My Parents Ruled By Apathy

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family at sunset

This town — it just wasn’t a great place to grow up,” I said to my friend. It was sometime around our high school graduation, and we’d known each other since I’d moved to the town at age ten. She’d lived there all her life, and she nodded in agreement.

“Hey!” said my mother from the other side of the kitchen counter. I hadn’t meant for her to overhear, but she had and she’d taken personal offense, albeit passing, at my comment.

Maybe my parents had thought the town was an adequate place to grow up when they’d moved me there. They had been renting a house from my grandparents since I was a baby, and had been eager to purchase one of their own — but there was no way they’d have been able to afford one in the wealthy suburban town where we’d lived at the time.

Maybe they’d done ample research, considered and balanced their options, and examined the pros and cons prior to choosing this particular town.

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Probably not, though.

Probably, they’d picked the house they liked the best and could afford, and trusted everything else would just work out.

Truth is, though, it hadn’t — not for me, and after so many years, they still couldn’t see it.

A state of denial

I’d fallen in with the wrong crowd immediately, and no one in a position to have an impact had seemed to notice or care. I’d been exposed far too early to sex, smoking, and drugs. The only indicators of my well-being that anyone ever considered were my IQ and my grades, and since I was at the top of my class it was assumed I was just fine, even when I definitely wasn’t.

And this is a summary of my parents’ approach to parenting, as with most things: You can will your desired outcome into existence if you just ignore the bad stuff hard enough. They maintained a state of blissful ignorance for my entire childhood. Even when they were forced to confront something head-on, the trouble was forgotten nearly as quickly as it had materialized.

Like when they found my troubling diary entries in middle school. Or when they realized I was smoking cigarettes at 12 years old. Or when they got a disturbing phone call alleging an inappropriate relationship. Or even when they found I was pregnant at age 14.

The worst could happen, and it would never be acknowledged again.

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You could say my parents lived in the moment before it was cool to do so. They were stoners before everyone was a stoner. They smoked, drank, and watched TV all night after work and most of the weekend. They didn’t make a habit out of taking me places or doing things with me.

My playmates were my dogs and my make-believe family, the one I would pretend to be a part of in my room at night before I went to sleep. I played board games by myself, learned to braid my own hair because otherwise it wouldn’t get done. One of my favorite and most-used gifts as a child was a book called Card Games for One.

It was as if they’d had me and then forgotten about me like they didn’t have the energy or inclination to actually parent me.

The result is that I was largely left to parent myself. And, as one can likely surmise from my increasingly disturbing behavior as a young girl, I didn’t do a very good job of it.

Facing the truth, even when it’s hard

I’ve got children of my own now, and I’ve taken quite a different tack from the one my parents did. I think I’d sum up my parenting philosophy by saying that I want to be present with my kids.

I am not a stoner like my parents were, and I can’t fall into a show hole because we don’t have a television readily accessible. But I do face my fair share of distractions during any given day.

My work, for one, is the kind I never truly disconnect from. There’s always something more to do, more words to write, more ideas to jot down before I forget. Housework looms ever-present as well. The amount of churn we have in our home is astounding, from dishes and wrappers to art supplies and clothing.

And then, of course, there’s my smartphone, which is often by my side if not glued to my face. Not to mention the constant stream of verbal diarrhea that comes from my daughters at any given time.

What’s key for me, though, is how I deal with my children in the midst of all this constant noise.

The answer, to put it simply, is: I listen.

I pay attention.

And it’s not easy.

My kids do and say about 31 million things through the course of a given day.

Mostly it’s all normal kid stuff — talking about an upcoming birthday, coloring a page in their new coloring book, teaching the dog to stand on her hind legs. But every once in a while, something extraordinary comes through.

Like today, when we went to pick up my kids’ school materials from the building where they haven’t set foot for three months, and my eight-year-old fell suddenly quiet in the backseat. Or the times when my six-year-old holds up a fist to us when she doesn’t like something we’ve said. Or when one of them told me her friend came to class crying because her parents had fought that morning.

It’s impossible to engage with — or even process — all the things that happen within a busy family on any given day.

My job, though, my commitment as a parent, is to pay attention.

To cut through the noise and engage with the things that are going to make a difference.

To understand the silence from the backseat means my daughter is feeling sad at how the school year ended and needs a hug and a cry about it. To address her sister’s small aggression so it doesn’t grow into something bigger. To empathize with their friend and check in on her mother.

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I’m not perfect at this. There are things I willingly let slide because I just can’t deal with them at the moment. For everything I catch out of the 31 million, I surely miss ten or a hundred or more.

But, even in my imperfection, it is clear to them that I’m making the effort. Sometimes that means putting my laptop to the side or rinsing the dishwater off my hands, looking my kids in the face, and really engaging in a dialogue with them. Sometimes it means overcoming my inertia and getting out of the house to take them somewhere, even when I have deadlines and piles of work to do.

Always, it means showing my children that I care what they’re up to, how they’re feeling, and what the world is like for them.

Because my one wish for my childhood is that my parents had done the same for me.

Nikki Kay writes fiction, poetry, personal essays about parenting, mental health, and the intersection of the two. Check out her column at Invisible Illness.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.