When we are young, our parents are part of us – just mum and dad. We don’t recognise their otherness until much later. We are so close that we pick up their ideas, their values and even their feelings. We even sense the things they don’t talk about – the things they suppress or disavow in themselves – as a gap or inconsistency in our own mind, which we populate with solipsistic fantasies. In this way, we may come to feel their personal shame as something disappointing in us, the devastation of the loss of their own parent as an overweening concern for our well being or their feelings of guilt as an extreme reaction to our misdemeanours. And if they argue and separate, we may feel from their reactions, that it is somehow all our fault. Through processes of projection and identification, we can come to feel and express the unexpressed themes of their lives as part of ours.
Philip Larkin captured the idea in what is perhaps his most famous poem:
‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.’
Stuff is passed on from generation to generation. We all know high achieving children who continue to bear the burden of their parents frustrated ambition. Or young people determined to escape from the poverty they knew as children. I have known mothers, who, in failing to acknowledge the abuse they suffered from a step-parent, instilled a wariness of men in their daughters. It is even possible that stress related physical illness, like IBS, might be transmitted via such emotional tension though the link could be more explicit, like the unspoken fear of the bowel cancer that killed a grandparent and induced too much concern about bowel habit in a parent. But it’s not all trauma and hardship; a lot of good stuff is passed on as well – the experience of a happy family, a love of nature, a thirst for adventure, the comfort of home, freshly baked bread, football and reading novels.
And even when we don’t know our parents, we experience them as a gap, a hole in our existence. Last week on the radio, I heard a woman, who was adopted as a child and is now 57, describe the birth family that was never talked about as an empty sense of alienation.
But how are children affected by their parents? Is it that they soon learn what behaviour gives their parents pleasure and makes them happy and also what is disapproved of and causes them to feel guilty and ashamed? That is, of course, part of it, but the observations of psychologist, Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) suggests that, rather like the shape of a tree depends on the earliest pattern of growth, the development of a person is also critically dependant on the nature of their attachment with their primary caregiver, usually the mother.
Ainsworth used what she termed her ‘strange situation’ paradigm to observe what happens when a mother leaves her infant with a stranger and returns a short while later. She described three major patterns of attachment.
If the mother is appropriately sensitive and responsive, her infant gets upset when mother leaves, remains somewhat wary of the stranger but is happy when mother returns.
If, on the other hand, mothers are too busy to pay attention to their infant, the infant hardly notices the mother’s departure, accepts the stranger and shows little emotion when mother returns. The inference is that such infants are likely to demonstrate an avoidant and independent pattern of attachment, not socialising but relying on their own preoccupations and play to maintain their equilibrium and may grow up with a pattern of behaviour that is somewhere on the autistic spectrum.
Mothers who lack confidence, may demonstrate a more ambivalent pattern of care, all over their child one moment and cross and rejecting the next. This may engender a more resistant, angry and confused reaction in their infant, who is desperate when mother leaves, remains fractious with the stranger, but is overjoyed when mother returns. This child is likely to grow up needy and insecure, needing lots of attention, but unable to trust it.
Ainsworth’s work provides a model for transmission of affect and character through generations. A parent who lacks confidence and needs too much love from their child is likely to generate similar responses in the child, which may then be passed down to the next generation and so on. Similarly a parent who is too involved in their own stuff may have a child who also develops a way of self regulating early on and doesn’t mix with others. In this way computer games, iPhones and iPads, could be seen as nothing more than coping strategies for children ‘left to their own devices’ for too long.
Could particular cultural stereotypes be explained by cultural trauma? The children of holocaust survivors talk of the emotional unavailability of their parents, the history that could never be talked about, a feeling of collective guilt but also the sense that they were were very special. It is conceivable that their experience might impact on their own parenting and cause similar feelings in their own children. The Jewish mother is a frequent topic of stand-up humour in New York
Boarding schools are hardly concentration camps, but Joy Schaverien has written of how many ‘survivors’ were so self sufficient that they find it difficult to form emotional attachments with their partners or children? This again might engender similar responses in their own children.
One of my patients was very sure of where her problems started. ‘It was at Hougoumont Farm at Waterloo on the afternoon of Sunday, 18th of June, 1815.’ Her ancestor, fighting for the British, was killed by the French. Back in Ireland, his family suffered great hardship. Only two children survived. Then later there was the potato famine, a great great grandfather went to England to find work and died of tuberculosis. And so on. She had traced a trajectory all the way from a stray musket ball in Waterloo to the present day. Her story contained all the ingredients of Anglo-Irish conflict over two centuries.
Models are always simplistic and while the observation of patterns of attachment they may offer some insight, they do not allow for the sheer diversity of human relationships and family contexts.
Mothers should never be blamed for the way their children turn out. This not only ignores her own family history, but it also fails to acknowledge the father’s influence and the family and social environment.
Moreover, babies are not all the same. Mothers often report how some of their babies were so much easier than others. Fractious infants will stress a parent to breaking point and might bring about their own ambivalent attachment. Babies who do not smile are more likely to be ignored.
Finally, most of us only continue to live with our parents for the first twenty years or so of life and both during that time and afterwards, we are exposed to other influences: friends, teachers, lovers, partners, mentors, even celebrities we admire. While our early family experience will always continue to influence the way we are, we adapt and remodel the template through our encounters throughout life. And sometimes, something may happen that is so fundamental that it completely changes the way we think. There is always the opportunity for change, but that too cannot fail to influence our children.