The Unengaged Gardener


In my last post “Freedom from Nose to Tail Surviving”, I said: “What if there is little interest shown at all? Maybe a parent is physically present, but shares no emotional interaction, doesn’t give of themselves or seek to know, really know, their child? The child assumes that she isn’t worth pursuing, her whole self isn’t worth pursuing. Or maybe, her whole self is ‘too much’ to handle, too much to pursue, not worth the effort.”

Imagine a brand new garden. Dark, fragrant earth. All the seeds are planted and ready to grow. The conditions are just right for this garden to flourish, to thrive. All the potential is there. I imagine this is the life of a new child. We are each born unique, with our own unique potential to be and live out who we are in this world. Some kinds of abuse go into the garden and trample it, rip things out or purposefully squish what is growing. Some kinds of abuse want to redo the whole garden to make it look exactly like their own garden. Some kinds of abuse are only bent on passing down the pain and destruction that they received themselves, be it physical, verbal, or sexual mistreatment.

What about the gardener who, being gifted with the garden, doesn’t do very much with it? He may be there every day but he’s not working to help the seeds to grow. He doesn’t try to learn what they need to thrive. He is terrified of making mistakes, so he stays as far to the periphery of the garden as he can without actually leaving. He finds other things to occupy his time while the garden starts to grow as best it can without his help. He offers some easier attendance here and there, providing the basics, certain things he is comfortable doing. But he doesn’t take the time to learn the intricacies of this place, how unique this particular garden is, and exactly what kind of potential is brewing in its deeply planted seeds. Certain things may still grow and flourish, but with a sense of grasping at life, a hungry sense of surviving. The gardener is not vigilant to protect the vulnerable early growth. Weeds grow at the same time and strangle some of the good stuff just poking through. Birds or insects are given free rein to come and pick at it as they choose.  Ripe things that could be harvested drop to the ground unnoticed. Over time, tendrils crawl out all over the place, seeking for some kind of attention and care.

My dad was this kind of gardener. He never tried to destroy my garden, but by mostly sitting around the outside of it, being too afraid to get involved with what was really going on on the inside, he inadvertently sent the message to me that I was not valuable enough to be pursued, that my own feelings and thoughts were not worth being interacted with, that my deepest potential wasn’t worth being investigated. This was the beginning of my hungry heart, the tendrils hungrily seeking out other ways of being validated and affirmed. As children, we automatically form our first most powerful belief system based on how we are treated by our very first gardeners. This belief system was one of the biggest vacuums that drew me into deep struggles with depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.


Categories : Family



I love the way you weave this story. It makes me think of how I had to revive my own garden. The soil was dead, dry, devoid of nutrients. In my recovery process, I dug down really deep through all the lies and messages that had been planted in me, and I examined them. I considered where they came from, how they were planted, how they were nurtured, how they were tended, grew, blossomed and even flourished. With the help of my therapist I realized they were destroying me and I had to dig them up by the roots and I chucked them out, replacing these lies with truth. Through the process of doing this, I cultivated my original soil.. I added rich healing truth, I removed all the weeds, I worked hard to find that original Darlene, born with innocence, purpose and individuality.


I really like the comparison to a garden. It is very effective. I can imagine him standing on the edge of the garden. He’s reading the paper while he waters it. Things occur which damage the plants, and there are some signs of disease, but he does not get involved. His co-worker in the garden is very worried about the plants and is spending a lot of time & energy trying to fix the problems and make the plants healthy. He allows her to, even if he doesn’t agree with her methods, because he thinks she is more powerful than he is and that he doesn’t know anything about growing a garden anyways. He never learned from his first gardener.


Love this! Wonderful analogy to garden. (Sounds like the gardener is not very gifted after all.)


Darlene~ Thank you for describing this part of the story. It is very empowering and encouraging to know that as we grow beyond childhood, we can take over our own gardens and tend to them the way they need to be tended to, nurtured, loved and able to thrive. It’s a process of hope and healing and really exciting too!

Debbie~ Wow. These are really deep observations about they dynamic between a passive parent and a pro-active parent. There is a lot of pain in this kind of dynamic, with the pro-active parent bearing most of the weight of responsibility. Children draw a whole other set of beliefs in watching this unfold as well- I know I did! Thank you for sharing this with everyone here.

Love Carla


Hi Marjie! Thanks so much for visiting and leaving your kind note. I’m glad you enjoyed the garden analogy. ~Carla

Cindy Leigh Wilson
April 11th, 2010 at 12:32 am

Dear Carla,
Wow…again…I need to come up with a better way to describe my first thoughts, but that is honestly what keeps coming out each time I read a post…wow.

I’m working my way backwards right now on some of your posts. I think after this one I will stop and start over so that my comments are not off track. Just let me add this “feeling” of mine to this garden tending we are up to. I cannot help but go back and forth from seeing myself as the child needing the attention of a loving gardener to seeing myself as the current “gardener-parent” and what I need to do better as the gardener.

I’m sure as I catch up that I will see this addressed somewhere. In-fact I am wondering if you might not have spoken to it and I glossed over it more intently looking at what was speaking to my own needs as a child….ughhhhh….the dilemma of wanting to make it “all right right away”.

I imagine, as in the rest of life, I need to heal myself first in order to help those around me. At least this analogy gives me some clarity to observe my own parenting while I am working on myself. One thing it makes so clear to me is the danger to try and correct what we perceive as our parents “wrong parenting” by swinging the pendulum in the other direction…and most often too far in the other direction. What my children need “tending” to can very well have nothing to do with do with what I so desperately needed tending from by my parents. Wow…that is a big eye opener for me…big time.

Thanks again…the path of this journey is much clearer because of your pointing out some of the pot holes to avoid,
Cindy Leigh


Cindy, thank you so much for commenting and leaving your really valuable insight. Sometimes in writing my posts I think, “will this really come across the way I’m intending it to? Am I expressing the truth well enough?” Darlene and I both really value the comments people leave, and it’s so cool when you shed your own light on the topic. So thank you! I am not a parent myself, but Darlene is and other readers are as well. That would be another great topic to explore- how finding health for yourself impacts your children and family. I doubt we will let that one go unexplored! As a (adult) child I can say from my experience that seeing my parents pursue their own health now is huge in terms of us having a relationship together. I look forward to hearing more of your input. Thank you again for visiting and writing.

Hugs to you,


Hi Carla,
I have found your blog and have followed it a little. I appreciate that you are working through some difficult emotions. I would also describe myself as a person-pleaser and that truly can be a difficult personality sometime so I understand some of your struggles.
I have a bit of a problem with this post though. You have talked in other posts about the inheritance of belief systems from your parents and inheriting brokeness from them. I don’t see then how this is abuse. The passive abuse thing … perhaps your parents weren’t able to be emotionally available the way you wanted them to be. I understand that you were hurt by their omissions of affection and affirmation, but I find this hardly constitutes abuse. Abuse is defined as the, “Improper treatment or usage; application to a wrong or bad purpose; misuse; perversion”. I don’t think your parents actions constitute a passive abuse because their purpose was not bad. From what you’ve written it does not seem like their intention was to hurt you, though their parenting may have been passive and fallen short of your needs and desires.
I have another analogy for you which I have heard used as an allusion to the effect of parents on their children. Children can be thought of like a piece of glass being set into its place in the window. Despite all best intentions by its handlers, the piece of glass will get smudges on it from the fingertips of those caring for it. I find this analogy useful for us. There is no way to escape childhood without our parents having some kind of negative effects on us. It doesn’t mean they didn’t do what they could.
I think we need to be really careful in what we label as abusive. If we considered every act that causes some pain or disappointment abusive, I think we would all be most guilty of abuse nearly all the time.
Thank you for your thoughts on your current struggles, they are very thought provoking.


Hi MaryAnna! Thanks for visiting us and contributing your point of view. I understand your perspective. The analogy of fitting a piece of glass into its frame is great! In relating that to my own story, my Dad left very few fingerprints… and that was really the tragedy for me. Thankfully today, I understand my own story so that I can heal from what was lacking and offer hope to others.



This is such a rich post. I hope that it is okay if an older man (a Dad) contributes here. My own father was such a gardener. He lived only a few hours away, but not once did he ever come to see me while I was growing up, or call me, or send me a card. In ways, it may have been better had he not been there at all, as his lack of engagement left me feeling quite unworthy. As it was, it became my vow in life to not let this happen to my own children. I was able to give attention and support and love to my three children, although at times it was very difficult, as I did not know what to do, as I had never experienced what I was being called to give. Years later, I became remarried to a woman who had two children of her own. I was unable to incorporate them into my heart, and she eventually left me. I don’t blame her, as she had to provide a loving environment for her children. I beat myself up pretty bad for failing in this way, and I have spent years trying to understand what happened and why. I surmise that having never experienced “unconditional love” I did not have it to give. I was able to barely do this for my own children, but my reserve was low, and in a “special” circumstance, I did not have it to give. I know that many people have judged me regarding this situation, but none so much as how I have judged myself. I am still working to open my heart chakra. I am thinking that the key is loving myself…seeing myself as worthy, but it is slow in coming. I still long for it from the outside…a lover or guru, and I still work on finding inner appreciation. I find comfort in the fact that my own three children are in a better starting position that I was. Being loved as a child makes all the difference. Thanks.


Robert, you are most welcome to contribute here! Thank you. I love the truth that we can work to redeem in our current lives despite what was lacking for us in our most vulnerable years, and it is so inspiring to hear people like yourself sharing how they did this heroic thing (it IS heroic) and worked hard to make their reality better, the way they truly wanted it to be. There is little we can do to change failures or shortcomings in the past (especially when they are simply based in our own human limitations), but our present is where all the hope and opportunity for growth is, all the time. Cheers to you for continuing in your journey. I’m glad you enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing your comment and all the best to you. ~Carla


[…] described the impact of my relationship with my Dad in older posts published here (check out “The Unengaged Gardener”). Ultimately, I would have grown up knowing that I was uniquely and wonderfully made. I would […]


[…] light. I’ve already written about one aspect of the belief system my Dad passed down to me in “The Unengaged Gardener”. In my next post, I will expose another […]


Such a beatiful analogy! Brought to mind a visual meditation I learned in a seminar. Close your eyes. See a lovelty white house surrounded by a white picket fence with a gate that opens and closes. Inside that gate is a incredible garden filled with flowers of every color. Everyone flower you love. Can you see your magnificent garden? This is your garden and yours alone. Nourish it with love, tenderness and care every day. Of course, people will want to come through the gate into your garden. Some people will come in and nourish your garden with love, honor and respect. Then, there are those who will walk right in and piss on your garden! Always remember, who you let into your precious garden is always up to you.
After this vision was “planted” in my head, my favorite response whenever someone is stomping on my dreams or trying to drag me down is, “DON’T PISS ON MY GARDEN!”
I have been rebuilding my garden day after day, year after year. The flowers are magnificent. Sometimes I forget and have a hard time recognizing when someone is pissing on my garden. Got to watch out for those moles who bore their way in and cause destruction and so much chaos. You may not always be able to see the creature that has come to destroy your daffodils, tulips, roses, sunflowers, morning glories, inner peace, happiness, dreams, life…but you can feel them in your gut. The tightness that screams, “PROTECT ME!” And the voice inside that says, “Honor me.”


Hi Marlene! I love what you have shared. I’ve been thinking lately of that dynamic of protecting my inner garden too, how important that is and how a truly good parent will do that for their child as well. There is so much value growing there and so much potential for fulfillment. Thanks for sharing this Marlene! ~ Carla

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