Saturday, February 18, 2017

Oedipus Mother

Here are two short and blunt case histories that illustrate psychological irony. Their theme is: “I vowed I would never become the kind of parent my mother was.”


A sixty-year-old client lives with her husband, adult daughter and son-in-law and two grandchildren. She does everything for her husband. He is somewhat disabled and quite willing to be helpless. The woman manages all the household chores: shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, errands, dog duty, minor home repairs. Adult daughter and her husband, home from their jobs, go upstairs to play video games. My client is essentially the parent to the two grandchildren. We don’t really know if the boys think of their parents as their parents. The daughter is lazy (depressed) and contemptuous and cold to her mother. Her husband is a non-entity.

When my client was young, with three siblings, she fell into a role. Her mother was a member of several bowling leagues and social clubs and rarely stayed home. Her father, consumed with the small business he was building from the ground up, was literally an absentee landlord. The little girl became her younger and older siblings’ caretaker. Psychology kicked in and ate away at her at the speed of desperation. Self-esteem, collapsed in her parents’ purposive absence, became her servant-doer persona. This is who she was: uncared for and caring. There was no time for insight there, but for one kind: She knew that when the time came, she would never be the neglectful mother that her mother was. She would always be present for her child.

As a parent, she remained what she had become: the selfless, helpful controller of all things. This need-identity dovetailed perfectly with her earlier promise to herself. She did everything for her baby – infant – child – teen daughter, supplanting her as central actor in her own life. Pampering became the kiss of death; the childs initiative was unborn. Any sense, a subterranean din, that her daughter was an autonomous self, independent of her, brought a terrible panicky death feeling: I am nothing. Neglected. Abandoned.

So the woman who knew she would not be the absent parent became fully absent in an unforeseen way: She was blind to her daughter’s personhood, her need to think, act on her feelings, be her own initiator. She left her child unparented.


The fifty-three-year-old woman has felt, from her earliest childhood to now, that she is a failure. She was sexually abused “on the living room floor” at two and three years old. She was “thrown away from a young age,” and so abused and shredded that “now I can’t recognize abuse.” Her mother left; she went to foster homes. “I could never please her.” Her name was “bitch” at age nine. Father called her “whore” for getting raped in junior high school. She and a sister, transplanted into father’s new family, were the identified slaves: fed last, if there was any food left; asking permission to go to the bathroom. She “never felt I was good enough,” was told no one would ever want to be with her. One day in middle age her body began to speak its peace – as so many women’s bodies fail – psychosomatically from an opportunistic injury. All the heart-murder converted to “regional pain syndrome,” “fibroid tumors,” “neuropathy, neuritis, neuralgia,” “polycythemia vera, diabetes, R.A., chronic diarrhea,” “they’re checking for pre-leukemia.”

What she wanted for her daughter was that she not feel like a failure. So my client never let the girl quit anything – any sport mid-season, musical instrument no matter how undesired, hobby, class, youth group. The child was forced to finish, to succeed. But you can see this wasn’t guided by the mother’s bright inspiration, happy and loving encouragement. It was guided by fear and sublimated anger. It was the mothers running away from her immanent sense of worthlessness. The girl also saw her mother – daily – beaten red by her father. You can look a little deeper and see that each success forced would conceal a fear of failure: That was the spirit behind it.

My client realized, in therapy, that she probably “confused” her daughter by her own poisons and contradictions. The young woman, almost thirty, is both a deep alcoholic and a highly valued worker. She is angry and controlling of her mother – threatening to have her ejected from the house – and weepy and clingy like a little girl when the panic floods her. Can she not feel like a failure, getting drunk nightly, pushing herself to succeed every morning?

These two histories aren’t meant to suggest there is some special, ineluctable force that makes us liars or traitors to our own purposes. Rather, that the widest principle – the past inhabits the present – is so valid it can be deducted to even the most painful, unfair scene: betrayal of oneself and another. A woman may not swear: “I won’t be like my mother.” But she will carry her unnurtured, ungrown self into her adult life, making her too empty, needy, blind and angry to nurture her child right. Her dependent will become, as deMause describes, a “poison container.”* The principle says: We are made healthy in early relationships, we are made sick in early relationships, we are made in early relationships.

I suppose there is something special about a mother who declares she will not fall into her own parent’s mistakes. She has a good goal, already an improvement on the previous generation. But I find it especially frustrating that she (and most people) will continue to live on their surface, a surface of hope and intentions, justice-making thoughts, resolutions. That is not where we live. Our engine is underground. Our blueprint is hidden in our history. We may say what we want – I’ll be a good parent, I’ll be a writer, next job I get I’ll stay with it and not quit. But we’ll be speaking a dream, a cloud blown away in the wind, until we awaken into our unconscious.

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* Lloyd deMause’s psychohistory website’s article – “The History of Child Abuse” at –

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.