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Happy Mother's Day to Mothers Of Basic Decency

Do parents always do the best they can?

Every mother "loses it" sometimes. Even the best mothers do things they really regret. But some mothers do untoward things repeatedly, and some don't regret it at all. Learning about my clients' parents has made me realize how profoundly lucky am I to have my own mother. I've stopped taking the basic decency I grew up wtih for abusive mother granted, and now appreciate how many people haven't had this.

I know some readers will form lynch mobs when they read this. We can read newspaper headlines of mothers murdering their children, locking them in closets, scalding or burning or starving them, without tarnishing a widely-held and deeply cherished presumption: Because a person has breasts and a vagina, a brain wired for oxytocin, and has conceived and delivered a child, mothers basically always do the best they can and have their child's welfare and best interests at heart. Everything said here equally applies to fathers. But the myth of mothers' inherent caring for their offspring is far more sacred. If I was a woman, or I was writing about paternal neglect and abuse, far fewer readers would be getting out their ropes or sharpening their knives.

Why not write a feel-good story for Mother's Day? Well, I have in the past. (See, "Hey Mom, I Love You" blog entry.) I actually wrote it for my mother for Thanksgiving some years ago, but I'm republishing it this Mother's Day to say thanks again to my mother. She's "on the reef" again at 89 years old, possibly having to replace a heart stent. Her first worry is for my Dad while she undergoes this proceedure. That's just the kind of basic decent people she and Dad are.

However, 30 years of clinical practice have put this into perspective. I never knew how good I had it, but now that I do, I see the difference everywhere. I just got back from Germany where I saw a pregnant woman smoking a cigarette. Granted smoking is more common and more socially acceptable in Europe, but most women today know smoking during pregnancy endangers their fetus. Maybe this woman was just having a bad day and need a smoke, but all things considered, her behavior shows her priorities. While I was there I also met couragious women willing to confront themselves as wives, mothers, and therapists, and push themselves to recognize real cruelty in their clients and, in particular, confront women about it. Many European therapists have an unwritten rule: No one confronts women in therapy. If anyone get's confronted, it's men. So this is an enthusiastic pat on the back for the incredible women I met at my training workshops. Any country would be lucky and proud to have you.

I am blessed to be married to Dr. Ruth Morehouse, my wonderful wife of 25 years, who had the good sense and strength to push me to have our equally wonderful daughter, Sarah, who graduates from college this June. Sarah wouldn't be the loving and caring person she is if she didn't have a mother like Ruth. (This is a shout-out to both you wonderful women, Happy Mother's Day! I can wait for you to be a mother, Sarah. I know you'll be a great one.)

Many other people are not so lucky. I remember a woman telling me about how her mother beat her with a spoon. I've heard stories like this many times over the years, where the object is a belt, switch, shoe, telephone cord, or anything at hand at the moment. But two things stood out in this particular story: One was the mother preferred hitting her with long wooden spoons. Her impliment of choice was so clear, than when the girl and her mother visited her grandparents, the grandparents hid all the spoons in the house. This was the second thing that caught my attention.

Growing up, my client knew her grandparents knew what her mother was doing. They also recognized it was wrong. But rather than fulfilling her responsibilities to her own daughter and granddaughter (by confronting the inappropriate beatings), the grandmother chose instead to intervene ineffectually, permit this to continue, tell herself she had done enough, and sell herself out together with her offspring. Part of what traumatized my client as a girl was the basic absence of decency in her family. By the age of 6, and certainly by age 10, this isn't lost on children.

It does however, seem to be lost on many therapists. Both in the USA and abroad, I constantly encounter those who believe (and tell clients) parents always do the best they can at the time. Just like anyone else, therapists often don't want to deal with the darkness of parental indifference or targeted heart-eating, Besides dodging their responsibilty to walk through the sewers of people's lives, they promote the false assumption that decency can be taken for granted. Besides encouraging mass blindness to the tourturous love many people grow up with, it trivializes the enormous effort and moral character of parents who truly do the best they can despite difficult circumstances and personal shortcommings.

If you are one of these people, you have my good wishes and deserve the gratitude of your children, family, community, and country. You don't have to be a great cook or keep a spotless house. Your own basic decency nourishes your child in ways no food can provide.


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