Calculating Emotional Inheritance

While many of us explore the impact of our parents’ choices on us, “The Work” is about putting together the pieces of our own reality. It is not about blame. Quite simply, we are who we are, products of a DNA lottery and whatever number of years’ worth of experiences. Some of us invest the time, money, and energy to come to terms with the latter and recover from the past in a way that allows us to change; and that process of digging into the gardens of our lives allows us to cultivate better ones. We are capable of growing and changing, of personal evolution, so to speak.

I’ve spent a good bit of my adulthood hashing out the realities of my childhood—the impact of my parents’ divorce and custody battles that followed, and the back-and-forth between them as they both moved around the world within their respective U.S. Air Force careers. As a young adult, frankly, I was a mess. I had almost no sense of personal identity (no sense of self that one would want anyway) and while the sordid details are more Jerry Springer than Care2, it’s safe to say I’ve come a long way in the search to find myself.

As a life coach, my focus has always been on individual empowerment and how each one of us can go about changing our own lives. This belief that we can take control of the wheel and drive the bus of our lives to the destination of our choice, on whichever route we damn well please, is empowering. Therapeutically speaking, we go to great lengths to separate (emotionally) from those around us because the only one we can change is ourselves.

This “You Are The Problem” state of mind always served me very well, except for one critically important thing that hit me like lightening just a few weeks ago. I was talking to a friend about parenting and she asked if my parenting style mirrored the way I was parented, and the “style” by which my grandparents raised my parents. Actually, no, our lives are very different. As I compared my children’s lives to my parents’ childhoods, particularly my mother’s, what I could finally see moved me to tears. For the first time, I was able to recognize that in just two generations—from my mother to my children—we have profoundly transformed our way of being in the world and resulting quality of life.

Frankly, this difference is nothing short of a miracle.

I’ve certainly had days when I felt poor. I’ve even had a few periods in my life when I was technically living in poverty, as defined by those who calculate such things. These were complex times for me but even those times were a stark contrast to my mom’s childhood. She was the kind of poor where sometimes there isn’t enough food. There was violence and addiction, and as I understand it, significant inconsistency in meeting their basic needs.

For example, we were driving around her hometown once when I asked her to show me where she grew up. She laughed and sighed and said, “Oh, well, I’m not sure I could even remember them all.” She showed me three or four places, within a stone’s throw of one another, and I asked why they moved so much. She first joked that, “It was to get Daddy closer to the bar,” and then went on to explain that sometimes people can’t pay their bills and they have to move out.

As I got older, more of these remarkable stories crept out about their outrageous fights and chaos, and I marveled at each one. It was beyond my comprehension, the kind of drama that for me only existed in books, movies, and on television. When my mom was 18, she’d fled the scene by enlisting in the military, a decision I recently found out that she made in the 6th grade because she heard that she could travel the world. She invested more than 20 years of her life in getting away from all that existed before, and because she did, my life was different.

I’ve always said that kids are a product of the people who raise them, and not just biologically. Addict’s children often struggle with addiction. Domestic violence has an undeniably hereditary air about it. We are the people our parents (or caretakers) raised us to be. But, if I’m being honest, I actually only noticed the way dysfunctional patterns are handed down from one generation to the next. While I was oh-so-well-versed in the way my emotional junk could be tied back to my parents’ emotional junk, I’d (sadly) never noticed that much of the really crappy stuff from my mother’s childhood didn’t make its way into my childhood.

I’ve spent all of this time focused on my own awareness, healing, and personal evolution that I’d never noticed how much of what’s different for me and my children wasn’t made different by me.

Certainly, there were very real consequences of my mom’s childhood that have impacted the woman she is and, therefore, the mother she was and is to me. There are things that I wish had been different, but today, I am seeing her in a whole new light. She, very instinctively, chose the military life to flee what was and to create a new world for herself. By doing that, she literally changed everything about my life.

She provided for me, even though she had not been provided for adequately. I never was hungry. There was never violence in my house like my mother experienced in her childhood. My Air Force brat life forced me to move a lot but offered much stability in ways that when I was little, I couldn’t even recognize. We were never evicted. I never worried if I’d have clothes to wear to school. She raised me such that, instead of struggling to find basic security and stability, I could assume those would be in place and begin working to create attachment and connection when my own children came. I was able to learn about breastfeeding and natural childbirth, and organic food and vegetarianism. I didn’t have to worry about mere survival, and was freed to grow and explore a whole new world, which included earning a college degree and having my own business.

She freed me from her past, and that allowed me to do all that I’ve done to free my children from my past, something of a generational evolution. It’s humbling to realize how much of ‘The Work’ may, in some cases, have actually been done for you, don’t you think? And also, to realize how profoundly ‘The Work’ we do (or don’t do) today will impact our children and their children, and their children, and on and on…

Photo credit: footloosiety via Flickr

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Inari T.
Inari T.2 years ago

Thank you - I think it's important to understand that each generation tries to improve on the parenting practices of the previous one; and each generation makes its own mistakes, so there's no point in "blaming" our parents for our adult selves.

Valerie A.
Valerie A.2 years ago


dalila p.
dalila p.2 years ago

i can't read stories like this without getting emotioned. My parent's life influenced me, it was not easy actually, but my mom is an heroine and i really i appreciate the way she deals the difficulties that family's life gave her.
My life is different from my parent's and grandparent's. It is also thanks to everyone's power, of course. And yes, it is nothing short of a miracle, too.

Daria W.
Daria W.2 years ago

it is important to know from where we are and where we're going. this is long, complicated but fascinating jurney full of all sort of suprises. we are what we lived through, we are our dreams and fears, our past and future... we are our ancestors and posterity... each of us carry an peculiar independent universe. sometimes is hard to understand ourselves, so to understand others is a real art of life. accept do not judge, live and let live.... be happy because we are all part of miracle

LMj Sunshine

Interesting, thank you.

LMj Sunshine

Interesting, thank you.

Patricia D.
Patricia D.2 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Leuth Novotny
.2 years ago

great point of focus for end of day

mary r.
Mary R.2 years ago


Dale O.

Fascinating and intriguing.