Summer camp season is almost over, so I guess we need to get to the punch line about what drives the sad phenomenon of "kid-sickness," that awful visceral feeling that life isn't worth living while your kid is away at camp. So, being a therapist and all, I guess I'll ask you a tough question: why do you hate your kid so much?
Yeah, that's what I said. Hate. An unpopular word, and one that doesn't get out and about often enough when we talk about our kids. It used to be totally acceptable, at least among therapists and their patients, to talk about unconscious hate in conjunction with separation anxiety. The reasoning is not all that complicated, and it still makes sense (at least to me), even though it is completely unfashionable.
It goes like this: you leave your kid at camp, and you have all sorts of terrible fantasies about what might happen to him. He might get injured, or he might drown, or get sexually abused by a camp counselor, or get a terrible disease and die before you get there. Or he might just be totally friendless and miserable for the entire time he is at camp. You can't stop thinking about all the dreadful things that could happen. But who is the author of these fantasies? Who is making all this up? Who is spending all day thinking about how much their kid is suffering? Who is writing this sadistic novel, the one where kids get tortured and killed at camp?
You are, Mommy and Daddy. That's who. The theoretical link here is the notion of unconscious wishes, and the idea that there is no negative in the unconscious: if you think all the time about a terrible fate of a loved one, your are, in fact, torturing him, in fantasy. You're just telling yourself it's okay because it's a fear, not a wish. But if you love her so much, why are you spending so much time imagining her misery? Put it this way: if you were a novelist, and wrote a book about kids who go to camp and suffer terrible agonies of friendlessness and abuse and then drown in the camp pond, you would rightly be criticized as someone who hates children. So why, when you write this book in your own mind, do you let yourself get away with it?
I am exaggerating, of course. But think of it as pent-up demand- no one wants to hear about this. In our child-worshipping culture, where it is so difficult to get parents even to consider the possibility that they might not love every single poop their kids produce, the idea of unconscious aggression is totally verboten. In my first book, Worried All the Time, I had to take out every mention of it, every scrap: my editor insisted that "No parent wants to read about how they hate their kids." The speech gets censored, and goes underground, and then the whole idea goes with it, just like in Freud's Vienna: no one was allowed to talk about sex, and so they couldn't think about it either. Now we can talk about sex all we want but we can't talk about hating kids, so we can't think about that.
Can't we love them and hate them? They'll be home any day now. Can't we notice, when they do come home, safe and happy and filled with stories about all the fun they had and all the people they liked so much more than they seem to like you, that we're just a teensy bit angry or jealous? Can't we notice, when they get home, that as much as we longed for their return, we did kind of have a little bit of fun without them?
So we come back to where we started (three posts ago): the fifties and sixties Mom who longed for her kids to be at camp so she could live a little. We're not all that different, really. Except maybe she was a little more honest with herself than we are.