The Transparent Parent – and the Opaque Kind

“Daddy isn’t solid,” two of my children once upon a time agreed. “He’s transparent.”

It was an out-of-the-mouths-of-babes moment, children trying to make sense of a father’s choices. A father – one of those people whose job description in children’s minds includes the mandate WILL REMAIN CONSTANT WHILE WE ARE IN MOTION – suddenly changing more and faster than they were.

The pilot for a new television series from Amazon called “Transparent” sidesteps most of the issues my children did and still do grapple with, the upheaval we experienced as a family, by making its feminizing protagonist the long-divorced father of three adults, a man in late middle age, seemingly peripheral to his children’s lives. My family’s experience differed in these particulars: marriage intact, the children, well, children (the youngest under two) at the point at which their father began to opt for a new life as a woman. The television pilot’s family doesn’t have much in common with mine, yet a couple of moments during its 30-minute introduction to viewers are resonantly familiar. Those moments push at the red hot buttons of our experience, and, from what I’ve been told, those of other families in which a parent chooses gender identity change as well. But the questions raised go beyond this demographic, potentially being asked in any family shaken by a parent’s life choices. 

The television dad invites his children to dinner with the intention of telling them his momentous news, then finds himself unable to spit it out in the face of their guesses (they think he has cancer) and their exuberant, self-absorbed chatter. After dinner, alone with his youngest child, he tells her that she has always been the one most able to see him. Still later, during a telephone conversation with a friend, he wonders how he could have had three such selfish children.

This pair of comments inspires a host of questions.  Do our children ever truly see us? As people, and not just as their parents? Can they? Do we owe our children the revelation of our true selves?  Do we owe them our discretion? What do they owe us?

In less individualistic cultures, it’s commonplace to assume that adult children will bear responsibility for aging parents. In ours, we don’t expect that kind of caretaking. Yet we sometimes involve our children, as children, in the emotional burdens of our lives, our struggles. Try to make them our confidants. Our pals. We may think them selfish if they decline. Many of us overshare with our children from time to time and what I’ve witnessed of childhood trauma has made me believe that for the sake of their all-to-brief childhoods and for the sake of the adults they will become – better not.  

I am not talking about sheltering children from life’s realities, harsh or otherwise. I’m talking, simply, about using children – asking for their knowledge of, their attention to, our adult lives for our own ends.

Children are vulnerable to being used by their parents in a myriad of ways ranging from the deliberately sadistic to the unconsciously almost-but-never-quite benign. When parents make dramatic changes in their lives – initiate an unexpected divorce, say – especially changes with consequences not just for themselves but also for their children, there is an impulse to explain ourselves, our complex, messy, adult missteps and desires. We may be motivated by children’s demands for information. We may hope that if they understand us, the seismic shifts will be easier for them to weather. Maybe we don’t want them to blame themselves for the things we’ve done.

Or maybe we don’t want them to blame us. Maybe if they see us as the individuals we are, and not just as their parents, they’ll approve our decisions and wish us well, even if our choices alter their lives.  

“I need my children to see the real me.” That’s a statement I’ve heard, a statement some of us have sometimes spoken. It’s an expression of adult need. The child becomes a function of that need: the parent wants to feel accurately reflected in the children’s eyes. Because parenthood isn’t supposed to be about adult needs, adult wishes, it might be tempered: “My children need to know the real me.”

Only problem is, they don’t. They need to know you as their parent. If, as adults, they want a fuller understanding of your story, they’ll come to you – out of their need. If you want to be known in the way an adult knows, an adult who is not your offspring, find a friend. Get a life.

Parenthood is a relationship of one-way need fulfillment, a relationship of exquisite, delicate imbalance. Any parental demand for a change in that imbalance imposes a terrible burden. Imposes, often, trauma. When a parent demands that a child see and know the whole person, and not just the parent, it isn’t only the specifics of what the child may be forced to confront that is damaging – though, certainly, that may be part of it – it is the fact of being used.

When we feel an impulse to make some revelation, to share some aspect of our adult selves with our kids, we need ask ourselves: whose benefit it is for?

I say all this as a parent whose own opacity has had its share of holes, and who is grateful for children not afraid to tell me so. I am now chided and teased for past expressions of financial anxiety that I could swear (swear!) I thought but never made in their hearing. When I said these things (did I really?) I wasn’t hoping my children would recognize the real (insolvent) me. But I also wasn’t checking my adult baggage where it belonged, outside our parent-child relationship. Despite my sincere apologies when this failure of discretion is pointed out, despite how hard we laugh at me, and despite recalling the terrifying times we passed though together, I can’t believe I ever allowed myself to utter so much as a passing qualm aloud. What was I thinking of?

The “Transparent” pilot is wading into waters uncharted by television but well known to me. Hopefully when it has its protagonist speak of selfish children the irony is deliberate. This isn’t yet clear, but there is reason to hope – the show has a sense of humor. Thank goodness. I know my family couldn’t have survived without ours.

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