Can you teach empathy? Pregnant daughter of narcisstic parents would like to know…

My sister and I surprised my parents this weekend with the news – I’m pregnant. While I envisioned the surprise – in a normal, loving family -to go something like this…

My parents would meet my sister, who was visiting for the weekend, and she would enter their condo and go to her room to pull out a gift from me to give to them, without them knowing. I would call “from the west coast” as a coincidence, to say hi, and they’d mention my sister just arrived. Then my sister would give them the “gift” and they’d open it to see inside something that clearly stated they were going to be grandparents. At the moment they were having a loving, emotional, “we’re so happy for you” reaction, I’d knock on the door and they’d be further surprised that I was there, not across the country, to celebrate with them this wonderful news. We’d embrace and cry, especially since they know and understand how much we’ve wanted children and how hard it has been to get pregnant, and we’d all go out to celebrate, excited for them to be grandparents, excited for my sister to be an aunt, and excited for myself and my husband to soon be bringing new life into the world.

But with my family, things don’t quite go like that. The actual surprise played out perfectly (almost), but the loving-ness was, unsurprisingly, not there. The older I get, and the further removed from my parents I get, the more I see how void of empathy they are. I may not be the most empathetic person, but I, in the least, logically am aware when I should feel empathetic. I have a heightened awareness of other people’s reaction to my behavior — maybe too heightened — but at least I have awareness.

My parents were clearly excited, but not really for me and my husband. My mother, who has been complaining for months now that everyone at her 55+ complex has grandchildren to talk about, was elated that she finally will be able to fit in with the crowd. My father, who is terminally ill, got emotional, which I expected – I know it means a lot to him that he’ll be able to meet his grandchild before he passes on. However, his terminal illness hasn’t paused his know-it-all attitude, thin skin, lack of appreciation for me as a separate human being from his narcissistic view of the world.

Unfortunately, I can only handle either of them in small doses.

This morning I was thinking my mother is likely certifiably insane. My father may not be – he’s just a narcissitic asshole – but he seems slightly more aware of others, or at least he does when it benefits him to express that awareness. My mother is in her own world. I’m not sure it’s a happy world as she’s always so anxious. The anxiety stems from the delusion, and also from her being the daughter of a very cruel, narcissistic mother who also had no empathy and gave her no room to be her own person. It shows. Even though she’s now in her mid 60s, she still interacts with the world like a small child… in sharing the news with her “friends” in the 55+ community, where they live in the winter, regardless of the interest in the “friend” of hearing a long story, or my embarrassment of her pointing at my not that pregnant yet stomach with excitement with each “show them” order, she would go on and on about the surprise. Some people were genuinely interested in hearing the full story. Others clearly were trying to get out of the pool area to head home for dinner. Others were entering their apartment with heavy bags and it didn’t matter, my mother just had to tell them the whole story.

It goes back to my mother’s obsession with photographs of everyone smiling, looking as happy as can be. Although I appreciate photographs throughout my life, the constant obsession with smiling in pictures was not reflected in any desire or care for the same happiness in real life. My mother was robed of emotions early in her life. I try to express my own empathy with her — she fell into an abusive relationship with a narcissistic man because that is what she knew. She was only 17 or 18 when she met my father, and I’m sure felt quite alone without someone ordering her around. Her father was more or less absent from what I’ve heard — he may have had empathy, but his own emotions were undoubtedly impacted by losing his parents and nearly a dozen siblings in The Holocaust. He was my older as well, a Rabbi who believed in the good of people, but a man who lived a very private life, and did not express love to his family, who tried hard to make his impossible-to-please wife happy, but who wasn’t the empathetic force he could have been in the nurturing of the family.

My father, on the other hand, with his NPD, is harder to manage – he will berate you and criticize you to no end, not believing or understanding that you as an independent person are capable of taking care of yourself or your future child. He will look at you, stare at your stomach, and say, “you look… pregnant,” in a cruel sort of way that mimics how in the past he’d say the same thing except “pregnant” would be replaced with “chubby” or “fat.” And, while I understand his frustration with my “has no context of when she’s pushing someone over the edge with her stories and nagging mother,” his temper is hot and unyielding. Sometimes, I understand where the anger comes from. But he can’t handle anyone being a unique entity around him.

My sister, who suffers from horrible anxiety, is clearly his favorite – because she follows his rules, appears sweet and innocent, never pushes back. Her psyche has suffered immensely from growing up under this pressure. She has not found a path to empathy, though, she is by nature a kind person, who has no idea to handle the emotions which run rampant through her veins – the lack of self, the self defined only in the eyes of others. This is exactly how my mother ended up with a narcissistic partner in the first place, and I worry for my sister that she, too, will end up with the same. I have not met her current boyfriend yet, I’m hopeful he is kind and loving like the man I managed to meet 12 years ago, not cold and cruel, in constant need of narcissistic supply, like my father.

With all this, I feel so incredibly fortunate that I escaped all of this with some semblance of sanity. I’m a hot mess, surely, but I think I have a heart. With my husband, I’ve learned it’s ok to love someone. It’s ok to be loved. It’s actually pretty normal. And love isn’t perfect. It isn’t about looking happy in pictures and then the second the camera flash has gone off having a fight where someone is about throw said camera across the room. It isn’t about doing things that make for good stories to brag about later. It’s all the moments in between in laughs and cuddles and the smells of meals cooking and looking at the stars and fields and all that is life, in its stillness, in its moments lived and forgotten, that are forgotten as independent instances but pile up over time to be who we are today.

As children, my sister and I had to find those moments for ourselves. I found them in the moments after being beaten or yelled at by my father, in the silence of my tears, of examining a red or, in some cases, welted back — in, listening through the floor of my bedroom my parents yelling, trying to make out what they were saying. In, as I got older, stepping between my father and my mother as he threatened to shove her across the room, calling her stupid and other cruel words for the billionth time. My sister, who is seven years younger than I am, having grown up with a learning disability, and a lack of interest in rebelling, escaped into her own world, perhaps unaware of how wrong the behavior was in the house. If anything, my father’s affection for her as his daughter who was accepting of having no independent personality or thoughts on her own, made it easier to live in that household. It made it safe, for her at least. He saw himself as her protector, even when she didn’t need protecting. And, in the same vein, he saw himself as my controller, even when I didn’t need controlling.

All of this leads up to my desire to somehow raise a child who is provided room to fail and to be an independent person — but, still to be an appropriate parental guide.

My husband’s family was quite the opposite of my own. Where my parents were overly involved in my life, his were absent. His parents never married, though were always friendly with each other. His father, a sensitive, artistic type, was involved when he was a child, but he was not planned and in that sense his father wasn’t prepared to be a father and hasn’t thought of himself as such. His mother, struggling with her own challenges to mentally grow up, did not give my husband any guidance as a child. He had to, in many ways, parent himself. He learned empathy, likely from his father, but not some of the social skills that are helpful in life. Some etiquette rules are BS, but there is something to be said about parents teaching you how to behave in certain situations, both in discipline and in acting out this behavior themselves for you to mimic.

I really don’t want to give my child an anxiety complex. It’s all too likely in my family. Every moment I have an emotional breakdown lately, I remind myself that my child cannot see me like this – with the exception of when it’s really an appropriate time for such emotions, such as the death of a close family member. But my unstable emotions and anxieties cannot be felt by my child. Even as a baby, I’m sure a parent’s response to them impacts this part of their psyche through childhood and on. I will learn to take breaths, remain calm, and go to the bathroom to hide if I need to cry. I also do not want to seem unemotional, but my objective is to be somewhat of a different person in front of my kid. Someone who can fail and who has weaknesses, but also someone who can handle life.

My concerns stretch to my parents who will interact with my child at some point — my father, to my surprise — is now committed to being present on the west coast for the birth of my child — something I really don’t want (I will be stressed enough without my parents there.) Even though they may not be in the actual delivery room, I don’t want my father’s immediate criticism to kick in the second I am figuring out what to do as a new mom. Since he has difficulty traveling, I’m hopeful he will decide against this plan and agree to visit a few weeks after the baby is born, or wait a few months until I can bring the baby to the east coast to see them there.

And, it really makes me sad that this is how I feel when my dad suggests that they should be there for the birth of my child. Wouldn’t it be nice to want them there? I hope one day my child wants me to be with her or him for life’s important events — but I always respect her decision if she would prefer to be alone. I will always listen, empathize, and empower her or him with the understanding that their wants – their choice – matters.



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One comment

  1. GYM says:


    I can relate.. when I told my dad I was pregnant at a family dinner one day, he had no response. Zero.

    Currently, he is upset at us (his ex-wife, and children) that we are not lying for him to help protect his assets from one of his divorces (he has married multiple times after the divorce from my mom). He has not met his only grandson (it’s been 7 months since my son was born) and has not responded to my emails of ‘Merry Christmas’ and other holiday occasions.

    I think it is nice that your dad wants to be there but I can see why you would be wary. Perhaps you can set boundaries and tell him you would like him there in a few weeks after the baby is born.

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