“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.