It almost seems like a cruel joke: that moms who were forced to grow up too quickly — taking on caregiver duties, the lion’s share of chores and adult-level stresses — can underestimate how important it is for a child to experience a carefree childhood and repeat the cycle with their own kids.
And yet that’s exactly what a new psychological paper put out by Michigan State University claims. The study of 374 moms posits that women who shouldered a lot of responsibility as children face different challenges as mothers than their peers — namely, a difficulty connecting to their babies with “warm responsiveness.” And I know firsthand how true that is.
When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. When you’re young and made to take on responsibilities for which you have no clear appropriate example — disciplining a sibling, for instance — then you improvise. Eventually that improvisation becomes your foundation for the way that responsibility is handled into adulthood, where you pass it on to your kids.
You would think it might be the opposite. That when you have a rough upbringing that forces you into adulthood long before you’re ready, you would do everything in your power to make sure your kid doesn’t go through it. And yet it doesn’t always work out that way, despite the fact that of all people, we should know better.
I’m one of those people who — as the MSU writers put it — experienced “parentification” at a much too early age. What’s more, as the youngest of my siblings, I definitely had it the easiest. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t in for a serious shock when my own kid came along, and it definitely doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with the consequences of it every day now.
I left my home when I was 6, and while things got better than they were, the damage was mostly done, and I went through life as a miniature adult. Sometimes actual adults would find this precocious and hand me more responsibilities or even confide in me, so impressed by my ability to “handle things” that they imagined it was a compliment.
I did make a solemn, cross-my-heart vow that my child would have a different experience from me. She would play outside and only use the stove under the age of 10 if we were doing it as a bonding experience, and she would never know how much money we did or didn’t have.
And for the most part, I think I’m doing OK. When she was a baby, it was insanely easy. I was drunk on love for her and purpose-driven to that end. She wasn’t spoiled, no, but those early years were stuffed full of blanket forts and “pretend” play and long, cuddly naps.
Then she turned 6.
It was almost as if a switch flipped. Anyone with a rough upbringing can tell you that your ability to empathize is affected by it. It’s hard to relate to people who deal with problems that seem minor to the ones you encounter, problems that appear petty when you know, firsthand, what it is to be hungry, homeless and helpless. But you grow up, and with some work and life experience, you get better at it.
The best way to describe what happened when my daughter reached the age of 6 years old is that my empathizing abilities took little steps back, until I realized I was slowly starting to force my own kid to grow up before she was ready.
I became frustrated. I knew that 6-year-olds could wash and dry and iron and fold laundry. I knew that they could stanch their tears on command when they were sad, that they could prepare their own meals, bandage their own wounds. I knew that they could function with higher-level autonomy. I knew this to be true, because these were all things I was adept at when I was 6. So why couldn’t my daughter handle it?
My husband is the one who helped maintain household sanity. “I don’t understand why she can’t just…” became a phrase I grossed myself out by saying too often, and he would always counter with, “Because normal kids don’t have to do that kind of stuff, because normal kids shouldn’t have to do that kind of stuff.”
And he was right. When I was struggling with my ability to empathize, his was functioning perfectly. Empathy for our kid, and empathy for me, which still, after all of these years, feels like a novel gift that I don’t fully deserve.
I needed constant reminders that my childhood — a collection of years and experiences I’d normalized just to survive them — was not, in even the loosest sense of the word, typical or appropriate. I couldn’t see that, but he could, and it makes a world of difference.
The fact of the matter is that while he’s been parenting for eight years, I’ve been parenting for 22; parenting myself, parenting my parent. The unfortunate thing is that 14 of those years were built on a crappy foundation of wrongness, and I have to unlearn all of it to be the mom I want to be.
I know I’m not painting a flattering picture of myself, and I’m OK with that, because I know I’m far from alone. A lot more people than you might think grapple with this stuff — good people who got dealt a crappy hand and are trying their best to break the cycle.
Honestly, most days, everything goes well. I’ve scaled back my expectations to age-appropriate and reasonable. After all, kids should do chores. They just don’t need to run a household.
On the days that I catch myself wondering why my 8-year-old hasn’t secured a job or apartment of her own yet, I just need that reminder; everyone gets one childhood. Mine didn’t go so great. But if I make sure my daughter’s does, it’s a win-win. She’ll grow up right on schedule, and I’ll get to hang out in a blanket fort after all.