You’re ruffling through an old album, dusty and disintegrating at the slightest touch. Something in you tells you to flip through and you chance upon some pictures of your dad, laughing with his friends, people you don’t even have the slightest clue of. You try to figure out the year in which the photo could have been taken and who might have taken it. You should ask him sometime, though conversations with him aren’t exactly your favourite thing right now. Things might have changed between both of you over the years. It must have been years before he met your mother. In the photo, he seemed incredibly happy, as if he cracked a joke and thought it was the best thing his brain had ever come up with. He always laughed at his own jokes way too hard, you know that.
In some ways, our parents are indeed the people we know best in the world. We’ve been in their presence literally since the moment we entered the world. We’ve probably had way more meal times and haircuts with them than their best friends have had. We know them in a way we don’t know most people. We’ve seen them try to brush their hair 20 times for it to look the same. We’ve seen them when they have just woken up. We’ve been held in their arms, we’ve slept on their laps. They have changed our diapers, picked our outfits. We’ve tasted their recipes, which can be terrible, we know what they are good at and what they aren’t. We’ve seen them happy, terrified, anxious and so much more.
But looking at old photos of them, we come to see that in many ways, we don’t know them as well as we might have thought we did. What were they like before us? What was their favourite game to play growing up? What were they like? Which type of friend were they in their friend groups? The quiet but strangely wise one or the one that laughs at everything and was a clumsy mess? If we were to meet them at the same age as we are now, would we get along? Would we be friends? Which of these quirks and antics haven’t we seen in them yet?
It is undeniable that our relationship with our parents change dramatically as we grow older. It is impossible to grow up liking everything about our parents. There must be certain elements about them that bother us. In some way, we all can feel let down by our parents, and this is not necessarily their fault, especially if they have tried their very best to be the best parents to us and gave us everything they could. Rather, it’s that our parents are humans too, and nobody is perfect. Growing up, we might have idolised them, seen them as supremely perfect superhumans. We might have thought they could do no wrong. However, as we grow older, they can’t live up to this idolised version of them we made up when we were children. The person who – when we were 5, always seemed energetic and hilarious – will start to appear irrational and overbearing as we grow older. They will embarrass us, try to micromanage our lives or impose their values on us without meaning to. See, no one was taught to be a parent growing up. It just happens, and you get thrown into it.
Looking at an old photograph of our parent highlights something we normally don’t think about: the fact that our parents lives didn’t always revolve around us. They didn’t spend their entire lifetime preparing or studying to be a parent. In these old photographs, we see young people who had no clue as to what the future held in store for them, let alone the fact that they were going to be our parents. We were, after all, raised by the widely grinning young man and unsuspecting sweet young woman in these photographs, not by perfect superhuman androids that would get everything right. It is only when we realise this that we become more forgiving and understanding towards these strangers who grew up and came together to give us life in the best way they know how to. It is in realising this that we get rid of the idolised versions of them we had made up in our minds when we were children, and love our parents for who they were and are.
Perhaps, one day, someone else will look at a photograph of you – a photo you probably don’t even remember taking – and experience this same weird feeling. Perhaps, they will wonder what their mother or father was like when they were 20 and who they really are at their core.