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Help! I'm Becoming My Mother!

Four steps to help you quiet the ghosts of parenting past.

Key points

  • Parents often unintentionally recreate and relive past hurts from their own childhoods when raising their kids.
  • To avoid repeating the mistakes of our parents, we must do the work to break the cycle.
  • Strategies to move on from the past include recognizing our patterns, comparing them to our parents,' and openly reflecting on it with others.
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Your past impacts today's interractions
Source: Source: Erik Reis/Getty via Canva

by Timothy Rice, MD

“I will never, ever be just like my mother/father!”

How many times have we heard our friends, siblings, and ourselves say that? Are we doomed to be haunted by the ghosts of parenting past — or can we break free, stop repeating the mistakes of our parents and do a better job of raising our children?

Yes, we can. But it takes work to break the cycle.

The psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg introduced the concept of "ghosts in the nursery" to describe how parents, when raising their children, can unintentionally recreate and relive past hurts from their own childhood. Parents may hope to avoid the more difficult parts of their own parents, only to ultimately find themselves thinking, “I sound just like my mother!”

So how do we recognize when unwelcome ghosts are visiting and most importantly, how can we interrupt these ghosts from intruding on our own plans for raising our children?

There are four solid strategies for dealing with ghosts, but first, I’d like to introduce one young mother desperately trying to quiet a parenting ghost who hovers over her…

A young mother haunted by her own mother’s sadness.

When Jenny was a baby, her mother had depression and struggled to feed infant Jenny, who often went hungry and unfed. Throughout her childhood and teenage years, Jenny felt neglected. And she was.

Feelings of neglect and worry carried into adulthood. Even with a loving and attentive partner, Jenny feared she would be neglected. At work, Jenny constantly worried about getting fired, although she was good at her job and praised by colleagues and supervisors.

Later, when a happily-married Jenny learned she was pregnant, she vowed to become the phenomenal mother she felt she never had. She’d be loving, nurturing, and ever-present.

However, after Jenny gave birth, her visions of perfect parenting slipped away. Her baby girl was not easy to feed and sometimes grimaced and turned away from Jenny. Jenny became consumed with worry about these patterns, started to feel depressed, and wondered “Am I destined to be like my mother?”

Your situation is likely different than Jenny’s but here are four lessons a psychoanalyst can share with you…

1. Learn more about your past.

We don’t really know anything about our experiences as infants and toddlers. If your parents are still alive, open a conversation and hear their stories about your earliest years, and learn as much as you can from relatives and family friends.

In Jenny’s case, she knew of her mother’s depression but didn’t fully realize the impact it had on her early development. Jenny set up a time to have a conversation with her mother as well as an aunt who helped care for Jenny. These new narratives helped Jenny better understand her personal story.

2. Be aware of patterns.

Keep a mental log of times and happenings that seem to bring joy — and those that annoy. Are these moments connected through themes, and what might these be? Often, we might remember similar reactions from our own parents.

Jenny noticed her attention to her infant’s feeding was excessive. No matter the circumstances, she was tending to the child’s intake too much. Recognizing this pattern, she began to think, “why am I worried?”

3. Recognize meaning in those patterns.

When we think of connections between our patterns and what we know of our pasts, what meaning can we make of them? What do these patterns mean in relation to our inner parents? Jenny recognized her heightened tension around feeding echoed her own mother’s challenges with her own feeding. Recognizing this meaning, she became available to make a change in her actions in the present.

4. Make space to make a change.

When you understand your past and acknowledge your present patterns, psychoanalysts consider that an opportunity for meaningful change. If you cease the pattern of hand-me-down parenting, imagine the opportunity it presents!

Through open reflection and talking freely with family and friends, Jenny felt empowered to put an end to her repetition of tensions around feeding. Knowing she could make a change, she began to allow her baby girl more freedom to be herself, without feeling she had failed. Jenny became more accepting of her parenting capabilities, and, remarkably, with this comfort her baby began feeding with greater joy.

In Jenny’s story, we can see how difficult experiences or traumas can be handed down from generation to generation. It didn’t matter in Jenny’s story that one mother's ability to provide was the opposite of her own mother's; both were marked by extremes, and both were intimately intertwined with depression.

The passage from generation to generation can be both beautiful and ugly. When we can understand these passages, we can make changes to stop harmful transmissions and cherish the good for the future. Just as we can make ourselves available to confront the “ghosts” and stop them short in their haunting presence, we can lean on the comforting and capable presence of our parents and their practices. New parenting practices await.

Timothy Rice, M.D., is an adult and child and adolescent psychiatrist in practice in New York, NY. He is currently the co-chair of the World Federation of Societies of Biological Psychiatry’s Task Force on Men’s Mental Health, where he focuses on safety and risk factor reduction with male children, adolescents, and young men. He is a member of the Association for Child Psychoanalysis, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as well as the American Psychoanalytic Association, where he is Chair of the Child Advocacy Committee. His professional and research interests include the promotion of health and well-being in youth populations.

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