My grandmother “Memere” sang every morning as she opened her lace curtains, welcoming the sun into the bedroom we shared. Her chirping song annoyed me because I longed to sleep in. Forcibly roused, I would slump at her kitchen table, watching her burn my toast, while she hummed cheerfully. After breakfast, she bustled outside, tossing seeds to the robins and cardinals she loved, singing all along.
At the time, I thought I should be able to sleep later, eat better, and be spared her incessant cheerful tunes. I didn’t also give a hoot about those silly birds.
Decades later, I am a morning person, cheerfully waking with the sun, opening my own curtains with a smile. Decades later, I walk around my own house singing, sometimes the same show tunes that she once warbled. I’m also not much of a cook, although to be fair, I can achieve toast.
Recently, I downloaded an app which identifies my own backyard birds by recording their songs. “Listen Doug, it’s a Black-capped Chickadee!”
How did I become my Memere?
I smile to see parts of my Memere in me, but I cringe when I find parts of my mother. She was a snob, sniffing her nose at pop music, disinterested in sports and popular culture. I too can be a snob, scrunching my face disapprovingly at Tik Tok videos while everyone else laughs. Like her, I cannot listen to anyone singing or playing an instrument without immediately judging if they are in tune, and, usually, declaring my verdict aloud.
Snobbery was not the worst of my mother’s maternal sins. Who refuses to visit their critically wounded daughter in the hospital? Who accidentally sets their daughter on fire, and never expresses remorse about it? Who ignores their son’s suicidal statements, despite having a doctorate in psychology? That would be my mother, Kathryn.
Here is a story I have never shared. When my daughter Julia was 18 months old, a bee landed on her tiny hand. We were in the backyard together and I stood right next to her. Bees terrify me. Aghast, I watched the bee alight on Julia’s right hand and saw a delighted smile spread across her precious face. Then, ever curious, my daughter pushed her left index finger down on top of the bright yellow bee.
I took one small step back.
The bee stung her.
I reached in to grab my daughter, put antibiotic cream on the sting, and comforted her. A tidal wave of self-loathing crashed over me. How did I not scare away that bee? Why did I watch it happen? How could I step away? Yes, I have always been terrified of bees, but why was I not braver? Was I just like my mother?
I have never admitted that moment to anyone, that is how ashamed I felt. Inside me, a massive alarm shrieked. WATCH THIS PART OF YOURSELF, LISE. Watch out! To give myself some credit, I never behaved that way again, to my knowledge. The self-hatred of that moment motivated me powerfully.
We are ourselves, and also, we are our ancestors. Sometimes we treasure their imprints and sometimes we fear them. Some people have had loving parents and would be overjoyed to resemble them in any way. However, many of my clients were abused or neglected children. Many of them started therapy after they became parents themselves. Full of love for their baby, exhausted from sleepless night, they were terrified at repeating history. Their therapy focused on their fearful memories of their father drinking, or their mother spewing hateful comments.
“I don’t want to turn into my mother.”
Therapy helps tremendously. Without therapeutic insight, the past shapes our thoughts and behaviors beyond our awareness. Therapeutically examining our past hurts and formative experiences helps us understand that we have suffered, and our suffering has affected us, sometimes for good, and sometimes for bad. That awareness can be painful, but it comes with a new superpower: the power to act differently. Psychotherapy is often hard work, and takes a long time, but it forges powerful, lasting change.
I strive to keep the good parts of my mother, while letting go of the rest. I hold my hands at the piano exactly as she once taught me, wrists up, fingers curled. My hands are her hands which makes me smile. When I deposit money into the IRA she set up for me, 50 years ago, I credit my mother. When I contemplate how much money I might have had if she hadn’t taken my savings and used it to pay her own mortgage, I try to let that resentment go. Consciousness, awareness, forgiveness… I call on these skills as much as I can, appreciating the good, letting the bad sift through my fingers and fall away.
To some degree, we are all destined to be our parents and our grandparents and probably our great grandparents and so on. Genetics rule. I love the stories of twins reunited as adults to siblings they never knew they had. The “Jim twins” came to know each other at the age of 39, having been raised apart until then. They had so much in common: “Both had married women named Linda, divorced, and married women named Betty; both suffered from bad headaches, smoked Salem cigarettes, drove blue Chevrolets, and had named their first sons James Alan and James Allan (Carothers)." Every physical ailment I have (non-serious, but a 59-year-old body has its issues) can be traced directly to either one of my parents, and often to my grandparents. My acid reflux? Thanks Mom. My weak ankles? Thanks Dad.
Am I destined to love birds, to sing in the morning (on key!), to sneer at Tik Tok? Perhaps so. These are also traits that I allow or even embrace.
Am I destined to be a selfish mother who abandons her daughters to bees? Perhaps I once was, but I worked hard to change those tendencies, finding the twisted roots in my character, yanking them out with force, weeding again and again until the roots shrink away. I work hard, embracing mindfulness, allowing criticism, staying humble.
Besides therapy, there is one more way to avoid becoming the worst aspects of our parents. It is, however, a way that everyone loathes. Allow criticism. If your husband says, “You are acting just like your mother,” you most likely respond, “How dare you say such an awful thing! No, I’m not, and you are an asshole.”
In the best of all worlds, our partners function as mirrors for us, letting us see aspects of ourselves that are both awesome and loathsome. So, assuming that your partner is trustworthy and loving, if he says you are acting just like your mother, instead of protesting, you could ask yourself, “Am I?” If your child accuses you of the same selfishness that you hated in your father, you can quietly wonder, “Am I?”
Criticism from those who truly love us is actually a great gift, albeit the despised fruitcake of all gifts. Our close friends and family can alert us when our behavior is veering toward our parents in ways which are unhealthy.
If you do find that you are acting like your (insert your family member here), pair your awareness with compassion. Genetics and early-childhood experiences have a powerful magnetic pull. Sometimes we will act like our parents, even with the best intentions and the best therapists. If that happens, your greatest tool is simple awareness. Note that you acted like your mother, but you didn’t mean to, and you intend to do better next time. Breathe and forgive yourself. Keep trying.
Therapy, well-intentioned criticism, mindfulness… these are the best tools to avoid the genetic traps in our DNA. My traps are self-absorption, haughtiness, and selfishness. They linger in shadows for me, these dark traits of my parents which they were unable to conquer. I try to greet those treacherous paths, acknowledge them, but consciously go down different roads. At the same time, I treasure the Deguire good stuff: the joie de vivre, the friendliness, the musicianship, the culture, the verve. I pull at different strands of DNA, inviting them into the light, honoring the good as best I can. It is constant work, weeding away the dark, welcoming in the light.
But I did hear the birds singing this morning. And if you need to know who’s in tune, just ask me.
Carothers, K. (2020, January 9). Twins separated at birth: 12 real stories that will give you goosebumps. Reader's Digest Australia. Retrieved December 29, 2022, from https://www.readersdigest.com.au/true-stories-lifestyle/twins-separated-at-birth-12-real-stories-that-will-give-you-goosebumps
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.