The Last Door: On Healing the Generation Gap

The generation of my parents kicked down the doors.

This group of idealistic kids looked at their parents, society, government and religious institutions, found them wanting, and said, “No more.”  No more degradation and marginalization—no more punishment, really—for those who happened to be born the “wrong” way: Black, Woman, Native American, Homosexual.  No more sending youth to fight a war with no good purpose.  No more conforming.  No more denial of the Self.  No more hiding.  No more bullshit.

What this generation did is truly amazing.  They definitely kicked down the doors…but after the dust cleared and their young heroes were assassinated and their idealism was tempered, they did not quite know how to walk through those doors to rebuild on the other side.  It was a new, terrifying, traumatic time, and many people simply became lost…even as they were giving birth to my generation.  I know very few people my age whose parents were always present.  Instead, our parents were never married, or they divorced, or our fathers and mothers walked away never to look back.  Or our parents went a bit crazy, or were strung out on drugs, or never received treatment for PTSD or the effects of Agent Orange when they returned from Vietnam.  Or they taught us how to be transitory and restless: we got used to living out of a bag, moving from place to place or staying with grandparents, relatives or even foster care for a while.  We grew up too fast, and many of us were preyed upon—physically, sexually and emotionally—by caregivers, relatives, strangers or even our parents themselves who carried with them oceans of pain that none of us could understand.

As a result, my generation has never felt safe.

And what we’ve done is overcompensate with our own children.  We are so filled with a great longing to rewrite the history of our childhoods into an ideal that we handicap our children.  We disallow imagination and play for its own sake and over-schedule our kids, running all of us ragged to the dance lessons or baseball games we never had.  We protect them religiously from any form of possible pain or discomfort: we douse them in hand sanitizer…we insist that no child be awarded a first-place trophy but that all children receive a participation ribbon…we threaten to sue a six-year old boy and his family for sexual harassment for tugging on our six-year old daughter’s braid…we don’t allow our children to speak for themselves and we certainly don’t allow them to speak up for themselves.  We love our children but the way we raise them is motivated not so much by that love but by our own deeply rooted fears of pain and lack.  And so, we coddle our children.  We give them everything that money can buy at earlier and earlier ages and expect little in return.  Too many of our children are technologically sophisticated but they don’t know how to wash dishes, read a map, clean a toilet, sew a button or cook food without using a microwave.  They are allowed to behave with entitlement.  We control our children to such an extreme that we don’t allow them to accept any age-appropriate responsibility.  We are cultivating a generation of divas and princelings…and we wonder why bullying is on the rise. 

But what is worse is what my generation of women is doing to itself.  In our need to create a perfect childhood environment, we have regressed.  We look at our mothers—those that broke the professional ceilings and became doctors, lawyers, business owners and politicians; those who are sweating it out at factories or driving trucks; or those who are still on the path to personal enlightenment—with disdain.  Sure, many of us went to college and we even went to work.  But once we got married and had our kids, we forgot about our individuality.  We took on the hardest job in the world and became the moms we always wanted but never had.  We became the perfect 1950’s housewife.  We’re more conservative than our parents.  We conform and keep up with the Joneses.  We dress alike.  And we live vicariously through the reality shows where women behave badly and dramatically, giving a much needed but unhealthy voice to the dissatisfaction we hold inside.  We hide, we rumble, we seethe, and because so many of us don’t honor who we are—those longings that tell us to paint or write or dance or ride horses—we are, in fact, sending the wrong messages to our children.  We’re showing them, day in and day out, that once their glory days of childhood are over, the women they will become or the women they will marry, must once again sacrifice needlessly for their families.  We, too, are damaging our children…but unlike our parents who tried so damn hard to celebrate equality and acknowledge the individual, we spend so much toxic energy pushing down our individual souls, terrified of revealing the truth of who we are to ourselves and to the world.  We are afraid that if we fulfill any of the ideals or promises made by our parents’ generation, we will also invite in those parts of our parents that put us in harm’s way.  We did not feel safe; and yet, ironically, we’ve created a world that for all of its controlled, neat, and pretty veneer feels more dangerous than our childhoods.  It feels like dying on the inside…and we wonder why zombies have resurged in popularity.

I speak in generalities, of course.  Some of us had phenomenal parents and some of us are excellent parents.  But, overall, it’s easy to step back and see the connections between the generations—and to see just where the bridge between them has collapsed.  How then does that bridge become rebuilt?  How do we stop punishing our parents for what they were not?  How do we stop punishing ourselves by accepting lives that are not fully lived?  How do we stop punishing our children with our fear?

Compassion.  It is not easy to be a parent.  Imagine then trying to be a parent in a time when the fabric of society itself changed so completely, yet the only role models our parents had were the very people they were rebelling against.  Parents make it up as they go along—our parents’ generation even more so.  Life was chaotic for them and we were raised in chaos.  And that’s okay.  It made so many of us stronger than we even know.  Strong enough to uncover the tiniest amount of compassion for our parents.  To admit that most of them probably did the best they could even if their best fell way short of what we needed. 

While we also need to be compassionate with ourselves, we need more to be honest.  To look at who we are and what our purpose is outside of our children.  We need to acknowledge the dark sides we all carry if only not to have them erupt in unexpected or violent ways.  We need to give ourselves permission to take the time we need to fill our souls—or even to just fill the bathtub, lock the door, and soak for an hour.  And we need to look at our motivations for why we treat our children the way we do.

And then, we need to look at our children honestly.  Are we raising brats?  Are we dysfunctionally over-protective?  Have we been handicapping our children in any way?  Maybe that little boy tugging on our daughter’s braid is a life lesson for her: maybe by learning how to stand up for herself at a young age will give her the confidence she needs later in life to not get involved in an abusive relationship, to protest unfair treatment at her job, or to run for President of the United States.  By all means, we need to protect our children…but it is in the disappointment, loss and yes, even pain, of life that teaches our children how to be strong, capable and well-rounded.  Besides, as much as we try—and we all know this—we cannot prolong childhood.  In the mind-numbing self-sacrifice fueled by our fear, are we really willing to turn our children out into the world so unprepared to actually be in the world?

Of course, it’s not easy.  Fear does not allow compassion to be easy.  Honesty is even more difficult.  But it is in the long, painful journey of compassion, honesty, and eventually forgiveness that we rebuild the bridge spanning these three generations.  Truth by truth, person by person, we can forgive and we can rebuild…and maybe together we can kick down that last door that blocks our way from having lives fulfilled, whole, equal and powerful.

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