Honey, I Broke the Kids


Let’s say you have a child, and if you’re lucky enough that she arrives with all the correct bits and pieces–spleen and fingernails and skeletal system–you feel a little like you’ve won a lottery. Maybe it turns out that the kid needs glasses, or inherited your easily-sunburned skin, but by and large, if you are lucky, your relationship with that child is predicated on the notion you have provided the correct genetic material to create a decent “container” for the person who is learning and growing before your eyes.

Almost immediately this notion can start to fray. When she was about two years old my older daughter fainted for the first time (believe me, nothing is as scary as having your gregarious, energetic child suddenly sheet-white and listless in your arms); after extensive discussion and the sorts of not-too-invasive tests we were willing to do on her, a tentative diagnosis of Vaso-vagal syncope was arrived at: basically, the kid faints under certain circumstances. Oddly enough, so do I. This was the first indication I’d had that, regardless of the possession of a spleen and bones, the genetic material I provided might have been the teensiest bit flawed. Sweetie, couldn’t you have gotten my curly hair instead?

And then, in early adolescence, depression reared its ugly head at different times with each of my daughters. I already knew I had depression and anxiety issues, and I pretty much suspected that my mother and grandfather had too (both were alcoholics; in my mother’s case, at least, I think she was self-medicating for depression). When your beloved child is handed into an ambulance to go off to the psych ward (possibly the most helpless I have ever felt, because I wasn’t allowed to go with her), you think of your family’s history and wonder “did I do this to her?”

A decade later, it turns out that one of my daughters has fibromyalgia, a particularly nasty condition that combines pain and exhaustion with “you don’t look sick” to create a situation where outsiders assume you’re malingering, not making an effort, etc. The girl has stepped up, wrangled with the medical community until she got answers, and a treatment plan, and she’s creating a new normal for herself, and I am deeply proud of her (for this and other reasons, of course). And I look backward wondering if somehow my genes aren’t responsible for this miserable condition that has necessitated her creating that new normal. If only she’d gone for the curly hair…

It’s all about me, except, of course, it isn’t.

A child’s illness–physical or psychiatric–is their illness. They’re in the middle of the experience, feeling the pain or fear. It’s not about me, but like any caregiver of a sick person, I’m in the middle of my own experience of the situation, and I’m going to have feelings. One of those feelings is a sense that I let my kids down by not providing them with better genetic material.

Okay, they got my ability to wrangle a sentence, and their father’s ear for music, and the family sense of humor. Not bad inheritances, and they tell you more about who those g/i/r/l/s/ women are than mere diagnoses. Whatever life, or genetics, throws at them, they will persevere and they will flourish. And maybe my genes have a little to do with that, too.


* It is an article of faith with me that most parents do not get up in the morning thinking “how to screw up the kids today,” although many adult children (myself sometimes included) would argue that it sometimes seems like they do. You bring your own baggage and emotional issues to parenting, and for some parents, the struggle to separate their needs from the needs of their kids–hell, to separate their personalities from those of their children–is one they can’t master. That’s a different blog-post.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Honey, I Broke the Kids — 4 Comments

  1. I am using my lot as an example of Mendelian inheritance. Handily, I am Chinese, brown-eyed ancestors for millennia. I know I have the two dominant brown-eyed genes. My husband is blue-eyed, of Anglo-Finnish extraction, the whitest of white boys. He has the two recessive blue-eyed genes that make his eyes blue. This makes my kids perfect cases. They each must have inherited one dominant brown-eyed gene and one recessive blue. They are, as Mendel would have predicted, brown-eyed, all according to Hoyle.

    My daughter married a blue-eyed man of Irish descent. Her son now gets to roll the dice. He has one recessive blue-eyed gene from his father. It is 50-50, whether he will inherit my daughter’s recessive blue or her dominant brown. At this moment (because in babies it takes a while for the eye color to settle down) he seems to have inherited her dominant brown. He is a brown-eyed little tyke. I have told my daughter she needs to roll the dice again, and see if she can hit the recessive blue.

    • No one in my family history has any color eyes but brown as far as anyone can remember. Yet, a blue recessive gene has hidden there for at least 3 generations–because my kid has blue eyes. Blue came from the other side, but I was still shocked that kid had blue since I figured my side was all brown. Sneaky recessive gene!

  2. I always knew I took after my mum’s side of the family – as a teen I already looked a lot like her. As an adult, there was still a strong resemblance, but my build is even more like mum’s youngest sister, and their mother.
    Now I’m over 50, I’m also developing the same aging-related chronic illnesses and physical problems as my aunt, which my grandmother also had (according to auntie).
    My mom used to jokingly say about my asthma: “Sorry, builder’s error”, and then we’d both laugh “But still a dear, so never mind”. I never minded getting her shorter-lived and less healthy family’s genes, I like being like her, though I was sad she didn’t get to be with us longer.

    My dad who is from long-lived and healthily aging stock seems to regard it more like ms.Robins does, now the aging-related problems are showing up, almost apologising and seeming a bit sad for me for getting the short stick in the genetic lottery. Though I’m glad my sis got his genes (except for getting mom’s migraines) and is likely to live both longer and healthier than I will, I’m still happy to be me and to have taken after our mom. She was my example of a good human being, and getting a chance to live up to that is worth not getting the healthiest genes in the population.

    • The tangle of nature and nurture is hard to parse, and I really do know better than to expect that genetics is destiny (my father and most of his siblings lived into their nineties in pretty good health, but until I get to my nineties in pretty good health, I will not expect that anything is guaranteed). It’s just hard sometimes not to wish I could have scrubbed out all the slightly hinky information before it was passed on to the Young. But then they might not have been the people they are, and the people they are are pretty swell.