For The Coupledom: What to Ask Your Parents While They Are Alive

The sad season of the global Pandemic and its devastation in our nation prompts many questions and offers new opportunities. For the Coupledom and for adult children everywhere, the mortality reality accentuates the limits of “time” and the unpredictability of loss. In my work, I encourage couples and individuals to be curious about their parents’ world. My personal experience informs my professional guidance. While in graduate training, I had the good fortune to interview my healthy parents without knowing that they both would die suddenly and unexpectedly not too many years hence, in their late sixties – in my father’s case, only two years after our “interview.” More than three decades later, I think of additional questions but I do have the basic outline of how they saw their pre-parenthood life at the time of our interviews. And who they were not as parents, but youngsters and teenagers impacted by multiple variables encountered as they developed. Of course, learning about them adds flavor and context to my own upbringing. For the Coupledom, more self-awareness aids in the navigation of intimacy and parenthood. The more we understand about our parents’ world, culture, and context of their upbringing, the more we can understand what we’ve distilled from them and sift through what should remain and what no longer pertains to the now.

Collection of old family photos, for The Couples Tool Kit post, "For The Coupledom - What to Ask Your Parents While They Are Alive."

I cannot say it was an easy assignment – to ask my parents to agree to an interview about their past, particularly my dad, a private and reticent man who never talked about himself to his children. This was a daunting assignment. I felt like I was breaking a taboo, for both of us. His kind, but remote and preoccupied demeanor always seemed to include a warning: “caution – do not go there.” I believe he was nervous, and I certainly was, leading up to our meeting. Our time together had a profound and long lasting impact on me and though nothing shocking was revealed and my father maintained a degree of emotional protection of himself and regarding his feelings about his parents, I felt deeply touched by his willingness to do the interview, very outside his comfort zone, as well as enriched by our meeting. And the time spent changed how I saw myself in relation to my dad, the only male in my immediate family. Those couple of hours gave me additional tools which continue to help me navigate my Coupledom hurdles today.

In today’s world, the focus has been on the search for our roots, our DNA pathway, our unknown origins and mystery relatives. There are many unexpected joys in tracing our many inheritances; why we look the way we do, have certain aptitudes, strengths, and vulnerabilities. For those whose roots were stolen from them by the injustices of wars and slavery, this information is even more critical and priceless. For couples, information about their family ancestry can be a rich sharing and adds to how they see their children. But often, a treasure trove of data is sitting right next door, virtually or literally, that remains unpacked, un-mined, a vein of gold in a cavern of stone. Even when the investigation into family origins is shared and celebrated with parents, couples are still resistant to engaging parents in more personal conversations about their past, their perceptions, their relationships with their families of origin. Adult children learned, as I did, the cues of what conversations are up for grabs and which ones don’t come naturally or willingly. And here is some shocking news: Adult children are busy and absorbed in creating and sustaining their future – holding their present together; the balancing act of adulthood. So who has time or even the wonder, of knowing others beyond the obvious – the cliched versions of family histories. It is how we see much of life, merely the outlines in the moment, as we drive by emotionally and factually on route to a supposed essential destination.

For the Coupledom and the individual, all the information gleaned from parents provides tools of understanding that are priceless in value and morph and change as the years go by. The information ages well, like a bottle of Port or the patina on a vintage watch, increasingly complex and interesting over time.

During this Pandemic with the virtual tools we are all accessing, even parents at a distance can be reached easily for conversations and sharing. Zoom, Face Time, or simple cellular encounters are at the ready. Be curious and be kind. And most of all, be brave. It isn’t easy to ask a private parent to tell you about their childhood, going beyond the clichés which are easily dished up. Nope, now with a bit more patience and gentle pressing and encouraging real reflection, understanding of your parents’ worlds will emerge. If the intimacy of conversation is tough, ask them to write thoughts they’d like to share, about themselves as children, young marrieds, human beings with identities that are not limited to their roles as parents, laborers, grandparents. Rather, as humans with the many threads of their lives woven into a patchwork of memories and emotions.

Understanding our parents better directly correlates with understanding ourselves. Not a cause and effect, but once again, something more colorful and textured. And how intimacy and trust and expectation are influenced in unconscious ways through the histories and identities of parents. Pandemics are a frightening time and the unknown outcome, short- and long-term, is beyond our view. We cannot fathom what this crossroad in our collective history will mean for our future or our children’s future. As a nation, we are gobsmacked. So let’s adventure into mysteries we can uncover and that will deepen and enrich our individual selves and our Coupledom. We are losing so much now, we don’t want to lose the treasures right before our eyes.

Give it some thought and stay safe and connect.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2020

One Response to “For The Coupledom: What to Ask Your Parents While They Are Alive”

  1. kathleen coffield

    this is so great JILL..I realize someday we will be inerviewed about this time..following you helps me make sense of it..your parents must be proud reading this:)love always,kitty


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