Two Reasons People End up Bad Parents – Free Ebook

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.

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