Who Says Our Dysfunctional Parents Did They Best They Could?

I expected to be writing a mega-post about PTSD, but today I need to rant on about a well-meaning phrase (in truth, I hope this is much more than a rant—I hope there’s something insightful and helpful by the end).  You all know this phrase.  It makes me want to scream whenever I hear it, these days at least:  They did the best they could.

I just asked my spouse what he thought of the term, what it really means, and he said, “That someone failed, but not for the lack of trying.” (Trying, sure. But, their “best”?!)

To me the phrase suggests, “They didn’t mean to hurt you—not on purpose.”

I’m sure that when I first heard that phrase, I felt relief as a result.  There was comfort in it, in some odd, twisted way. I bet that I heard ‘their best’ at my first therapist’s office, when I was in my second year of college.  I suspect that, back then, I felt relief because I’d understood the phrase to mean, “You’re not as bad off as you feel like you are” or “Your parents loved you even when they made mistakes,” or just to mean very simply, “There’s hope for you.”

But isn’t the phrase too trite for its own good?  To my mind, ‘their best’ lacks significant meaning because it’s over-used, misused, and all its original power has drained out.  And, isn’t the phrase just a bit too rhetorical?  (Rhetorical questions and children of dysfunctional parents don’t mix well.)  I mean, I don’t exactly feel invited to disagree when someone uses that phrase, even if inside my mind I’m thinking, “Their ‘best”? How could I ever know if they did?”

It’s entirely likely that the phrase wasn’t intended for people who had terrible childhoods and dysfunctional parents.  Certainly I wouldn’t expect a child of incest to acknowledge that their parents did the best they could!  Which makes one wonder—where do we draw the line?  How less-than-terrible does my childhood have to be in order for me to willingly agree that my parents did the best they could?  Little-to-no physical abuse?  Infrequent verbal manipulation?  That they belittled me, but paid for my school photos? And what do I gain, in terms of my healing process, by giving my parents the benefit of the doubt in understanding that they did the best they could?

You all know that I took issue with the label adult children of alcoholics because it defines me in terms of someone else (the alcoholic), and after an entire childhood spent focused on everyone but me (here’s that post), I don’t want to continue living beneath their umbrella. I want to be defined in terms of what and who I am, not another person’s limitations or illness.

Back to this other-focused phrase:  They did the best they could (note underlines).  The focus is, twice in one phrase, placed on them. Where am I in the concept of they did the best they could?  Um?!  Nowhere.  Thanks for nothing, you rhetorical phrase!  (I also feel the word “best” is awfully generous.  Their “best,” really?  Based on what I know of my own personal best and the effort involved in parenting, I totally disagree.)  Essentially, the phrase is a closed-looped system that circles around “best.”  I reject that. Completely.

Why not say the truth?  They didn’t do their best!  I got the shaft!

This is the place to which I’ve come in my personhood work:  I want the truth.  It seems like I’m ripping away denial and lies and justifications like wallpaper (that is, it doesn’t rip off easily and it requires steam and scraping away at it, muscle, sweat…tears).  And yet, I want the pure wall beneath.  Show me Panavision color, please dear Universe.  Thinking that they did their best was some kind of comfort, way back when—back when I couldn’t handle the truth of admitting that my parents had mishandled me completely.  Now, however, I can handle—and need—the plain truth.  Because I’ve gotten to a place where my excuse-making for my parents isn’t at all working for me. It’s preventing me from moving forward to the next ring up in the circle of my healing and freedom.

The truth isn’t that my parents did the best they could.  The truth is that my parents were selfish, childish, and prioritized addictions and chaos to parenting me with effort and thought. I was badly served by my parents.

[On 8/10/2012 I post about when pigs fly a.k.a., the day on which my stepmother uses the phrase but adds, "...and it wasn't good enough."]

My parents didn’t do their best.

I had selfish parents.

I had addict parents.

And I got the really, really, really short end of the stick.

That hurts to see, to say, to admit.  It’s hard to know that reality.  It cuts deep.  But that truth also has a clean feeling to it because none of that was my doing, none of it was my fault.

So—now what?

The next step is understand this:  My life is mine to do with it all that I can, without justification—and there is no one to whom I owe concealment.

It’s for me to run off, run wildly—in full, silly glee—out into the fields under the sky and to feel safe in my skin and to explore this world, not hide from it.

We—you, me, all of us—deserve to take in simple joys and there’s nothing we ought to say about what we’re doing while squatting down and inspecting a rogue caterpillar on a rock, other than, “I’m looking at a caterpillar.”

That is all.  I’m taking in life.  I’m here in this moment.  I’ll be with you in a minute.

Shhhh.

 

 

Comments

  1. I found this post very arresting. It literally halted my thoughts for a nano-second.
    I can intellectualize all of what you said, of the cleanliness of truth, that the damage of our respective parents was so great and complete, and that I bear no fault, but inside, at my core, I struggle with the nexus of that truth. Somewhere, somehow, I’m so wounded by the abuse and malignant neglect on all axis that my emotional mind seeks without fail to find reason in in the unreasonable. And it that search for truth, like so many of us, my inner monologue has decided that I must have deserved some part of this.
    I soldier on.
    Thanks for this,
    Punch

    • delia says:

      did you figure out that it wasn’t your fault yet. you didn’t do anything to deserve it. I realize I don’t know you but this is what I keep trying to tell myself. I want to really finally understand that the excuses that they made for their behavior no longer hold water. I don’t know why my parents sucked so bad. Did you ever find a reasonable explanation other than they weren’t in touch with was meaningful in life and/or has brain abnormalties. This was the cause for me. They were both suffering me with both maladies. I think you can still get good fruit from a bad tree though. I want to be a good apple.

  2. Excellent. I so appreciate your view. As the French say, “Les grands esprits se rencontrent.” (Great minds think alike). I share your view as well. Knowing the truth about your identity v. the persona given to you by others and your experiences/trauma is the narrow road to recovery and restoration. Bravo and blessings to you as your sojourn.

  3. amy eden says:

    Punch, yeah, it’s a real, real painful popping of the balloon.
    Your comment about your inner monologue deciding that you must somehow deserve some part is so insightful. And it leads me to think again about the ‘they did their best’ phrase and see that there’s some shaming in it, in addition to it being rhetorical and all the rest, as if the phrase implies, “They did their best, so you cannot blame them for your hurt,” on some level.
    I found that I couldn’t write “you” for this post, I felt I had to put it all in terms of where I’m at, me, because this is tough stuff. And it’s taken me a long time to come to it, years. And even now I’m at the edge of the lake in this awareness of the senseless but oh-so-real damage done by my parents.
    Thanks for the comment!
    amy

  4. amy eden says:

    Another thought – one reason why I have been so resistant to face the question here, my parents disregard for me, is because I have spent my entire life defending my father in my mind — no, in my heart — and because I so deeply fear abandonment, that I have resisted thinking the truth. That’s all an imagined thing, of course (the abandonment). (But, oh! The power of the imagination!) Also, I have to ask myself this question: If I realize, truly realize on a deep level, that my life is mine and that what happened to me isn’t something I’ll ever make sense of…then, well, aren’t I then forced to face my life and take responsibility for it, charge of it? How scary is that?! (But wonderful, too, in the end.)

  5. Erin Martin says:

    I’ve actually said this to both my parents (not recently!), to make them feel better about the crappy, unsafe childhood that they gave me. ARGH.
    I don’t have any wise words or reassuring thoughts to share right this moment. Just frustration…

  6. I think it’s important to remember that “best” is a relative term — “best” does not exist except by comparison to something else, specifically, something that is *lacking* by comparison. There is no one, singular standard for what constitutes an person’s “best,” and one’s “best” can change from day to day depending on a variety of factors that are not always within a person’s ability to control (for example, illness or lack of sleep can strongly & negatively affect my ability to do and be my best).
    While I find no comfort in the phrase, “they did their best,” the phrase can still hold truth. One’s “best” might be wholly inadequate for the situation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not that person’s “best.” (Unlike one’s best, one’s adequacy to perform a given task *is* rated against a singular standard — performance of the task is either adequate or it’s not.)
    It is unfortunate that the phrase is often used to sugar-coat a bad situation. Perhaps it would be better, or would make the truth of the phrase more obvious, if the expression were expanded to recognize the given situation more fully, such as “they did their best, but their best was inadequate for my needs.” For me, that is an easier jumping-off point to move forward in providing for myself and meeting my own needs. And in moving forward, I experience growth.

    • Lia says:

      While I agree that “best” is indeed a relative term, saying “the best was inadequate for my needs” seems to let extraordinarily crummy parents off the hook. It implies that a child’s needs are somehow out of line when maybe they are only asking for their basic needs to be met. It’s one thing to say, “My parents did the best they could to provide for me financially, but they couldn’t send me to college and that was inadequate for my needs.” It’s another thing entirely to say for example, “I was routinely abused and neglected by my alcoholic parents. They did the best they could to provide for me, but it was inadequate for my needs.” Wouldn’t such a life be inadequate for any child’s needs?

      The baseline for raising children should include emotional and physical safety, food, shelter, clothing, and K-12 education. Great parents go out of their way to do more, even when they don’t have a lot of resources. Every parent has days when they are tired, cranky, or when they are performing at less than their best. And many parents have circumstances that are beyond their control, such as losing a job and not being able to put food on the table. But if a child’s needs are generally, collectively provided, the child should grow up to be happy and well adjusted. The trouble is comes in when parents are unable to meet even the bare minimum. Sure, they might be doing their best in their own minds, but these are warped guidelines they’ve created about what it means to be a good parent. Guidelines they’ve likely modified over the years so they can feel a lot less guilty about their parenting.

      It is far more empowering to the child if we don’t try to make excuses for bad parents. And actually, the bad parent will be far better off by not deluding themselves. If the parents truly “own” it, some measure of peace may be had by everyone involved.

      • Amy Eden says:

        Thanks Lia. This is great.

        It sounds like the word “inadequate” is inadequate in terms of a discussion about abusive parenting, in your opinion. If I’ve got that right, I would agree. Totally.

        When I wrote this post, I was thinking mostly of my personal experience, which did not include the routine abuse and neglect that you refer to. (I would like to think that for someone who grew up with routine abuse there is no question that their upbringing was not just “inadequate” but absolutely harmful, and also understand that their parents DID NOT do their best; that is, no good therapist would attempt to say to them, “They did their best,” nor would one’s sibling say, “Well they did their best,” etc. I’d like to think that there would be agreement about the parenting as being very damaging (i.e., way beyond just inadequate) in that case. So perhaps “damaging” is a good word to substitute for “inadequate” in some of these instances.

        In terms of a baseline for raising children, I would add to your list, which includes emotional safety: consistency and nurturing. (Although I wouldn’t agree that “great” parenting is the next step up by doing more than just these basics.) Without consistency and nurturing, any amount of food and shelter can’t make up for emotional terror that could still be occurring in “seemingly normal” households where dinner is served, shelter provided, etc. Actually along these lines, I wrote about PTSD and children who don’t get the basics that you described (and definitely not the consistency and nurturing) and there is a strong case for PTSD resulting from neglectful childhoods. (It’s not yet listed in the DSM or an “official” subset of PTSD…but it’s on its way to being included.)

        That nurturing/neglect and PTSD piece I wrote is here (based on an interview with a trauma specialist): http://guesswhatnormalis.com/2011/05/can-adult-children-of-alcoholics-suffer-from-ptsd/

        I picked “inadequate” at the time because it’s a less loaded word. It can’t be argued with, like “damaging” probably can. But as you’re pointing out, it depends on the situation, and its severity.

        Such great food for thought here from you. Thank you!

  7. I know, that I cannot shove a dvd into a VHS player and expect to be able to watch the movie on the DVD, but can i say the VHS did the best it could? I don’t really know.
    My dad and I have no relationship. It got worse when he divorced my mom to marry her best friend of 30 years. It blew the lid off on my repressed rage at him for not trying to know me.
    He is a simple farmer/blue collar man who doesn’t really question the big meanings of life. He was a great provider. I did not know the power could be cut off if you didn’t pay the bill, we had too much to eat and I always had a car to drive. The money stuff was taken care of.
    I’ll even give him some credit that after discovering his little boy was from another planet compared to the only world he knew of, he still provided. He didn’t however bother to figure out some way to bridge the gap. Neither of my parents really saw me. They didn’t see that I was so terrified that I couldn’t sleep at night or that I had created a double life of trying to be what they wanted and in secret stolen moments was able to be myself.
    I have a hard time saying I DID the best I could do with what I had. Maybe when I find an acceptable amount of self forgiveness I can believe they too did their best. For now, it is lip service and willingness on my part. The willingness to do will provide the ability to do.
    The kicker is, had I not been raised in terror (afraid of everything and everyone) and if I had not been so lonely and sad, I wouldn’t have my very VERY real capacity to love others who are affected with fear, sadness and loneliness. My greast life long pain actually has given me my greatest strength or “super power”, which is compassion, tolerance and patience.
    If I don’t know how to do something or approach something I start digging and researching for solution.
    My parents didn’t do that. They just accepted their short comings and hoped. They hoped they had done enough to make a successful adult, sadly they didn’t. I’ve earned my place here all on my own, but I am better for the lack of comfort I got as a kid.
    If I hold on to resentments it is like “me drinking poison expecting them to die”. I let go of it 20 times a day sometimes and I believe that one day, forgiveness with stick.

  8. amy eden says:

    I’m excited about all these thoughts!
    Clinton, are you saying you’re a better parent than you might have been because you had a dysfunctional upbringing? That’s a silver lining indeed. There’s also some acceptance, implicit, in that assertion :-) Nice.
    The ‘drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die’ comment is SO apt (it’s a saying of Malachy McCourt’s about resentment). It’s interesting to compare the two sayings….there are similarities between the ‘they did the best they could’ idea and the resentment/poison idea. Both speak to emotional dynamics that don’t serve us well, not at all. And both are very hard to let go of. I started to feel a much greater freedom and ownership of my own life when I disengaged from resentment (because it shifted my focus from them back to me) and when I can say that my parents were selfish addicts who didn’t place much value on my needs as a child, it’s…fair and it somehow works to pull my focus from them back onto me–probably because it isn’t making any excuses or allowances. It’s just saying it like it is. I feel like ‘they did their best’ is a value judgment (like one commenter said, it’s a relative term, that requires comparisons to things)–it’s really hard to ever agree what’s “best” or not because the scale is a moving entity. But to say that I wasn’t well-served by them is, for me, an opportunity to accurately evaluate the situation. To say they were addicts is accurate. To say that they prioritized their addictions is also accurate. Somehow it means that I can move on.
    It’s like the difference between, “That fire wasn’t your fault,” and “The house burned down.” One suggest connection between the fire and me, but is just plain and simple, accurate.
    But, right — it’s not a one-time realization. It requires a lot of lather. rinse. repeat. repeat. repeat, for best results. Results being healing.

  9. Alissa Rusk says:

    This post really spoke to me…in fact I was outraged, because no, I DON’T THINK MY PARENTS DID THE BEST THEY COULD…unfortunately life has a way of kicking your ass when you get high and mighty…I am a mother of a teenage girl whom I haven’t been getting along with for 2 years now, we had the mother of all fights last night and things were said and done that very definitely shouldn’t have been. Afterwards I thought about this post and had to ask myself- AM I DOING THE BEST I CAN PARENTING? And my answer would have to be NO, I am not. I have been in recovery for years, have worked the steps more than once, am concious of my patterns and I STILL am powerless over them. I could do better I think, so now I am second guessing my anger at my parents for their harms….And wondering just how much I am screwing up my daughters life while I am at it.

  10. I have had the same issues as you with regard to “they did the best they could” something about it leaves me feeling secondary and cheated.
    I have found that the phrase that I use most is “My parents had good intentions.”
    As we all know, “intent” is very different from actuality. They failed miserably at their ability to raise me. I, through a great deal of therapy, have had to raise myself, validate myself, teach myself self-love and healthy coping skills.
    But, over time, I have come to realize and accept that their intentions were good. They didn’t start out saying “lets have kids and screw them up.” They were selfish and immature and were not capable of being good parents… but in their own sick and twisted minds, they were trying to be good parents. So the intent was there, even if the execution was lacking.
    For some reason, I feel a difference in these two phrases, it makes sense to me. It allows me to relase some anger and express a sense of forgiveness without giving undue credit.
    I hope that one day you too will find the phrase that fits you best. Good luck!

  11. amy eden says:

    Alissa thanks for being so honest. That is really very cool of you.
    Do you think there might be one small but impactful thing that you could do, or change, that might have a positive impact on being able to feel like a more effective parent? (Reading about teenagers, taking more time to yourself, a new therapist…?)
    I’m sorry that you’re frustrated. This stuff is HARD!
    For me, one aspect of my childhood that creeped me out the most was the missing piece of Talking About things after a fight or flare up or whatever. It was that we all ‘pretended’ that what had happened hadn’t. Do you feel like you have the space and wherewithall to approach things from that place, a kind of postmortem with your daughter? Not that she’ll hear you, of cousre! Not for, like, another ten or so years :-) But you can say your bit, for your own clearing up of things, and to set the example for her that people do lose their cool, but that they can reflect on it and say what happened (and that doesn’t mean taking back everything that you said, just saying, admitting, that composure was lost).
    Anyway, I’m sorry if this sounds advice-y, I just wanted to throw out some questions that came to mind when I read your comment over again.
    You reminded me that I’m really wanting to write some posts on parenting…although I’m not sure how much I’ll have to offer as the parent of just a two year old (I haven’t lived through those challenging teen years as you are…)
    Thanks for putting this out there!

  12. Alissa Rusk says:

    Thanks for the “advice” Amy, I appreciate it :) . It’s funny because your suggestion of talking about things afterwards is the only thing that makes me feel like I am a somewhat decent parent. I do actually talk with my daughter, admit my wrongs and apologize when I have done wrong. We had a 2 hour discussion last night about the latest fight. I also try to let her know why I act/react the way I do and what may trigger me (she is aware that I am “in recovery” and knows a little bit about my childhood, but is so far removed from that sort of childhood I don’t think she can really understand the whole concept). I actually think that I clean up the messes pretty good…I just wish that I could, in the midst of a mess, stop myself and figure how to be “my best parent”, instead of always having to clean up afterwards (and harbour guilt and regret). Your are right, this stuff is HARD, but thanks to little things like your blog, there is hope that things may get easier. So thank you, I enjoy very much reading your posts. :) Keep them coming ;)

  13. amy eden says:

    That’s pretty terrific that you can talk about it afterwards and admit where you felt you were out of line – that’s not easy! At least you can do that. You’ll figure out a way to stop and chill in the midst of it, somehow…not perfectly, but you will. It’ll be a decade before I have a teenager on my hands, and I cannot EVEN imagine what that will bring…what kinds of tests lie ahead. I admitted to a friend recently that while I haven’t lost my cool yet with my child (and my 2 year old is starting to really embody the hallmarks of a 2 year old (as he should and as is necessary for his development))…I admitted that I’ve noticed inside myself a kind of internalized fear that my family history (if it were a being, a mean-hearted being) is waiting in the wings, waiting for me to lose my composure and do something I’ll regret, something that’s “bad parenting,” or worse–sounding like my FATHER. I don’t know if that will happen, or not. But while you may relate to that fear, it sounds like you’ve done work to make a difference in your daughter’s life such that she won’t live with that same fear. Because as you say, she has had a different childhood from you. That’s huge. Sometimes I think we hold ourselves to an expectation of “100% not repeating our childhoods” and maybe we expect too much–because we SO want to break the chain. There’s ideal, then there’s real. That you’re in recovery counts towards breaking the chain and family inheritance, as does discussing fights later, as does taking care of yourself, nurturing your daughter’s separate sense of self, and all the rest you’ve done in your life – and will do!

  14. Jo Pavlov says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more on this one. I’ve always hated that phrase and I believe most people can do A LOT better than they think. Thanks again for your awesome blog.

  15. Kira says:

    Love this post. That blasted excuse…the “best they could” has infuriated me more times than I can count.
    On the other hand, I have come to realize those that often utter the phrase…they simply cannot relate to a childhood like mine. Its too painful and uncomfortable for them. When I recognize that, it helps me manage my reaction. And I wouldn’t wish my experience on anyone.
    Sigh :) I’m older now, and the last few weeks I have been teaching myself to do a handstand. Don’t tell anyone;) but I’m sporting fresh bruises and having so much silly fun. Friends are laughing at my antics, we all laugh but the truth…I’m a 40+ woman who was not allowed to play as a child. Literally. I never threw a ball, rode a bike….its ridiculous in a way, but I give myself the liberty today, I’m right there checking out that pretty little caterpillar! And these days, I have a beautiful red bike :-)
    Life may not be fair, but I’m still here, so its also not too late for a second childhood.
    Thank you for posting, I’m off to my antics, I hope you are as well, Cheers, Kira

    • Shelley Ashfield says:

      I am so glad that you are teaching yourself to do a handstand. I thought I was the only one doing this kind of thing…taking myself to a roller rink at 30 until I could claw myself around the perimeter…taking a dance class for the first time at the age of 38…being part of a winning dance team in my 40′s, and dancing for the next 12 years. One thing that happens when you learn these things later is you do not take it for granted, and you really think things through as to how to do them, what to tense, what to relax, what needs strengthening, how to find the balance point…all those things that make you a GREAT GREAT GREAT teacher, should you so choose.

  16. amy eden says:

    Kira, a red bike? I love it! I hope you have a bell too. :-) You’ve inspired me to try handstands…
    So glad the post resonated.
    You’re right – people who haven’t had a traumatic childhood or dysfunctional parents really can’t get it, and are uncomfortable with painful childhood stories; they may hope that pointing out a rainbow in the sky will do the trick. “See that? All better now.”
    Tee hee.

  17. Ruby Tuesday says:

    I have an absent father and a NPD, alcoholic mother. I hate the phrase they did the best they could. I agree it is trite. I also took some comfort from this when I was younger. I used it to excuse their lack of parenting and bad decisions. If I thought they just couldn’t do any better, then their mistreatment didn’t hurt so much.
    I have three children and I am doing my best. Doing my best has meant some very challenging moments.
    I went to therapy before having kids to get some of the fundamental tools for living that I had not been given by my parents.
    I learned everything I could on attached parenting and other modes so that I could develop the ability to give my children the love, care and emotional support that I never had.
    When I have parenting moments that make me cringe, or make me think I am like her, I do the repair work of talking to my kids, I assess how I might have handled it better without shaming myself and I try to put things into play so I will recognize what went wrong and avoid it the next time.
    When my relationship with my mother was making me feel unstable, distracted and angry, I spent the money and the time on weekly therapy and reading everything I could get my hands on to make sure that I was present for my kids. I did not medicate my feelings even though I really wanted to and I worked through(still working) on taking care of myself and setting boundaries with my mother.
    I don’t do everything right and I know that my children will have their own hurts. But if and when they come to me and need me to acknowledge them, I will say:
    First, What do you need from me? What can I do?
    Then, I did the best I could with the tools I had and I actively went to acquire the ones I didn’t. I had some successes, some failures. I went through some very difficult times with my parents and I am so sorry that I wasn’t always there for you, or I was anxious, distracted, demanding…I never looked at any of the three of you and thought, good enough. I saw the most important reasons to do better and I worked at it everyday.
    I will probably change my mind on this about a hundred times as I learn more but even this is a million miles away from how my parents did it.

  18. david says:

    Alissa, Thank you for initiating this blog. I think you are 100% 0n target. “They did their best” is some psychologist’s way of making all of the parties feel better and sleep well at night. I think it’s a bunch of BS!! I’m going to turn 50 next year and have been suffering my entire life, due to both of my parent’s NPDs. I was able to raise 2 exceptionaly well-adjusted kids (now 19 and 16), simply by understanding what I didn’t get from my parents, and making sure that my kids DID get those things from me. My parenting prescription was, and still is, very simple: make sure your kids know that you love them and make them feel secure and loved unconditionally (but, with reasonable expectations at the same time–no free pass just because I was raised by dysfunctional parents. Why didn’t my parents break the chain (if they were also raised by dysfunctional parents–if, in fact, this unfortunate event has been passed down from previous generation(s)? I attribute my parent’s actions. to laziness, lack of self discipline, lack of caring, selfishness or the like. At least my children haven’t had to suffer, and in all likelihood their children will escape this plight as well. Maybe, this has been my purpose in life (to date). Now….I will continue to march forward, and make every effort to reach my full potential!!!

  19. JennyG says:

    Thanks so much for this post, it’s really insightful and helpful to those of us who have had to come to terms with a less-than-ideal childhood. As many other commenters here I have struggled to make sense of my dysfunctional parent (still working on that to some extent, to tell the truth). Because I needed a reason that would explain away all the painful memories, I went through a phase where I told myself that my dad could not have done better. It felt like without a reason, the suffering was senseless, or maybe even *my* fault somehow.

    As Amy so aptly described, I chose that explanation because it was a less painful answer than admitting that my parent choose not to put the care and effort into parenting that he should have, that he *could* have.

    My dysfunctional parent is a rare case I think, in that he came to realize the error of his ways and has made drastic changes in his life, including deep apologies for the way he treated us a children! This is a blessing that many dream of, but it’s also a deep challenge. I cannot write him off as an abuser who will never change. I have to make peace, and it’s hard because those childhood wounds heal slowly.

    I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my dad where he was expressing his regret and apologies for how he’d treated me as a child. It was quite intense and painful, and I struggled to neatly tie it up. I said, “Dad, you must have been wounded somehow, you must have just not been able to do any better because of something you were going through back then.” His answer hurt and disturbed me, though until I read this blog I am not sure I could have articulated exactly why. He said, “No, I would like to say that, but the truth is that I was just selfish. I could have done better and I didn’t. I will always regret that and feel sad about it.” OMG! I wanted to cry, I had wanted to badly for him to tell me that he did his best. And Amy is right: I wanted that because it hurt so much less if it wasn’t his choice to treat me that way.

    Thanks for the food for thought. Also love all of the comments here!

  20. G. Nelson says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself! Bravo! Thank you for putting into words what I have wanted to scream for so long! I get it if your parents were stuck in some horrible warn torn situation that was beyond their control and life sucked. However, your parents and it seems like a lot of other people’s parents were just selfish assholes who only thought of themselves and what they wanted at that moment. I am pregnant and not even an actual parent yet and I already am thinking of what kind of impact I am going to have on my child, I can’t imagine treating her or him like they are a burden or a pain in the ass that I have to escape. It blows me aways as I approach parenthood that anyone could treat their own children like this. You got shafted and so did I, but despite it we are doing alright which is more than I can say for a lot of people in this world.

    Thank you again for your words!

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thank YOU. Wow, you said it right-on in your own words — “just selfish assholes.”

      I can hear your scream!

      I think we have the potential to be not just better parents, but amazingly sensitive parents because we are so keenly aware of the damage that selfish, narcissistic parenting can do.

      You might like a book called “Your Child’s Self Esteem” (by Briggs), which is readable and all about nurturing that separate ego and allowing a child to grow in a safe, nurtured and mindful way. (If you can find it, email me. I bought my copy used, so it might be hard to get now…it’s from ’88.) Reading the book helped me think about parenting but it also underscored for me the why and how of the damage done to me… hard not to see that all the while.

  21. Melanie says:

    Whoa. So happy to find your blog, and particularly this entry. Am just starting coming to terms with the narcissism and selfishness of my parents, and “did they best they could” just didn’t make me feel any better. It seems like a cop-out. Being a new(ish) mother to a 21 mo old, I can’t imagine not looking back at the dysfunction from which I come and not wanting to create something new, better, and present with my daughter and husband. It feels a bit like I’m just making things up as I go along, since there’s no solid foundation to look back at for reference, but I’m realizing that I’m not the only one who’s “guessing what normal is”, and that, in and of itself, is very reassuring. Thank you for your blog…

  22. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this. Just…thank you.

  23. Dan says:

    Love your honest, insightful article, Amy! As I type this reply, my mother’s funeral service is being held 3,000 miles away. What kind of son doesn’t attend his own mother’s funeral, you might ask. Well, the kind of son that had the kind of mother that told him his presence wasn’t necessary several months ago. My parents never drank, but excelled at raising troubled children. My younger sister drank herself to death in 2002, at age 42, as a direct result of the emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of my parents. An older sister never chose to drink, but chain smoked her way to emphysema and remains bitter, hostile and neurotic to this day. I was the middle child and only son – turned to alcohol and drugs during my early teens, in a conscious attempt to escape the insanity of living with our parents. It took 20 years of self-abuse, rehab and a spiritual miracle to quit beating myself up because of my parents’ behavior, but managed to break free 18 years ago.

    My parents never once accepted responsibility for their own part in the problems between themselves and their children. Instead, they took an “us against them” stance. Disowned us, wrote us out of their will, and my mother replaced us with 3 new, “adopted kids”, as she called them. She found 2 adopted daughters and 1 adopted son to replace her own 2 daughters and 1 son. No coincidence there – she wanted to punish and humiliate us for daring to speak against the abuse she and my father laid on us AND for not kissing her ass and making her the center of attention. Fortunately for her, she found 3 people that were more than willing to call her mom, in exchange for promises of an inheritance, so long as they played their cards right.

    Am I embittered by my parents’ cold rejection towards my sisters and me? A little, perhaps… but I forgave them 16 years ago, as part of my addiction recovery. I chose to forgive them in order to release the bottled up anger and resentments I carried for half my life for myself, not for them. They had every reason to ask for forgiveness and ample opportunity to do so, but never chose it. Frustrated would be a better word to describe how I feel. I’d told them 20 years ago that they should will their estate to whomever they chose, so it never was about money or a house. It was about trust and love – something which they deprived all 3 of us of from almost as long as I can remember. I’d never done anything NOT to deserve their love and trust, which is where the frustration lies. It’s also about their denial, to the end, about the shitty way they treated us, and how they turned the tables and blamed us for the broken relationships they created in the first place. And it’s about the self-centered, selfish way they viewed the world, and their unwillingness to make any type of amends with their own kids.

    Did they do the best they could? Absolutely – they did their best to abuse, punish and humiliate their 3 children, while making themselves appear to be the poor, unappreciated victims of worthless, rotten children. My mother was especially good in that role, which she relished and exploited until the end. I sent flowers to her funeral. The florist asked if I’d like the banner to say Mom or Mother. I had to go with Mother, as Mom is an affectionate label reserved for those that share a bond between mother and child. My sisters and I had a mother and a father, not a mom and dad.

  24. Annie says:

    Its hard to hear that phrase “they did the best they could” when the reality is that no, our parents did not do the best they could because they were shockingly unqualified to be handed the responsibility of caring for a child.

    But we hear this phrase over and over because human beings have been hard-wired down through the millennia to respect, even revere, our mothers in particular.

    We don’t even have a frame of reference to convey the idea of a person who wears the body of an adult, has the intelligence of an adult, but is operating at the emotional level of a toddler. It doesn’t even seem possible, but that’s what the Cluster B personality disorders are, particularly borderline pd: “emotionally retarded” is the closest term of reference I can come up with.

    Many of us were in effect raised by horribly spoiled, horribly narcissistic, unempathetic little toddlers wearing the body of a grownup. Nobody in their right mind would hand over a newborn infant to a real two-year-old, walk away and expect nothing seriously tragic to happen. Yet we as newborns were handed off in precisely this manner. The result was emotional abuse, emotional neglect, physical abuse, physical neglect, and even sexual exploitation by a toddler wearing an adult’s body whom we relied on utterly for our very survival: “mommy” or “daddy.”

    Yet, until our society and culture comes to recognize and agree that emotional abuse and emotional neglect of children is just as unconscionable and damaging as physical abuse, sexual abuse, and physical neglect, this kind of abysmally sub-standard parenting and the resulting emotional & physical damage to the children of such emotionally unqualified parents will continue unabated.

  25. Kim says:

    I hate this cliche and the assumption behind it. I have heard this at Al-Anon meetings and from therapists. My mother did not try, period, to be a decent mother, let alone do her “best.” You can usually recognize a person making an attempt to do something well. Parenting and treating your children with kindness is not the equivalent of asking a guy with a broken leg to run a marathon.

  26. Brandy says:

    I love you blog. I just found it today and I have just started my journey in finding myself apart from the dysfunction of my family. Oh how I love that your so honest. I feel like no one was honest ever in my family and in NO way did they do their “best”. When I go to ACOA meetings I cringe when I hear it is an addiction they were sick. Yes I agree but I believe everyone has a choice and when choose your addiction over your children you are not doing your best……

  27. Cindy says:

    Thank you so much for this. This is what my BPD Mom tells me all the time–”I wasn’t a good parent, but I did my best.” Every time I was to scream at her, “REALLY? Well, your best was not good enough.’ But those words resonate to me. I have never felt that I was good enough. To be her daughter, to be loved by anyone to be a valuable person. Thank you Amy for your words: My life is mine to do with it all I can without justification and there is NO ONE to whom I own concealment. If I may borrow that as my mission statement this is how I want to live my life from now on. Thank you.

  28. Liz says:

    I would like to offer a different perspective on the phrase “they did their best”. Rather than hearing it as an attempt to excuse an abuser, it can be heard as an invitation to stop relating to your parents from the perspective of a wounded child and to make the great leap of being able to witness them, objectively, simply as other adults with their own bad history and start relating to them with the sort of compassion and understanding that you, quite rightly, want for yourself. The reality is that most of our parents probably grew up in as dysfunctional a family as we did and without the luxury of emotional support during a time when therapy wasn’t even an option for most people and the internet didn’t even exist. “They did their best” is not meant to minimize your pain, it just offers a different way of holding your own reality should you choose – a reality that includes some pain, along with many other feelings and one that is not aligned with feeling that you are a victim of someone else.
    I myself grew up in a very dysfunctional family and experienced emotional and sexual abuse. However, I do not blame my parents for who I am today. They influenced me, yes. But, as an adult, I own and take full responsibility for my life and how I relate to it. The reality is that you can have 6 children growing up together in a violent and abusive household and they will each respond very differently to the experience, with greater or lesser wounds depending on their own particular and unique personalities. I feel at the end of the day that we need to face the fact that we cannot change our past, only how we choose to respond to it and how we choose to let it define us. Recognizing that what i needed to recover from was not my parents or the abuse i experienced growing up but was in fact my own tendency to self identify as a victim of my parents. Taking full responsibility for my adult self was one of the most challenging, and ultimately liberating, moments of my life. It is true that I was abused many years ago, but I am SO much more than an abused person, as are all of us.

    • Amy Eden says:

      This is interesting to read, and thanks for the comment. While I’ve felt blame-y feelings in the past, I wasn’t actually visiting the territory of blame when I wrote this piece, I was in the territory of pure Acknowledgment, saying what went down for me in my childhood. No regrets, no blame, just What Was. But what you wrote about is part of the process — before I could feel what you’ve described (of compassionately seeing my parents’ own ill-preparedness to be a parent based on their parents’ parenting) I had to first admit and acknowledge that they’d been less-than-great parents. That took a lot to admit in the way that I admitted it — and when I did the focus was about me, not them. That’s a key difference in terms of personal transformation. It brought me a great deal of relief when I admitted that I had been under-served by my parents (not that they’d screwed me (focusing on them), but that I was a person under-served (about me)). I could then move on. So for me, acknowledging that I had parents that did a poor job of parenting me is what allowed me to feel empowered to take over my own self-parenting (taking responsibility for myself here-and-now) and let go of what happened back then. Can those things occur in tandem? For me, yes…

  29. Liz says:

    Hi Amy, i completely agree that the first and hugely important step is always to fully acknowledge our own experience and in fact, there can be no healing at all on any level before that takes place. Having said that, it seems that people can and often do, get stuck there for years and simply exchange feeling frightened and hurt with feeling angry and bitter, (I am not saying this is what happened to you, this is a general comment) and I wanted to share my own experience and thoughts around this process. Everyone is healing in their own way and I think it’s helpful to hear from all different points of view. Regards, Liz

    • Amy Eden says:

      True – so true. When I was writing my reply — I realized how precise, or fine, the line can be between the harboring anger stages and the disengaging part is. I noticed that I had to take care with articulating the difference. So, it’s all part of one whole, I think. I mean, it’s not insignificant that we’re having this exchange. :-) Thanks, again, for sharing your voice!

  30. Peri says:

    Thank you Amy! I just got off the phone with my Mother who should be nominated for the Hall of Fame of Narcissitic/Sociapathic/ Abusive Parenting. After fending off what I refer to as her Guns of Guilt, it was like breathing a breath of fresh air to read you say that NO, they did not do the best they could. They were vicious, cruel, controlling manipulative, disastrous parents , but I am here to say that I have survived with my heart, soul spirit in tact as an incredibly loving, kind compassionate and yes finally self loving self respecting powerful woman. Deeply grateful for your words..Peri

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thank you! Oh, wow, I LOVE your ‘Guns of Guilt’ saying! That is a great way to infuse the frustration you must feel with some humor and distance. That’s way better than just surviving – humor is a sign of transformation, I believe. Kudos to you.

  31. mary says:

    I’m thrilled to find this blog. . .as a 40+ woman who has been searching for a long time to fix all that was wrong with me. After years of therapy and many counselors who were happy to perpetuate the victim-mentality–I finally found one that called my bluff. I know that I grew up in an alcoholic system, exacerbated by the fact that my older sibling and several other family members suffered severe bi-polar and schizophrenia. I’m spinning now, looking for something to grab on to. marriage, parenting, work. . .struggling to relate to the difficulties that I am causing there — I understand that my perspective and behavior are the cause of the problems. . .but I’m reaching for straws. . .or a lifeline. I have a hard time accepting that my family of origin is the cause of my problems and that I was abused (not in a classical sense). . .yet the neglect and expectations of being the “good child” as well as being told to act a certain way, be a certain way or denied my feelings and reactions and never being heard — has left me with all the signs and pitfalls of ACOA and ACODF. How does one recognize the truth and “reality” when they have been denied it’s existence? I’m so happy to have found your blog. Finally someone who has words for my feelings and practical advice for turning things around so i don’t transfer this legacy to my own children.

  32. [...] is a great article on the blog Guess What Normal Is, a blog for adult children of alcoholics, that has a quote I’ve called up in my mind over and [...]

  33. delia says:

    Your whole post was awesome. But it became perfect when you spoke the real truth about what your parents REALLY were like. Everybody is so afraid to tell the truth about their parents. As if there is something wrong with the truth. Not only did they not do there best but it wasn’t even their intention to do so. Without even that, well we got nothing. And nothing was worse than what I got because that is all they intended to give, but inadvertently they did much much worse.

    • K says:

      Delia,

      I completely agree – this post exactly points out the Elephant in The Room. Why should we be so “grateful” for abusive parenting?

      It’s mothers day here tomorrow, and I have decided for the first time in my 41 years not to celebrate it with my mother. A sense of relief is coming with that decision. Last week she and my father sat at a restaurant with my brother and sister and watched my brother tore into me (because I asked him to attend a counseling session with me). He brought me to tears in front of waitresses and customers. It was my birthday. I was crying so hard when I left that I was nearly was hit by a bus on the way home. No one called see how I was or stand up for me. A week later my father congratulated himself on being a good “friend” to me, because he thinks he stood beside me in that. (hah, he patted my brother’s arm encouragingly and nodded in agreement)

      My parents aren’t addicts, but are both severely narcissistic (Mother expresses hers in a covert/ manipulative/ passive aggressive way). I have been carrying their marital issues and personal problems on my shoulders since I was a little girl. One of my earliest memories is of my Dad angrily telling me that he was going to divorce my Mum. They never split up, or got counseling…they just decided to accept their very toxic and dysfunctional relationship.

      Amy, all that to say, I congratulate you on being honest and for telling it like it is. It sounds like your parents (like mine) have failed to provide what any normal child needed…stability, love, constancy, reliability, fairness, unconditional care, mentoring, respect.

      Less than that is never good enough. No amount of “they did their best” or “we tried” can ever compensate for corroding your kid’s sense of worth so deeply.

  34. Ruth says:

    As a daughter and as a parent of two adult daughters, I find your post simplistic. I grew up thinking my parents should have afforded me certain things that they didn’t — they were not demonstrative, they did not recognize certain talents that I felt should have been recognized by sensitive parents, and worse. It took me until my mid thirties to realize they truly tried to do the best they could with the tools and abilities they had. How could I expect more? I recall a cartoon I read once — it showed a large theatre with only one person sitting in it. The banner in the background read: “Convention for Children of Functional Families”. Parents are humans — with all the failings and imperfections that humans exhibit. I’m not dismissing those truly sociopathic and narcissistic individuals who should never have become parents. But who’s to say they didn’t “try” their best with what what they had? Maybe their upbring didn’t afford them the tools necessary for good parenting. Once you’re an adult you have the ability to make a choice just like I did. Forgive and move on.

  35. [...] Traits of People Who Grew Up in Alcoholic Homes as well as one of my most popular posts, about the expression ‘they did the best they could.’ You can listen to me on the Sunday Solutions radio show on Blog Talk Radio. And, finally, you [...]

  36. [...] Traits of People Who Grew Up in Alcoholic Homes as well as one of my most popular posts, about the expression ‘they did the best they could.’ You can listen to me on the Sunday Solutions radio show on Blog Talk Radio. And, finally, you [...]

  37. BMS says:

    Amy,
    This is awesome and well said! I’d learned a phrase doing a work called emotional body enlightenment work called “truth-in-service”. I’d say the “they did their best” is that.

    While it may be true they did their best, it is in service of feeling whatever they never owned or the shit they pulled. It takes them off the hook in some bullshit forgiveness mode I used to read about when I was immersed in the new age community. I totally get why you say this makes you want to scream!

    Forgiveness in the mind is crap. You can’t affirm forgiveness to someone and I don’t think you should ever forgive someone until they come with real remorse from the heart for what they did. The old adage about “forgive everyone” is crap to me. I’ll be reasonably pissed at anyone who tries to screw me over/lie to me and will not let them into my world again until and if they come with real remorse on their own behalf cuz they feel moved to do so.

  38. Lizz says:

    Thank you. Thank you. I’m just sitting in my room reading this crying. I needed this.

  39. Lynn says:

    Thank you for this post. You have somehow validated the feelings I’ve always had about my parents. I am a 69 year old woman who was raised by an alcoholic, prescription drug addicted, and possibility narcissistic mother. My step father was verbally, physically, and sexually abusive. My younger brother, sister, and myself have all suffered as adults because of an unbelievably horrible upbringing. You all know what I’m talking about. My parents absolutely did not do the best that they could. Not even close!! Sadly, for me, I am still not able to forgive them. During their lifetime neither of them ever expressed any remorse for their actions. When they died the only feelings I had were relief and happiness. I am still working on the forgiveness thing. I hope to God that when I die my daughter never has to say “well, she did the best she could”.

  40. [...] makes me feel uncomfortable because of loyalty. There’s a quote I’ve shared before from a blog for children of alcoholic parents. I first encountered it over a year ago, and unfortunately, it is something I struggle with [...]

  41. [...] the quote again, the battle cry around which I am centering my most recent [...]

  42. Amy Eden says:

    Saw this piece in The New York Times – had to share!
    How to handle caring for an aging parent…when they were abusive?!
    http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/20/the-undeserving-parent/?_r=0

  43. [...] the post that inspired my ignite talk: Who Says Our Dysfunctional Parents Did The Best They Could? So many people commented! (Maybe you will [...]

  44. Debbie says:

    Can any parent, alcoholic or non-alcoholic honestly say that we did our best? That’s like saying that I did the best that I could in college when I know if I had been more serious about my studies I could have done better. The same is true with our parents, if they had been capable of handling stress better or if they had better parenting knowledge and skill, or better values, or more self-control then our childhoods would have turned out differently. Think of it this way, if the alcoholic parent joins AA do they get to skip their 4th step and just say that they did the best that they could? Do they really get a pass? No, just like all of us they have to take responsibility for their decisions, choices and actions. We can still understand the cunning and baffling disease of alcoholism and still show compassion and care without grading on the curve and saying that they did their best. Saying that they did their best minimizes our pain and trauma and does not validate the negative affects of growing up with the dysfunction of an alcoholic home.

    • Amy Eden says:

      I appreciate the perspective, and thanks for speaking out. When I challenge the validity of the phrase “they did the best they could,” I’m talking only about dysfunctional families in this context. The phrase isn’t realistic for anyone from an abusive childhood in my view. It gets mis-applied to us. Your question about could any parent say they did their best — is rhetorical, and “best” is subjective, so “no,” is the answer, the only answer. But when it comes to alcoholic, addict, and dysfunctional parents, my feeling is that there’s no question about “best,” because it’s impossible — the fact of addiction renders “best” un-reachable. However, again, arguing the phrase is not the point, because the phrase “they did the best they could” is flawed. I think we miss out on a lot of deep healing when we ask survivors of dysfunctional families to accept that their parents did their “best,” and that’s where I’m coming from. I want us to retire the phrase, or at least understand why it’s the worst-ever phrase to mishandle by trying to apply it to our childhoods. When we try to apply it to our parents, we are focusing on them again and again when it’s admitting to ourselves that we were underserved that delivers us deep healing, from my perspective. Again, thanks for speaking out. I welcome all varieties of opinions, it’s important to share all views.

  45. Violet says:

    Wow. I ran across your blog today and I am so thankful. In the sea of advertisements, somehow the keywords aligned and I found you. I have been working though my issues for years, sometimes slowly, sometimes with great bursts of realization and reading your blog I feel like I’ve found someone else similar. Someone sane, that has made it through to becoming a functioning adult, who speaks her mind about her history and doesn’t apologize for it. Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you for bring so honest and open and using your abilities to write and think to support and encourage the rest of us.

    • Amy Eden says:

      The phrase “Someone sane” – oh, you made my day. :-) Even now, I have the ability to doubt that from time to time. Perhaps that is the flip side to courage?
      So glad you’re getting something out of this blog. I truly appreciate hearing from you! It is all do-able, becoming a functional person and actually enjoying your life and…best of all: feeling like yourself.

  46. Vol-E says:

    I’ve gone back and forth on this for decades. I feel happy that I’ve brought my deceased parents down to a human level (they had problems of their own, it wasn’t all about me, etc.). But just a few weeks ago, I let myself deal with many memories of my preschool years, in which my mother (not always drunk) hit me in the head, hard, with the flat of her palm when she felt angry or embarrassed by something I did. She also once pushed my chair backward (I was in a booster seat) and I remember hitting the back of my head on the floor. Science knows a lot more now about head injury — how even bruising the scalp can lead to cranial bleeding. So now I don’t know whether my ADHD and learning disabilities are something I inherited from my father, or if they might be the result of physical injury.

    But I’ve gotten to the stage where, anytime I judge myself for being “stupid” and making the wrong decisions, I immediately recall that my parents retired, sold their house for a rather spectacular profit compared to what they bought it for, and then turned around and took out a 30-year mortgage on a much cheaper house, instead of paying for it outright. They were both gone within two years, leaving me with payments and renting it out until I just sold the thing and walked away. So it took me over 20 years to say “Hey — my parents were not geniuses!”

    Coming to the truth is a very slow, layered process for all of us.

    • Amy Eden says:

      So well put, thank you so much for sharing part of your story. Yes, oh, it is both a long and layered process.
      Perhaps the universe is kind and allows us to only feel one layer at a time, when it’s time, because it’s best. I don’t completely understand how it works, but I’ve often felt that when it’s time to deal with a new truth, or clue, I glimpse it. It’s a lot of pain to bear at once. Our bodies knock us unconscious when they needs to. The rest, we experience.
      Getting out of our routines seems to jar some new perspectives free, too.
      When our parents die, that frees us up in new ways, too. At least that was my experience when my mother died. It was like a garden (of sorts) grew on her grave – it gave birth to a relationship with my dear sister, who I had hardly known until then. That’s huge.
      Death. Birth. The cycle…
      Thank you again. (And congratulations on selling that house, walking away from it. I can imagine your relief!)

  47. Micksnark says:

    I love what you had to share. True and uncompromising in a kind way. That’s a very hard combination to come by.

    I don’t know how much of it I can allow myself to agree with in my own life…perhaps because my journey requires me to be a little more callous as the negativity my parents bring me has not yet ended.

    Thank you, regardless.

    http://www.micksnark.com/2014/01/08/shout-out-to-the-worlds-worst-parents/

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thank YOU. Everyone is on their own timeline. (This took me…years. And I’m still very, very much a work in progress.)

      Be kind to yourself :-)

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