking to my partners and friends around my age that this is unusual for our generation - that basically everyone I know was at least spanked , and not uncommonly smacked with implements. So my sense of "how much physical violence in a family was normal in our childhoods" may be off. But what you're describing is definitely way into flat-out abusive and wrong territory in my book.

Psychological stuff:

You've got a mix of stuff there, ranging from stuff that I think was not okay or normal even at the time, to stuff that I think probably was semi-normal for the time, but still not okay. FWIW, the only thing that I recognize from that list from my own childhood is passive aggressiveness. Although it never got to shouting and anger, we all just...repressed everything quietly and then eventually convinced ourselves nothing had happened. Which is also not healthy, and I've done some therapist-couch time talking that one out.

It can really mess with you to have your own internal narrative of your childhood be so different from your family's. I don't have that experience, so much, but my partner does, and it's clearly been difficult for him to navigate. I wish you luck finding some peace with the parts of your past that are still causing you pain.
posted by Stacey at 5:48 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

A lot of this was pretty typical through the 70s and 80s.

Putting this in context: "It wasn't important until it affected my performance. Maybe they didn't see depression as an illness, but didn't they care that I was so unhappy? Weren't there child psychologists in the 80's-90's? Was that normal?"

There were child psychologists. But, not all of them were very good or helpful even. The action only when things affected performance pattern sounds about right.
posted by Gotanda at 5:50 AM on August 12, 2016

I understand why you're asking this question but I ask you to consider: does it really matter? What if every single person here told you that yep, the upbringing you describe is completely typical/normal. Conversely, what if everyone said oh hell no, what you're describing is completely out of bounds and far from typical?

Our opinions don't matter and they should have zero bearing on your feelings or calibration of what's normal and what isn't.

What matters is that this is your upbringing to come to terms with. I understand that feeling of validation and wondering if one's experience is typical. That can be a good thing to work with.

But when we're considering our personal pain, I'm not sure that matters all that much. What matters is this upbringing affected you and you should allow yourself the emotional and mental freedom to process it and take steps to care for yourself in whatever way works for you. None of this is easy, but I would ask you to consider allowing yourself to accept this history and give yourself permission to deal with it in whatever way feels right to you.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 6:03 AM on August 12, 2016 [11 favorites]

Sounds pretty normal to me. Canadian, working class family.
posted by rodlymight at 6:07 AM on August 12, 2016

I grew up in the late 70's/80's/90's and fit what everyone now talks about as the "norm" for the era:

We played outside all day long -- this is cliche of the era -- but we did it because our parents wanted us out of their hair. This was never a good thing, but people who haven't realized this in our current era still believe it was good for us. It was actually neglect. The Millennials have figured it out, though, thus attachment parenting, living at home well into adulthood, etc. Non-neglect and new view of a family unit.

Parents thought any issues we had as kids meant we were wimpy and should suck it up. Therapy was for complete nut-jobs, and therapists themselves were complete nut-jobs. I remember when I was 15 and not trying to get into girls' pants, it blew my dad's mind. He thought I was a quack. My dad would actually try to give me pointers on how to get the 15yo neighbor girl alone and naked, and all his friends and other neighbor dads agreed with him and thought I was completely messed up for not agreeing with them!! Emotional neglect and abuse was misunderstood and considered necessary to raise secure adults.

My parents voted Republican and thought you had to be mentally disabled to be a Liberal, even though their actions were very, very liberal, and they took advantage of any liberal policy they could (my dad is still like this, and I can't get him to see it). He thinks Trump is God, yet my dad wouldn't be alive today and surviving if it weren't for all the work the Liberals have done over the past few decades.

No physical abuse in my family, but we were petrified of my dad for no apparent reason. It kept us in line, though.

My parents made tons of money, but didn't know how to save it or spend it. My dad, alone, made over $80k/yr in 1986 (~$173k today), but we were always broke, paycheck to paycheck, I had to get my own job at 15yo to buy school clothes, etc. Oh, and the "get a job" talk started when I was 12... Now parents don't even want their kids to think about getting a job until after college.

I wanted to go to college. My parents thought I was wasting my time. "Only people who want to stall and don't know what they want to do and don't have their act together go to college", they would say.

I would really need to talk to my parents about things, but they would ignore me and just turn up the TV.

We did eat every meal together, though, but we never talked about anything. My mom helped my dad with his business AND was expected to do 100% of the child- and house-related stuff, which is still typical today, unfortunately.

My sister has worked through none of this and she is repeating it all with her kids. It breaks my heart. My wife has worked through all of her childhood stuff and I have learned from her, and how eye-opening it is! People hear about my parents and wonder how in the world I turned out okay.

So, the OPs perspective seems totally normal to me. In fact, the older I get, the more I realize how "normal" my upbringing was for the era.

We Gen Yers give Millennials a hard time in how they raise their kids, etc, but they are just swinging the pendulum back from the way we Gen Yer were raised, and it's not a bad thing at all. But don't tell our parents that!!
posted by TinWhistle at 6:27 AM on August 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oh, and related to the health thing (in general), my parents thought doctors were just overpaid people for no reason. They didn't like doctors. In fact, my mother died very young from something that no one dies from, just because she wouldn't go to the doctor.
posted by TinWhistle at 6:30 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I grew up in a later "microgeneration," more late 90's, but had very similar issues with my family. They knew I was cutting and depressed when I was a teenager (they never actually bought what I thought was my clever excuse that I "fell down and scraped my legs" they later told me) but never talked to me about it or did anything. For me it was mild and I worked it out mostly on my own, with some therapy years later when I was in grad school. Years later my mom told me they just didn't know what to do and hoped it would go away. My younger sister finally got help when she actually tried to commit suicide by taking pills and they couldn't ignore it anymore.

Mild disciplinary violence too, mostly spanking when I was younger, but notably once my dad dragged me down a short flight of stairs and slammed me against a wall for not answering my mom when she was calling me to help her with something.

So there's some context. Some parents just don't know how to deal with mental illness and suffering, feel that maybe it's their fault and hope it will go away. It's not ideal, but I wouldn't say it's intentionally cruel in all cases. When my younger sister was having her issues that could not be ignored, my mom was in tears about how they didn't help me. That was honestly very cathartic for me - that they knew, they were upset, and just didn't know what to do or how to talk about it. I'm still upset at some pretty terrible things my parents did (long story involving truly horrible invasion of privacy) but I still feel love for them and have them in my life, warts and all.

Your mileage may vary of course, and just because it happens to a lot of people doesn't mean that in your case going no/low contact isn't the right choice for you. You're an adult now and you get to choose what's right for you.
posted by permiechickie at 6:48 AM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Gen-X here. My upbringing had a lot of similarities to yours, with some differences too, and I've had some of the same questions. Therapy was pretty awesome for that, but so was receiving a lot of parenting books from my mother, particularly Parent Effectiveness Training, first published in 1970. Apparently she read it, but I'm not sure she got it. We also listened to Free to Be You and Me a lot.

So...I do and don't forgive my parents. I would, if they wanted to have the conversation and genuinely listen to me and my experience, and take in that some of the sins of omission (and some of commission) really, deeply impacted me as a human being and still do. However, they don't.

They are still operating under the following principles: My career (which I enjoy) is a disappointment because no Nobel prize, I am married and have children and am not visibly struggling so therefore I am fine and Everything Worked Out Great. Since it worked out so great, the shit they did (including fairly recent shit) was not so bad. Because it worked out fine! And that way they are fine. We're All Okay is pretty much their life motto. Even though they continue to kind of...negate me and my experience in this sideways but fundamental way.

In contrast, my MIL raised her kids the same way, but she acknowledges it and has sought to listen to them and be there for them (and me.)

Growing up I learned not to trust my parents with my spirit and heart and really - that was the right call. I do have contact with them and I love them, and as they age I feel a strange kind of softness towards them. But it's very surface level. I've written somewhere here before about how I chose to introduce them to my kids and they are okay grandparents but they also continue to treat me badly and my kids are starting to notice and it's...complex, man.

Basically my parents are not intimates in my life. They don't get the real me, and they don't deserve the real me.

This got rambly but I hope it helps as you think your situation through.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:52 AM on August 12, 2016 [10 favorites]

I am middle-aged and oldest of two girls too. Not raised in America but a lot in common with how I was raised, my parents were terrible at being parents and I will never forgive them. I grew up confused, terrified and nervous due to how random they and their punishments were, and they still have the ability to get me back into a survival-pleasing mode I really hate. I fled to another continent after college and that has been great and I communicate less with them every year and that seems best for me. They just don't understand at all how awful they made my childhood and they never will.
posted by meepmeow at 7:19 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I understand the question you're asking, because I've asked it myself a lot. It helps me not feel angry or alienated if I believe my parents (similar to yours, but dialed back a notch or two) were doing the best they could with the best information they had, which in the '80s and '90s and early 2000s and 2010s was not much. Obviously, that's a stretch, because they're educated and have always had access to the current literature and/or Oprah, etc. I think one of my parents is essentially kind but damaged from their own abusive childhood, and the other is just fundamentally lacking in compassion and, in self-medicating with alcohol, has burrowed even further into their own world. That's hard. And to extend the generational context, both of my parents' upbringings in the 1950s were abusive by today's standards. So they don't consider themselves abused, even though some of what they describe is brutal. That threw off their idea of "normal" for raising their own kids (us).

Something that helped me put my childhood in context was these lists of traits common among adult children of alcoholics. Also going to some Al-Anon meetings and learning about detachment and self-care. Good luck.
posted by witchen at 7:39 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Grew up 80's-mid 90's in a small, conservative, affluent US suburb with competitive schools.

I would describe my suburb as more on the liberal side, but otherwise, similar. My experience was quite different from yours.

1. Mental health: my brother went to therapy when he was around 7 or 8 because he was being bullied badly. I was too young for full details, but in his words, 'I hate myself.' This was taken seriously, and he was treated accordingly. Perhaps this was because my mother was a mental health professional.

2. Physical violence: No. we were spanked when we were young (age 4-7 maybe), but rarely and lightly. Even that stopped completely as we got older, and as my parents' views on it changed (my dad apologized after one time, and as far as I remember, never spanked us again).

3. Psychological stuff: Also no. This sounds dysfunctional to me, though I can't improve on the insight from the posts above.
posted by oryelle at 8:00 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

None of that is OK or normal, but that, and a lot worse, was extremely common in my social circles as a child growing up in the working class of the very late 70's and 80's.
posted by cnc at 8:34 AM on August 12, 2016

Simple answer, I'm not going to break it down. Almost none of that is "normal," as in common, accepted, the norm. Almost all of it constitutes abuse - psychological, physical - or neglect. You're right to need distance to think. They were wrong to treat you that way, and you didn't deserve it.

We could talk about how common individual behaviors were or weren't. I was only spanked once, at age four. Animals were never harshly disciplined in my house. I was offered psychological help when I struggled. Performance was valued but so was happiness. I don't think the notion that a lot of people didn't experience these things helps you, though. These things did happen to a lot of people, as you'll be bound to see in this somewhat self-selecting thread. But even if it happened to 80% of people (which it didn't), the overall pattern reflects serious problems and dysfunctions. You are one of the people that these bad things did happen to. And of course they hurt. Glad you're in therapy, keep it up. I wish you well.
posted by Miko at 9:13 AM on August 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

Your dysfunctionometer sounds well-calibrated in that you recognize that how you were raised did a number on you, and in what ways. I too understand the desire to have external recognition of it – being raised as an entity rather than a person tends to make you feel invisible; voiceless. I remember my suicidal ideation as a kid and how that was pretty much it, really: I don't exist, so what's the point of existing? Hearing other people say "I lived this too" is immensely validating. Your non-existence finally exists. It's finally a known entity.

Except if you see what I did there – it's a known entity. It's a construct. It's still an external thing being applied to a human being. Is it helpful, yes, but it's just as important to recognize that positive constructs are as limited as negative constructs. It's your being that's important. So long as tools used to comprehend are only tools, all is well.

Take how animals are treated. A lot of people have known for a very long time that dogs and cats learn better with positive reinforcement. Punishment confuses, disorients, and can even break them. Well, it turns out the same holds true with people. This has also been known for a while. There are any number of cultures around the world where children are given no punishment whatsoever. On the flip side, colonialism is irrevocably linked to misogyny and child abuse – this is a thing studies have been done on, books and articles written, etc. Indeed, what better way to enforce the stratification necessary to keep such societies running (even if terribly) than to inculcate at the very youngest age that, at the very least, half the planet is intrinsically worth less than the other half? Punishment and negative reinforcement are scathingly efficient in enforcing that, as anyone who's experienced it can attest. The upsides for abusers in power are innumerable: first off, they never have to admit there's anything wrong with them. Second, they can ask anyone deemed part of the underclass to do something for them that they don't want to do.

In my family, the dog was never scolded. I was hit, kicked, screamed at, called any name you can imagine, blamed for all the ills of the world, yet trotted out as the example of parental success due to my academic achievement. But the dog was never yelled at or called names. Because the dog needed positive reinforcement. I figured out the hypocrisy behind that pretty quick. My parents never did. Which, they didn't want to, because it would have meant facing their own mistakes. I would forgive them if they would recognize that they caused hurt and did something to no longer make those mistakes, but they're long past that point, artists of the "well I'm sorry you feel that way, we did our best." I saw their best. The dog got it. I didn't. (I loved the dog, btw.)
posted by fraula at 10:42 AM on August 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

I grew up in the same time period, in the same social strata, as a "girl" (I'm trans) and all my friends were girls. Some experienced abuse but this was not the norm at all. I would rank your experiences as around 7 or 8, where 1 is the most loving, supportive family imaginable and 10 is stuff like sexual abuse, face punching, and burning cigarettes on your arm. I mean, sure, it could be worse but your experience sounds pretty bad and fucked-up.

In your shoes I would be fine going no contact, definitely if they are unrepentant and in denial. My experience was maybe a 5 on that scale, and I'm still not close to either parent. I'd be completely zero contact with my mom if she hadn't sincerely asked for my forgiveness and sought help for a mental illness.
posted by AFABulous at 1:59 PM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Mental health never came up, but we were never physically or psychologically abused by our parents. Spanked a couple times when I was really small. I grew up in the 70's in a middle class neighborhood in the Bay Area. I would not say that what you described sounds "normal" to me at all.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:53 PM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I recognize a good deal of that from my own middle-class childhood in the 80's. I'm a depressive too. My parents had a loveless marriage too. I was identified as highly gifted and was pressured academically by my parents (my mom in a nastier way than my dad).

My parents were both PhDs. My father was away a lot, and my mom was extremely emotionally cold. She did her physical duties by me; I was always properly fed, clothed, and kept warm. But she was invalidating emotionally. I remember trying to find out who she was, how she felt inside, and she said that was "inappropriate". She continually tried to foist off HER emotional dysfunction and inability to connect onto me, try to make me feel bad for not being emotionally numb and checked out like she was.

Status, achievement, conformity, mattered to her (it mattered to my dad too, but she was the worst offender). She was emotionally cold at best, emotionally abusive at times. But it was crazy-making because it was all very quiet and not obvious to outsiders. As you said, it made me question my own judgement, because the things I was hurt by were often not acknowledged by anyone as being in any way not ok. Sometimes I wonder if outright abuse would have been better for me emotionally, because I would have had something to point to that was being done "wrong". I would have been able to tell others that I was being hit, for example, and my society at the time supported that that was wrong.

Instead it was a constant undermining of who I was as a person. I remember when BOTH of my parents forgot to pick me up from middle school, and I had to literally walk several miles home in the snow (neither of them realized I hadn't been picked up), because I was just that unimportant to them. I remember when I got a 1510 on the (old version of) the SAT and my dad asked "where the other points went". So yeah, my childhood ticks the "never good enough" box too. I remember my mom *laughing* (perhaps uncomfortably, but at the time it felt like mockingly) when I expressed any extreme emotion. Or she would turn towards the television rather than listening to me. She was extremely judgmental about schoolwork, and once said "you used to be an achiever" when I found a science paper from when I was younger (when I found it, I was into music, A VERY ACCOMPLISHED PIANIST, but that didn't matter to her, she wanted me to be invested in school, which is what she valued).

I also think I had depression as far back as my early teens. My parents made no attempt to help. At a certain point in high school, I started not wanting to go to school at all. I didn't feel physically well because I wasn't sleeping enough, and it became increasingly difficult for me to pry my body out of bed so early. I felt like they (again, especially my mom) viewed me as a THING that was malfunctioning. There was never a discussion about WHY I didn't want to go to school, or any concern for my emotional well-being. Just exasperation and rejection for not functioning as I was supposed to.

I remember my mom being nasty to me when I threw up on the couch once when I was sick. She seemed to have more concern for an inanimate object than for me.

I remember talking to my dad a few years ago before he died, and him apologizing for not doing anything or intervening sometimes, like when I was repeatedly asking her why she didn't love me. He was in the other room and didn't do or say anything.

Some of your psychological stuff is familiar. My mother IS passive aggression personified. As a child, I often KNEW my mom was angry but she wouldn't admit it. It would come out in little jabby ways. I would ask why she was angry, and she would always deny that she even was. Repeated gaslighting is a not a way to create self-esteem or self-confidence in a child. "Hmmm, I am experiencing this, but this adult denies that my observations are valid. I must be wrong? Maybe I'm crazy? Or maybe she just lies all the time."

She's still passive aggressive as fuck. She doesn't wear her hearing aids around me, for example, but only around people who matter. Me, I get to repeat myself over and over. At which point, she says either "stop repeating yourself" or "quit yelling".

I haven't confronted her about anything for many years, but when I did, she either did not remember things that happened at all, or remembered them differently, always in her favor. She's literally never once acknowledged causing me any hurt. I think she's incapable of it.

I didn't have to contend with physical violence, or very very little. I can count on one hand the times I was slapped or spanked.

I have no idea how common or uncommon these experiences are, because I've talked to very few people about any of them. Bits and pieces here and there. I certainly know people who had it way worse. My ex was sent first to military school and then to a psych ward rather than receiving any love or true guidance when he was caught with drugs. No one asked WHY he was using drugs. If anyone had given a shit, they could have actually addressed the root problems rather than compounding them.

It seems like in a lot of cases, depression (and other psych issues) does result from being treated shittily as a child. My ex has depression and PTSD from some of his experiences. I also think the question of whether it was "really that bad" or really normal compounds the problem. It makes you second-guess yourself. I think you should claim how the treatment you received made you feel, no matter how common or uncommon and no matter how anyone else felt about similar treatment.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 5:59 PM on August 12, 2016 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone. I truly appreciate your taking the time to share your perspectives and experiences. This has been eye-opening, and I'm exploring the links and books you suggested. I hope this thread might help others dealing with family who are not flat-out 100% abusive, but also not healthy.

I realize I need to prioritize my own health rather than their feelings. Some actions did hurt me, even if it wasn't intentional, and even if I can sympathize with why they were like that.

I decided to go with limited/minimal contact, email only, and adjust from there depending on how I feel. Thank you again for all your thoughtful responses.
posted by asynchronous at 9:15 AM on August 13, 2016

I think the attitudes toward mental health are the most "normal" part of your experience. As a girl who grew up in the same time period I never knew anyone who was receiving any kind of mental health services unless it was bad enough that they were pulled from school and put in an inpatient program.

While physical punishment was a lot more common then, I think hitting your kid on the head with a broom handle is absolutely not normal or ok. My family, where you would get a spanking with my father's bare hand, seemed pretty average. There was corporal punishment in schools still, and a lot of kids would talk on the playground about having "gotten a whooping" that often involved a belt or something similar, but even by those standards I think your dad's physical punishment was extreme.

And there was definitely way less tolerance than now for being any kind of special snowflake. Kids were expected to follow the rules that parents laid down, regardless of whether it was something that made them unhappy or afraid.

For me personally, I've been able to forgive my parents for a lot of things they did when I was a kid, but have not been able to forgive them for things they continue to do when I'm an adult. That's my own personal way of dealing with it, though, and not something that you have to do.
posted by MsMolly at 10:33 AM on August 13, 2016

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