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I can remember that particular tone in my mother’s voice when she told me to clean up my room. Perhaps you can too. And yet she hasn’t said that to me for more than thirty years. Perhaps your parents are even dead. And yet when we remember our parents we often react. Our emotions are affected, perhaps even our actions.
When our parents aren’t around, years after we’ve left home, we still carry our parents around with us – inside our brains. It is these parents we need to divorce. I want to stress this – it is the parents we carry around in our heads that we need to divorce. Our physical parents who exist outside of us are another story – they may even be dead – and so are well beyond us doing anything to them.
So by parents I mean those figures we have in our heads. These may be different (a little or a lot) to the parents who are and were outside us. Here’s an example of what I mean. I am quite comfortable with young children. My mother did and does adore them. I thought my father was quite comfortable around them. It wasn’t ’til my mid-20′s – when he said that he found them intimidating – that I realised this wasn’t true. The father in my head, who was comfortable with children, wasn’t the same as the father outside me. I’m still quite comfortable around children, by the time I realised that my father wasn’t comfortable with children it didn’t matter to me. This is a small example. For those who grew up in places where their life was in danger it will much more difficult to sort out. They will, most likely feel that their life is in danger because it was when they were children, even if it isn’t now (and it there may still be danger now too). So this is what I mean by “parents”.
What do I mean by “divorce”?
I mean being separate from and independant of our parents. Some people speak of the need of ‘killing our parents’ but the violence of this language can lead to the message not being heard. So I prefer to speak of ‘divorce’ than ‘killing’. A divorce has more options too – how much relationship you choose to maintain is up to you. The divorce means that the relationship doesn’t claim you, or define you, any more: you are now your own person. You can choose to listen to your parents when they have wise or useful things to say and ignore them about the stuff they are just weird about. My mother is weird about alcohol. This is not surprising – her brothers came back from WW2 being functional alcoholics. She thinks that if someone has a drink of alcohol they are likely to become alcoholic. This isn’t my experience. Most of the people I know who drink alcohol aren’t alcoholics. And I do on occasion drink alcohol. [Btw the best definition I know of alcoholism is: if it's costing you more than money it's a problem.] My father is very different to me on gender issues. He is decidedly of the old school marital roles – fathers are the breadwinners and mothers are housewives. With my adult relationships with women, the money-making and other tasks have been shared, I hope equitably (though this is tricky – if I hate doing one thing is equal time doing it equitable? So the sharing out of tasks has included what we like to do with equal shares of what we both hate to do.). On these issues my parents and I are happily divorced.
How to Get a Divorce from Your Parents
So how can we do this? Being our own person, not automatically following the prescription of our parents, is something most of us probably desire. But how?
In general it means thinking through our own way of life. And, possibly the biggest part of this, is working with the emotions. The reasons we do what our parents tell us is because of the emotions we have. All those things left over from childhood.
Divorcing our parents means becoming our own parent. When we look after the child like part of ourselves – our vulnerabilities, emotions and needs – we are becoming our own parent or divorcing our parents. Very roughly speaking there are two roles for healthy parenting – support and limit setting. Support means nurturing, meeting our needs (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and social), getting all the things we need for a healthy life. Limit setting means some discernment. We can’t have everything (or at least not at the same time. If we do things one after the other we can achieve a huge amount in as little as five years.). And some things we want to do have negative consequences. Being our own parent means not just indulging our emotions (or thoughts or sensations) but also prioritising, and following through on commitments (to both ourselves and others).
Let’s take an example of looking at one need we have. A primal need: food. Food is a life and dealth issue, so there are lots of strong feelings attached to it. And most of us have feelings about food left over from childhood. (Part of this is often messages about body shape, but that’s another story. [Note to women: most men don't particularly care about thinness. Note to men: most women aren't turned on by the body builder physique.]) To divorce our parents means to know what food suits us, what we like and what fits in with our life. These things don’t necessarily fit easily together.
Here’s a little of my story about food. The hardest part for me has been finding what foods suit me (its pretty basic, baked potatoes are my favourite food); I find it much easier to be in touch with what is going on in my head than what is happening in my body. It wasn’t ’til my 20′s, and I was living out of home, that I figured out that eating mostly bread would lead to constipation. At home my mother had always provided a reasonably healthy diet and so I just hadn’t paid much attention to what I ate.
What to do? How could I eat healthily? My main meal was at night, so I went through a phase of having all the food groups for my evening meal. Vegetables, grains and protein in every meal. (At this stage the protein was meat – at the moment I mostly eat vegetarian.) Pretty much back to what my mother had cooked. From here I started trying out different foods. Asian vegetables, cooking in a wok, using sauces and spices, and eating out at different places. (Currently my favourite cuisine is Thai.) I went through a stage of eating lots of chilli and trying out many other tastes too. Gradually I figured out that lighter foods, with enough protein, is what suits my body. Within this I choose the foods that I like (potatoes and so forth) and stuff that doesn’t take too long to prepare. I don’t mind cooking but it’s not a major joy for me, so when I cook normally it is usually quick and easy. With food I now know how to care for myself. I do really enjoy what I eat, I don’t just indulge in the comfort foods of my childhood – vegemite on toast (an Australian delicacy) and lemonade (what is called “lemonade” in Australia is called “7Up” in America), I don’t follow any particular way of eating – though I learned much from Macrobiotics, and I have found a way to cook that fits in with my other commitments. This is what it meant for me to divorce my parents around food. I hope this gives you an idea of what it means to divorce our parents and start looking after our own needs.
Where have you divorced your parents? If you would like to let me know please leave a comment, I look forward to hearning from you.
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