When Parents Can’t Parent

When Parents Can’t Parent

In this episode of YR’s Adult ISH podcast, two letter writers share their experiences of lost parents. One is grappling with the death of a parent, a breakup and tough questions as they face loneliness and the prospect of raising a child without a partner or a parent. Another is thinking about their absent father and trying to decide what kind of relationship is even possible. We get into it, and find some gems of wisdom from YR Media writer and psychology student Ashley L. Fields, the brains behind the Orphanish online community, and American drag queen and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alum Eureka O’Hara. 

Adult ISH (@yrAdultISH) is produced by YR Media and brought to you by PRX’s Radiotopia. Be sure to follow all our socials @yrAdultISH!

Episode Transcript

Nyge:  Welcome to Adult ISH produced by YR Media and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX. As a reminder, this season we’re accepting letters every week from you, our listeners. And today we actually have two letters to play for you voiced by the writers themselves. Let’s check them out. Now heads up for listeners. This episode includes mention of eating disorders and sexual assault.

Yana: Dear Adult ISH, 

Elizabeth: Dear Adult ISH. 

Yana: This is Yana from Indianapolis. I’m looking for some advice from one young adult to another on how to deal with daddy issues. To keep the story short, My dad missed the first nine years of my life being in the army, got back and was like my best friend until I turned 16. Then all of a sudden his whole personality changed, and it’s like he didn’t care about me or support me anymore. He was and still is focused on other things, which he seems to prioritize over me. He says he loves me, but I honestly don’t feel it. I never even want to go to his house because it just doesn’t feel like home. It’s so awkward and I hate it. I want a relationship with him, but it feels impossible. It also doesn’t help that we’re nothing alike. And yes, I’ve tried talking to him, but he essentially says this is just who he is, and I have to get over it. I don’t even really know what I’m asking for, but do you think that there’s any hope? Should I just give up on having the dad I want and settle for this? 

Elizabeth: This is Elizabeth in Silver Spring, Maryland. I lost my mom in March after over 10 years of caring for her through chronic illness. On top of processing everything that happened in the last 10 years, I’m doing it without my mom. I also recently went through a breakup, and I find myself pondering so many questions about what it means about my future. I’ve heard people talk about having kids without a partner, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about doing it without a partner or parents to support them. It feels like such a big decision, and I wonder if there are other people out there who are facing the same decision, especially given another loss from the pandemic. 

Nyge: So each of these letter writers is experiencing a major shift in their family structure. First, where a parent is around but not showing up in a meaningful way. And second where a parent is not around at all to help show the way. Even though the experiences are super different, they get at a similar question: How do we move forward when our parents can’t parent us? One place where this question shows up far too often is the LGBTQ plus community, where sometimes people with different identities struggle with being accepted by their biological families. Because of this, there’s so much to learn from the way that many queer people have created, found and chosen family. The Adult ISH team wanted to talk to somebody who has both experienced the loss of a parent and also created a beautiful, chosen family. So we’ve taken to drag queen Eureka O’Hara, someone you probably know from seasons nine and 10 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, as well as season six of All-Stars. But they also co-hosts an amazing show on HBO Max called We’re Here. They know a whole lot about chosen community, chosen family and finding your people. When we talk to Eureka, I admitted in watching this new season of We’re Here. I have so much fun watching, but I honestly spend a lot of my time trying not to cry because in every episode they make it a point of bringing people together. So my first question was about that and how to push this feeling of community and acceptance.

Eureka: You know, I want to start off by just talking about the whole crying and emotional when we’re watching these episodes, you all audience don’t get freaked out. It’s not that kind of drama. The reason that we’re getting emotional is because we’ve all had a crazy ass year, you know, and I think getting to see people come together like this, it just touches your heart. It reminds you of who you are. You know, like, we all relate with these people. I think that’s what it’s about. It’s about relatability. I relate with every single person that I work with on this show because I know what it’s like to feel alone or outcasted and to be a person of difference in a society where there are rules, there are regulations on a proper living life, especially in the smaller towns. So knowing that I go into this space and I offer myself vulnerably to these people and remind them, “Hey, maybe I might live in L.A. now, but where I come from,”

Nyge: Right.

Eureka: You know what I mean? I’ve been through the wringer. Trust me, you know, I’ve been bullied. I’ve been in your position. So I think it’s just trading and sharing stories and just showing people that they’re not alone, that we’re here. I mean, the premise of the show, literally the name we’re here means we’re here, meaning we’re everywhere. We’re your doctors, we’re your cousins, we’re your sisters. We’re your best friends, you know what I mean? And we’re not going anywhere. 

Nyge: Definitely. And you’re and you’re so good too, at relating to all of these different people and not only the people who are going through these journeys but even their families.

Eureka: Yeah.

Nyge: You’re talking to these people’s parents and you’re relating to them in ways that, that you’re meeting them on their playing field. And it’s just I think it attests to your skills as a host in your skills as just such a people person to where you can relate to

Eureka: Oh my god. Nyge, you’re so nice!

Nyge: I just wanted to say that because that was, I really, I loved that while watching because I was like, “wow, like, Eureka is so good at that.” Something else that jumped out to me, you said that you’re, you’re not originally from L.A. I live in California, also, I live in like San Francisco Bay Area, but my family’s originally from a small town in Louisiana called Ravenswood.

Eureka: Wow!

Nyge: And in these small towns, whenever I go back, 

Eureka: Yeah

Nyge: It’s, you know, walking around there in these, in these neighborhoods as a Black man. It does kind of put this feeling inside of your body where you feel uncomfortable and you’re in an area where you feel different and you feel like you might not be accepted.

Eureka: Or safe.

Nyge: And so that kind of brings, yeah or safe. Yeah. So that’s what brings me to our next question, is you go to some of these rural towns that are always friendly to people who are different. You and your co-host Bob and Angela seems so completely comfortable and yourselves on camera. But like, what are you experiencing emotionally as you’re scrolling through these towns in full drag 

Eureka: Yeah.

Nyge: And also your co-hosts being people of color in full drag, too? 

Eureka:  Yeah. You know, honestly, you know, I appreciate you mentioning the fact that my co-hosts are Black and that they struggle in a different way because that is very much a true fact. And as a friend to them, my job is just to be there as a support system and to be positive and be kind and to also just have a back, you know, if anything was to come out. I mean, the truth is, it’s like, I don’t think they would have to go blows because I feel like I, would fully go like Beverly Hills Ninja fighting for my sisters, you know what I’m saying? So I would fully dolly- wop a child.

Nyge: Right. 

Eureka: For my sisters, you know? And I think that’s what makes us comfortable is having each other. It’s the great thing about the show is where we are teaching people about chosen family. We’re teaching people about support. And that’s what we have with the three of us with me, Bob, and Shangela is going together. We know that we’re not alone. And also, you know, on these trips we have like a good, you know, 10 people with cameras, mostly straight men, you know, behind us. We have a lot of support. So we’re lucky. So that comfort comes from that..

Nyge: Right.

Eureka: There’s also a lot of moments where we are alone and we get to experience the towns by ourselves, and it can be nerve wracking. But I think it just comes from us being used to being raised in those areas. 

Nyge: Yeah. 

Eureka: You know, we’ve been ridiculed before. We’ve been bullied, we’ve been picked up. So we kind of know how to handle it and where to avoid it, right? So I think that’s what makes us, cause all three of us come from small towns. So like it’s just it takes experience, I guess is where we’re at, you know? 

Nyge: Yeah, no. I mean, I think that that means a lot. It ties back into even the show where yall feel like yall have your community there with you. So it’s not as it’s not as scary walking into these situations, even though I’m sure it probably is because some of these people can not be so accepting. Growing up, did you feel like you had a community that made you feel seen and safe? 

Eureka: You know, no, I did not. I didn’t. And I was very surprisingly to be adult that I have become. When I was growing up, I was very shy and I was very to myself and I, I lost myself in movies. And Jerry Springer, weirdly, Morty, you know, I was always really intrigued with the, with the episodes that were about, is it a boy or a girl? And as obviously, as horrible as they are now, back then, that was my exposure to things that I was interested in. You know, the drag queen episodes, when a drag queen would come out as the word roller, my husband is on a date with a drag queen. You know, those are the exposures that I had. 

Nyge: You know, that’s super interesting. 

Eureka: Was TV and film. 

Nyge: Yeah, that’s super interesting. I never even I never even thought about those episodes like that. 

Eureka: Yeah, and Too Wong Foo, obviously like the movies. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I watched later in my, Too Wong Foo, especially. I remember seeing that like little stand alone. Little, you know, cut out at the video store where we used to rent movies. Miss thing, and I would just stand there and just stare at that poster, 

Nyge: Right.

Eureka: And my mom would be like, What are you doing? You have just been standing there staring at the  poster forever. But I would be like, “mom I want to watch this movie so bad,” and she would rent it for me everytime we went, you know? 

Nyge: Can you tell us about when you found that community like in person and in your real life and how you went about finding them? 

Eureka: Yeah, I found it in certain people, but it was really like DL. Well, right? Like the guys that were like want to fool around when we were camping or, you know, during, well on the football team that would like want to go, you know? And so I had moments of self-discovery, right? And then I was also, you know, I was, I lost my virginity in a horrific rape situation, which is, you know, don’t feel sorry for me because I’m past it now, but I’m a survivor of that. But that’s how I was exposed to my sexual attraction to men was through it being forced on me. So it was really tricky, you know? So I was very standoffish growing up about it. But in high school, I was exposed to my, my friend. Kay at the time talked about the gay bar. She always knew I was gay, but I was never, you know, willing to admit it. And I got a fake I.D., honey, I paid my cousin for his I.D. His name was Isaac, so I went to the gay bar at like 16, and they called me Izzy. And that’s when I learned, you know who queer people were, and that’s when I started being exposed to trans individuals and drag queens and gay culture. And I really found that tribe quickly.

Nyge: Right. This episode of Adult ISH is really close to my heart because my mom got early onset dementia. My senior year in high school and three years later after that, she was no longer able to communicate with anyone, and I felt like I lost my sense of community because my family dynamic had, had changed so drastically. And this is something that I’m still trying to find ways to to navigate to this day, for sure, and I’m still figuring out also. And then also people wrote in with, with letters feeling in this exact same way. And so I felt like and we felt like as a team that you would be such a good person to talk about finding that community because I feel like, like we touched on at the beginning of, of the interview, that there are so many people who feel alone and don’t know how to find their people, their community, their family out there.

Eureka: Yeah, I think it’s just about showing up when I, you know, I get what you’re saying. First of all, I’m so sorry, is your mother here with us now or no? 

Nyge: She is, but she is like brain dead at the at the moment as well, like her condition is. 

Eureka: So you might have your mother physically, but you lost your mother a long time ago, right? 

Nyge: Correct. 

Eureka:I’m so sorry and I love you. I’m so sorry. 

Nyge: Thank you. I love you too. I appreciate that. 

Eureka: No one knows the loss of a mom, you know, like someone who’s lost their mother, you know, especially if you’re close with her. 

Nyge: Right.

Eureka: I was very close to my mom, too. So I’m so sorry.

Nyge: My mom, my best, my best friend, for sure. 

Eureka: When there’s something about, you know, when you lose, it’s like you lose that sense of safety and security of existing when you lose that person for yourself.

Nyge: Definitely.

Eureka: You know, and and that’s why you do search out those people who’s going to make me feel safe and secure now. But if I can’t depend on myself, right, so you start reaching into yourself one, but two, it’s like at the end of the day, you always everyone, no matter who you are, you know, whether you’re raised by your uncle or your grandparent or whomever. We always have that one person, most people anyway. But if you don’t, I hope you find them. That makes you feel like you can always go back to them, right? No matter where you go. It’s like, that’s the place I can go home to. And when you lose that person, it can be a struggle because then you have to realize, wow, I only have myself to depend on. So you have to find self-love first. I think that’s my, my biggest point to people is like, 

Nyge: Right

Eureka: If you want to find a tribe of people to love you, you first have to learn how to love yourself. You have to learn how to accept who you are and your emotions and your feelings. And I’m not saying like, I’ll be the most confident person in the world. Don’t get me confused.

Nyge: Right.

Eureka:  What I’m saying is you start putting in the work of loving yourself. And then other people will find it easy to love you, too. 

Nyge: Definitely. 

Eureka: And then it’s also just showing up in the world. I think putting yourself out there is your responsibility to do anything you can to put yourself out there and be authentically you and unafraid to be yourself, and you’re going to find people that want to be your friend. 

Nyge: Definitely. 

Eureka: Believe it or not, now not everyone’s going to want to be your friend because everyone doesn’t have the time to be everybody’s friend. 

Nyge: Mm hmm. 

Eureka: That’s just the truth or the energy, and not everyone’s built for each other. 

Nyge: Right.

Eureka: So you also have to be careful because although you might find someone interesting or like them, if they don’t like you back, you have to get a thicker skin and learning like, that’s OK. Not everyone is going to like me. That’s also the hard part because you’re trying to work on your self-love, but then you’re also dealing with people that might not, you know, want to have fun with your, you know with you, and you feel bad about yourself. So you have to learn how to, like, keep being your own cheerleader, too. 

Nyge: Mm hmm. Is there any final advice that you’d like to give us as we’re trying to reach out to listeners who are struggling? 

Eureka: Listen to what you’re saying to the other people that you’re giving advice to. I think that’s a big, big piece of advice that I’ve had to learn. Obviously, the work that I do, things like that. But listen to yourself when you’re friends that you care about, come to you and they’re having a problem. The way that you talk to that friend is the way that you should be talking to yourself. 

Nyge: Definitely. 

Eureka: The same love that you have for your child or your mother or your father. If they had a problem, that’s the same way you should be talking to yourself. That’s my best piece of advice. And also to remember, happiness is harder than struggle. Struggle is not hard.


Eureka: Struggle is easy. Actually, to struggle is the easiest thing in the world to lay there in bed all day and not give a fuck. It’s so easy compared to getting up and doing the work to be happy. That’s hard.

Nyge: You can follow Eureka O’Hara on all the socials at Eureka O’Hara, and you can also catch them in both seasons of “We’re Here Now” streaming on HBO Max. 

(music break)

Nyge: Personally, I’ve been trying to figure out for the past four to five years what to do when a parent is gone and can no longer parent in the way that you need for whatever reason. It makes us feel incomplete sometimes when a parent is gone. It can feel like we’re missing a foundational piece of ourselves. Many of us feel the need to fill this hole that is left with somebody or something in order to feel complete again. But even though that can help so many people through this type of loss, it can also lead others even further down the rabbit hole to a much darker place. So therein lies the problem. How do we feel whole again after losing a loved one? We decided to talk to Ashley Fields, who can speak personally to this question, Ashley lost both of her parents in 2019 and has written and thought a lot about grief. 

Ashley: I was born in Buffalo, New York, and I’m an only child, and I started a grief community and blog, it’s called Orphanage. Losing my parents in 2019 has definitely been something that I have. Well, first of all, I wasn’t I wasn’t prepared for it at all. It definitely came as a shock. And having this community, this online community has definitely been helpful in me, just kind of finding my way and navigating forward. Yeah, it’s been a journey for sure. 

Nyge: Is that how you started community building among people grieving like yourself? 

Ashley: Yeah, just kind of sharing what’s on our heart, what’s on our mind, the good and the bad, especially the bad. Because I think a lot of times, especially in grief, the bad is, I don’t know, people have a lot of judgment around it. Those negative feelings and emotions and kind of those actions that kind of formed from being in a grieving state for so long. So I think. It was just really important to find people who just got it, and I didn’t have to explain everything to them, they just OK, yeah, I get that like, I feel you. So that’s just been really important in my journey moving forward, just because my family isn’t the same anymore. 

Nyge: I feel that like, about like four or five years ago, my mom got, had like an injury at work and she got early onset dementia and eventually, like, went like brain dead because of that. And so like when you’re dealing with like something like that, I felt when you are grieving, you feel like you can only say it like one time. Like, if you keep saying it like over and over and over, then it’s going to get like annoying or people are going to want to hear it anymore. You just have like one opportunity to say that people have one opportunity to console you over it and then it’s like people are waiting for you to get over it.

Ashley: Right.  

Nyge: After that. I mean, how are you trying to like combat that feeling? Because I think that’s like kind of what I see in the work that you do. And I just want to hear more about, about that because it really speaks. 

Ashley: I think for me. I think it’s just important just to keep kind of fighting that stigma back, like, no, like I, I don’t just have this one time or this one moment or I don’t have to grieve or start grieving right now like it’s going to be at my own time. Grief, again, like I think I repeat this so much is on my Instagram. Like it has no timeline. And for people to force that upon you or even for you to force that upon yourself, it just really sets you up for failure. Like if you’re expecting yourself to be over, be over grief and done and done with all of that in three months, you’re going to be upset when three months hits and you’re still grieving and you’re still not feeling well. I think it’s really important just to take your time. I have to realize that the person that I was before loss and who I am now is completely different and I have to be OK with that. And if that means I’m not working a traditional nine to five job, that means I’m not. And that may create some, I don’t know, worry, among other people. But for me, it has really just been, at least for the last couple of weeks, focusing on my mental health because it has not been well over the holidays and coming up on Christmas. So I think it’s important to put our foot down and talk about these things and to challenge people when they have those expectations for you. 

Nyge: I think such a mature and intelligent like point that you just made was that you aren’t the same person that you were before grief and you had to become OK with that. That is such a difficult thing to even wrap your mind around if you, because you never thought that that was going to happen, you thought eventually you would like get over it. And then when it happens, you realize there’s no going back and that’s OK. 

Ashley: Yeah, I think I’m still coming to terms with like my life, not going back to what it was before losing my parents. I think for a long time I was like, “No, it’s, it’s going to get better” and all the cliches and it’s like, “But wait, it’s not.” Like it’s not going to change in. So therefore it’s not going to be better in that way. And so I think this time this year realizing that like, hey, the things that you may have been able to do in juggle before loss, having a job may be going to school and doing a whole bunch of other things like that worked for me. But now that I am dealing with a little bit with like my mental health and my physical health, I can’t do those things and I have to tell myself, like, “OK, like, you’re not the same person, but this person here, we’re going to have to take care of her because like, you’re not well.” And grief has made me significantly unwell, not even just emotionally, physically, socially. It’s been very difficult. And so I think I have to remind myself of me being different, not to discourage myself, but to remind myself that this is a new, I’m going to have to develop a new normal.

Nyge: Earlier this year, you wrote a beautiful piece for YR Media about the strategies that you have used to cope and to care for yourself in the wake of your parents passing away. Could you share some of those, some of those strategies? 

Ashley: The beginning of this year, I really wanted to dive deeper into myself care, not just oh, going to the nail shop or buy myself, nice things, but really digging deep and finding things that would fill up my cup. I know a little bit on my blog. I talk about just having trouble eating and just having my disordered eating. Since I’ve lost my parents, so having yoga in my life has really helped me get re, just reacquainted with my body and figuring out what it needs and listening to it. If that means resting it instead of going out, then that means resting instead of going out and trying to eat good food. Whether that’s me making something or going out to grab something. Grief is made, you know, eating weird for me. So any time I do feel like eating, it has to be something good. It has to be something delicious. So another thing that was really important for me was finding, I think I touched on it a little bit earlier was community. And it wasn’t just my family just kind of extending beyond that and finding people like I said, who get it. People who have lost their parents who have lost a sibling, maybe lost a child. And us just really clinging together, either good and the bad times. And I always feel like I can, if I feel like I have no one to talk to, I know I can get on Instagram and get in the community and talk to someone. Or maybe someone posted something that resonates with me and I chat with them or DM about them. I know we also have it’s like a server where we all kind of connect. It’s called Griefing Hang out and can check that out also. But we also just chat in there like every single day about our struggles, about advice, about self-care tips. And it really just feels like an extension of my family and redefining like what family and what that looks like for me has been super important because at first it was miserable. I was miserable. I wasn’t around people. I wasn’t talking to anyone. It was just me and I was very isolated. So after, like talking with my therapist, she was like, “Hey, like, you’ve got, you got to find people who, who get it because you can’t just not talk about it. You can’t just, you can’t just be isolated.” So that’s kind of another reason why I felt like the Orphanish community and blogs needed to be developed. People from all over the world have the opportunity to connect with, and it’s super cool that we have this special bond and unfortunately, over this bond. But it’s nice to know that we have each other’s back. For sure. Yeah. 

Nyge:  What advice might you give someone who is starting to make big decisions without the guidance of their parents for the first time? 

Ashley:  I would say to get organized. So whenever you’re dealing with whatever that looks like, I would say to get organized, I know grief causes like this, this fog and it gets confusing. You forget things. You lose things. So I would say, like, get some paper or whatever and organize and write things down. I know. I got like a little, what is that? It’s not like a little, but like a little folder, like with the dividers. And I got that and I kind of organized all the important documents, important papers, statements, just all of that. Having passwords to everything. Writing down the due dates, writing down information you think you’re going to forget because you, you probably will forget it and grieve it. That’s just what happens. Your mind is doing so many other things and it’s like, you’re not going to be able to focus on everything. So I would say to get organized and to write stuff down. Finding what tools you have to make those decisions, and I think you honestly have to do like, a self-reflection like, “OK, like what? What do I have or who do I know that can help me do this? Or who can I call in? Maybe they can direct me.” I know that’s what I did a whole bunch because I was like, I don’t. I don’t have my parents. Who am I supposed to call? So I definitely had to be vulnerable and ask people for help, even though that’s super scary. I don’t like, it’s not that I don’t like asking people for help. I just don’t want to burden them. But asking for help, Does it mean? It’s not bad. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak or you can’t do it, it just means that you need help, and that’s OK. Not everyone’s going to be able to help you. So you kind of have to discern and decide like, OK, which people do I want to let in and to help me, because I mean, no one wants everyone in their business. But yeah, definitely reaching out. 

Nyge: Yeah, definitely. Do you have any other advice like for people who are just starting out on their grief journey like anything that, that we missed in this conversation?

Ashley: I’d say just to be really kind and to be really patient with yourself. I told myself that when I started this, like I was going to be kind and gentle, and I kind of rushed myself into going back to work and to doing certain things that I think, like society forced me into thinking was normal. And now looking back, I’m just going to continue to take a lot of time to get help, seek help, go to therapy if you can. I’m currently like in a group therapy situation, which is really, really helpful for me, especially being in a group where you can bounce ideas off each other or just hear different perspectives. It’s different than just going to like one on one with a therapist and then being in a group, you know, it’s just kind of that added layer of support. Finding people who can be in your support system, and that may mean that you have to go out and find new people, and that’s fine. And if you don’t have those people, you know, hop on my Instagram and there’s hundreds of people on there that are willing to talk to you and be there for you. People who are willing to acknowledge your grief and not force you to kind of just shut up like I’ve heard it already. Like, No, we’re not tired of hearing about it. Will never be tired of hearing about it. So, yeah. 

Nyge: After grief, there’s no way you’re going to be the same person redefine what family looks like and be kind and gentle to yourself and finally put energy into loving yourself first, then focus on finding a community of people who understand the things that you’ve been through and lean on them. 

Adult ISH is produced by YR Media, a national network of young artists and journalists creating content for this generation.

Our show is produced by George Wright, Dominique French and me, Nyge Turner.

Our executive producer is Rebecca Martin, and our intern is Tamara Sanchez.

Thank you to the young people at YR who contributed art and music for this episode.

We are also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX, an independent listener supported collective of some of the most amazing shows in all of podcasting. Find them at Radiotopia.fm.

And if you haven’t reviewed our show on Apple Podcasts, please be sure to do so. Five stars is much appreciated. You can follow us on all the socials at YR Adult ISH. And on that note, we’ll see you later.

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