Parenthood Never Ends

On the deepest level, you never let go of your children. Perhaps you thought that when they leave the home, get established, you would detach to some degree. Hopefully that is true in day to day matters. Yet whenever they report a success your spirit soars and whenever they share a setback you suffer it as if it had happened to you. Well, it sort of has.

Juvenile children belong to you. You take full responsibility for them and many parents struggle with the transition out of that responsibility. Adult children are you – yourself carried forward past your lifetime, like another generation tacked onto your lifespan, the next leg in a relay of immortality. There is an existential bond between parent and child. The parent is the child’s origin story and the child is the parent’s future. You literally love them as you love yourself.

It’s common for parents, particularly full-time parents, to live their lives for their children. You schedule all of their activities, take them everywhere, watch and wait, take them home, monitor their homework, get to know their friends, support and encourage them. With adult children parents can live their lives through them. The main topic of discussion for most parents and their friends is, “How are your children?” This central interest does not end when the kids grow up; it may actually increase as their lives diverge from the childhood family. The achievements of the children feel like the parent’s achievements, another source of ego pride, or sometimes shame.

Naomi and Her Daughters, George Dawe, 1804

The existential bond to a child explains why it is prioritized before all other relationships, including marriage. In a two-parent marriage at least both partners are experiencing a version of the same phenomenon. In a step-parent family, this is usually not the case and can be a major source of strain in the marriage. Marriage is a social bond; parenthood is on a deeper level.

The strong sense of identification with the child also explains why parents are naturally codependent. They appear to be managing the emotional life of another person. They slip easily into enabling behaviors and feel over-responsible for their adult child’s welfare. It’s a pattern made much more understandable within the frame of identification. You are, in a way, saving yourself.

And finally it needs to be mentioned that the death of child is thought by many to be the worst kind of loss. The one thing you cannot have your children do is predecease you. It’s worse than your own death; it’s the death of your younger self.

There’s no cure for this predicament of vicariousness. It’s not an illness or a disorder, but a natural consequence of a profound reality – the co-creation of another human being. It can, I think, be shifted into a more tolerable context through spirituality. In this larger realm, the existential calculus is largely different. You might conceive of yourself less as a parent and more as a brother or sister to your adult child. The responsibility of existence can be assigned to a Higher Power within whom we all have our original blessing, present unity and future meaning. ‘Your life is not about you; you are about Life.’ That’s true for the kids, also.

Compassion Reduces Shame

Compassion must be a superpower for it even helps to reduce shame. How does it work?

Shaming by others relies on authority, a kind of power, to make it stick. Without authority, we cannot take it seriously. Imagine your 4-year-old telling you in a tantrum that you are a “bad parent.” It slides right off your back because the child is upset and is no source of wisdom about parenting. If your neighbor tells you the same thing then it hurts. The trouble is that without an obvious deficit (e.g. developmental age) or stressor, we accord anybody a great deal of authority by default. We do take take them seriously, perhaps too seriously.

An overly simple but very useful rule of thumb is that if anybody is over-reacting, obviously upset or critical with any hint of cruelty, then they have been triggered into painful emotions relating to current or past stressors that have little or nothing to do with the immediate circumstances and even less to do with you. When someone is shaming you in anger they are not exposing you; they are using you to cope with their own shame, thus saying much more about themselves than about you.

Angry (& Wounded) Bird

But we don’t see what is behind the angry face and cruel tone. We assume they speak from reason, awareness, social expertise and hence, authority. Their words, tone and gestures sound and look unambiguous. So the shame sticks and we cannot recover from it, because unlike healthy shame there is no obvious, minor fix.

Reflecting upon these injuries to self-esteem, whether from the day before or back in childhood, we have to take a second look at the other’s authority. Were they truly reasonable, aware and expert or were they wounded, hurting, and overwhelmed? If we look for the underlying pain, we can develop compassion. Or perhaps when we sense compassion, then we’ve surely seen the pain. Either way, this compassion will drain the authority from all of the shaming. They may have authority in better moments but once triggered their wounds prevented any connection with authority. “They know not what they do,” as the prophet said.

A wounded person cannot hurt you if you can see and feel their wound.

Shame Is the Master Emotion

If you have poor self-esteem or are easily offended, shame is the operative emotion. If you lack confidence, feel awkward around others or just are uncomfortable in your own skin, then an unhealthy shame is defining your experience. When you sense that you are fatally flawed and believe that you will never fit in, then shame is doing the talking. If you feel unimportant or uncared for in your marriage – or if your spouse reports these feelings – again, shame is happening. In all of these issues and a variety of others, one primary emotion is the chief source of pain and like all emotions it is telling you something about yourself, not the circumstances, the back story or anybody else.

Cain Coming from Killing His Brother, Abel – Henri Vidal, 1896

What’s the message? Shame is saying that your belonging in the community has eroded – a serious problem for social creatures today and a huge problem in evolutionary terms. Getting kicked out of an ancient nomadic tribe would have been fatal. If the problem is behavior, then it’s possible that the behavior needs to change. Think “silence your cell phone” or “stop reading over my shoulder.” This is healthy shame. If the problem, however, is a judgment of your identity or your story, some quality about you, then the shame is derived from ego, and the ego needs healing.

Ego is a complex beast and a subject of its own, but it is usually what you mean when you refer to “I” or “me.” It feels like who you are (though it really isn’t). Pride boosts the ego and shame erodes it.

Who is judging this ego? Answering this question sets the direction for healing. If the negative evaluation is coming from an external source, its purpose is to transfer shame from the source to you. People protect their pride by shaming others, almost like a zero-sum game. This shame needs to be given back and better protective skills developed for the future. If the judgment is coming from within (perfectionism, idealism, “shoulds”), then the work lies in (self-) compassion, mercy, humility, acceptance, letting go. It’s an almost or an actual spiritual path of learning to be human in a contingent, imperfect world – the only world there is.

Shame is the master emotion because it guides so much of our behavior. We evaluate our every move in advance and in hindsight based on whether it will be evaluated honorably or shamefully. Any dose of ego-shame we experience is replayed, over-analyzed and becomes the key memory from the day. When this shame/pride system struggles long-term, depression and anxiety can result. We all long to have and to hold onto a place and a community where we are held in esteem, where we belong. Belonging, a form of love, is the core human psychological need.

A Union of Inter-dependence

To marry somebody is to emotionally depend on them before all others, in perpetuity. Likewise, it is to agree to be dependable for another, as first and last resort. This word “dependence” has a vulnerable quality – without their emotional support we are vulnerable to isolation and collapse from the burden of our emotional lives. We are not social creatures merely for the economy of groups; we socialize to bear the highs and lows of emotional experience and to validate meaning. Parents do these things for their children and partners do it for adults. (At all ages, community is the healthy alternative dependency.) A marriage is a dedicated community of one another. Psychology calls this “attachment.”

Quartz Arch, Peaks Island, ME

The connection or the bond of marriage is an inter-dependence. Emotional dependence is the substance and the life of marriage. You depend on your partner to help you feel what you feel (empathy), know that you are not alone (solidarity) and be assured that your pain or pleasure matters (compassion). In turn you reciprocate these things for your partner. They trust that they can depend on you, that you’ll always be there when emotions arise and that they’ll never have to wait in line.

Without this mutual emotional support inside confident inter-dependence, a marriage is dead, an empty seashell on the beach. It might look pretty on the outside. There may be plenty of other fruitful cooperation, but there is no living connection. Anybody in this situation knows it unambiguously. (Again, broader community is the fallback position.) Conversely, when your partner is dependable you can truly say that they are your “best friend.”

Argue With, Not About, Emotion

Most couples will initially present relationship difficulty as “a communication problem.” Many workplace conflicts will be “resolved” by a commitment to better communication. Stacks of volumes have been written about communication in all sorts of relationships and settings. In this little postlet, I want to highlight the role of emotions in contentious discourse. Reversing course, let’s start with the solution.


Doctor Patient Partnership – Regina Holliday

  • Do not justify how you feel or that you have some right to feel the way you do. Your emotions are not debatable. They are your truth. They may spring from cognitively shaky ground; they may arise from outright delusions. Yet emotions are happening and they are part of, and sometimes most of what we simply call “experience.” Just report on them. Voice them. Wave your arms or shake your fists about them. Definitely make faces. Most importantly, own them. They are yours, only yours. Try to let go of the idea that something or someone “made you feel” this way, like you have no freedom. That you feel, however, is a simple fact and if somebody wants to understand your experience, s/he will accept this fact and look further. You cannot persuade a person of the nose on your own face. Do not try. It needs no justification.
  • Do not try to undermine someone’s emotion. Do not attempt to demonstrate or argue that s/he “should not” feel a particular way, that s/he has “no basis or right” to express this or that emotion, or how “nobody would” have such feelings. See the first point. Feelings are not right or wrong, just or unjust, deserved or undeserved. They do not exceed or fall short of some mythical standard of appropriateness. They are neutral information. You can either use the information or discard it. What part of his/her memory, which internal script, which cognitive construct leads to this emotion? What is its precise flavour (what are the lesser affects mixed in)? What was the trigger? To begin to answer these questions is called empathy and the sharp point of an emotion is a sign leading you in the right direction. The volume and intensity of the emotion is proportional to the visibility and urgency of the sign (from the smallest fine print to the largest neon billboard). Do not argue about the sign.

“Heated” arguments are fueled by emotion and become self-perpetuating and never-ending when the content becomes the emotions themselves. We assume that the negative emotions of others are direct messages to us conveying that we are doing or have done something wrong. Their emotions are heard as our put-downs. (Technically, this is shaming and therefore most verbal/emotional fights are shame battles.) Probably this interpretation is the strongest and hardest to counter in couples’ conflicts, because the stakes are higher than in all other relationships. To counter this offense, I attack what I see as the source, the other’s emotion. Your feeling is wrong! How dare you!! (express that offensive feeling with no justification). Your “behaviour” is totally unwarranted. I have just invalidated the other person’s experience. S/he will definitely not like that (also highly shaming). When I say “attack,” I of course mean with anger. Then the process reverses and we are in an infinite loop.

Arguments about emotions are false from the premise and so there is no winning. Each thinks they can win by a better justification of their feelings and a more effective undermining of the other’s feelings. Such a communication strategy only inflicts a mutual emotional beating.

The effective response to someone’s emotion is empathy. The better response is compassion. The best response is mercy.

Everybody Needs a Creation Story

For mental security, you have to know whence you came. In the disintegration of shame, in the free fall of self-worth, in the evaporation of self-confidence, there must be some kind of backstop, a place past which you can descend no further. Beyond the backstop is the abyss, a word used in ancient scripture for pre-creation (Gen 1:2). The backstop is thus creation itself and to make it real and “sensible,” you must have a story around it. Creation is a big deal, so your story must be grand.

The Creation of Adam (detail) – Michelangelo, c. 1512

Here is my creation story. I rely heavily on it.

My creation story is an appropriation from, and an expression of, my chosen spiritual tradition, which shares its basic outline (the philosophia perennis) with the mystical branches of most of the world’s enduring religions. Starting from Aristotle and continuing through Thomas Aquinas, I believe in the “ultimate source, first cause or unoriginated origin,” which has many names or no name, but which I will simply call “God.” God is infinite and ultimate. From these qualities we can distill the more practical values of goodness, truth and beauty.

God is abundant and overflowing. God wants to express Godself. The known and unknown universe is God’s self-expression. God speaks and creation happens, not just once but in every moment. Some call this God’s Word (Jn 1:1-3), but perhaps “encyclopedia” is also a useful term, because the universe covers all that God wants to say. Just on this planet we are amazed by the plenitude of flora and fauna. Occasionally there is a news story about some new creature discovered at some remote location. Another entry in God’s encyclopedia.



Not just forms and species have entries in the big book. Every instance of every species has a separate entry. God’s expression has a different nuance in this jellyfish versus that jellyfish versus the one that lived a million years ago. And so it is with human beings.

Who are you? You are a unique expression of God. What God has to say in and through the totality of you has never been said before, is not being said elsewhere, and will never be said again. Even the human embryo that spontaneously aborts before the mother even knows she is pregnant was a unique, once-and-for-always piece of God’s self-expression. All of this, seen and unseen. And yet, the world is finite; the universe is finite; neither will ever fully express the infinite God.

Everybody’s default creation story is their family of origin – mom, dad, siblings, whoever your early caregivers were. The trouble with this story is that it is at best, wounding and at worst, toxic. We are all wounded by our families because they, like all people, are wounded themselves. In more severe cases, the wounding amounts to developmental trauma and chronic shame, causing significant personality and relationship issues in adulthood. How can you hold yourself together if your mother always tore you down or your father abused you?

Interestingly, adopted children, even those in best-case families, eventually want to know about their biological parents. They have an unshakable sense that a foundational chapter in their creation stories is missing.

The causality of how I got here obviously runs, in part, through my mother and my father. Maybe my “self” would not have existed without them and the random events that brought them together. They are my “entry point into history.” However, God was clearly going to express “me,” one way or another. God is intentional. Thus, I am not primarily my mother’s son or my father’s son, and my children are ultimately not all about me. The greater truth is that my father is my brother and my daughter is my sister, all gazing back to the One who speaks (more specifically, loves) us into existence.

“God does not love you because you are good. You are good because God loves you.” God, the infinite source of goodness, is the necessary and sufficient condition for your goodness. Contra Descartes, it is not “I think, therefore I am.” It is “God loves me, therefore I am.” This is what is means to be “created in the image of God.” If God doesn’t love you, you are not going to hell; you never existed in the first place.

A unique image of God, like a facet of an infinitely cut diamond, is your True Self – who you really are. We spend our lifetimes trying to buy into this ultimate reality. Our False Self, which is not bad (more like sad), seems to be both the means and the obstacle to our self-realization. We wrestle and struggle with it. Sometimes it feels like we are losing (the False Self feels more real). Compassion and mercy are always needed to cope with the low points. The question of your goodness, your worthiness, however, is a fake question if you have an adequate creation story.