Friday, July 15, 2011

Why some people get crazy when their children get married

In 1987, when my children were quite young (nine and fourteen), I had an idea for an article that I wanted to publish in an academic journal.  This was my first foray into academic writing.

Much to my amazement, my article was accepted.  I look back on what I wrote and I have no idea how I knew back then, what I seemed to have known.  Maybe it was channeled.

I was puzzling over a little noted developmental stage of adult life:  “marrying off children.”   Obviously my children were far from marriageable age, but I did have a front seat on my sister-in-law losing her mind as her son was planning a wedding with his fiancĂ©e.   And a good friend was in mourning when her son became engaged to a lovely, completely appropriate young woman, her only flaw being that she was not Jewish.

A client of mine became unaccountably depressed when her daughter became engaged after many years of living with her boyfriend, to a young man who both she and her husband admired and felt close to.  It was in trying to unpack this latter situation,  which was after all my job,  that I gained some insight into the red thread that ran through all these situations.

My client was in a profession wherein she kept thumping her head (hard) against the glass ceiling, which back in the 80’s was both thick and bumpy, particularly in her professional group.  She could rise to only an “associate” position in her chosen and beloved field.  She vacillated between rage at those in a position of power and feelings of inadequacy as she identified with the devaluation that was inherent in the failed attempts to advance in her field.

What became evident after several sessions of work on this issue was that her ambitions had been (somewhat unconsciously) shifted onto her eldest daughter, the one now engaged.  My client had four children, but it was onto this particular daughter that she had placed her hopes for soaring achievement.  Her daughter was very bright, ambitious, and in a profession where her talents could be appreciated.   Her parents had been able to provide her with the Ivy League education that they had been denied and the network of connections that easily flowed from that advantage would help her throughout her career.

What was hurting my client was the possibility that by marrying this particular man, her ambitions might come to naught.  The prospective groom intended to live with his bride outside of the country, far from the network of connections, and in a culture where a woman’s ambition was unlikely to blossom.  This did not worry the bride, she thought she could overcome those obstacles.  But it both worried and saddened my client, for bearing so many bruises from her own career made her exquisitely sensitive to the possibility, she thought probability, that her own narcissistic agenda was threatened.

The interesting thing about this agenda was that it was mostly outside her awareness.  She knew she had tremendous pride in her daughter and hoped for her future happiness and success as she did for all of her children,  sons and daughters.  What was outside awareness was how invested she was in this particular daughter succeeding where she felt she had failed.

I call this her “narcissistic agenda,”   but I do not mean to imply by this that my client was selfish, self involved and not loving or concerned for her daughter.  Just that her own identity,  her “self” needs you might call them,  were very tied in to the imagined future of this daughter.

Narcissism is part of the package of parenthood.  It comes with the layette.

First, a short exposition on “narcissism.”  Narcissism, self-love, is really key to human survival and healthy development.  It morphs over time, as we grow,  from believing ourselves to be the center of the world as young children,  to something maybe slightly less over-weaning, like being confident of our abilities, and having the instinct for self preservation.  Having a good relationship with our narcissism helps one navigate adult life.

I know a five year old who confides to me that he is “super-good” at soccer, running off to kick the ball to kingdom come.  He thinks he’s great, and this makes him happy, happy.

Over time he will probably come to evaluate his soccer skills in a more modest and balanced way.

Becoming a parent often gives us another stab at satisfying these wishes to be “super-good,” for we do become the center of our young children’s universe and for a substantial period of time, we get to vicariously enjoy their triumphs, their achievements, their incredibly rapid development.  The besotted-ness that is the norm for young parents absolutely in love with their offspring, could be viewed as a very benign form of  narcissism,  the child as an extension of self.

This is mostly good.  It facilitates the kind of adoration that young children need to grow.  It is fertilizer, sunshine, and water.

That’s the good stuff.

The bad stuff comes in when they are just themselves, not us, not an extension of us.  Inevitably they will frustrate our expectations, the ones we are aware of and the ones outside of our awareness.  It is inevitable.   I repeat, this deflation of our narcissistic  agenda is inevitable.  This happens in small ways,  they don’t make the team whether its softball or the debating team,  and later it will happen in larger ways:  their career choices, their choice of a mate, where they choose to live,  how they choose to live.

So, “marrying off children” brings with it a host of challenges.  We can imagine the shape of the future for our children, they are making a choice that is fraught with consequence, where they will live, how likely they will be culturally or religiously like us, who will be in our extended family in the future,  even what our grandchildren will look like (perhaps), or even if there will be grandchildren.  It is a significant challenge to that narcissistic agenda, the one we may not even know about.

This is a moment in which we may feel enormous loss, depression, deflation.  We are challenged on so many fronts,  but a significant one involves having to face something of which we may not have been aware:  the secret plan we never knew we had for these later chapters in our life. 

Plans need to be revised, we may need to re-balance,  re-write that agenda.

We may need to pause and acknowledge the upheaval and pain that this is all causing us, and, just for a bit, be kinder to ourselves and trust that in time we will re-write our agenda.

My sister-in-law found her mind, and even though she has not come to love the daughter-in-law she came to accept her and even welcome her.  My sister-in-law is resilient.

The friend who needed to mourn the Jewish daughter–in-law who would not be, has a wonderful relationship with her daughter in law, decades after the engagement. They have become close friends over the years.

And my client,  who I had the good luck to see again many years after the incident described above,  lived to see that her daughter was right: she flourished in her career despite the transplanting,  although the transplanting itself did become problematic over time.

Like all developmental stages:  “marrying off children”  is challenging, painful, and in the end, an opportunity for growth.