When my son was born two years ago, I was overcome with joy. But there was also a lingering sadness about the very tenuous relationship I had with my own mother, who often forgot to keep milk in the fridge and spent most nights out at parties. Now that I was a mom, the neglect I felt as a child resurfaced, fueling a fear that I might be destined to make the same mistakes.
What I was feeling is called "the ghost in the nursery," say experts. "Becoming a parent evokes memories and emotions from your own childhood," says Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist at Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit educational organization and coauthor of Bringing up Baby. "For better and worse, these feelings influence the way you parent: You may replicate what you experienced growing up or go to the opposite extreme with your own child." Here, experts address four of the most common issues from the past that can affect new parents -- and offer solutions for dealing with them.
Your parents were...too hands-on/too hands-off
If Mom and Dad were quick to negotiate your playground disputes in preschool and eager to write your English essays in college, you may have felt suffocated by the excessive attention. If they had you packing your lunch in kindergarten, you may have felt the opposite: neglected. "In both cases you probably didn't get enough guidance learning how to make decisions," says Gretchen Lovas, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.
Pitfall: being over-involved If your parents were hyper-concerned with your upbringing, you may feel that you can never do enough to encourage your child's development and wind up packing your baby's schedule with playdates and music classes. "This kind of pressure is unnecessary," says Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D., a psychologist and the president of Postpartum Support International. While we all harbor a certain fear that we're not doing as much as the mother down the block, treating your baby's day like a string of learning opportunities won't make him into a better person.
Easy fix: Set time aside every day to get down on the floor with your baby to read and play, work on puzzles, or fiddle with shape sorters. But watch for cues that he's getting overstimulated. All babies are different, says Lovas. "But they do send signals. When they break eye contact, turn their heads, or fuss, they've had enough."
Pitfall: being under-involved If Mom and Dad were too hands-off, you may be unsure of how to spend time with your baby without feeling intrusive. But daily one-on-one interaction with your child helps in teaching motor skills, creative problem solving, and social development. Every time you coo, clap, or smile proudly at your baby's accomplishments, she learns: "I'm loved." And that, says Amy Flynn, the director of The Family Center at The Bank Street College of Education in New York City, is an invaluable lesson.
Easy fix: When your infant is playing with a rattle, practicing standing up, or struggling to roll over, think of what can be called the "just-right" challenge, say experts. "You don't want to sit back and watch her struggle until she cries," says Flynn. "But you don't want to jump in and take over, either." Let her make some progress on her own, and if she starts to get frustrated, give her a hand.
Kyle Spencer is a freelance writer and mother of two in Brooklyn, New York, and author of She's Gone Country.