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Horoscope Genetics

So A Half Baked Life had a fascinating post about the idea of seeing yourself in your parents or children; not physically, but the traits that we pass one another.  In some ways, I am very much like my parents, and we’ve often jokingly called the ChickieNob mini-Mel because we are very similar in temperament, comportment, and interests.  There are times when Josh will say that he was exactly like the Wolvog when he was the Wolvog’s age.

But sometimes personality trait heredity feels akin to horoscopes in the newspaper which are written just specific enough that the reader thinks, “holy shit, how did it know?” and just vague enough that they apply to everyone.

For instance, this was my horoscope yesterday:

A study of a philosophical or metaphysical concept or perhaps an ancient or foreign culture could take up a lot of your time today, Gemini. Your mind is especially sharp and penetrating now, so you should notice more, learn more quickly, and retain more of what you read. The only downsides are possible eyestrain and a buzzing mind. Take a walk before you go to bed.

Just to cover all bases, it mentions philosophy, metaphysics, or an ancient culture.  Chances are that yes, I popped on Pinterest and saw some quote that stuck with me that I could bend myself into believing was philosophical.  Or maybe I spent time with someone dying and I wondered about the afterlife, hence occupying myself with the metaphysical.  And seriously, eating sushi could technically count as partaking in a foreign culture.  And then the rest of the horoscope pretty much tells me that it’s a good time to learn… as if it’s ever a bad time to do a lot of thinking.

I’m willing to bet that my horoscope applied to you too even if we’re not the same sign.


Image: Calif4beach

Sometimes I wonder if my traits really came from my parents or were passed along to the twins.  Or if the similar traits are vague enough that they could apply to just about anybody.  I say that I got my worrying from my mother and passed it along to my daughter, but… seriously… who doesn’t worry?  I mean, yes, there is a certain percentage of laidback people who aren’t worriers at all, but a healthy segment of the population lies awake at night worrying about the future and mentally tossing around what ifs.  Did I really inherit that or learn that, or does it just seem that way?  If the options are worrier or not-worrier, then there was a 50/50 chance that I’d be a worrier.  Pretty good odds.

Which is not to say that there aren’t unusual traits that we do pass along or pick up from those around us, quirks that aren’t shared by the vast majority of the population around us.  But it’s hard for me to untangle what I gave them and what we coincidentally share simply due to statistics.

I love A Half Baked Life’s explanation of that re-boiling, that transformation of yourself through observation.  I think it flows both ways, back towards older generations and forward toward the ones we’re creating.  I loved the New York Times article yesterday about the importance of family stories.  Of having access to your family’s history.  The article talks about a psychologist who developed a way to measure how deeply connected a child was to their family’s story.

They developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.

Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

Maybe that is what I’m seeing more than the passing of actual traits.  It’s the replaying of a story that has happened before me, and that I’m still retelling to my children.  We hear about our ancestors and we model ourselves after them in order to prove that we belong, that we’re part of this larger whole.  I come from this long of strong-willed women, but I don’t really know if I inherited this strong-will, or if I created this strong-will in order to mirror the women I saw before me, to give them proof that I belonged to them.

We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to feel cushioned by it, protected by it.  Aren’t we all just striving to understand where we came from — in both the immediate sense of our families and the larger sense of the world as a whole?  There is something comforting about seeing the traits of my grandmother playing out in my daughter, in seeing that spark that I miss now that she’s gone.  I know that the Wolvog’s neatness has been a comfort to everyone on Josh’s side of the family as they miss his grandfather, who also was known for his impeccable tidiness.  What if we created those traits in them just because we missed those people; so we could feel connected to them?  What if the twins picked up subconsciously on subtle hints and we molded their behaviour so they deliver exactly what we hope to see?

Or maybe it’s all just so vague, like genetic horoscopes.  We tell the Wolvog that he got his neatness from his paternal great-grandfather and his kindheartedness and sensitivity from his maternal great-grandfather, but really, isn’t neatness one of those 50/50 things?  Kindness?  I wanted him to be like those two men because they were mensches, but what if we just subtly shaped his menschkeit so he would emerge like those two men?  And truly, we’re not talking about unusual quirks — neatness, sensitivity — again, wasn’t he just as likely to be that way even if he hadn’t been born into this family with those two men as his ancestors?

Where our behaviours come from and where will they go is obviously a question that so many of us grapple with in the community, especially within adoption, donor gametes, or if we end up living child-free after infertility, all cases where we don’t see where our genes go, and in some cases, where we may be influencing with nurture someone else’s nature.

I don’t have an answer; I just think it’s something interesting to think about.


1 a { 03.20.13 at 8:50 am }

I do think some things are inherent, and thus must be inherited. I’ve been saying since my daughter was born that she looks like me and acts like her father. I have spent much more time with her than he has (he was working out of state/country for much of her first 5 years), so by rights, she should have learned things the way I’ve taught them to her. But I can see that her mind operates in the same way that my husband’s does. It’s very strange to watch.

On the other hand, there are plenty of things that you can teach your child that seem very familial. Two of my nieces are from China, but we still say that they are (at least cosmically) part of our genetic family tree based on the character traits that they have. They act like my sister or like me or like one of their other aunts.

It is definitely something interesting to think about!

2 Katie { 03.20.13 at 9:40 am }

I see a lot of my mom in me. But I also see a lot of me in my daughter, already – even though she’s not biologically mine. I see my persistence and her temper, my love for certain foods and music. I think it’s a combination of genes and habits that shape our personalities.

3 Valery Valentina { 03.20.13 at 9:55 am }

Ah yes, the traits and horoscopes. I’m pondering, if a child has a trait that doesn’t run in the family, wouldn’t we call it a talent? because then it is “special” (if it is something positive)
as a new DE mom I’ll try to not wonder about genetics every five minutes…
So thank you for writing this post and doing the “Do you know” write up. It fits neatly with my belief that knowledge is power, and also explains why I am so very happy about my daughter sleeping in a crib that 4 generations of (great/great/grand) mothers before her slept in.
Ah, and it also shines a light on naming children after family members: it ties them into the family as well…

4 Peg { 03.20.13 at 1:07 pm }

We actually talk about his a lot in our house. The girls push everyone to mark their territory and claim traits from whatever family they think it comes from. The girls often go out of their way to disparage my family and claim all of their good traits come from their dad’s family. I often look at Damon (11) and think this must be like seeing Kieran when he was a boy since they are so much alike. He does have my eyes though 🙂 I think alot of it goes down to the whole nurture / nature thing. Some things are genetic…some things are just who you are based on your life experience. Sometimes Molly looks so much like her mom it makes me smile…then again, I often look at the mirror and think the same thing.

Great post, very thought provoking 🙂

5 loribeth { 03.20.13 at 1:23 pm }

I loved Justine’s post and I love this, and I LOVED that NYTimes article — shared it on Facebook and with our family’s FB group. I love genealogy & family history, and I know sometimes people sort of roll their eyes and wonder why I’m chasing down details about dead people from hundreds of years ago — like, who cares? 😉 From now on, I am going to point to that article and say “THIS is why I do it, and this is why it’s important.” Even if I don’t have any children myself, I can still help find and preserve those stories for the other members of my family’s next generation. Others may be sprouting new branches on the tree; I’m restoring old branches that had fallen away & been forgotten. I’m still helping to expand the family tree, just in a different way. 😉

I can see certain similarities (physical and otherwise) between myself and various relatives… but I am so curious as to how those traits evolved and were carried through the family. Did my great-grandfather keep a careful ledger of his earnings and expenses — as my uncle did with his lawn mowing money as a boy, and as I did with my babysitting money at approximately the same age? Did my great-great grandmother repeatedly wipe the kitchen countertop as she chatted with her guests — as my mother does, and as I now find myself doing, in spite of myself? I may never know those fine details… but it’s fun to wonder and to try to find out as much as possible about them.

6 Lori Lavender Luz { 03.20.13 at 7:02 pm }

This may be one reason why some adoptees struggle. When bloodlines and storylines come from the different groups of people, maybe some feel an incongruency. Like they SHOULD be something but aren’t.

This will take some thought. Off to read the NYT article and Justine’s post, which have been waiting for me to read for 2 days now.

7 St. Elsewhere { 03.21.13 at 1:25 am }

I loved your post. Also thanks for directing me to the post that inspired you and the NY Times Article.

My girl is a blend of DH and me. She looks like him, and behaves like me. And sometimes, she looks like me and acts like me. I have my father’s face, and my mother’s interests.

My mother is hugely anti-booze. When I first had my intentional tipple, I was surprised that I did not hate it that much. I was once told by someone in the family – “You have alcohol in your blood.” Stories tumbled out.

Family History has more impact than one can take in a single-dimensional view.

8 Tiara { 03.21.13 at 7:31 am }

It is very interesting to think about. I see so much of myself in my daughter & I know I am becoming more like my mother. My worry currently is that I see myself picking up traits of my mom’s that I don’t like & don’t want to have & I definitely see traits of mine in Elena that I wish she wouldn’t get. & because Elena is so very much like me, I also wonder how much she might be like her donor? Is this because I am her only influence? If I had her with a husband, would she be a mix of both of us since we’d both be there to influence her? Very interesting stuff.

9 Justine { 03.21.13 at 1:18 pm }

Love the idea of situating ourselves, rooting ourselves through storytelling. I read that NYT article and thought “HUH, well, that explains a lot about me” because we never really heard much about my family on either side … not my dad (who had 8 brothers and sisters in Spain and Guatemala and Puerto Rico, whom I met only a few times), and not my mom (whose parents both died when she was young, whose one brother was an estranged alcoholic, and whose other brother moved to Texas and became incommunicative when I was still young).

But to your point: I suspect that it *is* a lot like horoscopes, that we see what we want to see. Still, we see them. And maybe it’s like that saying about seeing in others the things you don’t like about yourself …

Whatever it is, I don’t think it’s genetic. Sort of like dogs who resemble their owners (which so many of them seem to do to me). Whether we created those traits in them because we subconsciously wanted them, or they developed them themselves because they wanted to belong (and picked up on them by modeling us), I am sure that there is storytelling involved.

For me, for now, anyway, what become even more important than how they got that way or whether they even ARE as “that way” as I see them (which, you’re right, is debatable) is what it’s meant for me, for my own observation and self-recognition. And helping them to become the best people they can be, regardless of my own perceived shortcomings. 😉

10 Ana { 03.21.13 at 2:54 pm }

such an interesting take on this universal phenomenon of seeing family traits carried on in the generations before & after us. I’m sure there is some conscious modeling of those traits we admire, but probably also a lot of unconscious adopting of behaviors/interests/mannerisms at a very early age from those we idolize (and really, for a 3-year-old, that is a parent or sibling). I’m trying hard not to label my really young kids as “just like xyz”, because they still have some time to develop their own personalities. Though it is OBVIOUS that 3 year old wants to be just like daddy, and 1 year old wants to be just like little brother, so I suspect in 5 years time, everyone will say “oh look, they have so much of their father in them”.

11 luna { 03.22.13 at 2:23 am }

such interesting things to ponder, especially as a blended family with one child through adoption and one through birth. there are so many aspects of each personality that seem innate while others result from exposure and experience, living together as siblings in our home. it will be interesting to see how our various collective traits intermingle.

12 loribeth { 03.24.13 at 9:48 am }

A response to the original article, which explores what happens when family stories are difficult to tell (and why we should still tell them anyway):


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