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.

Finding Your Own Path: Homeschooling Choices and Parenting Intuition

 

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When we first made the decision to give homeschooling a try, I joined a few online groups and spent a lot of time reading through the conversation threads and asking questions of my own.  I was desperate to know how this at-home learning thing worked and how other, more seasoned parents dealt with doubts and insecurities. But mostly, I wanted to know what I should be doing. In other words, I wanted an outline for how to educate my children outside an institutional framework. But ultimately, there was so much information and so many, many opinions–often times conflicting– that I ended up feeling more confused and overwhelmed than ever, despite the (mostly) good intentions of all who had contributed to these conversations. I simply shut down.

This information overload seemed familiar. When had I felt like this before ?

When I was pregnant with my son.

Like many first time expecting mothers, I roamed the pregnancy and childbirth section of my local bookstore in search of the perfect tome to guide me through the changes in my body and how to best take care of myself and the rapidly growing baby I was carrying. Which led to birthing advice, choices and decisions. Then there were opposing “schools” regarding feeding, sleeping, wearing, bathing, diapering, and a myriad of other care-taking subjects to face once this little person arrived.  I got so much advice from doctors, friends, family and strangers that the books sat mostly untouched on my nightstand before they got shoved under the bed in favor of a vampire novel. (This was my weird pregnancy craving.)

I listened eagerly to all the advice I received. For a while. Then, when I started to feel anxious and overwhelmed about which path to follow, I took a  step back and began to listen to my intuition, which became more heightened as my pregnancy progressed. I sifted through it all, weighing and integrating what felt right to me and letting the rest fall away. Together, my husband and I made the big decisions about our child’s birth  based on our values, habits, and lifestyle. But mostly we drew from a deep well of resolve and trust in ourselves and our abilities. And we decided that  maybe we didn’t need to decide at all. . . that we could just be with our baby and the rest would come naturally. We continued to listen to our instincts as our two children passed through the differing stages of emotional development and physical growth, as they tested and explored the world around them.

Parenting techniques continue to be a widely-covered and controversial topic and there is certainly no lack of opinion on which is the right way to raise our children. Unschooling (and homeschooling in general) are also garnering a lot of attention as the benefits of interest-led learning proliferate. And with that coverage and awareness comes the division that is inherent to almost any movement that challenges the establishment. The homeschooling umbrella covers many different and legitimate ways to help our children learn outside of the typical school framework. Unfortunately, they carry labels based on everything from the reliance on or absence of curriculum, text books, bed times and even food choices.

How is a parent to decide which home learning« technique » is right for their family ? A more important question might be, do we each need to fit neatly into any one of these categories ? More importantly, do our children need to have the way in which they learn best (which may differ from child to child, within the same family) be so strictly defined ? In the end, it all comes down to our parenting intuition, our ability to identify which aspects feel right and which don’t. We can pick and choose and mix it all up and call it whatever we want because ultimately it only needs to work for our children within the greater family fabric.

Following our intuition is a learning process itself. Mistakes will be made, insecurities will surface, obstacles will present themselves in the form of setbacks, standstills and criticism about our choices. But if we consider our options carefully and observe and listen to our children, that same intuition that guided us through birth and parenting, and the accompanying peaks and valleys, will lead us along a rich learning path with our children. Eventually they’ll veer off onto their own unique life paths, patterned with experience and paved with intuition.

The Learning Vacation

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Walking among the acropolis ruins on the island of Kos

I was telling another mom a few days ago that we just got back from a two week vacation on a small island in Greece. I explained that the trip had been part business and part pleasure, but that mostly, it had been a learning vacation for our children. She smiled knowingly and said, “Yeah, I guess every kid needs a vacation from learning sometimes, huh?”

What I had meant was that our vacation was intentionally centered around learning and discovery, that we had planned (and often improvised) our activities around things that my children are passionate about. What she heard, however–that children need “a break” from learning–reinforces a common assumption about education: that learning can only take place in a formal educational environment, i.e. school, and that by contrast, anything that takes place outside of that institution is considered leisure or fun. This mindset is so deeply ingrained, in fact, that time off from school to pursue intellectual or creative interests, or the discovery of a new place and culture is not only frowned upon, but isn’t considered valuable learning at all.

What we learn deeply as part of the human experience can’t be measured or compared or tested. During our two weeks in Greece, we each learned something valuable to us. We spent two days in Turkey roaming cobblestone streets, drinking sweet chai from hourglass shaped teacups. When we missed a boat connection from one island to our destination, the kids were tired and frustrated at being “stranded”.  But they quickly learned that a detour can turn into an unexpected adventure of climbing over ancient ruins in a field of wildflowers, followed by tasting wild thyme and honey drizzled over warm, tangy cheese.

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We met many new people and discovered two new cultures and languages. We visited historical monuments, museums and monasteries, talked to local artists about their work and influences, discovered hidden places by exploring the winding side streets against the flow of other tourists.

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My children learned from other people how to fish off a rock, which stones are best for ricocheting and how to play crazy eights. They learned about monks who live in solitude, small yellow flowers that close up when you touch them and the taste of figs eaten directly from the tree.

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We visited an organic farm and vineyard and learned all about WWOOFing, cheese making and how olive oil is pressed. We listened to people’s stories of ancestors who fled Turkey during the Ottoman empire and sailed to uninhabited islands in Greece, how they hid in caves, fishing and scavenging, fearing pirates and welcoming merchants, until the first house could be built. (“Come, I’ll show it to you. It still exists.”)

We learned about the Greek diaspora after World Wars I and II and the eventual return of new generations to Greece. For my son, hearing these stories showed him that history is more than a continuum of events. Its a hand-written memoir, a spoken memory. It’s about people and their very personal stories, very few of which ever make it into a history book. And the knowledge they impart can only be integrated and passed down, but never tested.

A few days after we returned from our learning vacation, I came across this exchange of letters between a school principal and a father who took his children out of school so they could share in his life-long dream of running in the Boston marathon. Despite three days filled with history, science, culture and endless examples of community, the children’s absence was labelled “unexcused” and the family was threatened with a possible criminal complaint for truancy if it happened again.

In response to the principal’s zero tolerance admonition, the father wrote,

“In the 3 days of school they missed (which consisted of standardized testing that they could take any time) they learned about dedication, commitment, love, perseverance, overcoming adversity, civic pride, patriotism, American history, culinary arts and physical education. . . They also experienced first-hand the love and support of thousands of others cheering on people with a common goal. . . These are things they won’t ever truly learn in the classroom.”

His words echoed our experience. What struck me was that little phrase that got tucked into parentheses as though it was as afterthought to his argument about the three days they missed (“which consisted of standardized testing that they could take any time”). Those few words speak volumes about the misplaced priorities of our educational system. When did standardized testing, which attempts to measure the conformed distribution and assimilation of rote information, become more valuable to our children’s experience than learning through the use of their five senses, their innate wonder and curiosity about the world, and their natural ability to make sense of and build upon those experiences? Simply put, how can anyone insist that school has a monopoly on learning? I think we could all use a vacation from that mindset by paying a visit to life.