The Truth About Parents

This week, I read the obituary for Gudrun Burwtiz. Her father was Heinrich Himmler – the Nazi architect of the Holocaust. The focus of the obituary was her undying loyalty and defense of her father that continued throughout her lifetime.

Last week, I attended a lecture by Caroline Fraser, whose book Prairie Fires examines the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder – author of the Little House on the Prairie series.  Her talk focused on how much Wilder left out of the stories of her family and in particular her parents.  Never accounting for many of their financial struggles, frequent moves and most importantly unfair treatment of Native Americans – including stealing/squatting on their land.

Finally, I recently finished reading Atticus Finch: The Biography, which chronicled the challenges Harper Lee had in understanding her father’s views on race and how that played out dramatically differently in her two works of fiction (The revered Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird and the reviled Atticus inGo Set a Watchman).

All three of these situations bring to light the challenges that our children will face when it is time for them to tell our story.  And more specifically, what responsibility do we have to make sure they get it right.

Of course, we want our children to respect and love us, to hold us in high esteem – perhaps even put us on a pedestal.  But this has the potential to do both them and us a disservice.

For Burwitz, this meant living a life in denial and isolation.

For Wilder, it contributed to unhelpful myths of self-reliance and “settling the frontier”.

For Lee, it resulted in creating an conflicting portraits of her father that people use for their own purposes.

At some point in their lives, it is important for our children to have a realistic understanding about who their parents are. Where we came from, what we had working for us, what struggles we had to overcome. What are our dreams, regrets, fears and hopes. The whole muddy mess.

Last semester, one of my student’s final project dealt with the role mothers play in their children’s success.  She interviewed several mothers – including her own – asking them to reflect on their own moms.    One question stood out:  

When was the first time your realized your mother was human?

When she shared this question with the class, a profound and knowing silence came across the room.  Recognizing a truth that we must all come to grips with.

We are all human and our children will find out one way or another.  Isn’t it best we told them first? 

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