Monday, April 07, 2008

It's Your Mother's Fault

Moms and psychiatry have a long history.

Freudian psychoanalysts like to talk about moms. "Tell me about your mother." Oh, those Oedipal sexual longings....

Winnecott, who gave us the concepts of the "holding environment" and the "transitional object" talked of the "Good enough mother"-- an imperfect creature who could still raise normal children.

Melanie Klein
gave us the good breast, a way for the infant to internalize dear mama.

Bruno Bettleheim gave us those Refrigerator Mothers who caused their children to be autistic while Theodore Lidz gave us Schizophrenogenic Mothers. Oy.

I could go on and on, if only Roy would let me. While we've moved beyond blaming mothers for autism (now we have vaccines to blame until we name the next culprit-- please don't let it be chocolate), we still believe that mothering is a key ingredient in who a person becomes. Good mothers have good kids, bad kids must have bad mothers. No matter how you dice it, we all believe in cause and effect, and we all can write the script backwards. An entitled, self-centered criminal must have had a mother who spoiled him and didn't set limits. I remember my own mother saying, "When you see a child hitting someone, you know someone is hitting that child at home." (My mother read Dr. Spock, she wasn't a scientist).

It's really easy to write the story backwards, and in fact, as psychiatrists, that's what we do. As a mother (have I mentioned that I have two teenagers?) it's not so easy to write the story forwards. If I do "X" my child will become this type of person and if I do "Y" my child will become that type of person. It doesn't work that way, trust me. If it did, we'd all read the instruction manual and have a perfect world.

So this, I've decided, is the paradox of today's world, now that we are relieved of refrigerator mothers but not bad breasts: There are lots of things that society tells us we need to do for our children to grow them good. Mozart in the womb, and that's where it starts. No drugs, no tobacco, no caffeine, no artificial sweeteners, no alcohol: the perfect internal environment. And once they pop out, there are all sorts of do's and don'ts: what chemicals they inhale, what they watch (pg, pg-13, violence and sex and how long have you been sitting in front of that boob tube, junior?), how they behave, say please and thank you, not those violent video games and what are you watching on U-Tube? Montessori this, Rebounders that, chicken nuggets are good, chicken nuggets are bad, make sure they get enough sleep and not too much MySpace, quality time, licensed day care providers who build self-esteem, car seats and safety gates and all the right influences and none of the wrong. Talk to your kids, the TV says so, the billboards say so, talk to them about sex and drugs and God and country and the earlier the better (--see, I can go on and on).

Then they turn in to teenagers and they figure out that the word "controlling" is extremely pejorative in our culture. What's worse than a Controlling Mother? Even a bad breast doesn't sound so bad. Are you a controlling mother? What do you mean I have to eat vegetables? Or be home when? And that's the paradox.

In the world of teenagers and psychiatrists, it's hard to win as a mom.

You know you've been blogging a long time when....Roy followed me and added links in this post to past blog posts I've written-- I clicked on some of them and realized I don't even remember having written them. How does he? A man who needs a longer ToDo List!


Aqua said...

All I know is I had the absolute best mother anyone could wish for. She was so loving, kind, compassionate, honest, caring, protective, but allowed me freedom...really she was the epitome of what I wish for any child. Yet here I am mentally ill and struggling for years with depression and anxiety.

My father was a different story. I remember in one group therapy session the psychiatrist looking at me and saying, "at least you had the mother you did, can you imagine if you hadn't had one such loving parent.

It's true, I can't even imagine how much more difficult life would have been, or would be, without having had the Mom I did. She passed away two years ago, but I feel like she is with me all the time and think of her many times, everyday.

a psychiatrist who learned from veterans said...

Senator Obama made a nice psychological statement early in his defense of his relationship with Rev. Wright when he said that shame led to blaming others. Theodore Lidz did make a good summary and exposition of the 'double bind' in his book, ? The Person, which I have somewhere on my blog; it has a very nice section on the dying patient. He was not the original author; one paper was in Schizophrenia Bulletin about 1950. One can see the double bind as inculcating shame and also loosening reality testing. The Design Within, which is a collection of psychoanalytic interpretations of Shakespeare previously in peer reviewed journals, is interesting. For me the most awesome was that of 'Othello.' It might me called 'Iago' because Iago has more lines. The interpretaion is that the play is really about the destructive paranoia of Iago related to his shame over his sexual attachment to Othello. One of the interesting things is that it seems very arguable that Shakespeare saw that dynamic.

Alison Cummins said...

My mother, who was and continues to be an excellent mother,* couldn't be more thrilled with the current trend toward inborn personality traits and all the biological explanations that have been made so popular by the success of recent medication.

In the seventies, when she started parenting, mothers caused absolutely everything. Personality, gender identity, intelligence. Everything.

Now that we (culturally) believe that a child is born with the brain that will determine so much of who they are and will be, she is free to enjoy her children without the burden of guilt, of thinking that if only...

Oh, and Dinah? In my experience you have to mess things up pretty badly to permanently damage a child. Good enough really is good enough. Better parenting will help provide a smooth and enjoyable family dynamic for the first twelve years or so, but a smooth family dynamic is not necessarily a teenager's job. (One way to conceive of their job is that it's to make you so frustrated with them that you kick them out so they can continue to mature as adults.)

If your kids are fighting you over vegetables and curfew, excellent. Just think what it would be like if they had to resort to more extreme measures to rile you up - like getting arrested, or becoming pregnant, or dealing drugs, or starving themselves. Then, not only would you be riled up (which is, I think, inevitable) you and your kids would also be dealing with some pretty serious consequences.

(On the other hand, if your kids are calling you a 'controlling mother,' they are resorting to name-calling. This is an opportunity to teach more appropriate ways of dealing with people. They shouldn't call you names and they shouldn't be calling other people names either. Maybe buy them a copy of Getting to Yes and explain that this is the way grownups deal with eachother.)

But anyway, back to blaming the mother. In my experience I have seen some families that were clearly making things unnecessarily difficult for themselves who nonetheless turned out perfectly delightful adults. So I wouldn't worry too much. Of course there are some things you could do better. Same with any other parent on the planet. But they're going to be fine. Really.

*It's not just my opinion. My parents were once telephoned by a social worker they didn't know (but who knew them by reputation) who begged them to adopt a child in her case file. Which they did. The point is not to brag about my excellent mother but to point out that even someone confident in her parenting skills is relieved to think that character and everything else is all in the brain a child is born with. And yes, I can think of things my mother did wrong, some of which she should have known she was doing wrong. But so what.

Alison Cummins said...

Oh, can you please make it clear that vaccines do not cause autism, by the way? That it's just as false an idea as the refrigerator and schizophrenogenic mothers?

Anonymous said...

Is anyone here familiar with the old HBO sketch comedy show "Mr. Show"?

This post reminded me of one particularly funny bit... I can't find a transcript but...

It's about a school that teaches parents what and how to deprive their children so they can grow up to be actors or doctors or president of the us.

Father: "We're depriving our son of attention for those first few months and then we will be unfairly rewarding him.

Mother: "And I'm mothering him too much and this will confuse his sexuality."

Father: "You're going to be a famous southern playwright, aren't you boy?"

Alison Cummins said...

Right on Mr. Schnapp!

*** *** ***
Hindsight does not always supply 20-20 vision.

Let's say my parents recognised when I was eight that I was at risk for major depression, type bipolar II. (They were time travellers with a retrospectroscope.) What could/should they have done about it? Treated me aggressively for my runaway moods with medication and CBT? Gone to parenting workshops to learn about parenting a child at risk for mood disorder? It's possible that I would have been able to complete a university degree - even several! - and that my life today would be much fuller. It's also possible that I would have learned to think of myself as broken, dependent on others, and not have learned the lessons of adulthood in the way that I needed to. Maybe I would have spent my childhood and adolescence feeling guilty for being difficult, compounding risk for mood disorder with unnecessarily complicated family dynamics.

Who knows? I certainly don't.

Alison Cummins said...

[Oh dear, is this hypomania? Or distraction coupled with a particularly generative blog topic?]

So. Whatever 'mistakes' my parents may or may not have made, with or without foresight or hindsight, the most important thing is that I knew then and know now that I was loved. And that my parents made their decisions with my best interests in mind. The details? Not irrelevant, but definitely a back seat.

Your children know this about you.

Finally (I hope!) whatever a teenager's job is, a parent's job is to worry. Once you've raised a passel of teenagers you develop more confidence that the younger ones will be okay. But with just two, you're going to worry no matter what. Of course you know that, just saying that I know that too, and that I'm not trying to fix anything. But - sigh - this blog is not about our relationship, so what am I doing all this explaining for?

Argh. Better get to work, hypomania or no.

Roy said...

I found a bunch of Mr Show sketches on YouTube... not sure which is the one you mentioned, Jonathan.

Anonymous said...

Oh, duh. Youtube.

I never think to look there because I can't watch anything on my dial up connection.

This is the one.

The bit I'm referring to is the first 40 seconds or so and then after that it goes on towards the *ahem* butthole related humor.

Anonymous said...


Okay... NOW add to the mix of being a Mom to an eating disordered/anorexic adolescent.

For the past year since our d was dx just picture how many "professionals" attempted to put a twisted spin on top of this devastating illness-- placing blame at every family member, putting our d through some very uncomfortable questioning, as well as ourselves (I just adore the mandatory sexual abuse assumption, and the "enmeshed" parenting, i.e. mostly centered around Mom-- oy!)

I was simply stupified, not only with having to educate ourselves seriously and advocating like hell for our d to all ends, which was to be expected. But to have to put up with Victorian-rhetoric and backward thinking of psycho-babble, muck-muck and finger-pointing was just more than we could bear!

Thankfully there are some very exceptional clinicians working in this field, though still too few and far between.


Anonymous said...

tracey -
Wow, I am disheartened to hear it is still like that. My sister dealt with serious anorexia 15+ yrs ago. My mom was accused, blamed, and treated like crap -- and never trusted the psychiatric field again. When I was later dx'd with bipolar disorder, she said, "I guess all your doctors must be saying it's my fault, right?" I said they don't even mention her and this isn't the 1950s. She said, "Well, they blamed us about your sister." I said, "That was a long time ago. They don't think like that anymore." Guess not...

NeoNurseChic said...

I feel incredibly horrible if I say bad things about my mom or either of my parents in therapy. I really feel like I have the best parents a kid could ever ask for, and I only hope to be half the mother my mom is when I'm a mom someday. However, no parent is perfect, and I know there are things that have been said/done over the years that have also been hurtful/caused problems. So do negative things about my parents come up in therapy? Yes... But I always feel really awful when they do. It's not really a matter of blame - but more a matter of understanding why I am the way I am and realizing that I'm not a bad person/black sheep of the family - but rather that I'm a member of a family with a variety of interactions and dynamics.

Family is more important to me than anything else in the world, and I am extremely close to my parents. I talk to my mom several times a day, and my brother also talks to her several times a day. However, I will say that it is hard sometimes to say negative things about my family when they are the center of my universe and have always been there for me. Nobody's perfect..... I feel that my parents have always made every choice they made for me out of love, and that's what is most important.

Take care,
Carrie :)

DrivingMissMolly said...

I feel like both of my parents systematically set out to destroy my psyche through combined physical and emotional abuse. It is hard for me to think otherwise when I was refered repeatedly to by my father as "ugly, stupid, moron, worthless, and no one will ever want to marry you." Mom hit me sometimes for no reason. I was slapped in the face and humiliated. Everything that I felt I was told was wrong or that I didn't really feel that way.

I feel like I will never ever get any better. I was effed up irrevocably in my youth.

Before I got divorced I told our marriage counselor at the time that if it weren't for a loving (though frequently absent) grandmother, I would be a serial killer.

The thing that gets me is that I know that there are people who have been through much worse and they are OK. I feel weak and defective.

Now, on top of my mood disorder and anxiety and personality disorder, I have been told I have bipolar II. Things just seem worse than ever, but......

I miss my Mom (been dead since 10/2003). Despite everything, I know she loved me. I would give anything for her hug or touch today. My Dad is very cold and aloof. I don't think he loves me.


Dreaming again said...

My mom was a not so good mom (not all that bad, just not so good) her mom was an awful (dare I say wicked?) mom? At least she didn't continue that!
I'm the best mom I know how to be, I know where I fall short.

I have 2 incredible boys (who will never be mom's (ok, sorry couldn't resist that one)

They have so much strength courage and sense of humor ...not to mention self esteem ... especially my youngest son.

My 16 year old's girlfriend's father passed away yesterday. I went to pick him up from their house and I watched him take care of his girlfriend, her mother, aunt and grandmother. So courageous, grown up and mature! I stood there in awe. His girlfriends mother in an moment of anxiety & grief couldn't find something. Bj took her by the shoulder, led her to the couch and said "it's ok, in times like these you're not supposed to think clearly. It will come to you in time."

I want to be him when I grow up.

Anonymous said...

My family recently had a debate on our facebook group as to who was the more mental out of our parents.

It was interested and a split decision reigned. Mum and Dad did not vote. Neither of them have a diagnosed mental illness and neither deserve one - but, to contradict myself, mum is definitely hypomanic and dad is depressive.

Personally, a mum's lot (or equally dad's - tho we have the excuse of being thick males) is not a good one. Struggling to preserve a child in a society that only gives you rat's piss to wash them with is hardly conducive to a healthy upbringing.
Society is the culprit and advertising, media and political egoticism are the primary modalities it happens within.

jcat said...

Yep... I have the most awesome parents. And I am still a f**-up. My sister, who is only 15 months younger than me, is a really successful lawyer with a happy marriage and two amazingly smart, loving, funny, talented, balanced kids.

I don't think my folks changed that much in their parenting skills between me and my sister. So I'd say it's absolutely down to being a loser from before day 1, and that - maybe bad parents can make someone worse, but if good parents can't make someone better? - you are probably born with most of what you will grow up to be.

Maybe it would be more fair to blame the grand-parents and previous generations for their poor genetic input...??

searching for eating with said...

There's no doubt that bad parents suck. And it would be nice if people with a predisposition for mental illness could be issued perfect parents, but that isn't possible. As long as we're automatically pointing fingers at mom when things go wrong we're wasting precious energy. And with eating disorders I can testify that the finger pointing is still going on.