By: Haim Amit
Educational Psychologist, Certified Family therapist, Organizational Consultant
Author of the books: Confident Parenting, Modan, 2012.
Parents as Leaders, Modan, 2006. & Parents as Humans, Sifriat Poalim, 1997
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“He who is a light unto himself, is a light unto his fellow”
Frustration: Sitting on the family sidelines
“My fifteen-year-old is learning-disabled. I’ve invested a lot in him overcoming his disability so that he can learn and function like a normal kid. I’ve paid a heavy price, but I’m OK with that. What bothers me is that he still behaves like a baby, and continues to take advantage of me. He wants things now, and I have to give in. He brings friends home and makes noise at all hours. I’m helpless against him. When I protest, he laughs at me. I’m weary; I have no more energy left. I’m sick of being his parent. I need a life too!
“Growing up, I lived in a small house, where I had no privacy. Now that I’m a parent, even though our house is big, I’m still longing for privacy! The amount of space our kids take up is so large that we, the parents, have none!”
It’s not easy hearing parents’ frustrations. Often we, the parents, find it difficult to “allow space” for what’s really bothering us. Nature seems to dictate that we allot our resources to the weak among us, i.e., our children. Indeed, it’s the kids whose needs most need attending to, and to whom we most need to provide appropriate conditions for their rearing. Society expects us to be able to identify our children’s needs and how to fulfill them, and likewise we expect it of ourselves.
Yet who listens to us? And do we know how to listen to ourselves? Parents spend a lot of time trying to understand others, but who understands us? Where’s our support? Are we allowed to focus on ourselves amidst the hubbub of raising children? Or is it only All About the Kids?
In the January / February 1996 issue of Psychology Today [now translated into Hebrew], a familiar scenario is described:
It’s eight o’clock on a weekday morning. You’re already running late, and the kids haven’t yet been shipped out to preschool. Now it’s gotten worse: Three-year-old Alex is quarreling with two-year-old Peter over whose turn it is to play with their electric train.
And what advice does Psychology Today have for the stressed parents? Any stress relief tips? Not a chance. The article continues:
Your initial instinct ― to tell the boys to knock it off ― may buy you a few moments of peace. But instead, do your kids a favor: Allow them to process their quarrel on their own.
The article goes on to advise parents on how to assist their three-year-olds in developing their diplomatic skills. Drs. Kimberly Wiley and Cherry Byer recommend in the same issue that parents adopt a five-phase “rescue strategy” that will lead the tots successfully through their dispute ― and all at the tranquil hour of 8 a.m.! Would this fly at your house? Does anyone out there actually believe that parents should shove their pressing needs aside in favor of their children’s “development”? That in this situation an expert’s advice is needed for the parents to be able to exit the house in the morning without wreaking havoc?
I recall getting my third son off to preschool in the mornings as one of the hardest tasks for me as a parent. His difficulties in acclimating to preschool lasted a full year. Every morning began with his refusing to get up, continued with his refusing to leave the house on time, and ended on the doorstep of his preschool with his stubborn refusal to go inside. Naturally being in a hurry to get to work, I’d have to peel him off of me and leave him outside wailing, “Daddy, take me home!”
I admit that my experience as a veteran parent to two older children, along with my background in psychology, did nothing to help me cope in this awful situation. The self-blame that gripped me every day on my way to work did not dissipate as I heard a talk radio psychologist tell me how to help my child acclimate to a new environment. What’s the connection? I asked myself. What’s the relationship between the need and the importance of alleviating the child’s distress and the awful guilt that I feel every morning? Will the stomachaches that overtake me every morning as I’m dragging him to preschool go away if I “realize the importance of separation to the development of my child”? Of course not. The contrary is true: The more aware I am of the importance of a calm parent-child parting in the morning, the worse I feel, the stronger my guilt, and the more intense my sense of helplessness in the face of my “incorrect response”.
The gap between the amount of attention paid by child-rearing experts to children in crisis and that paid to the parents sharing the same crisis is an abyss. Even though the parent is told continually that she is the most important component in her child’s growth, commensurate acknowledgement of her as a human being is negligible. She remains on the sidelines, abandoned. Neither society nor the parent herself invest much in the parent; while expectations of parents escalate, investment in their welfare remains static.
Guess what? Parents have rights too
“I’m Haim, Or’s father”. That’s how I introduce myself at every Parents’ Night. It’s always bothered me when other parents introduce themselves only as “Tal’s mother” or “Nimrod’s father”. Stating my own name before announcing whose father I am, symbolic though it is, is a statement. We’re not just someone’s parents; we’re people in our own right.
As I explained in the last chapter, putting kids’ needs at the center causes a warped view of the family wherein parents and their needs are shoved aside, merely a device via which the welfare of the child is achieved, and that can be used without giving it any special attention of its own. But it’s OK for parents ― who after all are adults first ― to have things that are important to them other than parenting. A parent is a romantic partner who aspires to a satisfying and fulfilling couples’ relationship; s/he is a daughter or son who is sharing the joys and woes of “raising parents”; s/he is a wage-earner, which if s/he is fortunate intersects with self-actualization; s/he is a friend and leads a social life; s/he engages in hobbies, and so forth.
Can a family allow more than one of its members to be the center of attention? Does it not make sense that both the child and the parent jointly merit support and encouragement? I believe the answer is yes. Instead of a narrow, rigid view of space for only one ― either the child or the parent ― at the family’s center, I propose relating to the family as an oval with two foci: the child-with-parent, and the parent-with-child.
As we’ll see further on, placing the parent in a more central position in the family does not contradict fulfilling the developmental needs of the child; actually, the contrary is true. The centrality of the parent in the family means first of all acknowledging her rights in the family framework. We need to remind ourselves that we too are entitled to certain things that we may believe we’ve said goodbye to forever, such as the sense that we’re doing the best we can for our children; feeling down-in-the-dumps once in a while or having hostile thoughts without feeling guilty; knowing that we don’t have to always be loving and patient; enjoying life despite the fact that we have kids; enjoying occasional solitude; a once-a-year kid-free vacation ― in short, dedicating our lives to pursuits other than parenting, and being able to put parenting aside and “escape” every once in awhile1.
When I ask parents, “What do you want most for yourselves in regard to your family?” they usually reply, “Time to ourselves”. Face it: We parents are wiped out from fulfilling our parental duties. We don’t manage to set aside time for our own pursuits. Take for instance the basic need for sleep. Are we not entitled to a snooze after work, or on the weekend? Even parents who respond affirmatively have trouble “letting themselves” take a nap: Their heads are full of errands and “must-dos” to be attended to as soon as they get up; they’re likely to feel too guilty to demand that their kids leave them alone for a while; and moreover, they can’t attain the inner quiet that will allow them to relax.
And how about our need for freedom? Is there kid-free time left for us at the end of the day, or are our kids up and demanding our attention until we go to bed? And how do we enrich our couplehood? Is it a priority to get away for a couple of nights once a year without the kids? If so, do we manage to do so without guilt feelings “coming along for the ride”?
It’s particularly hard for moms to place themselves at their families’ centers. Socialization encourages men to take care of themselves, preserve their individual identities, not to forego their own needs, and to exhibit the “manly” qualities of success at work or studies, competitiveness, and even aggression; whereas women are socialized to forego their needs in favor of their children’s’, their parents’, their siblings’, and their friends’.
“I feel like a slave in my own home. I always have to look after everyone else’s needs ― my kids’ and my husband’s. What about my needs? I’ve nearly forgotten what it’s like to read a book, draw, or just relax. By the time the kids are in bed and we have some time to ourselves, I’m exhausted; the only thing I want to see is my bed.”
Tali has undergone the long journey from being a parent who put aside her own needs to one who has learned to carve out a respectable space for herself on her family’s “stage”:
“It was revolutionary for me to realize that I have rights in my family. All these years I functioned as a parent to whom it was so important to ‘do it right’, to fulfill my obligations. While I did so gladly, it never occurred to me that it was OK for me to demand of my kids that they consider my needs. If occasionally I was scheduled to work afternoons, I either had to ‘give my parents notice’ or cancel. I didn’t dare ask my 12-year-old to stay home with her younger sister. Yet I don’t blame them; I blame myself. I made excuses for why I didn’t ask her to babysit: I couldn’t trust them, they’d quarrel, etc. Now I realize that I simply didn’t think I was entitled to fulfill my own needs. The way I used to see things, afternoons were untouchable, they were kids-only time; I wasn’t allowed to impinge upon that time with my own needs. The sad part is that despite this, I was constantly plagued by the sense that I was a bad parent! Actually this wasn’t surprising, since my entire life, even as a child, I always felt that I didn’t have any personal rights. I was always concerned with fulfilling my obligations. So do you see why it was such a revolution for me to give myself permission to work two afternoons a week?”
Note that the ambiguity regarding the place of the parent in today’s family does not imply over-centrality of the parent. The concept that the family routine should consider the parents’ needs as well as the children’s is not meant to engender over-concern on the part of the parent for her needs, nor ignoring those of the child. On the contrary, a parent’s dilemma regarding her place in the family is the surest protection against riding roughshod over the rights of her children. Extreme cases of denying children their rights, such as cases of sexual abuse, occur when the parent ― usually the father ― is unable to even experience the dilemma of “who’s at the center?” In such a parent’s case, there is no vacillation, i.e., it’s clear to him, albeit in a sick way, that the rest of the family is there to do his bidding.
A good parent is one who feels good
“I wanted this child, my youngest, but now I don’t feel like giving of myself to her. It’s painful that I feel this way, but it’s the truth. I have no patience for sitting with her, telling her the story of Snow White over and over, or building a block tower with her. I spend a lot of time with her, but it’s just time spent in the same room; there’s no emotional interaction. The truth is that I’m sick of being a parent. I feel completely used up.”
“I feel guilty for not understanding my six-year-old’s frustrations, for not giving him enough attention, for not being a good enough mother. I also have no energy for my baby, who needs constant nursing, feeding, and attention. Ditto for my six-year-old, who suffers from organic defects and who requires a lot of patience. He has episodes of severe disquiet, stress, and tension. And my oldest also needs me, even though he doesn’t show it. So I’m torn between the three of them, and constantly feel on the verge of exploding. When I do blow up, I feel enormously guilty. I know they each need a different kind of attention, yet I often feel that I’m not giving them what they really need: I get angry when I should be supportive, impatient when I should be listening, push them away when I should be drawing them toward me. As much as my child needs my energy to refuel, I also need to refuel, to recharge, so that I can go on helping him.”
Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov said, “Every person who doesn’t have an hour to himself every day is not a human being2”. I would paraphrase that to, “A parent who doesn’t have an hour to herself every day cannot be a good parent”. A parent’s ability to enjoy basic human rights and to fulfill non-parenting-related needs is also important to the child’s welfare. A parent who feels fulfilled and calm is a better parent, and if the parent functions well, so will the child in her care. Put another way, a good parent is one who feels good. An individual who’s resentful and bitter will find it difficult to keep giving and giving, and that giving will decline in quality. A parent who’s frustrated in her couples’ relationship or at the workplace, or who feels depressed or suffers from self-doubt, will find it difficult to have a calm, beneficial relationship with her child.
Odetta Danin tells a Jewish folk tale featuring a mother known for her devotion to her twenty children. One day she took them all on a trip to town. Upon returning home, the children cried that they were thirsty and hungry. Instead of feeding them, she locked herself in the kitchen and proceeded to feed herself. Her friends told her, “You’re terrible! Twenty children cry and you lock yourself into the kitchen to eat!” whereupon she replied, “That’s right. I’m preparing to deliver them a strong mother!” While we know that in reality any decent mother would first feed her children, the story illustrates well the principle that we can only really give of ourselves if we have something to give: Only when we eat well are we truly satisfied, and when we’re satisfied, we have the strength to “feed” others.
While an inner feeling of peace is essential to good parenting, it’s not the whole picture. Not only do we need to feel good while we’re parenting, we need to feel good about parenting. Like any profession (and parenting is arguably the hardest), functioning well depends heavily on the extent of satisfaction and enjoyment we feel while engaged in the process. A parent who isn’t feeling good about raising children ― who feels little pleasure and inordinate suffering ― will not be able to hold out for the duration; what she gives her children will be halfway, grudging, and perhaps plant in them the seeds of guilt.
Ask yourself: When do you feel good being a parent?
Beyond the cynical responses to this query ― i.e., “When they’re asleep”, “What do you mean, ‘feel good parenting’? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” ― parents’ replies to this query have taught me that parents feel good mainly in two situations: when they’re enjoying their kids, and when they’re enjoying themselves. Normally we feel good parenting when something good happens to our child, i.e., achievements, successes, exhibiting skills or talents. Yet when prodded to think of moments of satisfaction and enjoyment of themselves, parents tend to report good things that happen to them in relationship to their child, i.e., a sense of achievement and success at having raised her, discovering parenting abilities and skills, and so forth.
For instance, I recall even now the satisfaction of fathering babies: the first smiles, the joy of the developmental milestones, the sense of satisfaction when they’d calm down after a crying bout.
Today, for example, I feel good about my parenting my first grader when I look back at his learning to read. When he reads for pleasure now, I feel a sense of elation when I identify with that pleasure. When I see how fast he reads, I’m filled with pride: “He’s smart. Must have something to do with me.” I also derive satisfaction from the fact that I contributed to his love of reading, recalling how the two of us would read together every night.
When my older son asks me, “Dad, how was your day?” even if he’s not actually interested in hearing about it, I get a warm and fuzzy feeling. On the rare occasion when my daughter offers to make me a cup of coffee when I come home tired after a long day, I’m on cloud nine.
What are your Cloud Nine Moments with your children? Can you identify moments of deriving satisfaction and enjoyment from yourself as a parent? You might have to make an effort to recall them, but there are sure to be a few. Try recalling occasions when you felt pride in your child, but don’t stop there: Recall as well the pride you’ve felt in yourself as a parent. Your kids are the best kids you’ve got, and their parents are the best parents they’ve got. A wise person once said, “There are two purposes to life: The first is to obtain that which you desire; and the second is to enjoy it. Only the wisest people achieve the second.” Be wise: Enjoy your children and yourselves. It’s good for you, and just as important if not more, for them.
Be an imperfect parent
“It’s great how it happens on television: The psychologist listens to the problem child and replies with tolerance and understanding, no anger or stress. Sure, it’s easy to do that in the therapist’s office, or on TV, or by throwing out some clever bon mot in an interview. In real life, when I get home from work and have to fix dinner, answer the phone, give my little one her bath and at the same time listen to my older one, what mom could carry it all off calmly and get it right? Who am I? Superwoman?”
“Therapy helped me to realize, finally, that all these years I was afraid that my child would leave me. This fear was causing me to try to be the ideal parent. Little by little, I began to accept that it’s OK for my generosity to have limits; I don’t have to be the ideal parent.”
One of the main obstacles to parents feeling good about their parenting is our drive for perfection. We all know intellectually that we’re not perfect, but many of us regardless aspire to be perfect parents: to always love our children, to show them only positive feelings, to give unconditionally. It’s hard for us to accept ourselves as imperfect, to admit that we’re not as good as we’d like to be, that we too get angry, reject our children, hurt them, smother them. If we admit this, we see ourselves as monsters, as not meeting the mythical standards set for us. We see ourselves as “not OK”.
As we read in the previous chapter, our generation’s psycho-educational culture encourages us to aspire to perfection in parenting. Yet mistakes in parenting are inevitable: We can arm ourselves with all the child-rearing information in the world; we can strive to be adult and aware and sensitive, but none of this will prevent us from occasionally disappointing our children. It’s inevitable because even aware and sensitive adults aren’t perfect, and because there’s a wide gap between knowledge and behavior.
In a wonderful article in Yediyot Aharonot3, Varda Raziel-Jacont described the impossible and unnecessary striving on the part of parents to be perfect: “Don’t try to be Perfect Mom; there’s not a chance in the world that you’ll succeed; moreover, there’s not a person alive who can even define what that is. Neither intuition, nor parenting classes, nor counselors can help you achieve perfection, because what appears to be the right thing in your view may not appear that way to your kid: If you give them freedom, they’ll say you neglected them. If you feed them a nutritious diet and teach them proper hygiene, they’ll call you controlling. If you come to their aid in battle, they’ll call you smothering. If you let them decide things for themselves, they’ll say you didn’t guide them enough. If you try to influence their decisions, they’ll call you intervening. If you confide in them, they’ll accuse you of not respecting boundaries. If you don’t, they’ll call you withholding.”
The desire for perfection demands enormous investment, drains reserves of energy, and diverts energy from more promising and realistic endeavors. This is a case where over-investing in one area can actually harm our relationship with our partners, our functioning at work, and our social lives. Furthermore, it can only lead to disappointment.
Because they have no chance of being fulfilled, expectations of ourselves and our children to be perfect guarantee us only disappointment in ourselves and in them. Parents who can’t stop being Perfect Parents are actually doing harm to their children’s development; ultimately their children will experience a pervasive sense of weakness and helplessness.
The case of Yifat, a ninth grader, illustrates this well. Yifat suffers severe attention deficit against a background of a drive for excellence and competitive tendencies. In addition, she suffered from headaches whose source was organic, and was under the care of a physician. Yifat was a sensitive young woman who took everything personally. She was active in youth programs and quite insightful. She had an excellent relationship with her parents; she could find nothing to criticize about them. She often missed school due to her headaches, causing her parents to get angry with her for “not trying hard enough to overcome her aches and pains”. Her father was reserved, distant, and submerged in his work. Her mother described herself as unhappy, yet did not let her unhappiness get the better of her. Yifat said:
“They constantly give me the feeling that I’m not OK, that I’m not trying hard enough to overcome my headaches. It’s not that they don’t believe me, but they think I’m spoiled and taking advantage of the situation in order to get out of fulfilling my scholastic requirements. Mom says, ‘See how your father goes to work even with a 39-degree fever?” I’ve never seen my mom cry or show pain, yet I know that she suffers, especially during her period. The only outward sign of it thought is little sighs. Beyond that, she gives no sign of physical pain or desire for relief. On the other hand, she loves to complain that ‘she’s the only one who does anything around here; it’s all on her’ and ‘no one around here lifts a finger’. When I’m in pain and wince, I immediately feel guilty. They’re strong and in control, and I’m a weakling and a crybaby. What am I supposed to do? Ignore my headaches and they’ll disappear? Deny my pain? Strive to be perfect, like them?”
Our kids are also “guilty” of wanting us to be perfect; they want to see us as superhuman. Since we parents provide for their needs, it follows that we must be superpeople, both physically and mentally. Without us, they’re vulnerable and unprotected; no one will shelter and feed them. Because small children have not yet developed compare-and-contrast capabilities, they attribute to their parents unquestioned perfection. The young child sees her parents not only as bigger than she, but as belonging to a different race of beings altogether: Grownups set her standards, monitor her behavior, appear as if they always know what to do and how to do it. The child accepts her parents’ estimations of her ― which are occasionally made in haste either out of frustration or in order to achieve some quick result or behavior change ― literally. Only in the gradual developmental process that reaches its zenith in adolescence does the child finally manage to let go of her image of her parents as godlike, and individuate from them. A parent’s capacity to be “good enough”, i.e., imperfect, human, and not just a parent, faces a double test: her inner need to be a perfect parent, and the child’s projecting the perfect parent image onto her.
I was never what you’d call a singer and never will be, but I’ve always enjoyed humming folk songs to myself. All of my kids have a problem with this. Every time I open my mouth to hum, they rush to silence me. Sometimes they’re gentle: “Dad, you’re distracting us”. Usually they’re less tactful: “Dad, stop! You cannot sing!” Naturally at school and other public events they whisper, “Dad, you’re embarrassing me. Stop it already.” Immediately following is the ultimate threat: “I’m not sitting next to you”. I’ve wondered aloud to them, “How come you can’t see me as an individual with idiosyncrasies and shortcomings? So what if I appear a little quirky? That’s who I am!” Of course it didn’t help.
I hoped that with my youngest, things would be different. At first it was. I used to sing him bedtime songs from a songbook called Numi-num that contained 64 songs, some of them lullabies and other old-timey songs that no 21st-century kid could identify with, but with which I grew up and which I love. I saw our bedtime sessions with Numi-num as a golden opportunity to sing songs for which I’m nostalgic without the rest of my family jumping down my throat, and at the same time get in a little culture. At first, my poor youngest suffered in silence: Apparently the experience of being with me was so important to him that he was willing to bear not only the boredom of the songs, most of which he didn’t understand, but also my off-key singing. Until one night when he “broke” and said in his sweetest voice, as casually as he could manage, “Dad, I think that book is boring me to death!”
“Never mind,” I told him not very sympathetically, as I’d just turned to one of my favorite songs. “Just a few more, then I’ll say goodnight.” The poor thing agreed, having no choice. After a failed attempt to recall the tune, a common occurrence throughout Numi-number sessions, Or said to me, “Dad, from now on before you start Numi-num, make sure you know the song!” Since that night, I haven’t sung to him.
Parents are more often than not amazed to discover during family therapy how distorted their children’s perceptions of them are. Children attribute to their parents feelings, thoughts, and even behaviors that are light years from [the parents’] reality. “My dad hits me all the time,” a child might say of a father who while he appears threatening, might have raised his hand to the child once or twice in his life. “My mom is always interfering in my life. She doesn’t let me decide anything for myself,” is how a daughter might describe her experience of the classic dependence-autonomy struggle: Out of a fear of actually “getting her wish” for more independence, the daughter chooses to attribute to her mother her own need for boundaries to protect her from her more adventurous or threatening desires.
Regarding this phenomenon, Mark Twain said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
I still recall my surprise when I discovered how distorted was my 15-year-old’s perception of me: One day, she returned from a mother-daughter shopping trip with, among other purchases, a poster of a bare-chested young man wearing pants unfastened on top. Upon entering the house, before even greeting me she said, “I already know you’ll be angry with me,” and ducked into her room. I had no idea what she was talking about. I queried my wife, who explained to me that my daughter was petrified at the thought of my reaction to the poster. On the way home, she’d said over and over, “Dad will kill me when he sees it” and “Dad’ll hit the ceiling”. I was in shock. Was that what she thought of me? Are those the messages I’d been sending about openness and sexuality? Am I that unaware of my behavior? Apparently I did embody some sort of threat to my daughter, although I’ll never know for certain. Perhaps I’m deceiving myself, but I suspect that my daughter “invented” a distorted view of me, so to speak, in order to help her cope with the natural feelings of teenage embarrassment and awkwardness in the face of embodiments of sexuality. In other words, her feelings were hers, and had nothing to do with me. In any case, I learned to accept the fact that even when I think I’m being the “coolest parent”, there will always be a gap ― and not necessarily in my favor ― between my perception of myself and my children’s perceptions of me. I’ve therefore learned to repeat this “parenting mantra” to myself: “I’m the best parent they have, and they’re the best kids I have.”
Take Deena, a teacher and mother of a five-year-old and a three-year-old. Deena entered family therapy due to what as far as I could see were routine child-rearing issues. In the course of our sessions, Deena learned to let go of her striving to be the ideal parent, and ultimately found her own parenting style. How may of us have the inner strength to simply be who we are and function confidently as imperfect parents who do the best they can? Let’s hear Deena’s story:
“All these years I’ve been trying to find ways to better rear my children, and I haven’t succeeded in doing so. I have a particularly hard time with my oldest. He’s a hard one. He won’t listen to me: If he doesn’t want to take a bath, there’s no way I can make him. Same goes for brushing his teeth, dressing himself, and behaving himself without going wild. He just sasses back and does whatever he pleases. On the other hand, with my husband he’s cooperative, perhaps out of fear. It’s enough for my husband to raise his voice slightly, and my son does whatever he’s supposed to.
All these years I’ve felt an inner turmoil and disquiet. I feel that I should be able to handle my children, particularly as I’m successful in my work and get excellent feedback from both parents and children. Yet I can’t even parent my own kids. I couldn’t figure out why I was having problems with my parenting when in my work with children I was a success. Ultimately I realized that my problem was that at home I’d tried to cope using methods that didn’t fit me.
I’d heard advice on how to set limits, and tried to be tough and resolute. I’d read how important it is to act and not just talk, so I tried to do less talking. I observed how my husband successfully used reward and punishment, and I tried the same. I tried, but I wasn’t at peace with it. I went from one method to the other, but my heart wasn’t in it; it didn’t feel natural.
Through it all, I still believed that it was important to give children freedom to act according to their understanding of things and not to pressure them. Of course it was related to how I grew up believing that my parents never understood me, and tried to mold me into what they wanted. Yet as much as I believed in giving children freedom, and despite the success of this philosophy in my professional life, I was forced to call it into question in the face of my son’s behavior.
I thought that perhaps my way was good for certain kids, yet not for others. I began to think that perhaps I should be even tougher on my son. I didn’t have the patience to give him the freedom I believed in, so I adopted a style that didn’t fit me. Because I myself am a disciplined individual, I made an effort to behave commensurately. Of course it didn’t work; it was doomed from the start.
I realized that nothing good could come of operating according to something I wasn’t at peace with. So I stopped trying: I stopped searching at any cost for a way to control my son’s behavior. I stopped trying to force myself to be a wonderful mother. I “came back to myself”. And guess what? I became calmer. I began to feel an inner peace. I began believing in myself and in my way: no pressure, no coercion. And miraculously ― it worked!
I didn’t have to exert pressure to get them to take their baths; they went on their own. Sometimes they even asked to take a bath! Apparently I began projecting calm and peace, in contrast to the tension I’d projected previously. Perhaps they also absorbed my confidence. I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that I acted based on my inner sense, my beliefs, and not according to “how it’s supposed to be”.
We parents could take a page from Deena’s book and let go of our idea that if we just tried harder, we’d “do parenting right”. Let’s face it: The relationship between us and our children is by definition imperfect. We have limited control over our own and our children’s fates. A million components besides how we behave toward them affect our children’s development and their relationships with us. Instead of trying to be a paragon of parenting, which none of us can be, better to acknowledge our inadequacies and simply be who we are; in most cases, it will suffice.
Parents as human: The right limits for your child
Did you know that parental behavior that’s mortal, i.e., not perfect, can actually aid in setting the limits that we know are essential for children? It’s precisely the parents who are willing to be less-than-perfect ― who are willing to make mistakes and take the blame, not simply give in to permissiveness ― who contribute the most toward their children’s emotional well-being. The parent who can relate to herself as a person with needs and feelings, and demand respect from her children, helps her children to live with healthy, appropriate boundaries.
Esther, an accountant and mother of two, tells how, as soon as she gave herself permission to listen to her own needs ― to be a person, not just a parent ― her relationship with her 15-year-old took a turn for the better:
“Since the girls were born, I’ve been “the good mother”: I was always available, never allowed tension between us. It’s not that I never got angry or never demanded anything of them ― on the contrary ― but the buck always stopped here when we quarreled; I never allowed tension for more than a few hours. I saw it as my responsibility as the parent to maintain a good relationship. I didn’t allow myself to feel hurt for more than a few minutes. I’d tell myself, “You’re the adult here. They need you”.
Then one day, my older daughter really hurt me. During an argument about homework, she spit out, “I’m sick of your nagging. You’re worse than a leech!” I was so hurt that even now I can’t believe it. It was so unfair of her to lay that on me after all the times I’ve helped her out. That was the moment: I was hurt, I got angry, and I decided that was it: This time I wasn’t going to be the one to apologize; she was going to have to come to me. It was hard; I struggled with myself as we didn’t speak except for essential words. I showed no interest in her schoolwork, I didn’t ask her about her day, I blocked every avenue of casual communication.
For the first few days, she tried to play it cool, as if all was okay and she couldn’t care less. Actually, she even warmed to her father, who was generally distant. They even formed a “front”, which angered me. But I kept quiet. I was in pain, but didn’t show it.
It went on this way for two weeks: I was so plagued, I couldn’t fall asleep at night. Then one night, my daughter asked if we could talk. I joyfully answered “yes”. I still get goosebumps thinking about that talk. She said to me, “I’m sorry for how I spoke to you. I realize I was out of line. I had a bad day that day, and I didn’t mean what I said. The last two weeks have been awful for me, but they were also important. It was the first time I learned what it is to be responsible for myself. You’ve always helped me, listened to me, and supported me even when you’ve been disappointed in me or angry with me. But this time, when you stayed angry and weren’t there for me, I had to think for myself. It’s the first time I’ve gone it alone, and it was good, even though it was hard.”
In his book Playing and Reality, psychoanalyst and child psychiatrist Donald W. Winnicott speaks of the “good-enough mother”, as opposed to the “too-good mother”. Winnicott’s theory explains the importance of setting limits for children as expressed via the mother as primary caregiver. According to Winnicott, a good-enough mother is one who is alert to her infant’s internal rhythms; who knows how to “read” its cries, whether signaling hunger, discomfort, or fatigue; who knows how to fulfill its changing needs. At the same time, the good-enough mother actually frustrates her infant; she doesn’t devote herself to her unreservedly; she teaches her through her interacting with her that she too exists, has needs, and in order to get along in society, there needs to be mutual consideration.
The too-good mother, in contrast, devotes herself utterly to her child: She doesn’t take a break, nor does she carve out space for herself, which can prove damaging to her child: The child of the too-good mother may not communicate well with her surroundings; she may grow up in her mother’s shadow, failing to develop an identity of her own. Moreover, the child of the too-good mother may develop a distorted view of life, a view that her mother “created the world”. In addition, the lines between fantasy and reality, between “I” and “the other” may not develop properly.
I, who myself am a veteran parent, recently experienced a “learning moment” when my own frustration, disappointment, and anger actually helped my son improve his behavior in our family. One evening, my younger son, Or, began showing signs of an asthma attack: He had difficulty breathing, his throat closed up, and he began to panic. Recognizing the symptoms, we rushed to open windows and move him toward the outside air.
At this time, Noam, our fourteen-year-old, was hosting his friend in the room he and Or shared. After getting Or under control, he wanted to go to his room, where his brother and friend were. Noam protested, but I didn’t want Or to start crying, as crying causes shortness of breath, so I hurried to the scene. I asked Noam to open a window for Or, but he adamantly refused. “How come?” I asked him. “Because!” was his reply. I asked him again, this time explaining my request, but he still refused. He should be ashamed of himself! I thought. I began getting angry, and said to Noam, “What are you thinking? You’d let your brother suffer just because you don’t want to feel a little cold air? What kind of person are you? I can’t believe you’re my son!” I turned around and stalked out. My rare show of anger appeared to have no effect on Noam.
Then the following morning, Noam caught me on my way out to buy groceries and said, “Dad, I’ll pick up breakfast today.” I was speechless. For years I’d been picking up our daily breakfast supplies, and despite all our efforts, had not once succeeded in getting any of the kids to do so. I was therefore shocked that on this of all mornings, Noam offered to go. The following day, as I again prepared to pick up groceries, I noticed Noam hurriedly dressing as he asked me, “Dad, what should I get at the store?” “We have enough milk; just bring rolls,” I replied, astonished. The scene replayed itself over the next several days. And there’s more: If a bag of garbage was waiting next to the door, Noam took it out ― for a change.
So, what had happened? From whence the change? I do know that on that same evening when I’d gotten angry at Noam, I was focused on myself and my anger; I didn’t care what the effect would be on him, whether I was justified in saying what I did, or anything else. I was so hurt by and disappointed in his behavior that I couldn’t think of anything except myself and my need to express my feelings. And that was actually the key: It was precisely my anger and disappointment that shook up my son, helping him to gain an accurate perspective of his place in the family. My anger had actually served to set limits for him, forcing him to consider other family members’ needs. While his later helpfulness was no doubt aimed at pleasing me, if the incident helped him understand the simple yet important principle of coexistence ― mutual consideration ―so much the better.
Naturally the capacity on the part of children to learn from their parents’ anger or frustration depends upon the overall network of relationships within a given family. In a healthy family there are enough positive expressions of emotion to give the children security, thereby making the child strong enough to withstand negative emotions as well. Parents’ showing human emotion, helping their children view their place in the family in a balanced way, would ideally be not only via shows of anger, but might also include the parent asking for the child’s assistance, sharing with the child feelings of distress or helplessness, and so forth.
Shimon, a printer, is the father of three. He survived a difficult childhood with an abusive father, with the abuse mostly aimed toward his mother. Shimon invests his entire being in his own family, withholding nothing from his children, despite economic struggles. He came to therapy because of his nine-year-old’s misbehavior at school: The boy can’t focus, is disruptive, and clowns around in class. Convinced that his son needs love and understanding, Shimon gets angry with himself when he occasionally blows up at his son. He tells him, “I’m willing to do anything to help you. Even though we’re struggling, don’t feel guilty. We’ll do anything for you.”
The son, for his part, feels good about his dad, remarking repeatedly on how much his dad does for him. Yet it appears that subconsciously, he’s absorbed the message: “You’re fine. They ― the school and / or us ― are the problem.” It appears that, influenced by his own difficult childhood, Shimon has repressed any troublesome or otherwise negative feelings toward his son. It was therefore a surprise to the entire family when during one of our sessions, Shimon burst out crying, saying:
“That same night that I hit him out of frustration, I couldn’t sleep. I was angry at myself, recalling what my father did to us growing up. I woke up my wife and told her, “That cannot happen again. We have to do something. He’s a good kid; there’s just something about him we aren’t getting.” That’s when I decided to come to therapy”.
The entire family was in shock; they’d never seen their father cry. Later on Shimon explained that he worked hard to make sure that no one in the family, particularly the children, knew of his pain, his guilt, nor any other negative feelings. He said:
“The last thing I want is for any of my children hurt. I suffer silently. Despite that I’m quite sensitive, they’d never seen me cry. I’d never shared my pain with them”.
In the wake of that dramatic session, an amazing change came over the troubled son. His misbehavior at school disappeared, and his schoolwork improved. His sisters, who up until then had had no patience for their wayward brother, now mobilized to help him. Their father’s frank exposure of his distress showed all the family members how much pain he was in. Because he had been an overall positive figure and fundamentally loved by his children, everyone rallied to help resolve the crisis.
What I learned from Shimon is that it’s not just OK ― it’s essential ― for parents to give themselves permission to be imperfect parents, for both their sakes and their children’s.
Parents as people: A model for your child’s identifying with you
The capacity of a parent to be a person and not just “doing a job” is an essential component of the process that leads to children identifying with their parents. Children need to get to know their parents as people with a spectrum of qualities in order to activate their natural inclination to want to be like them. In the absence of such basic familiarity with her parent, the parent will remain in the child’s mind an unattainable, distant object in the best case, or a faded image, disappointing and uninspiring, in the worst. How well do your children know you? How much do you allow themselves to be people, flesh-and-blood beings, and not just civil servants recruited for a job?
“I don’t feel a bond with my parents,” says Avi, 18. “It’s a shame that they never talked to me about anything except school. They don’t know me, and I don’t know them. It took them so long ― years ― to come to terms with the fact that I’m not fulfilling their expectations. They finally stopped talking to me about school, but now there’s nothing left to say. The only legacy they left me is ‘correct’ behavior and lectures that I’ve memorized word for word. I see masks instead of my parents’ faces, and behind the masks ― emptiness.”
I hear many such descriptions of alienation between parents and children. Here, for example, is what German-Jewish writer Peter Weiss wrote in his book Leavetaking: “I have often tried to come to an understanding of the images of my father and my mother, to strike a balance between rebellion and submission, but I have never been able to comprehend the essence of these two portal figures of my life. Their almost simultaneous deaths showed me how estranged I had become from them. The grief that overwhelmed me was not aimed at them, for I hardly knew them; it was for all the missed opportunities that had surrounded my childhood and youth with a yawning emptiness”.
Many fathers in particular find it difficult to find their “human voice” in their families, among other reasons because of their difficulty in expressing emotion, particularly “softer” emotions such as love, longing, compassion, or anxiety. In one of his letters to his father4, a 33-year-old Franz Kafka wrote example after example of the abyss that lay between he and his father, and the tensions that underlay their relationship, which Kafka blamed for his lack of confidence and lack of capacity to enter into marriage. It’s wrenching to read of Kafka’s craving not only for empathy from his father, but for glimpses of pain or tenderness in his father, even if not directed toward him:
I was a timid child. For all that, I am sure I was also obstinate, as children are. I am sure that Mother spoiled me too, but I cannot believe I was particularly difficult to manage; I cannot believe that a kindly work, a quiet taking by the hand, a friendly look, could not have got me to do anything that was wanted of me. Now you are, after all, basically a charitable and kindhearted person,…but not every child has the endurance and fearlessness to go on searching until it comes to the kindliness that lies beneath the surface…
Fortunately, there were exceptions to all this, mostly when you suffered in silence, and affection and kindliness by their own strength overcame all obstacles, and moved me immediately. Rare as this way, it was wonderful. For instance, in earlier years, in hot summers, when you were tired after lunch, I saw you having a nap at the office, your elbow on the desk; or you joined us in the country, in the summer holidays, on Sundays, worn out from work; or the time Mother was gravely ill and you stood holding onto the bookcase, shaking with sobs; or when, during my last illness, you came tiptoeing to Ottla’s room to see me, stopping in the doorway, craning your neck to see me, and out of consideration only waved to me. At such times one would lie back and weep for happiness, and one weeps again now, writing it down.
In my work with families, I often encounter a painful cry for help on the part of teens ― even if not conscious or expressed verbally ― who are sorely missing their fathers as flesh-and-blood beings who are present in their families.
Take for example Yotám, 16, son of wealthy, educated parents and brother to a 14-year-old sister. Yotám had effectively dropped out of school, gave money away to friends, and clashed constantly with his parents, particularly his father, toward whom he felt ambivalence: While he admired his father and wished they could be closer amidst of his solitude and distress, Yotám’s also felt awkward and embarrassed at the thought of his father’s reaching out to him or sharing his feelings, so he distanced himself. Thus a vicious circle was created wherein the gap between the two widened, making it even more difficult for Yotám to identify with his father, thereby distancing the two even further, and so forth. The father for his part didn’t make things any easier: He maintained his own solitude, functioning only in his role as father, setting limits, and fulfilling his obligations to his family. Here’s how Yotam describes the situation:
“Dad never talks to me about things that cause him pain or disturb him ― real things. I actually know nothing about him; Except for that he’s my dad, I don’t know who he is. He’s distant, closed, inaccessible. I have no idea how I’d react if he were to talk to me about his sexual experiences, for instance. On the other hand, he expects me to share with him what’s bothering me. But I don’t ― not with him or anyone else. I guess I’m like him that way, hiding my true feelings from everyone.”
Fathers who experience difficulty communicating with their kids and who want to change that admit that it’s harder than they’d imagined. In order to do so, they must improve their communication with themselves. In order to be able to develop close and frank communication with one’s children, one must get in touch with one’s own feelings and be able to express them to others, as well as to oneself.
Author Nurit Zarchi once quoted her beloved fellow author Isak Dinesen as having said, “The mask is our real face, because while we receive our faces from Nature, our masks we choose for ourselves, so that they become our faces”, to which Zarchi added, “I have the feeling that God put Chinese boxes5 into our souls, and the [purpose of] our life journey is to break them wide open and expose their secrets. We don’t need to decode them, just open them and reveal what lays inside.” As long as fathers hide behind their “parent masks”, no chance of getting closer to their children exists.
Aryeh is a divorced father of two who started therapy because of his frustration with his relationship with his 14-year-old. Aryeh felt that his son had little regard for him and had pushed him away. Aryeh felt helpless in the face of his son’s closing himself into his room and in the difficulty in communicating with him: “He just doesn’t answer anything I ask except to grumble his discontent. There’s no talking to him!” Aryeh perceived his son as egocentric and self-centered, and was often angry with him for it. He also felt that he’d failed to teach him consideration and openness.
Over the course of therapy, Aryeh began to understand that his attempts to change his son’s behavior ― even with the intention of making him a better person ― were actually perpetuating the negative pattern between them. As a father, Aryeh took the stance of the authoritative parent, lecturing and getting angry at his son for neglecting chores and schoolwork. The son for his part played the role of rebellious teen, getting defensive and closing himself off.
Then Aryeh discovered cause of his son’s suspiciousness and hostility: accumulated frustration over school and his parents’ divorce, causing him to blame his environment. In nearly every situation, the son felt attacked from the outset, even before surveying the situation and others’ attempts to reach out to him. The more Aryeh tried to play the role of the moralizing parent, the more his son distanced himself.
During the course of therapy, Aryeh learned to own his feelings toward his son, i.e., “It’s really unpleasant to have him in the house”, without instantly transforming it into anger. He learned to acknowledge his own need for a relationship with his son beyond simply rearing him. He learned the difference between saying to a child, “I want to talk to you about the abysmal state of your schoolwork / your neglect of your chores” (the parental role), and “I need to talk to you, because I feel distant from you (the personal approach). He also learned the difference between getting angry at a child who shuts himself into his room and watches TV all day (parental role) and asking permission to enter his room, sitting beside him while he watches TV, hugging him, and suggesting to him that after he’s finished watching, he do his homework (parent as human). He learned the difference between lecturing a child on the importance of doing well in school and accusing him of not asking for help even though it’s offered (the moralizing parent) and simply saying, “You’re important to me. I’m concerned about you and I’m here for you anytime you need me” (parent as support).
Despite their generally superior communication skills, mothers too fall into the “parental role” trap. The ultimate responsibility that mothers feel in all things connected to child-rearing makes it difficult for them to develop open relationships with their children. Being a 24 / 7 parent impedes mothers from establishing genuine communication with their offspring. Instead, most communication focuses on the concrete, giving rise to conflicts surrounding homework, hygiene, tidying, e.g., “What did you do at school all day?” “How come you’re not doing your homework?” “Clean your room!” “Put your backpack away, not on the floor” “Get ready for practice” “You’re not dressed warmly enough”.
In her 1989 book Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich gives her wonderful comparison between motherhood, i.e., the primary and natural bond between mother and child, and motherhood as institution, i.e., the social role imposed upon mothers. The experience of mothering, Rich claims, is based on a natural bond between the bodies of the mother and her young, and on the experiences that they undergo together in the nurturing process. In contrast, the institution of motherhood is based entirely on an asymmetric relationship wherein the mother plays the role of guide and mentor who creates a physical and psychological topography between herself and her young, and is not free to explore the world with her child in a creative fashion. Motherhood as institution is made up entirely of obligation and responsibility; there is no place therein for a relationship between equals. It is actually indentured servitude to the practicalities of child-rearing, i.e., attending to the child’s physical needs, its nutrition, its cleanliness and warmth, as well as to an abstract role that is social and not personal, i.e., passing on social codes of acceptable and unacceptable, important and unimportant, forbidden and permitted.
A story told by the Rebbe of Kochek:
It is told of a man who had memory problems; he couldn’t recall even what had occurred the day before. One night, he began making a list of where he’d placed all of his garments. When he rose the next morning, he took the list and read, “Here’s where I put my hat,” and placed it on his head. “Here’s where I put my shoes,” and put them on. And so it went. After he’d located all his clothes, he pondered for a while, then asked, “Now then. Where did I put myself?”
The work of parenting is complex and intense, so it’s not surprising when we lose our way. The danger of parenting is that we get so busy playing our role as parents that we forget ourselves in the process: We forget that it’s OK to be overwhelmed, that it’s OK for us not to be perfect, that we’re also someone’s romantic partner, that we have social needs that are not met by our children. In this sense, the purpose of this book is to help parents to not forget themselves as people.
As I’ve tried to illustrate, making room in the family for the parent’s personality need not come at the expense of the child, and need not harm the parent-child relationship. On the contrary, parents who listen to themselves and not only to their children help their children to live within realistic social boundaries; enrich their relationship with their children, and increase their children’s identification with them.
Parents grapple daily with an inner conflict: To whose needs shall I be true when it comes to brass tacks? My child’s? Or mine? When parents learn to place themselves at the center of their families, this inner conflict is actually sharpened. That’s what I’ll address in the next chapter.
1 Sol Gordon. Parents’ Bill of rights.
2 Martin Buber (1979) The Hidden Light.
3 “Modern Times”, April 23, 1997.
4 Franz Kafka (1966) Letter to my Father.
5 I.e., nested trick boxes.
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