For much of the last year I’ve been living with my parents. This is not something I would ever have predicted happening this time last year, but looking back it’s been a gift, and an incredibly transformative year for our relationships with one another. Whenever I mention living with my parents, though, people ask me how I manage to cope, so I thought I’d write about why this is working for me.
I want to preface this by saying that I am lucky enough to have family I can comfortably choose to live with. My parents live in a spacious tenement flat in Edinburgh and the three of us can co-exist with relative ease. My parents are old-school socialists, so the worst political opinion I have to contend with is them harking back to the good old days of 1950s Britain, when everything was nationalised and centrally controlled, and we didn’t have a Tory government. We agree about most things, and our disagreements are mostly subtle. I can be open about who I am and what I believe in around my family. Not everyone has this privilege.
Despite all of this good stuff, I’ve not always had an easy relationship with my parents. There is generational trauma in our lineage (because, hey, we’re human), and a lot of my childhood memories are coloured by that. I didn’t have the words to name what was going on when I was a child, but now I do, and being able to unravel and name the ways in which harm was caused and left unhealed (and studying how attachment and trauma work) in our family over a number of generations helped me learn how to go on loving my parents, even when we rub up against and re-open each other’s wounds.
I’ve lived alone for most of my adult life, through a combination of choice, circumstance and a nebulous fear that I was bad at relating to people (spoiler alert: that fear turned out to be coming from unresolved trauma). When I came here last March, nobody knew that the lockdown would last months, and that there would be another lockdown in the winter. When the shape of the lockdown became clear last spring, I immediately felt nervous about being here, about being a burden, about taking up space and about whether or not I had the ability to hold firm to my own opinions and values. Often in the past, I’ve wanted to please other people, especially my parents. On previous visits I would catch myself trying to do more of the things I thought would please them, even when I really wanted to do something else. When I came here, I was scared of slipping back into that dynamic, like the well-worn slippers I keep here to wear around the house.
Largely, I haven’t. And that has been because of deliberate part my choice to build a relationship with my parents that sustains all of us. There have been moments when I wanted to slam doors and shout and blame and a few moments when someone has shouted or blamed, but I’ve kept on committing to practices that support me in loving myself and my parents. I’ve kept on cultivating love and showing up with love in our relationship. Being able to feel love is more important to me than being right or behaving a certain way or getting my parents to change. Showing up with love means showing up with love for everyone in the relationship. Loving my parents doesn’t mean sacrificing myself, it means finding the balance between loving myself and loving them. I don’t know if it has been harder or easier than I expected this time last year. Sometimes it has been hard, not always for the reasons I expected. Sometimes it has been effortlessly easy, like when I’ve knitted and gardened and made marmalade with my mother, or when my dad dug out old photos of his Czech family and told me things I didn’t know about my grandparents’ lives.
The biggest thing that has shifted for me in the past year is that I’ve really, deeply realised that I never have to engage in conflict, even when somebody else does. It is totally possible to disagree with someone without needing one person to be right and the other to be wrong. It is also totally possible to apologise to someone when you think you haven’t done anything wrong. I always have the option to disengage, to apologise, to just let it be. I don’t have to convince anybody else to have conviction in my beliefs. If someone tells me I have made a mistake or that I am wrong I can choose to just let them say that. Even if I think I am right. I don’t have to reciprocate or accept the responsibility that they want to put on me. I can notice when my ego feels wounded and when I want to lash out at someone because I feel threatened. Knowing this has completely changed how I show up in relationships. I can see the evidence of what happens when I choose to relate in ways that offer opportunities for connection, not conflict.
The other day at breakfast I commented that our breakfast tea was darker than usual. In my head, this was a totally neutral thing to say, but my dad immediately responded by saying, quite loudly “You always accuse me of using the wrong kind of tea, but you’re wrong, this is definitely Earl Grey!” And I noticed layer on layer of reactions in my body. I noticed the urge to snap back at him. I noticed the urge to placate him or apologise for provoking him or justify my intention to prove that I wasn’t attacking. And I just let all of it be. I let things be a lot these days. My dad is a great accidental teacher. He doesn’t like any kind of background noise when he’s working or reading and when somebody sneezes or coughs or the dog barks his go-to reaction is to shout. I always used to be as quiet as possible when I was in the room with him, because I didn’t want to annoy him, but I also always resented myself for doing so. Now I sneeze or cough if I need to, because I know that I’m not doing it on purpose to annoy him and so that is not a story I need to take on. I don’t like that he shouts, but I also know I cannot control him doing it. I know I can dislike that behaviour and not dislike him.
Right now, the biggest struggle for me is coming to grips with the idea that it is impossible to care for people when they don’t want to be cared for. My mother had an accident last week that will take a while to recover from, and my instinct is to take over the housework and cooking and wait on her hand and foot and she won’t accept that. All I can do is offer. She gets to say no. Allowing her the agency to refuse help and end up exhausted and grumpy is so difficult for me, but it is the only way that works, if I want to be in right relationship with her. To force care on her is to deny her humanity, to try and be in power over her, not in power with her. When I stop forcing and start asking and listening, I can help her in ways that are more satisfying to us both than what either of us imagined.
Parents are just people. We often tend to think our relationships with parents have a special status and it is true that when we are children adults tend to have power over us. But as adults, we can relate to our parent/s from a place of equality. As adults, we don’t have to play the role of children. As adults, we can tend to our own emotional needs. We can also –and believe me this is hard– let our parent/s tend to their emotional needs. When we think of ourselves as being equals to our parent/s we open up new possibilities in our relationships. Our roles in our relationships are allowed to shift and change. I’ve been relearning what relationships are by living here with my parents.
Sometimes nobody notices when a disagreement is shifting into a conflict, or when someone is acting from ego. Sometimes our practices are not enough to hold us. Things get messy or we misunderstand each other. Old wounds get reopened. When this happens, I try to be gentle with myself, to approach myself with compassion and curiosity instead of blame. I do not have to be perfect in my family relationships and neither do my parents. All of us can be messy and complicated humans. We can get things wrong and harm each other and still love each other and relate to each other in ways that make us feel connected. I think I forgot that for a while along the way and I’m so glad we have had this chance to re-learn it together.