Counselling Children and Young People Conference, Nov 07

Saturday, 02 April 2011 01:56

Lecture for Counselling Children and Young People Conference, London, November 24, 2007

My Mother Still Thinks I’m a Child (Published as Not ill but lazy, June 2008)

Long before we are able to define who we are as a person, our parents impose upon us their ideas about who we are. We are given a role in the family, and we are seen as possessing certain simple but unchangeable characteristics. As teenagers we might try to force our parents to relinquish their ideas about who we are, and to see us as we know ourselves to be, but rarely are we successful. When our parents hold fast to their ideas, they are doing so not merely out of mental laziness. They have personal reasons for keeping us in the role to which they have assigned us.

When I was a child my mother saw my one over-riding, defining characteristic as being lazy. Certainly I was not always enthusiastic about the household tasks my mother imposed on her daughters from the day they were big enough to hold a duster, but I was always enthusiastic about learning and doing new things. However, my lungs were succumbing to a disease, bronchiectasis, which made breathing difficult. I wanted to be active but from time to time I was overcome by a peculiar physical weakness brought on by a lack of oxygen. All this my mother ignored. To her I was lazy.

Years passed. I went to university, became a teacher, got married. When I became pregnant I continued teaching as long as possible. My husband had just established his own legal practice and my salary was an important part of our finances. When I did leave work there was a good deal for me to do in preparing our house for the baby. Suddenly my ankles swelled. This could have been the start of toxaemia. My doctor sent me to hospital and ordered complete bed rest until the baby could be induced. Afterwards my mother came to see me. She asked why the birth was induced. I explained about the threat of toxaemia. She asked, ‘What caused that?’ I replied that my doctor thought it was a result of my working too hard and not taking enough rest.

‘That’s not true, Dorothy,’ she said, ‘You never work hard.’

My mother was not a stupid woman incapable of understanding the doctor’s explanation. She had her own personal reasons for persisting in her belief that I was lazy.

My mother was the fourth of six children born to two people whom we might nowadays describe as having been inadequately parented. My grandfather, son of a Scottish miner, had been ordered from the family home by his father on the day he turned seventeen, and told to fend for himself. He went as a poor migrant to Australia where he worked, first as a sugar cane cutter and then as a miner. My grandmother was the daughter of a convict. He left the family when my grandmother was four. Her mother gave her away to a family who were prepared to take her in. As we now know, people who are inadequately parented are unlikely to know how to parent. My mother hated her father, an obstinate, bad-tempered man who expected his family, including his wife, to obey him without question. The attachment my mother had to her mother was what we now call anxious attachment.

My mother’s birth was soon followed by the birth of a son who became my grandmother’s favourite, and he was followed by another girl. Any child in my mother’s position would have felt lost and alone. However, my mother, who was called Ella, acquired a means of gaining attention and care. She developed asthma. The attacks of asthma were seen by her family as resulting from her becoming upset. A family rule, which became my family’s rule, was, ‘Don’t upset Ella.’ This rule made her very powerful. My father and sister were remarkably healthy, but my state of health was seen by my mother a threat to her position. She dealt with this threat by ignoring it or by becoming angry if I dared to show that I was ill. Dorothy wasn’t ill: she was lazy.

By believing this, my mother was defending what we all need to defend, our sense of being a person. The last time I spoke at this conference[i] I talked about how our brain is constantly engaged in interpreting what is going on. I described the sense of being a person in terms of a metaphor of a stream and a whirlpool. Our brain creates a stream of interpretations. A stream of water sometimes encounters an obstacle which causes the water to swirl around in one place. We call such a swirl a whirlpool, and speak of this whirlpool as if it were separate from the stream. In a similar way our stream of interpretations seems to form a kind of a whirlpool which has sufficient permanence to create consciousness and our sense of being a person.

Once we acquire a sense of being a person we try to keep it whole, but, as all our interpretations are no more than guesses about what is going on, the ideas which sustain our sense of being a person can be invalidated. Our ideas can be invalidated by events, but, more often than not, they can be invalidated by other people. In a family like my mother’s, where affection was never shown, where anger was sudden, fierce and dangerous, and not forgiving was a matter of pride indulged in for whole lifetimes and in each generation, a small child would have to seize upon whatever defensive method became available in order to keep herself whole. My mother learned to behave in the way her parents and older siblings behaved. In adult life she never reflected upon her behaviour but always had a ready supply of justifications for what she did. When the writer Ernest Hemingway was once asked what a person needed in order to become a writer, he replied, ‘An unhappy childhood.’ Being the child of my mother was certainly great training for becoming a psychologist.

Parents impose different ideas upon their different children, and children respond in their own individual ways to the ideas imposed on them.  In his novel Seven Lies [ii]James Lasdun showed how two siblings dealt very differently with the threat to their sense of being a person. The novel is set in East Germany in the years leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Life in a communist country with its demands that all its citizens conform to the state was full of threats to the sense of being a person. People had to give up or repress aspects of themselves which were important to them. Sometimes these were central to their very being; sometimes they were conceits which assured them that they were better than other people. Stephan, the child who narrates the story, said of his mother and her brother Heinrich that they ‘were of blue-blooded Silesian descent. Naturally this was not something to brag about in communist East Germany, and they had been quick to drop the ‘von’ from the family name after the war. But in their quietly indomitable way, these two had maintained a sense of themselves as somehow ineffably superior to other people, and moreover they had managed to transmit this sense to those around them, not by any crude arrogance or self-aggrandisement, but by a certain aristocratic froideur , a mixture of haughty reserve and sudden graciousness, which bewildered people, intimidated them, and filled them with a kind of strained awe.’

Stephan’s father was a government official who occasionally went abroad with a delegation. The possibility arose that the family would be moving to the USA, but the father made a mistake in protocol and he returned home in disgrace. The mother, needing to shore up her battered self-image, created the fantasy that hers was an artistic family. She developed a tawdry kind of salon where the participants were mediocre artists and writers who were supported by the state.

However, this was not enough for the mother. She was neither an artist nor a writer, so she decided that her two sons would fulfil these roles. Stephan said, ‘Mother created a kind of soirée. It was during this period that I first heard myself being referred to as the family ‘poet-intellectual’ It was done so casually that I didn’t consciously notice it until it had insinuated itself into my own image of myself. I therefore didn’t react to it with the suspicion or perplexity I should have. As our artistic gatherings consolidated themselves into regular soirées and I heard my mother introduce me as our literary man’, our own ‘poet-intellectual’, often adding, ‘He reads all the time. It’s impossible to drag him away from a book once he’s started; just like I was at his age.’ I felt it was one of those immemorial truths about oneself that are so well established they are almost too boring to mention. It was like she’s said, He’s rather small for his age, or, He’s always had a sweet tooth. The fact that I’d never written a poem, and that I never read a book unless I had to for class, was neither here nor there.’

Then his mother tried to turn his brother Otto into the artistic one of the family. He was sent to drawing classes and given a box of highgrade French charcoals. After a few classes he refused to attend any more. ‘When finally she threatened to punish him if he didn’t keep at it, he broke the charcoals, ripped the sketchbooks to pieces and exploded at her with such savage virulence that she - even she- had been forced to back down. Otto now occupied an anomalous, private, decultured zone within the family: tolerated but not much more.’ Stephan said, ‘I’m not sure whether I simply lacked his courage to be himself, or whether I’d allowed myself to be tainted by the thought that I might actually be that potent and glamorous things, an artist.’

By refusing to accept the label his mother wanted to impose on him Otto was disposed and virtually expelled from the family. Stephan accepted the label and, in effect, accepted the lie, and went on to create more and more lies, all compounded by the fact that he was living in a state that governed by lying. His life ended in tragedy.

There must be some fortunate children whose self-image actually is the same as that which their parents have imposed on them, but such people are unlikely to become our clients. I have met a number of people who have told me that they are happy to live according to their parents’ image of them rather than as they know themselves to be, but I cannot accept such statements at face value. One of the greatest satisfactions in life is to have a friend who sees and accepts us as we know ourselves to be, while there is no loneliness like the loneliness of being with people who see us as being someone who we are not. However, for a great many people, feeling themselves to be virtuous is more important than feeling happy.

Stephan’s mother wanted to create a family myth which gave her family and herself status, but the family myth as based on a lie, as family myths so often are. In a workshop I was running on sibling relationships Virginia told how her family’s myth was that theirs was a happy family. This was a lie. To maintain the family myth, and its lie, Virginia had to accept the role of ‘the good child’.

When I was researching for my book about siblings, My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend [iii] I encountered many people who told me that in their family there was the good child and the bad child. ‘Good’ in this context does not mean the usual list of virtues but how the parents define ‘good’. In one family being ‘the sporty child’ might be ‘the good child’, and in another family ‘the sporty child’ might be ‘the bad child’, in the way that in a family where the parents value academic success ‘the sporty child’ might be seen as being unintelligent and therefore ‘the bad child’.

Virginia’s parents had moved from being working class to being middle class by virtue of their academic success but they did not feel secure in this upward mobility. They saw it as dangerous failure to let their colleagues and neighbours know that their marriage was far from happy. Indeed, the parents had frequent heated, bitter quarrels, at the end of which the father would withdraw to his study and the mother to her bedroom to suffer a migraine. Their son, older than Virginia, responded with rage to his parents’ rages. From being a toddler Virginia had seen her role as that of the peace maker. After her parents had retired to their rooms Virginia would go first to her father’s study. She would ask him the questions about his work which she knew would please him and bring his rage with his wife to an end. She would then take a tray of tea to her mother and see that she was comfortable. She could never find a reliable means of pacifying her brother, and so the most she could achieve was an uncertain peace. However, she became an expert in maintaining the family lie. She was always smiling and happy, and as ‘the happy good child’ she proved to outsiders that this was a happy family.

Virginia did not lie to herself. She knew that her family was not a happy one and that she herself was not happy. She also knew why she continued in adult life to be the peace maker. Confrontations terrified her. She had to bring them to an end to make herself safe. Unwittingly, she had become an expert in conflict resolution. Her colleagues saw her as invaluable and did not stint their gratitude and praise. From their comments in our workshop it seemed that they might not have encouraged her to do some assertiveness training and thus overcome her fear of confrontation. Had she done so she might not have been so readily available as a mediator. It seemed that her colleagues wanted her to be ‘the good child’ for them as she had been for her parents.

As therapists we spend a good deal of time encouraging our individual clients to change in way which would benefit them. We often forget that, if our clients change, their family has to change how they see them. Families often resist changing because any change might upset the power balance within the family. Dalton Conley is an American psychologist who has studied how a family’s political and economic balance changes over time. His research has shown that there is no universal pecking order of children in a family. The oldest child is not necessarily powerful and bossy and the youngest not necessarily a spoilt baby.[iv] However, within each family there is a pecking order in which each child has been assigned or has negotiated a certain degree of power and status. The pecking order is a delicate balance which rests in part on the role which each child has been given. For instance, in Virginia’s family the brother could indulge himself in bad temper because Virginia had accepted the roles of the peace maker and the good child. Had she been able to express her sadness and her anger, the family might have fallen apart, and the brother would have lost what security he had within his modestly wealthy family.

We should not be surprised when a family who has come to us asking for help for their troubled child resists all our attempts to help the child to change. Nor should we be surprised when, no matter how much we change as the years go by, our mother still regards us as a child.

[i] Dorothy Rowe A Whirlpool in a Stream CCYP Journal March 2007


[ii] James Lasdun Seven Lies Jonathan Cape, London 2006


[iii] Routledge


[iv] Dalton Conley The Pecking Order Pantheon, New York, 2004