How Well Do You Know Your Parents?

Posted On: 10.05.09

vintage letters

I couldn’t come up with a clever title for this one. And that kind of bothers me because I love clever titles. Oh well.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for quite some time and I won’t delay any longer. Fellow blogger Catherine at Her Bad Mother recently lost her father. The death was unexpected. A few weeks ago, Catherine wrote a haunting post called The Unbearable Lightness of Letters wherein she talks about the experience of going through her father’s effects and finding love letters from a woman with whom he had an affair. Catherine defends her decision to keep these letters, likening them to “sacred artifacts.”

In this particular post, Catherine justifies her decision to seize and hoard her father’s effects, to cling tight to “every clue, every testament, every little thing,” even though she admits this is hurtful for her mother who is still alive. And even though this decision might run contrary to conventional wisdom. Many of us, it seems, might choose ignorance over information when it comes to our parents. Catherine alludes to a friend of hers, who, upon discovering evidence of her late aunt’s past loves, felt compelled to destroy all such evidence in her own life. Catherine notes that she understands this common impulse to protect our loved ones, particularly our children, from “the full force of one’s history,” but she questions whether this impulse is “the right one.”

I’m not sure whether impulses can be right or wrong, but it’s an interesting question. As is the question of whether we can ever truly know our parents. Catherine bemoans the reality that our knowledge of others, particularly of our parents, is necessarily partial. We know our parents as, well, parents. From time to time, we are afforded glimpses of them as people, but these are just glimpses. She states, “I believe that it is an act of love, to seek to know someone as fully as one can. In part because I believe that he was extraordinary, and so that he should be known, and that I will be enriched by knowing him better. In part because I believe that in understanding him, I will come to a better understanding of myself. Because as well as I knew him, I only knew him partially, incompletely. I want to know him better.”

I haven’t given this enough thought, but I think I fall into the ignorance is bliss category. I would rather not know every detail about my parents’ lives before they met one another, or before they had me. I would rather my girls not know every detail about my life before meeting Husband or before welcoming them into this wily world. Then again, I remember, and vividly, a plane trip with Husband where I grilled him on all of his ex-girlfriends. He couldn’t understand why I needed to know the minutiae about relationships that predated ours, but I insisted that knowing these things meant knowing him.

I think there is perhaps an important distinction to make here. Maybe the concept of learning new things about someone after death when there is no longer an opportunity for questions and answers and understanding is different than seeking knowledge about someone while they are here to know?

Here I am left wondering if we can never truly know ourselves if we don’t know truly our parents? What is it to truly know someone? Is willed ignorance about our parents or our family of origin willed ignorance about ourselves? Would knowing more about our parents’ hopes and dreams and fears and regrets and passions and mistakes help us make better sense of our own?

I don’t know. I don’t know. But these things are certainly worth thinking about.


How well do you know your parents? Given the choice, would you prefer to be shrouded in ignorance or information?

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11 Comments for: "How Well Do You Know Your Parents?"
  1. Niki

    I look forward to reading comments on this topic. I am like you, I would prefer to be blissfully ignorant. However, I think we might want to be that way for different reasons. For me, it is because I come from a family that doesn’t share intimate details of our lives with each other and, quite frankly, I don’t think it’s any of my businses what has gone on in my parents lives that they haven’t chosen to share with me, and I argue that if I don’t know about it yet, at 29, they probably aren’t going to. I mean, I didn’t know how my parents met until I was 26, and then it was only because a friend of mine asked them because she thought it was entirely ridiculous that I didn’t know. I still don’t really understand why how my parents met should be important to me, but I know that to some it is important. So chalk me up to blissful ignorance.

  2. I think the biggest obstacle we need to overcome on the road to adulthood is taking ones parents off the pedestal and seeing them as real people, with real issues, and real failings. Until we are able to do that, we miss a huge part of our parents personalities. It’s hard to have an adult conversation with someone when you’re still in a child / parent relationship with them.

  3. i have a VERY close relationship with my parents. there is nothing they don’t know about me, nor is there anything i don’t know about them… past, present, etc.. it works for us. my husband on the other hand, while he is close with his parents, they are not communicators, and so when i ask my husband things about his family or background (this came up specifically when jackson was sick and we needed family medical history) there’s a lot that he doesn’t know. me on the other hand, i could tell ya anything you wanna know about my parents. i LOVE having such an open and honest relationship with them… but i’m overall and open and honest individual, and i think that has to do with A LOT of this relationship of our’s. i agree with jenn entirely though… “it’s hard to have an adult conversation with someone when you’re still in a child/parent relationship with them.”

  4. Gale

    I sincerely doubt that my parents have sordid secrets and skeletons hanging about. However, even if they did, I doubt I’d want to know about it. And I suppose the reason for that is that I don’t think anything worthwhile would come from that knowledge.

    I know who I am and I don’t think unearthing such information would change or influence my sense of self. Rather, it would only damage the good relationship we share now. I think it’s important to know that my parents had lives before I was born – that is, their lives didn’t start with my birth – but the details are theirs to keep.

    As for how well I know them – very well, I think. I know what they value, how they treat people, and how they interact with the world. And I don’t think romantic escapades or drunken debacles from 40 years ago change any of that.

  5. The more I get to know my mother, the more I dislike her. The more I get to know of my father the more I like him. It took them separating before either of them really even knew themselves. As odd as it may sound I like them better apart, they have both changed so much.

  6. Jen

    Have you read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson? Your post reminds me of the premise for her book. I haven’t read it. I can’t bring myself to (and not just because I loathed her first book). The idea of writing a letter to one’s child divulging all is uncomfortable to me. Selfish, maybe? Vain? Hurtful? I don’t know. I think there is a difference between stumbling upon information and seeking it out. But I need to think about this more. Hmm….

  7. D

    I know everything about my mom as we have an extremely close relationship. This enables me to see her as a complete person of many, many talents and attendant shortcomings (and the origins thereof). My mom, for example, wholly adores me, my husband and children, and would do (and indeed,does) anything for us. At the same time she is aware of how lucky we are to have such a relationship, she has an extremely negative world view. She comes by this view honestly as she has had a far tougher live than I ever will, but it can be difficult to be around. Still, because I know her whole story, I feel more comfortable calling her on her stuff when she goes overboard. I think knowing what I know enables me to have a great adult mother-daughter relationship with her. I still remember being in awe of her universal expertise in nearly everything she did when I was little (music, cooking, schoolwork, decorating, working etc). Yet I enjoy our relationship now, even seeing her full persona.

    With my dad it was a bit different. He passed away suddenly when I was 25 and was someone who put it all out there. Early on I knew that all his faults, which was hard when I was little and wanted a “perfect” daddy. Still I’m glad that in my early adulthood, I knew him as the unique person he was. From my father, I witnessed a person who should have done much more with his life but let his weaknesses slay him. If I hadn’t known his full story, I dare say I may not have made some of the choices I’ve made that has thus far lead me on a happier, more successful path. Knowledge of both of my parents has indeed been essential to my own personal development, so score one for information shrouding!

  8. Like almost all things in life, I think it depends. I absolutely love my parents and they did a ton of things right when I was growing up. But for the past few years, I’ve wished they would open up just a bit more and reveal that they *didn’t* always know the right decision to make and may have even made the same dumb decisions I have. Like a couple years back when I got in a minor car accident. 100% my fault (I was tailgating and fiddling with the radio) and a miracle no one else was involved or hurt. The look on my dad’s face when he saw the car made me feel even smaller and more horrible. And a tiny part of me wanted to ask, “Like you’ve never had a lapse like that?”

    The next day, I had to tell the story to a friend’s dad. His reaction: “So? I’ve done shit like that a few times.” It was weird the immediate relief I felt, like he was telling me, “okay, you’re not perfect and that’s fine. You learned something, deal with it and move on.”

    Granted, I’m pretty certain my parents have no particularly queasy skeletons to hide, which makes me more frustrated than nervous when I think about this. Taking your parents off their pedestal is a huge step in growing up, but they are still your parents and (in a perfect world) should be elevated just a bit.

  9. I’m very close w/both my parents, however, I’m sure they have things they prefer I don’t know about. And that’s fine with me. I’ve been completely forthcoming with them, but I think that’s a bit easier. After all, I’m their child. They’ve seen me make countless mistakes in my life. I like this topic. It’s interesting. Especially since tomorrow I leave to spend a week with my parents and sisters for my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary party. 50 years of marriage? Yup. I’m sure there are a few skeletons there somewhere!

  10. I find some truth in not truly knowing myself until I know my parents. I think there are things about their early years, early in their marriage, that might very well have something to do with how I was raised, how I grew up, how I became who I am; I find this to be logical.
    I am fascinated with my family’s history, even the stuff I am hurt to know. I already know that my mother didn’t marry the man she truly loved. Does it hurt? Yes. But at the same time, it doesn’t lessen my love for my father, OR MY MOTHER, and it helped me a lot when I was having marriage troubles.
    Also, I don’t think I want to burn my things. I have journal after journal-full of poetry, stories, quotes, drawings….all these things are ME, part of me, and they surely have some effect on how I raise my daughter, how I will raise any additional children. And once I’m gone, I want my children, or grandchildren, to do what they will with it. If they love it, keep it. If they read it and then want to burn it, go for it. I feel like it is MINE right now, but it will become part of their history later.
    Yet again, dear lady, you’ve got me thinking….

  11. This is a fascinating post and a terrific topic.

    I believe there is something between knowing every detail and the child’s-eye-view that most of us retain of our parents, well into adulthood.

    Both of my parents are deceased. My father, 22 years ago, my mother, almost 5. I never had access to any of my father’s things, which saddens me. He was a man I never felt I knew enough about, though I knew more of him in the last few years of his life. As for my mother, I was part of the process of going through her things, and I found some information which was surprising – some poignant, some devastating. As for details? There were many which I skipped over, nonetheless appreciating this deeper view into her life.

    There were also letters she’d rescued following the death of my grandmother some years before. Love letters, exchanged between my grandparents, during WWII. I never knew they existed. So much beauty in those letters. And that was yet another revelation – one that explains, perhaps, their very long marriage, and devotion to each other.

    As for what we leave to our children and their children? Our dreams and our flaws, and hopefully, they will be gentle with both.

    After all,

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