Women’s group. Six members.
One has been discussing problems her grown children face. Which leads into reviewing her failures as a parent. Which makes her cry.
The others listen and nod sadly.
After a minute I say, “Question for the group. Is there such a thing as an unguilty mother?”
They look at me, startled. Then at each other.
“I doubt it,” I say. “Every child deserves perfect parenting. No child ever gets it. And every mother knows this and feels bad about it. So feelings of inadequacy and failure and guilt are built into being a mother.”
“Always?” one asks.
“Maybe not,” I concede. “Occasionally I meet a parent unaware of his or her inadequacies. But they’re usually narcissists, and they usually scare the crap out of me.”
The crying mother sniffles.
“I can’t help feeling guilty,” she says. “When they hurt it feels like my fault.”
Right, Mom. You, me, and most every parent I know.
Perfect parenting is not just impossible, it’s unnecessary.
The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once famously argued that kids don’t need perfect parenting — just parenting that’s “good enough.” Winnicott wrote,
The good-enough mother starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.
Catch that last line?
The mother’s imperfection is what helps her child adapt to reality.
So relax if you’re not perfect. You can’t be, and you don’t have to be. And it would probably be bad for your kids if you were.
Personally I take comfort in how one of my supervisors once defined good-enough parenting.
“The sign of successful parenting,” he said, “is that your kids can pay for their own therapy.”
One classic symptom of control addiction is enabling.
Enabling is anything you do to solve a problem that ends up making the problem worse.
Like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
Or scratching a rash left by poison ivy.
Or trying to get an alcoholic to stop drinking by hiding their booze or nagging them to enter treatment.
Or trying to improve communication with your kids by forcing them to talk to you.
Or trying to improve your marriage by reminding your spouse how disappointing and inadequate he/she is.
The forms it takes are infinite.
What they all have in common, though — and what makes them so difficult to stop — is that they gratify a short-term need.
The need to do something.
We hate feeling helpless. We hate facing the fact that some problems we simply cannot solve.
So we cling to the illusion of control.
Maybe this time it will work, we tell ourselves.
Or Maybe if I try it this way.
Or This is too important. I can’t do nothing.
Pass the gasoline.
Whenever a new member joins one of my therapy groups I ask all the current members to introduce themselves.
And in the course of doing so I ask each one to define what they’re working on in group.
identifying and expressing feelings,
not losing myself in relationships,
giving up compulsive controlling,
coming out of hiding in group
are some of the answers I get.
Occasionally a member can’t answer the question.
When that happens, I take it to mean somebody hasn’t done their job.
It might be me. It’s the therapist’s job to help clients define their work — their issues and what they must do to resolve them — and then help them stay focused on it.
Or it might be the client. Some clients come to therapy not to work, but to be comforted or rescued or parented. Some spend years avoiding the work they need to do.
One thing’s sure, though.
Unless and until the work gets defined, it can never get done.
Part of me says Yes, do it. Do it now.
Another part says No, I can’t. Or No, I’m scared.
Gestaltists call this stuckness impasse: the point at which you stop yourself from moving forward because you’re afraid you won’t survive the attempt.
Scared, for example, of ending the marriage. Quitting the job. Starting the business. Writing the book. Expressing the feeling. Telling the truth.
Such stuckness always involves old fears, triggered in some part of me that hasn’t grown up.
That part so clearly remembers being dependent, helpless and/or scared of punishment that it hasn’t discovered I’m grown up now, and in charge of my own life.
“We are continually projecting threatening fantasies onto the world,” Fritz Perls wrote, “and these fantasies prevent us from taking the reasonable risks which are part and parcel of growing and living.”
The surprising thing about an impasse?
It’s almost always imaginary. It doesn’t exist in reality.
Push back against the fear and it tends to vanish, like a nightmare does when you turn on the bedroom light.
Six women, crying.
All moms or grandmothers, and all worried about a kid.
One kid is gay and her parents are rejecting her. One’s being fed junk food and left alone all day with tv. One (a big one) is a germophobe whose marriage is in jeopardy. One (another big one) drinks too much. And the last flies into rages when he can’t get his way.
Anxiety, frustration, guilt and helplessness slowly fill the group room like a swimming pool.
And behind each story is one question: What can I do about this? And the same frightened answer: I can’t do anything.
“Okay,” I say finally. “Ready for some good news?”
They look at me.
“Not the answer you’re looking for, probably. And not where you’re looking for it. Not out there, among the people you love and want to rescue and the problems you hate and want to solve.”
I get up from my chair and go to a mobile hanging in one corner. It’s my Seafood Mobile, all fish, crabs and starfish. I flick a tuna with my finger. The whole mobile bounces.
“This is a family,” I say. “See what happens when one member’s in trouble? The trouble migrates throughout the system. Affects everyone. Got that?”
“Now watch.” I hold the tuna between my thumb and forefinger. The mobile calms down. “This is what happens when one member stabilizes or heals. That healing migrates throughout the system too.”
I sit down again.
“You’ve no control over these problems. But you also have more power than you know. You can be the calm fish. You can help stabilize the system.
“Remember when you were kids? Remember the adults that helped you the most? They weren’t the anxious, angry or desperate ones. Not the ones who scolded or punished or rescued.
“They were the ones who reassured you, encouraged you, praised you, helped you feel good about yourselves. Who modeled calmness, acceptance, or faith. Who helped convince you – because they really believed it – that Everything Will Be Okay.”
“That’s what you can bring to your families.
“Your kids and grandkids are each in their own little rowboat. You can’t row it for them. Can’t stop the storm or calm the waters. You don’t have that kind of control.
“But if you learn how to calm yourselves without controlling, you can offer them a safe harbor. Model faith that Everything Will Be Okay. And provide an emotional space where they can pull in, drop oars, catch their breath, regain hope.
“Not a small thing.”