"There's nothing like seeing yourself in your kids," writes K.J. Dell'Antonia, "but what do you do when the part you see is exactly the part you hate most?" That part, for her, is rage.
Here's what happens when Dell'Antonia packs her six-year-old daughter Lily (not pictured) cold noodles instead of hot for her school lunch:
The noodle question is unfixable at this late hour, but she can't let it go - she's still alternating between sobbing and yelling at me as she puts on her shoes. Lily's siblings (4,5, and 9) are quietly gathering their things with their heads down. The air positively shimmers with Lily's rage and my barely contained reaction to it, and they have seen all of this play out before. The 9-year-old gently moves to help the 4-year-old zip a jacket. I suck in a deep breath and try to help Lily, who can't FIT her LUNCH INTO HER BACKPACK!!! She rears back and hits me.
"You didn't pack my NOODLES!"
This sounds frightening for any parent, but for Dell'Antonia it's part of an all-too-familiar pattern. She writes on Babble, "I've struggled for years with black moods that can bring a whole family to its knees, brought on by a tendency to overreact to the little things and the inner conviction that once things have begun to go badly, they will continue to do so, probably forever." Dell'Antonia isn't sure whether her daughter's tantrums are genetic or learned, but either way, she blames herself. And though she's learned to control her own rage, she's powerless in the face of Lily's:
"I've already figured this out," I want to scream. "Just take a deep breath and LET IT GO!"
She can't do it. And when it comes to Lily, neither can I.
I wrote a while back about daughters inheriting their mothers' flaws, but it's illuminating — and distressing — to see this process from the other side. What I've experienced as a periodic shock — "I'm turning into my mother!" — moms may experience as constant guilt: "I gave her all of my problems!" But there is a bright side. Dell'Antonia says, "I suspect I may have to find a way to take those deep breaths and let Lily get through this on her own" — and there may be some virtue in stepping back. But I'm willing to bet that Lily is learning good things from her mom as well as bad. Some of the coping techniques Dell'Antonia has learned over her life will probably trickle down to Lily, and she may inherit not just a rage problem but the tools to handle it. We all pick up some bad habits from our parents, but sometimes those bad habits just go unexamined and uncorrected into all our future relationships. In a way Lily's actually lucky — at least the flaw she got is something her mom's aware of.