I knew I wanted to be a parent from the time I was very young. I dreamed of having a big family and being a full-time mom. I didn’t really have aspirations to be a perfect wife or a perfect mom, I just knew that I wanted to make sure my kids knew that they were the most important thing in my life and that they were my priority. And then I had my first child. I remember the first night we were home; I was up in the middle of the night feeding him, and I thought “What was I thinking? I can’t do this!” I had never experienced a love as intense before as I did when I was sitting up in the middle of the night feeding that perfect little baby. I was terrified. My heart literally hurt because it was so full and the feelings were so intense. All of the injuries from my childhood hit me hard, and I felt like I didn’t even come remotely close to having the tools I needed to be a good parent to this child. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I felt so inadequate that for a few minutes I thought that it would have been better for my baby if I had given him up for adoption.
The good news is that we can come from pretty messed up childhoods and still turn out to be pretty darn good parents. According to Daniel Siegel, M.D., it’s more about how we make sense of our childhood that impacts our parenting than the things that actually happened to us. Let’s face it, few people come from an ideal childhood. Many adults grew up with very little adult interaction because both parents were forced to work to make ends meet. Parents just weren’t able to be home when their kids get home from school with a plate of cookies and lots of time to talk about their day. Many adults had childhoods disrupted by divorce, and either ended up with an absent parent, or they were shared between both parents, shuttled back and forth between 2 houses. There are people who grew up in foster care, people who were sexually abused, and people who were yelled and called stupid their whole lives. These stories could belong to any one of us who become parents. These kinds of stories and histories can make us feel inadequate and unprepared to be parents. They can make us feel like even if we do our best, we will still end up falling short and make the same mistakes that our parents did with us.
The trick is not in having the perfect role models or the ideal childhood, nor is it in working through every single one of our issues in therapy before we can become parents. The most important thing is understanding and finding a way to make sense of our childhood. Therapy can be very helpful in this process, so can a wise friend, a religious leader or perhaps a meditation teacher. By reflecting on and bringing light to our histories, we can understand them in a new way, and hopefully stop the cycle of blindly repeating past mistakes. By understanding our own emotional experiences, we are better able to understand our children’s emotional experiences, and in turn create a healthy attachment with them.
Making sense of our experiences involves reflecting on our past with kindness and understanding. It involves identifying emotions that we had, and how those emotions show up in the present. When we examine our own stories, we find ways that we are triggered, and ways that we respond out of habit. Seeing these things clearly allows us to identify where we might still be stuck in these old patterns without even realizing it. It allows us more choice in how we respond to our children rather than reacting out of conditioned patterns. So having a less than ideal childhood does not mean you will automatically become a terrible parent. Take some time, work with someone, and reflect on your own story. Then you can begin writing the rest of your story with more freedom, more choice, and more awareness. The story of you as a parent, does not have to be a repeat of you as a child, not unless you want it to be.