Mothering deja vu

I must have a tendency to brace myself mentally for certain outcomes. When I was preparing to enter college, I had just graduated high school as valedictorian, with stellar grades and test scores and lots of admiration-worthy activities and awards on my university applications. Even so, I already knew that I would no longer be top dog when I got to school, so I kind of worked to switch over my mindset and expectations from being the big fish in a little pond to just an average fish in a very large pond. It worked, apparently; I didn’t feel a need to be top of the class anymore, and I found I was generally comfortable not having that pressure any longer. I finished up college with about a 3.5 GPA and was pleased with that. I did a few activities and extracurriculars and largely made sure to take plenty of time to have fun and enjoy my time at Brigham Young University, in part because I’d been dreaming of going there my whole life and probably in part because I’d not been able to relax and have fun in high school.

Going into parenting, I think I also steeled myself to NOT have certain expectations. I especially did not want to expect my children to look like me or act like me or have the same interests. (Perhaps my husband is going to snicker at this statement, considering how I spend so much time reading with them, but in my heart of hearts I believe it’s true.) I didn’t want them to feel pressure to be a certain way or to live up to expectations that were not their own dreams and interests.

Having said that, I am now finding myself mildly shocked when I find out that they are doing things I did or expressing interests in some things I was interested in long ago but no longer do much with. This morning gave me two opportunities to reflect on my own earlier years.

One is something odd and not even an interest, just a somewhat strange behavior. My oldest was leaving early this morning to go on a long-weekend trip with her high school band. I didn’t really plan to wake up to see her off, but since I did end up opening my eyes at 5:30 a.m., I drifted downstairs to hug my girl and bid her adieu for a few days during which I know I’ll heartily miss her presence. She was making herself some eggs, as she frequently does (a trait she did not get from me; I rarely ate breakfast foods for my morning meal growing up: I preferred leftovers), and she told me, “It was the strangest thing. I started cooking these eggs last night at 12:20. I thought it was 5:20, so I got up and started getting ready. Then I looked at the clock and realized it was only 12:20. I don’t know if I was sleepwalking or what, but it was weird. This morning I wondered if it had been a dream, but I opened the fridge and saw the eggs, and I knew it was real!” I said, “Did I ever tell you I used to do that same thing?” No. “Well, when I was a freshman, I woke up and did that same thing a few times; I would start getting ready, then eventually look at the clock and it would register in my brain that it was only 3 a.m. and I’d go back to bed. One time I washed my hair before realizing, and since I didn’t have a blow dryer and it was the middle of the night, I tried desperately to get it to dry by lying over the heating vent.” I told her that after a few times of that happening, I started to take a moment when I first woke up to REALLY look at the clock to make sure I noticed the real time. Eventually I stopped doing that.

It was just an odd feeling to have my daughter experience the same strange phenomenon.

Later this morning, at a more reasonable hour of the day, I trooped off to the county office of education building to watch a large group of elementary school students gather to participate in the “Poetry and Prose” performances. It wasn’t a competition, but it felt a bit like one; the children were all put into small groups and sent off to rooms with judges who gave them feedback on their recitations of poems. My fourth-grader decided a few months back that she’d like to be involved, so she’s been working on a poem (Shel Silverstein, of course) to perform. (Unfortunately, I have not been as involved as I would have liked, with everything else I’ve had going on; it’s right up my alley, and I could have been helpful to her. This I regret.) Sitting in that room watching her and about 10 other students perform their poems was eerily deja-vu for me. For four years in high school, I participated in the speech team, going to competitions around the state giving speeches and performing snippets of plays either individually or with a partner. What was unnerving was seeing all the same theatrical affectations I used to sit and watch in one classroom after another, four years in a row, for most weekends from October to March. These kids were younger, but it was the same stuff: unnatural, exaggerated gestures that had been taught them and rehearsed and affected speech rhythms that sound somehow “professional.” Some of the kids were genuinely, naturally talented, and it was fun to watch them. But even some of those kids had been coached too much so they were just a bit unnatural. The judge ate it up. And that reaction just got to me like fingernails on a chalkboard. I hadn’t felt that feeling in 20-plus years and it came back to me in a flash: that annoyance at watching those kinds of too-rehearsed performances. Sure, anything like that has to be practiced over and over to be good, but a really, really talented actor or performer makes it look natural, as if they never thought about what they were doing or how they would be moving or saying things. And here these adults are turning these impressionable young kids into unnatural performers. Argggggghhhh. I honestly wanted to run away screaming and never look back.

But this same daughter has just this week told me she’d love to get into acting, and she confessed a few days ago, “I want to be a STAR.” So if she wants that, I’ll help her. But we’re going to stay away from the people who would introduce the far-too-exaggerated stuff into her repertoire. I think it’s time to start looking forward to next year and talking about how to make things entertaining but natural.

At any rate, it’s not just the fact that my girls have now, against all expectations, done things I’ve done; what’s interesting are my reactions. I was amused and surprised by my oldest’s nocturnal preparations, and at my 9-year-old’s activity I was just viscerally kicked in the gut by memories of how I felt at speech competitions. It’s amazing how memories can be so strong, the emotions attached so vivid, after being buried for decades.

I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised; after all, a decade ago, I did write a whole book about how my little girl was reminding me of moments from my childhood. How life comes full circle still astonishes me, though, and it will again and again while I live it.

Author: Cathy Carmode Lim

I'm a copy editor, writer, and book reviewer with three decades of experience. My book review website is I'm a mom of four and grandma of three.

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