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I love my children with all my being, I love who they are and I will love whoever they become. But I struggle with loving the parts of them that remind me of their father who I still carry painful memories of. We are divorced and have been since they were very young. He is part of them just like I am, but sometimes it is difficult to reconcile with children who are like him in so many ways. Sometimes just the tone of their voices will bring up bad memories of our marriage which was at times very unpleasant and even frightening due to mistreatment. I know I’m not alone and many divorced parents probably struggle with this. I know the answer is to simply love them but I wasn’t prepared to feel so triggered during the times he surfaces. Do you have any advice about how to manage these feelings?
Ahhh, this one hits ol’ Kiki just like an arrow to the knee! Those reminders take us by surprise sometimes, don’t they? A turn of phrase here, a curl of the lip there … And, go figure!, they often seem to be most obvious when you’re in conflict with those charming li’l chips off the old block, don’t they? It can feel downright re-traumatizing, and you need to let yourself understand, deeply and truly, that it isn’t at all fair to you. You do not deserve that shit.
But you know who else it’s not at all fair to, Triggering? Them.
I know you know that. Your concern for them is present in every word you type! But it’s important to be reminded, and reminded, and reminded again: They didn’t choose their parentage; they didn’t choose which traits they inherited from which parent. They’re just stumbling along through existence looking for guidance.
So your first step is to take a breath and ask, do they need any guidance here? That can help you dissect your own reaction and focus on what’s important. For example, you mention tone of voice: That’s a bit different than the curve of an eyebrow, isn’t it? If they are talking down to you or being dismissive or similar, that’s not just a memory trigger, it’s a bad habit that will come back to bite them later in life.
Remember, in the funny dance between nature and nurture, there are things that are not set in stone, but rather tendencies that we can be taught to turn from. You can help them become better versions of themselves (and of him). Allowing yourself that agency may help you accept the things you can’t change.
Because, Triggering, when it’s a case of, “That’s the same vein that throbs in his forehead when he gets angry!” you really do just have to stand down.
One helpful trick is to remember that there are probably traits that they’ve inherited from you that are triggering to your ex! Whether that evinces commiseration or schadenfreude is up to you, Triggering — but either way, it’s better than carrying that weight on your own.
You can also get yourself through in the moment by making a mantra of cataloging the other influences on their genetics. Is that your dimple in their cheek? Your mother’s way of breathing through the nose in frustration? Consciously look for these other familiarities, and the triggering traits won’t have as much sway. You’re managing genuine trauma, here: Establishing a routine and a plan for dealing with it can go a long way to making sure it doesn’t take over your life.
This article was originally published in Little Village’s June 2022 issues.