I recently interviewed a grandfather who was a former well spouse. I wanted to share his story, as well as his perspective as it had a great deal to teach me. Often, as we go through life, we ask for the help of others. For whatever reason, sometimes they come through for us and sometimes they don’t. Whether they cannot or choose not to help us is open to interpretation.
We tend to think we understand their motives based on how we see them and on our own values and priorities and our own needs and experiences. If we would have come through for them, in what we see as the same situation, we resent terribly that they have not come through for us. We take it personally and see it as a deliberate act against us and we get angry.
But no one knows what is going on behind someone’s closed door. We are not privileged to know what events have led to a decision of being helpful or choosing not to help. If we did, I think we would have less anger, less resentment and more inner peace in our lives. That’s why I am sharing Bob’s story.
Bob (not his real name) told me he was a well spouse for most of his married life. During that time, he was also a workaholic. His work defined him as a man, as a husband and as a caregiver. He told me that he thought hiring help for his wife was better than helping her himself. He felt that was his job as a provider. And so he hired people not only to care for his wife but to be with her when she went to the doctor and was frightened, even though she asked that he take time off from work and come with her to hold her hand. He told me that he treated his children in much the same way.
His job came first, his community second, and then, somewhere at the bottom of the list, his family. He told me that upon reflection, he would have to admit that he expected them to be there for him while he pursued his career and became a very active, giving member of his community. He said that is how he saw his role and the role of his family. He thought he was doing the right thing.
As the years passed, the arguments between him and his wife over not spending time with his family settled into a general coldness between them. Still, he continued working and barely noticed. Even when one of his children expressed anger and resentment at his neglect of them and began to show at-risk behavior, he attributed it to adolescence.
He continued to be available to his boss, his co-workers and his community at any and all hours. It was his family who had to wait for free time when they needed him-and free time rarely came.
Bob told me that now that his children are adults with families of their own, he sees his work ethic in their behavior, and he finds it shocking. For the first time, he is confronted with his own values reflected back at him, as he sees the neglect of his children’s spouses by their partners and worse, the neglect of his own grandchildren by their parents. Not that his grandchildren are mistreated, he was quick to say, but everyone else’s needs seem to come first.
My daughter will be the first to decorate her house and buy a cake for a friend’s birthday, but takes a shortcut with her own children: A cake mix cake quickly covered with instant frosting, instead of a beautifully decorated cake such as she would bake for her friends or someone in need; a banner-free dinning room, missing the signs of “happy birthday” or “mazal tov” that was always displayed for others; a short word to correct her children’s misbehavior as she spends time on the phone trying to help an upset neighbor.
His daughter took on his desire to be there for the community, which is a needed and admirable thing, but at what price and to what extent? His son had adopted his work ethic that he had resented so much as a child. Bob told me his son worked about 12 to 14 hours a day and always had his cell phone at hand to manage any work-related disaster. They love him at work because he is always accessible to them, and this role he only learned from his father.
Bob told me that watching his children behave as he had when he was young made him rethink his values. Now that he is retired, he is there for his children, their spouses and his grandchildren 24/7. They are his first priority, and though he is often tempted by requests and offers to do other things, his family now comes first. It is his way of compensating for a life lived differently and doing teshuva for the neglect of his family in his youth. He told me that he can’t relive the past, or change the way his children have learned from his behavior, but now he will always be there for the family members who unfortunately are being neglected through his example.
Bob’s story continues next week.
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