Who am I to say how we should raise our children? To establish my authority in this matter, I might invoke the fact that I’m a mother, and now a grandmother as well. And this alone could very well be justification enough for me to talk about parenting. Casually, I could add that I am French and American, and also partly raised my children in Asia, which gives me a rather unique frame of reference. But above all, my ideas on the subject come from an even deeper and more personal experience, namely, that I am a former bad mother who nearly missed out on the joys of being a parent and on raising my children well. In other words, my perspective on how we should raise our children comes from the mistakes I made—mistakes I have since recognized and carefully attempted to correct.
It came as a total shock to me when I realized, fourteen years into parenthood, that my children didn’t seem to be happy and thriving. Where had I been going wrong? What was wrong with me? I had always thought I would be a great mom and had been doing my best to live up to that ideal. But my decision to rely on a combination of love and instinct, hoping that this would be enough to overcome my struggles as a mother, wasn’t working for me or for them. Half the time I would say to myself, “I’m terrible at this, but I don’t care,” affecting a blithe indifference that in no way corresponded to how I actually felt. The rest of the time I would feel guilty when comparing my behavior with other parents around me. In short, I was too caught up in myself to really take an interest in my children and create bonds with them.
Then I realized that it was not I who was doing the parenting—my emotions were. Complicated feelings left over from my childhood were confusing me, influencing me, and often contradicting my conscious intentions as a parent. I was “under the influence” of my childhood. And this baggage was undermining my decisions and behavior as a mother, preventing me from sticking to the parenting philosophy I had hoped to follow.
Since the parenting guidebooks I’d avidly read, as good as they may have been, never really raised this fundamental question of the influence of my own emotional and familial history on my parenting, I came to the distressing conclusion that successful parenting was an impossibility and that no reasonable human being could claim to do it well. I felt this all the more when I realized, to my horror, that unresolved emotions stemming from my childhood had been driving me to actually reproduce my own upbringing, including the behavior that had hurt me the most. As a result, regardless of all my good intentions and the incredible energy I had devoted to motherhood, the way I interacted with my children often lacked judgment or reason and so didn’t produce the intended results.
Of course, the notion of the unconscious mind wasn’t new to me. But even though I didn’t deny its influence on other aspects of my life, I never thought of how it might have an impact on how I raised my children. Is it because the very idea of the unconscious seems so irreconcilable with the maturity and discernment required to be a parent that acknowledging its influence on our parenting abilities is deeply unsettling? In any case, as a worried mother seeking reassurance, I had entirely avoided the question of the unconscious effects my own upbringing was having on the one I was trying to give my children.
Yet it only takes a minute’s reflection to understand that it would be unreasonable to overlook this part of ourselves that keeps us from being consistent in our own parenting practices and, worse still, leads us unintentionally to harm our children. Over time I came to realize that I couldn’t raise my children successfully without coming to terms with my own childhood.
It took me fifteen years of research, reflection, and practice to understand where my problems lay and how to overcome them. I had to take real steps to turn around my relationship with my children. And the profound transformation that ensued allowed them to develop into who they are today: three individuals I would love to meet even if I weren’t their mother. I am so grateful for all I experienced and for how much I was able to change, and for who my children have become.
This journey has taught me that it is possible for us parents to let go of our childhoods and our pasts. It has also shown me that much of the work required to address how our own unresolved emotions may be affecting our parenting can be practiced daily while we interact with our children. The whole point of this book is to share the lessons I learned in the long process of changing my parenting.
I have to admit that I was initially hesitant to write this book. Because I am a novelist, I knew I could not offer a scholarly overview of parenting theories. I don’t know enough about the history of these ideas to retrace them exhaustively or academically from their sources, nor am I able to explain how they have evolved and changed from one theorist or therapist to the next.
But I saw that I could write a book that grew out of painful but important personal experiences and insights. So I took a leap of faith, hoping that this approach might help other parents also “under the influence.”
The result is a book I wish I’d had when I began raising my children: an empirical guide to parenting, supplementing my own experiences with concrete examples drawn from friends and acquaintances, as well as from case studies by therapists who trusted me with delicate information, and from works of fiction and pop cultural phenomena relating to the topic of parenthood. I have protected the privacy of those individuals who shared their stories with me by changing their names, and I have likewise protected my own children and their lives—a choice I’m sure many fellow parents can understand.
This book is aimed at all parents who find themselves under the influence—as I myself was, and sometimes still am. Indeed, I believe we are all under the influence when we don’t acknowledge the impact our childhood has on our parenting style, and when we haven’t developed the habit of questioning ourselves and setting constructive priorities for our children. My hope is that this book will help parents reflect upon their own unconscious assumptions and enable them to do the right thing for their children. After all, our parenting sets a template that, for better or for worse, stays with them for the rest of their lives.
THE INVISIBLE CONNECTION BETWEEN PARENTS AND CHILDREN
Children Draw on Our Behavior
For children are either a blessing or a curse according as they turn out; and they turn out according as they are brought up.
— MARIA EDGEWORTH, “The Contrast” (in Popular Tales, 1817)
Just as each person wishes his son to be, so he turns out.
—TERENCE, Adelphoe (“The Brothers”), 160 BCE
The qualities I thought made me most prepared to be a mother paradoxically turned out to be the very ones that caused my children the most harm. Just think about that for a moment. Could the same be true for you? How would you know? And if there were a way to know the answer, wouldn’t you want to? Before I became a mother, I remember people saying, “You’ll see, having children will turn your life upside down,” and I thought I was ready for this change. Far from conforming to what many French people still believe, that “you’ll have to watch out so that motherhood does not take over your whole existence,” I could not wait to see my entire life upended. I was eager to change my habits and way of life so I could devote myself to my children, no matter what I might have to give up. It was this kind of motherhood that I longed for, given how strong I believed my maternal instincts were, and how much meaning I thought having children would give me.
As we all would probably agree, knowing something and experiencing it are two utterly different things. When my children were actually born, neither the conversations I’d had nor the books I’d read prepared me for the incredibly powerful and contradictory emotions that beset me—primarily love and fear, each on a scale I had never experienced before. It started with the instant bond I felt with them: an age-old, primal, animal attachment. This bond was at once joyful and terrifying as it made me realize that I had just embarked on an adventure that would consume me for the rest of my life. Indeed, the intense love I felt for my children was accompanied by an extraordinarily potent, deep, and visceral fear of any harm that might come to them, and this fear radically transformed me because it tinged everything I did and every move I made with anxiety. For a long while, this anxiety prevented me from finding joy in being with my children, so much so that, even when I understood that my fear was toxic, it took considerable time and effort for me to disentangle my emotions and break free of it.
All parents experience the birth of a child in their own ways, but these emotions are almost always so powerful and intimate that people rarely open up about them to their loved ones. Some parents shared with me that they’d had what they initially believed to be unspeakably shameful feelings of panic that they might not connect with their children, or that they might not actually be fit to raise them. I did not experience these particular worries because I was convinced that the intensity of my feelings was a gauge of my maternal love, and that fundamentally, whatever the daily ins and outs of raising my children, this love was all they needed.
I was wrong.
Make no mistake, I did and do love my children. But I was wrong because that powerful feeling that I was so proud of, and which I called and really believed was love, wasn’t purely love. Unbeknownst to me, it came with a lot of so-called baggage from my own upbringing. Whatever contradictory or complex feelings I had, I would never harm my children, I assumed, because my protective love for them would always carry the day. It was an innocent enough belief, wasn’t it? Isn’t this what we all learn about love, in romantic relationships too? That it’s magic? A cure-all? Reality teaches us, on the contrary, that love is work—and figuring out what type of work is required of us as parents is no easy task.
As a new mother, I didn’t think deep self-awareness was part of the job description. I thought that embodying the behavior of a good mother—acting like a good mom—was what it would take. And all this would require of me, I believed, was making any difficulties or complex emotions of my own invisible to my children.
In other words, to keep my children safe and protected by my love, I was essentially hiding everything else from them in order to present them with the stable and reassuring outward appearance of a responsible adult. I was confident that this approach would give them the stability and sense of safety that they needed, not realizing that far from being convinced and reassured by this superficial and bogus stability, my children could tell that something didn’t feel right—and it made them very anxious. Even more troubling than fostering this sense of anxiety in them was that my pretending to be in control of situations and hiding my true emotions was cultivating a sense of falseness in them, and once even made one of them ask me, “Why are you pretending to love us?” This is what I began to learn—and it was not something I had seen in any books or shared in conversations with other mothers: the very personal way in which we experience parenthood is what determines the nature and quality of the invisible and unspoken connection we have with our children, at least as much, but perhaps even more so than, our practical, day-to-day behavior and interactions with them. I had no idea how much this invisible connection was running the show. And here’s what I wish someone had told me back then: that raising healthy, happy children requires us first to recognize, then to discuss and identify, our own emotions—including love, fear, and everything else, and not just the feelings related to our children—so that we can channel these feelings, accept them, drop them, or do whatever we need to do while also finding adequate ways to disclose them to our children. It might be surprising or difficult to believe that a hidden but powerful emotion about, say, an experience from our own adolescence might be affecting the invisible connection with our children, but it just might—in fact, it probably is. Parenting is a practice that, like many practices, requires an ongoing and rigorous study of the self—a developing self-awareness is vital. It might also be surprising or difficult to believe that uncovering and becoming aware of our emotions is hard work. But if it were easy, everybody would already be doing it.
As I learned from parenting in France—and as is certainly the case in the US, and indeed all over the world—our roles as parents raise all sorts of charged discussions. While there may be exceptions, these discussions often rely more on practical topics such as nutrition, educational styles, and so forth than on the intimate way we experience our relationship with our children. I believe this is in part because we lack the necessary markers and guideposts to analyze matters as subtle as our emotional connections. For example, not everyone has a therapist, or the language of a therapist, integrated into their experience. In writing this book, my hope is to begin to include some of these therapeutic markers and guideposts into conversations about parenting.
By now, everyone knows that children need an emotional connection with their parents or primary caregivers. This need for love is real—and necessary—as has been proven by several clinical studies, such as the famous one conducted by Dr. René Spitz that examined 123 abandoned babies, ranging from the age of twelve to eighteen months, who were housed in a facility for children of imprisoned women. This institution was maintained at the highest standards of hygiene, but human contact was avoided as much as germs were. Though the children did receive shelter, food, and clothing, the lack of signs or gestures of affection resulted in symptoms of depression that, in the most severe cases, led to death. For me as a parent, studies such as this one didn’t raise any concern since I felt that, in addition to meeting their physical needs, I had plenty of love to give my children. What I didn’t realize was that I had no idea what kind of love and attention they truly needed to thrive in all areas of their lives.
As I came to learn, and as many of my friends who are now older parents also came to learn, children are shaped not only by whether or not they receive attention, but also by the kind of attention they receive. Without emotional connection and affective exchange, children cannot become self-aware or learn how to structure their emotions, which are necessary steps for them to develop, and which they’ll accomplish by either employing empathy toward the people who surround them, or by reacting against them. If these needs are not met in quantity or quality, children can close themselves off and run the risk of growing up to be shy, awkward, asocial, or mentally ill. We now know, moreover, that the quality of such relationships has a formative effect on children’s learning abilities and physical health.