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How Children Are Like Their Parents

Children Are Mirrors From Which We Can't Look Away

Like most women my age, I've developed a healthy contempt for mirrors: always highlighting the latest wrinkle or newly sprouted gray hair. To be honest, I avoid them as much as possible, glancing only briefly into my reflection to check for dollops of peanut butter in my hair or smears of chocolate down my legs. But there are more powerful mirrors in my home than any mere pane of glass, and they cannot be avoided.

Our children look up at us with intoxicating innocence, a beauty unparalleled in the mortal world. Yet they are not perfect. How could they be? They are of us. Human. They are psychic mirrors, as lovely and dangerous as Narcissus's pool, that uncover every blemish, emotional scar, and hard-earned baggage we've worked so hard to hide beneath the cool exterior of adulthood. There we are, trapped forever in our own reflection, unable to look away because we love our babies, but afraid to look closer at our own flaws.

There we are, trapped forever in our own reflection, unable to look away because we love our babies, but afraid to look closer at our own flaws.

I've never considered myself to be an anxious person, or someone who was particularly prone to mood swings and fits of unexplained emotions. If I was angry, it must have been because someone had provoked me. If I was sad, it was because someone had betrayed me. If I was overwhelmed and needed to be alone, it was because my life was too stressful. There was always a reason, a logical explanation for my feelings. Someone to blame, even if sometimes that person was me.

But then I started noticing my oldest son struggling with his own emotions so intense that they all but paralyzed him. The other morning started out as it often does, with my two boys playing happily together driving Matchbox cars along the furniture to the soundtrack of laughter and cooperation.

And then a few seconds later everything changed.

The laughter stopped and was replaced by the low warning growl of an animal about to turn on its master. Suddenly the room seemed to shrink and every step his younger brother took was a step too close, every sound too loud, and every game too frustrating. My oldest son was angry and he'd found someone to blame.

From where I was sitting, it seemed so obvious that he was unfairly accusing his little brother (who was only 3, for goodness sake) and I made my opinion known. Then my son was sad and I was clearly to blame. He threw himself under the kitchen table and sobbed. Clearly the most reasonable reaction to his feelings.

When I finally regained his attention, I asked him what had happened. He'd been happy that morning and then suddenly he wasn't. He didn't know. At first he told me his brother had ruined his game, but couldn't remember how exactly. Then he told me he didn't like the way I'd yelled at him, even though I'd never raised my voice. His fists were clenched and his face was red as he searched his mind for every possible explanation for his feelings. But there weren't any. He was just angry.

And that's when I saw it. I looked at his frustrated face, desperate to focus his energy outward, away from the pit I knew he was feeling in his stomach: that heavy, sinking feeling when you know you have no one to blame but yourself. I knew that feeling well, only instead of hiding under kitchen tables and throwing cars at my brother's head, I accused my husband of leaving crumbs on the counter and my kids of chewing too loudly at the dinner table.

But there in his pained expression, I saw myself, blemishes, baggage, and all. He was of me. And this was my fault.

I pulled his limp body into my lap and hugged him tight until he stopped trying to push me away. I told him I understood what he was feeling, that sometimes I felt sad and angry and lonely for no reason. Between sobs he looked at me with swollen eyes as if he thought I had all the answers. As if adulthood had solved my problems instead of teaching me to better hide them. Weren't parents supposed to know everything? I wanted to take away his pain, to dull his feelings, but I didn't know how. I couldn't even solve my own.

So I told him the only thing I did know about feeling like the world was crashing down around him: it ends.

So I told him the only thing I did know about feeling like the world was crashing down around him: it ends.

Sometime soon, it could be minutes or hours or maybe even days, he would wake up and realize that the feeling had passed. It would always pass. But the things he did or said would remain. And when his brother no longer offended him with his very presence and gentle corrections no longer felt like a dozen lashes, he would want those people back in his life. He would wish he could take back the anger and the resentment and the car he threw across the room. He would want it all back. That part I knew for sure.

And even as I said the words to him, I knew I was talking to myself as well. The best advice I had for him was not to hide from his feelings by pushing them onto other people, was not to look away from his own mirror, but rather to accept the feelings for what they were: a part of him. The very same part that makes him a passionate person filled with wonder and curiosity, and the very same person that makes him part of me. And I loved him for it.

Maybe in some way by seeing the parts of myself I'd hidden away reflected in my son's struggles, I even loved myself a bit more, just the way I'm learning to love my laughter lines and spreading hips. I may never learn to control my own feelings or even how to accept them for what they are, but I already know how to love my children for exactly who they are.

They are me, and that's beautiful.

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