One night when my elder daughter was about eighteen months old, she and I were upstairs getting ready for her bath. She wandered out onto the landing and stood on tiptoe peeping over the stair gate. In a sing-song voice she called out, “Jeh-eee!” (My husband’s name is Jerry.) She stood quietly for a few moments, and then she said, “Oh-uh.”
“What a funny thing to do,” I thought. “Why is she doing that?”
A few nights later it was bath-time again, and I realised I’d forgotten the little blanket she took to bed. My husband was downstairs in the kitchen, so I went to the top of the stairs and called out to him (yes you’ve guessed – in a sing-song voice.) After a while I realised that with the kitchen door shut and radio on he couldn’t hear me. Feeling a bit stupid that I’d ever imagined he might, I said, “Oh-uh.”
So now I knew why she did it.
Of course I’d been aware that children copy adults: I’d seen her clap when I did, heard her repeat songs we’d sung to her. I’d seen that she wanted to carry her own little backpack like everyone else when we went on holiday with her older cousins. A few years later, on my graduation day, my kids both dressed up in my outfit. (The photo is of the younger one.)
Yet until that evening when I realised that the behaviour which so puzzled me was a direct copy of my own, I did not realise how closely my daughter watched, how much she absorbed, how in some ways she knew me better than I knew myself.
Children are like mirrors to the unknown depths of ourselves. We see our own behaviours and sayings repeated in them, and it’s not always what we want to see. I felt so guilty the day I heard my daughter scold her dolls for not going to sleep. She was a wonderful baby, a lovely toddler and she wanted to share that loveliness with us 24 hours a day! So sometimes I wasn’t able to be the calm, patient mother I’d planned to be! (Me and every other parent.) I also experienced moments of amazement upon realising that she had absorbed what I saw as the good in me, like the time, aged 2 or 3, that she crouched down, and said to her little sister, “I love you. Even when I’m angry at you, I still love you.”
And of course, we too were once children, we too once absorbed all that our parents were and did. My daughter may have stood at the stair gate and called her father’s name because she wanted to see him, but did she have the faintest idea why she waited a few moments and then said ‘Oh,’ in that particular way? Do we adults have any idea why we believe half the things we do?
In some ways it’s easy to see that patterns of being are passed down through generations – we notice that we react like our own parents did when our child refuses to do as bidden – or more likely we notice that our spouse does! What’s harder to notice is that this happens because we go on believing thoughts that aren’t even ours, that are passed on from generation to generation.
Sometimes we even think we are doing the opposite of what our parents did (and when we think that we usually believe ours is the right way). Yet underneath the reactive behaviours could be the exact same thoughts our parents had. Nancy Friday describes this in My Mother, My Self. She writes about how women she interviewed often believed their lives were very different from their mothers’. “Mother lived in a house, the woman I was talking to lived in an apartment. Mother never worked a day in her life, the daughter held down a job. We cling to these ‘facts’ as proof that we have created our own lives, different from hers. We overlook….that we have taken on her anxieties, fears angers; the way we weave the web of emotion between ourselves and others is patterned on what we had with her.
So are we bound by the past, trying to break free but never managing? No. The way out, I’ve found is neither to blame our parents or ourselves, but to lovingly notice and question those hand-me-down beliefs and emotional patterns. Two of the ways that I’ve used to do this are the Sedona Method, which focuses on welcoming and releasing beliefs and emotions (even negative ones) and The Work, a process of inquiry developed by Bryon Katie.
I came across Byron Katie’s book, Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, when my children were still quite young, and it was like nothing else I’d ever read till then. Some of it instantly made sense, other things baffled me. I was surprised to read that she realised she didn’t think, she was ‘being thought’. Now I understand this – now I realise that I don’t have much control over the thoughts that come unbidden into my mind. But I do have a choice to believe them or not.
I’ve found that when I believe things should be a certain way, far from bringing what I want, this creates stress and prevents me from being able to find other solutions. It’s as if my mind is so full that there’s no room for other possibilities, and questioning my beliefs loosens up barriers to new solutions. Instead of frantically believing I have to know the answers, when the old thought patterns unravel the mind relaxes enough to naturally open up. We become like children again, ready to learn – only now with some choice in what we absorb!
Have you noticed your kids repeating your mannerisms? And have you found a way to make peace with your past and to break free of old patterns? If so, I’d love if you used the comments to share what works for you.