This week I have been thinking about the way in which children at risk of alienation make transitions to and from their parents. I have been thinking about how, when parents separate, their first psycholgocial reaction is to retreat back to their family of origin how this, if it is an unhealthy environment, becomes the crucible for developing an alienation reaction.
For our family of origin, our tribe, our primitive sense of identity and belonging, is the place where we learn to be who we are. Who we are, in relationship to others, is driven by the messages and the teachings we received in the bosom of our family, however that was constructed around us.
When we enter into a relationship with another, our task, after the biological business of falling in love and bonding is done, is to find a way to weave together the two sides of our family narratives. For when we are together and especially when we create a child, we are bringing together a new narrative, made of the strands of our individual learnings about self and security to create a new family story which is all our own.
Not many people go into the business of making a baby with that knowledge at the forefront of their minds. Which means it is little wonder that so many find it a hard task, when the baby is born, to determine how this new narrative will be shaped.
Most of us just stumble along trying not to bugger it up too much and most of us, eventually, rub the corners off the other so that the new family narrative begins to emerge, trial and error like, into the consciousness of the growing child. This narrative is made up of all of the elements which each parent finds acceptable and useful and sometimes the odd element which, if not acceptable is at least tolerable. For others however, the attempt to create this new story for their child fails miserably, leaving the child with a fractured sense of who they are and an inability to weave the two sides of their heritage together. This renders children vulnerable to becoming infused only with one story, one narrative, one side of who they are. The danger for children then is that losing that story leads to loss of heritage, loss of continuity and loss of the ability, when they become parents, to weave another story for another generation.
And it is not difficult to eradicate this in a child, not difficult at all. All it takes is the inability to weave two different narratives together, given that none of us are taught how to do this by anyone other than our own parents and grandparents, is it any wonder that generation after generation, children now do not receive those building blocks for relational life? This lack of ability to weave narratives is so common now I fear we may lose it all together if we do not talk about it. This then, is how it happens.
Monika marries Martin. Monika comes from Sweden and Martin comes from Macclesfield. In Monika’s childhood, her mother and father were intensively involved in all aspects of hands on care and she grew up without any consciousness of there being much of a difference between her dad cooking and cleaning or changing nappies and her mum. In Martin’s childhood, his mum was at home all day as she did not go out to work and his dad was a miner out all day from dawn til dusk and exhausted when he got home.
In Martin’s childhood, pride in the traditional family was high and his father taught him that love means always being able to provide for your family no matter how tough that was for a man. In Monika’s childhood, mother was just as likely to be absent after school as father and pride in the family rested upon sharing responsibilities for every aspect of home care, child care and provision for the family.
Monika found in Martin, in the early days at least, the greatest sense of security. Here is a man who will take care of me, who will feed the hunger in me for the masculinity which makes me feel very safe and secure in the world. Martin found in Monika a route to the part of himself unexpressed thus far in his life, the tenderest parts, the ways in which she valued his gentle soul as well as his traditional expression of masculinity.
For a time, each filled up the empty parts of the other and balance and harmony was reached.
And then their first child was born.
On the morning of the arrival of his daughter Marianna, Martin experienced the most acute sense of anxiety he had ever encountered. As he held his tiny child in his arms, he found himself promising her that he would always look after her, always love her and always provide for her. On that morning, Martin encountered the most powerful internalised driver in his unconscious self, the need to provide because loving your family means providing for them.
On the same morning, Monika woke from her sleep after giving birth to Marianna and laid quietly thinking of all the things she and Martin would do for Marianna together. She imagined the road ahead as being just as it was in her childhood, a seeingly seamless partnership in which Marianna would rest in the comfort of two parents working perfectly as a team. Loving your family, in Monika’s world is about sharing every aspect of life together.
The divorce papers, when Martin received them, stated irreconcilable differences. Monika’s horror of the differences which opened up between them in parenting Marianna, translated into those two words – irreconcilable difference. Monika’s narrative however, fanned by the flames of her family of origin, was more toxic than that. Martin had failed to be a good father because he had failed to be like her father, rendering her attempts to be like her mother, in the parenting relationship with Martin, impossible.
Martin on the other hand was simply bewildered. His efforts to love (provide) for his family had been rejected, his attempts to change and share the tasks of care and provision had produced such anxiety that he had become unwell and now he faced the allegation that, having failed to prove that he was a good father, he could not and should not share the care of his beloved daughter Marianna.
Monika, despite all of her cultural beliefs and her upbringing, could only see failure in Martin. Martin, despite all of his efforts to love his family, could only see cruelty and control in Monika. Their families were horrified by the way in which the other family (tribe) had behaved so badly. Sabres were rattling, blame throwers were in operation, Marianna, in the middle of this, was somehow forgotten.
In a sail boat made of sand, this little girl set out to cross this toxic sea every Saturday morning. On Friday evenings, her maternal grandmother would arrive and baby sit her, talking anxiously to her about how her daddy should be looking after her more and how her mummy was so worried. The next morning, whilst granny wept at the window, Marianna would put on her back pack and walk uncertainely to the car with her mummy, whose face was etched with anxiety and whose lips were pursed in a tight frame of fury.
Marianna climbed into the car each Saturday morning with a weight on her back which was not in her back pack. Each week it felt heavier and heavier. When she arrived at the other edge of the toxic sea, she could see her daddy waiting for her in his car and her heart began to beat faster because this was the hardest part of the crossing, the part in which the little sail boat she was riding in began to crumble, like a sand bank when the tide is coming in.
Martin had set out that day trying his hardest to calm his mother who was angry about how Monika was treating him. ‘Be a man’ were the words his mother used and they rang in his ears as he drove to collect his daughter. As he saw the car roll around the corner, Martin gripped the steering wheel hard. How much love he felt for his daughter, how much he desperately needed to protect her, care for her, love her, provide for her. Martin climbed out of the car with his mirror neurons* closed down and his reptilian brain on fire. He did all he could to contain his feelings of frustration.
Monika climbed out of the car with her mirror neurons closed down and her defences high. Her mother’s anxiety and the sense of injustice that Martin had failed her, drove her anxiety into overdrive.
Between these two people who made her, Marianna set off to cross the toxic sea, in the last vestiges of her little sail boat made of sand.
On the toxic sea, Marianna’s mirror neurons were trying their hardest to find those flashes of responding that would tell her she was safe. Her mother and father glared at each other and in the silent storm between them there were no lights twinkling to guide Marianna on her way.
Her little heart was beating fast, she hoped that she would make it. In the roar and the crash of the waves all around her, the only family narrative that she could hear was that loving two parents is an impossible dream.
* Mirror Neurons, those little lights in our brains that flash and twinkle when we love someone, it makes us mirror the other’s behaviour and builds empathic bonding. When they are closed down, attachment is impossible.
The information about Mirror Neurons and attachment comes from the research upon which, Penelope Leach bases her decisions that children under five should not make transitions to and from each parent. Surely, knowing the importance of fathers and of family narratives, the right thing to do, the human thing, the thing that creates a healthier, child focused world post separation, is to teach parents how to manage their mirror neurons so that the sea is not so toxic and the twinkling lights on either side can guide their children back and forth. I simply do not understand why, if we have that knowledge, it is not made available to every single parent in the land. My mission is to make it available, so that parents, not preaching experts, can guide their children home.