There is a central proposition around the act of being a parent, that articulates, ‘a parent is only as happy as his/her most unhappy child’. Obviously this is an American epithet, where the pursuit of happiness has been embedded in the cultural code. Nevertheless, even outside the U.S., the linkage - inevitable, inescapable, and perhaps even insurmountable- between a parent’s sense of self and the depth of unhappiness of his/her children cannot be denied. Hugh Jackman and others are now playing in a new movie entitled, “The Son.” The movie follows Peter whose hectic life with a new infant and partner is upended when his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern), shows up at his door to discuss their son Nicholas’ mental health struggles. On TheHollywoodreporter.com, reported in a piece by Christa Pina, January 17, 2023, entitled, ‘Hugh Jackman Says Filming ‘The Son’ Made Him a ‘Different Parent,’ Jackman is quoted as saying, “Every scene is this terrifying fear as a parent where you don’t know what to do. You don’t know how to help. You’re doing your best. Everything seems to not work…My father passed away during filming, and I think I was just confronting a lot of things as past parent, fears that you have.”
Kate Taylor, writing in The Globe and Mail, published yesterday (January 17, 2023) in a piece entitled, “Hugh Jackman-starring drama The Son is a cruel, tolerance-testing affair,” writes:…The Son is more interested in the impact an adolescent’s withdrawal and pain has on his divorced parents, most especially his father….(T)he film’s perspective is largely that of the father, Peter, a highly successful Manhattan lawyer played by Hugh Jackman. This A-type personality is preoccupied with his work, his pretty young wife and their new baby—but he also is such a rational and self-confident character that he finds it impossible to understand a young man who would rather wander the streets than go to school. His initial reaction is that you can’t just do that, although he gradually comes around to the realization that he has to help his son, deposited on his doorstep by his ex-wife Kate who can no longer cope with the boy…..Anthony Hopkins steps in with a rather improbably cameo as Peter’s old father, in which he reveals he, too, abandoned his wife and son when Peter was a teen…
will be innumerable far more penetrating, cogent and insightful reflections on
this film, from others more professionally and personally schooled and
experienced than this scribe , personal
experience of the impact of abandonment, and the deep anguish of participating
in a broken family, leaving three daughters to their own devices, along with
their mother, , decades later, - drivenness.
However, my pain is minimal in the light of the chaotic sea in which three
teen-aged daughters were forced to swim, following my withdrawal from the
mended, as if they were analogous to a broken femur, even one broken in several
places needing plates and screws, remains an open puzzle. There are so many
differences between a fractured femur and a fractured family. The femur is able
to be captured on film, indicating the location, the dimension, the
complications and the potential orthopedic surgical interventions to bring it
back to strength, stability and stamina. The fractured family, on the other
hand, is a complex confluence of both conscious and unconscious dynamics
pulsating in the minds, hearts and psyches of several individuals. The
competing trend lines of motives of parents in several directions, including
engendering ambition, social skills, frugality, some form of spiritual and
religious identification, and an introduction to the activities of both the
arts and athletics all function, much like flowing and changing weather
patterns. These many variables also depend on such variables as the mood of the
moment, not only of the parents but also of the child(ren), the qualities and
relationships of coaches, teachers, friends, and the various interpretations of
those patterns, hourly, daily and over a longer stretch of time. One’s
blindness to the transference of a mother’s voice to a spouse, and the
blindness of my own and another’s projections, also unconscious expressions of
something deeper than consciousness knows, are among the floating winds in
which any family tries to navigate.
choice to swim for the ensuing decades apart from at least one parent, is a
choice to be both commended, for its strength, stoicism and endurance, and
“Success,” especially for type “A” men and women, is a
highly volatile concept. And the implications grow both in intensity and
complexity if both parties tend to be type A. In that situation, success
carries the freight of how each parent has integrated previous notions of
success from parents, grandparents, mentors, coaches and teachers of the past.
It also includes, whether openly or more discreetly, dreams and fantasies of
the parents that comes not only from their highest hopes, but also from their
perceptions of the ‘height’ (metaphoric) of the potential of each child’s
capacity. And all of this confluence of so many almost imperceptible rivers,
flowing in and through the same kitchen and dining room tables, in and through
the family room, and out into the wider world, can be and often are like ships
passing in the night, without the benefit of radar, telling them where they are
in relation to themselves as well as in their relationships with the others in
The last half century, too, has been impacted by a variety of influences of the psychological fraternity, some of which have been effective in healing broken relationships, others not so much. None of those potential influences, naturally, were available to the children of parents whose kids were born in the 70’s. In fact, even the concept of seeking, or especially of needing, counselling, in those years, was a mark of considerable weakness, to be assigned and required by those who were in conflict with the courts, the school administration or the social services sector. Whether such services would have been helpful in forestalling a family fracture can only be assessed in hindsight, even if such supports were sought and tolerated and integrated.
None of us can escape the reality that, from the perspective of decades later, we all, each and everyone of us, could have and would have conducted themselves differently, given what we all both know and have experienced in the interval. However, living with the stark reality of brokenness, betrayal (probably more as betrayer than as victim), and the prospect that, as Jackman says of a line from the movie, “Sometimes love is not enough!”, many of us are left with the truth both of our own perceptions, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours, and the impact of those on others.
Reflections around how each of us failed, not only ourselves, but also others we care about, continue to fuel much of the perceptions, attitudes and words and actions are that we take to help us heal and to help us grow. It is only in and through every hour and day that we catch glimpses of light out of the darkness we have been in, and knit that light into the tapestry of our sense of self, another of the multiple, complex, flowing, growing, changing and also declining realities and truths and perceptions into our own sunset…personal biography.
It is our biography that, like a river flows in and through us, and in and through all of the situations, persons, projects and dreams and fantasies of our bodies, minds, hearts, psyches (and in and through all family members)…much of which we continue to protect from full disclosure.
In this moment, I am reminded of the Jesuit John Powell’s little book, entitled, “Why I do not tell you who I am”….answered by the freighted and legitimate reason: “Who I am is all I have, and if I disclose it to you, you might reject it!”
For all of the drama, conflict, tension and disappointment in which I have been an active participant over the years, one of the constants is the unconscious, becoming conscious discipline of keeping my personal secrets, a lesson/habit/requirement and serious failure for which I am deeply sorry, that I developed from early childhood.
Keeping secrets, in order to present a public face of the kind of pride and upstanding family that went to church every Sunday, while things far less honourable were going on inside the home, was a kind of straight-jacket analogous to the mind of military discipline required of men and women in the United States Marines. While military discipline was not either understood or explained, it was effectively the ‘order’ of the day in our home. And the vestiges of its impact continue to raise their ugly head even today, although with far less influence and respect.
Sensitivity, compassion, empathy, and tolerance, including patience with both self and others, all of which ring like a hymn to the highest ideals, are not qualities that come in a store-bought package from Walmart. They are also not high on a totem pole of values among those whose lives are considered, by themselves especially, to be examples of ‘competitive and stoic’ engagement and endurance. Sharing feelings, disclosing anxieties, taking time to listen to what might be said, behind the immediate need….these are all qualities needing deep and extensive steeping in and through experience, mentoring, modelling and both imitation and interpretation.
As a failed father, in many ways, I have only been introduced to the profound value of these qualities over the last few decades. That is not to excuse my insensitivity, my pride, my impatience and my stubbornness. Nor is it to escape the reality of having been a significant participant in the life-long pain of others, including three now grown adult daughters.
Apologies are not paving stones to forgiveness or reconciliation. They are merely internal reckonings with one’s internal life. And the internal life, far from the madding crowd, is really the only life that matters, when all is said and done. How does one come to consciousness about such concepts as enantiodromia, the fusion of the ego and the mask, when one’s performance is equated with one’s identity, and the process of breaking free of such an enmeshment? How does one separate one’s professional vocation, for example, and the multiple performances entailed in that pursuit, from one’s inner drives and motivation. Only much more recently have I discovered some of the thoughts and concepts that could/would have served my needs nearly forty years ago. One such insight comes from James Hillman reported by Matthieu Larsen Morava, from Archetypal Psychology in the Public Group, James Hillman – Archetypal Psychology on Facebook:
Vocation is a very inflating spiritual idea. One to one. God to me. Notice how our idea of Renaissance man is a polytheistic fantasy. He does all kinds of things. But vocation addresses the ego and makes it a specialist-then you ‘believe in yourself—and that’s another trap of that devil, belief – because who is believing whom? I am believing in myself-all ego, and then I have a mission. Now that fantasy of the farm is polytheist, and who is to say what is THE important thing of a farm: the man who buys eggs from me would like more eggs and sees the time I spend chopping wood a waste. ‘Have a secretary do it, You have the best eggs around, Produce more,, and even better ones.’ Specialization: the best egg man around; and that’s monotheism and mission and early death!’
And the public, vocational, professional life, to which I was so deeply committed, may have been little more than an illusion, both to and for me, and certainly to and for my former family. In my adoption of a role, mask and the ambition to fulfil that role, I actually thought and believed that I was doing what I was supposed to do, only to learn, like so many others, that being true to oneself, if and when one discovers who/what that is, is what matters.
The difference between feeding a public image and living a life of personal integrity, authentic and honest to one’s own identity, remains as both the greatest single lesson of my life, as well as its most significant disappointment. And, even though I consciously recognized that “something inside” kept my chained to the wheel of ‘work’, another accomplishment, performance, another column, another editorial, another advertisement, another interview…all of it consuming as many as sixteen-to-eighteen hours every weekday, I knew I had to get off the hamster’s wheel. Unfortunately, preparing for active ministry, and the anticipated process of reflection, meditation, study, prayer and intense supervision in pastoral education, as I perceived to be an antidote to the ‘wheel’, only changed the set of expectations, without altering the intense and dominating drive to perform.
Only after hitting the wall of exhaustion and rejection did I come to my senses, too late to make up for the many omissions as partner, father, friend, those essentials of a healthy bio.