Our loyalty to our parents should not prevent us from working to correct any parenting mistakes they may have made in raising us. In fact, it is our responsibility toward our children that we do so.
Otherwise, we passively and unconsciously pass on the problems to all future generations. This is terrible because, as parents, our job is to protect our children from harm, not visit harm upon our children.
Recently, I met an African American non-Muslim woman in her fifties, and the conversation turned to raising children. Let’s call her Monica.
Monica had one daughter, now in her twenties.
She said, “It took me years to figure out that the way I was raising my daughter was affected so heavily by the way my mother raised me. And the way my mother raised me was affected so heavily by my mother’s traumas and anxieties. I had to see that so I could stop myself from being the same mother as my own mother.”
Monica’s mother had given birth to a set of twins before Monica was born. They were baby boys who seemed normal and healthy at birth.
But when they turned six months old, the babies became so sick that they had trouble breathing. Their mother, desperate with worry and fear, rushed her babies to the nearest hospital.
But this was decades ago in the American deep South, and this hospital refused to take in this black family. They turned away this mother with her sick babies, directing her instead to the black hospital farther away.
The twin boys died on the way. They never made it to the second hospital.
This unbelievable tragedy broke Monica’s mother’s heart. It haunted her, depriving her of sleep and almost of her very sanity.
My eyes filled with tears as Monica narrated this bit of her family history to me.
Several years after the death of the twins, Monica was born. A healthy, normal daughter born to a grieving, traumatized mother.
Her mother’s grief and trauma were completely understandable and justified, of course. Anyone who lived through what this mother had lived through would be affected.
But Monica’s mother was never able to process or work through her pain and grief at the death of her previous children. Instead, that pain and grief completely controlled her and dictated her raising of her daughter.
She never put her baby daughter down, always carrying her in her arms to the point of obsession. She watched baby Monica sleep at night, to make sure she was breathing. Even when the baby became a toddler who wanted to get down from her mother’s over-protective arms, her mother refused to put her down. Monica was slightly delayed with learning to walk because her mother carried her too much.
As a child, Monica was never allowed any space, any privacy, any room to breathe. Her mother always hovered over her, anxious and over-close. As Monica grew older, her mother continued to be reflexively controlling, telling Monica what to eat, wear, do, say, where to go and with whom. Every area of Monica’s life, down to the minute details, was anxiously mapped out for her by her mother.
When Monica was finally told by her father about the death of her twin brothers, it explained much of her mother’s behavior. Monica began to understand more why her mom was the way she was, and she began to resent her suffocating nature less.
But, interestingly, when Monica married and had a daughter of her own, she unconsciously began to be the same kind of mother as her own mother. The process of turning into her mother with her own daughter happened subtly, without Monica being aware.
It took Monica’s daughter rebelling against her mother’s suffocating closeness and overwhelming control for Monica to wake up and realize that she had accidentally turned into her own mother.
Years later, after much introspection, reflection, and difficult inner work, Monica has changed herself and her parenting. She learned that we often simply re-enact what we saw growing up. That we do whatever was done to us. We raise our own children however our parents had raised us. But this can often be damaging to our children, just as it was damaging to us when we were ourselves children.
Without examining the past, we will simply pass it along to our innocent children. Without self-awareness as parents, we will unconsciously turn into our own parents and repeat their parenting mistakes.
It is often the case that our parents’ mistakes are actually understandable, given whatever they had to deal with. The unjust death of the twin babies was a genuine tragedy that understandably left Monica’s mother scarred and traumatized. So to acknowledge the mistakes of parents is not to blame parents.
It is simply for us to understand where and why our parents may have veered away from healthy parenting, so that we can stop ourselves from replicating their dysfunctions. But the first step is to identify the dysfunctions and see them as unhealthy, so that we can be made aware.
This is the first step in the process of self-differentiation. When we come into our own as adults and especially as parents, and deliberately distinguish ourselves from our past so that we don’t blindly repeat its problems.
Yet even the most self-aware, self-differentiated, conscientious parent will make mistakes. No parent is perfect. Whatever baggage we as parents don’t address, will be handed down to our children to carry as burdens.
There will almost always be issues that we accidentally pass on to our children, despite our best efforts. The question is: how many issues do you want to pass on to your children?