Monday, June 25, 2012

The Kids are Alright

Sometimes, I feel I gotta get away
Bells chime, I know I gotta get away
And I know if I don't, I'll go out of my mind
Better leave her behind with the kids, they're alright  
The kids are alright
--Pete Townshend, The Who
But are they?

At the root of my feeling of incompetence (last blog post) is the certainty that I have failed as a parent.  When my boys were young, I listened to the chiming bells of rock and roll and had to get away from the family and a wife who constantly berated me for my selfishness and lack of attention.  Ultimately I walked out and left her with the kids because i told myself they would be better off.  I was wrong.  My oldest son became a workaholic, a successful one, and his brother an alcoholic who died several years ago at the age of 43.  Certainly their mother's neurotic parenting played a role in their upbringing, but I blame myself for abandoning them at an early age. Alternate weekends with Dad on bunk-bed cots in a Venice Beach apartment never made up for the loss of an in-home father.

I tried to be the doting father with my next family.  When my daughter was born I felt like I'd won the lottery.  We had a wonderful trip across the country together when she was five.  Because my wife felt it was damaging to be an only child, we created another.  And even though I'd never grown up imagining that I would be a father (girls play dolls, boys play soldier), I loved my third son as much as the other three and tried to right the wrongs committed first time around.  But when my wife withdrew as a lover to become a full-time mother, I distanced myself from the family and indulged my intellectual passions in university study. This self-centeredness brought trouble and a form of abandonment that took long for my family to forgive.  My father had been a man of discipline and silence, and I emulated him, thereby earning the enmity of my daughter.  She and I took adversarial positions and stubbornly refused to relent.  In our family I felt like the odd man out.

I was raised on "Ozzie and Harriet," the TV family ideal.  But we were nothing like the Nelson family (whose youngest, Ricky, became a rock and roll star). My father was a big man, a salesman, who liked sports.  I took after my petite redheaded mother, loved movies, music and art, and wanted to be a musician or an actor when I grew up.  My asthma kept me away from most sports.  Just like on "Leave it to Beaver," "Life with Father," and "Lassie," my mother ruled the kitchen and depended on Dad to keep order.  He did, at a time when spanking was socially acceptable.  When I dyed my hair blond against his orders, he cut it all off.  I was an angry child and a juvenile delinquent, a "JD" in the slang of the times, and couldn't wait to get out of the family home.  I fought with my younger brother and probably terrorized him.  Now, even though we are alike in many ways, whenever we try to talk, we end up arguing in a manner that is painful to me (he's a lawyer). When I finally went on my own, I hardly ever told my parents about my what I was doing.  I tried to phone them dutifully once or twice a month to check in. They rarely called me, I believe because my father thought parents should never interfere in their child's life.  We were all the victims of misleading expectations.

Having an idealized view of the family and the relation of children to parents is a problem.  But I am envious of my friends who tell me of the wonderful, close relationships they have with their children as well as their grandchildren.  Since we're in Thailand and most of their families are elsewhere, they exchange emails and even chat regularly on Skype.  Some have children who come to visit.  Their walls and web sites feature photos of former domestic bliss.  My younger two came to see me several years ago. This Father's Day my three surviving children sent me brief email and Facebook messages and even included photos of us together.  But however loved it made me feel, it wasn't enough.  On days that are not holidays, my progeny usually ignore my emails, SMS messages and Facebook attempts to connect.  They are not curious about the life I lead here in Thailand and have had nothing to say about my third marriage to a woman younger than all of them (of course this may be the reason).  They offer so little information about their own lives that it is impossible me the to say with The Who, "The Kids are Alright." I just don't know.  And, because of the guilt that I feel as having been a lousy father, I do not feel I have the right to ask.

The easy explanation is that it's my fault because I left them by moving to Thailand, another abandonment on top of all the others.  But it it didn't seem much different when I lived within driving distance of my two sons and daughter in California.  After the divorce, I spent considerable time with my eldest son and his wife at their home with a spare room over the garage.  They, however, never came to see me.  I often felt like The Man Who Came To Dinner and tried not to overstay my welcome.  Unfortunately proximity does not always produce intimacy.  I was never able to feel very close to my father, so perhaps I never learned how the dance is done.  Sometimes I think it's just as difficult for  children to learn how to relate to fathers if the early imprinting did not take.  We stand on each side of an unbridgeable gulf.

In Thailand it's very different.  As Richard E. Nisbett points out in The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why, children in the west are taught to be independent and self-sufficient.  Parents feel they have succeeded if their children can survive and prosper once free from the parental sphere of influence.  Asian children, however, are taught to be dependent on their parents forever, even when they are supporting them.  Westerners think of themselves as individuals, while Asians are taught that interdependence is primary.  The elderly are respected and even revered in Thailand (a major reason for retirees to move here) while in America they are shunted off to the old folks home as soon as they begin to drool and forget their children's names.

I know that my children love me.  I just don't know what that love entails.  I am not more uncertain of anything than of this.  My youngest once told me that it was the responsibility of the parent to keep in touch with the child.  He said this because his mother is on the phone to him and his sister daily or weekly.  That's what mother's do once the brood has left the nest.  On the other hand, my oldest son hasn't spoken to his mother in years, so I should feel lucky. I was taught not to impose on children who were busy living their lives.  It isn't seemly to beg for news.  So I piss and moan to myself and my much suffering spouse that my children don't care about me, and, in fact, find my neediness and very existence embarrassing.  I burned my bridges to them long ago when I was a selfish and absent father.

Pete Townshend's "The Kids are Alright" was included on The Who's first LP, "My Generation," in 1965, and it became an anthem for the disaffected youth, the Mods and the Rockers, in Britain's post-war generation.  It's been challenged in numerous covers, including "The Kids are Not Alright" by the Offspring and "The Kids are All Wrong" by Lagwagon.  By all reports, Townshend had a comfortable middle-class upbringing; his father was a saxophonist and his mother a singer.  But a few years ago Townshend was arrested and accused of accessing child pornography internet sites.  He claimed it was to research a book to support has campaign against such sites, but he was made to register as a sex offender nonetheless.  The Sun in London reported that Townshend admitted being abused as a young boy, "probably at the hands of a male guest of my maternal grandmother when I was living with her while my parents tried to work out a marriage problem." His daughter Emma, a Cambridge Ph.D., described her childhood to The Independent as normal and loving, if "extraordinary" (she was an infant at Woodstock). Not all families are alike.

It doesn't help that it takes the internet or the phone to connect and this distance and technology can perhaps dilute warmth and affection.  Social networking has made it possible for me to feel close to people long gone out of my life, people whose roots never ran as deep as those in my family, however infertile the soil.  I lead a full life these days, performing a service to my students by helping them with their English, loving a woman by offering her opportunities not possible for a single Thai from the country, and pursuing my curiosity into a number of subjects like Buddhism and the politics and culture of Southeast Asia.  I wish I could share my successes and even failures with my children.  But too many "mind-forg'd manacles" constrain us.


Ian H said...

You at least got a response from your children on Father's Day. I am currently going through yet another crisis with my (32 year old) daughter who has just defriended me on Facebook. It has caused a lot of soul searching on my part.

Luckily I have discovered a wonderful book "When Parents Hurt" by Joshua Coleman. It has forced me to confront my own responsibilities in the relationship but has also given me strategies to deal with it. I have started the (long) path of reform and am encouraged by the small steps of improvement gained so far.

I think you and I should have a long talk together some time. Thank you for the blog post which has given me the courage to broach the subject with you - something I have been thinking about doing for some time.

Carol said...

That was a painful read, Will. My relationship with my children is somewhat similar, and I was an absent mother ... even worse!

I've worked hard over the years to stop imposing my guilt on my kids, and that has helped, I think. They don't need that, and it's just more self-centeredness anyway, which I'm sad to say has not entirely vanished in my dotage.

The past couple years we have become closer ... but the bonds of infancy and childhood were broken before they were fully formed. And there is no going back. So, I say, love them. Just do that to the best of your ability now, as they are, whether they call or write or visit, and whether they are successful or slouchers or suffering from illness or immaturity or anger or depression. Whatever, love them as they are, and don't worry whether that love is returned or not. No love is wasted, ever.

fragmentary results said...

I'm sorry you have regret and sadness about this. Family is so complicated. Even those friends who post photos of their lives with their children and grandchildren probably have some regrets and complicated stories behind the photos ;)
And even parents who do things "right" don't do EVERYTHING right. I had some good role models in my parents (as did my husband), but there are things I also consciously wanted to do differently. I think I'm much closer in a more HONEST way with my teenager than my parents could have been, but the times they are a changin' - or have changed.