I saw a lovely post on Instagram by one of my favourite bloggers about her relationship with her mother. In spite of very real failings and difficulties, she acknowledged that she is loved. She also said that she knew her mother had a very difficult life; and that Millennials and Gen Zers have a reputation for being ungrateful. The night before I had yet again, been processing my own difficulties re my son. I had begun to feel an acceptance that things will never change, that he won’t ever realise the effect his words have on me, or move towards a more balanced understanding that acknowledges the present and the past, the parent’s experience as well as the child’s. So that Instagram post really hit the spot. At the time I just dropped a few hearts in the comments; this is my longer response:
I love and respect the unique challenges and skills which each generation typically has, the Silent Generation, The Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials (Gen Y), and Gen Z. I enjoy reading about the characteristics, differences and culture wars between e.g. Millennials and Gen Z- side partings and skinny jeans beloved by Millennials and hated by Gen Z, Millennials fighting back when Gen Zers tried to cancel Eminem. I am Gen X, my husband is (just) a Baby Boomer, my son is a Millennial, my step son is an old Gen Z or a young Millennial and my step daughter is Gen Z.
I recognise the pain of the Gen X and Baby Boomer parents who are accused by their kids of being bad parents responsible for all their kids’ problems and who respond by calling them ungrateful. But I don’t think it’s helpful to fight across the generations, and I hope that in time there’ll be more of a discussion. (Please note I am not talking about wilful abuse and neglect of children here, I’m talking about loving parents who did their best with the knowledge and resources they had at the time) I spend a lot of time on Instagram and there’s two memes I see regularly:
1. ‘My parents when I try to tell them that my mental illness may have been caused by my childhood,’ (hand pushing away, not listening) This hurts my feelings because the meme maker/main character has no thought at all to the effect of their words on the parent. As I have experienced, there is no deeper pain than being blamed for your child’s problems. Maybe that pain was intended and revenge was justified in this case, but once it’s made and circulated then it potentially loses its specificity and specific target. Parents put their hands up in ‘stop’ because they aren’t strong enough to bear it. Do we all ultimately want to punish our parents into the same devastating pit of despair which we ourselves feel and blame them for? Maybe. But ultimately holding onto blame, pain and anger tends to prevent healing and growth.
2. ‘You don’t remember? Oh right, my childhood abuse was to you just a f***ing Tuesday!’
The second meme bothers me for different reasons. A very close friend of mine was repeatedly raped by a family friend from the age of seven. Her abuser knew what he was doing and would never have forgotten. So we can’t be talking about abuse like that, we’re talking about other things, things parents do that they may or may not know are harming their child.
I have an example of this. John’s ex, P, the mother of his children, invited her mother round to stay. During this time P confronted her about things her father had done when she was a child- he had locked her in a trunk (a blanket box or ottoman, not the boot of a car, for non UK readers) he had made out it was a game, but it wasn’t a game to P. P confronted her mother, herself a victim of what might be called coercive control today, emotional and physical abuse by the father/her husband, an angry, controlling man, about why she had stood by. More than twenty years later, John still remembers sound of the mother howling like an animal from upstairs. He didn’t but he said he wanted to wrap his arms around her; the mother’s howls years of suppressed guilt, or the sudden realisation of an unbearable truth.
I love memes. I’m fascinated by them. I love the way that, like graphic novels, the image and the words together become something so much more that strikes right into the heart in a super fast and very direct way, as well as being extremely specific (the man who forgot to add cow’s milk into Oreos being praised by vegans is a favourite of mine)
I think the reason that I, and other parents of Millennials and Gen Zers get upset by things like this is two fold. One, we didn’t have any memes. We had no social media. We didn’t have a powerful way to share our experience across the generations and the world. No one heard us. No one listened to us. No one asked us. We were left outside pubs or to sleep in cars when our parents went for a drink or to parties. Parents moved house or made big decisions and wouldn’t have dreamt of asking our opinion. My mum had a whole procession of male lodgers who she allowed to take me and my sister for drives or babysit us.
John’s mum was a lot more savvy re sexual predators, but took him across the English Channel in a small boat with no life jacket in a storm, on the whim of her tax evading boyfriend. To this day she is devastated, and if it’s brought up now she will be moved to tears, ‘I can’t believe I put you in danger.’ But mostly she won’t speak about it. The Silent Generation. Her own mother, she believes, died because her husband refused to buy her a washing machine, literally worked to death. My grandmother told me about wash day and boiling water in the copper, hands red raw.
The second reason that my generation gets triggered by these memes is, we tried. We read books, we were self aware, or thought we were. We knew we wanted to do it differently. Just like my mum when she raised me in a more liberal, hippy way than she had been raised.
My mother never mentions the lodgers, but I know she feels bad about the fact that we spent our childhood thinking we were going to be vaporised or die of radiation sickness, we lived in East Anglia, near the American Airbases with their nuclear Cruise missiles, and we were enlightened about the nuclear threat and very involved in CND. I never minded about that, but I suppose it’s the same as environmentally aware parents today (e.g. the guy from Extinction Rebellion saying six billion are going to die)
But the trauma and the mistakes and the love flows back and forth across the generations. Perhaps the only way forward is to accept it all and keep on living, in the present and in the future.