Can we forgive ourselves when our children don’t seek our support?
I winced when I heard this young man express how upsetting he found the Netflix drama series 13 Reasons Why. I winced because I’m his mother and I had never spoken to him about it. And I can see, from this interview, he needed to talk. 13 Reasons Why is the story of a young woman who is viciously bullied and raped in high school. It ends with her suicide and distribution of suicide “letters” (audio recordings) to all those she felt played a role in her final act of desperation. I didn’t know my son had seen the series. He never came to talk to me about it. As a parent, it made me think: how many times have I missed the chance to connect with him about things he has seen or experienced that made him feel uneasy or upset? Why didn’t he come and talk to me?
It brings to mind an experience I had as a child. Well, not me – my sister. When we were young, my father used to like showing us BBC productions of the classics on TV. One night, we watched Madame Bovary adapted from the Gustave Flaubert novel. The bleak story of Emma Bovary, unable to find happiness in her marriage had, for my 14 year-old eyes, an ominous feel to it. Unable to save herself from the shame of extramarital affairs and financial ruin, Emma takes poison thinking to end her life quickly. What in fact followed in the dramatization were graphic scenes of violent, retching and vomiting before the young woman, pale and haggard, died with wide-open eyes. That night, my sister didn’t sleep. She tossed and turned frightened that something horrible was going to happen. Over the next few months, her fear seemed to gain a momentum of its own. At school, in the afternoons, as the light began to fade from the winter sky, I remember I would watch my sister with a heavy feeling, anticipating the night ahead. And each night, it was the same: trembling, shallow breathing, telling me bad things were going to happen – all signs of how affected she had been by that horrible, protracted death scene. Six months later, when things hadn’t changed, I, fleetingly, thought that perhaps I should mention something to my mother. But I didn’t. And neither did my sister.
It was 1979 and we didn’t have access to Netflix from private screens. We often watched television sitting together next to our parents. In fact, we watched Madame Bovary together as a family. The program was aired at eight o’clock in the evening when many young people would be watching. We had loving parents. Yet we said nothing to them. Why didn’t I say anything? Did I feel that they would judge us if I did? Or was it that I was just trapped in the emotional experience and didn’t have the resources to move into practical action? The night panic attacks did eventually stop after about a year. My sister and I never mentioned them to my parents.
I’m a parent now. I often ask my children to share their media with me and I do my best not to judge the content of what they watch. I don’t always manage, but often I do. We have spent many an evening sharing media, laughing, enjoying and learning from each other. But in this interview, Joa reminds me that communication between kids and parents is complex – whether we are talking about 2018 or 1979. There isn’t a one-size fits all protocol or a 10 step plan to fail free parenting. Of course, it’s good to connect because it builds trust and openness. But that doesn’t mean that your child will always seek you out when they are in distress. We, as parents, will miss moments. Either because we aren’t there or because we are but our children don’t cross the line, for whatever reason, to invite us in. Accepting that, I suppose, is part of our journey as parents as well as our children’s journey into adulthood.