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What Your Therapist Really Thinks: ‘Am I Screwing Up My Children?’

Dear Therapist,

Am I screwing up my children?

Seriously Wondering

Dear Seriously Wondering,

Half a century ago, the psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg published a seminal paper on parenting called “The Ghosts in the Nursery.” Using observations from her work with distressed families, Fraiberg described the ways in which our unconscious issues — or ghosts — from our childhoods come unbidden when we become parents. A baby’s cry, a toddler’s hug, a kindergartner’s bid for independence — all of this reawakens dormant memories of how we were loved as children, memories with potential to haunt us like ghosts. We can’t plainly see them, but their presence is palpable. If we felt criticized, unseen, unsupported, controlled, neglected, or traumatized growing up — and we haven’t worked through these feelings as adults — these ghosts will cause us to reenact our pasts and create a pattern of what Fraiberg called intergenerational transmission: Our parents do with us some version of what our grandparents did with them; we, in turn, do with our kids some version of what was done with us.

Often, I’ll hear about these ghosts from adults who come to therapy and tell me about their parents. There’s the patient who grew up sheltered from a web of family secrets, including the identity of her biological father, and who now, in the spirit of “openness,” inappropriately makes her young daughter the holder of her own personal secrets. There’s the father whose bids for affection as a child were rejected and now finds his 5-year-old’s desire for snuggles before bed to be “needy.” There was the mom who felt that her brother was favored by her own mom, and now favors her son over her daughter, unable to see that her issues with her daughter may have more to do with her past than her daughter’s willfulness. I’ve also heard stories of neglect and abuse that made me hug my son more tightly than usual when I came home that night, unable to imagine an adult — specifically, me — doing any of that to him.

And yet.

There will always be an “and yet.”

I have made what I’ll euphemistically call “insensitive remarks” to my son that I deeply regret.  I have raised my voice too many times to count.  At times, when I’m stressed or exhausted or at my limit, it takes everything in me to take a deep breath so that I can be the kind of parent who doesn’t scare the bejesus out of my child.  But I’m telling you, sometimes it’s been close.  And because it’s been close, I get it all too well.  I’ll bet every parent, if caught at the wrong moment, gets it all too well.  Fortunately for most parents, those moments are few and far between, but what if every day was like that?  What if you never worked through your pain so as to not inflict it on others; what if you never had the opportunity to understand those “ghosts in the nursery” that Selma Fraiberg wrote about being passed through the generations?

I don’t know, Seriously Wondering, what prompted you to ask your question. I don’t know whether a sanctimonious comment from some self-styled perfect mom made you question yourself. I don’t know if you’ve acted in ways that cross a line in your own mind, and you’re stunned to find yourself doing the exact same thing that you swore, as a child, you would never do to your own kids when you grew up and had them.  I don’t know if you’re just a garden-variety helicopter parent who does everything to make your kids’ lives free of bumps and struggles, and you’re just now realizing that it’s time to let them experience some healthy discomfort.

But whatever the reason, the answer is yes.  Yes, you are screwing up your kids.  Because there are just so many ways to do it that’s it’s almost unavoidable.  As the poet Philip Larkin put it:  “They fuck you up, your mum and dad, / They may not mean to, but they do.”

Interestingly, people tend to come to therapy with strong polarized views of their parents, one way or another — love or hate, with no middle ground. For one patient, her parents were “bat-shit crazy.” For another, his parents were “saints.” As therapy progresses, positions become more nuanced, but I’m especially suspicious of saintly parents. Kids try your patience, they constrict your freedom, they drain your bank account, they interfere with your social and professional lives, they get violently ill the second you go on a long-awaited vacation, and they have needs that inevitably come up at the most inconvenient of times. No matter how much you love them, it’s hard to be a saint under these conditions.

Meanwhile, we pay too much attention to their experience, or we don’t pay enough attention to their experience, or we fight with our spouses about whether we’re paying too much or too little attention to their experience. We have narcissistic impulses, nudging them to become more like us and less like themselves. Indeed, the greatest shock many parents have comes with the discovery that our kids are not our clones. They have their own interests, their own personalities, their own quirks, their own priorities, their own goals, their own ways of doing things, and their own ways of being that work for them (if not us). Yes, they also may have inherited or acquired our less desirable traits, which we find “cute” (“She’s so stubborn, just like me”), but they’ll develop their own as well, which we find frustrating (“He just does the minimum to prepare for his tests; I wasn’t like that at all”).

But perhaps the least-talked-about ghost is our envy. Take the case of a parent who came from a household with little money, and who now admonishes her child every time she gets a new pair of shoes or goes on vacation: “You need to be more grateful. Do you realize how lucky you are?” A gift wrapped in a criticism, every time. Or consider the parent who, while visiting prospective colleges with his 11th-grade son, spends the entire tour at the school that he himself dreamed of attending — and from which he was rejected — making negative comments about the tour guide, the curriculum, the dorms, embarrassing his son in front of admissions staff. Then there’s the patient whose sibling was ten years her senior, and who as a grown-up unconsciously creates conflict between her twins because she envies their close relationship.

Often, outside of our awareness, we envy our children’s childhood — the opportunities they have that we didn’t; the emotional stability we have the foresight to provide but didn’t get ourselves; the potential they have with their whole lives ahead of them, a stretch of future that’s now in our past. We envy their youth. We strive to give our children all the things that we didn’t or no longer have, but somehow end up, without even realizing it, resenting them their good fortune.

There’s a term coined by Donald Winnicott, the influential English pediatrician and child psychiatrist: “the good-enough mother” (which applies to any primary caregiver). Winnicott found that being a good-enough parent was sufficient to raise a well-adjusted child. Many people experience pain in childhood, but not all parents transmit that pain to their children. The fact that you’re curious about how you’re doing as a parent, SW, makes me think that you’re like the majority of parents out there — fallible, human, and screwing your kids up a little, but good enough. And the more ghost-busting you can do — by better acquainting yourself with your projections, envy, unresolved pain, and disappointments — the more your ghosts will stay out of your grandchildren’s nurseries one day, too.

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapist@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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‘Am I Screwing Up My Children?’