Have I forgiven my parents?

Illustration: Dustin Klare

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I thought I'd forgiven my mom a long time ago for the volatility of my childhood, which I attributed to her own troubled early years and her bad marriage to my father. I'd grown to accept that my mother was like a cat: affectionate sometimes, at others aloof.

I told myself I was no longer clinging to resentments, and that the great conversations she and I had proved it—even as the two of us cycled through unnervingly fierce arguments about how to cook chicken or whether to wake my baby from a nap. But when I tried to talk about our fights (deploying that bastion of talk therapy, the "I statement"), she only withdrew or became angry, believing I was finding fault with her for no reason. We brought out the worst in each other, and each fight returned me to the loneliness I'd felt as a child.

So I started faking it, plain and simple. I was cheerful, helpful and lighthearted in her presence, and when we disagreed, I backed off. As disingenuous as this felt at first, it helped me see how much responsibility I myself bore for our arguments. (It takes two to tussle, after all.) I also realized how selfish I'd been—mired in a state of semidepressive longing, still focused on what I wasn't getting from her, even though I wasn't offering her much myself. I'd wanted my mother to accept and understand me, flaws and all, but I'd refused to do the same for her.

Forgiveness isn't what I thought it was. Forgiving your parents in your head is not enough. You have to forgive them with your heart, too. You have to see them as the fallible people they are. You have to empathize with their needs. Hell, you have to remember they have needs. By letting go of the fantasy that I could get everything I needed from my mother, I've woken up to how much she's already given me. Her generosity and sense of humor saw my siblings and me through many bad times when we were kids, and they're qualities I try to offer my own daughters.

Our parents will never be perfect. But at some point, you have to be pragmatic. You have to ask yourself what kind of relationship you want with them in the time you have left. My mother is 72 years old. Instead of finding fault with her for another decade, I want to celebrate her for the resilient, strong-minded woman she's always been.
Heather Havrilesky, author of a memoir, Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead)