A True Mother: On Breaking the Transgenerational Parenting Cycle

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“Shadows of the past churn and turn towards the light asking us to pay attention to unexpected feelings of ambivalence, comparison, and inadequacy in parenting. Unearthing, and addressing these feelings when they arise unwinds shame and is an essential key to healing our transgenerational attachment legacies”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

I was not always a gentle parent. Although I believed I was doing what was best for my children, my early days as a mother were a tug of war. I loved my children with all my heart, but my notions of parenting were based on what I knew. Transgenerational parenting, in short, means we parent the way we were parented. And in doing so, we often pass down complex ancestral emotional wounds. We all face the same challenge when we stand before the child-rearing fork in the road. We either follow the well-worn path of legacy or we veer off in a completely different direction, vowing to change a pattern that no longer serves us or our children. But the stronghold of that generational biologism is very difficult to break. It requires a certain level of consciousness and the willingness to ask ourselves some important and sometimes painful questions. Above all, it takes a great deal of courage.

When my son and daughter were toddlers, I believed with strong conviction that the best way to guide them was through rigid scheduling and correcting “bad” behavior. Which meant lots of yelling, time outs, talking to’s, threats and even spankings. Because, isn’t exerting control how children learn to behave, to obey and to conform? Isn’t that how we instill the notion of right and wrong? Isn’t that how we ultimately protect them? I wasn’t their friend after all, I was their mother. How many times had I been told that?

The results were detrimental. Most of my arbitrary attempts to control their behavior without trying to understand the emotions behind it was hurtful and confusing for my children and made them resentful. That resentment was either internalized in the form of withdrawal or externalized in the form of acting out, neither of which was the desired outcome. And it quickly became a pattern.

My personal interior tug of war was that I often felt rejected and disrespected. And I constantly felt guilty. And when I felt guilty, I would tap into the little girl in me that remembered just wanting to be loved and try to offer that affection to my children. But without an explanation, exchange, apology, or any real change in my behavior, my children soon learned to mistrust the 360° attempt to sooth away the damage. They would accept my  hugs and I love you’s, but they were left with the disappointment and menacing presence of unresolved feelings.

I was deeply at odds with myself because I didn’t know another way, but I didn’t like myself as a parent. My husband, on the other hand, was a model of patience and a first rate problem-solver who often intervened when I was overwhelmed. I admired him greatly as a father and wanted so much to be more like him. At the same time, I struggled with the resentment I felt at the bond he had with our children, which in turn fed my self-doubt as a parent. Some fundamental understanding of my relationship with my children was missing.

One day, when my patience was extremely low, my voice got loud. Really loud. It boomed and raged and reflected in my children’s frightened eyes. I recognized that voice–the tone, the intonation, the tenor–as that of my father’s, someone I had loved and feared with equal measure. That voice, on good days, could lift me up with  praise and laughter and on bad days and without warning, could plummet me into despair with criticism and disdain–well into my adult years.

Before my father passed away from a long battle with cancer, I  took the risk and asked him some hard questions. How was it possible that former employees, friends, colleagues and strangers described him as nurturing, loving, a great listener, kind and patient, when I knew a whole other side to him that was harsh, critical, rejecting and punishing? Was he even aware of how much he’d hurt me over the years? Did he care? Did he love me?

Well, my father was all those wonderful things that other people saw in him. And he was also the father I knew. He did his best, and of course he loved me. But, he was also a wounded child who grew up to be a wounded adult. As he explained to me in the vulnerable voice of a soul who’s come full circle,  he grew up in a household without love, walled in by strict rules and moral codes that demanded good behavior. He had been largely deprived of compassion and physical affection. “I was incapable,” he’d said. And I believed him.

I had inherited his long legs and his Irish sense of humor, as well as a long lineage of dutiful parenting and the emotional scars that got passed down alongside them. His admission broke my heart, but it also awakened a deep understanding in me that I would no longer be the forward carrier. I would break the cycle.

The first thing I did was get down on the floor. That’s where the change began. Down there, with my children, I could see the world through their eyes, I could imagine how tall I must seem to them, how everything asks to be explored and conquered, how it’s all wonderful and funny and frustrating as hell. Down there, I started to play, to clap, to dance, to sing. To be still. I looked out the window and up at the clouds. Those clouds! I fell asleep on the floor with my children on a bed of legos and books and cinderella shoes. I laughed and I cried. For my father, for myself and for lost time. I listened and I watched and I let the small things go. I spoke, slowly, purposefully and as gently as I could. I practiced. I held their feet, their hands, their heads, their whole small bodies until I knew their separateness by heart.

And when the time was right, I picked myself up off the floor and took care of myself. I engaged in the world. I did one thing, one small thing, every day just for myself. I read about respectful parenting. I tried on compassion and trust with myself and others. I learned how to talk things through rather than react. I learned to inspire rather than insist. I learned to ask questions and listen to the answers without judgement or criticism, regardless of how much time it took and how many other things I had to do.  I meditated. I wrote. And I asked myself a lot of questions about the parent I wanted to be. I didn’t try to be a perfect mother. I aimed to be a true mother. True to my nature, true to my instincts, true to my word and true to my intentions.  I forgave the past. And I learned to forgive myself when I’m not at my best. I would be lying if I said it was easy. It’s not. Every morning I summon patience and kindness to my side. The love is already there. It always has been. And so we move on, together.

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24 thoughts on “A True Mother: On Breaking the Transgenerational Parenting Cycle

  1. I think you make it sound easy in this article. For me, it.is.not. There is so much ground lost with very little gained. You said, “I would be lying if I said it was always easy.” I would say it is never easy, not by a long shot. The improvements are so small, it takes so many years of effort, that the kids are often nearly grown by the time any small positive changes are noticeable, so then the damage has been done and they have deal with the results of that transgenerational parenting (i.e. depression, low self-esteem, trust issues, anxiety, etc.). If you took a step back after a lifetime and looked at those child-rearing years as a screenshot or a graph, there would be improvement for those putting in that strenuous effort, but while in it the differences are barely noticeable. So I would say that anyone attempting to break those cycles needs to have an understanding that they will have to put in a great deal of effort, but that their efforts may not make much of a difference in their own immediate family; that the difference may not be noticed until the next generation. Often I wish that my children will not have children of their own because the struggle and the guilt is so painful. And if there is addiction (like there was with my father) or mental illnesses or disorders (like in my childhood family and my family now), the stuggle to change those unhealthy patterns is even more difficult.

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    • Hi Cyndy, thanks for shedding light on this subject. I can only speak to my individual experience, which did not involve addiction or mental illness. In that sense, I’m fortunate. I think the process and outcome is different for everyone depending on their personal family situation and degree of struggle. I really appreciate you sharing your own story for others who may be in a similar situation. And I hope you find peace along the way.

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  2. Your honesty is so laudable. What a wonderful, life-long gift you’ve given both yourself and your children.

    Your father also gave you a gift by admitting he was incapable and had known nothing else. My father had a horrific upbringing and passed that onto his children — all of whom have raised their own children very differently. But at 93 he still believes he did the right thing and that we were bad kids who needed discipline and “breaking.” Although I understand that like your father, he had no knowledge of how to do things differently then, he insists on not seeing himself in perspective now. I have come to accept that I will never be able to resolve my feelings through or involving him; I have to do that separately, on my own.

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    • Thank you kahollis for your positive feedback. My father, while he admitted he was “incapable” and spoke with difficulty about his childhood, never apologized or took responsibility for his own behavior. I think that is in fact the first step in breaking the cycle–taking responsibility–for our actions and the personal work that needs to be done on behalf of ourselves and our children. Blaming is not productive, but understanding is. I imagine, in the case of your father, at 93, that admitting any wrong doing would be like unravelling an entire lifetime of justification. But your decision to resolve your feelings on your own is courageous and, as you said, a great gift to yourself and your loved ones.

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  3. You have done you and your children such a great service. I’ve thought about this so much since coming home and how terrifying it must have been for you to move away from what you knew, from what was familiar, in spite of the fact that it clearly wasn’t working for you. What strikes me most about your family is the closeness that’s engendered through mutual respect and trust that transcends generational lines. It’s so hard, even now, especially now, but I hold you as my inspiration as I try to strengthen my connection with my family.

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    • Thanks Marjie, I feel really humbled to know that I’ve inspired you in that way and I can’t wait to move forward together to see what other jewels we’ll reveal to each other. Love you tons!

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  4. My Dad was awesome -kind, patient, understanding, funny and loving. My birth mother was physically abusive, emotionally neglectful, let us go hungry, generally not a great parent. Then, on my fifth birthday, she left and we have never seen her since.
    I was so terrified that I would parent like her. Sometimes if I am not concentrating, I can feel those feelings coming for me. Sometimes I catch them and sometimes I don’t, sometimes I want to shout at my children.
    My children are adopted, so we literally cannot parent them like that. At all. It would really hurt them. They deserve better.
    I have found that my children are able to remember mistakes long enough for us all to calm down before we have conversation. Even the day after is fine. It gives me time to think about what I want the outcome to be. Normally things like an acknowlegement of unkindness, an understanding of why something was difficult. I am learning to not react in anger but to act from a place of deliberate decision.
    I have also found that my children feel awful when they have made a mistake and a little empathy and humour can diffuse a situation and make it smaller, more manageable, really quickly. I want them to grow up to be functioning, kind members of society. I don’t need to be furious to achieve that.
    Sometimes we deliberately upside-down parent. They are frightened of a punishment? Pull out an ice cream and deal with it later. We try to prioritise relationship with them and each other.
    They don’t ‘get away with it’, we always have to look at it but make choices about how and when. It works for us. Mostly, sometimes I am a shouty mummy but not often and less and less.
    I love this article.

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    • Hi Gina, thanks for sharing your story. It sounds like you are doing a great job with your children! I’m going to try the ice-cream trick next time I feel the need to “cool things down.” It’s true that very little of what we tend to get upset about is really important. Thanks for reminding me of that.

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    • Thank you! I needed to hear your words. Especially the part about delaying the dealing with it step, until it can be done out of deliberate decision, not anger. And this- I really needed to hear: “a little empathy and humour can diffuse a situation and make it smaller, more manageable, really quickly.” Little gems of saving wisdom. Thank you.

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  5. thank you. such heart felt openness. In my own journey the pain from being that same child in connection with my mum is too great for me to want to be a parent. instead i have taken a life time to heal the wounds (well to here now at 40) and i bring this love and experience into my work and life where i am sort of that loving nurturing parent to my clients and any one that crosses my path. Beautiful article. Sending love and thanks to you on Mothers Day. x

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  6. I love this. My husband and I were just discussing this very topic this morning. I use to be a strict mom. Yelling, spanking, etc. Then I learned there was a different way. I am learning to respect my children. I use to believe it was my responsibility to make them obey. I thought that was how I was supposed to teach them to obey. I am learning that my resposibility is to love them and guide them. To help them grow. Thanks so much for sharing your journey.

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    • Hi Fiercelydevoted! Thanks for taking the time to comment and share your own story. I’ve been amazed at how many mothers are struggling with this. (I’m sure there are fathers out there too, but I didn’t hear from them.) Once we understand that our job is to love and guide them as you said, and not “teach them to obey,” it changes everything, including how we see and treat ourselves! Love and light to you and your family on your journey.

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  7. Pingback: Through the Back Door: Parenting Choices and Unschooling | A Muddy Life

  8. My kid is 12 now. I wish I had been a less hysteric mom when she was younger. Beyond transgenerational parenting, remember, we, as moms and primary caregivers, were constantly tired, and doubtful of whether we are doing a decent job or screwing up. A whole lot of factors come into play.

    Now, I still get hysteric at times, when the kid has not done her homework or she has not filled the water bottles after being reminded fourteen times – just like my mom yelled at me. But, she also gets hugged, we do make-up fun together and talk about her crushes – just UNLIKE my mom and I. She has menarched, I am permenopausing – so add the potent hormonal mix into cultural factors. Parenting is hard. Rewarding, perhaps. But hard.

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  9. Wow! Thank you for your candor and vulnerability and for putting in to words what I have been evaluating in myself over the past year. I have been blessed with three beautiful children. My oldest son really got the super firm and authoritarian parenting experience that I had also experienced, and I regretfully feel like while he was the best behaved kid and remains such, I feel like I broke his spirit a bit (or maybe a lot). He is often resentful and angry at me and neither of us really understand why, but your words helped me really get it. I just hope to help him heal and for him to gain respect of me, and for our relationship to grow stronger.

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    • Hi Janelle,

      It’s great that you’re even aware of this and that you’re working on it with your children. The relationship you have with your son sounds very familiar. My son is also the oldest and really well-behaved and I’ve had to work hard on restoring respect and trust in our relationship. I don’t know how old your son is, but when mine was about 11, I sat down with him and talked to him about how I was parented and told him that I had worked (and was still working) really hard on changing my behavior. I told him that the last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt him and that I had been wrong on many occassions. Then I asked him to forgive me and tell me if there were things he still wanted me to work on. I cried and he lit up like a christmas tree. I think just acknowledging that I had hurt him, even unintentionally, and apologising was healing for both of us. Our relationship has been a lot more open ever since, although I am far from perfect!

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