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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

Two Reasons Why People End up Parenting Badly

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.

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