“As we age, we become our parents; live long enough and we see faces repeat in time.”
― Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
"You sound just like your mom!"
"You're as impatient as your father!"
"Your son is a carbon copy of you, right?"
We grow up with these statements, and the older we get, the more we notice the similarities ourselves. With time it's not just genetics, but our idiosyncrasies, quirks, and everyday habits that mimic the adults we grow up around. As I chew the back of my pen, 'just like my dad,' and overthink this, 'just like my mom,' I can't help but ask myself – How much of 'I' is just me?
So to indulge myself, and today’s constant need for ‘discovering ourselves,’ I turn to books for an answer. To this, there are many words of wisdom and long debates that first convinced me that I am entirely separate from my parents, and then that I am undeniably their ‘product,’ leading me finally, away from written pages to real people and families.
Subramaniam and his son, Srishwetheshwar, better known as Sri, declare that they're very different people (in almost exactly the same way). Sri gives it some thought before admitting, "I personally like to believe that I am my own person."
Is Sri right?
We explored the relationships between grandparents, parents, and children from three different families, seeking an answer to the timeless question - are we really our own person? Or are we just a rebooted version of our parents?
On a visit to Madurai, we meet Ganeshwari, and her daughter, Saranya, who talk to us about their journey as single mothers.
"Did you plan to have a child?" Saranya, who is now raising her daughter, Meenakshi, answered immediately. "It wasn't a planned decision. It happened with the flow of life. When Meenakshi came into my life, it made me prepare myself psychologically and financially to raise her. I never panicked. I usually hear people say that it's better to settle in life and then have a child, but I feel that it's good to have a child at the right age. You will always provide for your child to fulfill their needs, whether you have a kid now or ten years later – so why wait."
The idea of providing for your children, for them to have more than what you did, or to be better than you were, is a common link amongst all parents. Sri's father, Subramaniam, tells us how his father hardly spent much time with him growing up. A fisherman with seven children, Sri's grandfather barely had time to spare for his kids. Vowing not to repeat his father's errors in parenthood, Subramaniam gave Sri everything he wanted, including relocating from Dubai to Bengaluru for him.
On the other hand, Saranya looks to her childhood for inspiration and guidance as she raises her daughter, Meenakshi. Admiring her mother’s confidence as a single parent, she hopes to do the same today.
In Coimbatore, Nancy is determined that her daughter, Bernie, should never experience any financial shortcomings because she knows how hard such a life can be. Nancy's mother, Suganthi, also confides to us about Nancy's childhood. "She was very self-conscious, just like me. I wanted her to overcome this. Now, she is grown up and is appreciated everywhere, even by her colleagues." Suganthi tells us proudly.
The relationship between parent and child is intricate and fragile. Children are malleable and stubborn, and the impact that parents leave is like footprints in wet cement. The cement hardens, the child becomes an adult. The adult has their child. In this cycle, we step on and follow those footsteps that brought us joy, intentionally avoiding the ones we consider mistakes or hardships. These are things our parents may have done that we will never repeat with our children. There are mistakes we will make that our children wouldn't make with theirs. There are also things that we pass on to the next generation that are entirely out of our control.
"She has my eyes, my facial features, and even my body structure. She completely resembles me! I see some of my mother's features in her too. For instance, you can see a mole in her eyeball, just like her grandmother." Saranya says, glancing at Meenakshi.
Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker, in an essay, talks about her similarities to her maternal grandmother, “I have inherited this unquiet body of hers, this character, standing too, leaning against a window or door, standing balancing a bowl from which I had eaten and drunk while standing, and I can’t spend a lot of time in one place, and whenever I visit someone, walking in, I say I can’t stay long.”
This isn’t uncommon, or even a surprise. We take this fact of inheriting our family’s way of being with a kind of obviousness. It is as matter-of-fact as the milkman who leaves exactly two packets of milk every morning since the day I was born (one orange and one blue) or my way of holding the pen funny, like my cousin in California.
"It is possible that we pick up mannerisms subconsciously, right? But directly if you compare, we are very different." Sri says, looking to his father for confirmation. With their black-rimmed glasses, colorful shirts, and groomed beards, it is impossible to mistake them as anyone other than father and son.
So, where do our parents end, and we begin? It's hard to ignore the fact that, whether we like it or not, our families play an essential role in shaping our identity. They prune out parts of themselves that they dislike and encourage the behavior that makes them proud. Despite this, it is not the only factor that plays a role in forming our personalities.
Five-year-old Bernie swirls in circles behind her as Nancy, now a teacher, talks to us about the importance of a child's initial years. She says, "The first few years of a child's life, it is us parents that teach them everything. This is the time you can show your children right versus wrong, or good from the bad. After that, the experiences of life teach them, not us."
We all know that no two people have the same life experiences. Even in close-knit families, each person's journey is their own. Doesn't that make it a little improbable to claim that we grow up to be 'just like our parents?'
When it comes to life experiences, Sri and Subramaniam, who are from Kerala, also have something to say. Sri's childhood was spent in different countries. Each time they moved, Subramaniam would let Sri find his way around the new city. He learned to take the bus to school, speak different languages and let experience show him the way. Sri grew to love his independence. However, according to his father, he also grew up to resemble his grandfather, Sukumaran, in so many ways.
"They are both very strong-willed and a little selfish. My father would not adjust or suffer for anyone else, and Sri is the same way." Even though they rarely spent time together, Sri's characteristics and personality are so similar to Sukumaran that his father cannot stop teasing him about it!
It is one thing to look like our parents and grandparents, but entirely another to behave like them even without their influence in our lives. Saranya chuckles as she tells us how her mother's infamous temper has passed on, not only to her but to her daughter as well.
As generations of parents, children, and grandkids discuss their traits and genetics, we observe that they share commonalities in spaces they aren't even paying attention to.
A teacher once told my class that we all have certain tools in our life's toolbox. Some tools we are born with, like being short or tall, or having a natural talent for singing, while others we pick up along the way, like education and experience.
Today, I took a deeper look at myself to find that some of the most useful tools in my toolbox are my principles. These are the things that I believe in so strongly; they become my moral compasses.
We all grow up to inherit aspects of our parents' personalities - the way you make tea by boiling milk and water together, the old songs on your Spotify playlist, the clove-flavored toothpaste you once disliked but now pick up at the grocery store, the investment plans that you opt for, the plastic covers you leave on for weeks after buying new furniture, the stories you tell your kids to get them to eat, that tiny bite of jaggery on your tongue before an important interview, and even the food that you cook every day.
These quirks matter, but they can be shed for new ones if our environment changes, or we move in with a life partner who has their own set of quirks and habits. What stays, though, is our principles. Even when choosing a partner, we look for people who believe in the same things. We then pass on these beliefs to our kids together.
However, while I had my Eureka moment of life and its toolboxes, the team was still not convinced. After all, if children absorbed their parents' teachings so easily, our world wouldn't be filled with rebels without a cause.
So, we asked the members of these families to describe their homes in a word or sentence. Irrespective of how similar or poles apart the children grew up to be, grandparents, parents, and kids echoed each other's answers. Their words might have been different, but the concept of what a family meant to each of them remained the same. When it came to parenthood, each family shared the same ideas and values in their respective toolboxes.
Does this mean that we are indeed rebooted versions of our parents?
We don't think so. However, it does mean that we are constantly learning, reviewing, discarding, updating, and passing on values and beliefs to the next generation to ensure that every new generation is slightly better off than the previous one.
For if we tweak our question to ask ourselves - Are we, in our role as parents, rebooted versions of our parents?
We will have to say, probably.
“It is no accident, Ma, that the comma resembles a fetus— that curve of continuation. We were all once inside our mothers, saying with our entire curved and silenced selves, more, more, more. I want to insist that our being alive is beautiful enough to be worthy of replication. And so what? So what if all I ever made of my life was more of it?”
― Ocean Vuong, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
“Can you describe your family in one sentence?”
Suganthi: My family? We are very attached.
Nancy: Family is like a shell. And the people in my family are the pearls inside that shell.
Bernie: I don't like to choose between Amma & Appa!
Sri: Wholesome. Always open and honest with each other.
Ganeshwari & Saranya: Unbelievable!