Imagined Sins of the Father: Don’t Visit Them Upon the Kids

Posted on May 3, 2013


Don’t be that kind of adult who shuns the kids who are hurting the most.

The bizarre case of Brenda Heist, the wife and mother who went missing for 11 years only to resurface recently, was of only passing interest to me until I ran across this quote from her husband, Lee Heist:

“The hardest thing I had to deal with was, the families of some of my children’s friends would not let them play with them, because of what they thought of me. That just tore me apart. I hope they’ve learned a lesson not to prejudge,” he said.

Wham.  That carried me back to my tween years in a flash.  My mother had died when I was six; no ambiguity about that.  The investigation did examine the possibility that my father might have been involved, but that line of inquiry went nowhere, because he was not, and the evidence just didn’t support it.

So from then on, we were a little family of three:  Dad, Brother, and me.  Dad worked and his job often involved long hours and living in strange places.  We were latchkey kids and learned to take care of ourselves, such as it was, and we were too petrified of our Dad’s reaction to even think about ever having a wild party or burning the house down or anything else that unsupervised kids might get into.

In essence, with no Mom and an often-absent Dad, I was a real-life version of Pippi Longstocking.  The movies might have been popular at the time, but let me tell you, adults are weirded out by a real Pippi Longstocking, the odd kid down the street with rough manners, mismatched clothing and crazy hair, and nary a parent in sight.

The paradox of losing a parent at a young age is that at the moment it happens, and soon after, adults are filled with pity and compassion and make all kinds of allowances for you.  And yet, you are still a normal kid.  Up until yesterday, or last week, or two months ago, you had two parents and a normal upbringing.  But the longer you go without that parent’s guidance, the farther from “normal” you get.  The things Mom was teaching you at age six don’t help much when you are nine, or twelve, or fifteen.  You have to figure things out as you go, and with no mentoring, you get it wrong a lot.  Essentially, you are being raised by wolves, or whatever temporary person might be handy for a moment (often your peers, who may not have things quite right either).  So years later, when you are rather incompetently groping your way through an ever more difficult social landscape – that’s when you could really use an understanding adult or three, but by then they think you should have somehow “gotten over” your loss and “moved on.”  They don’t understand that for a developing child, the loss of a parent becomes more acute and has a greater impact with the passage of time, rather than subsiding naturally.

 It did not help that in those days, single parenthood was rare.  We were the Weird Family just by virtue of the fact that there was no Mom.  Dad did not have the kind of support that single parents have now.  We were alone a lot.  In all the important things, we were all right, but in many of those superficial things that make one socially acceptable – eh, not so much.  This never bothered our young friends, but it sometimes bothered their parents immensely (and inexplicably).

I recall a young friend – a good friend who I played with often –  who told me one day out of the blue, “My Mom doesn’t want me to play with you anymore.”  It was nothing I had done, she said.  Just:  “She doesn’t like it that you don’t have a mother.”  I was stunned, and angry: “Well, that’s not my fault!  And what am I supposed to do about it?”  My friend was better than her mother.  We were still friends; we just stayed outside and didn’t go to her house anymore.  But you can bet I never forgot that woman and her attitude.

See why Mr. Heist’s remark resonated so much?

So I will ask the question, for myself, for Mr. Heist, and for his now-grown kids:  What kind of adult judges a child to be somehow unsavory, undesirable, unworthy, based on their ignorant opinions about the child’s parent?  What kind of adult punishes those children who are most in need of love, understanding, mentoring, and a kindly ear, by denying them all of that?