Ghosts in the nursery

Kate Tietje, writing on Babble, ignited a firestorm of protest with her post Mom Confession: I Think I Love My Son a Little Bit More. Kate proceeded to make things worse with a clumsy attempt at backpedaling on the next day, I’m Not a Perfect Mother. Kate has inadvertently highlighted a very serious parenting problem and the many defense mechanisms parents use to rationalize emotionally abusive behavior. In fact, Kate’s posts appear to be a classic example of the impact of “ghosts in the nursery.”

We’ve all been exposed to pop psychology versions of attachment theory from natural childbirth advocates who misuse it to describe a mother’s initial reaction to her infant or parenting experts who misuse it to put a scientific gloss on their personal theories of parenting. But attachment theory is a real and serious area of professional study, exploring both the formation of parent-child bonds over the course of childhood and disorders of the bonding process.

Psycho-analyst Selma Fraiberg (author of The Magic Years a book about infant and toddler psychological development) first described the theory of “ghosts in the nursery.”

The concept of ghosts in the nursery refers to the relationship between a parent’s early, usually conflicted experiences of the parenting they received during their childhood and their own parenting style. Grounded in the psychoanalytic tradition, this concept suggests that parents may relate to their own children based on vague representations of the parenting that they received during their own childhood.

In other words, a parent’s reaction to her child is often mediated by unresolved issues from her relationship with her own mother.

As psychology professor Kimberly Renk explains, the theory originated with the work of Sigmund Freud:

… [A] parent is able to repeat the past without knowledge that he or she is doing so. Instead of being the child in the scene, parents find themselves exposing their own children to parenting behaviors similar to those they received as children. For parents who are strongly influenced by the parenting they received, the ghosts may have been present for two or more generations and may be causing family members to rehearse continuously the same script over and over.

Fraiberg developed a comprehensive explanation of this phenomenon:

[She] suggested that ghosts from the childhood of many parents are allowed to invade their children’s nurseries when parents identify with an aggressor rather than the helpless child. Indeed, research appears to support the notion of intergenerational origins of exploitive and abusive parent-child relationships… In these instances, the affective state associated with experiencing neglect and abuse seems to be repressed and not part of the actual memory… [T]he parents’ own children may become an outlet for these repressed affective experiences …

Readers reacted viscerally to Tietje’s articles because they recognized that something is deeply and seriously wrong with a mother-child relationship when a mother publicly expresses fantasies of the death of her child as Tietje did. Although most commentors did not name it as such, they interpreted Tietje’s feelings about her daughter (as well as her decision to air those feelings publicly) as a form of emotional abuse.

Tietje herself gave us lots of clues about the ghosts that are impacting her feelings about her daughter even if she can’t see them.

1. Tietje’s identification with her daughter and her distaste for specific characteristics that they share:

And she’s a very independent, challenging little girl. She wants things her way, all the time. And she acts out a lot by being extremely rude and defiant when she’s unhappy. Okay, so, she’s me. I know that. It doesn’t make it any easier. (my emphasis)

2. Tietje acknowledges that she is treating her daughter the way her mother treated her.

… [A]s a few of you guessed, she did favor my brother (and my father favored me). My brother and I both knew it, talked about it. In my teen years, I even kind of understood it. I still didn’t find it fair. She was the adult, after all…shouldn’t she get past that?

3. Despite recognizing that her mother treated her poorly, Tietje seems to be unable to make the connection that she is copying her mother’s behavior. Rather than recognizing that her feelings of dissatisfaction with her daughter originate within herself, Tietje blames those feelings on her daughter or on outside circumstances. It’s her daughter’s birth; it’s her daughter’s a “bad” personality; it’s because her daughter’s “bad” personality contrasts so sharply with her son’s “good” personality. It’s everything and everyone but Tietje herself.

4. Tietje almost connects the dots.

In speaking about her mother Tietje writes: “I still didn’t find it fair. She was the adult, after all…shouldn’t she get past that?”

In speaking about the way that her daughter will view her in the future, Tieje uses almost the exact same words: “But I know that if I don’t do something about this, … and actually be the parent, that she will grow up to accuse me …”

5. But Tieje cannot make the final leap, and when others make it for her, by pointing out that her behavior is inappropriate and cruel, Tietje retreats into a myriad of defense mechanisms:

Insults: “Instead of reading what you know to be a tiny, tiny snapshot into my life and condemning in nasty, insane voices — yes, INSANE — why don’t you understand that you, like everyone, have also had crazy thoughts. And then just walk away. Got it?”

Denial: “This in no way means that we love her less” even though the TITLE of her first piece was “I think I love my son a birth more.”

Projection: “It probably struck a little too close to home for many of you…you’ve had those same thoughts … found it obscene to see your own worst thoughts out in the light of day …”

Minimization: “I’m not a perfect mother. There, I said it.”

And having been told repeatedly to seek psychological counseling, Tietje insists that the doesn’t need to explore her feelings about herself and her own mother, she needs to work through Bekah’s “bad” birth experience: “I’ve been considering that we (Bekah and I) should go to these “Bonding Before Birth” sessions.”

But Tietje needs to realize that denial is destined for failure. As Renk explains:

… [O]nly when parents are able to remember and experience the pain from their own childhoods are they able to identify with an injured child and prevent the ghosts from reemerging.

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