Reading an interview with author, Norah Vincent, this week, I came over all philosophical. Vincent was speaking to Emilee Lindner for Buffalonews.com, about her new book, “Thy Neighbor”. The particular passage that got me thinking was this:
Q: One of those “lines” in the book is where you explain that it’s OK for children to reject their parents, but it’s not OK for a parent to reject their child. Why do you think that’s a taboo in society?
NV: Yeah, that’s a big one. It fascinates me. The whole structure of psychotherapy is built around the idea of blaming your parents essentially, and everybody says quite openly, “My parents are jerks.” Or “They’re responsible for all these things that are wrong in my life.” But the fact of the matter is – and this is another theme that comes up in the book – love is not something you can just select. It’s either there or it’s not. I think there have to be a number of cases where parents don’t feel that passion for their kids, or even like their kids. Maybe your kid just happens to turn out to be a person you don’t tend to get along with very well or you don’t share the same values. … Even introducing the notion that you might not love or like your child is pretty awful to people, and people don’t talk about it.
Leaving aside the assertion about taboos, I imagine that anyone working in social care – and many other professions, might feel that Vincent could have done a little more research regarding the idea of parents not getting on with their kids, but I think she opens up an interesting discussion. What are our own views on what’s normal in family relationships and where do they come from?
I think, in this piece, that Vincent talking more about disagreeing about priorities and values in life, as well as a visceral feeling of dislike, than simply whether you can dye your hair blue, share an interest in films at the cinema or vote for a different political party; but there has always been a recognition that you can choose your friends but not your family. Some families have strong and lasting relationships that transcend differences of opinion or taste. Some make it work by keeping a distance. Each group will both be a surprise to the other, who perhaps grow to consider their own experience to be the norm. And yes, we do feel shocked when families openly express dislike about each other, often very publicly, vitriolically and with no going back. We have bought into the notion of family as ideal, and confuse the notions of love, responsibility and care as they play out within family relationships.
There seems something vital about a blood bond, as demonstrated time and time again by parents who wait up for, speak up for, and even give up everything to stand by their children. Those in the field of parent abuse will be familiar with the parent who asserts their love for their child even as their very life is threatened. But the fact that we are amazed at what they do and find it extraordinary, should tell us something in itself.
So what about the norm that children reject their parents? Philip Larkin springs immediately to mind, and of course while we remember the first line, we perhaps never knew the second: “they may not mean to, but they do”. The teenage years are a turbulent time for many families and it can be difficult to assess when so called normal adolescent rebellion flips over into outright abuse. Vincent asserts that it has become acceptable, even fashionable, for teens and young adults to rebel, to reject the beliefs and lifestyle of their parents and to carve out a different furrow. Let’s not forget that there will be some families where young people justifiably feel they are unloved and unprotected, for whom rebellion may indeed be the “normal” thing to do. For some their route may eventually and ironically merge with that of their elders further down the road, but we should accept that there are families where the differences are irreconcilable – without, in spite of, or even because of, psychotherapy!
So what should we expect, and what is reasonable to demand, within the family, until children are old enough to be set loose and free? It seems to me the minimum is about respect and maturity, and already I am thinking that’s an extraordinarily high bar for some people. If we are already wrong that love comes naturally, we certainly shouldn’t assume that respect and maturity will emerge on their own.
For those working with families where relationships have broken down, particularly where young people are being abusive within the home, it might be interesting to take another look at what we understand to be the norms, what we have unconsciously accepted and how these have played out in our own experiences. We put a lot of time and effort into changing behaviour, into keeping families together. Let’s make sure we are doing it in the right ways and for the right reasons.