Parentless Parent: Allison Gilbert

The scarecrow could not understand why she wished to leave this beautiful country and go back to the gray place called Kansas. “That’s because you have no brains,” answered the girl. “No, matter how dreary and gray our homes are, people would rather live there than anywhere else.  There is no place like home.”

L. Frank Baum

Almost all of my childhood memories before age nine are in black and white.  I think I’ve said that before. Why do I keep saying it?  Why do I keep drifting back to that gray, long ago place?  It’s getting ridiculous.  I used to carry the shame of that overwhelming lack of color on my shoulders.  Now, at middle age, I’m beginning to feel the shame associated with still not being able to fill the hole it left me.

Most people don’t understand the deep reaching impact of growing up with an emotionally disturbed parent, one who ensnares you with their sad brand of charm, makes you their caregiver, their lifeline when they have nothing else.  Most people can’t imagine a five-year-old child somehow rising up to parent a parent, to provide an emotional load of assistance, and what the cost can be.  As the child rises up, they are left with a sinking hole, a blank spot that can never be filled because the time to fill it was that day, that year, that moment.  The moment was lost.

When I was twelve-years-old, my mother said that God told her that my daddy was going to die so that she could marry our pastor.  We were in our car going somewhere.  She told me this as if it were a casual FYI.  I asked her about the pastor’s wife, and she replied that perhaps she would die as well.  That instant sticks in my mind as one of the single most devastating moments of my life.  It was the moment when I realized something was horribly wrong.  I remember staring out of the car window as I felt my heart break in a brand new way that only happens when you’re finally old enough to grasp the notion that life is filled with complexity.

I somehow lost my mom that day.  Since then, I’ve lost her over and over again.  I keep trying to find her, to pull her back, to make her see me, to make her love me.  I keep wanting to find that gray place when we were both so young again because it was my home when everything was simple, when all I felt was my overwhelming, pure love for her.

It’s just not working.  

Life is often ironic. A few days after I spoke with today’s guest, Allison Gilbert, about her new book, Parentless Parents, I lost my mom … perhaps for the last time. 

Once again, she is here but not here.

Allison has explored and written about the challenges of raising children when your own parents are missing from the puzzle; they are deceased.  I asked her about folks whose parents may still be alive, yet emotionally or physically out of reach. She recognized that there are similarities, but explained that Parentless Parents focuses on the singular situation of deceased parents.

Soon after I spoke with Allison, I happened to call my mother at a time when she was working to balance her monthly budget.  She spoke about her finances, and became more and more agitated.  Then she said, “Adult children who do not provide for their parents should be prosecuted under the law!”  As you can imagine, this was a loaded statement packed with years and years of struggle. In my heart, a five-year-old heard the words, “I need you to take care of me!”  I remained calm, knowing that if I became upset, she would become more upset.  Finally, I said, “I doubt that adult children could be prosecuted under the law, based on the fact that their parents have had years and years to make numerous adult decisions regarding their own financial well-being.”  I was attempting to provide a logical answer that she might relate to.

It didn’t work.

Within an hour, my husband and I received a abusive email informing me that I was no longer her daughter … again.

So here I sit, a parentless parent in my own category.  Regardless of its primary focus, I need to read Allison’s book.

You’ve worked in television news for nearly twenty years, and have won numerous awards, including three Emmys. I’m sure you did a lot of writing in that professional space. What inspired your focus on book-length projects?

It’s really was a gift.  I felt that TV news provides an incredible opportunity to cover the most important news of the day, but no matter what, an article can only have a certain number of words, or television story only allows for a certain amount of time. So I felt that if I was going to use all the same skills, then I was going to use all those tools toward a project that I had much more opportunity to explore. I wanted to put those tools to use on a topic that meant so much to me personally.

You write nonfiction. Is that what you’ve always wanted to do, and if so, why? Will that continue to be your focus?

Yes!  I think so.  I really enjoy it!

I always enjoy asking writers who focus on nonfiction how creativity plays a role in their work. Do you view creativity as a component in your work? If so, how and why?

For sure!  Even though it’s nonfiction and it’s based on very real facts and interviews, I believe that how we pick and choose what to include and in what order to include them has everything to do with creativity. That is because you do want people to enjoy the books they read. You want people to want to turn each page. Picking and choosing what stories to tell, and how to tell them, determines how interesting the book is to people. It’s all about creativity.

You’ve written several books. Have you developed a specific writing process that enables you to meet your goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

I get up really early!  So my process is to do the work when everyone is sleeping because I feel that my day is never long enough.  I create time where I didn’t have time before, and so I continually get up at the crack of dawn. I have coffee. The house is quiet. I’m able to be in my work space for a few hours.  That’s really the best tool I have. I carve out a time when nobody is going to interrupt me.  This has been a real gift.

With regard to your current focus, Parentless Parents, was there an “ah-ha” moment you can tell us about?

There are two parts to that answer:

(1) After my last book came out, Always Too Soon, the one part that everyone wanted to keep talking about was how the loss of our parents impacts and shapes how we parent our children.  I thought that was really interesting. That was the primary issue that everyone wanted to talk about. 

(2) The other part was me.  It was my personal story.  I was dealing with being a parentless parent day in and day out.  

So in response to my readers, the topic emerged as something important for me to take on both professionally and personally.

In conducting research for my novel, Aberrations, I read Hope Edelman’s books on Motherless Daughters. The protagonist of Aberrations is motherless; however, my interest in writing about a motherless daughter was driven by my own profound feeling of motherlessness, which existed despite my mother being alive. She was there but not there. Did you come across any research related to situations where the parent(s) may be alive, but yet emotionally or physically absent from the family unit? Can you share your thoughts on any similarities or differences between the two scenarios?

That’s a really good question!  My research was extremely focused.  There are so many variables that could have been included, such as parents who were emitionally or physically absent, parents who may have been incarcerated, etc.  There are a lot of reasons why parents are not involved.  Because of my experience that they were gone due to illness and eventual death, I kept my focus very limited.

Your web site has tons of great information for parentless parents. Can you tell us about some of the top issues that parentless parents face emotionally, and why?

There is something I write about called the I factor, where I stands for irreplaceable.  This refers to the loses that are specific to losing one’s parents via death. It’s not about parents wishing they had more babysitters, for example, because that’s a very easy thing for people to brush aside. For example, they could say, “Well, my parents live in California and I live in Idaho so they can’t babysit either.” I tried to come up with the I factor as a way of explaining why there are the differences in being a parentless parent versus not being parentless. 

One of the big differences is not having a connection to your own childhood in terms of a direct link.  It’s often those very specific and detailed tidbits for which a parentless parent lacks access. Parentless parents read blogs and parenting books, and do all the things you do as educated group, but the real information they need is specific to them. They are never going to get that info from those other avenues. Really important details that could impact their parenting choices are lost forever.

Not having a parent or parents, whether deceased or emotionally absent, is one of those major aberrations in life that are thrust upon us. There must be a loneliness factor involved. Is it only me who has that big hole, or is it there for everyone? If so, can a person ever really fill that space? Could it be that the gap exists only in cases where the relationship was lacking as opposed to losing a parent with whom there existed a healthy relationship? Can you comment on this?

I think there are going to be tremors of the loss or aberration forever.  It becomes part of your DNA. It becomes part of your fabric. It becomes a part of who you are.  I believe there are many things you can do, not to completely fill the void because I actually do think that’s impossible, but rather to put a very healing and effective band-aid on top of the wound. 

What I mean by that is finding support.  It’s hugely important that anyone who has an aberration of any sort connect with people who are of the same mind set and experience.  Finding support groups, whether in person or on line, is incredibly important.  For example, people are joining the chapters of Parentless Parents, which are spreading out across the country.  Those are great places to go; in person connections are really important.  Also, I think the Parentless Parent group page on Facebook is another great place.  So many people are on line and on Facebook already, so for people to be able to easily, and in the course of their general day, check in and connect with others who are in a similar situation is another incredible value. It helps folks feel supported. 

The last thing I would say is that family doesn’t have to be what you’re born with.  I truly believe in the soul of my souls that family is what you also create.  It’s your best friend.  It’s your aunt who may be a fill in for you mom.  Maybe it’s your best friend’s mom.  Maybe it’s just people who you’ve met in the course of your life, or on Facebook who may get you perhaps better than your own spouse does. 

What was so interesting about the surveys I did is that so many people who were happily married felt that even their spouses didn’t understand where they were coming from. 

People process these aberration differently.  It’s a matter of putting yourself in a place where you can connect with people who can proactively make all the difference in your world.

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