I'll tell you about my (psychologist) mother
Two sons of shrink mothers talk things over
Posted July 28, 2010
The other day, I met a guy who, like me, has a psychologist mother. His isn't a Jungian-trained therapist, though; he told me that she specializes in "child development psychology." I laughed a little to myself imagining a woman leaning over a toddler with a clipboard, checking various columns and line graphs to assess if her son was keeping up with the various mental milestones that she had studied in school.
When I went ahead and asked him if his mother analyzed him or tried to help him with his problems, he said that she had for a while, but that when he was fourteen, he'd stopped her from doing it.
"Oh?" I said. "How did you get her to stop?"
"I stopped talking to her," he said flatly, with no remorse.
That's when, for me, the conversation turned grim. I felt sad for this guy who, as a pre-teen, had decided his only recourse was to stop talking to his mother altogether. He said they still didn't talk much, and when they did, it was never about anything too personal or problem-related.
What I perceived as his bitterness reminded me of a scene near the beginning of Blade Runner, when an interrogator is trying to determine whether a man is human or instead is one of the Replicants -- an artificially intelligent race of the future -- who the police are trying to track down.
"Describe in single words only the good things that come into your mind about your mother," the interrogator says, a direction that I'm pretty sure is an homage to the typical Freudian line of maternal questioning.
After a pause, the man being interrogated replies, calmly, "I'll tell you about my mother," and then blows his interlocutor away with a gun he's been hiding on his lap. (Retribution against the pseudo-shrink with a phallic symbol? Okay, maybe that's a stretch.)
So as we keep talking, this other son of a shrink tells me that he'd realized that whenever he was stressed about something -- he specifically mentioned homework -- if he talked it through with his mother it only served to focus his attention more on the problem, which he says always made it worse. If he just ploughed ahead with the work instead of analyzing his blocks, however, he found that his anxieties dissipated. I thought it was a pretty astute conclusion for a kid to come to on his own.
I, of course, had done the opposite. At thirteen, when I realized that my mother was willing to engage with my emotional life and help me through social and romantic problems, I started telling her everything. One big difference between me and this other guy is that I didn't live with my mother and saw her only every other weekend. But, even so, it struck me that we were like mirror images of each other in our reactions to this same circumstance. We are identical, but exactly opposite.
For the relationship column I write for The Globe and Mail in Canada, my editor asked me a couple Mother's Days ago if I was interested in finding out whether it's a good or bad thing for a guy to marry someone who is like his mother. I was intrigued, so took on the topic. As sometimes happens with articles like this, I found out a piece of somewhat unrelated information that was both surprising and illuminating.
I interviewed Claudia Brumbaugh, a professor at Queen's College in New York. For a study, she had asked people to describe the parent they were closer to (75 percent chose their mother) and then a week later asked the subjects to imagine fictional relationships onto pictures of people they'd never met. She told me that, consistently, people would superimpose the same qualities as they'd described about their mothers onto the strangers.
"If you have absolute faith that your mother would never wrong you, you're more likely to think that people in general will not wrong you," Dr. Brumbaugh told me. "That's whether it's a person who is a lot like your mother or nothing like your mother."
In the article, I concluded that we were all wearing "breast milk goggles."
Over the last year and a half, I've thought of this every now and then when I've met new people. To some extent, I think it's true; during my adolescence, I definitely felt closer to my mother and I think that as I meet new people I have a tendency to assume that they possess superior quasi-psychologist knowledge about relationship dynamics and so will be able to explain my feelings to me or guide me through what I am doing right or wrong in that area of my life.
Of course, the more that I'm aware that this is a default reaction of mine, the more I've grown out of it. I practice reminding myself that the person sitting across from me -- including my mother herself when I visit home -- doesn't know what's happening in my psyche better than I do, and certainly doesn't know what's right or wrong for me in terms of relationships. The person may be able to give me advice, but the only way he or she will ever know how I really feel is if I say how I feel.
Being more aware of this didn't stop me, however, from assuming briefly that my mirror man -- the guy who doesn't open up to his shrink mother -- had things more figured out than I did. Huh, I thought to myself, maybe I should not have told my mother so many of my problems and should have relied on her less as I was growing up. Maybe then I would have fewer anxieties? But I reminded myself that his way wasn't necessarily any better -- it's just the one he chose. And the more we talked, I realized he didn't exactly have fewer anxieties than me, either.
Despite the fact that my mirror man is probably sensitive to people trying to solve his problems -- and in fact might assume with his "breast milk goggles" on that everyone is going to attempt to no matter what he does -- I decided nonetheless to try to help him solve the problem with his mother.
"You know," I said, "my mom often wanted to help me with my problems, too. And I realized after a while that I just needed to set boundaries."
"Oh yeah?" he said. "How did you do that?"
"I have conversations with her about it," I said. "I tell her when I just need her to listen. Or I remind her that, as much as she may want to, she can't fix my problems for me. She's been very receptive, and told me she just needs to be reminded sometimes."
My mirror was silent.
"You should try talking to her about it," I said.
"No, that wouldn't work," he replied. He said it with an air of finality. And I let it go.
We didn't stop talking, however. We just changed the subject to our favorite science fiction films.
[If you are the son or daughter of one or two shrinks, I'd love to hear some of your story. You can contact me at the email address listed on my website or comment on this blog post.]