Death Valley, California
May 2, 2017
Let Your Children Go
Inevitably, someone stumbles into depth psychotherapists’ offices struggling with a problem acutely troubling them. It is an occupational hazard. If lucky, it facilitates their growth. If unlucky, it just hurts. Working as a psychodynamic psychotherapist requires facing the intricacies of people’s internal worlds — the demons and the angels.
I’ve been at it for three decades now. And, I have had my share of painful reactions to my patients’ struggles.
A few weeks ago, a patient of mine brought up a topic which triggered despair related to my role as father to my two daughters.
Unknown to him, I became a co-patient, a partner, a co-conspirator.
The man — a tall, think, middle-aged Latino business owner — enjoyed a loving relationship with his two sons. He had worked hard for years to provide for them. He and his wife saved money so they could travel every year. They covered much of the globe — Europe, Russia, Japan.
He complained bitterly that his now-adult children had rejected his offer for a vacation.
Can you believe they won’t go to Barcelona, all expenses paid?
He sat forward while speaking, obviously agitated. His eyes filled with tears. He had just proposed an annual family trip, starting with Spain. He hoped to make it a tradition.
Although he used the word “rejection,” his children had, in fact, politely declined. They had work commitments. Limited paid time off. They wanted to time to spend with their friends.
Our ensuing conversation encompassed the existential and the imaginary. My inside voice said,
They sound ungrateful.
Paradoxically, I also heard the song,
Let My People Go.
Looking out through misty eyes, he reflected on the situation. He seemed stuck in an earlier period in time, clinging to a stage of life already passed. Mostly, he was mourning his children’s entirely normal maturation. He and his wife had been devoted parents who helped create independent young men with full occupational, social, and recreational lives. Both boys were in their late twenties. Both lived in different cities. One had married.
His emotional pain was existential. It related to the process of living, of existence. Children grow up quickly. It takes remarkable maturity on the part of parents to update their mental images of them, to match the internal with the external.
Sometimes, parents cling to their children, unconsciously using them for their own needs and delaying their capacity to separate and individuate. As he and I also came to understand, this additional, more problematic layer of interpersonal contract with his children also existed. It related more to his childhood trauma than to existential themes.
As it turns out, he had been neglected during his childhood. Worse, he had been emotionally and, possibly, physically abused. Unconsciously compensating for his own injuries, he had steadfastly created a strong, loving bond, a “gang of four.” He hoped the closeness of his own nuclear family would repair his own wounds.
He thought the warm, loving environment would nurture the self-image of the two boys. It did. Unconsciously, however, he benefited from the love his sons showered onto him.
Manna from Heaven, he said.
He shared stories. He wept while remembering a family trip to Flagstaff when the boys were around 5 and 7 years old. They went swimming. A thunderstorm showered rain and on the three of them. Lightening bolts struck the nearby mountains. His wife was furious. He recalled the boys wrapping their arms around his neck, eliciting a previously-unknown lack of self-consciousness. He felt an adoration he never had before.
In this realm, my patient’s distress resulted more from the imaginary than the existential. He had imagined children repairing his injuries. They did, but only when they were young. His wife and sons still shared memories of weekend outings, barbecues, vacations. They, in fact, enjoyed a rather ideal two decades.
As it inevitably does, though, “the arrow of time,” to borrow Newton’s phrase, progressed. The boys grew up. He found himself alone with his wife again, his “substitute” parents absent, gone.
In a sense, he was re-traumatized by entirely normal events.
My patient suffered in direct proportion to his success as a parent.
His children had “moved on.”
He would always be their one and only father. But, like the moral of King Lear, the boys needed to make their own lives — their work, their loves, their play.
At this point in the session, the song in my head changed. I heard Harry Chapin’s song, “Cats in the Cradle:”
I’ve long since retired and my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, I’d like to see you if you don’t mind
He said, I’d love to, dad, if I could find the time
You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kid’s got the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me
The concept of an alter ego offers one way to understand the process of parenting children. When tending to an infant, you serve an essentially 100 percent alter ego function. The infant is completely dependent. You provide sustenance, shelter — all forms of care. You are their alter-ego.
Slowly, infants develop a primitive sense of self or ego. They begin speaking, generally one word by the end of their first year. They utter two or more words by the end of their second. Their growth progresses exponentially. By age three, they can feed and dress themselves with minimal supervision. They speak their minds.
The gradual transition from complete dependence to independence becomes more obvious beyond age three. No one achieves independence, though, leading me to prefer the developmental model of psychoanalyst R.W.D. Fairbairn. We begin life in a state of infantile dependency, pass through a transition, and then develop mature dependence. Our dependencies become diversified.
Therefore, the alter-ego phenomenon never goes to zero. I can imagine an 80 year-old giving financial advice, or even relationship advice, to his or her 50 year-old-daughter.
You’re always the parent. But your kids develop their own egos, and ultimately become the alter-egos for their own children.
Having two grown daughters of my own, I understood my patient’s pain. He reminded me of my oft-spoken rant:
“Who invented this lousy Darwinian plan?”
You devote yourselves to your children. Then, they grow up and leave you.
But dig this foundational, inarguable truth:
That is the plan.
See Disney’s The Lion King.
It’s the cycle of life.
Remember the Red Queen hypothesis from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass?
She described her country as a place where “it takes all the running you can do just to stay in the same place.”
In other words, evolve or die.
As I bring this missive to a close, I write to myself as much as to you:
Remember the always-active, intense dynamism of life. Your three-year-old is not your ten-year-old. It’s tough to keep up.
Listen to your children. If you really hear them, you’ll see them changing. You’ll appreciate them as they unfold over the years.
Keep talking. Dialogue goes both ways. They need to hear how you’ve changed and grown, too.
And, finally, let them go. You will always be their one and only father or mother.
If you’ve succeeded in your parenting task, you’ve contributed to spinning off a shimmering singularity, a shining, unique individual.
Way to go.
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