when you meet my kids, you will note – without fail – that they resemble their father. if you are like most people, you will offer a slightly sympathetic laugh, a nod that acknowledges the long months i spent carrying them only to have them pop out entirely HIS. i will nod back, smiling, helpless in the face of the truth.

the likeness is blatant, uncanny: in all the lines of their faces, the bones, the spacing of their eyes. it makes me prone to cracking snide remarks that i don’t have genes at all. or better, that i’m too stingy to share what god gave me, that i’ve hoarded my genetics all to myself. it is okay, my laugh will respond to yours. only my heart is in these children. that is all.

it’s a lie, though.

my children do look like little carbon copies of Dave and his extended family. Posey is a pint-sized Dave in a dress. Oscar and his father in open-mouthed laughter, heads together, remind me of mirrors reflecting into infinity. yes, in certain light, with my eyes squeezed nearly shut, i can project glimpses of my own ancestral clans over their laughing faces…a tilt of a nose that reminds me of my mother, a chin that seems squarely familiar. but overall, they’re Cormiers, Doucets, Guitards; Acadians through and through.

still. the older they get, the more i see myself reflected in them. not in their appearance, but their actions, inclinations, personalities and strengths and…oh especially…weaknesses.

children are a mirror for the flawed soul. and when you watch them struggle with the same self-defeating tendencies that have plagued you as far back as you can remember, you will sigh, and wish that it was true; that you really had hoarded your genes all to yourself.
***
personality isn’t inborn, i remember her saying, my first year psychology prof in the Child Development course, in some kind of disjointed prelude to Piaget. i was slouched in my seat, seventeen years old and away from home for the first time. something in the words perked up my bad-ass ears and i flew away for a moment, across the strait to my proper, earnest mother and i snorted.

a head turned and i blushed and ducked my own.

for years i had discarded, unassessed, most of the things my mother had told me. we were like magnets, the two of us in my adolescence, poles mostly turned apart and pushing. i felt caged and contemptuous: i denied her authority, rejected her range of knowledge and experience out of hand. too small, too fearful, too parochial.

even things neither of us understood, new things, processes, systems – i picked up faster and so shut her out. if the learning went awry and she dared try to step in, i was a study in impossibility. once, when my electric typewriter refused to load its correction ribbon properly the night before a high school essay was due, my mother had reached over the kitchen table to help and i’d shouted I’m doing it RIGHT! It’s just WRONG! until her hand snapped the dislocated piece into place and i seethed in humiliation.

all this, except in relation to one thing: the absent presence she unquestionably knew – or had once known – better than i. my father.

she didn’t say it often: she was careful not to label with negativity. but in moments of exasperation it slipped from her tongue, half-accusation, half-wonderment. You’re just like your father. and i’d peer into those words like they were tea leaves, scrying for belonging, for some meaningful reflection of the elusive inner self i longed to have identified for me, the one i wasn’t sure anybody could see.

my father had been gone since i was six months old. i had his chin, his smile, his nose, his temper, and apparently most of his undesirable qualities, the kind that make poor, beleaguered mamas want to rend their garments and gnash their teeth.

personality isn’t inborn, my ass, i muttered to that psych prof, slouched over my doodles and notes. you talk to my mother.
***
he is four, my son, my second-born and eldest all at once. and he reminds me daily he is his own self.

the old white laptop from 2005 has been handed down to him in the past year, windfall privilege of growing up in an over-technologized family. he is learning to use a paint program, doing his “work” onscreen like mommy and daddy. ouch, i say, to the chorus of silent condemnation in my head, the one that wonders if he shouldn’t be outside learning to catch. but he is fascinated. the beauty he creates fascinates me.

(his father built him a blog for these paintings; a small gallery, a room of his own. the artist happily fields comments.)

but the artist does not happily field the notion of being wrong.

i could pretend i do not know where he gets this. i could pretend i believe only in nurture, not nature; that my chipper soliloquies of mommy’s learning French and it’s SO FUN; mommy’s practicing her (wobbly-arsed) bike-riding and WOW! i like learning new things and mommy made a mistake and has to start all over and (grit teeth) GEE! i sure am learning a lot doing this a third time! make some ripple on the cosmic pool of his small self. maybe they will. maybe he will learn to recognize frustration far younger than i ever did, and name it and own it and master it with patience and self-regard.

in the meantime, on a Saturday afternoon while his sister naps he explores the new paint program. there is glee, mommy, hey! look at this! and the satisfying splat-splat-splat of squares of yellow landing on a red background. then growling. growling i’d never heard before, except maybe in the recesses of my own mind. growling like a furious, feral animal enraged beyond containment.

my son. four years old.

he must have inadvertently clicked on something he didn’t intend to. the program had shifted modes, so that backtracking was impossible. i said, looks like you have a little problem, huh? and then my hand – my stupid, stupid hand – reached out for the mouse. while my mouth – my stupid, stupid mouth – said maybe you clicked the wrong thing?

i rendered him, in one fell swoop, not just wrong but beyond capacity to solve his own problem.

his own hand swatted at mine like i was a mortal danger and he began to scream – SCREAM – that he had done it RIGHT and it was WRONG but he had done it RIGHT and ouch on the old ears, little man.

perfectionist much? need control much? need the world to make sense and make you feel you know everything much?

ouch, mirror mirror.

i picked up the laptop and shut it. we do not shout in our house, i said quietly. we do not hit. the computer is a privilege, and you will not be allowed to use it if you cannot learn to make mistakes and learn from your mistakes without screaming. what i wanted to do was to pull his small body into my arms and somehow scrub him free of all those heartbreaking tendencies to be his own worst enemy, to be so achingly, willfully blind to his own mistakes that all learning that doesn’t come easy is a torture better skipped.

i cannot.

but i can scrub myself. i am trying, in the late years before i turn forty and bloom into my middle years, to become someone better than nature and nurture happened to cobble together through happenstance and genes, someone who doesn’t make her mama want to rend her garments and gnash her teeth.
***
whether genes or learned behaviour, how do you see your own challenges reflected in your children?