Our experiences in childhood are still part of our lives, they inform our unconscious reactions and ability to respond to parenting stress. We may think that we've left those experiences behind, perhaps through therapy and self-care, perhaps through time and distance. However, there is nothing like raising children to teach you that you really don’t know anything, even about yourself.
Everyone has voices from childhood in their head. Some of them are comforting and speak to us of our strength and bravery. Others shake us to our core and cause us to whisper to our children in fierce voices "I will not do that to you." Sometimes we do it anyway. Why? Why do we become the very thing we swore never to become? Research tells us that one of the biggest predictors of how we perform as parents is how we were treated as children. You may automatically think that a kick-ass childhood equals a stable, nurturing parent, while a less than ideal childhood equals a screaming banshee. However, history is not destiny. Our parents were our first teachers. We absorbed their words and their body language. We made decisions about our worth and our place in the world. These decisions may not always be accurate, very few parents set out to damage their child. However, even an extremely loved child can still be a victim of circumstance and end up with a negative self-view. When we become parents ourselves, we tap into this reservoir of thoughts and feelings about what it means to be a parent. We may find ourselves inadvertently channeling our parents in our speech and actions, or we may find ourselves headed so fast in the opposite direction you couldn’t see our childhood for the dust. Our ability to navigate this underlying predilection depends on many things – daily stresses, reservoirs of patience, and the complexity of our own personal issues. The best way to traverse this hidden predilection is to bring it into the light. By examining our thought processes and underlying beliefs we can identify areas to improve.
Anger in the Kitchen
Each of us wants the absolute best for our children. We want them to face the world with heads held high and to wear, like armor, the knowledge that they are worthwhile. They are loved. They are perfect in their imperfections. If anyone doesn’t think so, they can piss off. If you have at your core a voice that tells you that maybe, perhaps, you are worthless – that you don’t deserve to be happy – then the last thing you want to do is hand that to your children. When I’m rested and re-charged then the reach of these voices is limited. Unfortunately, often I’m not. I’m tired. I’m cranky. All I want is coffee and three minutes to adjust to being awake when I deeply do not want to be awake. My children are bounding around like puppies. They’re barking and jumping up on my legs. The game they want me to play is one in which I pretend they’re real dogs and give them a treat (weirdos). I wearily comply, but my heart's not in it, and they can tell. They jump again. "Both of you! STOP!" I throw a tea-towel on the floor like a grenade. There is no bomb, no shock of light, just a disappointing wet thud that feels like a metaphor for my life in general. The puppies are quietened by this display of tea-towel might. They look at me with big eyes and slink away. I really could have handled this differently. I have my silence, but it’s not golden.
Find the Source, Do the Work
Frustration is inevitable and normal, but if you find yourself burning past frustration to white hot rage then, yes, that's a problem. Anger is usually used as a cover up for fear, so the question is – what are you afraid of? For me, it was not getting my needs met. The fear was that there would never be enough time in the day or space from my children for me to recharge. I was scared I would be perpetually grumpy and depleted and obviously ruin both my life and theirs. I felt powerless to stop this. The worst part was that I had taken my problem and made it their problem. I was relying on these two tiny people who had just figured out how to pour juice to not need me. I was asking them to have enough emotional awareness to take care of themselves for twenty minutes when that clearly isn't their job. It is not their job to look after me, emotionally or otherwise. It is 100 percent my job to make sure my needs are met. Sacrificing myself on the altar of martyrdom may have made me feel a bit better about my outbursts but it certainly didn't make my children feel better. Additionally, it was a fairly crappy way to live, for all of us. I needed to do the emotional work myself. I needed to go to the source of the need inside me and give myself permission to be my own hero instead of waiting for someone else to tell me it was okay to take a break courtesy of Paw Patrol, to book that day of childcare, and that it was definitely ok to heat up that tin of beans for dinner – technically a vegetable! Fiber! Already comes with tomato sauce! Most of all I needed to figure out that it was ok to ask my children to wait. It was okay for them to experience frustration and anger themselves. Find the source of your anger and do the work to break the cycle. History isn’t destiny, we have the capacity to look at our past and decide what to keep and what no longer serves us.
I learned a lot of things from figuring out the source of my own frustration, and there were positives too. Sometimes a problematic childhood can lead to some fantastic parenting decisions. The voice in my head that told me I wasn’t good enough to get a break may have given me a consistent reason to buy self-help books and have a strange relationship with tea-towels, but it also gave me a clear idea of the parent I wanted to be. My awareness of my own hang-ups would prompt me to get down on the floor with my children, to hold them and tell them it wasn’t their fault. I would do the repair work. My desire to give my children a better life or at least a different hang-up, possibly about baked beans, led me to get up a thousand nights in a row to kiss baby cheeks and soothe them back to sleep, to stroke faces while tiny hearts broke over scraped knees instead of shouting, "You’re fine! Get up!" I made the choice to do better, and while it doesn’t always work, it’s working most of the time – and that’s okay. Despite historical influences in our lives, relationships with our children are built on decisions. We have the power to change those decisions. There is nothing pre-ordained about parenthood, nothing that we cannot fix or reel back in for another try. There are only tiny choices. There are only massive choices. If you want to break the cycle, you have to do the work. Give your children the best version of themselves you can, even if it’s not what you were given. Find out what the real need is behind your frustration. What are you scared of? What needs healing? Find the source, do the work, and do better – for yourself and your children.