It’s hard not to worry about passing unappealing traits on to our children. I think about this problem more than most people.
Starting when the kids were little I talked openly about our family history of addiction. It seemed only fair to give them a heads up that drinking into old age is a bad move, and that they were especially prone to it as children of an alcoholic.
During one pep talk, Tyler beat me to the punch. She leaned in confidentially and asked, “Like your Grandpa Ernie’s breakfast screwdriver?” I was both pleased and concerned at this.
I felt impressed that she had managed to stay awake during these lectures, and that she learned that her mother was not the only family member with unstable traits. But I was a tad concerned that she knew about morning drinkers as a seven-year old.
As I pointed to my own history, I wandered into philosophy at times.
“The part of my brain that should have sent a signal saying things aren’t working well wasn’t working well. It took a little time off,” I told her.
“You mean many years?” Tyler asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “When you are an adult time goes faster.”
I know for a fact that the message sunk in, since Tyler brought it up the next day in school.
Tyler was in first grade at the time and we sat together in her teacher conference. These were good experiences in general because she turned in every assignment plus extra credit. That day Tyler brought copies of her work, just in case anything was missing.
The teacher was young, kind and very earnest. The windows were open for early summer and a breeze filtered in as we spoke. In the distance two boys shrieked and I wondered what the kids were screaming about. We sat in tiny chairs under a sign that read: Mistakes are proof that you are trying. I was proud to think about how much trying my life showed.
We started with small talk. The teacher asked how the family was doing.
“Noah is a good toddler – VERY verbal. Jackson is another story. He jumps off the couch constantly and annoys my mom,” Tyler announced. “And I’m pretty sure Porter won’t be an alcoholic like everyone else. He’ll never drive so it will be hard to get to the liquor store.”
The teacher was silent, clearly confused.
I may have panted anxiously at this point. I know I fidgeted.
Then I forced a happy face and smiled manically. I raised my hand, then put it down because no one was high-fiving me for this. I was mainly thankful that she didn’t call the cops.
The downside of practicing openness with young children is that it leads to sharing things that can be uncomfortable. People may cringe and try to ignore it, like when someone sends an inappropriate email company-wide.
Now that Porter is 23, I am happy to say that Tyler is right: No addiction for Porter, which is yet another check in the plus column for him. He has picked up a variation of my genes though.
Around the age of 9 Porter started carrying a water bottle everywhere he went, but not in the way most school children fill up their own container with ice water in the morning. That would be so normal!
Porter found a Fiji container and carried it constantly. He brought it to the playground, and on the school bus, and slept with it at night. The habit progressed. Ramona called one day to tell me something new.
“Porter has started hiding bottles around the house,” she told me.
“At least he comes by that naturally,” I said. Ramona knows my history, and she laughed.
The extent of his habit became crystal clear on our recent trip to the hospital. Porter had a bout of pneumonia brought on by aspiration during a seizure. I got the call I hate: “He’s in an ambulance on the way to Children’s Hospital. Could you get to the emergency room as fast as possible?”
I raced across town and parked in the ramp, running through the halls on a path I know very well.
By the time I arrived the seizure stopped and the waiting began. He received the routine testing, pulse checks and oxygen, and was admitted when they found his white blood count high.
Ramona and I sat on either side of his bed the next morning, coffee cups in hand, talking across his sleeping form. He was safe and we caught up with each other, discussing life over his bed the way women used to chat across backyard laundry lines.
The doctor came in to check his progress and pulled the sheet back. Wires were attached to his chest and the oxygen monitor flashed with tiny red hearts. All was well.
“Woah!” the doctor said. I looked down and saw the Fiji bottle tucked next to Porter’s naked body. “What’s this?”
It was so surprising on the one hand, and so predictable on the other.
I started to explain, then stopped. Mona gave me a knowing look.
Porter, my special son, has taken the family trait and transformed it into something better.
Tyler, his older sister, has learned that we can talk about issues instead of burying them.
While evolution is messy, I am thankful for it. This is grace in action: Our children take the hard things we’ve learned and evolve into a better version of us.
To read more from Sarah Bridges, please buy her memoir “A Bad Reaction” (Skyhorse Publishing) available on Amazon.com. For more “Free Range Lives” messages, click and subscribe to the blog. We appreciate your support and your “shares” as we create a community of support and hope.