My grandmother died a few days before Christmas. Fortunately, I got to visit her before things began to deteriorate rapidly. She met my youngest daughter and I was able to see her during her good days. My relationship with my grandmother has been complicated. As a child I simply adored her, but as a young woman her disappointment in my choices left a gap between us. I couldn’t be the conservative Christian woman she wanted and she couldn’t be the understanding older mentor I needed.
Often during that last visit I felt like a stranger. But that stranger stance allowed me a privileged viewing of my mother’s relationship with her mother. I’m not going to say it was a comfortable viewing because my mother’s pain was palatable in these fragile moments.
My mother, you see, experienced abuse both physical and emotional as well neglect at the hands of my grandmother. She also carried the pain of not being protected through others’ abuse of her body. While I knew my grandmother regretted those moments, I don’t think my mother ever felt resolution. Watching her struggle with how to grieve hammered something home for me. My mother not only didn’t want to parent like her mother she didn’t. Perhaps it is the nature of each generation to push away from parenting like our parents but when it comes to cycles of abuse this pushing becomes more than just ideological.
As a young adult, I pushed away from my extended family in every way imaginable. I changed politically, religiously, and even in the way I dressed. I did this consciously at first wanting to get as far away as possible from their world. But pushing away from my mother proved more complicated. Our attachment despite antagonism on both sides meshed our lives together for better or worst. As I got older we managed an uneasy truce where I lived far enough away to make visits infrequent. When I got pregnant that shifted. My mother overjoyed at becoming a grandmother, and I needing that support, became closer. For me, an underlying tension overshadowed this new closeness. I longed for a family of my own; a family I carefully crafted in my mind as being polar opposite of the family in which I grew up. I felt like my son was a gift to start over.
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Initially, the negative traits were the ones I noted first. My impatience, my tendency to yell when I felt frustrated all brought me crashing back into my past. One day after yelling at my son for something minor, I watched him sob, scared, and I realized I had fallen back on what I knew as mothering. It was incredibly jolting and came at a time when my mother and I’s fragile relationship was starting to crack.
This crack hurt, but it afforded me some space to step back and examine where my parenting behaviors originated, what triggered them, and how much I needed to heal from my past.
Psychologist Lisa Firestone outlines in a post the process we can go through when recognizing these not so desirable parenting behaviors. She suggests creating a story of your past and looking for the moments when your parents behaved as you behaved with your child. Recognizing these patterns “can be painful. Sad memories are sure to arise.”
Indeed, as I looked over my past to find those moments when my mother yelled at me or pushed me away, I cried, scared of how my son already felt towards me. I also remembered feeling at first confused and later scared that I was turning into my father whom she hated. Finally, I was just angry and resentful.
If the process ended at that point I don’t think I could have borne having more children, but I pushed further to make a decision that I could lay those hurts to rest.
Firestone writes that understanding our past and seeing how it influences our future allows us “to challenge the negative traits we have as parents.”
I realized how much resentment I held toward my brothers whom my mother doted on; doting that I rarely experienced. Watching my mother behave the same way with my son triggered something in me. All those feelings of jealously pushed at me… making me almost resent my own son. It was a painful and startling realization, but it was vital in pushing me to be a different kind of parent. My son wasn’t my brother; he was my child and that meant I had to stop seeing him as my “child self.”
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But there was more to this process. I didn’t see it until my grandmother died and I watched my mother mourn an unresolved relationship. Even in the act of deciding to not parent like my mother I was actually parenting like her. Oh of course, I was in some obvious ways because my mother like most parents had good and bad. She always pushed me to attend college. She never discouraged me from wanting to be a writer. She read to us all the time. She never censored our reading, which is incredible considering the kind of religion in which I grew up. But that was nothing compared to the biggest way she influenced my parenting.
Simply put she didn’t parent like her parents. She didn’t hit us. While she yelled at us, she never abused us in the intense emotional ways she had been abused. She didn’t allow us to be around people who sexually molested us. She defended us in school. She pushed us to be our best selves. After my grandmother died she told me “I will never let you children feel like I favor one of you over the others like my mother did.” And that healed something in me that had long been a bit of an open wound.
Having grown up in a family caught up in a cycle of abuse my mother stepped out in some major ways, and I by choosing to not parent just like my mother while parenting like just her stepped out some more.
It’s not as if any of us as parents don’t make mistakes. I suspect my children will have grievances against me. I suspect and hope they whisper to their newborns “I will never parent you like my mother parented me.” Because that means they will find news to change and grow as a parent just as I did. But I also hope that they will learn compassion as I have done.
The kind of compassion that allows them to smile when they realize they sound just like their mom. And, of course, I hope I have the grace to ask their forgiveness without offering up excuses as my mother did after her mother died.
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