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May Benatar, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.

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Parenting: Where Do 'Bad' Feelings Come From?

Posted: 06/20/11 07:46 PM ET

About a year ago I came across an interesting post on "Motherlode," a popular parenting blog in The New York Times.

Rebecca Abrams, a novelist, writes about having "fallen out of love" with her firstborn after the arrival of her infant son. This was a courageous and frank confession of not-so-nice feelings toward her eldest. The comments on "Motherlode" were numerous, and generous. Most commenters applauded the frankness of Ms. Abrams and openly owned their own negative impulses toward their children. The anonymity of the blogosphere helps promote this kind of openness and acceptance. When we have no cover, it's often harder to own the dark side.

Reviewing these comments, I thought about what I would do as a therapist with mothers (more likely than fathers) who whispered their horror and shame in my office.

After an attempt to "normalize" the feelings, I would push on and want to know more. I, and most other therapists, would get very interested in the wellsprings of these feelings: where does this all come from? Where were you in the birth order? Do you know how your mother fared after giving birth to your sibling(s)? Or to you? Was she ill, either mentally or physically? What was going on in the family around that time? What do you know about the early relationship with your siblings, younger and older?

Creating a family of one's own inevitably invites "reenactments." Not all memories are conscious. We stumble somewhat blindly through unconscious reenactments from our own early dramas, particularly at key points in adult life. And becoming a parent, either the first or subsequent times, and raising children, can be powerful triggers for such dramas. The more we understand the text and subtext of our stories, the more empowered we will be as parents.

A friend of mine spoke frankly to me about flashbacks, horrifying flashbacks, of physical abuse from her own childhood. These pictures came unbidden when her first child was born. She had no impulse to harm the baby, but she became very afraid in caring for her firstborn. Her confidence in her ability to love was undermined. She was ashamed and frightened.

Just talking with me and seeing that I was not freaking out with her about this phenomenon seemed to help at the time. Having worked with trauma for years, I was familiar with the phenomenon she was describing, and it seemed quite understandable in the context of what she had experienced at the hand of her own parents as a child.

You don't have to be traumatized, however, to experience reenactment. Everyone has wounded places. It's just that parenting is more likely to kick the door in on those places. What was "then" is "now" again.

Having a chance to explore all of that creates a context for the present moment. And seeing the larger picture, the context for our feelings, can facilitate compassion with ourselves. Context and compassion both are key to handling all of this. It mitigates the guilt, freeing us to be creative in solving the present dilemma.

In the case of my friend, she decided to go back into therapy to help her process the old wounds. The risk of reexperiencing the past without awareness motivated my friend. We are all more or less at risk of moving through our child's infancy and early childhood in a trance, one induced by our own revived pain.

One never knows what is going to trigger the flashback or the reenactment. One can sail through the early days and years of our children's childhood and then hit a wall when they go to school, when they hit adolescence, when they go to college and leave us, when they fail to leave home at what we deem the appropriate time, when they declare a sexual orientation with which we are not comfortable, or when they act up in a surprising and distressing way. If it's not happening now, it probably will after a while.

When in trouble, think "context."