Best Benefits

“Identify what were the best benefits you’ve gotten from your family.” The question was being asked as a team building exercise during a work related training session. Most offered predictable answers.

“I got a good work ethic from my father.”

“My parents were very supportive and helped me get through college.”

As I was waiting my turn, I began to wonder what I should say. I wanted to be truthful, yet not sugar coat it. I went for substance.

“Even though I’ve done things my family didn’t understand or approve of and I’ve disappointed them, they never made me feel I wasn’t part of the family.” How’s that for reframing, I giggled to myself.

Later, I thought about the personal stories behind my statement. Little did the group know just how difficult it had been to reap the “best benefits” my family had to offer. For example, when I was a junior in high school, my dad asked me what were my plans after graduation. I told him I wanted to go to college. My high school counselor had been especially supportive. Dad had other ideas.

“Well, Slim. Just so you know. You’re on your own. I’ve got the two boys I have to think about and I have to help them with school or whatever they want to do.” As we talked further, I restated my wishes. Dad seemed driven to convince me otherwise.

“College is waste for girls,” he barked. “You’re just going to get married and have children anyway. I can’t help you, just so you know that.”

I did go to college. As I was making decisions and plotting the pathway of my life, mother was quiet, while Dad made his thoughts and feelings crystal clear. When it came time to pack and leave, I think my parents were in shock.

We’d had some heated conversations up to the day of departure and as I packed the car, Dad was clearly upset. He drove me from our home in Fond du Lac to the UW-Oshkosh campus, all the while not speaking. Once we got to the place I’d rented with another girl, he helped carry everything up the stairs to the tiny second floor attic apartment. Then we stood on the back porch to say good-bye. It was his last chance to save me.

“I just want you to know, I think this is crazy,“ he began. “You’re making a big mistake. Come on. Why don’t you just go get your things, we’ll put them back in the car and I’ll take you home.” I shrugged, turned and went into the house, slamming the door. He drove off in a huff. So much for the heartfelt tears, hugs and good-byes between parents and children I’d seen on TV.

It took me six years to get my bachelor’s degree because I worked throughout. Waitressing. Clerking. Student work/study. Sometimes two jobs at a time. When I went home on occasional visits my parents never asked about what I was doing or how I was doing. Mom made sure I had care packages to take back but there was no further discussion of the real issues.

Then I chose social work as a profession. Oh my. They let me know how they felt in both direct and subtle ways. My father was a police officer and he and I had very different views of people. I knew instinctively what it meant when he rolled his eyes and shook his head. Mother asked me how I could work with “those people.”

During college, I began searching my soul and making some unconventional decisions about my beliefs or non-beliefs. That discussion was especially difficult for my hat wearing, Lent observing, confession and communion receiving Mom.

Most people with traditional beliefs assume these decisions are an over-reaction to experiences of youth or are made without much information or thought. Mother had a hard time accepting that such questions had occupied much of my time; it’s only after years of thinking, talking, studying and reading that I’ve been able to find comfort in my decisions. Still, she assures me she prays daily for the salvation of my soul.

Next I married a man they didn’t approve of. Then I divorced him. Two more disappointments. While mother, the traditional Catholic was ashamed of the divorce (the first in our extended family), she was relieved I’d gotten rid of that awful man.

Having children was never interesting to me. Mother says fourteen year old me announced one day, I never wanted to have kids. I’d helped her raise my three youngest siblings and that was enough for me! Still, for years, I endured queries about children and that pressure was finally relieved when my siblings made Mom and Dad proud grandparents ten times.

So I’m their divorced (twice divorced actually), college graduated, childless, atheist (with a little Buddhism thrown in), social worker daughter. All in all, I’m not what they’d hoped for. While I was younger, this was hard since I always felt I was doing something wrong. But later, I took them off the parent-knows-all pedestal and realized they were flawed human beings struggling through life just like everyone else, including me.

What I learned from them and their judgments is to make up my own mind, to live my life and be the kind of person I want to be. I am sure I benefited from having to do things on my own; I know I appreciated my education because I worked so hard for it. When I finally finished my master’s degree (which I paid for myself), I really wanted my parents to see me graduate. I knew my request had to be direct and made in a way they’d understand. I prepared a script and made the call.

“I know I’m not doing something really important in your eyes,” I said in a casual, non-judging way. “But this is as important to me as having children is to you. So, I’d really like you to come to my graduation.” And they came.

That day my father said he was proud of me. The first and only time. And that was nice, I thought. But, wouldn’t it have been better if that had happened when I was a young girl or teenager, back when I really needed it.

I look back and see that they cared and were worried about me. I also see they had their own way of expressing their thoughts and feelings. While I disappointed them in many ways, I’ve always felt like a full-fledged member of the family and that’s good enough for me.


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