Ghosts in the nursery

The way we parent is undeniably impacted by the way we were parented when we were children.

As humans, we learn by imitation. Therefore, the very first place we learn to be a mother (or a father) is by watching our own parents. When? When they parented us. Starting in the very first months of life, we absorb what it means to give care. We soak up each and every verbal and non-verbal message our parents send us. We use them to form our understanding of the world and become our go-to ways of thinking and behaving, whether we want to think and behave that way or not.  Not having the right role model is irrelevant- we internalize the messages regardless. 

Imitation is the basis for much of our success as a species, but under the wrong circumstances, it can also be our downfall. If we aren’t mindful, most of us will end up living out a script we had no hand in writing. 

Once it’s our turn to raise children we often end up repeating the stories of our own childhoods, committed as we may be to do things differently. 

Most parents either a. repeat patterns (these are usually generational and deeply entrenched) or b. have such a strong desire not to be who their parents were, that they swing to other extreme. These are the parents so hell bent on doing things differently that they struggle to find the middle ground between what they experienced and what they felt deprived of. For example, if my mom was too strict, then I might have a hard time setting any limits with my child for fear of making them feel unheard and unvalidated.

Some of us will look back on our childhoods, and our parents, through rose-coloured glasses. This is an indication that our defenses are still at work -one of those defenses being idealizing. We will remember our childhood as perfect and our parents as faultless (this, of course, can never be true. No childhood, and no parent, is perfect-it’s an impossible goal.). In this case the behaviour is repeated, for example, I had a great childhood, or, my parents were strict and I turned out ok, therefore, their approach was the right one.

Even parents who are conscious of the ways their parents failed to meet their needs will often repeat patterns in an unconscious attempt to master actively what they suffered passively. It is common for our partners, but especially our children, to trigger us in the exact same way that we felt wounded by our parents. Insight into our childhood wounds alone is not enough-we will still be likely to find partners and raise children that recreate the exact same types of hurt, if we do not take intentional action first.

It is only once we unpack our childhoods and truly examine the flaws of our parents and how they impacted us, that can we start to make changes in our own parenting. This is not to say our parents did love us or do what they believed to be right at the time. But when we know better we can do better, if we are conscious about how those patterns still reign over us and what we need to do to break free. This is the necessary first step in ending the cycle.

The only way to escape the circle is to turn inwards.

This is why it is so important to work through the relationships we carry embedded in our emotional memories, so that we can make decisions for our child that is based on what that child needs, and not where our unresolved issues lie.

If you’d like more information on this topic, I highly recommend reading “The Conscious Parent” by Dr. Shefali Tsabary.