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3 ways to avoid turning into your parents

Tracy Chapman

There’s this song called Fast Car by Tracy Chapman that’s been playing nonstop in my head lately.

One of my friends insists that Tracy sounds like a dude and he’s right, she kind of does.  And it’s beautiful and totally mesmerizing.  The way her voice purrs along with the highs and lows of the verses and the chorus makes you sink right into the words and picture the entire thing happening in your head (please listen to it right now if it’s been a while since you’ve heard it).

Fast Car is one of those songs that attempts to make a larger social commentary by telling the tale of one specific person.  (Although the opening line is “you’ve got a fast car,” the song could just have easily began “this is the story of a girl…”)

The song plays like the sad diary – or confession – of a girl turned wife turned mother as she works to escape from her family circumstances, her neighborhood, and a fate she feels she has been unfairly assigned.  The piece is an ode to the difficulty of living a work-your-bones-drycircling-the-drain kind of existence (a lá Billy Joel’s Movin’ Out/Anthony’s Song) and how one young woman attempts to escape from this cycle of poverty.

“You see, my old man’s got a problem,” the narrator introduces her family.  “He lives with the bottle, that’s the way it is.  He says his body’s too old for working, I say his body’s too young to look like his.  My momma went off and left him.  She wanted more from life than he could give.  I said ‘somebody’s gotta take care of him,’ so I quit school and that’s what I did.”

It’s a bleak story.

It’s no wonder she just wants to get away from it all, to jump into that fast car with that fast boy and drive off to live a carefree life somewhere else.

So that’s exactly what this girl does, and we learn that the good girl from the bad family ends up getting married to the fast boy with that fast car and she ultimately becomes trapped in a broken marital bind as painful as the one she tried to escape from in the first place.

“This song is so sad,” a buddy of mine said to me once.  “She turns into her mother.”

She loses her old social networks.  She becomes the sole financial provider for her new family.  Her husband continues to spend more time at the bar than he does with her and the kids.  She has no more hope and no more love in her heart for the man she married.

This motif, that of the cyclical nature of familial trauma, isn’t unique to Tracy’s musicality.

Eminem raps about it too: “man, I never thought that I would ever be a drug addict, nah – fuck that, can’t have it happen to me!  But that’s actually what has ended up happening, a tragedy, fucking passing it up, catching me.”

I hear this sentiment a lot in the real world as well (only sometimes with less F-bombs).  My family and friends and fellow social work students share similar stories:

“My mom smoked all the time when I was a kid, and it was gross and I swore to God I’d never end up like her…yet here I am, burning through a pack a day.”

My dad was an alcoholic, an asshole, a rageoholic, and I hated his guts.  But when I really think about it, my life looks a lot more like his than I’d like to admit.”

My parents got divorced and I hated them for it and promised I’d never do that to my kids, but right now I don’t know what else to do.”

I’ve written about this before, how patterns of pain and heartbreak within families are often replicated in the lives of the children who survived the initial emotional upheaval.  This is called a “vicious cycle.”  This is why many in my generation – especially those of us who come from families torn apart by neglect, abuse, divorce, absence, or addiction – fear turning into our parents more than anything.

To that end, here are three ways I think we can start to spare our children some of the pain we ourselves experienced:

  1. Swallow the meat and spit out the bones.  I love my parents deeply, and they have taught me multitudes about what it means to self-sacrifically lead and love your children.  But as my dad always tells me, take what works for you, what your parents did right, and use it on your kids.  The rest, what your parents screwed up on, junk it and do not pass it on.  Odds are, your parents did some things right, but they weren’t perfect, so keep what’s good and scrap the rest.  In so doing, you will equip future family generations to keep improving, to continue “spiraling upward” on a much better path.  So swallow the meat and spit out the bones (unless you’re a total vegetarian – unless your family really has no redeeming qualities – then just go ahead and make a salad from scratch).
  2. Remember that you are your own person.  We may be our parents’ children but we are first and foremost human beings.  The great risk our parents took when they acted to conceive us is similar to the blessing of dignity that God gifted each of us in creation – free will.  This means that because you are breathing right now – by the sole merit of your birth you have the right to follow your own path, to imitate or reject aspects of your parents’ lives, and to create your own family destiny completely independent of your past.  You are your own person, and it’s up to you to work for or against the divine purpose in this world when it comes to building future relationships.  It’s up to you, not anybody else.  This leads me to my final point:
  3. Own your own story.  We can’t talk about who we are without first talking about who we were.  And we can’t talk about who we were unless we feel safe enough to be open and honest with our own stories.  Are you in a place where you feel safe and comfortable enough to do this?  It’s important that you find social networks that support you in this.  And you do have a story.  We aren’t characters in some coffee-stained cheap paperback, we’re never static and unchanging personalities.  Simply, you are not who you were.  And whether you come from a broken family or not, I guarantee you that your story is wracked with life and death and pain and awkwardness and humor and hope and desperation and fear and it is your God-given responsibility to share your story with the world.  If we really are “only as sick as our secrets,” then the cure begins with raising your voice and owning what’s happened to you.  I promise you that even if you’re message is unpopular at first, you’ll be honoring what you’ve been given.

No matter how bad your childhood may have been, the insidious transformation from victim to perpetrator is far from inevitable.  You do not have to inherit your family’s legacy.  (God does not curse us for the sins of our fathers.)

It really is up to you.  You can decide today and every single day after that to pursue healthy relationships and not imitate your parents’ bad behavior, or you can refuse to think about it, hop into your shiny, fast car, and create another bloody pileup just down the road.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great article and insights. We ca break the cycles but we must be aware of them and vigilant to do things differently.

    October 30, 2013
    • Thank you Jeff. I often struggle figuring out how to do things on my own, especially in terms of how to have a healthy romantic relationship. That’s just something I haven’t really seen much of in my past. Sometimes it almost feels like social “pantomiming,” imitating what I am now seeing in others until I get it right.

      December 12, 2013

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