Parent-blaming -- or when things go wrong, whose fault is it?

Parent blaming seems to be a national pastime these days.

Posted Feb 06, 2010

Kay* was clearly distraught as she walked into my office. In her hand was a copy of one of the magazines I leave in the waiting room. "Look at this!" she said, handing me the journal, which was open to an article about working mothers.

"What planet do they live on?" Kay was a single mom who was devoted to her children and somehow managed to get to their school plays, soccer games and doctor's appointments while holding down a full time job. She had to work for financial reasons, but she often felt guilty about the fact that she also enjoyed what she did. On the other hand, she never wanted to be the angry, unhappy and unfulfilled person her own stay-at-home mother had been. "She probably wouldhave been a better mother if she had worked," she said.

Kay was struggling with an issue that is much bigger than the question of whether or not a mother should work while her children are young. Like almost all of my clients with families, Kay was trying to do everything right as a parent, trying, as another client put it, not to do to her youngsters what her parents had done to her.

There are several problems with this formulation, including of course the axiom that anyone who has ever dieted or tried to stop smoking knows all too well: the more we try not to do something, the more likely we are to do it!! But what was perhaps most important for Kay was that she believed that she could manage to bring up well-adjusted children who would never feel the anger and disappointment that she felt towards her own parents.

I had bad news for Kay. Whether it is about working, breast feeding or any of the multitudes of other aspects of child rearing, parent blaming seems to be a national pastime these days. This is a change from the attitude of Freud and his followers, who believed that neuroses come from internal conflict, usually guilt and anxiety about unacceptable wishes and feelings. Gradually, the field of psychology came to see that some of these internal struggles reflect actual clashes with important adults in a child's real life. At that point, the pendulum swung from blaming an individual for his emotional difficulties to blaming his parents. I certainly have done my share of parent-blaming, both with clients and in my own life. But I have learned from experience that nothing is so simple as finding fault.

I also had to break it to Kay that disappointment in our parents is a normal and healthy developmental step! Margaret Mahler (3) , one of the first psychologists to actually observe children directly, found that children tend idealize their parents and then, as they grow, to feel disappointed that these beloved adults are neither all-powerful nor all-knowing. Heinz Kohut (1) who developed a theory called "self psychology,"  believed that difficulties managing this fall from grace is a key to many psychological problems in adults. My colleague Nancy Darling recently put a terrific post on her blog on this site  about some of the problems that can result from wanting our kids to feel good about us all the time. The bottom line is that no parent can do a perfect job. In fact, as DW Winnicott, the British psychoanalyst I cited in another post, even if perfection were humanly possible, a good enough mother - that is, someone who occasionally fails her children - is better than a perfect mother.

Nancy Darling writes that parents need to be able to acknowledge those times when we make mistakes. Robert Stolorow (4), one of Kohut's followers says that the real damage done to children is not acknowledging how they feel about something, and particularly how they feel when a parent hurts or disappoints them. Hans Loewald (2), a psychoanalyst who wrote at about the same time as Kohut, said that the shift from being adored to being criticized is not easy, which of course makes it hard for us to feel respectful of our youngster's feelings. But perhaps rather than trying to be different from our own parents, or to do what the experts are telling us is right, we need to find a way to help ourselves and our children process both idealization and disappointment in appropriate ways. In some of my next postings I will talk more about what this process looks like.

Whether or not to work outside of the home is only one of many complicated, confusing and difficult choices parents have to make over the course of their children's lives. Kay had no option. She had to support her family. Some mothers, of course, do have alternatives available. What each of us has to struggle with is not whether or not there is a "perfect" decision, but how to best handle our children's responses. I chose to go back to work when my son was very young, in part because of financial necessity, in part because of responsibility to my clients, and in part because I love my work and would have been very unhappy if I had given it up. Over the years I tried to accept and validate my son's feelings about my leaving (feelings that were different at different times in his life, of course). I was also lucky, since as a therapist I had a great deal more flexibility in terms of scheduling than do many other working mothers. But it was not always easy.

One day, when he was running a fever, he called out not for me, but for his babysitter. My feelings were hurt and I guiltily wondered if I had given over all of my parenting responsibilities to her. As he settled down in my arms, my son whispered again, "Mommy. I want Nini." I said I knew he did, but that I was going to stay with him that morning instead. To my surprise he said, "Good," and snuggled closer. Then he asked, "Can I have some soda?" Since I seldom allowed him to have soft drinks, he added, "Nini gives me soda to make me feel better when I'm sick."

*Not her real name. Names and identifying information in all of my postings have been changed to protect individuals and families.

1. The Restoration of the Self by Heinz Kohut. University Of Chicago Press, 2009.

2. Papers on Psychoanalysis by Hans Loewald M.D. Yale University Press, 1989.

3. The Psychological Birth Of The Human Infant Symbiosis And Individuation by Margaret S. Mahler, Fred Pine, and Anni Bergman, Basic Books Publishers, 2000.

4. The Intersubjective Perspective by Robert D. Stolorow, George E. Atwood, and Bernard Brandchaft. Jason Aronson publishers, 1994.