Gosh, you look familiar, said the mother to her son

March 28, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

It is a strange sensation, to gaze into the gene pool and see your own reflection.

To look at your child's face and see your own eyes looking back at you, to catch a glimpse of him and see a gesture that is eerily familiar. To listen to him talk and hear your own feelings played back for you. To watch your child live out his young life and feel like you are watching yourself relive yours, helpless to pass on to him at 10 the lessons you learned at 30.

It isn't fair, really, that childbirth should produce a carbon copy. We were taught in high school biology that when sperm meets egg, the genes of the parents are tossed around like the white balls in a lottery machine. The child that results is like a dinner of leftovers: a little of everything. His ears, her nose. His love of drawing, her love of books. Grandma's love of pickles and Grandpa's distaste for tomatoes show up in the mix, too.

What one-in-a-billion chance is there that one child would get all his genes and another would get all hers?

"I think our genes fought up and down the DNA chain," my husband says as he watches our son propel himself through life powered by my anxieties. "And your genes won every argument."

He is right. But there is a flip side. The girl child is a Xerox copy of him. Just as I watch my son with dread, knowing the pain he feels at every bend in the road, I trill inside when I see the girl, as smitten with her now as I ever was with her father.

My God, even the sleep patterns of the parents are imprinted on our innocent children. The boy wakes like flipping a switch. The girl is dragged to consciousness like a bucket from the bottom of a deep, dark well.

We are not alone in this. "One is my kindred spirit," a friend says of her children. "With the other, it is like falling in love all over again."

This genetic imprinting is slightly different for another friend, who sees in her son all of his father, including those qualities she would rather not see in duplicate.

"He is his father's son. It is like I had nothing to say about him. But I find myself irritated at the same things in him that bother me about his father. I adjusted to those personality traits in his father, because I guess I had to. Now I've got them all over again in a child. Now it is like I am raising my husband," she says.

"Then I feel bad about myself. I love the father, why can't I love the son?"

That ambivalence. Sprinkle a child with a confetti of genes from both parents and it might not be there.

"All my worst traits are amplified in her," another friend says of her daughter. "She is so like me, I want to wring her neck. She is bossy, opinionated, controlling. And she doesn't have any of the controls I have. At least I don't say every single thing I think."

And, as if her personality split itself in two, like Captain Kirk in an old "Star Trek" episode, her son carries all her weaknesses with him.

"My shyness in new situations, my lack of assertiveness, my hanging back when I am new," she says, describing the boy. "It is so frustrating, I know the road he is going to walk. I know how difficult things are going to be for him."

That is the hardest part, I think. Once through life is enough for most of us. If given a choice, none of us would live it again, and the pain is the reason. Watching our miniature selves endure the same bad moments life held for us is too much to ask of loving parents.

But children change like holograms: they look different with every angle of light. They emerge a slightly different person from each new birthday, each tough moment on the playground.

"He is still an echo of my feelings," says a friend of her oldest son, the one she tried to teach at 2 to put aside the fears she did not release until she was 25. "But he is starting to move out of it. I was wrong when he was young. I tried to push him out of it. That was silly."

There is divine retribution in this genetic game. My sister, youngest of four and, growing up, surliest by a wide margin, now has a daughter who is every bit as hard to get along with as she ever was. My sister's daughter came complete with the "just try to make me" look on her face that was frozen on her mother's throughout our childhood.

The sweet baby girl my sister bore has grown up to be the incarnation of the curse my mother lashed her with more than once -- that all our mothers threatened us with: "I hope you have a child just like you."

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