Parents In Charge: Setting Healthy, Loving Boundaries for You and Your Child

Parents In Charge: Setting Healthy, Loving Boundaries for You and Your Child

by Ph.D., Dana Chidekel Dana, Dana Chidekel

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Parents in Charge

Setting Healthy, Loving Boundaries for You and Your Child
By Dana Chidekel

Citadel Press

Copyright © 2003 Dana Chidekel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0806525002

Chapter 1: Becoming a Parent

When do you become a parent? When you are pregnant? When your child is born? When you sign the adoption papers? We may become parents in the eyes of the law when an actual child for whom we are responsible comes into our lives, but the process of becoming the parent to that child begins long before our child arrives. Becoming a parent is not so much an event that occurs in a particular moment as it is a process that occurs over a lifetime. In fact, the process of becoming a parent begins in our infancy, when we ourselves are parented.

Parenting is a relationship. You cannot parent without a child. Without at least one child and one adult, it is safe to say that there is no parenting going on. In order to parent, you need not be the actual parent to a child. You might be an uncle who cares for a nephew, or a grandmother who cares for a grandchild. Parenting is defined by the existence of a relationship between you and a child, and a level of caretaking and guidance that is a feature of the relationship. Both parent and child participate in and contribute to the experience. And both parent and child are individuals with specific qualities that color and affect the relationship.

There are a number of factors that have influenced you in the course of your life and which have led you to become the parent you are. They make you a different father or mother to your child than your next-door neighbor would be. They influence the way you think and feel about your children and the way you behave with them. They are what contribute to making you, you.

Your child's relationship with you, her parent, during her first years will be the most important and decisive influence upon her throughout the entire course of her life. That's what happened to you too. You were a child. You were parented. Just as your parents had a lasting impact on who you are and how you view life, as a parent you will have that same lasting impact on your child. But why are parents so influential? That has a lot to do with how babies and children learn.

How Babies and Young Children Learn

You, an adult, have a sense of self. You have a sense of who you are, what you believe, and how you fit into the world around you. From this perspective, you can go into any situation and think about how what you are being exposed to does or doesn't fit with you. You can agree or disagree; your reference point is yourself. "Yes," you can say, "I think this is important." Or, "No, I don't agree." Your sense of self is something you have acquired over the course of your life; it is not something you were born with. The older you get and the more you come to know yourself, the more refined your knowledge of yourself becomes and the more discriminating you can be in terms of what you choose to take in from the environment and what you choose to reject.

Babies and very young children do not have a sense of self. They do not have a solidly established "I" on which to base decisions about what to take in from the world and what to reject. In the absence of being able to be discriminating about what will influence them, babies and young children take in everything from those who are closest to them and they store what they take in. Babies and young children could be described as exceptionally sensitive tape recorders with the "record" function constantly in operation and the recording apparatus oriented directly toward those who are most significant in their lives. That means you.

As described by Dr. Lorraine Gorlick, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in practice in Los Angeles, these "tape recorders" are more like high-tech surveillance equipment. She states, "Unlike tape recorders, which only pick up sounds, babies and young children record you with all their senses: Their eyes record. Their ears record. Their skin records. Their mouths and noses record. But it doesn't stop there. These sensitive tape recorders also record your moods, your feelings, your memories, your hopes, your disappointments, and your wishes. You may have no idea how much of your personality, how much of your feeling, and how much of your life experience your child absorbs. And this will go on without anyone being aware that it is happening or the depth of it. Your babies and young children are picking up on cues you don't even know you are giving, and they are storing this information for future use before they have any capacity to think about or understand it. And it will be used!"

Not only do babies and young children make tapes of you, but they "play back" these tapes as well. Sometimes this is obvious. You may have heard your tone of voice or something you frequently say come out of your child's mouth. You may have seen a look or expression cross your child's face that seems to have been lifted directly from your spouse. You might be tempted to think your young child is imitating you in such circumstances. Not always, and virtually never with a very young child. A person who is imitating another has to see herself as separate from the other, doing something herself that the other distinct person has done. Babies and young children do not have enough of a sense of self -- enough of an "I" distinct from a "you" -- to carry out such a sophisticated process. Babies and young children don't imitate you so much as they actually become you in those moments. They act without any objectivity or self-awareness.

Developing an "I" is a complicated developmental process that occurs over the years of childhood and beyond. There is no "I" at the beginning of life, but you'll see glimmerings of an "I" along the way as your child grows. Your child's sense and awareness of "I" will ebb and flow. You'll swear your toddler has an "I" during the terrible twos. All that self-assertion must mean there's a solid "I" there, right? But then, in the moments between her expressions of grandiosity and bravado, your toddler's sense of self-determination disappears and there may not seem to be any "I" there at all. Your child will go back and forth in her sense of herself as an "I" throughout childhood. Developing a sense of "I" is an incremental process. But one thing remains constant: the "I" your child develops will always contain and reflect vestiges of you, although at certain points in your child's development this will be more apparent than at others.

The idea that we incorporate aspects of our parents in our earliest years without objectivity and without a sense of separateness from them can help explain why what influences us in these first years of life influences us so deeply and lastingly. Adults have an extraordinarily strong penchant to repeat experiences from childhood. Parents who are able to nurture their children most easily often report having had with their own parents relationships that they describe in positive terms. On the other side of the coin, we are all familiar with stories of child abusers having been abused as children and stories of domestic violence victims having come from homes in which there was violence between their parents. When we repeat history, the tapes are playing. And when the tapes are playing, we can't see our way clear to another story until we learn to edit those tapes.

Unlike images and sounds recorded on audiotape and videotape that degrade over time, the memories laid down in early infancy and childhood last. Do you know of families -- maybe even your own -- where members repeat a particular behavior generation after generation? How many times have you heard yourself say the very thing to your child that was said to you as a child and which you swore you never would say? "Oh my gosh!" we may say. "I sound just like my mother!"

The level at which things get communicated between parents and children and how these things get passed down through generations may seem even spooky at times. An incident from my practice illustrates this phenomenon in a graphic and startling way.

Seaniah Flynn came to therapy at the age of nineteen. There had been an ugly divorce between her parents when she was six years old, and her father had raised her as if there had never been a mother, removing all keepsakes and mementos from the household. During the course of therapy, Seaniah set about finding and establishing contact with her mother. One day she came into the office looking ashen. She brought a letter -- the first communication she had received from her mother in thirteen years. I asked what her mother had written to her that had moved her so profoundly. Seaniah said it wasn't so much what she had written. It was how she had written. To clarify, she pulled out the letter from her mother and held it up next to a page that she herself had penned. Her mother's handwriting was almost indistinguishable from her own.

My Parents, Myself

Our parents impart values and beliefs to us directly through what they tell us and through the rules they set. More significant, they influence us by the way they feel and behave toward us and toward others. Young children are adoring, thirsty sponges with no objectivity. They soak up everything parents do, say, and even feel. Your children are sponges who are soaking you up, as you were a sponge who soaked up your parents. As such, your experience with your own parents when you were a child sets the stage for what you will feel about and how you will do many things in your life, including parenting.

The quality of care and nurture that different parents provide and the feelings that different parents have while engaged in caring for their children vary tremendously. Some people look eagerly to examples set by their mothers and fathers to inform their parenting. Others look to examples set by their own parents to tell them what not to do. Whatever your memories of those times, they cannot help but have an influence on how you function as a parent to your own children. This applies whether you are happily referencing those early times or actively seeking to disidentify yourself and your parenting style from what was practiced on you. Some people speak about raising children as an opportunity to get back in touch with their own childhoods and childlike feelings. This, indeed, is what happens. Like it or not, invited or not.

Every interaction between you and your baby activates a network of nerve cells in her brain. These networks are her brain's record of these interactions; they can be thought of as one of the earliest forms of memory. They are formed long before your baby develops language or even a sense of herself as separate from the rest of the world. The networks not only record experiences but ultimately become well-worn paths that quietly but pervasively, influence how she interprets events in her world and how she will react to them. Your parents' interactions with you influenced the development of your brain in this way too. If you had an unhappy childhood, don't despair. A well-worn path is not the only way through the woods, but it's the path you'll tend to travel unless you work to clear a new trail.

How much interest did your parents have in you? How much time did they spend with you? How much were they able to consider your needs? How did they consider their own needs? How much authority did they maintain? What were their responses to your transgressions? What basic beliefs did they operate from? How much say did they allow you in decision making? How and how often did they punish you? How much frustration could they put up with, and how could you tell when the limit had been reached? Why did they have you? What were their stated values, and did they behave accordingly? What did you like about them? What drove you crazy? What did they like about you? What drove them crazy?

The answers to these questions and others like them are the emotional legacy you are likely to pass on to your children unless you choose to do otherwise and are willing to do the hard work that making such changes requires. If there is a family history of cancer, you take preventative measures to protect your children. If there is a family history of musical talent, you are sensitized to look for the signs of this in successive generations. In both cases, while there is no guarantee that history will repeat itself in the present, you are open to a greater probability that it will. Similarly, you need to be familiar with your emotional legacy to prepare your children to take advantage of what is good from the past, and to inoculate them against what could be harmful.

The relationships we have with our parents start to influence our relationships with our children before they are born. We have fantasies about who a child will be, who we want a child to be, and how it will feel to be a parent to her. These fantasies are informed by our early experiences, our wishes, our fears, and our needs.

Carina Clay had a contentious relationship with her mother, who saw her as too needy and demanding. Now, one month away from delivering her first child, Mrs. Clay is dismayed to discover she has gained eighty pounds. "The baby makes me so hungry all the time. Maybe she'll be one of those kids who never stop eating. I had a friend whose nipples bled for six months when she was nursing her son. Maybe I'll have to give her bottles. How early can you start them on cereal?" I point out to Mrs. Clay that she seems to be very concerned about the intensity of her baby's needs. Her description of her yet-to-be-born daughter sounds like the way she says her mother describes her -- needy, demanding, overwhelming her resources. In Mrs. Clay's mind, she has become her mother, the baby has become her, and the stage is being set for an unhappy repetition of the past.

While having bad experiences with your parents in the past doesn't guarantee that you and your child will have bad experiences together in the present, chances are if your family history is fraught with conflict and misunderstanding, you may be more prone to expect problems, deficiencies, and conflicts between yourself and your children and more prone to interpret what happens between you and your children accordingly.

Consulting about four-year-old Brandon, Mr. Fujimori says, "Last night I asked him what he did at preschool. He said, 'I don't know.' I kept asking, and he kept avoiding my question, defying me. He should be punished for being disrespectful." Mrs. Fujimori said, "I thought he looked confused. I asked him who he sat next to at lunch and what he built with blocks. He told me." I suggest that Mrs. Fujimori's approach is indicated for a child of Brandon's age, whose limited capacity for abstract thought would make it hard for him to respond to more open-ended questions. Mr. Fujimori doesn't buy this: "My son showed me disrespect, and he answered my wife to push my face in it." I ask about each parent's history. Mrs. Fujimori describes a happy childhood in a loving family. Mr. Fujimori's father was a hot-tempered military sergeant who was feared by all his children for his ready criticism and harsh discipline.

Mr. Fujimori's father seems to have expected defiance in his children, and his interpretation of his son's behaviors in childhood was colored by this expectation. History is set to repeat itself in this family. Without some assistance, Mr. Fujimori is likely to keep looking on Brandon through the eyes his father used when looking at him. Mr. Fujimori would certainly not identify a negative relationship with Brandon as a goal. Rather, absent any other models, he is not likely to see alternatives. If you grew up in a family that spoke French, you think in French. Mr. Fujimori grew up in a family that spoke and thought in the language of "conflict." He needs help in recognizing this and learning another way, if it is to be otherwise in his family of today.

Just as you can't learn another language in an instant, so too the process of learning a different way of seeing yourself and others is a gradual one. While it seems like a logical enough proposition to change a perspective that does not work, there is an enormous amount of sometimes disturbing emotion that goes along with making real changes. If you had hardships in childhood, chances are you survived your experience by convincing yourself that things were not so bad after all -- by trying to forget your troubling memories, by minimizing the importance of what occurred, or by closing the door on that part of your life and deciding simply to move forward. Real, healing change requires that you remember the things that you may have worked so hard to forget. If you have closed the door on a part of your life that was difficult, healing what was hurt requires you to open that door, go back in the room, and revisit all over again the feelings that you have distanced yourself from. This is easier said than done. But you must do this if you are to offer your child anything better, because offering your child a better experience will necessarily put a spotlight on what you didn't have. You need to be prepared to face this issue and to face the feelings that arise in you.

Mrs. Green's mentally ill mother was hospitalized during long stretches of Mrs. Green's childhood. When she was home, Mrs. Green remembers her as an eerie stranger who shut herself in her room. Her father was not much more available, overwhelmed with providing for three children and coping with his wife's illness. Now Mrs. Green is in therapy, determined to make a nicer life for her son. She says, "I'll be sitting with Darnell in the rocker, singing him a song or reading him a story, holding him close, and it will be such a good feeling, and then the thought will come: 'This is what I missed out on.' And I'll get overwhelmed. I feel how trusting my son is, see how much he needs me. And I'll think back to when I was small and think, 'I needed this too. How did I survive?'"

Mrs. Green's story is a dramatic one; it is not so difficult to imagine how a mentally ill parent would fail to provide important nurture and security for a child. But the story from childhood needn't always be so dramatic to have an impact. A parent who spends long hours at a job, who is preoccupied with his or her own needs for whatever reason, who is uncomfortable with closeness and who pushes you away too much or too soon -- all of these more ordinary circumstances can leave you with a sense of loss that, over the years, you are likely to try to turn away from. What Mrs. Green is doing takes courage. To be able to provide maternal love and nurture for her son, she has opened herself to seeing what she needed and to grieving for the closeness with her own mother that she did not have. This is painful but necessary. Were she unwilling to open herself to these feelings, she would have to keep her son and his needs at arm's length too.

Anything from the past that remains unresolved for you is likely to impair your ability to see clearly in the present.

The Sibini family thinks baby Maria, twelve months old, cries too much. When Maria begins to fuss mildly in the session, Mrs. Sibini reacts by bombarding her with toys, wiggling her, singing her songs. The magnitude of Mrs. Sibini's response given Maria's minimal fussing is remarkable, and it is not surprising that under the impact of these frenetic ministrations, Maria's cries escalate. In the interview, I learn that Mrs. Sibini's mother died when she was a young child. Mrs. Sibini states that this is a nonissue for her, as she was too young to remember her mom. But over time, as Mrs. Sibini is encouraged to speak about her mother in our meetings, she is able to get in touch with her grief. She also is helped to recognize that her excessive ministrations to her daughter reflect her fear of her own sadness. As Mrs. Sibini is able to explore what the loss of her mother meant to her, her ability to tolerate her daughter's distress increases. Over a period of several months, she becomes more comfortable with Maria's tears, and strangely, Maria's distress appears to be diminishing.

Mrs. Sibini is so threatened by sadness that when there is any indication of distress in her daughter, she overreacts. This interferes with her ability to see what her daughter really needs and, ironically, creates very real distress and agitation where only minor signs of it existed before.

Along with providing maternal and paternal comfort, parents are also responsible for disciplining children. How your parents disciplined you is likely to have an enormous influence on how you function as a parent. People who were harshly disciplined usually grow into parents who either (1) believe in or are prone to deliver harsh discipline themselves, or (2) swear that what was done to them will not get passed on to their own children. But it is not uncommon for parents who dedicate themselves not to repeat mistakes of the past to find themselves driven, in moments of stress, to act in exactly those ways in which they promised themselves they would not.

Isabelle Linden's mother had a temper, and Ms. Linden swore she would never lose her temper with her own children. She comes to our session in tears. She says, "The other day the washing machine broke and the repairman showed up late. Jeremiah's cutting his molars now, and he's crying a lot. So the repairman is there, I'm now running late to an appointment, Jeremiah is whining, and I just blew up at him. I screamed at him to stop. I felt like throwing him against the wall. And for what? The poor kid is uncomfortable. Well, I'm yelling at him, and this is making him cry harder, which is making me angrier. Finally, I just walked away from him, and then I ended up in tears. I'm afraid I'm turning into my mother. I promised I wouldn't act this way, and I hate myself for it. I feel like a monster, and I can't help myself."

You may swear you will never scream at your children the way your father screamed at you. If you should find yourself raising your voice and you have not allowed for this possibility, the problem is compounded. You are likely to be angry at your child for her misbehavior, but you may also be ashamed of yourself for failing to remain in control. A state of shame is not such a nice place to visit, and no one wants to live there. To get rid of this feeling, you may blame your child for acting in a way that did not permit you to behave in the manner you promised you would. If, on the other hand, you allow for the possibility that despite your best intentions to remain calm at all times, you may find yourself in a situation where you cannot do this, you are more likely not to see yourself as a failure. You can forgive yourself, understand that you are human, understand that humans make mistakes, and realize that one instance of yelling is not likely to damage your child forever. You are more likely to forgive -- yourself and your child -- and move on.

It is certainly right not to want to inflict bad things that were done to you in the past upon your children in the present. But it is important to keep in mind as well that there is a strong pull from the past -- even a horrible past -- to repeat itself. Even the most well-intentioned parents may find themselves doing things or wanting to do things that they swore they never would. Being aware of this tendency does not give you license to surrender to your impulses. Rather, it can alert you to be on the lookout for feelings and impulses that you may have assured yourself would never arise. Being prepared puts you in the best position to control yourself and to practice damage control when you fail to behave as you promised you would.

Where You Fit in Your Family of Origin

Your family of origin is the family in which you grew up. Your gender and the order in which you were born into your family of origin can influence the way you feel about and react to your children in your family of today. It is not uncommon for you to perceive the members of the family you have created in the present from the perspective of the experience you had in the family that created you. Though we may appear to be adults on the outside, sometimes we will respond to things that happen to us more as the children we were than as the grown-ups we have become.

Jana Goodwin was the fourth of five children. Her husband, Steve, was the first of four. When their son, John, was two and Jana became pregnant again, Steve withdrew. In therapy, Mr. Goodwin admitted he was worried it would be hard for John to share his mom and dad with a newborn. As we spoke about Mr. Goodwin's history, it became apparent that the pregnancy was arousing memories of his younger brother's arrival. "After my mother went to the hospital, nothing was ever the same. It was like I lost her." Mrs. Goodwin, born into a larger family, had never had the experience of being an only child. As Mr. Goodwin explored the feelings from his past, he was able to see himself as an adult welcoming a baby into his family as opposed to seeing himself as a child at the precipice of a substantial loss. He saw his withdrawal as his effort to distance himself from his wife in anticipation of her distancing herself from him, as his mother had distanced herself from him in the past. Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin were able to work together on these issues, and the friction between them diminished.

If you were an only child or a firstborn child in your original family, you may experience the arrival of a baby in the family you create not only as a joyous and much-anticipated event, but also as the arrival of a competitor for your spouse's affections, which were previously available entirely to you. The adult in you may want the baby. The child in you may see the baby as an intruder. If you have more than one child, you may find yourself identifying more with the child who has the same place in the birth order that you did in your family of origin -- taking her side more often, trying to cut her more slack where you can.

You may also be influenced in how you act toward and feel about your children by their gender. This goes beyond cultural stereotypes of who boys and girls are and how they act. Your response to your child's gender can be specifically influenced by how your parents and other family members related to you on the basis of your having been a boy or a girl.

Marci Collins, four months pregnant, has felt a lack of excitement since getting the news that she is carrying a girl. Ms. Collins describes a happy childhood as the youngest in a family of five girls. Asked how her parents felt about having so many girls, Ms. Collins says that upon telling her family of the baby's sex, her father responded in a joking way, "It figures." Ms. Collins was a tomboy in her youth. Now she says, "It's funny. They used to call me the boy my father always wanted." I suggest that in failing to be excited about her pregnancy, perhaps Ms. Collins is picking up on memories of feelings from within her family. This doesn't negate her parents' love for her, but it does add a dimension of understanding about them and how she grew up. Over the course of several months of treatment as we talk about this, Ms. Collins is able to become more excited about her pregnancy.

There are no hard-and-fast rules with respect to how your birth order, your gender, and the gender of your siblings will affect your feelings about your children or your approach to parenting them. The idea of your position in your family of origin is raised here so you can be aware of it and consider how it may influence you.

Your Temperament

Temperament has to do with your characteristic disposition. It has to do with how you are poised to think, behave, and react. Temperament is there from birth (if not before!). Your temperament is not the same as your personality. Your personality includes your temperament, but your personality has also been shaped by experiences you have had over the course of your life.

Some people are more patient than others. They are more comfortable allowing things to unfold and don't become frustrated or agitated easily. They are not undone when things don't go according to plan. Others are more quick-tempered, more easily frustrated, more oriented to product than process. People have different paces at which they proceed through life. Some talk, walk, and think fast. Others are more methodical. People differ with respect to the intensity with which they approach other people and situations. Some people have more presence; you know the instant they have entered a room. Others are adept at blending in and can enter a situation without disturbing it. Some people are more verbal in their expression of feelings. Others are more inclined to express themselves through physical means. Some people are more bold. Others are more timid. Some people seem to have been born with an eye toward making connections with others. Other people are less socially inclined and are content with just a few close relationships. These represent a small sampling of the dimensions of temperament in which people differ. There are many others.

Much parenting literature has focused on the degree to which children are biologically predisposed to have different temperaments from the beginning of life. As familiar as that concept may be to us, it may be easy to forget that our own behavior is influenced by our temperaments, including our interactions with our children. Being aware of your temperament can alert you to which aspects of parenting are liable to be easier for you and which are likely to be more difficult. If you are parenting as part of a couple, understanding your temperament and that of your partner can allow you to work together to parent your children in a manner that takes advantage of what is best in both of you.

Selma Hasek is a nervous woman who tends to imagine the worst-case scenario in every situation. Her husband, Abdul, is a good deal calmer. The Haseks have a boy, Muhammed, aged two. Over the course of his young life, Muhammed has developed a number of ear infections accompanied by high fever. Mrs. Hasek can care for her son in these circumstances, but she continually has to fight the impulse to panic. Muhammed's illnesses don't feel as threatening to Abdul as they do to his wife. The Haseks know that when Muhammed gets sick, Mrs. Hasek is at her best if her husband can be around, either to care for their boy or at least to provide her with support.

It is important to bear in mind that your temperament is not an excuse for behaving inappropriately with your children. If you have a child with a short temper, you will want to help her learn skills to contain herself so that she can get along more easily in life. Similarly, if you are a parent with a short temper, you need to work to find ways to contain yourself in order to protect your children.

Barry and Jeanine Baron prove that opposites attract. Barry is quick and impatient. A successful attorney, he does not suffer fools gladly and he has little tolerance for mistakes. Jeanine is more easygoing -- water to her husband's fire. The couple have two children. Alexandra, eight, is the apple of her father's eye. She's capable and catches on quickly. Nicholas, four, moves at a slower pace, but eventually gets the job done. Now in prekindergarten, Nicholas has little interest in reading. Mr. Baron, concerned that other kids will surpass him, buys flash cards to drill him on a nightly basis. Nicholas may be placid, but he is not passive. The more his father pushes at him, the more he digs in his heels and refuses to use the cards. Mr. Baron is beyond exasperated. Recently, he threw the cards at his son when he refused to respond to them. Mrs. Baron, also not passive, made an appointment for herself and her husband to come to therapy after she witnessed this interaction. In the first session, Mr. Baron is defensive: "So my fuse is short? I've been that way forever."

Being aware of his hot temper does not give Mr. Baron license to express it unfettered. Rather than see this longstanding aspect of his temperament as a license to continue losing his temper with his son, Mr. Baron needs to use this self-awareness to help him steer clear of interactions with his son that are likely to lead him to fly off the handle.

Perhaps this is the place to make a brief mention of the issue of power. What does power have to do with parenting? Everything. Parenthood brings with it a surge of power for which many parents are unprepared. It can be heady and overwhelming, and it can take you by surprise. As a parent, you decide everything for your child -- when, how, what, and if she eats; when and where she sleeps; what she wears; with whom she can interact; when, where, and with what she plays; when and with what she will be punished; when and whether she sees a doctor and what you will allow that doctor to do.

Abuses of parental power are rampant. As I write this, there is a story in the news of two teenaged boys who were kept chained in their parents' house in the California desert throughout their lives. These parents didn't consider themselves abusive; they thought they were fulfilling God's will.

The intense power that goes along with parenting and the potential for its going awry is the reason for the elaborate system of checks and balances that we have in place in our society. Doctors, therapists, and others in the helping professions are mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect and are required to report even a reasonable suspicion of such abuses of power. Despite all these safeguards, abuse of parental power goes on all the time. While it is beyond the scope of this book to consider this issue in depth, I mention it here so you can begin to consider the fact that it exists, and to set you thinking about how to use your power over your children wisely, carefully, and responsibly.

Unconventional Paths to Parenthood

The drive to have children and create a family is a powerful one. Increasingly, people who want to be parents find themselves having to overcome physical and emotional obstacles and having to meet challenges they had no way to anticipate when they embarked upon the journey toward parenthood.

A geneng awry is the reason for the elaborate system of checks and balances that we have in place in our society. Doctors, therapists, and others in the helping professions are mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect and are required to report even a reasonable suspicion of such abuses of power. Despite all these safeguards, abuse of parental power goes on all the time. While it is beyond the scope of this book to consider this issue in depth, I mention it here so you can begin to consider the fact that it exists, and to set you thinking about how to use your power over your children wisely, carefully, and responsibly.

Unconventional Paths to Parenthood

The drive to have children and create a family is a powerful one. Increasingly, people who want to be parents find themselves having to overcome physical and emotional obstacles and having to meet challenges they had no way to anticipate when they embarked upon the journey toward parenthood.

A generation ago, parents of young children tended to be married, heterosexual couples in their twenties who had conceived the old-fashioned way or who had gone through a relatively uncomplicated process of adoption. Infertility was not nearly the pervasive problem it is today. Gay couples parenting children were rare at best, and certainly were not in the news. Single parenthood was pretty much never a circumstance a parent entered into by choice and was seen as shameful, unless the parent involved was widowed or divorced. The idea of a woman bearing children into her forties was considered bizarre. Neither in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, nor egg donation were options available for couples who were having difficulty conceiving or carrying a baby to term.

Now, more than one in ten couples is likely to encounter difficulty conceiving. In the course of attempting to become pregnant by unconventional means, many hopeful couples may end up spending extraordinary amounts of money, subjecting themselves to painful and intrusive medical procedures, and enduring a roller coaster of emotional ups and downs on a repetitive cycle of hope and disappointment. The road to adoption -- once a relatively straightforward and uncomplicated one -- has become increasingly complex, frustrating, and expensive. Older, gay, and single parents may not only have to negotiate issues related to the conception of their children, but are also trailblazing a new sociocultural landscape and have to contend with new social and emotional pressures after the baby has arrived. Recent developments in medicine have also created a subculture of parents of babies who were born very premature and who have survived, with or without significant disabilities.

You may have arrived at the state of parenthood having traversed a variety of experiences and having come up against a variety of obstacles that were all but unknown when you were a child. What you have gone through to become a parent may have an impact on much of your life, and it may affect your parenting style and your feelings about your child or children as well.

Eloise Kanter, aged forty-two, endured ten years of infertility treatments and had three miscarriages before giving birth to Zachary -- a healthy seven-pound boy born three days shy of his due date. Ms. Kanter consults me when Zachary is six months old, worried that he is not progressing normally in his development. The pediatrician has assured her that his inability to sit upright for more than a minute is not a cause for concern. I examine him and find him to be normal. As I am attempting to reassure Ms. Kanter, Zachary raises a rattle in his mouth and she dives to intercept. A struggle ensues. She emerges with the rattle, which she holds up sheepishly as her son begins to scream. "I know you'll probably think I'm crazy," she says over his crying, "but I can't help but think that he'll bite the end off and choke on it."

As parents, we have a biological and emotional drive to protect our children. But we also have the awareness that we need to allow children to have certain experiences as a part of living. As in so many aspects of life, we have to strike some sort of balance. Parents who have experienced difficulty in becoming parents may have a tendency to tip this balance toward overprotection when their child finally arrives. Certainly, this is what happened to Ms. Kanter.

When have you ever cared so deeply for something so utterly helpless and dependent upon you? It has been said that parenthood is impossible because in becoming a parent you make the agreement to allow your heart to go walking around outside your body. All parents need to come to terms with this new experience of vulnerability, even if nothing ever happens to threaten their child's life and even if the path to parenthood is smooth. Sometimes, however, that feeling of vulnerability is reinforced by the occurrence of a real crisis.

Helga Logan's fourth child, Louise, is a robust two-year-old. But every step Louise takes toward independence makes Mrs. Logan's heart skip a beat. "I had no idea having a girl would be like this," she says tearfully. "I walk around with a feeling of dread, always worried something terrible will happen to her. I wasn't like this with the boys." As I inquire about the history, Mrs. Logan describes Louise's birth -- labor and delivery brought on six months into the pregnancy after Mrs. Logan was in a car accident. Louise spent the first month and a half of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit. I suggest that this difficult beginning has very likely had a significant and lasting influence on Mrs. Logan, and I suspect her fear for Louise's survival has much more to do with this experience than it does with Louise's gender.

It is not uncommon for parents to experience intensely disturbing and uninvited thoughts about a myriad of terrible things that can befall their offspring. The act of becoming a parent transforms your home into a place full of new paraphernalia and the sounds of a baby's coos and cries. But the act of becoming a parent also transforms your home and the larger world into a place full of new and horrible dangers. You cannot watch the nightly news after having a child in the same way you did before you were a parent. Parenthood removes some type of invisible protective covering from every inch of your skin and makes it impossible not to perceive the same environment that, before, had seemed innocuous enough, as a place full of threat.

In a support group for new parents, a father described standing at his living room window with his infant son, watching a tree-trimming company across the street use a ferocious mechanical chipper. He says, "I couldn't resist the impulse to take the baby upstairs to get him further away from the machine, even though I was perfectly aware that the chipper was forty feet away, that Jack and I were behind closed doors, and that Jack, at three months, couldn't go outside, much less get anywhere near the thing on his own."

If you are adopting a child, the relative ease or difficulty of the adoption may affect your parenting. Where adoption used to be a much more straightforward matter, now many adoptive families have nightmarish and heartrending stories to tell.

Because of a serious illness, Mrs. Sloan underwent a complete hysterectomy in her late teens. The Sloans knew they would not be able to have a biological child of their own, and they planned to adopt. It took them only three months to adopt newborn baby Veronica. But six months later, Veronica's mother changed her mind and took her back. The Sloans were devastated. Eventually, they regrouped and after a little more than a year, they adopted baby Anya. But Anya is fussy and difficult, and after several months, they find they are not bonding. I ask the Sloans if they think the previous adoption experience may be having an impact. "Not at all," says Mrs. Sloan. "Our attorney drafted a stringent agreement so when -- I mean if -- her mother wants her back, she won't be able to take her." I draw Mrs. Sloan's attention to the fact that she has made a slip -- saying "when" instead of "if" -- which suggests that she may indeed be anticipating trouble.

When we say something we don't intend to say, our error can give us a glimpse of what may be a truer feeling or thought than what we have convinced ourselves is so. While the Sloans wanted to believe that their family was secure, over several sessions they were able to get in touch with very real fears to the contrary. In spite of the fact that the adoption was in perfect legal order and there was no chance they would lose another baby as they had lost Veronica, they were still anxious. Mrs. Sloan even admitted to a fantasy that Anya's birth mother would come and kidnap the baby. Even though their fears were groundless, the Sloans' feelings were real and needed to be respected and explored. As the Sloans were able to talk about their feelings, they realized that Anya's fussiness was not interfering with their bonding with her; they were keeping their distance from her to protect themselves from another heartbreak. Unconsciously, they reasoned that if they didn't love Anya, then when she was taken from them, the loss wouldn't hurt so much. As they got more in touch with these feelings, Anya's "temperament" changed. Rather than fussing and crying all the time, she quieted and took an active interest in her environment and the people in it. On those occasions when she did cry, she was readily comforted by her parents.

You need not endure a tragedy as an adoptive parent to have your parenting influenced by having taken this route to parenthood. Adoptive parents often know very little, if anything, about the genetic history of the child they are adopting. The same can be said for parents who use sperm or egg donors to conceive a child. In the absence of information or in the presence of just a bit of it, there is room for much speculation and fantasy.

The Sheffields adopted Shawn when he was several days old. When Shawn was three, they came to consult me. The Sheffields know Shawn's birth father had several children out of wedlock and he made a scene at the hospital when Shawn was born. They had seen a television program about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and they wondered if the father might have had it. Now, based on their son's behavior, they are wondering if he has it too. Shawn runs around the house whinnying, pretending to be a horse. Sometimes he will start to do an activity, like coloring, then abandon it five minutes later in favor of something else. He finds it hard to stay seated at the dinner table for much time beyond when he finishes eating. His parents don't want to put him on medication, but they fear they have little choice.

It has been said the when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The Sheffields are viewing all of Shawn's behaviors through the lens of ADHD and it is no surprise that this perspective is making him look as if he has a serious problem. It is true that three-year-olds with ADHD may run around the house whinnying, have a tendency to shift between activities, and have a hard time staying seated at the table for prolonged periods of time. But three-year-olds without this disorder do these things too. The difficulty for the Sheffields seems to arise because in the absence of factual information about Shawn's genetic history, there is ample room for them to imagine all sorts of scenarios and there is no reference point against which they can check the truth of their fantasies. Left unexamined, such fantasies are likely to have a significant influence on how the Sheffields view and relate to their son.

If you have conceived a child through a sperm or an egg donation, you may have been told something about the person who made the donation. The presence of concrete information about your child's biological relatives may also be influential.

After years of undergoing different infertility treatments, Mrs. Lawton eventually succeeded in becoming pregnant with a donated egg, and she gave birth, nine months later, to a healthy baby boy. The Lawtons knew their egg donor was a celebrated classical musician. Assuming the gift must be in his genetic heritage, they are pushing Jeffrey, now seven, into a musical life despite the fact that there are no indications that Jeffrey wants to go there. On the contrary, having had piano lessons since the age of two, Jeffrey is developing an aversion to the type of disciplined study that is required of him. He wants to play sports, but his parents are concerned that he may squander a gift.

Adoptive parents and parents who use sperm or egg donors to conceive a child do not corner the market on fantasizing about their children, but the absence of information or the very small amount of information available to these parents leaves that much more room for invention and interpretation.

If you are parenting as a part of a gay couple, you have to make a number of decisions unique to your situation from the beginning. If you are part of a male couple, you face the question of adoption versus impregnating a surrogate -- either someone you know or someone you contract with to assist you. If you are a part of a female couple, you have to decide whether to adopt or whether to carry a child. If you decided on a pregnancy, there is the decision about which of you will do the childbearing and whether you will go to a sperm bank or ask a man you know to donate. Irrespective of whether you are a male or female couple, once your baby arrives, there are decisions to be made about whether a parent or an important figure of the opposite sex will be part of your child's life. Meanwhile, you are likely to contend with pressures from society, which may have a variety of reactions to your new family.

Jurgen Stahl and Ryan Nelson adopted baby Nina from China. Mr. Nelson is more outgoing, but Mr. Stahl is more reserved and does not like to attract attention. The problem is that their little family of three is attracting a lot of attention. Mr. Stahl says, "In our community, we are not so unique, but outside of our community, people stare at us. We went to Disneyland together last week, and I felt like a circus animal. People on line were making comments that were insensitive at best. It makes me very protective over Nina. I find myself defensive on her part, fighting back. But I doubt myself. I know how I react will have an impact on my daughter. I think, 'Is this my issue? Or hers? Do I do her a disservice if I try to prepare her for this? Will it be a self-fulfilling prophesy? Would she be better served if we just ignored what people said?'"

Unfortunately, prejudice has not been conquered. You may think you are inured to its effects, but it can get under your skin. Gay couples who are parenting may face this type of prejudice. Older and single parents may face it too.

A forty-six-year-old woman who had recently become a mother spoke of her experience in the hospital: "I find myself so sensitive about my age. Just hours after the baby was born, the nurse comes in, looks at my chart, and says, 'Just in under the wire, eh?' I thought, 'I won't tolerate this.' I told her that I thought her comment was inappropriate and she had no business making value judgments about parents who decided to bear children later in life. She said, 'Oh, no. Sorry. It says in your chart that you were about five minutes away from a C-section when you pushed the baby out. I'm sorry if you misunderstood.' Well, needless to say, I felt like an idiot. Throughout the pregnancy there have been so many remarks and looks from people. Even my own mother asked if I was sure I wanted to go through with this! I think I'm just primed to feel criticized."

Like snowflakes, no two parents are alike. Many things have contributed to making you the person and the parent you are. Parenthood may illuminate aspects of yourself that, prior to having children, you were not able to see and can provide an opportunity for you to change things about yourself that you might realize are not productive for you. Then again, parenthood may illuminate positive aspects of yourself that, prior to parenthood, you could not appreciate fully and can provide an opportunity to reconcile negative past experiences that have had lasting effects which may not serve you well.

There is no mandate in parenting to follow in your parents' footsteps, as there is no mandate to take a completely different path. These decisions are up to you. To be the best parent you can be, however, you must develop your awareness of yourself. The better you know yourself and the more awareness you have of what has influenced you, the better able you are to see yourself and your children with the greatest clarity and to make the best choices for you and your family.

Copyright © 2002 by Dana Chidekel, Ph.D.



Excerpted from Parents in Charge by Dana Chidekel Copyright © 2003 by Dana Chidekel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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