My 15-month-old son Mr. F has taken to touching kids' hair as a way of saying hello. Often these soft caresses morph into rough grabs, and then there I am, pulling my well-intentioned and slightly confused son off, apologizing like mad to the other kid's parent. Some say, "Don't apologize--it's not your fault."
But it's hard not to feel like he's a reflection of me, and so I make excuses for his irrational baby behavior--the clinginess ("usually he loves exploring, but...") and temper tantrums ("teething has him all agro")--as if I'm the one responsible for it.
See, for years I taught middle school, and from my perch in the classroom I thought that nurture trumped nature, that with the right guidance and support any child's personality could be shaped and molded. I would hear things like, "But Mr. Gresko, she's never enjoyed reading," and I'd tell those disgruntled parents if life gives you lemons, make lemonade--heap on the encouragement and try harder! Sure, the child him or herself was the most important factor in the transformation, but the teacher and parents were not powerless.
Now, as a parent, I'm not so sure how much agency I actually have. Mr. F's come out with a personality that's all his own, of which I've had no active part in creating.
I am actually a good case study in this regard, having been brought up by a man who is not my biological father. Upon meeting the man I call Dad, friends notice how alike we are--our sparkly eyes, our social liveliness, our funny stories. My dad and I share mannerisms and idioms. People often ask if I'm Italian, and culturally he raised me as such, though genetically there's nada. This makes sense, given the role my dad played in nurturing me as I grew.
Once my son was born, I wondered about nature, that big question mark of my genetic makeup. So I tracked down my biological father, and we sat down together for the first time a couple of weeks ago.
The night before, my jittery Bio-dad called to check in with me. "You shining your shoes?" he asked. "Getting ready for the big event?"
Shining my shoes, no. But I had picked out a fun shirt to wear, a linen button-up with a vibrant, yellow pattern. I wore it with the top three buttons undone, "Miami Vice" style. Bio-dad also turned up wearing a yellow button-up, similarly open at the collar. Besides both loving to showcase our thick mat of chest hair, we share the same laugh, as well as a penchant for cracking dirty jokes at inappropriate times, especially when nervous. He let off a constant run of zingers when we first sat down together.
As we shared details about our lives, he said, "You're independent, like me," and it's true, I am.
Though maybe not quite as wild. I've only kidded about being a teenage father, while this guy was one. Still, I recognized parts of him in me.
Exactly how much of my personality comes from genetics and how much from environment is something I'll never know, but obviously some comes from each direction and they've blended into something unique. Bio-dad's overindulgence in food, drink and life in general have perhaps (hopefully) been tempered by my dad's healthier habits and more disciplined willpower. Though perhaps I have Bio-dad's adventurous streak to blame for my frequent career changes and reevaluations, something my more stable Dad doesn't always understand.
The question then becomes, what amount of power do I have to affect change in my son's personality?
Now, when he's not yet verbal and often operates from a primal, emotional state, it doesn't feel like I can do much except be patient. And stop apologizing for him. Because while I may not accept his behavior, what's coming out in this early stage is not a reflection of me in any way I can control. Mr. F represents me on a genetic level, not the conscious me I chose him to be.
Once again I find that parenting is about ceding control. Control over whether or not I can always keep this little guy safe, or affect behavior that might just be hardwired. Some of that crazy aunt or neurotic in-law might have made their way into Mr. F. All I can do is love him for his quirks, and hope that, with enough love and positive encouragement, everything will turn out alright.