Psychologists would say that we naturally identify with our parents, either modeling ourselves on them or establishing independent identities by choosing the opposite path.
The perfect example of conscious rejection is the 1980’s TV series, Family Ties, starring Michael J. Fox as the hyper-conservative son who mocks the liberal values of his baby boomer (and former hippie) parents in favor of Reaganomics and unapologetic materialism.
A good example from real life can be seen in the excellent documentary on painter Alice Neel, made by her grandson, Andrew Neel. In the film, Neel’s two sons complain bitterly of their unstable, bohemian childhoods, which they reacted to by choosing structured careers, one becoming a radiologist and the other a politically right-wing lawyer. It is startling to see their portraits as unhappy young boys, while hearing their and their mother’s accounts of their chaotic home life and witnessing the straight identities they’ve managed to create for themselves.
The identification with our parents can overcome our strongest efforts to reject what we didn’t like about them. I’m sure I am not the only mother to hear myself saying words to my children that I hated hearing as a child and swore never to repeat, to feel my mouth set in the precise expression of disapproval that I loathed seeing as a child.
Often we consciously chose one trait to reject while replicating our parents unconsciously in much bigger ways. When I took up cooking with a vengeance and rejected golf and bridge, I thought I was carving out a new identity that would distinguish me utterly from my mother, an avid golfer and card-player who never crossed the threshold of a kitchen. Meanwhile, my husband and I found ourselves dividing our time between weekdays in the city and weekends in the country, traveling compulsively, and establishing a jammed-packed life that I have to admit, if I am being honest, resembles that of my parents in every way but the smallest details. My son has mentioned that his efforts to leave some of our less desirable traits behind also seems to be failing. “You know how I always hated your need to make a big deal about every meal?” he said, recently. “I have a bad feeling about that one.”