There are few more important tasks for parents than to be able to listen properly to their children, that is, pick up on and give room to, their children’s moods, hatreds and enthusiasms, even when these run contrary to their own inclinations. It’s on the basis of having been listened to with close sympathy and imagination that a child will later on be able to accept themselves, remain in touch with what they feel and find partners who are interested in their core selves.
Why should listening properly prove so hard for many parents? Partly because what children say and do can prove so threatening to parents’ sense of their identity. We may as parents have said a very firm goodbye to vulnerability, imagination, frankness, sexual fluidity or sadness. But our children come into the world unaware of any such repudiations; what we have put into our shadow sides may lie in the midday sun of our offspring’s young lives. The kids have no compunction saying that granny is a big fat poo, that they want to dress like an opposite gender or that they long to live in a bigger house. They may in addition be terrible at maths and hopeless at tying their own shoelaces. This may rattle us to the core: how could we have worked so hard to expunge weakness from our personality, only for it to show up in the next generation? How can they be so shockingly needy and difficult, so illogical and impolite?
There can be jealousy behind much of the resulting non-listening. Parents may not take their children’s cries to heart because no one paid particular attention to their own lamentations. Why would they be patient with another’s petty sorrows when they had to grow up with brutal speed? The best way for parents to protect themselves against registering their latent frustrations and regrets can be to ensure that their children also don’t get what they want.
Non-listening parents are to be found constantly rewriting their children’s experiences: ‘That’s nonsense,’ they will say, ‘I know you love going for walks in the rain!’ Or: ‘Why would my brave little soldier cry about something like that!’ Or they’ll insinuate that there is simply no way to devote oneself to something (ballet or business, being shy or dressing as a fairy) and remain legitimate and loveable.
The legacy of not being listened to is a split personality, in which we are unable to allow in the sadness or anger, vulnerability or confidence that our parents once denied in us. Properly growing up may involve asking ourselves a very unfamiliar question – what sides of me could my parents not accept? – and making friends with the answers.
In certain moods, the founding principle of modern psychotherapy — that it is all to do with one’s childhood — can sound especially irritating. Why should we be forever tied to things that happened infinitely long ago? One hardly ever sees one’s mother now and dad might have died twenty years ago. And anyway, aren’t genetics more important?
Nevertheless, the maddening idea refuses to go away as we’d love it to. There is too much — in the end — that keeps backing it up. Our characters appear to be miserably determined by dynamics that unfolded within the family circle before our fifteenth birthdays.
We can accept well enough that we once learnt to speak an entire language around our families: tens of thousands of words, hundreds of declensions and a host of complex rules of syntax were all picked up while we played in the garden or drew sunflowers in the kitchen. It should — by extension — be no more implausible that we simultaneously learnt an entire emotional language (that is now as much part our nature as our native tongue): a language about how to express love, what we can expect of men and women, the declensions of desire — and what the rules are around happiness.
We need to think about our families a lot — not necessarily because we like or miss them. It’s the opposite; we need to reflect on them in order to get over them. We should be unembarrassed about our search for the details of how our particular family — like all families — was, and has rendered us, mad.
We may feel that it is a uniquely Western neurosis, especially one afflicting people who have spent too long in therapy, to go on about one’s parents and their contribution to one’s unhappiness — to be twenty-five or sixty-two and still turning over in one’s mind (often while sobbing) how ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’ have been responsible for spoiling one’s relationships or ruined one’s life.
But lest we be overly struck or appalled by this approach, we should keep in mind that every society, whatever its level of development, appears to entertain extremely elaborate and ongoing thoughts about its ancestors and their powerful impact on the lives of the living. From Cambodia to Peru, Papua New Guinea to Burkina Faso, the patterns are the same: one’s parents or relatives die and one then has to handle their ghosts or spirits with immense care — because the dead are known to have powers to cause grave mischief. They may unleash guilt, they can destroy sex for us, they may put a curse on our ambitions at work, they can cause us insomnia or chronic stomach pains. Much time and energy therefore has to be spent managing their memories, which might involve bringing them presents, honouring them with cakes or songs — or, if all else fails and their characters are too mean and far gone, actively trying to drive them away into the nether world.
In Madagascar, in the ceremony of Famadihana, every year the dead have to be unburied and are invited to a big party in the village, where their relatives sacrifice oxen and dance with their corpses above their heads — in the hope that these ever more mouldy cadavers will rest easily in the months to come.
Quite what one might have to do to keep an ancestor from ruining one’s life may change from society to society but the underlying feeling that one must try something is universal. One might have to disinter them and treat them to a dance, or one might need to lie on a couch and analyse their hold on one’s psyche through free association. But the idea is fundamentally the same. The spirits of the past have the power to throttle the present. The headaches or the impotence, the paranoia or the bad marriage have to do with ghosts. Mummy and daddy are everywhere, doing unholy things – and the wise pay them enough attention to loosen their punitive grip and get on with their lives.
Part of why it is so hard to understand ourselves is that people are constantly doing things to us that defy the common-sense of view of how human beings might plausibly behave around people they claim to care about. We expect that those who might carry the title of mum or dad or husband or wife would, unless they had very clear reasons to do otherwise, show us kindness. And yet the brutal reality (which we must take on board for our own sanity) is that humans are frequently beset by feelings that are so intolerable and difficult, they develop urges to pass them on to others in a version of emotional pass the parcel.
Put another way, humans can end up being cruel, not for money or territory, but in the hope of alleviating their own sufferings by making someone near them suffer in their stead. Cruelty is at heart an attempt to make ourselves feel better by doing to someone else a version of what was done to us.
Amidst the seeming normality of family life, people will hence inject someone else (a spouse, a child) with a poison — an ill will, a contempt, a hostility — which they then deny ever having put into their bloodstream and which the victim themselves can’t clearly detect, so invested are they in thinking well of those around them.
A mother might, for example, inject her daughter with a poison that ‘says’: ‘Don’t ever succeed in your life; it would make me feel too bad about myself.’ Or a father will inject his son with poison whose meaning is: ‘I want you to fail in your career to alleviate my sense of disappointment.’ Or a spouse will inject their partner with a poison that carries the meaning: ‘I will constantly but very subtly disrespect your intelligence and your sexuality to lessen the feelings of rage and powerlessness I experienced when I was little.’
Such injections wouldn’t work if they were noticed, so enormous energy goes into the cover-up. It’s debatable how much the injector even understands what they are up to; they are more ‘driven’ to act than cleanly aware of how or why they are doing so.
A big part of self-knowledge means realising that those we love and have trusted may have put some hugely damaging ideas inside us that need to be identified and corrected to help us to attain the freedom and light-heartedness we crave and deserve.
One of the saddest and most puzzling phenomena of psychological life are the incidents commonly known as ‘breakdowns’, in which people find themselves suddenly unable to carry out their normal duties – and fall silent, take to bed and cannot stop crying.
It can look mysterious from the outside, but what is almost always happening is an attempt to untie a lie that someone else has surreptitiously knotted into our lives. Beneath the breakdown, a long-repressed truth is trying to break through layers of deception. A person is unable to function ‘normally’ because ‘normality’ has grown riddled with something incoherent, mean and impossible. The breakdown is a logical bid for health and truth masquerading as an illness.
What has made us ill tends to be a variety of perverse injunctions under which those we trusted may have made us live, for example: I’m ostensibly asking you to succeed – but I won’t love you if you do. Or: You must fail – in order that I can bear my disappointments. Or: You must feel terrible about yourself – to shore up my sense of worth. Or: Worry all the time – so that I can be carefree. Or: You can never be happy – for it would make me too sad.
We have probably been trying to make sense of these paradoxical messages for a long time, but now, rightly so, we can’t take it any more. We are compelled to untangle the perverse position we have been placed in. Our illness acts as our conscience; it won’t let up until we have figured out the truth; it can’t tell us the truth by itself, but it is urging us to make the effort to find it out. The twitching, paranoia or despair are there to keep us honest. The illness’s contract with us is: understand me, and I will leave you alone; ignore me, and I will upset normality to prevent you from deceiving yourself any longer. Illness is the midwife of truth.
The fortunate ones among us manage to decode the riddle. We begin to get a sense of who may have aggressed us – and how odd and sad it is that they should have done so (not least, because they might be our parent or our spouse). We have fallen ill because we have been victims of a cruelty which we needed the cover of ‘madness’ to be able to look at. We aren’t really ill at all — we may be closer to sanity than we have ever dared to be.
There is a kind of person who seems at first glance to have an admirable degree of self-motivation, thoroughness and drive. They are up at dawn, they rarely take holidays, they are always sneaking in an extra hour or two of work. Their bosses are highly impressed, they are constantly promoted, their grades have been excellent since primary school, they never miss an appointment or turn in a piece of work that is less than stellar.
We like to say that such a person has high standards; we might even anoint them with the term ‘perfectionist’. It might seem churlish to locate any problems here. Why complain about a somewhat overzealous devotion to perfection in a troubled and lackadaisical world? There could surely be nothing too awful about high exactitude? What could be so imperfect about perfectionism?
The concern is not so much with the work of the perfectionist (its recipients are in a privileged position) as with the state of their soul. Perfectionism, tragically, does not spring primarily from a love of perfection in and of itself. It has its origins in far more regrettable feeling of never being good enough. It is rooted in self-hatred, sparked by memories of being disapproved of or neglected by those who should have esteemed us warmly in childhood.
We become perfectionists from a primary sense of being unworthy; uninteresting, flawed, a disappointment, a let-down, a nuisance. So powerful is this sense, so appalling is its pressure on our psyches, we are prepared to do more or less anything to expunge it. Working all hours, currying favour with authority, doing twice as much as the next person – these are the tools with which we seek to cleanse our apparently undeserving selves.
One part of the mind promises the other that the completion of the next challenge will finally usher in peace. We can be good at pretending that our ambitions are sane, but our work has a Sisyphean dimension: no sooner have we rolled our working boulder up the hill then it will tumble back down again. There will never be a point of rest or a lasting feeling of completion. In truth, we are ill rather than driven.
We aren’t interested in perfect work at all: we are trying to escape from a feeling of being awful people, and work simply happens to be the medium through which we strive to grow tolerable in our own eyes. But because our problem didn’t begin with work, work can never prove the solution.
Our real goal is not, as we think, to be an ideal employee or professional, it is to feel acceptable. But responsibility for a sense of acceptance cannot be handed over to our bosses or customers or a ceaselessly demanding capitalist system; these will never let us rest easy because it is in their nature, with no evil intent, always to demand more.
We need to shift our sense of where our drive is coming from. We are not unnaturally interested in working perfectly, we are labouring under an unusually intense impression that we are dreadful people – a problem for which working harder cannot be the answer.
We need to allow ourselves to imagine that we deserved to be accepted from the start and that it cannot forever be our fault in our minds that we were not. It is not up to us to try to prove that we have a right to exist. It is asking too much of ourselves to have to experience a referendum on our legitimacy every time we hand in a report, every exam we have to pass, every customer we have to serve. Working well is an admirable goal, but it becomes a symptom of mental perturbation when it becomes the cover for a secret aspiration to correct a deficit of early love. We should welcome an ability to tolerate periods of laziness, not because we are congenitally idle, but because it is a sign that we have learnt to speak more kindly to ourselves and to be appropriately angry with those who could not at the outset accept us for who we were without a surfeit of trophies and prizes.
We hear so much about how difficult childhoods can damage people that we sometimes fail to consider the fascinating and telling obverse: what happens in emotionally-nurturing families, what does it mean to be properly loved and looked after – and how do people tend to turn out differently when they have been?
In the course of a childhood that can count as properly loving, we might expect some of the following to unfold…
– In the early days and months, a beloved young child is placed at the very centre of the parental universe. They are – for a time – the one around whom everything else revolves. When they scream for milk, others come quickly; when they pull their first smile, others are amazed; if they have something to say, others listen. Such focus is not a recipe for limitless egoism; we can only hope to become properly modest and able to take care of others when we have had an early taste of total omnipotence. A fulsome experience of infantile egoism is what underpins the selflessness of the future adult.
– In a loving childhood, an offspring can expect to be a granted a sense that it truly pleases its own parents – not by anything it does, but by its sheer existence. It experiences the full force of Primal Parental Delight, with its arrival being a much anticipated and fulsomely positive act in the parents’ lives. This impression is built up from the most minor, everyday moments: the parents light up when it comes into the room, there are warm kisses in the morning and the evening, its pictures are pinned to the fridge, its concerns are registered and its joys remembered. From this, the child acquires a basic trust in itself and in its right to be. It won’t feel meek and cowed. It won’t have to apologise for its appetites or hold back on expressing its wishes. It won’t get stuck with sadistic or inconsiderate people; it will know how to exit bad relationships quickly. Without any sense of entitlement, it will believe it has a place in the world – and if things were ever to go seriously wrong, it will know how to take its own side against fate with necessary compassion and tolerance.
– In a loving childhood, an offspring benefits from sympathetic interpretations of its behaviour and motives. If it spills something in the kitchen, it isn’t a ‘clumsy idiot,’ it’s just very easy to spill things from those new sorts of cartons. When it doesn’t want to share its toys with another child, it isn’t a ‘selfish rascal’, it is expressing a legitimate attachment to its property, no different from what an adult would experience if it had to give up its car or spouse to a random stranger. The loving parent knows not to make the child the villain of the mishaps that come its way.
– A loving parent knows that a certain amount of awkward behaviour belongs to every life and it doesn’t shame the child for slipping up or for being sometimes in a tricky temper and fed up with everything for a while. The parent has the confidence to know that sunnier seasons will return and that the child cannot feel real unless it has been given plenty of opportunities to display its full rage and disappointment with the state of things, including school, its siblings, the end of films, bedtimes – and the many faults of its own sometimes profoundly annoying parents.
– A loving parent gives the child the sense that it is capable of interesting discoveries and ideas of its own. Rather than rush to the park as though there were an immovable appointment with the swings or climbing frame, the parent allows themselves to be taken off course by the child’s curiosity. Perhaps there is a mesmerising brick wall which needs to be investigated and stroked, with its variety of ever so slightly different bricks, some of which are very smooth to the touch, others far rougher – and one or two of which harbour little tufts of miraculously soft moss. Maybe there is an extremely beautiful small flower growing by a wall which calls for a song be sung in its honour. There might be a puddle that is asking to be crossed and splashed through or for small leaves to be scattered across its intriguing silvery surface. And of course, there may well be a snail that is dragging itself out on the pavement that throws the whole afternoon in a new direction, because this creature needs to be thoroughly discussed, researched and perhaps even brought home to the garden on a leaf. Charles Darwin or Alexander von Humboldt surely never stumbled upon anything more exciting in their far-flung journeys of exploration.
– In a loving childhood, the offspring isn’t incited to admire its parent or caregiver more than would be good for its own confidence. The grown up may have a few strengths, but the child is gently inducted to know that they are in the end only human, with everything this bathetic term entails. Sometimes they are silly, occasionally they are lazy, they can be extremely greedy for chocolate after supper and addicted to certain daft programmes on TV. Through close-up acquaintance with such flaws, a child can in time outgrow the adult and feel able to take their place alongside them in the grown-up realm. They can in addition come to terms with their own frailties, for if the adult whom they most revere is far from consummate, then their own imperfections can also be faced up to and accepted without shame. One can slip up, be an idiot – and still prove worthy enough.
If these emotional ingredients are transmitted in the course of an upbringing, then their recipient can in their adult future be counted upon to know how to be straightforward about their needs, sympathetic to their errors, ready to escape the clutches of unkind people, able to love others and, most crucially, free to direct compassion towards themselves for their own less than perfect but always still adequate lives.
It might seem – at first glance – as though the people we term high-achievers could not possibly have any relationship to self-hatred: they are the ones who did exceptionally well in exams, whom the teachers admired, who won places at the best universities, who graduated with honours, who got into law and medical schools, who founded thriving businesses, who live in the wealthiest parts of town, who are up early in the morning preparing themselves healthy breakfasts before a day of important meetings. Surely we can’t impute that these might be sufferers from the ravages of self-disgust?
Except, of course, that it would rarely occur to anyone who did not harbour a high degree of self-suspicion to undertake so many outsize efforts to impress and to make a mark upon the world.
The high-achievers, for all their accomplishments, cannot trust in a basic idea: that it might be acceptable to be themselves, outside of any acclaim, notice or distinction. Simply being is never enough, their right to exist can only be assured by constant doing. Their frantic activity masks an underlying unquenchable doubt as to their acceptability. There can be no lasting respite through their tools of choice. Holidays are a particular trial, free time has been careful expunged from their diaries, it may have been many years since they enjoyed a day without commitments. The moment that they are at a loose end, anxiety arises: what are they meant to be doing? What have they forgotten to take care of?
No one can doubt what we owe to the high-achievers. They are the ones who build the skyscrapers, who explore distant planets, who drive the stock market to new heights, who start businesses and write films and books. We would all be the poorer without them.
But our respect shouldn’t rob us of our ability to appraise the costs that their ways of life exact. The wealth of nations is built upon the troubles of the individual psyche. The high-achievers have been driven to act not simply from talent or creativity, energy and skill (though these are no doubt present as well) but from a primordial sense that there is something shameful about them in their basic state, and that they must hence clothe themselves in the garments of success to escape the humiliation of their true selves.
No wonder that their efforts are so often self-defeating. It may for a long time seem as if they were after money, power, acclaim and distinction but these are merely substitutes for their fundamental, but unknown goal: a sense of basic adequacy. The disjuncture explains the curious lassitude and sadness that may accompany high-achievers at some of their moments of greatest triumph. Finally, they have sold the company. At last they have won an international prize. But they are likely to feel hollow in the days and years that follow, as they confusedly recognise that every possible achievement has been gained but that none of it has, somehow, been sufficient to quell the pain and restlessness within.
It can be counted as close to good fortune if high-achievers stumble and fail somewhere along their journey, if they are tripped up by an unexpected bankruptcy, scandal or economic downturn. The reversal may prompt a mental breakdown and a period of rest, in which there is a sliver of hope, for it contains a chance to see that their manic pursuit of success was all along masking a terror about unloveability, which now has a chance to be quelled in more realistic and effective ways. There is an opportunity to acknowledge that one has been playing the wrong game all along – and that the true problem never had anything to do with a lack of prizes, and everything to do with a burning conviction that one might need so many of them.
It is a measure of our collective delusion that we are so ready to be proud of high-achievers and so slow to detect the wound that powers them on. It would be a less gilded world, but also a far happier one, in which we were readier to reassure the self-hating titans of success that they were worthy of love all along.
One of the odder features of self-hatred is that the affliction may escape our notice for the greater part of our lives. We may simply not be aware that we don’t like ourselves very much – even as the sickness of self-hatred wreaks its havoc across a range of psychological situations and opportunities.
Though we are relentless scrutinisers of others, we seldom pause to give a unitary verdict on what we make of our own characters. We may recognise our approval or distaste of ourselves in relation to specific actions; we will know when we are – for example – cross about being slow to complete a task or when we are pleased to have won a colleague’s approval. But we are rarely inclined to step far back and consider ourselves in the totality, as we might a stranger. We are too involved with ourselves on an ongoing basis to assess the sharper outlines of our own characters. There are few occasions when we are summoned to ask whether we essentially like the person we are.
As a result, our self-suspicion tends to linger in undiagnosed forms. We miss the extent to which we can suffer from endemic self-loathing – and how a once acceptable and perhaps invigorating form of self-questioning has turned into a lacerating sequence of attacks on everything we are and do. We may – paradoxically – be at once highly depressed about ourselves – and oblivious that we are so.
In order to know what we are up against; we should take a measure of our sense of self. For this, there may be no better move than to resort to that clumsiest but simple and most helpful of psychological tools, the questionnaire.
We can ask to what extent we might agree with the following sentences on a scale of one to ten, ten meaning very much, zero indicating not at all.
– If people knew who I really was, they would be horrified.
– The inside of me is appalling.
– Often, I can’t bear who I am.
– I’m disgusting.
– I’m shameful
– I’m weak
– Others have a good cause to hate and harm me
– It’s only a matter of time before terrible things happen to me, given who I am.
– I’m sexually revolting
– I am physically repulsive
– I am unworthy of being forgiven
– I am a fitting target for ridicule
– I am bound to fail
– I don’t deserve much sympathy
– People often see me in the street and feel contempt.
– I have acted badly across my whole life
– There is something fundamentally wrong with me.
We don’t need to do careful sums to arrive at an indicative picture at speed. Some of us will be reaching for tens on pretty much every occasion; others – blessedly – will be puzzled by the whole exercise.
If we find ourselves reaching for high numbers, we may be tempted to come to a powerful yet entirely mistaken conclusion: that we are terrible people. The reality is at once less personally damning and far more redemptive: we aren’t so terrible at all; we are just very ill. The questionnaire is telling us about an affliction, not about our past or what we deserve or who we really are. The very extremity of our answers should signal that something is afoot that far exceeds what any human is ever owed. We aren’t intolerably wicked; we are in the grip of a cruel sickness which systematically destroys any confidence or generosity we might feel towards ourselves. We are treating ourselves with a violence and pitilessness we wouldn’t think of bestowing upon our worst enemies. We have, somehow, unbeknownst to us, ended up considering the person we have to accompany through life with an unparalleled degree of coldness and disdain.
It is time to come to terms with our suffering – and to refuse the delusion and meanness of self-hatred.
The Body Keeps the Score is the beautiful and suggestive title of a book published in 2014 by a Dutch professor of psychiatry at Boston University called Bessel van der Kolk. The book has proved immensely significant because it emphasises an idea that has for too long escaped psychiatrists and psychotherapists. Van der Kolk stresses that people who are suffering emotionally are unlikely to do so just in their minds. Crucially, their symptoms almost always additionally show up in their bodies: in the way they sit or breathe; in how they hold their shoulders, in their sleep patterns, in their digestion processes, in the way they treat their spots and in their attitudes to exercise.
Taking the body more seriously opens up new avenues for both the diagnosis and treatment of emotional unwellness. Instead of simply seeing a person as a disembodied mind which must talk its way to a cure, a therapist is advised to see the body as a kind of scoresheet of the emotional experiences that its owner has been through – a scoresheet that should be read and attended to as carefully as any mental account.
To take one example, many people who have grown up having to deal with the overwhelming rage of a parent will have learnt to suppress their own anger and their desire to hit back at those who hurt them. In their minds, they will have become meek and precisely attuned to fulfilling the wishes of others, however unreasonable these might be. But, as importantly, in their bodies, they will have learnt to be very still, almost frozen, because a part of them associates the expression of anything exuberant or powerful with the risk of bringing about retaliation from others. These people might sit in a particularly stiff way and have an ingrained resistance to running that has nothing to do with laziness: what is at stake is a fear of one’s own vitality.
In trying to treat such people, Van der Kolk goes beyond advising traditional talk therapy. He would also recommend that they try – under the supervision of a therapeutically trained teacher – kickboxing or karate, competitive running or swimming – sports these people might long have resisted because of a cowed relationship to their strength. They might also try out rhythmical chanting or drumming, thereby additionally releasing pent-up longings to assert one’s right to be.
Traumatised people tend to have bodies that are either too alert – responding to every breath and touch, flinching and bristling at contact. Or else too numb, shut down, heavy and immobile. Treatment seeks to find a more comfortable half-way house between these two extremes.
Van der Kolk’s book helps us to think anew of how to deal with people who, at the start of their lives, were not properly held, caressed and soothed, in the way that young children desperately need to be in order to feel at home in their own skin.
As part of their work, Van der Kolk and his team opened up a sensory integration clinic in Boston, a sort of indoor playground, for children and adults, where one can get back in touch with a body that was not properly, and by loving hands, touched or cuddled, gently swung from side to side or hung upside down for a giggly moment. In the sensory integration clinic, under the instruction of a therapist, one might dive onto foam filled mats, have a roll around in a ball pool, jump on a swing and balance on a beam. It sounds child-like and is meant to be, offering a serious chance to go back a step to correct a long-standing alienation.
Those who were once neglected by emotionally stunted parents have often almost literally withdrawn from their bodies. They ‘own’ them but they do not properly ‘live’ in them. They might be rendered deeply uncomfortable if anyone touches their shoulders or strokes their back. They might intuitively think their body was ‘disgusting’ , because that’s how it once seemed in the eyes of those who were meant to look after them. For such people, van der Kolk might advise a therapeutically-informed massage to help rebuild a basic trust in one’s skin and limbs. As he puts it, he wants ‘the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage or collapse that resulted from trauma.’
It is no doubt deeply unfortunate that a difficult past appears to give us physical as well as mental symptoms. But the body’s travails can – in Van der Kolk’s optimistic account – also become a source of memory and evidence, when our minds have otherwise seized up or fatally doubt the legitimacy of their own feelings. We can start to remember what might have happened to us by asking ourselves questions in therapy, and at the same time by taking a look at how we are sitting, how we breathe and how we feel when someone we love proposes to hold us. Then we can hope to be healed, not only by wise arguments and kind voices (however consoling these might be), but also by dancing, swaying from side to side on a gigantic swing, chanting in unison or – best of all – surrendering ourselves to a very long and very nourishing hug from someone we have quietly dared to trust.
Given how important it is to be properly loved by one’s parents in order to have an emotionally sane grown-up life, one may wonder with some urgency why – in cases that range from the regrettable to the truly tragic – the process can go so wrong. Why do some parents – who might in other areas be decent and thoughtful characters – fail so badly at being able to love the small people they have brought into the world?
Among the many possibilities, two stand out in particular. The first stems from one of the most obvious and unavoidable features of early childhood: an infant arrives on earth in an entirely and almost shockingly vulnerable state. It cannot move its own head, it is utterly reliant on others, it has no understanding of any of its organs, it is in a penumbra of chaos and mystery, it cannot regulate itself or any of its function. In such helpless circumstances, it must look up to others and beseech them for their mercy: it must ask them to bring it nourishment, to stroke its head, to bathe its limbs, to comfort it after a feed, to make sense of its fury and sadness. This primal helplessness takes a very long time indeed to dissipate. Even after two or three long years, the offspring is still thoroughly weak, confused, incompetent and fragile. Its fingers are no thicker than twigs, it could be killed by a family dog, its mind is filled with a plethora of dazzlingly peculiar, unrealistic and sentimental notions: it thinks that teddy bears are alive, it has conversations with plants, it looks forward to Santa coming down the chimney, it wants to stand in circles holding hands with other diminutive people and sing songs about fairies and mummies and daddies – and later draw pictures of giant flowers and friendly butterflies before falling asleep sucking its thumb and nursing its comfort blanket.
To most people, all this is just extremely sweet. But in order to take care of a very small person, an adult is forced to undertake a very particular kind of emotional manoeuvre, one which happens so intuitively and speedily in most of us, we tend not even to notice it unfolding: we are required to access our own memories of ourselves at whatever age our young and tender child happens to be, in order that we can then more precisely deliver to it the care and attention it needs. It looks from the outside as if we are simply inevitably getting down on our knees in order to play princesses with a child, answering its call for a tasty meal, patiently buttoning up its cardigan to protect it from the cold and adjusting its small cashmere hat for the trip to the shops. But in order to make such moves, a part of us has to dig back into our past and imagine ourselves in the role of the small person we are caring for, drawing on our very private reminiscences of ourselves and our bodies in order to sympathise with the sorrows, share in the joys, stay sympathetic to the clumsiness and tend to the urgent crying.
Though at times childcare may be practically exhausting, most adults have no problem connecting with the child version of ourselves. But this ability is far from natural or spontaneous: it is a function of health and a consequence of a degree of emotional privilege. For a more disadvantaged sort of parent however, unbeknownst to themselves, the task of care-via-identification is overwhelmingly challenging. Somewhere in themselves, a wall has been built, many metres thick and topped with razor wire, between their adult and child selves. Something in their childhoods was so difficult, they do not – and cannot – return there imaginatively. Perhaps there was a parent who died, or who touched them in a way they shouldn’t or who left them bereft and humiliated. Things in their childhoods were uncomfortable to such an extent that their whole adult identities have been founded on a thorough refusal ever to re-encounter the helplessness and vulnerability of their early years. Never, not even for twenty minutes while dinner is in the oven, will they get on the floor and remember the child they once were in order to play with the child in front of them.
This kind of adult may have become extremely competent in the professional world, their manner is likely to be decisive and strong, their opinions robust and their characters drawn towards irony, cynicism and a stoic (or plainly tough) approach to trouble, their own and that of others. They may like to say that they have ‘no regrets’ and that there is ‘no use crying’. They have – in theory – nothing against looking after a child, they want to be a parent and might have fought hard to be one in the first place, it is simply that they don’t when it comes to it realise that they cannot parent properly unless and until they have come to terms with the child version of themselves. So long as their own vulnerability appalls them, they will – secretly and unconsciously – be opposed to and untouched by the vulnerability of their own child. They won’t be able to be patient with the little person’s clumsiness and confusion, they will have no interest in playing with teddies, they will think it pathetic how tearful their child has become because a four leaf clover got crumpled or a favourite book has a tear in it. They may – despite themselves – end up saying ‘Don’t be so silly’ or even ‘Stop being so childish’ when the child cries that one of baby elephant’s eyes is broken; they may very brusquely bathe the child and refuse to read it the bedtime story that it is calling for.
There can follow a second characteristic and associated failing in a parent: unresolved envy. However peculiar it can sound, a parent may envy its own child for the possibility that it might have a better childhood than they had – and will unconsciously ensure it won’t. Though ostensibly committed to the care of the child, the parent will struggle against an impulse to inflict against it some of the very same obstacles they faced: the same neglect, the same uncaring school, the same lack of help with their development… The outward details may have changed, but the emotional impact will be the same. A new generation will suffer afresh.
In order to parent properly, not only do we need to access our memories of our own childhoods, we need to be able to come to terms with our deprivations so as not to feel jealous of those who might have a chance not to endure comparable ones in turn. But a certain kind of traumatised parent remains at some level identified in their minds as a needy, disappointed child who would find it unbearable that another child had more than they did. They are like a tormented and tormenting sibling in a disadvantaged household who takes out their pain on someone more helpless, scrupulously making sure that the other child is as sad and lacking as they are.
We cannot help having had the childhoods we had. But if we are planning to have a child we have a supreme responsibility to ensure that we have a sane relationship to our own pasts: able to access them for reserves of tenderness and empathy, and able not to feel envious of those who do not have to partake in their sufferings. We will be properly grown up when we are in a position to give our offspring the childhood we deserved, not the childhood we had.