September 18, 2008

Recollections Of Your Parents Before And After You Have Children



Did you know my blog has more readers than Psychiatric Times and Family Process  combined?  That sad fact compels me to refer you all to something excellent in both.

For you parents out there (especially women):

Before the birth of your first child, what was your recollection of your own childhood relationship with your parents?  Were Mom and Dad close to you, distant, domineering, warm, etc?

If the question was then asked four years after the birth of your first kid, how would your answer change, if at all?





I. 

Jerry Lewis, MD, writes in Psychiatric Times about a study he did in 1995.  He interviewed young couples before the birth of their first child, and four years after, about their recollections of their own childhood.

He found that having a kid did not change their recollections, with one single exception:

A number of the female participants changed their recollections of their fathers from positive to negative. After 4 years of parenting, they no longer recalled their fathers as being as affectionate and supportive during their childhoods as they had been before the birth of their child.
I would have guessed the opposite, that most women would think better of their fathers after four years of  motherhood: "wow, being a parent isn't easy, I have new respect for my Dad."

So why would a subgroup of women think worse of their fathers after they had kids? (Or: why would they think better of their fathers before having a kid?)

Perhaps women thought, "wow, look at all the attention and love I give my kid, my Dad never did that."

II.

That would be my guess; but Lewis found a different reason.

...we found a clear pattern, and it had to do not with the female participants but their husbands. The women who changed their recollections [more negatively] had husbands who were depressed, who helped little with parenting, and who were observed to be less sensitive to their children than other fathers.

Hold on-- why wouldn't having a bad husband make you appreciate your Dad more? Joe is mean, my Dad wasn't.  If you think your husband is detached, uninvolved, and moody, why wouldn't you idealize your Dad in comparison?

The women with depressed, unhelpful husbands did not report lower levels of marital satisfaction; rather they were maintained at high levels.  One interpretation of our data was that the women's more negative memories of their fathers served the function of minimizing (or denying) their husbands' failure to be as helpful as needed. If this is all that can be expected of men, then I can no longer recall my father so positively!

So his theory is that these women selectively remembered negative things about their fathers in order to make their own husbands look better in comparison. 

Let's say this is correct.  It suggests a bigger problem: are these women willing to do this at the expense of their child who still has to live with him as a father?

III.

The facts are these:

  1. before having a child, women thought highly of their fathers and their husbands/marriage. 
  2. After birth, they continued to think highly of their husbands, but worse of their own fathers.
  3. The husbands were observed by their wives to be less sensitive to the kids than other fathers and helped less with parenting.

These women were not in complete denial about heir husbands' shortcomings-- they put it on the questionnaire.  But they were just as satisfied with their marriages in spite of the fact that their husbands were bad fathers.  Put another way: that their husbands were bad fathers  didn't make them less satisfied with their husbands-- it made them less satisfied with their own fathers.

These particular women were willing to demote the significance of both their own fathers and their own children in order to maintain the illusion that they had a good marriage. 

IV.

But put all this aside.  Lewis's article is about the larger issue of historical narrative, constantly being revised to suit the demands of the current ego. The above women needed to affirm their husband's worth, so they changed their recollections of their fathers.

That's one explanation, but consider for a moment a different possibility: that changing your memories changes you.

Merely reading that sentence gives you pause.  The man who holds onto childhood anger; the person who doesn't forget a certain grudge, people who "remember where they came from"-- these things anchor identity, keep you the same.  I'm not making a value judgment, I'm describing a process.   We believe that growing, or therapy, brings us to a point in our lives where we can reinterpret memories.  But simultaneously, the act of  reinterpretation changes us.

You don't just look back on your parents differently when you become an adult.  You also become an adult when you are able to look back on your parents differently.

Every moment of every day, you decide who you are, and you decide how things will be remembered.  Memory isn't a hard drive; it's a text editor.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
That should properly read: when I became an adult, I put away childish things.  Then I became a man.







Comments

My opinion of my mother dro... (Below threshold)

September 19, 2008 4:13 AM | Posted by J: | Reply

My opinion of my mother dropped after the birth of my children. I realised how easy it would have been for her to be kind to me more often. I also realised that she chose to treat my children differently, just because of their genders, ignoring one, and idolising the other.

On the other hand, I realise (now that I have teens), that I wasn't always wonderful to live with.

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"The self is not s... (Below threshold)

September 19, 2008 10:17 AM | Posted by PsychMD: | Reply

"The self is not something one finds, it is something one creates."
Thomas Szasz

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the husbands who w... (Below threshold)

September 19, 2008 11:27 AM | Posted by Jim: | Reply

the husbands who were depressed, who helped little with parenting, and who were observed to be less sensitive to their children than other fathers
Did Lewis independently evaluate the husbands for depression and level of parental involvement, or does this statement reflect only the wives' perceptions? Is it possible that the first four years of parenting negatively skewed their view of both their fathers and their husbands, but for some reason not of their marriages?
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The wives rated the men.... (Below threshold)

September 19, 2008 11:47 AM | Posted, in reply to Jim's comment, by Alone: | Reply

The wives rated the men. Your question is very perceptive. But let's grant that you are right, it only supports further my point: the women were willing to distort the past (of their fathers) as well as the present (their husband's parenting qualities) in support of a feeling that their marriage was still good.

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I didn't even have to talk ... (Below threshold)

September 20, 2008 4:02 AM | Posted by Amanda: | Reply

I didn't even have to talk me into it. My father makes most men look like great husbands in comparison.

But he was a better mother than some women. My opinion in that hasn't changed.

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What makes sense to me is t... (Below threshold)

September 20, 2008 1:36 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

What makes sense to me is this group of women, based on how they were raised, chose similar partner types. This is hardly worth mentioning ... other than it explains the results of this particular subset. Up until reality once again intruded upon these women, they had been able to idealize their own upbringing.

Once they again experienced a father who was "less sensitive to the kids than other fathers and helped less with parenting" their view of their father changed. I'd argue this proves nobody really "grew up," they just displaced uncomfortable feelings and came up with a recast villain. After all, they don't have to live with their fathers now, do they?

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re:bad fathersI assu... (Below threshold)

September 21, 2008 6:47 AM | Posted by mark p.s.2: | Reply

re:bad fathers
I assume these fathers are employed? They bring in the main money for the family to exist and they are bad fathers?

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I thought the same thing --... (Below threshold)

September 22, 2008 9:39 AM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by fraise: | Reply

I thought the same thing -- "they must have chosen husbands who are like their fathers".

It's immensely frightening to leave the parent of your child. Another study should be done in a few more years, to see just how many of these marriages are still intact, or more optimistically, how many of the husbands have pulled out of their depression.

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If the wives/mothers are ev... (Below threshold)

September 22, 2008 11:21 AM | Posted by sara: | Reply

If the wives/mothers are evaluating their own husbands and their own fathers, then maybe having observed the actions of their husbands - in this new adult relationship, which allows one to make comparisons with others' adult relationships - has given them a new perspective on their own childhood? That is, they idealized their fathers in the first place and now have a more realistic view of their past than before?

Thus the contentment with the marriage -- this is something that they have come to terms with: Mom was happy enough with Dad even though he wasn't awesome with us kids, so I will be happy with Husband while acknowledging that he is depressed/distant/whatever. And, yeah, maybe Dad is the breadwinner, like Mark said -- all the more reason for Mom to decide that it isn't (as) important for him to be great with the kid(s). That the wives are still basically content with their marriage/husband says that the guys are doing something right enough for her to be willing to overlook the parenting thing.

I do like the idea of following up with a study in a few more years, but this just sounds like history repeating itself.

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"but consider for a moment ... (Below threshold)

February 23, 2012 10:53 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

"but consider for a moment a different possibility: that changing your memories changes you."---Alone

*Or consider that accepting and feeling your memories of the past may make you able, eventually, to see things differently.* Especially if you have a therapist who believes you. That is the best thing that ever happened to me in my life ever.

For myself, I forgot about, for the most part, how close I was to my father when I was a child. He was super cool and I loved him to bits. Then after my mother left him, (I was about 7 I think) he grew neglectful, distant, and it got even worse after he remarried, and turned into an abusive nightmare. (My stepmother was a bad influence, although that doesn't excuse him). What did I recall? Mostly the bad stuff. OK- probably all the bad stuff. I needed to be that way to make myself leave and eventually stop expecting/hoping for him to be anything but who/what he was. Plus maybe to not crumple up and die.

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