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Adult Children

November 6, 2016


I recently encountered 2 abiding conundrums: one, a cliche: “You are only as happy as your least happy child.” was felt when our sons experienced the inevitable vicissitudes of  being in their 20’s.  The second, harder to accept at 61, is that I am only as happy as my childhood allows me to be.

That childhood has become a meme. If you have watched Mad Men you know the Greatest Generation was good at 3 things: Saving the World, Making Babies and Drinking. Their largest product, the Baby Boom, grew to feel that they were the hope of the World’s Saviors: We Boomers all had the empowerment of our parents’ triumphs over the Depression and Hitler with none of the Survivor Guilt.

The Boomer combination of narcissism and dysfunctional upbringings created a huge groundswell of self-imbued redemption boondoggles. We saved the world too, but from sexism, homophobia, racism and limitations on lust. Oh, and Nixon.

But the “Me Generation” “finding ourselves,”, whether in yurts, MBA’s or Transcendental Meditation had some hard-edged realities beyond the obvious narcissism.

Lots of babies born in a wash of PTSD distracting alcohol has consequences. Millions of MidCentury children like me found themselves in circumstances both intimate and terrifying. The hard-and-fast sanctity of marriage and cast-in-place societal roles and protocols meant each family was its own country – sovereign and exclusive. The ravages of Greatest Generation near-death made perspectives beyond the trials of war and deprivation complicated. When the moral imposition of Prohibition simply failed due to its own impossible overreach the entire country was flooded with an emotional solvent – booze – at the height of the Depression.

Drinking in the wake of Prohibition’s Epic Fail had no limitations – no seat belts, no Surgeon General’s Warnings, no sense children were anything but “resilient”. I know this because my family had 3 “resilient” children, and a very successful father and enabling mother. He was never drunk Before 5pm, but almost always was After 6pm. He was an extremely smart, industrious, capable man – Before 5pm.

He was not a happy drunk. His early life was not easy, and its impacts were never examined enough to give my father enough perspective to modify the anger he showed to anyone that he felt deserved it – After 6pm. Being the youngest I saw my other siblings reduced to “failures” in raw and loud verbal assaults, and my mother called far worse – as loud as a human voice can be – usually after we went to bed – after 8.

Janet Woititz (in the photo above) wrote “Adult Children of Alcoholics” (a group coined ACOA) in 1983 Hers was a startlingly obvious argument: extreme parental behaviors affect young children all the way into and through adulthood. But not too many paid attention to the book’s early presence. But with 100 million Boomers having grown up in the ethanol-infused MidCentury, the market found the book, and by 1986 it was on the NYTimes bestseller list.

I opened my office in 1987, my landlord referred me to a cleaning lady. She was in her mid-20’s, seemed a little sad around the eyes, and was a Wesleyan graduate. Being WASP, I did not pursue why a Wesleyan grad was cleaning offices. But we talked one Sunday afternoon as we toiled in the office alone.

I have no idea how it came up, but I noted my father was a very high-functioning alcoholic. She nodded, and said, “so were my parents”. We stared at each other for a couple of seconds and we both went back to work.

A week later, the Monday after her next cleaning Woititz’s book was on my desk, with a cassette of an electronic version of Pachobel’s Canon. Before the Death Threat of Middle Age made early AM workouts necessary I was always the first person into into my office. I had seen a synopsis of it in Time Magazine, but holding the book, and hearing the odd tones of mechanically rendered heartbreak on the office stereo, I silently cracked. My staff then arrived we went to work.

Like my Dad, I am high functioning.

Around turning 30, I was licensed as an architect, building our house, started my own practice, designing many things for many interesting people and writing a lot – all rotating around a life-saving marriage to a fellow high-functioning WASP. But despite all our resume check-off’s we both knew that the essence of life, for us, was having children.

Delaying the Prime Directive of Parenthood till mid-30’s to serve our Higher Functions, we had 2 healthy boys within 26 months. They were, as all babies are, perfect vessels waiting to be filled. Devotion to protecting their complete vulnerability from any threat, real or imagined, set my late 30’s old brain reeling.

Normally the parents of new parents are the gateway to perspective. But our parents were either dead, due to their MidCentury habits, or not very good sources of how to raise children given how they raised us.

After the birth of our second son, with a fully running about 2 year old, my mind flashed on Woititz’s most essential truth, that children of alcoholics “guess at what normal is.”

In my arms were 2 children that had no other function in their lives other than to be protected. In every way. Every moment. And I realized, because of the two love sponges who had blessed our home with their invasion, I realized that I was broken. Not tragically, but fundamentally. In every tangible way I was completely protected by my parents: food, clothing shelter, education, things – all in great abundance, freely given. Unfortunately the receiver of gifts determines their value.

So, growing up, the inevitable After 6pm screaming anger rendered all those protections ironic. There were no tragic aspects in my family’s MidCentury lives, but every protection existed under the threat of the provider. Our lives in MidCentury Mad Men Westchester were either in anticipation of After 6pm, or Before 5pm planning for the After 6pm Events. Eggshells got crushed no matter how lightly tread upon, pins and needles drew blood: but more for my siblings and mother: I learned to avoid ire via performance.

But having gone into my late 30’s with two new babies, I found that I had no method for coping, or any way to understand the fact I did not always have to cope. Underneath extreme overcompensating helicoptering I was a 6 year old parent.

I came to see that while I was good at performing,  I had never, ever, lived without a sense that everything could become After 6pm – even years after my father’s death. Now. Like all those ACOA’s in Woititz’s book, each gift, blessed event, act of grace was received by someone who clearly had earned none of it, and in fact did not deserve any of it. And nothing achieved was much beyond forestalling the discovery of my own very failed state, perfectly preserved in a part of my brain that will always be living in After 6pm.

My second conundrum was revealed when 3 fellow ACOA’s shared a brief moment several weeks ago. I was recently with a 75 year old and 40-something year old – like me, both fathers of wonderful children, both married to immensely lovely humans. Both had a childhood not dissimilar to mine. All 3 of us have had no tragedy, no health limitation, enough money – all 3 are “High Performing” – work, extracurricular and human achievements galore.

Basking in the glow of the 40-something year old’s exquisite 2 year-old running about our feet, we compared family notes. As we talked of booze and yelling in our pasts, the 75 year old, a dear friend, says to the 40-something year old who I barely knew: “30 years ago Duo gave me Janet Woititz’s  book” – the 40-something year old said “What book is that?” He was young enough that his awareness of his personal blindspots and tender bits did not need revelation: the ACOA reality is now just another part of the cultural miasma.

Then the 75 year old then said something to the 40-something year old that, once again, cracked me: “Duo told me, when I was your age, that he knew he would never get over it, and neither would I. Ever. And he was right.” High Functioners that we are, we all knew that “not getting over it” just meant that our 6-year old mind was never going away. Ever.

You are only as happy as your unhappiest childhood, but you can know that you are loved – you might not feel lovable, ever, but Love is as real as the night terrors I have most every time I sleep. I know, upon awakening that any love I have is God’s Grace, and that I have nothing to do with it: and that’s probably why I can, mostly, accept it.






3 Comments leave one →
  1. Renee A McIntyre permalink
    November 6, 2016 5:35 pm

    Your words are profound, you may never “get over” parts of your legacy, but when you continue to get through parts over and over you realize you don’ t have to be victimized by your early experiences. You have managed to love and be loved, and in the end that is what truly determines the quality of our lives. Thank you for sharing, your boys are lucky to have grown up in a different universe.


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