Words by: Matilda McNeil
To call this a journey of enlightenment feels a little hyperbolic. It is as if I am equating my personal relationship with my parents to the age of new ideas and philosophical movements that dominated the 18th century. But I’m not talking about Enlightenment with a capital ‘E’.
When written in all lowercase, enlightenment is really just the ‘full comprehension of a situation.’ This is the story of how I came to fully comprehend my parents. So, in a way, it really is a journey of enlightenment.
Chapter I: My parental God complex
Chapter I starts with my childhood. This is where I thought I knew my parents, and how I thought I would continue to know them for the rest of my life.
I was one of the lucky ones, really. I had an entirely uneventful childhood. I quietly and contently accepted every word my parents said as gospel. After all, no one knew better than they did, right?
As a child, I couldn’t (or maybe didn’t want to) distinguish between my parents and the stable home they had given me. As far as I was concerned, they were my stable home. They were the pillars that supported not only my childhood, but my entire worldview.
To be clear, my parents never presented themselves as having all the answers, but the thing you need to understand about me is that I wanted to believe that they did. I love routine, I adore predictability and I thrive on structure.
The best way to maintain structure is with authority, and my parents were the obvious choice. Growing up in a religious household only reinforced this. Authority wasn’t just authoritative; it was also infallible.
I think the first time you see your parents cry will always change you in some way. For me, it was when we lost our brother. Mum collapsed and Dad held her. This could have been the moment I realised that my parents were human after all. I mean, grief can be an ugly emotion and if it’s not ugly, it’s definitely very human. But instead, it only reassured me that they were omniscient because we got through it, just like they said we would. Our perfect home was shattered but my parents put it back together. And for that, they remained deities to me.
Part II: Meeting my parents: a reintroduction
“Well, I feel like I’ve failed you as a parent then.”
As I inhaled sharply—ready to release a foray of apologies and reassurances—I froze. I knew she hadn’t failed me. Mum was an incredible parent. She was wise, selfless and hard-working.
But in the few seconds I had allowed myself to process what was being said, my subliminal need to reassure her turned to anger. Anger because in that sentence my mum had suggested that I was also a failure.
But I wasn’t.
I hadn’t made the choices she and Dad had hoped I would. I wasn’t living the life they had dreamed for me. They only wanted what was best for me and I knew this, but the problem was that their idea of what was best didn’t align with mine. I was carving my own path, and that was okay. In fact, it was better than okay. It was exciting and formative and everything in between… everything except a failure.
A crack had formed in the perfect exterior I had spent years projecting. That was the first domino to fall in a series of realisations about my parents. For me, as a compulsive people pleaser with an I-must-make-my-parents-proud-at-all-costs complex, this moment was the first time I really met my parents—my very human parents. And it was all because I had allowed myself to be angry at them.
Part III: Knowing (and growing with) my parents
The turbulence of my twenties very quickly taught me that building and maintaining adult relationships is very often about forgiveness. The inherent flaws of humanity make forgiveness a very necessary skill to master (but one that should always be exercised with care, of course).
I made a lot of mistakes that Mum and Dad needed to forgive me for, but what I hadn’t realised until now was that I also needed to forgive them. And I did.
As it turns out, anger was a very necessary step in getting to really know my parents.
The thing about holding your parents up to a God-like standard is that you begin to expect God-like behaviour. When you have impossible expectations of people, life will catch up and when it does, you won’t know how to handle it. My parents are real, complex human beings and I needed to give them the grace to be just that… human. Our relationship is a work in progress, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.