April 23, 2010

Where Parents Go Wrong

homer and bart.jpg
it's not genetics, it's repetition compulsion

This is the story told to me.

A 38 year old woman, Anne, married with three kids, has a 17 year old brother, Tim, who still lives at home with his (and Anne's) parents.  Tim got his teenaged girlfriend pregnant.  Oops.  Should he have an abortion?

While he felt he could tell this to his big sister, he definitely did not want to tell his parents.  They were crazy-- a fact corroborated by Anne.  They weren't just strict, they were almost delusional.  Denial, avoidance, displacement were the main coping styles;  do nothing was core policy.  Bill too big?  Procrastinate.  Coughing up blood?  Humidifier.  There was plenty of affect there, especially anger, but it was always focused on arguing about the problem, never solving the problem.  "All those stupid doctors will do is charge my insurance thousands of dollars and then say they don't know anything.  Crooks, crooks I tell you!"

The first panicked phone call Anne received was the day Tim learned his girlfriend was pregnant.  "I don't understand this!  I used a condom every single time!  I'll bet she was cheating on me!"  

A few days later he became a political philosopher.   "You know, these Glen Beck freaks want to control what a woman does with her body!"  And it became cleverly self-serving: "Men don't have the right to tell a woman what to do.  It's ultimately a woman's decision, right?"    

For two weeks, the teens were individually and collectively on the phone with Anne and her husband trying to make sense of their own conflicted emotions.

Of course, Anne and her husband were highly conflicted as well.  Wrestling with the reality of an abortion, or not, and that they had been sworn to secrecy.  They couldn't tell the parents.  Everyone was in full agreement that the irrationality of the parents would make any decision at all nearly impossible.  The teens would eventually have the child not because they chose to, but because of paralysis.


Not a spoiler: Anne has to get on the phone right now and call her brother and say the following words: "if you don't tell mom and dad in the next hour, I will."  And hang up.

Why in the next hour?  Because idle time leads to catastrophes, like suicide.  He should not be given any time to "realize" that "there's no way out of this."  

Anne's job is not to protect Tim from their insane father.  If Anne wants to be supportive, she can say, "I'll come with you to tell them, and I'll help calm the Unabomber down."

By not telling, Anne sets herself up to be hated by both the parents and her brother.  The parents will, of course, say, "how could you not tell us?  He's our son, he's a minor!  How would you feel if this was your kid!?"

In ten years, her brother will get to say, "you know, that was the hardest decision I ever made, and I wasn't really mature enough to make it, and by not telling, you let me make it alone.  Basically, if it hadn't been for you, I would never have gotten an abortion."


Tim understandably didn't want to tell his parents.  But instead of owning his decision and not telling anyone, he brought his sister and husband into it. Why?

The therapy answer is, "he wanted some support."  But really, he wanted to unload a heavy secret, discharge the energy.   He wanted to get to the "I feel better just talking about it" stage.   The shame part had been overcome.  Now he was free to decide what he wanted to do.

This is why he chose to tell his adult sister.  It wasn't because he valued her advice and wisdom.  He told her because she was an adult, a parent of three kids. That's the next best thing to telling your own parents.  And so if Anne was ok with not telling her parents, then for sure he could be okay with it. Adult decisions, made by an adult.

Of course, by unloading, he had loaded her up.  He didn't care about that.  Instead of him being up all night thinking, "oh God, what have I done?" he was sleeping.  Free of morality and ethics and shame and guilt, he could focus on logistics.  She was the one up all night, "oh God, how did this happen?  What should he do?  What should I do?"

In short, Tim had chosen the worst possible posture: passive-aggressive.  He didn't take his burden on his own shoulders, like a man, and not drag anyone down with him; nor did he assert himself, again like a man, and tell everyone what had happened and what he had decided, and take the consequences.  No.  He boldly asserted his autonomy on someone with no power over him and hid from the people who had a lot.


"But what about Tim's girlfriend?  Why doesn't she boldly assert her autonomy somewhere where it counts?"

Of course she should.  Obviously, everything said here applies to her.  But How To Be An Assertive (Not Aggressive) Woman was written in 1976.  Women's trouble now isn't how to assert themselves, but picking from the overwhelming availability of choices.

But more importantly, it is a real problem for men (and consequently for women.)  They aren't assertive, they only pretend to be assertive.  That's why they think they look for manliness in fictitious characters that no 70 year old man would ever  think was a real man. Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and pretty much any rapper are to men today what Mary Tyler Moore was to women in the Pleiocene epoch.  Note carefully the relationships of all of the above.

Even if passive-aggressiveness is stereotypically ascribed to women, it is always considered in contrast to directness of men. The two offset each other.  If you follow this logic, then passive-aggressiveness in men is a disaster.


I'll grant you that this thinking is not abnormal or pathological in a 17 year old.   But this is a pivotal moment.  How he deals with this-- one of the hardest decisions he will ever make-- will set the stage for how he deals with all future lesser calamities.  If passive-aggressive works for a pregnancy, it's for sure going to be the default for tardiness and infidelity.

His parents are probably going to say, "we didn't raise him right!  How did he not learn that abortion is wrong?!  Why didn't he listen to us all these years?!"

In fact, they raised him with total precision.  They made another one of themselves in every way.  He learned how to deal with problems from them.  He learned what's right and wrong from them-- and what he learned was that the reason abortion is wrong isn't because it is wrong, but because they say it's wrong;  that what's right and wrong is determined not by an external ideal, but by whoever in the room has the most power.  I hope you all know by now how this all turns out.




I don't. I was just hoping ... (Below threshold)

April 24, 2010 12:39 PM | Posted by rox: | Reply

I don't. I was just hoping to *****ing God you weren't going to go all adoption on me.

What happened? Keep, abort? I know your point was about the phone call and the passive aggressive way of handling it and not teen pregnancy or whether they got an abortion(and is probably a mythical story anyway) but come on Mr. Cliffhanger, what happened?

: )

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What happens? Too easy. T... (Below threshold)

April 24, 2010 1:50 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

What happens? Too easy. Tim holds the options over his parents heads in his first demonstrable position of power. The narcisissm passes itself along to another generation and the world dims just a wavelength more than the previous day. Or, preferrably, gravity and stairs take care of the problem.

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I don't get it. So instead ... (Below threshold)

April 24, 2010 2:32 PM | Posted by H: | Reply

I don't get it. So instead of the sister making the decision for him, the parents do? And that's better why?

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In undergraduate a number o... (Below threshold)

April 24, 2010 2:34 PM | Posted by JadedMDstudent: | Reply

In undergraduate a number of years ago (6?), while home for the summer, I had a similar situation land in my lap. Apparently it was because people thought I was "compassionate" "nonjudgmental" and "smart." Except in this case it was the girl, not BF, that came to me. Basically she wanted 1) Validation 2) To figure out how to determine if a place is reputable 3) To talk to someone who wasn't flipping out in a panic like her BF. It's interesting how now, having dealt with pts,that if someone came to me outside of school I would have discarded any sense of neutrality. "Either get your BF and get in the car inside the next hour and get to a clinic or call your parents and tell them (or I will)" would be what I would say now. Or either if I was angry that day it would have been "I'm very sorry" followed by a call to her dad. Instead it became a long drawn out ordeal that cost me sleep and energy. It came to the same conclusion that would have probably happened anyways had I forced them to make a choice right away. Validation is for parking stickers and stasis leads to DVT which leads to PE...

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The answer is: Anne was 21 ... (Below threshold)

April 24, 2010 2:46 PM | Posted by Andrew: | Reply

The answer is: Anne was 21 when Tim was born.

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re: "the overwhelming avail... (Below threshold)

April 24, 2010 3:40 PM | Posted by Craig: | Reply

re: "the overwhelming availability of choices"; I recently heard this quotation and it's been sticking with me:

"Beyond the age of information is the age of choices." --Charles Eames

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Nice catch. ;)... (Below threshold)

April 24, 2010 3:58 PM | Posted, in reply to Andrew's comment, by Anne: | Reply

Nice catch. ;)

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"The answer is: Anne was 21... (Below threshold)

April 24, 2010 4:11 PM | Posted by Shaun Grey: | Reply

"The answer is: Anne was 21 when Tim was born."

Oh shit!

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Readers want to know what h... (Below threshold)

April 24, 2010 4:17 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Readers want to know what happens? I'm not the sharpest guy around, but I thought that was clear: Tim's girlfriend has an abortion and Anne keeps quiet, AS TIM AND ANNE ONLY KNOW HOW TO BEHAVE IN THE SAME PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE AND AVOIDANT WAYS THEY WERE TAUGHT BY THEIR PARENTS.

Ten years later, Tim and the girlfriend blame Anne, claiming that she allowed them to do something they wouldn't have done otherwise. Whether that's true or not is irrelevant - TIM AND HIS GIRLFRIEND ARE MORALLY LET OFF THE HOOK. They can then become born again Christians and vote for their Republican pro-Life candidate without suffering cognitive dissonance.

Tell me Alone, did I get it right?

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Alone's comment: Wow, yo... (Below threshold)

April 24, 2010 4:43 PM | Posted by Alone: | Reply

Alone's comment: Wow, you guys got it much more quickly than I anticipated. So much for easter eggs. Yes, the "secret" imitation is that Tim and Anne's Dad got his then GF pregnant (with Anne) back when he was... 17.

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I think I am just going to ... (Below threshold)

April 24, 2010 7:46 PM | Posted by nwr: | Reply

I think I am just going to blame my apparent incomprehension of any "'secret' imitation" (the meaning of that very term eludes me), "answer" etc. on my insufficient English skills. Or is this some weird incest joke? Anyway, good night.

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Great post... but where / h... (Below threshold)

April 24, 2010 8:51 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Great post... but where / how does repetition compulsion enter into it?

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Upon reading other comments... (Below threshold)

April 24, 2010 8:53 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Upon reading other comments, I retract my question. Sorry.

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great post!... (Below threshold)

April 24, 2010 9:32 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

great post!

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OK, I'm drawing a complete ... (Below threshold)

April 25, 2010 3:15 AM | Posted by TimP: | Reply

OK, I'm drawing a complete blank on what the significance of "Anne" being 21 when "Tim" was born. I assume it's something from the American news or media that I don't get because I'm an Australian or something? Could someone enlighten me?

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Post title, dude. Tim is hi... (Below threshold)

April 25, 2010 11:03 AM | Posted, in reply to TimP's comment, by popo: | Reply

Post title, dude. Tim is his dad.

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The story focused on the me... (Below threshold)

April 26, 2010 5:52 AM | Posted by Aron: | Reply

The story focused on the men, but I'm interested/fearful to know at what age all of the (hypothetical?) moms involved in this story got pregnant with their first kid. Smart money puts the moms 3 years behind the respective fathers: high school freshman and senior dropouts respectively.

Years ago a friend and I would bet on the background of callers to the national radio show 'Loveline' (mostly teens called to get advice). Calls like this were so routine that you have to either make a game of it or cry.
The hosts would almost always have to pick the callers' brains to put together enough of a family history to (surprise, surprise!) find out that the caller was recreating the exact same environment they grew up in. Even callers who claimed to listen to the show regularly were often dumbfounded at the assertion that just because their parents behaved that way they might be inclined to as well.

This topic is never acknowledged in our culture, despite being so prevalent.

What's scarier: a society of would be Don Drapers, or a society of no count high school dropouts with Draper-delusions of grandeur? But no worries: as long as everyone can buy tequila and shotguns in the same convenient store, we're still living the life, right?

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I think the young man in qu... (Below threshold)

April 26, 2010 10:17 AM | Posted by medsvstherapy: | Reply

I think the young man in question has the bipolar. I believe he should be prescribed Seroquel. If he reports any side effects, I think we should all note that he is not a good 'historian,' and that he has a mental illness. And up his dose.

But seriously: a reasonable scenario is that Anne was raised by people who were not quite fully functional as parents. Unless they eventually saw the follies of their ways (unlikely), she as a child got parentalized. This served to maintain a certain predictable status quo in the home. Unfortunately, by my armchair analysis, she learns parental responsibility in the wrong context: before she is developmentally ready, she has to psychologically maintain a household for the parents who have failed to carry the burden themselves.

So, she is herself great at running a household, including money management, chores, keeping everyone happy, and being the person to turn to in times of trouble. Secret-keeping is a bonus.

Ann is already hated by her parents. Her capable abilities have, across time, been noted in contrast to the bullying immature manipulations, played out through angry outbursts at least by her father. You cannot play that card too many times or you look like a crazy man. And he does, I would bet.

No, she is not the favorite. The employee who makes the boss look incompetent is highly valued by the boss, but is not the favorite. The favorite is the person who plays the harp to soothe Saul.

If I were the parents, I would probably freak out and start blaming others - Glen Beck, the moral majority, the pregnant girl's morals and/or parents, whomever. Actual reason and outcomes don't matter.

If I were Anne, I would end up offering a sanctuary to the young woman and her developing child, even accepting the eventuality of supporting a couple more people. I could be way off on that part, since it is quite aceptable nowadays to abort babies in order to avoid upsetting the fantasy scenario upon which we believe we are proceeding.

The grease upon which the world runs is in large part the sweat of such saints. Over-responsible people who don't rock the boat and do not often say "no."

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I'd think the ultimate resu... (Below threshold)

April 26, 2010 12:16 PM | Posted by Jess: | Reply

I'd think the ultimate result is an abortion, a ruined relationship with a young couple, a sister that will hesitate to communicate with her brother forever, and the teeth gnashing of the parents as their lament their bad luck in life.

In the future, the pattern will repeat as another generation learns how to handle life.

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medsvstherapy,Mr./... (Below threshold)

April 26, 2010 3:53 PM | Posted by Jack Coupal: | Reply


Mr./Ms. Anonymous are going to flame you until you're charred!

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Anne became pregnant with T... (Below threshold)

April 26, 2010 5:12 PM | Posted by Sarah G: | Reply

Anne became pregnant with Tim, and the parents claimed Tim as their own. Tim confesses to Anne because he either knows this or senses this. Her answer may not be one he wants to hear, due to the implications it has for his own birth.

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Good hypothesis, I didn't t... (Below threshold)

April 26, 2010 6:08 PM | Posted, in reply to Sarah G's comment, by popo: | Reply

Good hypothesis, I didn't think of that at all...

Reading through these comments reminds me of this concept:


You guys realise that Alone just made this story up, right?

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This is not a brain teaser.... (Below threshold)

April 26, 2010 6:11 PM | Posted by TMS: | Reply

This is not a brain teaser. What difference does it make that Anne was already 21 when Tim was born? I don't think we're meant to say, 'Oh, Anne is Tim's mother'. What that means is that either Anne and Tim's parents accidentally got pregnant when they were very young or they accidentally got pregnant when they were very old. Its unlikely that they wanted to have children 21yrs apart. When you say 'imitation' do you mean 'intimation'? What 'imitation' was there anywhere?

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BUZZZ!!!!! That does... (Below threshold)

April 26, 2010 6:19 PM | Posted, in reply to Andrew's comment, by TMS: | Reply

That doesn't answer anything.

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Anne is the oldest child an... (Below threshold)

April 26, 2010 6:54 PM | Posted, in reply to TMS's comment, by Aron: | Reply

Anne is the oldest child and Tim is the youngest. Odds are pretty high there's more siblings Alone didn't mention. In fact, I'd guess that there's either one more sibling between Anne and Tim or Anne is going to be pregnant again in the next few years.

While I'm guessing/fleshing out the story I'd also guess that Anne's husband just happens to be abusive, alcoholic, and/or angry loser like Anne and Tim's father. Chance are decent Tim will turn out similar to dear old dad as well. But who knows!

It's a shame we aren't hearing this story from one of it's players. They would point out that one of my guesses was wrong, completely glossing over how I miraculously guessed the rest correctly. And even if I'm way off the mark in this particular case, it's all just playing the odds, so this being an exception would just be a happy accident.

But again, what do I care? American Idol is on tonight, so all is good in the world, right?

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Leave the snark for Alone, ... (Below threshold)

April 27, 2010 7:54 AM | Posted by popo: | Reply

Leave the snark for Alone, assholes.

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Thrive Atlanta Counseling T... (Below threshold)

April 27, 2010 9:17 PM | Posted by Thrive Atalanta: | Reply

Thrive Atlanta Counseling Therapy and Life Coaching has helped hundreds of people in Atlanta, GA Atlanta Counseling Philadelphia Counseling Therapy

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Tim's girlfriend doesn't ge... (Below threshold)

April 28, 2010 6:04 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Tim's girlfriend doesn't get an abortion, misery and disorders ever after. The real tragedy being it all could have been solved with an ultimatum at the right moment.

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1. I love the part where An... (Below threshold)

April 28, 2010 11:53 AM | Posted by Brian Driggs: | Reply

1. I love the part where Anne tells her brother he has 1 hour to advise his parents or she will. Inherent in that move is the support so many would advocate. As a sibling, she is familiar with their bitter lack of confidence, so her charging him to act stands to chip away at the status quo; if not for the parents, for she and her brother.

That's a powerful takeaway.

2. I am SO glad I missed the generation which is looking up to the likes of Don Draper (never watched Mad Men - ever), Tony Soprano (watched only the last episode - on a whim), and "pretty much any rapper." It seems there are more adults with children and TV these days than there are parents. Perhaps I'm just turning into that bitter old man I despised as a child. The one who used to turn the hose on us as we rode our bikes past his house because we were trespassing on his sidewalk. Ah, hindsight.

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