Sunday was my mother’s birthday. At least it would have been, if she were still living. She died in 2008 when she was 88 years old. It is strange to be the oldest generation now in the family, something we babyboomers never really anticipated. Maybe no generation expects to get to a time when they are the elders. Not many of us have parents, aunts, or uncles any more, even if we’re from families known for longevity.
When I think of my mother, I am reminded that many theories within the world of mental health look to mothers as the source of our health or illness. I remember my mother-in-law resisting the idea that my husband (her son) would benefit from seeing a therapist. “They all just blame the mother,” she said. And I believe she worried that someone she never met would blame her for her son’s depression. My mother, on the other hand, took that fear and wrapped it around her like a Kevlar jacket, preventing any inkling of contribution to anyone’s unhappiness from penetrating the shell. Once when I asked why she said such mean things about people (she had referred to a family member as a fat cow), she replied, “Because I can, and I like it.” She subscribed to the “every man for himself” theory of child rearing – even if that “man” were a toddler. She was energetic, hard-working, and very capable of being the center of attention. There never was a power struggle she could walk away from. It wasn’t until I was much older and experienced that I realized she was trying to as hard as she could to establish her place in this world. She hated asking for help. In her experience, assistance always came with a package of shame, tied up in many strings. Asking for help meant she had failed. The person providing assistance would always know this, and could use it to maintain superiority over her. Sometimes that person was my father: sometimes it was her father.
I believe it is true that much of our emotional development is influenced by the people who raise us, or abandon us. It is also influenced by our genetic composition, as continued DNA and gene studies show. The general circumstances of the times when we are children affect us, as witnessed by those of us raised by survivors of the Great Depression. Even the trauma of our parents or grandparents can influence the way we view the world and our place in it, as seen in families where there were survivors of the Holocaust, or colonization of the Native American, or veterans of combat.
Families and other communities create a culture that defines normalcy for its children. Only as they explore other worlds, do developing minds and identities see alternatives. The exposure doesn’t require travel. Those other worlds might be found at school, with friend’s families, at the elderly neighbor’s home, in books, movies, and other media. I have always believed that my opportunity to spend extended time with my older cousin’s family allowed me to see a marriage relationship so different from my parents’, that I no longer saw theirs as the “normal,” and could have options in my relationship repertoire. I believe teachers have provided children exposure to adult-child relationships vastly different from parental ones. I have been saddened by the increasing restrictions on teacher-child interactions resulting from reactions to isolated abuse, and to funding driven emphasis on the rote aspects of learning over the social development activities. Today’s children seem to have a group of trainers – school, soccer, piano, gymnastics. I wish there were more adult friends, teachers, and mentors.
I wanted to be a therapist so I could be a mentor, a guide, a helper to persons looking for alternatives to how they were living their emotional life. Feeling better is much more than just changing the path you are on. It is really helpful to have an idea of where you want to go. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat to help her find her way. The cat replies, “Well, that depends on where you want to get to.” Alice responds,” Oh it really doesn’t matter, as long…(as it isn’t here).” The cat’s answer? ” Then it really doesn’t matter which way you go.” Think about what you would like the new place to be. How would you feel? What behaviors would be different? How would your self-talk change? How would your relationships be different? With a therapist you can head toward that new place with support and guidance. Change happens.