Can We Ever Truly Know Our Parents?

It’s Father’s Day. The first thing I did when I woke was go straight to the small framed Polaroid of my dad and me, taken on the last day I saw him. Father’s Day, nearly 25 years ago. There are a handful of other images tucked away. But that one, of the two of us, is special.

My mother is gone as well. She passed away in her sleep, some five years back.

The period following each loss found me at dramatically different stages in life. When my father died, I was single and in the upswing of a long corporate career,  living in a different part of the country. I was young and vital and healthy. My dad and I had only recently built a relationship as father and daughter in the three years that followed his split with my mother. He had remarried – as it turns out, a woman he’d loved for many years.

Because we’d had little relationship previously (and because my mother was a difficult woman to love), I was open to whatever we might create together. And my dad went out of his way to get to know me, and to invite me into the happiness of his new life and his new home.

The situation infuriated my mother (which I understand), but her love came with a price, and was frequently more hurtful than anything else. She was a woman who failed to thrive, and in so doing, suffocated those closest to her. Even an adult child seeks parental love – love without anger, love with compassion. Love that knows appropriate boundaries of disclosure and privacy. That’s exactly what I got from my dad, although it came when he was in his fifties.

Years later, after my own divorce, I can better appreciate my mother’s position. But her dealings with me were toxic; what I shared with my father was something else entirely.

I hadn’t known my dad before that, except through the lens of my mother’s invective which began two decades prior to ending their marriage. I was glad to get to know him, which made the loss when he died more wrenching, of course, and every Father’s Day without my dad since – a private place of sorrow. But it is also a source of gratitude for the time we had.

When my mother passed away, she was much older. The endless, twisted, unpredictable emotional hoops she made me jump through as a child and adolescent had returned with a vengeance in the last years of her life, affecting not only me, but my children. And as a parent, my perspective had changed. I was stunned at her malignant acting out, against her own child.

After her death, I thought I would be able to make sense of her, to answer the “why” that had plagued me since I was a teenager. Going through her things, there were only more pieces of a confusing puzzle: more proof of her potential, her betrayals, and her vulnerability. There were snapshots of a strikingly beautiful woman, books that showed her fine intelligence and broad interests, the trail of accumulated objects that evoked an era – costume jewelry from the 60s, clunky pendants from the 70s, pearls which she loved, hatpins she’d picked up in antique shops. There were letters, written late in life, and never mailed. Words that illuminated her sadness.

If I learned anything from the loss of my father and mother, it is this: no one can ever truly know their parents. And nor should we. There are sacred private spaces in each of us, including those experienced with family, partners, and even strangers.

As we journey from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood, we come to know our parents’ imperfections, some of their motivations, and ideally we recognize they are individuals, usually well-intentioned, who loved us as best they could. When we become parents ourselves, their behaviors make more sense (or less), but we comprehend the necessity and inevitability of an incomplete picture.

I hope my sons know the depth of my love for them, and yes, to some extent, the sacrifices. Yet I don’t ever want them to feel guilty for what I chose to give up in order to parent them properly. And so I will honor my father’s way of loving when he finally felt free enough to do so – imperfectly, unconditionally, and joyfully. Respecting the role of parent and child, and appropriate boundaries that serve everyone’s best interests.


  1. says

    I love that you were able to share that time with your dad. What you lacked in quantity, it would seem you made up for in quality. I had neither with my dad even though he’s alive and well. Just not the family man type. Even though my relationship with him is non-existent now by my choice, I am grateful to him for showing me the kind of man I do NOT want to settle for in my life. My Guy is everything he is not, and that’s what I will celebrate each Father’s Day.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I’m happy for you, Justine, that you made a good choice of a good guy. That is definitely worth celebrating!

  2. says

    “And so I will honor my father’s way of loving when he finally felt free enough to do so – imperfectly, unconditionally, and joyfully”

    Now that I am a parent myself and see that there is no road map for parent hood it makes me a lot more forgiving of some of my parents flaws. I love your summation and hope that that’s the kind of parent I am to my own children.

  3. says

    In the parenting classes I took in college, the professors often said that as we matured, we would look back to our parents with either gratitude or frustration. I have felt both. Becoming a parent, though, has made me more grateful for the sacrifices they made on my behalf. While I still think they made some poor choices when I entered the teen years, I am more forgiving. I make mistakes daily and I hope my kids will be forgiving of me in my imperfection.

  4. says

    I’m sorry you had such a complicated relationship with both of them. Luckily, you have a good head on your shoulders and the strength to endure, and I think that’s what you’ll pass on to your boys.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I think we learn as much (or more?) from what our parents do not do, from their failings, as what they do. If we’re lucky, we’re attentive enough to carry those lessons into our own parenting, and hope our children will do the same when it is their turn.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thanks Jason! (Re the banner, my resident artist is working on something a bit better, hopefully. But he’s taking his time. Maybe I need to motivate him with chocolate chip cookies.)

  5. says

    What a gift, to have gotten to know your father even for a short while later in life. Of course, this makes the sadness of losing him more difficult because you realized his goodness. But you clearly have great memories to cherish.

    These lines caught my eye: “Even an adult child seeks parental love – love without anger, love with compassion. Love that knows appropriate boundaries of disclosure and privacy.” Absolutely true. While the parent-child relationship changes as the child becomes an adult, hopefully there is still some nugget that remains the same, the unconditional love and instinct to protect.

  6. says

    Really beautiful post. I do think that the versions we know of anyone are, in a sense, a fiction. They are stories we tell through a certain lens that we confuse as non-fiction. Sure there is truth in fiction but that doesn’t make them the truth. All that said, finding a little piece of “truth” about my mother (as I wrote about in my post today) helped me to see a new version of her.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thank you La Belette. You put it beautifully – stories we tell through a certain lens, confusing fiction as non-fiction.

      So nice to have you here. And love your new site.

  7. says

    One of the reasons I blog is to give my children another way to “know” me, but not one that they will have access to for many years. At least, I don’t intend for them to gain access sooner than that.

    But I expect that it will take time for them to really understand what I am saying in my writing, time and life experience.

  8. says

    I am without father as well. Mine passed more than a decade ago. He and my mom divorced after 22 years of marriage and it was hard on me and my sister. Mom spent a number of years laying guilt trips on us for the attention we gave him, always needing equal time. Many times, it was petty jealousy. I’m not sure I ever really knew the real man my father was when he was alive. There was the man he portrayed to us, and then the man our mom saw. Obviously, the real man was somewhere in-between. I miss him terribly. Mom is still kickin’ and, although there is a fair share of emotional baggage in our relationship, I’m thankful she is still a part of our lives.

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