Why Do We Inherit the Worst Traits of Our Parents?

POV

Why Do We Inherit the Worst Traits of Our Parents?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

W

hen I was growing up, I was a lot like Christine in Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird. I wanted to get out of my dead-end hometown with the urgency of someone who was living life on the clock. I’d harbour and nurture strange, fanciful aspirations without bothering to reflect on whether I was equipped to realise any of them. And I was ambivalent about who I really wanted to be, conveniently masking my needless rebellion as an attempt to truly find myself. But just like Ladybird, I was unwavering about one thing: I wanted to grow up to be nothing like my parents.

At family gatherings when relatives would pinpoint that I was as introverted as my father or deduce that I must have gotten my obsession with clothes from my mother, I’d laugh it off. Instead, I’d focus on the differences: My mother’s aversion to reading compared to my packed bookshelf. Her melodious voice as compared to my tone-deafness. My father’s love for fish and my tepidness towards it. Or his inability to stay awake beyond 10 pm. I’d use these discrepancies to corroborate that my personality – and by extension, my identity – was distinct from that of my parents. That any genetic rite of passage couldn’t mould my inherent reflexes. And that any trait overlap was merely incidental.

Now that I look back, it seems like a trifling thing for a teenager to be consumed by. But back then, it dictated how I viewed myself. I suppose, most of us spend so many of our waking hours trying to fit in and simultaneously stand out, that we deem it necessary to be in absolute control of our distinctive identities. And we naively assume that the only way to win this inexplicable race to be our own person is if we divorce ourselves from the personalities of our parents. I sure did.

Today, there’s another thing I’m sure about: Even when I become the person my parents could never be, I’ll still end up preserving a bit of them.

So when my eyes showed the first signs of trouble that ended in a trip at the neighbourhood ophthalmologist at the age of 10, I was just bothered by my imperfect vision. Even though, just like my father, I couldn’t read a book that was in front of me without squinting my eyes or make out any word scribbled at a distance. And exactly like him, even my vision declined to warm up to the convenience of contact lenses in the ensuing years; ensuring that I’d count out my life in lost spectacles.

I don’t remember a time when my father didn’t wear glasses. Or a single moment when his utter dependence on reading glasses didn’t irk me. I was perpetually annoyed by him for abruptly cutting innumerable family outings short by misplacing his glasses and sending the rest of us into a frenzy. I was never fond of the chronic visits to the opticians whenever he’d lose yet another pair. And I’d promptly read his perennial reluctance to switch to lenses as a mark of stubbornness.

And yet, over time, these very traits that I disliked about him slowly became my own: My imperfect vision dominates every aspect of my existence; I’ve been to more opticians than on dates; and I’ve ended up losing three pairs of glasses in a span of one month.

In an episode of Modern Family, Claire, a multitasker mom who makes a habit of going to any lengths to prove that she is right, realises that her annoying trademark trait was after all a hand-me-down from her own father. The realisation of unoriginality confounds her. But what engulfs her more is that feeling of belonging that only a parent’s shadow can offer.

What we inherit from our parents is rarely ever tangible. Unlike what we assume, it’s not always things that we can hold on to; or things that serve as reminders of the life they painstakingly built. Like the home my parents bought after years of renting a modest government quarters or the money – scattered in bank accounts, fixed deposits, investments, and insurances – that is a testament to the three decades of my father’s professional perseverance. What our parents pass down to us, always runs deeper and it’s not always the things we admire about them. In my case, it’s every trait of theirs that I didn’t make an effort to understand or tolerate.

Like Claire, I have my own collection of hand-me-downs: I have inherited my mother’s temper, my father’s carelessness. I overreact like her. And shut down like him. My mother’s lent me her infuriating trait of always wanting to have the last word and my father’s tried to balance it out by letting me have some of his laziness. On any other day, I’d be horrified about these flaws – of turning into my mother or becoming my father’s daughter.

In fact, I’ve spent a large part of my life criticising and fighting these very traits that I now wear on my sleeve. But ever since I’ve moved out and plunged into a life that I had to build from scratch, I realised asserting my independence didn’t have to come at the cost of alienating my parents. As I grow older, I don’t view these inadequacies as a liability – something that needs to be changed or overcome. In me or them. Instead I now see these shared flaws as the bridge that connects me to my parents. That makes me understand them and be kinder to the lives they led. And isn’t that what an inheritance is supposed to do anyway?

Today, there’s another thing I’m sure about: Even when I become the person my parents are not, I’ll still end up preserving a bit of them.

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