Branches of the Tree

Several weeks ago I wrote about Andrew Solomon, whose book, “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity”, had recently been published.  Earlier, his N.Y. Times article on prodigies, drawn from the book, appeared in a Sunday magazine section.  I have since come across an excerpt from the first chapter of the book and find his thoughts about being a parent insightful and compelling.

Solomon starts by pointing out that the use of the term “reproduction” in regard to having a baby is misleading in suggesting that two people are coming together to reproduce themselves.  He thinks this expresses the deep wish that it is ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own.  Anticipating the continuation of our “selfish genes”, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs.

Solomon writes that parenthood “abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger”, and the more foreign seeming the stranger, the more negative we are apt to become.  This is such a telling description of our early experience with our newborns.  During pregnancy we have so many pictures in our mind of who this baby is, often of who we would like her to be.  But one of our first tasks as parents is to put aside the imagined baby and now come to know and relate to the real one.

Although Solomon is writing about extreme situations of children falling “far from the tree”, those profoundly different from parental expectations, so much of what he points to has meaning for the more usual experience of parents.  Even when we feel our children are not strangers to us, and that we know them well, they often change – or may seem to change – as they move through new developmental stages.  

Many times, the feeling of confusion, or even resentment, aroused by a child’s behavior that is not recognized and understood causes an interruption or even a break in a parent/child relationship.  Solomon writes that when children are like us they seem like our most precious admirers, but when they differ they can be our worst detractors.  We want to see in them what we admire in ourselves, not our faults.  He describes as life’s “most profound compliment” our children choosing to live according to our own system of values.

As children grow there are times when we enjoy seeing ourselves reflected in them, but at other times we reject the reflection we see.  Adolescence is often a challenging time as children try out new ways of being and seem to be more influenced by their peers than by us.  But even at earlier stages our relationship to our children has to change and accommodate to the changes in them.

Several stages stand out in the issues that parents often raise.  In particular, the two to three year old period, when children begin to assert themselves and autonomy becomes a major issue, can be a thorny time.  Delicious babyhood is over when we seemed to be the masters of our children and they responded with delight to our approach.  Now they may become defiant, not listening to us or doing what we ask.

Sometimes mothers are bewildered when their adoring toddlers move out of the “it’s all about mommy” stage and are dismayed by what feels like rejection.  In the same way when children start school, make friends, visit the homes of others and start to reflect other sources of influence, it may feel like a challenge to our own authority or values.

Even changes that reflect the back and forth of developmental steps can be a source of worry, or distancing from one’s child.  Recently a mom spoke to me about her two and a half year old daughter who was refusing to sleep in her new toddler bed and to use the potty she had previously accepted.  The mom was distressed more by the change in behavior than by the behavior itself.  It seemed to make no sense to the mother and was not what she had expected, feeling certain that her daughter was ready for these next steps.

These examples may seem unrelated to children who fall far from the tree in profound ways.  But the point is that there are many branches to the tree, and each new one can challenge us to think anew about the need to see our children as separate from ourselves; to relate to them for who they really are and what stage they are at, rather than as reflections of ourselves.

Solomon wisely writes that we must love our children for themselves, and “not for the best of ourselves in them”.  This is often hard to do, but as he says, “loving our children is an exercise for the imagination.”

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