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parent loss | mother + father

Parentless Parents.jpg
excerpted from:

"PARENTLESS PARENTS - How the Loss of our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children"

by permission of the author,
Allison Gilbert 

Pages 149-151. Published by Hyperion. Copyright 2011.

4 minute read
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“Who's in my Corner?” (marriage issues)

Marriage experts agree that relationships are affected when spouses have differing views of money, religion, and how they should discipline their children. But when it comes to parentless parents—and the men and women they’re married to—I think marriage experts are overlooking a critical factor: the differing experiences of parental loss. No matter what our backgrounds and experiences, losing our parents has the potential to shape us as mothers and fathers and husbands and wives as much, I think, as anything else.

Which is why, according to the Parentless Parents Survey, nearly 50 percent of all respondents feel their spouses don’t appreciate what it’s like for them to be a parentless parent. And, it’s precisely the reason parentless parents say they’re much more likely (nearly doubly so, in fact) to find the kind of support they’re looking for among friends who have also lost their parents—than their own husbands and wives.

This could explain why even the ordinary task of choosing a baby’s name can be so problematic. “Naming our daughter was a horrible process,” Amy, a former journalist told me in an email. She and her husband, Bruce, struggled for years to have a child, eventually conceiving with the help of a donor egg. “I wanted her middle name to be my maiden name. My husband was furious, saying that I was ‘stealing’ his chance to name his child. He demanded that we have two middle names so that he could choose a name too. Never mind that she already had his last name, and genes, and that his parents would play a huge role in her life. I felt two middle names detracted from the honor to my parents. How could he not get that giving her this middle name was an important way to honor my family? Eventually, I guilted him into legally dropping the middle name he wanted. The name is still a sore spot in our marriage. I am STILL stunned a year and a half later by his lack of understanding.”

In some cases, parentless parents are just less willing to compromise. Amy dug in her heels. Catherine Hays wasn’t prepared to negotiate her “core values.” And Colleen Orme, the mom from Virginia with those three sports-crazed boys, refused to settle.

About twenty years into her marriage, Colleen’s husband, Tom, started pulling away, and nothing she could do seemed to bring him back. The rift got so bad the two separated for four months. “I didn’t want to be roommates. I wasn’t interested in staying in an unhappy marriage. Emotional intimacy is very, very important to me because of the loss of my parents. I don’t think we have all the time in the world like everybody else thinks they do, and I want to make the most of it.” While the couple has since reunited, and Colleen still refers to Tom as the love of her life, she says she’ll call it quits for good if their relationship deteriorates again. “I know from personal experience that life can be over in a flash. I’m not interested in wasting time.”

No matter how much a couple tries, some marriages simply don’t make it. Julie Hallman in Florida was married when I first met her, but told me during the writing of this book that she and her husband were getting divorced. Both Catherine and Julie say the fact that they’re parentless parents, and their spouses are not, contributed to the termination of their marriages.

But grief can also make relationships stronger. Scott Stanly, co-author of the book Fighting for Your Marriage and codirector of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver says spouses can adjust to differing experiences of loss in much the same way couples fine-tune their relationships after one partner develops drastically different interests. “We call these changes ‘world-view differences.’ When a wife decides to become a vegan. When a husband abandons or changes religion. These represent major shifts, just like losing a parent, that redefine you as a person and change who you are as a spouse. Couples are rarely on the same path throughout a marriage. Those who recognize the differences and accept them, not resent them, will have more success than others.”

Ultimately, I’ve come to terms with the fact that Mark and I have been forced down different roads. I’m even glad. I know all too well what we would have had to go through if we’d been able to walk arm-in-arm.

One day Mark will know much more fully what I’ve been feeling—perhaps not everything, but at least more of it—and I will be there for him, just as he’s been there so willingly for me. In the meantime, and even though I love him completely, I still feel as if I’m standing alone and there’s a sharpshooter trained on my side of the family. One by one the gunman lines us up, fixes us in his crosshairs, and takes us down. I parent with the expectation that I’ll be next, and it’s because of this that I mother the way I do. I need to create memories. I must teach lessons. I have to be both parent and grandparent to my children.

Mark doesn't bear the same fear or urgency. He can just be.

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