For many new parents, their past experiences in relationships provide a template for how they presume relationships are supposed to work, ideally. From these ideals, parents impose meaning on newborn’s behavior. This imposed meaning, for most, is essential to the bonding process with their baby. Yet, for others, life and/or relationship histories interfere with bonding efforts and serve to make relating and reading baby’s cues very difficult. For example, for Erin*, whose mother died during her childhood and she never really had the chance to mourn, she may be extra sensitive to her new daughter excessively crying and worry that the baby is afraid that Erin herself might disappear. So, in an effort to keep the baby close and reduce the fear of abandonment she thinks the baby has, Erin may choose to co-sleep, even if the baby is not exhibiting any particular need for it. By doing this, Erin feels that she is attending to a very important need of her baby and feel validated as a “good parent,” even though the meaning of Erin’s baby’s cry is imposed by Erin herself and not necessarily coming from her baby, whose cries may be of discomfort, hunger, cold, etc..
If it were looked at from another angle, Erin may feel that she has no model for how to be an effective mother and fears abandoning her baby as she felt abandoned by her mother. She may take the baby’s cries of hunger or excessive fussiness, which she seems to be unable to stop, to be cries of dissatisfaction with her mothering skills. She might emotionally withdraw from her baby in order to cope with the overwhelming demands of being a new mother, the seeming rejection of her mothering efforts, and the emotions dredged up from her own childhood. If not attended to, this interpretation may lead to a lack of healthy attachment and to frustration on both Erin’s part and on the part of the baby ,who is struggling to learn self-regulation and effective communication with a mother who has not had the opportunity to grieve her past loss.
So, what makes a good parent? There are ways in which one can try and attend to difficult histories or traits that one would rather not pass down to the next generation, ways to work on this include:
- Identify/admit shortcomings, fears, anxieties
- Allow yourself an opportunity to be sad or angry about things that were not so great in your past
- Allow yourself the opportunity to grieve the absence of missing relationships and let go of those that were less than optimal
- Forgive yourself for your mistakes
- Seek help (counseling, talk to a friend or confidant, meditation)
- Try to do better
- If you tried and failed, then try again tomorrow
- Always remember that one event or one characteristic does not define who you are as a whole, being human is complicated - and that’s ok!
It is also very important to remember that, no matter how difficult childhood might have been for someone or how many “ghosts” from the past that lurk in the dark, there are usually some positive experiences that can be accessed as well. Ask yourself if you had an example of someone - a role model, a mentor, a close friend, teacher, coach, therapist - who made you feel good about yourself. The experience itself does not have to be profound to have left a lasting and useful impression on you. Channel the positive experience and use it to guide you to a place where you are happy. Think of why that person made you feel good and how you can use those characteristics in your own personal life and with your own child(ren). Just as we all have ghosts that can interfere, we also have positive experiences which can serve to help us through difficult times - memories of people or times to look back on and think, “What would Mrs. Green have done? What would my grandmother tell me to do if she was still alive today?”
As long as personal histories are buried, they remain hidden and can pop out - for better or for worse - at any given moment. As cliche as it sounds, every day IS a new day. Children are resilient and, best of all, very forgiving. They long to have positive experiences and relationships with their parents and caregivers. When parents get caught off guard, it is harder to realize and correct behaviors that, if conscious of them, one would choose to avoid. It is easy to get caught in a cycle of self-blame and negativity, all the while your child waits at the ready to forgive and get on with it. While addressing personal challenges and accessing strengths - always remaining as aware as possible of one’s own history - successful relationships and nurturing parenting is possible and the next generation can be given better. Nobody is perfect, but with awareness progress is possible. These are the qualities of a good parent.
Posted by Andrea Hohf, LSW
*Based on a real example, although the name has been changed to protect anonymity
Fraiberg S, Adelson E, Shapiro V. (1975). Ghosts in the nursery. A psychoanalytic approach to the problems of impaired infant-mother relationships. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, Summer; 14(3), 387-421.
Lieberman, A.F, et al. (2005). Angels in the nursery: The intergenerational transmission of benevolent parental influences. Infant Mental Health Journal, 26(6), 504–520.