Becoming Our Parents

Rev. Megan Foley and Chuck Becker
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 07/14/2013

Today we’re exploring that tricky little surprise that life throws you when you get to be 20, 30, 40 or 50, or maybe even older than that, and you start to be a grown up and you have children of your own, maybe, and you start to get older and every once in a while, or maybe more often than that, you think to yourself, “Oh my God, I am turning into my mother! I am turning into my father!”

And your response to that realization can run the gamut. You might feel a delighted sense of peace, a sense of the part you play in the march of time, and good for you for feeling that way, if you do.

You might also feel a sense of wasted effort – what were all those teenage years for, anyway, if you’re just going to turn around and turn into all that you rejected so forcefully?

You might feel a sense of rueful inevitability, like you knew this was going to happen the whole time, no matter what you did.

And you may feel a sense of genuine horror, if your parents were nothing you’d want to emulate, for real.

The fact of the matter is, for good or for ill, the genes and habits and behaviors our parents bequeathed to us are here within each of us, really here. That is, fortunately or unfortunately, simply reality.

We show our parents to the world in the things we do every day, either because we’re like them, or because we are consciously doing the opposite of what we were shown and taught by them. Our parents pop out in our relationships, and they pop out in our parenting, and they pop out in our preferences and in the way we look and act. This happens consistently and it happens without our permission.

So the question for today is, if this is reality, What shall we do?


I particularly like that song, because it reminds me that I am located at least in two places in time all at once. At one of those places, there is the former teenage me, who still lives right inside, and who had so many conversations like that one with my parents: “so, let me get this right, you…[ate the apple] or whatever the transgression of the day was? After I specifically told you not to?”

And then there’s the all-too-current me with two teenagers, who has that conversation with them what feels like 15 times a day.

I am both of those people, they are both me, the me who hears it and the me who says it, and I think that’s exactly what the topic of the service is today. We look at our parents through the eyes we had as children, and then we look at them through today’s eyes, maybe expecting them to be the same as they always were, but maybe finding that they aren’t. And we hear them when we speak to our own children or to other people in our lives, their voices coming out of our faces in an alarming way. And maybe we see them, too, when we look in the mirror, or when we choose to do something and realize that they did it, too.

Overlapping history, and genetics, and behavior mapping, and survival skills. So many overlaps that it’s hard to tease out where one person starts and stops, and the next one begins and ends. But you know you’ve changed as you’ve gone along, echoing, perhaps, that quote that has been attributed to Mark Twain: When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.

This is one of those worship services that doesn’t have an answer for you, not really, just a couple of ideas and a few songs to help you sit with what is real and confusing and just be a part of it for a while. There’s deep joy, and a true fear, and a grand mystery to this parent/child transmission. All those different feelings are genuine, and all those different feelings can happen at once.

This service and the concept in it is not just for people who grew up with their biological parents, either, lest you be feeling left out if you were adopted, or have adopted kids yourself. The ways in which we imprint on those who raised us surpasses biology, although when biology is present, it certainly helps it out.

C.B. is the one who gave me this idea, along with the musical selections and some other materials, and one of the resources he sent along was an interview with literary critic, essayist , novelist, and staff writer at the New Yorker magazine, James Wood, who recently published an essay called “Becoming Them: Our Parents, Our Selves.” James Wood was interviewed by Tom Ashbrook on his NPR radio show On Point, and that’s what I listened to in preparation for today. {Hear it at].

There were several points of the interview that gave me food for thought. One comment that Wood made was to point out how, at the age of 20, one may think of one’s life as full of endless possibilities and potentials for different ways of living and being – and it takes 20 years for us to realize at age 40, say, how much of our lives have been imitations of or reactions to the one way in which we were raised. At 40, Wood said, you see how much of your life has been written for you. And then you take some time to either freak out, or come to terms with that fact.

Another interesting point which I hadn’t quite realized is that the parents you feel you are becoming, or you are reacting against becoming, are usually a version of your parents as they were when you were a child, your parents, in other words, as they were in their 30s or 40s– not, however, your parents as they are now, or as they were before you were born, which might be quite different.

The developmental phase of turning into your parents, you might say, is qualified – you are “turning into your parents” as your parents were when you were a child. You, the child, have locked them into that one particular phase in their life as if that is the very definition of who they are. But if you think about it, you can see that that phase, although it may have lasted as long as 20 years, was surely only one phase of what was hopefully a long and rich and varied life for your parents.

I’m reminded of something I read about Ann Romney a couple of weeks ago. Apparently after the last of the Romney’s five sons left home, and I mean something like the day after the last one left home, Ann turned to Mitt Romney and said, “You’ve had your last home-cooked meal.” She was done with cooking, which apparently she had only done because of the kids being at home. How long was she cooking for them, and how much do those kids remember Ann in the kitchen? I bet it was decades, and I bet her cooking is a major part of what her kids remember about their childhood. And yet, it was not really her, that cook, not deep down.

Are there ways in which your parents were the way they were because of that particular phase that they were in when you were young? Did they act a certain way because they were parents, for good or for bad? Realizing that our perspective is possibly just a narrow one can help us to understand and come to terms with the behavior we saw from them, and the behavior that we attribute to them that we see arising in ourselves.

There are many ways in which our genetic or behavioral inheritance brings a smile to our faces or peace to our hearts. Those experiences – you like to garden now, just like your mother did, or you read paperback mysteries just like your father did, or your hands are starting to look their theirs, or you sat down and had a serious talk with your kids in just the way they used to, and they hated it just as much as you did – those experiences are heartwarming and they not only connect you with your parents in a new way, but they connect you with humankind, and something timeless and right and inevitable about humanity, in a way that is deep and can be sustaining.

We Unitarian Universalists are always looking for signs of the sacred, the universal and eternal, and the way in which the smallest and silliest of traits get passed along the generations, not only from parents to children, but across to uncles and skipping over to grandchildren and there it is in those nieces, is surely a sacred thing. That kind of holy perpetuation of family traits is a joy to behold. A joy.

And, there is another side to “becoming one’s parents” that has a bit more emotional weight. This side ranges in feeling from an “uh oh” to a true concern to an outright fear, and reasonably so. Parents usually love their kids. They often try to do the right thing. But those efforts always fall short some of the time, and can fall short all the time, or be invisible, or be absent. Sometimes our becoming like our parents seems dangerous. Sometimes it is dangerous.

A cleaned-up poem by Philip Larkin touches on this in some ways: [Read it at]

We have a song to go with this part, too…

Ungrateful One

Let’s pause here a moment, because there are people in this room who grew up with parents who were cold or distracted or mean or abusive, and if that’s the case for you, take a deep breath and feel the love of this community for you, and our pride in how far you’ve come despite those experiences. You are more than that now.
Do we have to become like our parents? Isn’t that really the question that everyone asks at some point, or at all the points in their lives?

The interview with James Wood suggests that once we come to terms with how much our parents are inside of us, we have the opportunity to do some choosing. “These are the pieces I like, these aren’t working for anyone, so I’m going to let those go.”

There is a saying, a little harsher than I like, that goes, “For what you are, shame on your parents, but if you stay that way, shame on you.” The social worker on the interview show, Vanessa Jackson, says that as we age, we have the option of thinking about what we value, and we can transform the stuff that doesn’t work, whether it doesn’t work in general or doesn’t work for us. Parents will keep emerging out of us, but we have choices too. She recommends that we make peace with it, and find the gift, or the opportunity to learn, within it. Sometimes we may need some help in order to do that, to learn from it, but do it, we can.

The best summation comes right from what C.B. wrote to me as he sent me ideas and resources, and with his permission, I’ll quote it right back to all of you. “[G]ood or bad,” he wrote, “we've got to balance the notion that we can't get out from under our parents' shadow, with the need to be our own selves. So you embrace the contradiction, and though you recognize the parts of you that are your parents (and their parents, and their parents, et cetera), you realize that you own those parts now, and it's up to you to shape them into what you want and live them for yourself - just as your own kids start seeing you in themselves.”

The world is not ending when you start seeing your parents appear in the way you are, say Vanessa Jackson, and C.B. It’s a way in which lineage and fate and biology and happy accident, all the forces of the universe, line up to reveal themselves in you, and offer you the chance, the choice and the freedom to take all that material you were given and to do something quite new with it.

Kahlil Gibran once wrote that “[y]our children are not your children; they are sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.” [Gibran, Kahlil. The Prophet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, 1923, p. 17.]

Life longs to be, to exist, and life is expressing itself in you, for now at least.
The sacred workings of the universe have brought you into being. The particularity that is you has emerged from all the things that have come before.

What will you do to further the wild and creative ride that every thing in this world has been hurtling on since the beginning of time? What new thing, made from all the old, will you be bringing to the rest of us, no matter what your parents taught you?

It might be time to find out.