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.