When my dad talks about sports cars, my eyes glaze over.
“This one has two tail pipes because…”
“The clutch on this one…”
“Did you hear the way that engine roars?”
My mom and I have our differences too. Take our approaches to winter recreation for example.
I’m most likely to drive our station wagon to a remote trail in the snow covered mountains for a cross country ski. The trail will be poorly marked, I’ll probably crash going down at least one hill, and there’s no chance that I’ve ever dressed “warm enough.”
During the winter, my mom will most likely be taking a leisurely stroll around the mall or riding an exercise bike while watching the news.
There are days when I wonder how we can be so different from each other.
Then again, some days I see my dad’s enthusiasm or my mother’s cleanliness shining through in myself. I have my dad’s sense of humor and love for hockey. If you see me around the house on a Saturday, you’ll see I have my mom’s sense of order as I organize, sweep, and mop.
If you ever ask me why I’m so cautious and a bit anxious, I’ll first ask “What do you mean?” and then I will remember who I get that from: both of my parents.
While I like to tell myself that I’m unique and that I’m my own person carving out my own way in the world—a true individual—the truth is that I have a lot in common with my parents. Their marks are all over me.
And when I look at them, I see both the influence of my grandparents and my parents’ attempts to distinguish themselves from my grandparents.
I’m reminded of a friend who, while in college, got into an argument with his mom. He saw that his mom was using the same guilt and manipulation tactics that his grandmother used on his mom over the years. Thinking he could finally get her to see his side of things, he said, “You’re doing the same thing that grandma does to you!”
This did not have the desired effect. In fact, he had said the worst thing possible.
“I am NOT like her!” his mother shouted back at him.
We bear both the good and the bad from our parents. There’s an inevitability about this to a certain extent. I don’t know how much of it is genetic, how much of it is learned through experience, and how much of it is spiritual. We want to correct the mistakes we’ve seen our parents make, but at the same time their influence sticks with us for good and for bad.
And so we brace ourselves.
When I talk to adults in their 20’s and 30’s, the majority of them have rejected one thing or another that their parents value. They’ve all experienced some kind of battle over control and/or rejection. They’ve all vowed that they won’t do the same thing to their kids.
They have all braced themselves: I will not try to control my children when they grow up.
In almost every case, these adults have experienced tension with their parents over religion, work, education, child-raising, or politics. Sometimes certain topics are off limits. Sometimes relationships are deeply damaged.
Perhaps parents can’t help but try to control their kids, to try to exert influence over their choices. In just the same way that grown children can’t help thinking for themselves and choosing their own paths, parents struggle to stop butting in.
Today I’m bouncing Ethan on my knee, and there aren’t too many things we disagree on. Sure, we could make some progress in how we feel about naps, but otherwise, we’re on the same page. Still, some day, he’s bound to make choices that I don’t like. When he’s in his 20’s, conflict is certain to come.
What will I do then? When do I let go? Will I make the mistakes that I see other parents making because I’ll finally be in their shoes and can’t imagine doing anything else?
Some friends have to avoid certain topics with their parents.
Other friends have to avoid their parents except for a few major holidays.
Others see their parents all of the time, but they dread each gathering.
A friend of mine grieved her parents deeply by voting as a Democrat. Family gatherings are now filled with tension. She is alienated from her siblings. All of this because of what she does on one day in November every two years.
She’s hurting, but she has an interesting perspective. One day she mentioned to me, “What if my son becomes a libertarian or starts watching Fox News all of the time? How would I react to THAT?”
I’m starting to brace myself for this. What if Ethan doesn’t believe Christianity? What if Ethan starts quoting Mike Huckabee to me? What if he prefers… and I tremble to write this… basketball over hockey?
I am both like and unlike my parents, and the trick is that my parents didn’t get to choose how we would be similar or different. Some things stuck while other things didn’t. The same will go for Ethan.
Perhaps the greatest struggle comes with believing that a child rejecting something important to a parent is not the same thing as rejecting the parent. I have rejected some things that are really important to both of my parents. We have some huge differences, but we survived those turbulent years where I was carving out my own path to become my own person.
For me, rejecting Catholicism, malls, or race cars was never about rejecting my parents. I was just moving through my life with my own sense of integrity, asking hard questions, and seeking out what made sense to me.
If I could write something to myself in twenty years, I’d say, “Ethan can reject what you believe and what you like without rejecting you.” As much as I want to guide and direct him to make good choices, I’m bracing myself even today to believe that.
What can I say? I like to plan ahead. I get that from my mother.