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?


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."


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?


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. 


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.