[Pinch hitting for Mahotma Mama this week: Mahotma Daddy!]
Like most people, I retained very little “book knowledge” from my 4 years of undergraduate collegiate learning. I was too busy with more important things like courting the love of my life, learning to appreciate the difference between crappy beer (AKA freshman year) and great beer (AKA senior year), avoiding my pothead frat roommates, and figuring out what to do with my life (9 years, an MBA, and 2 careers later, I’m still working on that last one).
But fortunately, a few things stuck, particularly from some of my senior year psych classes, which was my major. Mostly, it was the courses that covered how to understand other people’s behavior, and how they relate to others themselves. To this day I seem to have a passion for trying to figure people out by dissecting their behaviors and words. I guess it helps me deal with them better the next time I meet them. So here’s the funny thing: While I can break down most people in my mind in the first few minutes of meeting them (A-type; arrogant; sweet; trustworthy; ass; intelligent; dim – you get the point), my parents continue to frustrate me. It’s supposed to be the case that the older you get, the more you can relate to your parents. But not me. The more I go through life – get married, buy a house, have a kid or two – it just gets worse. We just don’t see eye to eye on most things. See other Mahotma Mama posts for the details, but it’s gotten really bad since Mahotma Daughter came along. Clearly different philosophies on parenting – and grandparenting.
And so, while mowing the lawn this past weekend, I found myself yet again trying to crack the nut on my parents and suddenly recalled something I learned in a Family and Divorce Psychology class. The idea is basically this: when it comes to being a husband, wife, father or mother, like it or not, we draw from the role models we had the most exposure to: our own parents. We can’t help it, it happens when you’re not paying attention. If you’re married, think back to right after you got married. Ok, not RIGHT after. Maybe a few weeks after. Maybe the first day you went off to work after coming back from the honeymoon, and then came home. What did you do? Read the paper? Watch TV? Cook dinner? Whatever you did, there’s a fairly good chance you mimicked exactly what you saw your respective parent of the same sex do when they got home from work, way back when you were growing up. I know I did. Think about it: how much are you (*gasp*) just like your parents?
I went through this again when Mahotma Daughter came along. My head was screaming things like: “I go to work. She changes diapers.” But I took a good look around at other daddies and realized that while I wasn’t completely sucking it as a father, I definitely had ample room to improve. With no role models to go by except my own parents, I was subconsciously only following what I observed. To be clear, I had really great parents growing up. They were both loving, took us fun places, indulged most of my reasonable requests, and put me through college. I’m not trying to paint a Mother Dearest picture or anything. But everyone did their thing, good things were rewarded, bad things were punished, and life went on.
So there I was mowing the lawn, contemplating why my parents were so different from me. Present in Mahotma Daughter’s life? Yes and we are thankful for that. But it’s been painful and mostly frustrating. I realized that it goes back to the principal of following the role models they had – my grandparents. Again, good people. Definitely giving (checks arrived on time every Birthday and Chanuka), definitely present (talked to them right about the time the checks arrived, to say thank you), and saw them maybe 1 or 2 times per year for Thanksgiving and some other miscellaneous gathering, but most definitely not emotionally engaged or involved. Not at all.
All this is not to make excuses for my parents for choosing to be less involved in our daughter's life than we would like. It’s more to point out that while it is easy to fall into the patterns of our upbringing, we are not prisoners of our upbringing unless we fail to acknowledge the shortcomings – or, “opportunities,” as we like to say in the corporate world – of how we were raised. I don’t actually believe there is any such thing as a “good” or “bad” person, parent, grandparent, husband, Jew, or whatever. There are only those who continue to strive to do it better, and those who have become complacent with their current behaviors. But the minute you do become complacent, is the minute you begin to disappoint those most important to you. I think my parents just haven’t quite got that figured out yet. But I am optimistic that we can help them figure it out – we just need to do it before Mahotma Daughter’s memories of her grandparents become all too similar to my own.