I’ve just spent two weeks with my five grandchildren and their parents. I am so proud of my children: how they turned out, who they married, how well they are raising their children. Their parenting styles are different in many ways, yet both sets of children are delightful: sweet, funny, bright, good-natured, well mannered….(I could go on, of course, but I’ll spare you more grandparental gushing!) Our time together reminds me that no matter how well-prepared we may be for the role of parenting, much of how we approach this most difficult of all jobs is the result of unconscious factors over which we have no control.
Many of these factors result from the way our parents raised us. For example, I thought of my mother as an intelligent, well-meaning, independent kind of person with an unemotional and trusting parenting style. Having a full-time job, she was never involved with our education or social lives, trusting us to get along fine without her participation or advice. I took this for granted as a child, but as an adult I realized how much I had longed for her to attend my plays and concerts, how good it would have felt if she had been a room mother or a member of the PTA, how nice it would have been to come home to a warm, clean house and find her always waiting for me, perhaps with a tray of cookies or freshly baked bread. So these were things I vowed to do for my children. As it happened, my conscious choices, combined with a lot of good luck, an education in child development, help from a good husband, and a strong desire to be a good parent made me a good-enough mother.
But beneath the conscious aspects of my upbringing was an emotional undercurrent of which I was utterly unaware. For instance, I never heard or saw my parents argue or fight. (Of course, that could have had something to do with the fact that Daddy was rarely home!) Moreover, I can think of only two instances in which my mother and I ever exchanged heated words. And when she used the word “damn,” I was shocked into silence. Intuiting her deeply repressed anxiety and emotional fragility and wanting to spare her more pain after my parents’ divorce, I by-passed the normal adolescent period of rebellion and unconsciously developed a deep-seated fear of anger and conflict.
When I became a parent, these factors had a powerful influence on the way I treated my children. I had no idea I had inherited my mother’s anxiety and emotional fragility. But the reality was that agitation and conflict made me so anxious that too often when my children argued with me or each other my intervention was based more on appeasing my anxiety than on patiently seeking the most fair and just resolution. It took years of inner work before I could see my anxiety and understand the part it played in the unhealthy aspects of our family interactions.
The unresolved issues of our parents are handed down to us through underground passageways that connect their emotional flow to ours, and we pass them on to our children the same way. With every step forward I’ve made toward seeing and resolving my anxiety, my attitudes and behavior have changed for the better. Best of all, my family no longer has to bear the burden of my unconscious “stuff” of which I’ve become aware. I’ll never be a perfect wife, mother, or grandmother, whatever these elusive creatures might be, but sparing my family the worst of myself has been more than enough reward.