- Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
Generational Patterns and the Ice Cream Truck
My daughter and I were sitting beside the pool playing a card game. My granddaughter was swimming with a newfound friend about her age. Off in the distance, we heard the distinct music of an ice cream truck approaching. We stared at each other as we heard the girls in the pool reacting to the music.
“Oh! It’s an ice cream truck!” the friend exclaimed.
“My mother never buys us ice cream from the ice cream truck,” my granddaughter answered.
I looked at my daughter, “Is that true? You have never brought them ice cream from the ice cream truck?”
It was kind of funny because we knew why, but then it wasn’t funny at all.
When my daughter was about three, we lived in student housing on the college campus where her father attended and I taught. The play yard was fenced and I could watch her from our apartment as she played. I realized I hadn’t seen her for a few minutes and went outside to find her running toward me with a Popsicle in her hand.
“Where did you get the Popsicle?”
“From the ice cream truck!”
I was puzzled about this and my heart was sinking because that would mean she had gone out of the gate. I learned from a neighbor who followed her up the stairs that she had actually gone out of the gate and given the ice cream man a rock from the yard in order pay for her treat. I was horrified and threw her Popsicle in the trash and probably said things I wish I hadn’t.
Our fast moving card game had come to a screeching halt. Suddenly I realized that my response to the incident had been way over the top for a child who only needed to be looked at sideways in order to correct behavior. With the perspective of over two years of therapy, I understood why it had happened.
“You were the age I was when I was abused at the home day care. I was trying to protect you. Even though I didn’t consciously remember what happened, my subconscious was FREAKING OUT!”
“That makes sense Mom. I shouldn’t have gone out of the gate. I really wanted a Popsicle.”
“I know, but it seems to have created a generational pattern. We really need to buy your daughter an ice cream from the ice cream truck.”
Until this moment, neither she nor I had realized that the saga of the ice cream truck was still alive. It wasn’t as if she heard the music and said, “I will never allow my children to go near an ice cream truck.” It would be so easy to recognize and stop the pattern if it showed up so clearly. Instead, it is about the cost, or about not having money, or so many other reasons. Our subconscious defense mechanisms ALWAYS hide the true source of the problem from us. It is only this obvious once the connection is discovered.
Not long after this, a memory surfaced in which my mother was continually pulling me out of situations where I was getting attention. She had done this to me many times before I left home—in very public and humiliating ways. What I didn’t remember was the day she told me if I kept trying to get attention, the bad thing that happened in the day care would happen again.
This memory had so many layers and helped me realize the source of my dysfunctional feelings as I began to share my story and launched my blog. The sense that I was doing this to get attention was debilitating. (What? I can think of a million easier ways to get attention if that was the goal!) Despite the fact I understood my purpose and mission, this subconscious fear of bad things happening if I began to get attention almost derailed me. Once again, I realized the messages we receive as children inform our choices every single day.
In my mother’s attempt to protect me, she made me feel responsible for my own abuse. My inadequate attachment did cause attention-seeking behaviors. In a sense, this had resulted in my abuse, but the one who could not give me the attention I needed then blamed me for the behavior. What a vicious cycle this was.
We are wired to model our own parent’s behaviors. Modeling is how we learn to be human, but our child psyches can’t distinguish between good and bad models—it is the only thing we knew. If it was a positive model this works well, but if it wasn’t it still gets wired into us. Hopefully in the negative situations, as we grow older, we see other examples and do our best to emulate them. To my credit, I tried my very best to not emulate negative models, but under duress, I threw the Popsicle in the trash. I was reenacting my own childhood experiences.
My small daughter was not seeking attention. She wanted a Popsicle and was highly creative in figuring out a way to pay for it—with a rock. I can see the ice cream man chuckling at this small delightful child and handing her the Popsicle. I can see her racing up the stairs to tell me how smart she had been. I can see myself being triggered by my own subconscious memory, thinking she was trying to get attention, and hearing my mother tell me my seeking attention made the bad things happen. I can still feel the raging cloud of emotions I felt that day. My reaction wasn’t the mother I desired to be to this wonderful small human who was so proud of what she had accomplished.
We all have those moments when, if honest, we know we didn’t make the best parenting choice. I firmly believe, in those times, we are usually reverting back to subconsciously embedded parenting models—maybe ones that were not even characteristic of our own parents, but it happened. We don’t learn to be parents out of a void. I sometimes hear people say, “Well I didn’t have an example of how to be a parent, I had to learn it on my own.” That just isn’t how it happens. For good or for bad, we learn to be parents as children and without making healed, conscious, and informed choices, we will be part of a generational pattern.
If I had not been all wound up in my own story the day I threw the Popsicle in the trash, there would have been many other choices. I needed to help her understand it wasn’t safe to go outside the gate. Maybe I should have worked with the other mothers to child proof the gate. Maybe I should have decided I needed to watch her more closely now that she was asserting her independence. I didn’t choose any of these options because of my own story. It wasn’t just my story; it was my mother’s story, and maybe her mother’s story. Now it was my granddaughter’s story too.
Three generations were at the pool when we heard the distinctive music of an ice cream truck. We all had attached meaning to the sound. I had attached fear, my daughter had attached shame, and my granddaughter had attached disappointment and resignation. I left the following day, but the next time the three of us are together and the ice cream truck drives by, we will create a new memory and as she grows older we will teach her to break the patterns we inadvertently passed on from one generation to the next.