My older son was 2 years old when I first realized I may have passed some of my undesirable traits to him. I ruffled his hair one day, and noticed what appeared to be patches of dry skin. As soon as I saw them, I felt an immediate and intense pang of guilt for having given him what I was sure was psoriasis: plaques of dry, scaly skin. My perfect little boy was marred by this disease that would likely cause him embarrassment and discomfort for years. Maybe for his whole life. My heart sank and, for weeks, I nearly cried whenever I thought about it.
Years later, I realized it was cradle cap. He hadn’t had it as a baby, so I didn’t recognize it and didn’t know it could manifest in toddlers. In fact, at age 6, he still has it, though his hair is thick enough that I can’t see it often, and I try not to let it bother me. He hates it when I try to do anything about it.
I’m truly grateful that it was a false alarm. But in the intervening years it has become clear to me that my kids didn’t dodge all the bullets of my genetic inheritance. My older son, for example, may not yet have developed the skin issues I’ve struggled with, but he certainly pulled the short stick when it comes to sleep issues. Night after night he comes out of his bedroom hours after we’ve put him and his brother to bed, unable to sleep and tired of trying. My younger son has more of my husband’s genetic gifts: instant sleep. He lays down and he’s out within minutes. But my older son is truly mine: lay down and suddenly there is so much to think about.
I have a short list of things I wish I hadn’t – or couldn’t, or won’t – pass on to my kids, and every time I see one of those short-listed traits in my children, or even a hint of them, my heart aches a little. However, my view of these issues has evolved over time and my reaction is not as bad as it once was. While at first I felt guilt and a little bit of helpless despair at the thought that my child would suffer because of the genes I gave him, I now see those traits as opportunities – for both of us.
That’s because seeing those traits in my children has made me less ashamed of them in myself. I used to feel that these were things about me that were “wrong” or “bad.” But in my kids, they just are. And they are okay. And that makes them okay in me, too. It’s literally been just in the past couple of years that I’ve felt okay about being who I am – warts and all – and it’s largely because I’ve been able to see myself in my kids and to love my traits in them. I am so grateful for that.
But while those traits are “okay,” the are still sometimes difficult to deal with. Like when my son is entering the second frustrating hour of not being able to sleep. It’s moments like those when I am almost glad to have personally dealt with these things. Because I can empathize. I know first-hand how frustrating it is to lie awake for hours. I know that sometimes, there really isn’t anything that can be done about it. And I know that sometimes, all it takes is a little break from trying to fall asleep – a chance to read another chapter, an opportunity to see what Mom and Dad are working on – to make falling asleep much easier to do.
And while early in my motherhood, my reaction was to cry at my helplessness, these days I pull my child into my lap, give him a hug, and tell him that I know what it feels like. It’s hard – sometimes really hard. But it’s okay. And he’s okay, too.