Everything that is good about me as a parent was learned from my own parents. They have given me a deep insight into what it means to be a good parent and a good grandparent. Their parenting approach taught me how to love freely and to make sure my children know how much they are valued. They taught me the importance of love without conditions. 

Yes, my parents taught me so many invaluable lessons, and I am deeply grateful to them. But, the lessons I learned from them didn’t come from their successes as parents. No, all of the lessons I learned from them came from their parenting failures.

I spent much of my childhood wondering if I was truly loved by my parents or if I even mattered to them. I felt like a nuisance to them and learned early on to never ask them for anything — no sleepovers, no rides to the mall, no hugs, no money, nothing. The answer was always going to be no. 

So, I tried hard to be perfect because maybe, just maybe, that would make them love me.

From the time I was 10 years old, I cooked all the meals, did all the laundry, did all the cleaning, and tried my best to never upset them. Anything less than an A in school was the equivalent of an F in their eyes, so I leaned into my schoolwork and became both my high school and college valedictorian. I was desperate for their approval.

But nothing I did was ever enough — it could never be enough. I could never change who they were. 

I eventually came to see it was never about me not being good enough — it was about them not being able to show love. They just weren’t equipped to be good parents.

Yes, the emotional scars from their parenting will always be there for me. But, I have grown to realize that I owe them a bit of gratitude, for they taught me exactly how NOT to be a parent.

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By the time I became pregnant with my first child, I thought I had processed all the pain I had experienced from the way my parents raised me. I was wrong. Having my own children quickly brought all of those feelings back to the surface.

Still to this day, a decade and a half into parenting, no matter what I do to re-process my childhood and assimilate it into my current life, those pesky past experiences have a way of resurfacing each time my children reach a new developmental milestone, guiding me toward a better way of parenting.

Over and over again, the pain of my childhood rears its ugly head and teaches me how to parent better. 

I have allowed my parents to continue to be a very small part of my life. We are friends on social media, I call them every few weeks to check in, and I invite them to every holiday and birthday. I don’t do it for me or for them. I do it for my children and so does my sister. 

Before either of us had children, my sister and I decided that despite our parents’ limitations and shortcomings, we would never stand in the way of their ability to have a relationship with their grandchildren. We felt they deserved an opportunity to be grandparents, and our children deserved an opportunity to have grandparents. 

Thankfully, my parents had a bit of a rebirth when my oldest son was born. He was their first grandchild, and they were all in. They came to meet him at the hospital. They came to every birthday and holiday and set up weekly dinners with us. They held him and told him how much they loved him. They sat on the floor and played with him. They called us regularly to check in and say I love you. They invited us to visit them at work and showed him off to their friends. 

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I began to see my parents in a much different light. 

They were capable of showing love and being selfless. They were consistent and my son knew he had their love. I began to think that maybe all of the stuff they put me through as a child was worth it if it meant they could now show up for my son and any other grandchildren that might come along. Perhaps they were just better suited as grandparents instead of parents.

But, eventually, all of their old demons found their way back into our lives.

Their alcohol use and self-sabotage returned. Their inability to keep promises was there again. The new brighter versions of them eventually faded away and the versions of them I had grown up with were all that was left.

Birthday parties were missed. Holidays were skipped. Sporting events and dance recitals were no longer attended. Phone calls and texts to all of the grandchildren no longer happened. 

Today, most of their six grandchildren don’t even remember what it was like to have the good version of their grandparents. They don’t miss them at birthday parties, holidays, or events because they don’t have any working memory of them ever being present there. 

But my oldest, at nearly 15 years old, does. He remembers it all. 

He is the one child who has lots of memories of how good they could be. He remembers what it felt like to stand on the pitcher’s mound and see them in the stands watching him. He remembers what it felt like to know he could always count on them to show up for the important things. He remembers what it felt like to have them ask about school, his interests, and buy him the toys he most wanted.

He remembers what it felt like to know they loved him. And so, he now knows how much it hurts to have them disappoint. 

I know that feeling all too well.

I didn’t want this life for him. I didn’t want him to know the pain of not feeling good enough for them. I didn’t want him to feel the disappointment of realizing they aren’t coming to something, even though they said they would. I didn’t want him to realize that he can never truly count on them.

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Perhaps I failed him by allowing them to make a connection because in doing so, I left the door open for them to let him down. I knew it was a risk and I took it anyway. And now, he hurts for what they took from him.

I suppose I should be thankful to my parents once again. Not only have they taught me how NOT to be as a parent, but they have also taught me how NOT to be as a grandparent. Because of them, I now know exactly the kind of grandparent I want to be for my children. Because of them, my own son knows the value of sticking to your word and keeping your promises.

While my heart will forever ache for the things my parents didn’t give to me and the things they will never give to my children, I am also eternally grateful for the lessons they taught me through their inadequacies. 

They have given me, and now my son, the gift of insight and that truly is a priceless gift.

Jenni Brennan

Jenni Brennan, LICSW is an author, podcaster, college professor, therapist, and mother. Her work centers around the topics of grief, health and wellness, relationships, and parenting.