Laughing through the Apocalypse

With the fearful strain that is on me night and day if I did not laugh I should die. --Abraham Lincoln

Laughing is probably the last thing you feel like doing when your parents are driving you insane, but that is precisely the reaction you should have sometimes. Throughout the ages, much humor has been derived from the antics of bumbling dads, meddling mothers-in-law, and overindulgent parents of all sorts. Think Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Woody Allen, Philip Roth. From Sanford and Son to Meet the Parents and The Royal Tenenbaums, relations between adult children and their mothers and fathers have been a rich topic in popular culture. There is good reason for this: almost everyone periodically finds themselves in situations with their parents that walk the line between harrowing and hilarious.

One of my clients, a top executive at a huge entertainment company, brought his mother to the Grammy Awards. After introducing her to some of his colleagues, he brought her over to say hello to Mariah Carey. His mother took one look at the singer's gown -- cut down to her navel -- and asked in a voice tinged with disapproval, "Do you work for my son?"

"No," said Carey. "I'm an entertainer."

"I'm sure you are, my dear," said his mother, turning on her heels.

Did you laugh when you read that? I certainly did when my client told me that story. He was mortified by how his mother had acted, and I was trying to be sympathetic, but I couldn't help myself -- a little guffaw just slipped out. And you know what? When he saw me laugh, he started laughing too. In fact, we both laughed so hard tears came to our eyes. I still smile now every time I think of his five-foot-two-inch mom in her spangly pantsuit giving Mariah Carey the cold shoulder.

My point is that learning to see your parents' foibles -- and your sometimes overblown reactions to them -- as humorous, at least on some level, is healthy and extremely productive. Seeing that your life resembles a not-ready-for-prime-time reality show can be as efficient as the SWAT explosives unit at diffusing any bombs your parents throw at you.

And learning to laugh to yourself at your parents -- yes, it's something you may have to learn -- will also provide you with great material to share with friends and family. That's important, because telling funny stories about your zany parents is a good way to drain the drama and heartache out of your dealings with them. And that's a giant step toward putting it all in perspective and eventually dealing with your parents in a sane, strategic manner.

With whom should you share such stories? Well, for starters, your Second Opinion will enjoy hearing you talk about your parents with humor. He or she already knows the players and what's at stake, and -- if you have chosen your S.O. carefully -- will be overjoyed to hear that you are dealing with the conflict in a less loaded way. Everyone loves a good story. There is no greater tension reliever than being able to transform an annoying interaction with your parents into a ruefully funny story to tell your partner as you both lay in bed at night. The person you love probably has heard his or her share of horror stories, listened to you complain endlessly, probably with good reason, about your burden. If you can occasionally rework the drama into a comedy, it will make listening to your complaints much easier the next time around.

I realize that recasting the drama between you and your parents into a comedy is not always easy. Laughter requires distance. Unless you put some space between yourself and the situation, learn to float above it and look down at the dynamics from a safe place, you will not be able to appreciate the inherent humor, however black, in the situation. If you allow yourself to be stuck in the role of victim, you will feel threatened and angry instead of bemused and in possession of a good story for your friends.

Imagine your family as a sitcom. Even though you may react to that suggestion by saying, "But the things that go on between me and my parents aren't funny; they're tragic," remember that, on paper, the friction on Everybody Loves Raymond, or All in the Family, could have been tragedy, too. The guilt in those shows is thick and unwieldy, as are the insults and humiliations. But the writers work hard to tap into the universality of suffering, which can be funny in a poignant, human way. They tried to find the humor in misplaced pride, in petty self-interests, in love gone awry. That is how I want you to view the friction between you and your parents, at least from time to time. What role would you play? What actors would you cast as your mom and dad? What would your character do differently? What funny lines would you give yourself? Where would the laugh track chime in?

You might also create a parental humor support group with some friends and swap tales of your parents' silly behavior. Avoid complaining; concentrate on the nutty narratives. Not only will such sessions alleviate an unbelievable amount of stress, but they will show you that you are not alone. They may even show you that some people have parents even crazier than yours.

Humor can exist in the most painful and difficult of situations. In urging you to find the humor in your situation, I am not suggesting that you mask your darker feelings -- merely that you not be overwhelmed by them. The key is to accept that your parents can be simultaneously annoying (or humiliating or sad or manipulative) and funny. And that you can sometimes be funny or at least light-hearted in your response to them.

There is a big difference between manufacturing humor (it will always feel phony and hurt more than it helps) and cultivating it if even the faintest whisper of humor lurks in any situation. That is a gift that will last you for many years. As Mark Twain said, "Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand."

Copyright © 2004 Dale Atkins and Nancy Hass

(Excerpted from the book I'm OK, You're My Parents: How to Overcome Guilt, Let Go of Anger, and Create a Relationship That Works by Dale Atkins, Ph.D., Published by Henry Holt; April 2004; $24.00US/$34.95CAN; 0-8050-7353-1)

Author's Bio: 

Dale Atkins is a licensed psychologist, lecturer, and media commentator who appears regularly on the Today show. The author of five books, she has been a frequent contributor to the Ladies' Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, and Parents. She lives in Connecticut and has a practice in New York City.

For more information, please visit Dr. Dale Atkins' Web site or