What Do Children Owe Their Parents?

Conflict with the people who raised us can alter the course of our lives: Your weekly guide to the best in books

An outline of a hand drawn in gold, reaching toward a smaller hand with a tangle of lines between them, against a sage-green background
The Atlantic

Our first relationship in life is usually with a parent. This early experience sets the blueprint for how we approach people for the rest of our lives—the traits we value, our tolerance for vulnerability, and the walls we build up.

But parent-child dynamics are more complicated than people are willing to admit, especially parents. And when they’re a burden, they’re often one that a child shoulders alone, as the actor Jennette McCurdy did. In her memoir, I’m Glad My Mom Died, McCurdy discusses her mother’s abuse, but the book is about a more complex question, Nina Li Coomes points out: “what, if anything, a child owes a caregiver who mistreats them.”

Most family conflict is more mundane than McCurdy’s. But the question of what children owe their parents as they build their own life is broadly applicable. Heavy, a memoir by Kiese Laymon, explores Laymon’s relationships with his body and mother, and his desire, as Isaac Fitzgerald argues, “to communicate something to his parent and find common ground.” For Lynne Tillman, however, reconciliation was less appealing. In Mothercare, she writes begrudgingly about caring for her elderly mother—who, when Tillman won the prestigious Guggenheim fellowship, said, “If I had wanted to be, I would have been a better writer than you.” But when Tillman “insists she feels nothing for her mother,” Judith Shulevitz writes, “we suspect the opposite, that she can’t tolerate a longing she perceives as unrequited.”

Fiction can offer a more forgiving terrain for navigating childhood. In Win Me Something, by Kyle Lucia Wu, the protagonist resents being abandoned by her divorced parents and their new families. She reminds us that “the narratives we tell ourselves can be just as maladaptive as they are self-protective,” Ruth Madievsky explains. And through his novels Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo, Douglas Stuart mirrors his own experience. His protagonists care for mothers struggling with alcohol addiction, like he did, Claire Jarvis writes. Both Shuggie and Mungo have mothers who “don’t love their children unreservedly, though they expect unreserved love.” It’s yet another example of how parents—with their Herculean expectations and potential to uplift or destroy—can define how one sees relationships for a lifetime.

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What We’re Reading

Photo-illustration of Jennette McCurdy in black-and-white

Getty; The Atlantic

Don’t judge I’m Glad My Mom Died by its title

“When McCurdy draws on her child voice, the reader instinctively takes the position of the discerning adult to see both the wrongness of the situation and the flawed, desperate love young McCurdy has for her mother.”

Two children sitting together on a sidewalk in a neighborhood, in black-and-white

Chris Killip / Magnum Photos

Have a difficult childhood? These writers did too.

“The neglected or endangered child—the orphan, the vagrant, the waif—is a character with deep roots in the Western canon. ”

Two young children standing together on a street corner in Glasgow during the 1980s

Raymond Depardon / Magnum

‘Everything about this boy was about his mother’

“But Shuggie and Mungo are different from their elder siblings; when their mothers reach out to them in intoxicated longing, they reach back. Curled around their mothers’ drunken forms, they are small, human hymns to the false rhetoric of some types of maternal love.”

The ginger hair on the top of a young boy's head. The corner of an older girl's face leans against it; her eye is in the frame and looking at the camera.

Yannick Schuette / Connected Archives

Six books that show no one can hurt you like a sibling

“Yet the unique feeling of sharing parents, or of growing up together, makes this relationship unlike any other. For many of us, our links with our siblings will be the longest of our lives.”

A woman with a contemplative face holds someone else's hand in her own. Her cheek is resting on their enclasped hands.

Paul Fusco / Magnum

The problem with mothers and daughters

“The evening before my mother slipped into the fugue state she was in until she died, I said goodnight with my usual “I love you, Mom.” “But do you?” she murmured. “Of course I do,” I said, automatically. And that was that, her one invitation to have that conversation, declined.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Katherine Hu. The book she’s currently reading is Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar.

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