Kent Hoffman is a father. He is also a psychotherapist with Marycliff Institute in Spokane, Washington. He is very much interested in responses to this piece, especially from parents (Marycliff Institute, 807 West Seventh Avenue, Spokane, Washington 99204).
- I am a psychotherapist. That is to say, I am an archaeologist and midwife to the human soul. (“The unique role of the analyst, moving to the minutest detail of a person’s history, gives a perspective and clarity to the direct cause and effect — the reactive nature — of childhood experience on later adult behavior.” — Alice Miller) I believe, after fifteen years of doing this work, that what happens in our earliest years has a radical — root — effect upon all that we experience thereafter.
- We love because we were first loved.
- We fail to love because we ourselves were failed very early on.
- The way we were treated as small children is the way we will treat ourselves and others the rest of our lives: with tenderness and support, with neglect and cruelty, or with something in between.
- Few of us have a batting average of even three hits out of ten when it comes to treating ourselves with tenderness and support.
- We do have the possibility of choice over our behavior. We are, indeed, larger than our history. We do not have choice over our feelings. Unless we bring deep intention and committed awareness to our lives, feelings will continue to control behavior. (Freud, was right: the unconscious calls more shots than it doesn’t.)
- Each person is infinitely precious, of infinite worth — that is, worthy of infinite tenderness and support. Nowhere is this more obvious and apparent than in the life of a young child.
- To have grown up in this industrialized society means that we are — each of us — wounded in ways that we do not yet comprehend. Unless we grieve — and thus release — these wounds, we will pass them on to the next generation.
- The central wound of early childhood is abandonment.
- Children are exceptionally sensitive — that is, fragile. Children (we) are also very resilient. Therein lies the problem: we do bounce back, early on, from woundings. To the naked eye, we appear to have gone on . . . beyond the wound. And we have. We have also stayed right there, at the scene of the crime. Depending upon how deep the wound, we will make certain that we return again and again.
- In spite of our wounds, there is at our core a truth that cannot be extinguished. It has wisdom and tenacity. It can be lost and forgotten, but never destroyed.
- Our degree of openness to relationship — to intimacy and negotiation — is established in the first four years of life. Indeed, the context of life for the earliest years is the world of relationship, or the lack thereof. This is the world of the self as it comes into focus in relationship to mother.
- Mothering is not supported in this culture. Mothering (nurturance, community, relationship) is dangerous because it reminds us of our dependence and the limitations of the ones upon whom we were dependent. The result is an active rejection of nurturing and of women. (“Traced to its root in the history of each individual, this fear of woman turns out to be a fear of recognizing the fact of dependence.” — D.W. Winnicott)
- It is difficult to give what we didn’t get. (“Unfortunately, all too many modern women have not been nurtured by the mother in the first place. Instead, they have grown up in the difficult home of abstract, collective authority — ‘cut off at the ankles from the earth,’ as one woman put it — full of superego shoulds and oughts. Or they have identified with the father and their patriarchal culture, thus alienating themselves from their own feminine ground and the personal mother, whom they have often seen as weak or irrelevant. Adrienne Rich speaks for many of us when she writes, ‘The woman I needed to call my mother was silenced before I was born.’ ” — Sylvia Brinton Perera)
- The man I needed to call my father was silenced before I was born. (“There’s a lot of grief around our missing fathers. We’re in a bad spot. I can’t fix that. If you needed love at a crucial moment in childhood and didn’t get it, you can’t go back and get it now. But I can tell you that the further a man goes into his grief, the more male he becomes. Every time you touch your pain, in grief or in rage, you’ll get stronger.” — Robert Bly) It is this strength that children need from their fathers.
- Women have every right to express themselves in ways other than mothering. An aversion to mothering is, however, both common and significant. This isn’t so much a comment on mothering as it is upon the isolation women feel from themselves — their deep struggle to know what it is to be uniquely woman. (“Basically, as women, we have no sense of what it means to be a woman. We know what we have been told women are, yet we have a sense that we can’t possibly be that, that there is more to us. We don’t know at all. We cannot even begin to imagine what this woman would be like, because first we are presently stripping down the negatives that have always been said about women and, second, we must undo the effort we make to imitate men in order to have a self or social power. These two are such enormously preoccupying labors that we haven’t had the opportunity yet to dream up, create, or even fantasize this future woman.” — Kim Chernin)
- Mothering is a verb. It is thus a task for both men and women.
- The ultimate goal of “good enough mothering” is to call forth in the child confidence-at-the-core. That is: “You are inherently good and lovable in your natural expression of who you are.”
- For children, the medium is the message. And the medium of confidence-at-the-core is time: availability, countless repetitions of presence, time and time again. “Quality time” in the place of “quantity time” does not easily translate as nurturance in the childhood unconscious.
- Hovering, on the other hand, can translate as engulfment.
- The fundamental need of the developing child is to be fully held and fully dependent. (“At first we were absolutely dependent, and that absolutely means absolutely.” — D.W. Winnicott) And then the child needs to initiate his or her own gradual independence, in his or her own time. The vehicle for this task, on the part of the parents, is attentive presence: to be actively available when needed, and passively available when not.
- All parents fail.
- To the degree that we neglect our anger and grief about our early childhood wounds, we do by default choose to induce others to help us re-create our wounds and to find others upon whom we can re-enact our wounds.
- I repeat: the past haunts us in ways that we don’t want to believe.
- The future of the planet is, in part, dependent upon establishing the raising of healthy children as the central priority.
- Less violent cultures (Hopi, Senoi, Eskimo, Kalahari) do appear to prioritize early childhood practices that encourage confidence-at-the-core.
- Life is bigger than we think. (“There is more to the human condition than psycho-enchantment.” — Christine Larsen)
- It is difficult to support children in a context that doesn’t support us: industrialized economy, financial anxieties, sexism, racism, meritocracy, dysfunctional family patterns . . . not to mention genetics or acts of nature. All of these, as well as the painfully slow process of parents’ freeing themselves from the wounds of their own past, interact — thus complicating the process of historical change.
- Nevertheless, it is essential to establish priorities. There can be no more fundamental priority than the raising of healthy children.
- Even given a concerted effort to support children in an ever-widening frame, we cannot hope to see any significant change on the world scene for ten generations, maybe fifty — then again, it could be four, it could be ninety-four. (“The most important lesson of the new peace: that peace must be allowed to grow from natural foundations, not imposed by force. . . . A peace that can grow as a shade tree, not to be balanced by force as a pyramid stood on its peak.” — Steven Horowitz)
- It may be too late for all of this. Our only hope is to live as if it were not.
The way we hold our children is the way we hold our future.
Kent Hoffman sent us a copy of Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing.” This unsparing but tender story, he wrote, “is a very dramatic description of what I have attempted to say.”