Parenting can be the hardest job in the world. Why, you say? Perhaps one reason is that parenting throws us back on ourselves like no other job can. To paraphrase the writer Louise Hay: if there is something that irritates you about your child, it is simply that the child is mirroring your own behaviors.
Or another way of looking at it is that parenting brings our own unresolved childhood issues to the surface. Daniel Siegel, M.D., and Mary Hartzell, in their book Parenting from the Inside Out call these issues our “leftovers.” These leftovers are our vulnerabilities, our emotional hotspots (“buttons”), or our old wounds. Hartzell gives her own story of “leftover issue.” She recalls that going to the store to buy new shoes for her children would become an exasperating experience instead of a joy. Her children would be happy picking out their shoes and then she would find ways to second guess their choices and dampen their enthusiasm. Finally, one day her little son remarked, “Mom, didn’t you like to get new shoes as a kid?” With her loud no, she realized that she was repeating her own history. Being one of nine children, she remembered her mother’s dread of buying shoes (only on sale) for the brood. Hartzell never really got what she wanted on her own childhood shopping trips. It was always a thoroughly negative experience. So with her own children she continued operating out of the same anxiety she had felt as a child. That is, until awareness and reflection helped her overcome the unconscious, yet—played-out-in-the-present—past.
We all have “leftover” stories in which we play out our unresolved hurts from childhood—some are far more traumatic than Hartzell’s vignette. But whether our stories are more or less intense than hers, the message is the same. We need to recognize that how we interact with our children is often a reaction coming from our own past.
Part of the job of parenting becomes learning about ourselves—growing in self-awareness as our children do too.