Breaking the cycle of how we were parented

Jp_shpSigh…parenting is hard. I know I’ve been saying this every year for the last nine years. But really, it is very hard for me right now. I’m struggling because I’m finding it hard to separate my own issues from my parenting.

Those of us who didn’t grow up with “ideal” parenting always vow to not turn into our own parents. We will know better, we say; we will be different. I used to criticize my husband for repeating his parents’ negative patterns, until lately when I’ve realized for myself just how hard it is to break out of those cycles.

I tend to be critical and perfectionistic. My mother tends to be critical and perfectionistic. I never met my grandmother, a single mother, who passed away before I was born, but I’ll venture to guess that she was pretty critical and perfectionistic too.

Over many years I’ve trained my eye to notice only the gaps – the 5% on a 95 on a test, the slightly bungled response in an otherwise fantastic job interview. Don’t even get me started on photos of myself.

God knows what the cumulative damage has been, from living with this kind of lens. And now I find myself looking at my own child in the same way.

Fred got a 94 on his math test last week, came in second in his martial arts competition two weeks ago, and remembered to bring home everything from school yesterday except for his water bottle. I know enough to not voice my knee-jerk reactions every time, but it’s bad enough that I even have knee-jerk reactions to begin with.

One area in particular that’s a hot spot for me is time management. The problem is that the one area Fred needs to improve on is the one area I’m very good at. I’m a planner and I haven’t worn a watch in over two decades because my internal clock is so freakily accurate. Time management is important to me and something that’s come naturally so I don’t know how to help those who aren’t able to do it.

But I’ve been trying – big white board with check-off list, a ticket incentive system. After a number of struggles, yesterday morning I heard Fred’s alarm go off a half hour earlier than his normal wake-up time, and then the opening and closing of his dresser drawers followed a couple of minutes later by the clapping of the kitchen cupboards. He had gotten dressed and gone downstairs to get breakfast. I told him I was proud of him and that he was up early enough to catch the bus (always a treat for him). Then, five minutes before he was supposed to leave, he needed to use the bathroom, and ended up missing the bus…which was just as well, because he then realized he’d almost forgotten his recorder for music class.

I didn’t shout or get angry (this time), but I was visibly irritated. He was up a half hour early for crying out loud, and still managed to make no progress in terms of getting to school any earlier.

The truth is that Fred did great that morning. He had the foresight to set his alarm clock, at an early enough time to give himself a comfortable cushion (he had not originally planned to take the bus). He got dressed and prepared himself breakfast before either Max or I were even up. This is HUGE for him. I just wish I had really seen that, and not only in hindsight.

The most painful realization in all of this is that I have blurred the lines between love and approval, and it clued me in on why I, too, have spent my life terrified of losing people’s affections whenever I make a slip. Sometimes when I’m disappointed by Fred’s behavior I’ll feel myself freezing up, even though my love for him of course hasn’t changed. Fred on the other hand will, without fail, kiss me and tell me “I love you too, too much” before closing his eyes to go to sleep each night, no matter what my mood is. On one particularly bad morning before leaving for school he wrapped his arms around me, hugging me long and hard before getting into the car.

I know that his challenges with time management are the flip side of his creative mind, a mind that is often lost in intense thought. Among his many gifts is a huge capacity to love, overlooking others’ flaws and mistakes and slips, and making sure that the last message before “good night” and “good bye” is always “I love you.” I have so much to learn from him, and every incentive to break the cycle.

Do you struggle with this too – that is, repeating patterns from your own childhood?

40 thoughts on “Breaking the cycle of how we were parented

  1. You and I are like twins! I’m critical and perfectionistic too and I never ever wear a watch. ๐Ÿ™‚ What I’ve been trying to do is apply the qualities to my professional life. Being critical is a wonderful thing if you’re an editor or a researcher or a writer. Not so much with parenting. So I try to separate my qualities and apply my gentle, kind, and patient qualities to parenting and then apply my ambitious, critical, and high-achieving qualities to my work. I’m not perfect at it (darn!), but it has helped me to separate my life in what I think is a productive way and to see the useful parts of what can be negative characteristics.

    • That’s funny – I can’t believe we share so many similar traits, down to the watch-wearing ๐Ÿ˜‰

      That’s really helpful advice, Emily – to separate the job “requirements,” so to speak. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I teach and edit too in my work and there I need to be obsessive about deadlines and details and it fits well with my temperament (or neuroses ;-))). You’re right that motherhood requires different traits. Not that I’m not patient and warm as well, but I probably should bump that up and bump the other stuff down. Thanks!

  2. I’m not a parent, but I grew up on the other side of that equation, with a mother who couldn’t manage time at all. I remember sitting in the car with all of us ready to go do something and my father with steam coming out of his ears, while we waited for my mother, again. Until she got much older, and much less concerned about her appearance, she was late for everything. Most of us developed a much better set of time-management skills, probably in self-defense! I think most of my development was in trying NOT to become my mothe!

  3. Sorry, the words were bopping around in the box while I typed, and I couldn’t see what I was doing. Of course, I meant NOT to become my mother! How old is your son, though? Are you setting your expectations too high for his age?

    • No worries about the typo – I didn’t even notice it!

      Your anecdote is funny (though probably not to you and your family at the time) – I guess we don’t need to be parents to want to not become like our parents!

      My son is 9.5 and yes, I have started to think that my expectations are not realistic. I noticed they shot up when he turned 8 for some reason. At a parent-teacher conference his teacher told me it was probably confusing because academically he is a bit higher than his age, and so my expectations for his developmental abilities overall have risen as well. I think I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a 9-year-old. (To his credit he does call me on it. He has seen me criticize clients or waiters in restaurants and would tell me, “Mommy, your expectations are TOO high!”)

      • I am no expert at all, so forgive me if I suggest that maybe expecting him to handle his time and get himself ready for school is something you should expect more at middle school age. I know, it’s easy for me to say this. It’s a lot harder to be the actual parent. Maybe if you read a book about child development stages it would help you figure out what your expectations should be? Having a bright boy does naturally make people expect more from him than he may be mature enough to produce.

        • Not at all – you hit the nail on the head when you brought up expectations. I didn’t have this problem when he was a toddler because somehow I had a very good idea of what a toddler is capable of and what s/he isn’t. Once my son started school and became a miniature version of an adult, I started to feel more lost. He is also weaker than his peers in this area. What I need to do is not get emotional but just guide him to improve. But like you said, easier to said than done! So I think that here I am parroting patterns – I am so self-critical, and it is spilling over. I’m trying though. Thanks for being so thoughtful!

          • I think it’s very hard to strike that medium between babying your kids and helping them develop into responsible adults. Maybe reading or seeking some advice from an expert will help. Or just reminding yourself he’s a kid! But you don’t want to go too far the other way, either. I’ve noticed a strong tendency of some of the young adults these days to expect everything to be done for them. I’ve even heard of parents going on their kids’ job interviews! But that’s putting you way forward. You don’t even want to think about that stuff now!

            • YES – that is my fear. I hear a lot about those parents accompanying their kids on job interviews. There was one story of a college freshman who had to call her parents when there was a small fire in her dorm, so her DAD called 911! Anyway, I really want my son to grow up able to take care of himself, and be responsible, not entitled…

              I have a stack of children’s development books but I keep gravitating toward my literary fiction instead….;-)

  4. There is so much I do, that I said I’d never do. It’s sad, and it takes deliberate, determined effort to not be the same. I always wanted to be that perfect parent I imagined myself being… but sometimes the kneejerk in us gets there first. You are aware, and present, and conscientious, what could be better than that?The rest is fantasy.

    • Thank you so much, Alexandra. To me you are the ultimate mother and I can’t imagine you doing things you said you’d never do. But we’re all human and I believe you. I was afraid of posting this initially because I thought, geez, talk about making myself vulnerable and opening myself up for criticism and judgment. But I felt that the first step was recognizing and acknowledging where I need improvement, and maybe others will have good feedback. So far, I’ve been grateful for the helpful and supportive comments, including yours. Yes, the best we can hope for is being aware and conscientious. I do always apologize to Fred if I feel I had gone overboard. xo

  5. Thanks for this honest response. I’m always quick to point out the ways my husband copies his father, and I try to pretend like I don’t copy mine. But the truth is that I’ve always been like my dad: I don’t know how to handle being angry because I always feel like I’m not supposed to be angry. I hold it all in until I explode, and that’s not good. All we can do is patiently, faithfully admit when we’re wrong and try to make it better. You’re doing a great job! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Aw, thanks, Ariel! I know, it’s so easy to see how others are getting it “wrong”; I do the same with my husband, who also holds the anger in for too long (now I am outing my whole family! ;-)). But you’re showing that you’re self-aware too. That’s an important first step that not enough people are able to take.

  6. You are so not alone. I do not have children, but have gone there at times; turned into my mother or sounded like my father – YIKES, FREAKY!!! I have some habits that instead of breaking keep on repeating and it is stressful on me, my husband and our marriage at times. He is not without his quirks though. I am learning to not be so hard on myself when I slip up. The biggest lesson I have learned is not to dwell on those mistakes because that just continues to borrow trouble! Happy Thursday:)

    • Ha ha! They are not easy patterns to break, but you are very smart to not dwell on them! Self-criticism is paralyzing. I guess the best thing we can expect to do is just be aware and catch ourselves when we do things that are less than productive. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Since we’re at the toddler stage, I haven’t experienced the expectation problems yet, but I am afraid that my tendency to like things just so will rear its head in a few years. I’m trying to practice now by being patient when my better half puts something away in a reasonable place that’s just not MY place . . . with some success, so I’m hopeful!

    Don’t be too hard on yourself; you’re so thoughtful, and Fred seems like such a wonderful kid — even if you get off to a false start occasionally, what he’ll remember and cherish is the thoughtfulness.

    • Thanks so much, Carolyn! I have to remember to take the wider-angle lens on myself as well. I get into my critical moments, but I am kind at other times as well. Thanks for reminding me of that.

      I think you’ll be fine too; your husband is a good person to practice with (or on) ;-)!

  8. Hey C! Just the title of this post made me cry. (Issues much?) haha!
    I think of these things all the time, constantly wondering about what will be my kids’ takeaways from their childhoods.
    One thing that I do is to make sure I apologize to my kids when I feel I have been unfair or unkind. This is what all humans owe other humans, but it is sad how many people are unable to do this. I hope that this is one of their takeaways: that I was willing to admit I was wrong, and try to move forward and not keep my bad feelings hanging in the air.
    Being “right” was important in my family. But now I know that it is important, because feeling loved and safe is the most important, for everyone.
    Thanks for sharing this and bringing these ideas to my forefront.

    • Melinda, saying sorry I was wrong is important and something I find so hard to do. Not so much being right, but scared of being wrong is something that ran through my family so I can appreciate that that’s a big culture shift to be able to make.

      • That’s very interesting, Denise. It is all part of the perfectionistic theme, isn’t it? I read just the other day that as long as the good outweighs the negative, then we’re okay. It is impossible for us to never be wrong or to never mess up but hopefully our affections and good intentions are carrying more weight than the occasional mistakes.

        • I like it when people say sorry but find it hard to admit to being wrong myself. So I guess I know this in my head but it’s something still to work on emotionally…

    • Thanks so much for writing here, Melinda. That’s an excellent point and I totally agree with you. I do apologize (frequently, ha, sadly…). It’s a good model to teach plus I think it allows us to build trust with our kids, and make them feel closer to us. I like that you pointed out love and safety as the most important things we can give to our children.

  9. I understand your inner battle, all I can offer you is this…breaking the cycle is good and I know you are doing the best. my other offer is just love without expectations and the best will come….and also breathe ..remember life is short and you want to enjoy the ride.

    • Ayala, I appreciate this, especially coming from a veteran mom of a wonderful adult son. I read your comment a little while back and have been thinking about “love without expectations” in particular. Baby steps, but I will get there.

  10. Oh God yes, Cecilia. So right there with you. I’m like a swim coach in my own home, always badgering my daughter (who, like my husband, can get lost in a thought…or a song…or a newspaper) to be on time and often missing the beautiful things she’s creating in her own time and space. You mustn’t beat up on yourself, my friend. We all do it and already by recognising the patterns you are so much closer to breaking them…
    I also shared the part of your post about spending your adult life seeking the approval of others with my husband. He and I both have spent so much of our adult lives doing just that…and you can’t win that way. It all needs to come from that inner compass which is there, deep down, underneath all the schedules…
    Good luck breaking free. You are not alone.

    Delia Lloyd

    • Thanks so much, Delia. I also appreciate that you shared part of the post with your husband. It’s interesting to know that both you and he have struggled with approval. I don’t know why my immediate thought was that this was a problem unique to women but now that I think of it men certainly do suffer from it as well (especially just having finished East of Eden…).

      Swimming coach – yes! That is us. Writing has been helpful for recognizing the patterns and admitting there is something to work on. That makes me hopeful.

  11. Cecilia, I was thinking about this post, but right now my perspective is only that of a daughter. (Same with the post about the loss of a child…) I have thought before that I might not want to have children because I’m afraid that I wouldn’t be able to love them enough. But do you ever think about whether it’s “better” or “worse” that you are raising a boy right now and not a girl? I don’t think I would have any clue what to do with a son, but I’m more worried about pushing my own issues onto a daughter.

    On that note, not to be pushy, but did you ever find that Yoshinaga Fumi manga?ใ€Œๆ„›ใ™ในใๅจ˜ใŸใกใ€ or All My Darling Daughters (there is an English translation). I would write a review of it, but I think there are already a couple floating around because people love her work so much. In any case, even the title is heartrending for me. It literally means “Daughters who must be loved”–you can read it as the pressure for mothers to love their daughters unconditionally, but also as the idea that daughters, women, are so precious even as they suffer through these difficult relationships. Yoshinaga started out drawing kinky romances between gay men (big genre in Japan), but even in those manga, women often have a strong presence, which makes her works a lot more complex.

    • It’s very helpful to get the perspective of a daughter, Grace, because it is like the future voice of my son. You pose a really interesting question about whether I would react differently if I had a daughter. I’ve sometimes thought about that, since I see how my brother and I have very different relationships with my mother, almost stereotypically so. I am constantly warring with my mom while my mom adores my brother (which isn’t to say that she doesn’t love us both). I just read recently that because they are the same gender, mothers and daughters don’t go through the identity separation that mothers and sons do, and so mothers and daughters continue to see themselves as extensions of each other. I’ve definitely felt that my mom often saw me as a part of her (e.g., “I wouldn’t make that decision. / I wouldn’t choose that. / etc.”) whereas she allows my brother a lot more freedom to be who he is. I wonder if I would do the same if I had a daughter – if I would want her to be the girl I wasn’t growing up.

      I do think that if and when you have children one day you will definitely be able to love them without limit. There is something almost biological in that, although I have sometimes questioned myself as well because I am not an all-sacrificing mom the way my mom was. I crave my own time and I have more adult interests. I still love my son, and I wish those old fashioned definitions of motherhood wouldn’t make me question myself.

      • Thanks, Cecilia. I think about children sometimes, but then it seems ridiculous since I’m not even in a long-term relationship… But I think I would probably go the route of being more “American,” like constantly hugging my kids and telling them that I love them. (My parents recently started hugging me when I visit–I think it was a conscious decision on their part to show that they care.) It’s hard to predict because on the one hand, I am extremely perfectionistic and can be very hard on other people without meaning to do so. So I could understand what you were talking about in your post–personally, I just don’t *get* it sometimes when other people can’t do things that I happen to do very well. I’m sure that I would love my kid, but I don’t know if I’d be able to express it the right way. However, I hope that this time spent alone/figuring myself out will also make me a stronger and more compassionate person in general. (/ramble)

        Also, I am sure that it is 100% reasonable to want your own time and interests! Is this a generational difference that meant you grew up having more societal pressure? Or maybe I have just always been self-centered. ๐Ÿ˜‰ One of my issues was that I had the sense that my mom didn’t actually *like* spending time with children. She’s too introverted. But you took your kid out for Halloween…!! And dressed up as an Asian woman, or so I heard from a certain ninja. ๐Ÿ˜‰ That sounds like real fun!

        • Oh my gosh, Grace, we are so similar. I know exactly what you are talking about. I was emailing my brother (who is single also with no children) telling him it is like I am trying to be a Tiger Mom without being a Tiger Mom. I am western and parts of me are crazy Asian at the same time. It’s a confusing place to be and I wonder what mixed messages I am sending to my child.

          About the other issue, maybe it depends on the mother. My mom sacrificed so much of herself to us. For example, she’d get up at the crack of dawn to cook breakfast, or turn down invitations from her girlfriends if we were home. And I would say, “No, GO see your girlfriends!!” So I have always felt guilty that I am so not like that. I’m glad that you said it is 100% reasonable to want your own time. I’d always felt guilty about that! That is interesting about your mom. Do you feel it impacted you?

          • Yeah, I definitely believe in American-style hugs & positive reenforcement… But Western/Asian parenting can be varied, too. For example, I’m grateful to my parents because they always thought it was perfectly fine that I was passionate about the arts. They helped support my sister when she was struggling as an opera singer, and they don’t mind that I’m still a student now, even though our family totally isn’t wealthy. It’s true that when I listen to some of my Asian-American friends’ stories, I wonder, “What’s with my parents??”

            But I actually *did* wish sometimes that my mom were more of the “typical” Asian mom who would be really nosy & loud and harass me about my grades, etc. I think she didn’t always notice, but since she likes her own space, hates phone calls, doesn’t socialize much, I often felt ignored. Also, she criticized me a lot for being shy when I was growing up, which ended up making me even more introverted & insecure. This might be an example of giving your kid a hard time because you see yourself in her.

            Cecilia, it’s really great that you would tell your mom to go out and see her friends! It probably took awhile for me to see my mom as a “woman” (vs. “Mom”) and try to be considerate towards her…

  12. Yes! I think we all, or most of us are, guilty of this. Like you, I entered parenthood with every intention to be different than my parents. And I have been different in some ways, but other ways I haven’t. In some ways, the longer I’ve been in parenthood the more I’ve become them. I’ve found myself in situations, situations in which only afterward, after the feelings, the emotions have subsided I can see them, with “them” being my parents. And that is scary, but also humbling. It’s humbling because until you can become them you can’t really see how they could have ever done “x” said “y” when you were on the receiving end of it all. I think you learn forgiveness then, forgiveness for them and after that for yourself, for you are only human.

    You are still a wonderful mom, Cecilia, and Fred still loves you. And that’s what matters most. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Funny, my friend on Facebook said the exact same thing – that we often don’t see how we are repeating patterns until we are doing it, or after we have done something, and after seeing the reactions in our children. You raise a good point that it humbles us and at least helps us to understand our parents better. I recently saw myself in something that drives me crazy in my mother…it both angered and humbled me. Parenting brings up the craziest combination of emotions!

      And thanks, Jessica. I know that the most important thing I can do is simply love and respect my child. Can’t offer much more than that, right?

  13. Cecilia,

    I, too, am a perfectionist like you. Growing up, my parents never directed my actions, but encouraged me to the “right” thing. Some my behavior was an innate need to please and to strive toward this “perfect” Asian ideal. There are obvious benefits and drawbacks to this philosophy.

    I know it maybe hard for you internalize at this juncture but Fred’s struggle with time management is becoming a teaching tool for both of you. You are learning about your weaknesses and strengths when it relates to parenthood and are actively trying to avoid the same parenting techniques that you did not think were beneficial to you growing up. We are not perfect, Cecilia. As parents we make so many mistakes. But often times our children teach us to move forward and embrace what is now, just like Fred does when he says “I love you,” no matter what has transpired during the day. I think the hardest lesson for parents is to try to forgive ourselves.

    • Wonderful words and thoughts here, Rudri. I love what you said about parenting being a 2-way learning process. It’s important for us to be humble enough to open ourselves to those lessons, which as you have written often come in the most unexpected moments. Forgiving is a tough one…and I find that our children often forgive us much more quickly and easily than we do.

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