We love to blame our parents for all sorts of things. It’s their fault that you’re still single. If only they hadn’t made you wear corduroys, you might not be so self-conscious today! If mom had been less hard on your schoolwork, then you might not be failing to get that promotion. And, oh Dad, why did you make me write so many thank-you notes? Now everyone mistakes my politeness for insincerity. And so on …
But if truth be known, the snippets from childhood that we blame for our adulthood failings may not be the correct ones at all. If you really want an accurate demonstration of what your parents were like as parents, then life does offer you a second chance to recapture their parenting skills. All you have to do is wait until they become grandparents. It is unlikely that their parenting skills have changed in the 20 to 40 years since they became parents, and you will be flooded with stark memories and realizations as their parenting successes and failures are revealed through the way in which they interact with your children.
My 4-year-old niece spends one whole day a week with my parents. My mother always recounts how much fun they had. “Sara helped me wash the dishes,” she says. “Sara helped me fold the clothes and put them in the closet.” There is no doubt that she loves her granddaughter, but it was only when I spent some of those precious days observing them that I realized just how she was expressing that love.
As it turns out, grandma doesn’t play with beloved granddaughter, talk with her, get to know her, or sit down and read her a story. In fact, grandma doesn’t interrupt her day one iota for her beloved granddaughter. Instead, grandma continues to go about her usual business — cleans the kitchen, washes the dishes, dusts the objects, vacuums the floor, does the laundry, folds the clothes, walks the dog. Of course, my niece follows grandma around the house, chatters away, and tries to copy grandma doing all the chores.
Perhaps it’s because my mother feels guilty for ignoring her granddaughter but doesn’t know a different way to interact with a child, or perhaps it’s simply laziness, but every 30 minutes or so, my mother will walk the child into the kitchen, sit her down, and offer her a snack. Sara will accept the snack and shut up and Grandma will return to her chores secure in her conscience that she has fulfilled her duty toward her granddaughter, and that for the next 15 minutes at least, or however long it takes a 4-year-old to devour a bowl of chocolate pudding, the child will not suffer from boredom.
By the time Sara is returned to her parents, her face, hair, and clothes look like she has been dunked in a vat of chocolate (which essentially she has been), and everyone is wondering why she won’t eat her dinner, cannot sit still and throws a tantrum just before bed.
I look back at my brother’s and my chubby childhood and realize that that’s exactly how our mother handled us. As far back as I can remember, my mother was always busy cleaning or rearranging something in the house. Perhaps she has obsessive-compulsive disorder, though it has yet to be diagnosed. All I know is that I cannot recall a single time when she sat down and actually played with us. There was always food though, and if that didn’t settle us, then there was yelling. Fortunately, my brother and I had each other and certainly we enjoyed hours of fun together in our own imaginary world. Yet, aside from being the fat kid in school, I do not remember it as a bad childhood.
But, as I watch my mother repeat her parenting techniques on my niece, I cannot help but feel a twinge of sadness at the realization that she was never interested in me on an emotional level. It occurs to me that as children, my brother and I represented little more than additional cleaning; we were just another household chore, no different than vacuuming the floor. Perhaps that’s how everyone parented in the 1970s, I don’t know. What I do know is that my own niece’s mother does not interact with her daughter solely through food and makes an effort to nurture her child’s brain rather than her stomach.
With my own baby due in just a few months, I am wondering from where I should seek my parenting advice. Certainly, my sister-in-law will come in very handy. But that’s not to say that I don’t have things to learn from my mother, who always provided a safe home for us, and my brother and I were always clean and well fed. In the end I will probably draw from both sources. And goodness knows, in spite of all that, I will make my own mistakes, though of course no one will find out what those are for at least 20 years.