We all love a story with inspiring character development. A villain experiences remorse for his misdeeds, a selfish heroine learns to open her heart, perhaps a former coward learns to save the day despite his fears. As a bookworm, I have read many stories where a person undergoes changes to become better and more loving due to his or her experiences.
Perhaps this is why I was always fascinated with my parents as a child, but frustrated with them as an adult. I was forcing them into my own little, storybook worldview in which they were human, but in the end should come out as storybook-good people. I thought that whatever flaws they might have would be smoothed out in the end. So it hurt me immensely when this did not happen as I had dreamed it.
After speaking with some friends about my experience with my parents, I learned that they had similar experiences, watching their own parents’ relationship. One friend’s mother and father have gone through the death of a child, family blow ups, and more. She watched her father almost leave the family due to his refusal to deal with his mental illness. Among the tales of brokenness, however, there were also memories of family vacations, support during life changes, and other occurrences that would bring out the best in anyone.
My own family was—and is—no different. I saw my mother and father as two hard-working military veterans with hearts of gold: They cussed, yelled, and pushed their own limits—and the limits of me and my siblings. But they did it out of love. At the end of the day, they told us bedtime stories, sang us songs, and always told us that we were loved. Who could think of more endearing characters?
Sadly, this story broke apart. Like my friend, I found that underneath the moments of joy were cracks that exposed the worst of my parents. They were not getting along, and despite the gut feeling that they were going to separate, I was hoping for the pivotal moment in which they would turn it around, learn from their struggles, and move on as a stronger married couple. Instead, to my shock and dismay, they divorced. Not exactly a storybook ending.
This anti-ending is more common than I once thought. On social media, young adults are speaking up about being mistreated by their parents, or let down by their parents’ generation, whose views on marriage and love have lead their children into an unhealthy life they are now trying to unlearn. The flaws of our parents became too glaringly obvious for any of us to ignore.
My parents speak ill of each other. They put pressure on me when it comes to deciding with whom I’ll spend birthdays, holidays, and other special events. There were sometimes scary moments with physical fights and even an arrest before they agreed to never be together in person. As a married mother myself with my own life, I look back on these events with a heavy heart and more anger than I need or deserve.
I needed to move on from what happened and to make peace with it. Thankfully, I received the help I needed to do that. I did not learned to appreciate my parents right away. I loved them and wanted the best for them, but I had a hard time reconciling that with what they had done to themselves and our family.
I came to realize that while my mom and dad are not the typical protagonists of classic stories, I am the heroine of my own story. And my story would affect my children and my marriage. What I made of the next chapter in my story hinged on how I learned to love my parents as individuals with flaws, who managed to continue loving their kids as best they could.
I then had to look into myself. I had to humbly admit that, despite what they did, my mother and father did it with love. They did what they could with what they had. Most importantly, I realized that they loved me in spite of my own flaws. They loved my smile and the way I could sit and listen when someone needed it. But, I doubt they love it when I lost my temper or criticize someone out of spite!
When I began to see my parents as real people instead of characters, I could also see how my parents struggled in many of the same ways my husband and I have struggled. And I have been able to make different choices. When my husband and I disagree, we talk without judgement, listen without bitterness, and swallow whatever pride wallows up and work together towards a common solution instead. We are battle buddies, not war enemies. With my parents, they simply grew to hate one another, and it spread its toxicity to the rest of the family.
In order to love my parents with all their flaws—and to avoid similar failures in myself and my own marriage—I have had to learn to love selflessly.
Yes, they are imperfect. Yes, they have hurt me and one another. Maybe they will never change. But after recognizing the same character flaws in myself in my own relationship, I have realized that they are no better or worse than I am. But the choices we make can define who we are and either help our family grow, or be an obstacle on the journey. And I chose to love.