Claudia Schmidt looks back on a traumatic and serious rift with her parents and considers what her children might think of her someday. Read more from Claudia on her blog, My Left Breast.
I wasn’t the happiest of teenagers and didn’t have the best of relationships with my parents. Our combative relationship reached its peak when I was a junior in college and my very religious parents found out that I was sleeping with my college boyfriend.
Being the good and emotionally repressed Catholics (and college English majors) that they both were, they were more comfortable expressing themselves in writing about this, than talking about it, so they drove to my college dorm and handed me a letter. In the letter they explained that they had found out about my sexual escapades (seriously – their actual words) and after a lot of discourse about how un-Catholic they felt it all was, they said that they were going to disown me if I didn’t marry my boyfriend.
It felt like an out of body experience. The letter was long and intense and it was absolutely mortifying to read it in front of them. It was just so embarrassing, we were a repressed Catholic family that didn’t share things like this, openly.
After I finished reading the letter, they told me that if I didn’t marry my boyfriend, I would have to come home to live with them, finish college commuting from home and never see him again. Did I mention that ours was a pretty dramatic family?
Of course, I wasn’t ready to get married at the age of 19 and when I told them that, they said they couldn’t condone our relationship, and that I was never to darken their door again as long as I was going to live such an amoral life.
Now, I knew I wasn’t going to marry this guy, but he was my first love and I knew that what I had with him was a good thing, not something evil. You know that first true love that takes your breath away and makes you see the world with new eyes? That was our relationship, and I knew it was a good thing. So I told my parents that I wasn’t going to stop seeing him.
My parents refused to accept this decision. So they said goodbye, got back in their car and drove away and I was suddenly completely on my own with no safety net at the age of 19. It was scary but also exhilarating.
As I look back on my life now, I see how this experience shaped me and helped create the strong, independent woman that I became. But when it first happened, it was a very complicated time for me, intensified by the fact that I was still in college and unexpectedly had to pay for the final two years of it by myself.
Because I had no idea about how to go about getting a student loan, I figured I’d have to get one from my bank in my home town, not realizing that I could have gotten one anywhere. And since I had no car, I took the bus from my college campus into New York City, then took a bus from NYC to my home town where I then walked about a mile to the bank and applied for the loan. Then I reversed the entire journey as I headed from my home town to NYC and then back to my dorm. It took me an entire day, but I got the loan and learned that anything I set my mind to could be achieved.
At the end of the school year, I had to find my own apartment since I couldn’t stay on campus and of course now I couldn’t go home for the summers. I wound up living with my boyfriend since I couldn’t afford an apartment on my own, the very thing my parents had wanted to avoid.
We lived in a tiny little garret apartment in the attic of a home in my college town, which was about 5 minutes away from the campus so we could walk there for our summer jobs. I worked as a janitor for the college that summer, cleaning the dorms where I had lived all year, making $3.25 an hour. Believe me, I had a new found respect for cleanliness and order after that summer, which has served me well in my life.
There was a span of time from the age of 20-25 where my parents and I barely spoke. It was so bad that for quite a few years in my 20’s, I never visited my parents at all, even during the holidays.
At one point, at around the age of 25 I took the EST Training. Yeah. I did EST.
And to all you skeptics out there, let me say that it was one of the most transformational things I’ve ever done in my life. And, yes, it is also sort of a cult, but that’s a whole other story for another day.
As prep for my EST training I was asked to find one specific area that I wanted to focus and work on during the session and of course mine was my unresolved relationship with my parents. During the training, I came to the realization that if my parents and I were ever going to reconnect, it was up to me to make the first move.
I also took a hard look at myself and acknowledged that under all the bluster and anger about how I didn’t need my parents, it was important to me to have a relationship with them. Even though I was still hurt and angry about what had happened, I knew that they were an important part of my life. And I also realized that I had to take responsibility for the actions that caused the rift in the first place.
So one day soon after, I called home and made an appointment to see them. We met at their home (which used to be our home) and I could tell they were both very nervous. It became clear to me that they were scared about what I was there to talk to them about; worried that taking EST had given me the courage to confront them about disowning me.
Looking at them both, scared as they appeared, I suddenly realized that they had a lot to lose, too. I think during the years that had gone by, they realized that they missed me, and that perhaps they could have done things differently.
When I first came in things were quite strained. But I shared with them some of the things I had learned during my EST Training and told them that I loved them and that I understood that what I had done wasn’t something they were ever going to accept, but that I was okay with my choices and would like to reconnect with them, if they wanted to reconnect with me. On my terms.
And with that simple honest discussion, the pain of those six years cracked open a little bit and we started to reconnect. I didn’t blame them for anything, I took responsibility for my part in the whole drama and opened a door to see if they wanted to create a new relationship together.
When I left, I told them awkwardly that I loved them and gave them a hug. They both stood straight with their hands by their sides, not hugging me back. But it was different this time, I realized that they really didn’t know HOW to hug me. They wanted to show affection but weren’t able to, based on their own childhood experiences growing up in their own dour German and Irish Catholic households.
The next time I came to see them, as they opened the door, they both eagerly greeted me with a hug. It was one of the first times in my adult life that my parents had physically embraced me and it startled both of us, but it was wonderful. Over time, I slowly learned how to create a new relationship with them, one that became satisfying for all three of us; a lesson that has served me well in other relationships in my life.
When my daughter was born, many years later, I suddenly realized how brave my parents were to have raised four children. One day soon after we brought her home from the hospital, I called my mother and asked, “How did you ever have the courage to do this four times?” My mom, in her usual pragmatic way, said, “Oh, it was easier to have four of you, you all helped keep each other occupied.”
That was so my mom. “Easier” to have four kids, for a woman with Multiple Sclerosis who worked full time as an English teacher and chairman of a high school English Department while raising those 4 kids.
Now that my own kids are teenagers, and my daughter has gone off to college, I have a glimpse of the way it must have been for my parents. It’s different when your kids grow up. You suddenly have 4 adults living in the house. It’s not you and your husband and the 2 kids; it’s you and 3 other adults.
They’re no longer the adoring kids who think you know everything and listen to everything you tell them. They have their own opinions and judgments about how you’re living your life and it can sometimes shake your belief in who you are.
So we all just muddle through. My own parents did the best they could; my husband and I are parenting the best we can. In the end, it’s the experiences we go through that will ultimately influence and shape the people we will become.
I wonder what my kids will remember as the defining moments of their lives when they reflect back years later. At the ripe old age of 57, I’m still working on who I’m going to be when I grow up. I hope I’m always still wondering.