The humor site Cracked.com might seem like an unlikely source of wisdom, but this article by John Cheese, “4 Old Sayings About Family That Are (Sometimes) B.S.”, offers better advice about emotional boundaries and manipulation than many therapists and clergy provide. If I had a penny for every time a religious leader has enabled an abuser with the Fifth Commandment…I could do some serious damage with my piggy bank.
From the article:
Myth #4: “You Have to Help Him, He’s Your Father!” (or Mother, etc.)
Why We Say It:
You owe your parents everything. Without them, your entire existence would have been abbreviated to a latex reservoir tip swatting that shit out of the air like an NBA center. They put food on the table and a roof over your head, and by God, the least you can do is be there for them in return.
As adults, we expect the same from our own kids — a return on our investment. And that’s a perfectly logical, reasonable request, isn’t it? “I helped you, now you help me.” At some point, every parent does it, and we enforce that with one phrase that means two completely different things, depending on the recipient’s age: “I’m your father!”
As a child, it’s a demand. “You will mow the lawn because I’m your father, and you will damn well do what I tell you. Now you get out there before I clothe you with snakes!”
As an adult, that meaning loses its weight because they no longer make the rules. That’s when the phrase becomes a plea. “Can I borrow 20 bucks for some crack? Come on, man, I’m your father. You know how you made it to this age without dying? That was me who did that!”
When It’s Bullshit:
Right now, I have no fewer than two dozen messages in my inbox from readers asking me what to do in their seemingly unique situation. One or both of their parents are addicts, or habitual criminals, or general fuckups. The kids are taking care of themselves. They watch these grown-ass adults wrecking the entire family with stress about bills, borrowing money from anyone they can to keep the lights on while feeding hundreds of dollars per month into their vices. Every time the parents attempt to clean up their act, they fall right back into the same destructive cycle within weeks. The kids are essentially on their own. You know, normal family problems. We’ve all been there.
And here’s the thing — the whole “broken childhood” bit doesn’t end at childhood. There are people who will spend 40 consecutive years with this bullshit from their parents, knowing that their own kids won’t have the sitcom Grandma and Grandpa that’s always waiting with a hug and a turkey at Thanksgiving. These are the parents who are always borrowing, or begging, or making demands. They’re constantly needing to be bailed out like teenagers, or roping you into petty family disputes (“Your Uncle Steve has been talking shit about your mom again. Now be a good son and go slash his fucking tires”).
But … “I have to be there for them because they’re my parents, right?”
If you take nothing else from this article, please make it this: Childhood is not a bill that you have to pay for later. Parenting is not charity, or a loan — it is a requirement for those who took on the job, whether they meant to or not. When you become a parent yourself, you will be required to do it as well, without thanks or compensation. In fact, in the first year, you will often get shit on and stomped in the genitals.
Do you owe it to your own parents to be supportive? To try to help them break destructive habits? Of course. But not at the risk of your own health and emotional well being. For the first 20 years of your life, you are being trained to be a caregiver. At no point in that time should you be required to be one yourself. That’s not your job. Your job is to learn and grow.
Again, I’m not saying that if your mom is wheelchair-bound and needs help painting the house that you shove a finger in her face and say “I got my own problems, whore!” I’m talking about people who are outside your power to help unless you make it your full-time job. You can’t fix their addictions, or depression, or stupidity, or chronic need to constantly be in some kind of dramatic crisis. I think there’s a point where you’re allowed to let that shit go to voice mail.