It's Not Just About You and Your Parents
I still remember the first time I felt ready to have kids. I spoke with an older friend about her challenges with raising teenagers. I didn’t fully agree with my friend’s judgement of what happened, but for the first time I saw the scene through the eyes of a parent. My thought process was along the lines of “how would I handle it differently when interacting with my own teenage kid” rather than “how parents everywhere are clueless and do everything wrong”.
It took me a whole 30 years to get to this point. Until then, I always thought of family relationships from the point of view of a child. What my parents should and should not have done, how helpless and vulnerable I felt, what kind of help or protection I should have received but did not, and how it all shaped my thoughts, feelings and relationships for the rest of my life.
When some of my friends say they’re too young to have children, this is what they usually mean. They’re too busy taking care of that scared and lonely child inside to be able to hold space for the needs and moods of other children for extended time. I totally see where they are coming from. If I hadn’t learned to handle my own emotions before I had a kid, I definitely wouldn’t have the time and space to do it now. Even after all the work I’ve done I still often get frustrated with my daughter acting like a normal 2 year old. At least now I have the space to take a step back when this happens instead of lashing out, which would be almost impossible for me even a few years ago.
I’m glad I had a chance to process these things before I had my own children. A generation or two ago everyone was too busy just surviving to worry about their own feelings. Nobody also thought about feeling ready to have kids. I often think about my grandmother, who married the first man that showed any interest in her, 12 years older than her when she was merely 18. I asked her once, did she find him attractive at all, given he was so much older? “Attractive or not, what kind of difference does it make?” - she replied - “I mostly wanted to move out of my abusive stepfather’s house”.
For someone like her who moved out of a troubled childhood home straight into marriage and motherhood, what chance of emotional healing there could possibly be? I sometimes hear people say nobody should ever have children before they sort themselves out emotionally, or otherwise they’ll be guilty of propagating the hurt. But if people really did that, almost nobody would have any kids at all for most of human history. Humanity would almost certainly go extinct.
In a perfect world, everyone should be able to sort their childhood out in their early 20s. In theory, this is what therapy is for, but I know many people who spent a decade in therapy and still feel like they’re doomed to live a miserable life. I thought it shouldn’t have taken me a whole 30 years to finally feel like I’m ready to take care of another human being, but now it seems I was still pretty lucky compared with some of my friends. Whatever we’re doing as a society to help people feel like capable and competent adults, it doesn’t seem to be working too well.
Unlike my grandmother we know that a better life is possible, and we feel like we owe it to our future children. But still most of us doesn’t know how to get there, and so we choose not to have any until one day we’ll magically wake up feeling ready.
I don’t know what it would take for people to reliably feel like they’re in charge of their own lives at an earlier age. I still feel like I was pretty lucky in getting there at all. But I wonder if putting ourselves in the shoes of our parents, grandparents, and all the other people who came before them might be of some help. Why did they make the choices that they made? What resources they did and did not have? How did their own childhood look like, and in what ways did it shape them?
If your first instinct is to say that’s because they were psychopaths, toxic, or evil, I encourage you to dig deeper. What experiences made them this way? What would you do in the same situation? This is not to justify their behavior, but rather to put things in perspective.
My grandparents lived through the most devastating war in human history. My grandma saw the smoke from a Nazi concentration camp through her window growing up, then moved on to start her own family as soon as the war was over. In what ways did it shape her? What tools, strategies, and behavioral patterns that helped her survive through this time did she pass onto her children, and they did on theirs, even when it no longer made sense?
My childhood was much better than that of my mom or dad, and they couldn’t wrap their heads around why I was critical of them. They managed to spare me of so many horrible things! Only now I can see it is precisely thanks to their effort that I’m equipped with better tools now than they had these 30 years ago, and that I can give an even better childhood to my own kid. She won’t be even able to imagine what challenges I have gone through, just like I couldn’t imagine what my parents or grandparents did. But similarly, her problems will be as difficult to understand for me as my problems seemed to my parents when I was younger.
Your childhood wounds aren’t just about you and your parents. It’s a thread that goes back in time for as long as there’s life. It’s good to develop emotional regulation skills before having kids, but if you’re waiting until you become fully healed you might just wait forever.
Nobody will ever be fully healed, definitely not by your children’s standards. It is precisely your healing that will enable them to have higher standards than you do now. The best we can do is pay attention, listen, and apologize when we mess up. And perhaps as we do this, it will be easier for our kids to see life through the eyes of a parent than it was for us.
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Fantastic piece that is so well articulated! My best friend had a baby a year ago and her sharing of the journey with me made me shift my thinking from what my parents didn't do correctly to acknowledging that they tried their best given the resources they had.