Help! I sound just like my mother!

How your mom’s mothering-style can affect yours via alexandrasacksmd.com

Photo by Shelby Deeter on Unsplash

All mothering is intergenerational: for better and for worse, your maternal identity is founded in your mother’s style, and hers in her mother’s. Whether you parent your child as your mother parented you, or adopt a different mothering style, becoming a mother gives you a beautiful (and sometimes painful) opportunity for a do-over. In a way, you get to re-experience your own childhood in the act of parenting, repeating what was good, while trying to improve upon what you think you can do better.

Rather than compare yourself to her flawless memory, this would be the perfect opportunity to ask your mom what her early years of parenting felt like to HER…

Some of you saw your mothers as perfect through your young eyes. She always seemed to know just what to do or say, and made you feel warm and safe. If you grew up with a mom like this, consider yourself lucky: you have a model to follow. You may find yourself rocking your baby to sleep, cooing the same lullaby that made you feel so soothed. Even if she’s crying and refuses to settle down, you may be calmed by knowing that following your mom’s example will lead you in the right direction.

Sometimes the downside of this type of legacy is that your mom may loom as an impossible standard. Rather than compare yourself to her flawless memory, this would be the perfect opportunity to ask your mom what her early years of parenting felt like to her. She’ll probably admit that she was winging it and doubting herself a lot more than it seemed. Trust us: the more moms you ask, the more you’ll hear how universal the messy emotions that we’ve been describing in these newsletters (ambivalence, guilt, frustration, uncertainty) are for mothers of all generations.

“It wasn’t until I had kids that I realized how hard it was for my mother to juggle everything she had to do, and how well she did it.”

Most of us can remember discrete moments from our childhood when our mothers disappointed us and we promised ourselves that we would do better. Maybe it was the time she scolded you for something in front of your friends, or left you waiting at school until you were the last kid. Perhaps parenthood will help you forgive these mistakes and see her in a gentler light. As one of our patients said, “It wasn’t until I had kids that I realized how hard it was for my mother to juggle everything she had to do, and how well she did it.”

There may also be times when you catch yourself acting like your mother in a way that makes you cringe. Maybe it’s snapping at your child to leave you alone while you’re on the phone, or yelling at them for not eating a meal you spend hours shopping and preparing.

But no amount of self examination can 100% prevent you from making these human errors…

We call these intense negative responses our mothering “blind spots”, because for most of us they happen unconsciously (outside our view). Often times these blind spots are hard to see because they relate to our most vulnerable emotions — especially when we feel overwhelmed. Using psychology lingo, we say that people make blind spots unconsciously by defending against memories and feelings that are too painful to revisit.

But think of your blind spots as emotional “portals” to your past (like a psychological time machine). When you’re inside one of these portals, you’re accessing the feelings you had in your own childhood, and can easily lose perspective about the here and now.

That’s why it’s important to learn about your blind spots before your own child is born, and to do your best to catch yourself when they come up in your parenting (unfortunately, no amount of self examination can 100% prevent you from making these human errors.) In psychology, we talk about the observing ego — the ability to step outside yourself and reflect on what you’re experiencing instead of immediately reacting. A strong observing ego can help you to keep your issues your issues, without imposing them on your child’s experience of you and the world.

Remember, everyone gets pulled into a portal on occasion (or in moments every day,) no matter how much therapy they’ve had, or how ideal their childhood experience. In therapy, our job is to help you recognize these portals and feelings so you don’t repeat patterns of behavior that you’re trying to avoid. When we can bring these unconscious feelings into our conscious mind, we have a chance to work through them and gain more control over how our feelings impact our choices.

When your reaction to a situation with your child feels out of proportion, try to slow down and take a deep breath, then ask yourself: What am I feeling? Why might I be feeling that? How do I want to handle this situation? Is this reaction really about my child, or might my feelings relate to another place and time in my life?

As we’ve said before and continue to say, you don’t have to be perfect to be a good parent. Learning how to step back, learn from your mistakes, and even say “I’m sorry” when you fall into a parenting blind spot can help you hold on to the intergenerational patterns that repeat the best experiences of your childhood, while letting go of the family history that you don’t want to continue in your relationship with your child.

Just remember: you don’t have to be perfect to be a good parent.

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