What I hear from many mothers is a determination not to be like their own mothers in the way they raise their children. They want to correct what they regard as the mistakes that were made with them, by which they usually mean things they didn’t like as children that then impacted on them as adults.
A mother said, “One of the things that happens after you become a parent is that it puts you back in touch with yourself as a child, and you don’t want to do the things that you didn’t like. But you find that it is a continuous struggle to avoid repeating these things.” What she is saying is that certain interactions with her children bring out feelings in her that are the feelings she had in similar situations when she was a child.
Why is it a struggle to avoid repeating the things she didn’t like? The problem 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.
This 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 you may not even be aware that this conflict influences your responses to your child. There are some familiar parenting issues that many parents can recognize.
One has to do with freedom from restrictions such as bedtimes, curfews when children are older, 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. (Children usually feel they should have more freedom from restrictions than they are 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, and can create its own problems.
Feeling our own mothers were too controlling can translate into giving children choices about everything. For one mother, who felt she was being too controlling about everything her child did, her correction became 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 thought this would help her child feel more involved, so that she wouldn’t feel as controlled as she, the mother, had.
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 mothers, 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. This is the struggle to which the mother quoted earlier was referring.
The real struggle, is to give up being either the child we were, or the mother we had. The task if to create a new mother-child relationship based on who our child really is, and on our adult selves as mothers.