When we found out we were having our first baby, I harbored hope that he would embody all of his parents’ best qualities: my knack for math and languages, interest in food and travel, and love of books and plants combined with his father’s rugged good looks, artistic and musical talents, and athletic prowess. Luckily, our firstborn did inherit some of those characteristics, along with a few of our less enviable attributes, as did his two siblings who followed. I never imagined until I encountered this conundrum what a challenge and a gift it would present: here we are raising children who exemplify some of our great strengths as well as a few of our more frustrating behaviors, all meted out among three individuals who are their own people as well.
There is no mirror quite like the one this opportunity provides, and while it is sometimes exasperating, it’s also incredibly beneficial in helping to fortify our ability to identify with how others perceive us. In a way, it objectifies the qualities of our own personalities so that we can understand how they might impact others. It’s like stepping outside of ourselves and witnessing our habits, tendencies, and behaviors with a fresh set of eyes, and this in turn gives us the perspective necessary to self-identify and regulate those aspects of ourselves that we possess both the capacity and the power to control, whether by moderation or modulation.
For example, when I see my daughter yell, run into her room, slam the door, and dig in her ever-loving heels with stubbornness, I see myself and summon empathy. When she accumulates seventeen half-finished art or craft projects that just SIT THERE until she gets around to finishing them, I conjure understanding. When my son spends way too much time deciding which book to read or which treat to choose, I see my own difficulty with decision-making and try to flood my system with patience. When my other son gets a gift and immediately asks for every single other one of its kind in every color and size, I recognize my collector’s impulse and channel grace. Knowing how it feels to be on the receiving end of unwelcome behavior in these instances helps me temper my own actions and reactions in a way that I can’t imagine sourcing elsewhere in such an effective way.
What’s also helpful is witnessing the effect this has on my husband. When we are waiting on a child who is taking his own sweet time but doing whatever he’s doing exceptionally thoroughly and with great results, I’m sure Brian reminds himself of himself to inspire composure. When a child is spending an eternity in the bathroom or has to go RIGHT as a piping-hot homemade meal is presented on the table, I just know why Brian checks his frustration. When a child forms the habit of chewing ice loudly and for extended periods of time in a setting that is otherwise quiet, I see my spouse noticing how incredibly annoying it is. When a child is singing a well-known tune (on key, I should add) but replaces the original words with the names of people or pets in his vicinity, the effect being inane and obnoxiously repetitive bordering on nonsense, it must ring familiar.
There are dozens of these little mirrors that turn up unexpectedly in our everyday experiences in the company of each other, and I think of them like little shields that give us a degree of separation from sometimes unsavory situations. Like Perseus only able to see Medusa as a reflected image in the bronze shield given to him by Athena, so we can see our own moments of monstrousness more clearly by virtue of the generational lens, thereby denaturing those moments’ immobilizing force. Who knew that we’d be inheriting an amplified sense of self-knowledge and therefore self-awareness, such a monumental gift, and from our children, no less?