A familiar feeling expressed by parents is not to be like their own parents in the way they raise their children. They want to correct what they regard as the mistakes that were made with them. By mistakes they usually mean things they didn’t like as children which then somehow impacted on them as adults.
One of the things that often happens in interactions with children is being put back in touch with feelings you had as a child. You don’t want to do the things your parents did that you didn’t like, but you find that it is a struggle to avoid repeating these things. Why is it a struggle?
The problem for a mother is that her feelings put her back into the position of the long-ago child, while in present day reality she is the mother. As the mother she may identify with her own mother, but as the child, she would like to change what her mother did. As the mother she finds herself doing what her mother did, but in her identification with her child she would like to follow a different path.
Identifying with your own mother – even when you didn’t like what she did – while also identifying your child with yourself as a child, can be a source of conflict for a parent. At times it can lead to a conscious decision to do the opposite of what your own mother did, while at other times one may not even be aware that this conflict influences how you are responding to your child.
One familiar issue has to do with freedom from restrictions such as bedtimes, curfews when children are older and go out with friends, even questions about limits on independence as children reach different developmental stages. Often mothers say they want to give their children more freedom than they were allowed. The problem that then arises is that if you don’t want to use your own parent’s rules as a guideline, you have to follow a different course that is uncertain. This can lead to doing the opposite of what your own mother did, creating its own problems.
The feeling that our own mothers were too controlling, and wanting to give our children more freedom in that regard, can translate into giving children choices about everything. One mother, tried to change by asking her three your old daughter what she wanted to wear, what she wanted to eat, or what to order in a restaurant. The mother saw this as helping her child feel more involved, not as controlled as she had felt.
In trying to correct things from our own childhood we actually play out an old conflict in search of a new ending. As a child we rebelled – or wanted to rebel – against our parents, and now as a parent, without realizing it, we are continuing the rebellion. The trouble is that in reliving an old mother-child relationship you are turned back not only into the child you were, but the mother you had. As your mother, you can only do what she did. As the child, you are still rebelling.
But reliving the feelings of childhood can actually be helpful as a parent in that it can give us insight into what our own children are feeling. This can enable us to express empathy to a child about having to endure the mean restrictions of parents rather than anger or criticism about the behavior in question.
Giving up being either the child we were or the mother we had, we can create a new parent-child relationship based on who our child really is, and on our adult selves as mothers.