On International Women’s Day and amidst a growing wave of negative transference, it is time to pause and look at the ways in which mothers and fathers suffer the experience of being rejected by their child differently.
By focusing on mothers today, I am, by no means suggesting, that women suffer more or that mothers are somehow more important. Women suffer in the alienation landscape differently to men and they are also pushed out of their children’s lives differently too. That does not mean anything other than the way they live this experience is different and it is always important to understand that equality does not mean treating everyone the same, equality means treating people differently in order to enable them to have an equal voice.
Having worked with equality issues for much of my life, the issue of how mothers and fathers experience rejection by their child is one which is of great interest to me. The way in which mothers and fathers who are rejected by a child are perceived by societies is also an important interest. Jennifer Harman’s research on this aspect of parental alienation is informative in this and it is the way that mothers are conceptualised in society which brings with it the deepest levels of shame that we see when children reject parents.
Despite feminism, as women we are still raised with the idea that the very essence of motherhood is that we are the most important parent in the child’s life and that our role is primarily that of mothering and that all else comes next. This is such a confusing message in a world that also tells women that they must be working outside of the home, successful in everything they do and at the point of separation they absolutely must assume primary care of the children.
Mothers are most often alienated in a pattern of behaviour which is the very definition of coercive control. The removal of the right to care and share the upbringing of a child through the control of the child’s mind and feelings about their mother is often an overt strategy which begins with very common language patterns. In our assessment work with families where children are rejecting their mother we hear the same repeated phrases from fathers –
‘She wasn’t interested in the children when they were born’
‘She isn’t very motherly, she is more masculine and interested in working’
‘She has some kind of psychiatric disorder that prevents her from connecting to the children’
‘I would love them to have a relationship with her but she is mad/bad/sad’
Commonly used phrases in mother alienation – FSC 2019
When we investigate a child’s rejection of a mother we seek to understand the patterns of behaviours in the family leading up to the child’s outright refusal. What we most often witness are the terrorisation of the mother and the witnessing of this by the children. In that scenario, the inter-psychic messages being given to the children are that their mother is unable to be strong enough to protect them and in the dynamic which is described as identification with the aggressor, the terrorised child identifies not with the mother they love and are afraid for, but the aggression of the father. This is a survival mechanism which is largely unconscious and employed as a defence by the child because if their intra-psychic awareness is that they will be targeted next and their mother cannot protect them from that, their only option is to bend to the aggressors will in order to survive.
If we keep in mind that the child in the post separation landscape is highly attuned to the different messages passing between parents in a space which has now opened up between them, it is easy to see how mothers who leave and hope that their children will be able to manage that space are eventually condemned to the fate of losing their children completely. This space is not a neutral space and the children are not impartial in this space either, they are vulnerable to whoever is willing to take control over them. When the child says an absolute no therefore, to a relationship with a parent, in the absence of any abusive behaviour by the parent who is being rejected, it is an indication that they have had to use the defence of psychological splitting in order to survive what has happened to them.
Defensive splitting, which only happens when the child is in an intolerable position and unable any longer to hold two realities in mind, causes a child to become fixed and rejecting and at the same time, in the case of being forced into splitting by a father, the child suffers a traumatic bonding which is caused by the fear that they feel of the father. A fear that they turn into loving the father blindly as part of the defence they are using to survive.
I should say here that the alienation of a father is no less traumatic for a child who is forced to split by an alienating mother but it is different. Children who are forced into psychological splitting by their mothers are more likely to suffer enmeshment and the inability to experience themselves separately from their mother who colonises their experience and renders it indivisible from her own.
Death of the psychologically healthy child by suffocation with the mother’s own unresolved needs (enmeshment) is what we see most often in children who are rejecting their father. Death of the psychologically healthy child by terrorisation of the child into identification with the aggressor (stockholm syndrome) is what we see in mother rejection.
To give voice to mothers who are alienated we worked on a project called Living Losses in 2015. This brought together a number of mothers to share the common threads in their experience. The words of mothers whose children had rejected them after separation can be heard as part of that project. (press the picture to go through to audio interviews)
In all of our work in this field, it is the negative transference which colours the experience of anyone who does this work (negative transference is that which is denied in a person and projected onto the therapist or other emotional object), which is most noticeable.
Rage and spite about things which are unresolved in the self, which are split off and denied in the self and then projected at others is something which often obscures the plight of alienated mothers and obfuscates the reality of their lived experience.
An example of this is the denial of a child’s induced psychological splitting by the women’s rights groups and the projection of the belief that children only ever reject a parent because of something that parent has done. Whilst there is a nod to the experience of alienated mothers in an attempt to call this phenomenon domestic violence by proxy, this is the classic obfuscation of denial and projection.
If this were simply domestic violence by proxy the children concerned would not be using psychological splitting as a defence and would, on recognition of domestic abuse in the family, simply be moved from the abuser to the healthy parent. Unfortunately, because this is not just domestic violence by proxy but a mental health defence utilised by the child, this does not happen without a huge fight on the mother’s part.
This is because the children, captured by identification with the aggressor, display fear and terror not of the father but of the mother who is depicted as not motherly, never having been interested and cold and uncaring. Until or unless this reality is properly understood, explained and acted upon, it is not possible to resolve it by declaring it simply domestic violence by proxy because the systems within which we work, will not allow it.
If a child says no and then says they are terrified of a mother then that is what will drive the case and all the jumping up and down and saying that the courts are biased against mothers in the world won’t change that. What will change it is an acceptance of the reality that what is happening to children when they reject, is that the children themselves are having to maladapt their behaviours to survive the pathological alignment with one of their parents.
We cannot have it both ways. We cannot say a child always tells the truth when they are rejecting their father but that the child is being forced to lie when they reject their mother, because the mechanism in the child which causes that is the same and the behaviours we see in children who reject mothers and fathers is the same. How that is caused in children however is different and we would do well to recognise and articulate that better.
Underneath the socio political denial of this problem in post separation families, lies a mental health problem which is configured in the child as a survival mechanism. Understanding how mothers and fathers live with the result of this is essential, understanding how it is caused is equally important, making sure we release children from the defence so that they can love their father and their mother is our overarching goal.
The concentric circles of denial, projection, blame and shame are powerful in parental alienation and it is vital we pay attention to them.
As the negative transference rises against progress in this field, we must not let our attention be dragged back into the swamplands of gender wars, but must understand difference in the lived experience of alienation, in order to build strong coalitions for positive change in this space.
Celebrating and supporting each other is how we will do that and preventing splitting between alienated mothers and fathers is an essential part of that process.
Today I send my support to all mothers who have suffered the loss of a child still living. Your experience is not denied, it is recognised, validated and understood.
Together we press on until the reality of this social ill is fully understood around the world.