The Games Parents Play

Growing up I repeatedly found myself in the middle–playing the role of diplomat between mom and dad.  Mom would confide in me about all of dad’s indiscretions.  Dad would do likewise.  I’d sit quietly, wishing I could evaporate, nodding while they droned on about this affair, or that irresponsibility, or this lie or that lack of loyalty.   Sometimes they talked about my older sisters, pointing out their failures or indescretions.  My own observations of the whole bunch made me wish they’d all shut-up and leave me alone, but the power of a parent confiding in me somehow caused me to feel responsible for fixing everything.  And god knows I tried, but I never succeeded.

Mom had a way of making me feel so responsible for her well-being.  I felt so sorry for her, even when I observed how she was her worst own enemy.  She was really adept at playing the victim, even when she was going out of her way to needle dad.  Dad was much more direct.  You knew what to expect from him.  He had principles and a natural sense of fairness, but he was plagued by paranoia.  Odd for a man with such self-confidence.  They had a classic love-hate relationship.

They were always fighting–about money, about parenting, about control.

In 1973 when my oldest, Debra, was 2,  I was hospitalized for acute depression.  All I talked about in therapy was my parents and their problems.  My psychiatrist made an observation and a statement that really irritated me.  I thought he was heartless.  He told me that my parents’ relationship was not my concern, that I couldn’t help it or manage it or fix it.  He said that I would be doing well to just take care of myself, my marriage and my child.  It took me a few months before I understood that and realized the truth.  As a result I told my parents that I couldn’t listen anymore to their complaints about each other, that it was just too stressful and painful for me.  It took a lot of nerve to have that conversation with each of them.  I always had difficulty speaking up as a child, and being an “adult” didn’t help.   It was like standing on the diving platform as a kid in PE and trying to screw up the nerve to dive backwards as the teacher expected.   The words froze in my neck, my teeth clenched, my heart pounded.  But I managed to tell each of them how frustrating it was for me.   It was amazing how much of a burden that lifted, and they both complied with my request, though neither of them had any comment. 

Then in 1982 I was visiting my parents and sister’s family.  I overheard my mom telling my 11 year old niece about dad cheating on her.  I quietly walked in the room and told my niece to go to her bedroom.  She looked shocked but complied.  When she left I closed the door and looked mom in the eye and said, “Mom, don’t ever talk to our kids again about your marital problems.”  She didn’t reply, just looked pissed.

The next day when I walked into the crowded kitchen mom picked up the phone and called her sister in Arkansas and told her that “big-mouth Sharon was making things worse for her.”   Her remark stung like the time she slapped me across the face for asking how many ears of corn do we get.  I took my kids and departed quietly.  I forgave her.  I understood her neediness.  I understood that I had never challenged her growing up, I hadn’t protested or begged or got into trouble.   She relied on me, trusted me and expected absolute obedience.  And of course, we never spoke of that day.  Our family couldn’t communicate.

2 Responses to “The Games Parents Play”

  1. Yikes! I read this and feel like when you’re sitting in church and it seems like the preacher is speaking directly to you, I think the term is “feeling convicted”. I wonder just how many times did I make my daughters feel the same way as you did: “wishing I could evaporate”, “just too stressful and painful for me”, “caused me to feel responsible for fixing everything”, and “Mom had a way of making me feel so responsible for her well-being.”

    My husband didn’t have affairs, but he had other ways of hurting me that I would rant and rave about. We definitely have had a volatile “love-hate” relationship throughout our entire marriage, and it is heart-breaking to think of the long-term damage it may have done to our daughter’s souls.

    The hardest part of being a parent is realizing just how often you’ve failed your children and how much pain you’ve unintentionally caused them.


    • I’m sure you have plenty to blame yourself for, but the harsh reality of the story is that your daughters have turned out well. They’re loving, valuable family members and citizens, so apparently you didn’t fail the task. In the end, it’s not what is done to you that matters. It is what you do with that gift, even if that gift is a pile of shit.
      I think you and I are a lot alike. Kindred souls. It’s a good thing to lead an examined life. Goodnight, sister.


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