We each have a personal narrative about our life that incorporates stories within a larger whole. One or more of these stories may reveal roots of traumas or life-changing events that have impacted how we define ourselves-traumas or events that may affect our relationships today. In Family Stew, author Anne Salter shows how we are created emotionally and demonstrates how we often form dysfunctional belief systems and relationships from legacies of relationships with family, religion, school, and other early experiences.
Salter presents a full examination of the relationship with our individual "self," from the time it first develops in family relationships and as it proceeds into all patterns of animate and inanimate relationships. She includes insight into forming associations with other people, ourselves, and our sexuality, as well as forming relationships with inanimate items, such as money, home, work, religion or spirituality, and government and politics. She also helps the reader to identify dysfunctional behaviors, beliefs and patterns of functioning.
Family Stew includes real stories of people and the ways in which their adult relationship choices directly reflect their childhood experiences. Salter presents a guide and tool to help you learn how to reclaim a healthy relationship with your individual "self" and with all of the other connections in the world.
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Family StewOur Relationship Legacy
By Anne Salter
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Anne Salter, LCSW
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRELATIONSHIP AT BIRTH AND DURING INFANCY
The Shaping Begins
In the field of psychology, there is a belief that we are all born into this world as pure and unique beings. This belief is totally at odds with what is taught in some religions, which teach that we are born in sin. In those cases, we are given a shame message from birth, which, of course, immediately impacts one's relationship with Self. I will say more about this in Chapter 8 on Relationship with Religion.
I agree with the psychology version. I envision a newborn as almost a pure piece of putty to be molded. I say almost, because there is a personality predisposition, a style of one's own, the Authentic Self, which will be played upon and affected by many, many external relationships. Out of these interactions with our unique Self and our environmental relationships will evolve a unique version of a human being: you.
We are not in the stew yet, but there already are impacts from the mother, who is part of the family stew into which the child will be born. Before the child is born, he/she is in the most intimate relationship there will ever be with another human being — literally attached to and totally dependent on the mother. I believe this is why more people have unresolved issues with their mothers than with any other relationship. This relationship has been so very close and intimate from inception, with our Self physically and literally torn or separated from her body at birth. My experience has been that people want mother connection/ approval regardless of how dysfunctional and abusive she may have been. There often have been jokes about someone being dependent and wanting to go back to the womb. I believe that in many ways this is not a joke, because most of us never feel that secure again, that nurtured, or that peaceful. Thus, it is not so strange that it would have an appeal, especially if we do not experience enough nurture and self-affirmations as we grow and move on in life, and even more so if we had a negative experience in infancy. In this case, we may be stuck negatively or dependently enmeshed with our mothers. As a result, we might be prone to negatively enmesh in all important relationships. Based in the fear of losing closeness/ intimacy, we create a kind of suffocation of our need to grow and expand as a free Self.
This is not to say that all in-womb relationships have been positive for everyone. There is wide belief that we experience a lot in the womb. Studies of the brain have contended that the fetus is able to hear music and other sounds in the early months. It is widely believed the child is greatly impacted in negative ways before ever being born, if the mother is not stable, is involved with drugs or alcohol, is terribly stressed, or perhaps does not want the baby.
Today, we know that drinking or smoking during pregnancy (of course, smoking is always a risk) is not recommended. This can, in fact, in cases of alcoholism and/or binge drinking, create fetal alcohol syndrome, leaving the newborn child with irreparable damage. There are many who believe that much of what is diagnosed as ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) may, in fact be caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy. These kinds of negative relationships in the womb will not be cognitively remembered by the child but will impact the very being and nervous system. Like other issues that negatively affect the child after birth, this one can create a deep and profound sense of insecurity. The smaller the child, the more he/she is vulnerable to fear, because we feel small in reference to other beings.
The Self is born ready to grow and to move forward into self-realization. Thus, the relationship with your mother at birth is critical in forming the groundwork for the growth process. If you watch babies, even in early days and weeks after birth, you can see they are different. They don't look alike, nor act alike. This is the earliest view of the unique Self in its purest form, even though it already has been influenced by life with mother in the womb.
As I have gone over my life and childhood with a fine-tooth comb (over many years), I can see what personality I came in with and how it was affected early on by my mother. She was twenty-three years old when I was born, but had experienced a terribly dysfunctional childhood. She had been abandoned at one month old by her mother, to live her first seven years with her maternal grandmother's very dysfunctional family. She had grown up in constant fear for her well-being. At age seven, she was suddenly transported to another town far away from the family she knew as hers, back to her birth mother, two half brothers and an alcoholic stepfather, who were strangers to her.
The rest of my mother's childhood was miserable, as she experienced and witnessed physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, in addition to poverty. She had married at not quite eighteen, in hopes, I believe, of being taken care of and escaping the effects of poverty and the abuse of her childhood. But, the internal damage already was too deep. She waited five years to have me, her first child. She was very nervous, and had very mixed feelings about having a baby. I since have learned that she sometimes drank heavily in her twenties. No one cautioned about drinking during pregnancy in the 1940s. Also, in those days it was almost unheard of to choose NOT to have children, or she might have made that choice.
She, like many women of her generation and mine, were expected to have children. At best, I believe, my mother had a fantasy of a baby being like a little doll, which would be loveable and provide her with some of the love she had been deprived of by her mother, but certainly not the other way around, where she would need to provide the love and patience. She did not know how to do mothering, having received almost none herself.
As I came to know my mother in later years, it became evident how terribly fear- and shame-based she was and how much she was preoccupied with her body and possible pains and illnesses. Also, it became clear how much denial and how many memories she had repressed in her childhood to survive emotionally. She had formed some impossible fantasy of her childhood, no doubt to help her feel less shame, as the reality was too terrible to accept. It couldn't have been easy for her to go through pregnancy. Add to this, the fact that my dad was terrified that she would die in pregnancy, as his mother had, when he was only three. Both of my parents had severe issues of abandonment.
In addition to this, I have experienced and learned over the years how controlling my mother was by wanting conformity at all times and at all ages. Conforming keeps everyone in a predictable box in the hope to assure safety. It also stifles creativity and growing. An example is that she always claimed I was potty trained at six months of age! Though I don't doubt she tried (with great frustration for us both) and plenty of extreme early messages of failure for me, this is not something a six-month-old infant can do. Thus, I came into the world, probably after a somewhat tense ride in mother's womb, a baby with a very curious outgoing personality and high energy, but already with some fear. I came to a mother who was scared, scarred, externally preoccupied, and with great needs to control her family and environment, because she had experienced so little of this in her childhood. I came to a father, who carried his family's depression and was gone from our home working most of the time. Fear was a household theme in my home, not always visible but ever present. My parents had just come through The Great Depression, and World War II was in high gear when I was born.
There are many factors that no doubt affect a newborn's Self in relationship with the mother. Some of these would be what I have described as my entrance and pre-entrance to the world. Others would be such things as the following: whether the mother took care of herself physically, mentally, and emotionally; the status of her relationship with her mate — the father; her career; amount of worrying; focus on having a certain sexed child (boy or girl) and therefore disappointed with the child's gender; her feelings about having a baby in her body; drug use (including nicotine and/or prescription drugs) alcohol, excessive sugar; unresolved anger; other children to care for, or anxiety at this being the first; financial stability. All or any of these, along with many other conditions of the mother's relationship to herself and her world, will impact the infant in the womb and as a newborn.
The Self will emerge with some variation of feeling secure, to STAY INTACT, or begin to have trust issues. If there is birth with a fair amount of fear and anxiety for the infant, the relationship at birth already has become the first trauma in relationship to affect Self. An infant is totally helpless the first year, after which, with beginning to walk, to communicate a few words, and to feed itself, there begins to be a minimal break from total dependency.
There have been studies filming babies and how they respond to a female caregiver just using the positive behavior of smiling and then showing a blank face. Though I saw this film several years ago, it deeply impacted me to watch the child squirm and become visibly disturbed when the woman stopped smiling. This experiment was so simple, so seemingly small, yet it was evident how this interactive process, without words, had such a discomforting effect on the child. Imagine then, how it affects a child to be yelled at — or worse — to be hit.
More than once I have approached a parent of a young child (age one to three years old) in a store or other public place to suggest to the parent(s) that the child is too young to obey, to be chastised, or to be expected to conform to things it doesn't comprehend. I instinctively know, too, that this parent has been treated in the same way by their parents in their childhood. Seeing the shamed and frightened look on a child like this breaks my heart. They are experiencing emotional abuse, fraught with shaming messages, and learning that relationship is not safe. And, if a child perceives it isn't safe with Mom or Dad, then who could they ever be safe with? This can be the beginning of global thinking for the child, generalizing this experience to the whole world of one's future. Here begins fear of intimacy, which plagues so many people, who are unable to sustain relationship as an adult. Here begins fear to take risks and lowered self-esteem.
Here begins the visible effects of this child's "stewpot," as the relationship with the parents, often including extended family, begin to play upon the child's Self. These parents and relatives are passing on their relationship history to the child, flavoring and/ or adding spoilage
Physical and emotional abandonments profoundly affect infants and small children, especially because they are not capable of caring for Self, or of understanding that the abandonment will end. Therefore, the trauma of this happens quickly and deeply in the Self of the child. As a newborn, the child becomes this extremely vulnerable entity with the shock of leaving the womb and with no control over its relationship to light, sound, smells, and touch. It is totally needy of constant connection to its mother or to other caretakers. Any show of negativity or perceived loss of its mother's presence is experienced with fear and anxiety, with no ability to reassure Self or know how to process this negativity and/or know that mother will reappear. I have found in clinical practice that changes of caregivers and/or loss of the birth mother or of the original mother figure during infancy can profoundly affect the child and his/her future ability to trust and connect. Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson, in describing stages of development, speak of the formation of trust as being formed in early stages, from birth to age two. As the child is most vulnerable and dependent in infancy, they are referring to forming the most important foundation: trust. This first two-year mark also tells us a lot about problems in adoptions, especially those that do not occur right at birth. In addition, if there is divorce including joint custody, the child will experience the most abandonment in these early years, as this small child is unable to comprehend that the loss of one parent to the other is temporary, thus experiencing fear and loss as this agreement transpires.
Also, if there is shared custody in the child's early years where the child has managed to bond with both parents, and then one moves away, greatly lessening shared visits, it can be traumatizing for the child. This was the case with Manny, who had shared time with his mom and dad. He adored his dad, and he became hysterical and angry when he was informed that his dad was moving away. This was so traumatic that Manny had repressed the memory until it came up in therapy.
Infancy is the most vulnerable state we experience, and, therefore, we have the most need to trust that we will be safe. Don't think a baby doesn't experience a difference in the transfer from the birth mother to a stranger. When adoptions are delayed or the child is shifted from one caregiver to another before being settled into a permanent home, there is bound to be a deep violation of trust. This lack of trust, however, cannot be verbalized but will be reflected in defensive behaviors, such as a baby being overly fussy because it is fearful. Troublesome older adoptees are probably most reflecting fear from having been handed around, perhaps multiple times with multiple disappointments, and have learned to defend themselves with adverse behaviors to try to avoid disappointment. Their experience tells them, "I know you will reject me, so let's get it over with. No one wants me."
One woman I worked with discovered that she had been (through adoption process) handed around to three potential mothers in her first three months of life. Throughout her adult life, she has had profound trust and abandonment issues and a good amount of paranoia about people. Recapturing this kind of trauma to work past it is very difficult when the trauma comes from infancy. Many adopted children suffer trauma from the loss of birth mother, which leaves an early film of mistrust and insecurity. It is very important that the adopting parents handle this subject with great care, because there is already relationship crisis.
Someone else I have known suffered years of isolation and loneliness, afraid to get close to people. Her mother told her as an adult that she didn't like to be held even when she was a baby. As this woman explored her family of origin, she realized that the truth no doubt was that she was afraid of her caregivers early on, as they were unpredictable, alcoholic, and would often hit her, as soon as hold her. She realized that she learned to fear contact as a small baby, which explained why she didn't like to be held. In fact, she discovered that she always had been starved to be held and touched but was too afraid of people after her early relationship experience to get close to anyone.
I also have learned some things about my infancy from relatives that have helped explain some of my anxieties that continued into adulthood. My aunt shared that my mother left me with her for two weeks when I was six weeks old, while she traveled to attend her mother's funeral. She shared that to appease me and to be able to sleep, I needed to sleep with her, which is understandable for an infant, whose mother has disappeared. Although it is quite understandable that my mother would have to leave me — sometimes it is unavoidable — the part that struck me as very telling about my mother's mothering was that my aunt said she had to keep it a secret from my mother, because she would have disapproved — another (of many) indications that my mother was unable to understand or nurture a child.
My sister also has experienced a lot of fallout from, among other things, being sent out of town to a hospital for three weeks early in her infancy, because she could not digest milk. Again, this could not be avoided back in those days, but that early isolation from our mother, followed by numerous other emotional abandonments, deeply has affected her throughout her life in her relationships. There are few things that impact us as heavily as experienced abandonment. In my childhood, my mother would sometimes sneak out to the movies (so my father wouldn't know, as his religion was against movies) and leave me in my crib for a nap. I remember waking up and screaming for her, but she wasn't there. It seemed like an eternity. My mother never understood that a small child cannot just be told, "I'll be back soon." Sadly, I left my own two-year-old daughter with a relative for a week and was told she watched the window for me to return every day. I wish I had known better then, about how we repeat traumatic experiences. I feel great sadness still, when I imagine my daughter at that window.
Excerpted from Family Stew by Anne Salter Copyright © 2012 by Anne Salter, LCSW. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. RELATIONSHIP AT BIRTH AND DURING INFANCY....................1
2. RELATIONSHIP WITH OUR FAMILY OF ORIGIN ADAPTIVE ROLES....................15
3. RELATIONSHIP WITH THE THEMES IN OUR FAMILY OF ORIGIN....................31
4. RELATIONSHIP WITH FAMILY OF ORIGIN....................51
5. RELATIONSHIP WITH GRANDPARENTS, RELATIVES AND CARETAKERS....................61
6. RELATIONSHIP WITH SIBLINGS....................69
7. RELATIONSHIP WITH ANIMALS AND PETS....................77
8. RELATIONSHIP WITH RELIGION AND SPIRITUALITY....................83
9. RELATIONSHIP WITH ANGER, ABANDONMENT, SHAME AND FEAR....................93
10. RELATIONSHIP WITH TEACHERS AND SCHOOL-MATES....................103
11. RELATIONSHIP WITH FRIENDS....................109
12. RELATIONSHIP WITH SEXUALITY AND EMOTIONAL INTIMACY....................115
13. RELATIONSHIP WITH SELF....................127
14. RELATIONSHIP WITH MONEY....................143
15. RELATIONSHIP WITH DENIAL....................153
16. RELATIONSHIP WITH ADDICTION....................159
17. RELATIONSHIP WITH MATES, SIGNIFICANT OTHERS, AND LOVERS....................171
18. RELATIONSHIP WITH WORK, CAREER, AUTHORITY AND CO-WORKERS....................181
19. YOUR ADULT RELATIONSHIPS WITH FAMILY AND HOME....................187
20. RELATIONSHIP WITH THE WORLD AT LARGE AND POLITICS....................195
21. RELATIONSHIP WITH AGING AND END OF LIFE....................207
22. HEALING OUR EMOTIONAL WOUNDS....................213