You sound just like your mother

Is that necessarily such a bad thing?

By Kate Harding
December 19, 2009 1:19AM (UTC)
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My mom had a handy phrase for those moments when she realized she sounded exactly like Grandma: "My mother's in my mouth." As a kid who took everything too literally, I found that image downright frightening, and even now, I still wrinkle my nose involuntarily when I think about it. But I do think about it all too frequently, because every time I catch myself sounding mom-like, that's the inevitable next thought. "Nearly every parent has had that moment at which they open their mouths and sound just like their mother," writes Lisa Belkin at the New York Times' Motherlode blog today -- and my childless self is here to tell you, it's not just parents. But a recent survey commissioned by The Baby Website found that having kids only exacerbates the problem: "Eight out of ten of today's mothers admit they use the very same cliches to discipline their children that they had to endure from their own parents."

At the risk of reading too much into a marketing survey, what I find interesting about the results is that many of the top recycled parental admonishments listed by respondents (which, despite the British inflections, will mostly be familiar to Americans) seem to fly in the face of today's parenting standards -- at least as those are conveyed to the public by today's trend pieces. "Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about" (No. 17) seems an awfully harsh (and, one does hope, hollow) threat at a time when "shouting is the new spanking." "Do as I say, not as I do" (No. 20) seems a dangerous tactic to use in an era when mothers, especially, are judged narcissistic and unfit for such poor role-model behavior as drinking, dating, swearing or thinking about themselves for five minutes. And the number one classic, "Because I said so," contradicts everything the media has taught me about the perils of issuing commands rather than reasoning with small children. If people are really still saying these things to their kids, then I just don't know what to believe about the current generation of parents, which the New York Times has assured me is a "pregnancy-flaunting, soccer-cheering, organic-snack-proffering" one, with mothers who "warn, 'You're making bad choices' when, say, someone doesn't want to brush his teeth." Now you're telling me they actually sound just like the last generation of parents? That means I'll have to formulate a whole new set of smug judgments.


Kidding aside, while I relate to the surprise of realizing you just said something that annoyed the hell out of you when your mother said it twenty years ago (even if I haven't had the experience of annoying my own child that way) it bums me out a bit that it's so often presented as not just shocking, but horrifying. It's always, "Oh my god, I sound exactly like my mother!" not, "Huh, I guess one of Mom's lessons actually sunk in." Sure, some of the sayings could stand to be retired (do kids really find the promise of improved night vision a compelling reason to eat carrots?), but a lot of them have lasted because they're genuine bits of wisdom scaled to a kid's comprehension level. (I mean, would you jump off a cliff if all your friends did?) And moms don't say them because giving birth automatically turns women into short-tempered killjoys, but because they have the thankless job of teaching tiny human beings with "high mobility and no brains" (that's a direct quote from my mother) right from wrong, safe from unsafe, and appropriate from inappropriate. No matter what the current parenting wisdom is when you have kids -- and no matter how much technology and the cultural landscape have changed -- that task poses the same basic challenges generation after generation.

I may never say, "My mother's in my mouth" -- because, ew -- but nine years after my mom's death, I find it far more comforting than irritating to realize how much she's still there in my mind. Acknowledging that you're just like your mother is always presented as a depressing moment in a woman's life, but couldn't it be that some of us turn out like our moms because deep down, we think they did a pretty good job? Deep down, we might even think they're good people to emulate? If I ever have kids, I'm sure I'll do a lot of things differently than my parents did, but I'll tell you this much: If one of them wants an air rifle for Christmas, I already know what my response will be (No. 4).



Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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