Claudia Black's book It Will Never Happen to Me talks about four patterns children take in an alcoholic household.
Two children could each take two. Or each take all four. It's about survival, remember?
But there is another pattern. The little mother. Or father.
It is often the eldest child but not always. They pick up the parental slack. They learn to do All the Things. They wash dishes, make food, help the younger ones get dressed, dry their tears, mend clothes, teach them the alphabet. Help them. They become the real parent in the house while the parents are drunk or fighting or checked out or on drugs.
And the result? Well, it sucks. They are very very good workers. They are loved by bosses. But usually they are estranged from their family, because of displacement.
The other children are FURIOUS at their parents. The Mother. The Father. Who are drunk, drugged, checked out. But it is not safe to be angry at the Mother, the Father, the Stepfather, the abuser. And we love our parents, even the abusers.
So the anger is displaced. To the one person who has given them unconditional love. The little parent. The child who has stepped in to take the parent role becomes the focus of the displaced anger.
Which breaks the little parent's heart. Because they love the Mother, the Father, the children that they have raised. And often they are only just out of their teens and suddenly everyone in their family of origin hates them. The other children tell stories about how horrible they are.
So the little parent cries and leaves the family. They work because they are very very good at working. They are terrified of intimacy and are fearful of making friends because they have been rejected by the people they love most: their family of origin.
The other children become adults. They may eventually do the emotional work needed to stop displacing their anger. To put the anger where it belongs. On the abuser, on the alcoholic, on the addict, who they may still love. They may be able to do the work needed to speak about the anger and to forgive.
My aunt told me in the last few days that my father never forgave his father. My father was sent to prep school. He got a scholarship from getting a perfect score on the early SATs. He hated the prep school. His parents moved while he was at prep school. They gave away his dog, they threw away his comic book collection, and I don't even know what else they got rid of.
When my grandfather died, my father said, "I am going to the funeral. I cannot wait to throw his ashes in the sea." I couldn't go right then, work, kids, sick, whatever.
My aunt says that it broke my grandfather's heart. I asked her if she would tell me more about my grandfather and grandmother, because I didn't know them all that well.
Now I know why, or my aunt's version of why, and it makes me sad. I thought my grandfather was a sexist who didn't like girls much. But my aunt tells me that he taught her how to boat and to fish and all of it. He didn't teach me. I think he was afraid, because of the anger between him and my father.
Ah, well. I forgave my grandfather and when I got done with medical school I put all of my grandparents up in a very fancy hotel in Richmond, Virginia. My maternal grandmother took it as her due. My paternal grandparents were a bit horrified by the luxury of the place. And I put it on a credit card and paid it off....
Families are complicated and the complications can echo down through the generations.