If Mama’s Not Happy, Nobody’s Happy

I’ve often had parents call me, wanting to drop a child off for psychotherapy, and over the years I’ve come to believe that if a parent truly wants to help peppertheir kid feel better, one of the most powerful things that they can do is to somehow figure out a way to feel better themselves. 

When parents are depressed and anxious (or substance abusing, or lacking in a cohesive self), even if they are otherwise generally loving and attentive, it creates a burden and an obstacle to their child’s well-being.

For one thing, children learn about who they are through the mirror of their parents.  Therefore, a depressed parent reflects back to a child that he or she is depressing.  Likewise, an anxious parent reflects the notion to the child that he or she is nerve-wracking, burdensome or somehow problematic; a consistently angry parent says to a child, “you are maddening.”

Children love us parents, and even if we mistreat them, they bond with us (think of the “Stockholm Syndrome” where hostages came to feel attached to their captors).  Our children also need good parents so badly that they will invent them in their minds, and figure that they only reason their parents don’t actually behave like terrific care-givers is because their child is so incorrigibly terrible as to warrant such seemingly bad parenting.  In effect, they tell themselves that we would be better parents if only we had better children.  This sort of thinking perpetuates low self-esteem; it also helps account for why severely wounded kids will aggressively, and relentlessly, provoke anger and rejection in substitute or subsequent caregivers (step-parents, aunts, teachers, group home therapists).

Finally, our children love us so much that they will tend to take on our misery in an unconscious, and futilely misguided, attempt to help us parents feel better.  One of my first supervisors said, “We therapists become therapists because we failed to cure our parents.”  Whether or not that is accurate, I do think that we all fail to cure our parents.  If we individuate we realize that we had the perfect parents—perfect for our unique and specific life journeys (I love you mom and dad).

Therefore, if we are serious about helping our kids, and all of our collective children, our first stop on this upcoming year of parenting mindfully is to explore our own selves (in the service of our deeper Selves); in other words, to figure out why our ego-selves might think we are not good enough, don’t have enough, etc. and trust instead that our soul-Selves are guiding us to more authentic relatedness and, hopefully, toward Good Feelings That Last.  The trip to GFTL, however, often winds through some dark passages.

Our sangha is here to celebrate the gift of our lives, our children and our world, but it is also here to help us stumble through our dark nights of the soul (and God-knows we “parents,” we humans who are fortunate enough to love, attach, risk and care, do have them).

So let’s dedicate today to Mama (and Papa) finding Good Feelings That Last in the service of all our children.

Namaste, Bruce


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10 Responses to “If Mama’s Not Happy, Nobody’s Happy”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    I’m off for that massage!


  2. heather jane Says:

    I so totally and completely agree. Thanks, I needed that. I’m guilty of always trying to do too much and always feeling stressed about what I’m not getting done. It’s time to start setting some goals about this so my kids don’t end up feeling the same way about me that I feel about my Mom and the stress she “fed” us growing up.

  3. privilegeofparenting Says:

    Hey Heather, Thanks to you, and to Rob, Stephanie, Laurie, Chris, A.N. and Beth for reading and taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it and hope other parents enjoy reading your comments as I do. Best, Bruce

  4. a Says:

    wow- very interesting. i just stumbled onto your blog from the ny times.

    thanks for this piece. as the now-39-year-old child of two very unhappy people, i’m still struggling with the “legacy” (or whatever you want to call it) of their moods/behavior/insanity.

    i used to believe in a more biological model of depression (bad chemicals produced thanks to my genetic makeup) but have come to think that i ended up depressed and under-achieving because of poor modelling/examples.

    and my parents still don’t understand why i am the way i am. in a classic case of “do as i say, not as i do” my mother has long berated me for not being happier and more successful, despite the fact that i grew up with her depression, endless crying, (unsuccessfully hidden) bulimia, tantrums, and more.

    neither of my parents could “understand” why i was myself institutionalized at 17 (depression), despite the fact that my father had used drugs for most of my childhood, and my mother oscillated between absolute rage and bed-bound apathy for years.

    both still maintain that they were good parents.

    i now know that no amount of work on my part could have turned me into the academic superstar they thought i should have been.

    i’ve been telling parents (of my friends, and then my peers as they’ve become parents) since i was a child to do what makes them happy- i’ve seen dozens of couples staying together “for the children” ruin those same children’s chances of a happy childhood.

    i was never a terrible child (i was afraid of my parents, and seldom acted out), but i had a terrible childhood. and i was in and out of therapy from the age of eight, while neither of my parents sought help. where did they think a depressed eight year old got her depression FROM?

    i’ve always wondered what the other adults in my immediate vicinity were thinking, and why no one ever tried to talk to my parents about their problems.

    because my parents didn’t molest, or physically abuse me, and because they (we) were quite comfortable financially, it took me many years (well, 39, really) to figure out just how terrible my upbringing was. i still have a hard time really believing it…though a great therapist has helped a lot….

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Thank you for this comment. I hope your experience may be validating and encouraging to others with similar stories. I know that as a therapist, one of the hardest tasks for many of my clients is in coming to forgive parents who remain in denial and never acknowledge the unconscious harm they’ve wrought. On the other hand, I’ve seen that all parents love their kids, they just don’t know how to actualize that love—often owing to a lack of a solid self. Other interesting factors to explore include the unconsciously held traumas and family secrets in the family closet. Kids are highly intuitive and they somehow just know the parents (and grandparents) pain, yet they know it in their bones at first and not their conscious minds. I wish you all the best in your continued growth and healing. Namaste, Bruce

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Isn’t it “Stockholm syndrome” not “Helsinki syndrome” ?

  6. Anonymous #2 Says:

    “Helsinki syndrome” is from the film “Die Hard”.

    The correct term is “Stockholm syndrome”.

    From: http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Helsinki+syndrome

    “The term takes its name from a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, in August 1973. The robber took four employees of the bank (three women and one man) into the vault with him and kept them hostage for 131 hours.”

  7. privilegeofparenting Says:

    Leave it to Hollywood to be the fly in my ointment.

  8. Beverley McCreddin Says:

    I have just had the light turned on. My 89 year old mother is in hospital recovering from a broken hip. And here is me still trying to make her happy and fix her unhappiness. I am 64 and once again heading into a depressive episode myself. Now I can stop the madness I am in. Rosepetal

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