Now that I’m a mother, I better understand what was happening for my own mother. I can see how, in childhood, I triggered her in a way that my sister and brother didn’t. I see that even though she loved me, her trauma made it difficult for her to meet me the way I needed to be met.
Now that I’m a mother, I see how my older son triggers me in a way that my younger son doesn’t. I feel how much I love him and that my guilt gets in the way of meeting him the way he needs to be met.
My older son is a peacemaker; it would surprise people that this is hard for me. It would surprise people that my younger son, the fighter, is easier for me.
My older son is polite, funny, thoughtful, sweet and quiet. I just had his parent-teacher interview—every teacher is thrilled to have my son in their class. He doesn’t cause any trouble; he wants everyone to get along.
My sister was the peacemaker in our family. She was sweet, she was quiet; she wanted everyone to get along. My sister was good at absorbing the family problems on the inside. I demonstrated them on the outside. I was called the problem child. Today, my sister has a lot of inside and outside problems.
My younger son is like me. We move through the world in the same way—he is fast, he leads with his fight. I have an easier time with this strategy, I understand it. I can see his anger. I understand the fear underneath. I have no problem slowing down to meet his tantrums or his stubborn refusal to bend to anyone’s will. In fact, I’m proud that he asserts himself and I guide him to understand the sensations and emotions in his body, and model how he can express himself in a way that others can hear his needs.
That is not the case with my older son. He doesn’t tantrum, he doesn’t rock the boat. He will make apologies for things that aren’t his to own. He holds his feeling on the inside, he leads with sadness.
In the same way my mother had a hard time meeting my anger, I have a hard time meeting his sadness. When I try to meet to meet him there, I am met by my own guilt. It plays on repeat: my beautiful boy became a peacemaker to navigate my fight; he is a peacemaker because of the divorce.
I know from research in epigenetics, attachment and polyvagal theory that there are many factors in the development of his nervous system—factors not all to do with me. But it doesn’t matter. Guilt is good at finding me there, too.
The research also tells me that the best thing I can do for my son is to deal with myself—to shift my guilt to remorse—so that I can stay present to him. When I’m present, I can meet his sadness. When I’m present, my son can have an experience of safety in his body even when there is conflict. When I’m present, he won’t be as compelled to keep the peace, to feel that it’s his job to take care of others.
When it’s time, he can do the inner work to heal his unmet developmental needs. When it’s time, I will tell him that I had every intention of meeting them, but I didn’t—not because I didn’t want to, but because I move through the world in a different way. I know that’s the truth for my own mother, too.
Take what works, leave the rest.