By Esther Mann, LCSW
As a teenager, I went through some rough years. I grew up in an ultra-Orthodox home and I was not able to thrive in that environment. Though my family, and my parents in particular, are very good people, the entire atmosphere was just too much for me. After years of rebelling and exploring, I ultimately found myself comfortable living a modern Orthodox lifestyle. I am an honest, hardworking, devoted family man today and feel I am in the place I’m supposed to be.
When I was looking to get married, I naturally dated modern Orthodox women and eventually met Elizabeth, whom I love dearly. Together we have three amazing children. But when we first got married, we gravitated towards spending important moments with Elizabeth’s family. We always spend yomim tovim with them, because I knew we would have a difficult time spending them with my family. When it came to family simchas on my side, more often than not, Elizabeth didn’t attend because every part of it was separate and I knew she’d feel very uncomfortable being alone, not really knowing anyone well enough to enjoy. So while I did try to attend most simchas, Elizabeth didn’t.
My relationship with my family is superficial. I make sure to call regularly, but the conversations are stilted and perfunctory, not about anything meaningful. I feel like I have to keep so much of my life under cover, because I don’t want to feel judged by any of them. I just want to keep things pleasant and safe.
Now that my children are getting older, I’m starting to feel a tremendous amount of sadness over the fact that my parents barely know my children, Elizabeth, or me. My oldest son is 10 and though his bar mitzvah is still a number of years away, when I picture the event, I want to believe that my family can be a part of it in a meaningful way. I want my family to know my son—all his special qualities, quirks, and sense of humor. I want my family to truly know me. Not as the rebellious teenager who caused them so much pain, but as a good man who means well.
I don’t know if there is anything I can do at this point to create a relationship with them. I always hated being judged and I’m afraid that if I’m open with them at all, and I talk freely about my life, I will once again feel like a bad kid. So I’m feeling stuck right now. Is there any way for me to reconnect with my family in a way that works for all of us? Though I feel close to Elizabeth’s family and have been blessed with a father-in-law who feels like a real father to me, I still feel lost or abandoned by my real father. And lately, more than ever, I’m feeling the loss.
Sometimes it takes being a parent to fully understand what one’s own parents went through trying to raise them and also to fully appreciate what it means to have children, wanting the best for them, trying one’s hardest, making mistakes, and feeling the sadness when the parent–child relationship is not what it should be. It’s a tough journey for all involved, and when the fit between parent and child is not successful, everyone suffers.
Now that you are in full father mode, already contemplating your son’s eventual bar mitzvah, it seems you are starting to reassess where you are at this time in relation to your family of origin, not only acknowledging but kind of mourning the loss of a meaningful relationship. I think it’s wonderful that you are able, at this point, to appreciate what is lacking between you and your family and that you desire to get to a more satisfying place with them.
As much as you feel your parents probably don’t know who you are as a grown man, I’m guessing you probably don’t know who your parents are either, beneath their beliefs and lifestyle. You know what they do, but do you know what they think? You know what their Shabbos table looks like, but do you know what they feel?
Your situation is far from hopeless, as you stated that your parents are “very good people.” Good people are caring, loving, and always striving for better. I’m guessing they would be thrilled if you were to reach out to them and try to get to know them better as they try to get to know you better. Start small; perhaps you could arrange a dinner out with them and your entire family. See how that goes. Remember, they are no longer the frustrated parents who didn’t know how to relate to you during your rebellious years. They are older now, have probably mellowed, and most likely are as anxious as you are to reconnect but were waiting to get some kind of signal from you that the coast is clear.
If the dinner goes well, consider inviting them for a Shabbos. This way, you’ll be on your own turf, and though I’m sure you’ll be respectful toward their comfort level, you will still be true to yourself. I’m hoping that your parents will be able to appreciate your efforts, the beautiful home that you and Elizabeth have built together, and your wonderful children.
Relationships—any kind—require work. Lots of work! But most people will tell you that it’s almost always worth the effort. It sounds like up until now, you haven’t put too much serious work into reestablishing a relationship with your parents. You’re sensing that now is the time for you to take on this challenge. As you move forward, you’ll test the waters. You’ll discover how much of yourself to reveal and which parts of your life are probably best kept private. But as the playing field between you, Elizabeth, and your parents has leveled in a certain way, you may find that you can truly appreciate them as people rather than as disciplinarians. And they, as well, can begin to see you, relate to you, and appreciate you in a fresh, new way.
So get started on this journey. I can’t give you any guarantees, but no matter how this plays out, you will know you gave it your best shot. And if all goes well, you will begin to enjoy a brand-new and exciting chapter with your parents.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.