Given how important it is to be properly loved by
one’s parents in order to have an emotionally sane
grown-up life, one may wonder with some
urgency why – in cases that range from
the regrettable to the truly tragic
- the process can go so wrong. Why
do some parents – who might in other areas
be decent and thoughtful characters – fail
so badly at being able to love the small
people they have brought into the world?
Among the many possibilities, two stand out in
particular. The first stems from one of the most
obvious and unavoidable features of early
childhood: an infant arrives on earth in an
entirely and almost shockingly vulnerable state.
It cannot move its own head, it is utterly reliant
on others, it has no understanding of any of its
organs, it is in a penumbra of chaos and mystery.
In such helpless circumstances, it must look
up to others and beseech them for their mercy:
it must ask them to bring it
nourishment, to stroke its head,
to bathe its limbs, to comfort it after a
feed, to make sense of its fury and sadness.
To most people, all this is just extremely sweet.
But in order to take care of a very small person,
an adult is forced to undertake a very particular
kind of emotional manoeuvre, one which happens so
intuitively and speedily in most of us, we
tend not even to notice it unfolding: we are
required to access our own memories of ourselves
at whatever age our young and tender child happens
to be, in order that we can then more precisely
deliver to it the care and attention it needs.
Most adults have no problem connecting with the
child version of ourselves. But this ability is
far from natural or spontaneous: it is a function
of health and a consequence of a degree of
emotional privilege. For a more disadvantaged sort
of parent however, unbeknownst to themselves, the
task of care-via-identification is overwhelmingly
challenging. Somewhere in themselves, a wall has
been built, many metres thick and topped with
razor wire, between their adult and child selves.
Something in their childhoods was so difficult,
they do not – and cannot – return there
imaginatively. Perhaps there was a parent who
died, or who touched them in a way they shouldn’t
or who left them bereft and humiliated. Things
in their childhoods were uncomfortable to such
an extent that their whole adult identities
have been founded on a thorough refusal
ever to re-encounter the helplessness
and vulnerability of their early years.
They won’t be able to be patient with the little
person’s clumsiness and confusion, they will have
no interest in playing with teddies, they will
think it pathetic how tearful their child has
become because a four leaf clover got crumpled
or a favourite book has a tear in it. They
may – despite themselves – end up saying ‘Don’t
be so silly’ or even ‘Stop being so childish’.
There can follow a second characteristic
and associated failing in a parent:
unresolved envy. However peculiar it can sound, a
parent may envy its own child for the possibility
that it might have a better childhood than they
had – and will unconsciously ensure it won’t.
Though ostensibly committed to the care of
the child, the parent will struggle against an
impulse to inflict against it some of the very
same obstacles they faced: the same neglect,
the same uncaring school, the same lack of help
with their development… The outward details may
have changed, but the emotional impact will be
the same. A new generation will suffer afresh.
In order to parent properly, not only do we need
to access our memories of our own childhoods,
we need to be able to come to terms with our
deprivations so as not to feel jealous of those
who might have a chance not to endure comparable
ones in turn. But a certain kind of traumatised
parent remains at some level identified in
their minds as a needy, disappointed child
who would find it unbearable that another child
had more than they did. They are like a tormented
and tormenting sibling in a disadvantaged
household who takes out their pain on someone
more helpless, scrupulously making sure that the
other child is as sad and lacking as they are.
We cannot help having had the childhoods we
had. But if we are planning to have a child
we have a supreme responsibility to ensure that
we have a sane relationship to our own pasts:
able to access them for reserves of tenderness
and empathy, and able not to feel envious of
those who do not have to partake in their
sufferings. We will be properly grown up when
we are in a position to give our offspring the
childhood we deserved, not the childhood we had.