Today’s column starts with this question, “Out of all the possible pairs of family relationships, from father/son, brother/sister, to grandmother/grandson, which relationship has the most power to shape the destiny of a child?”
The answer is this: the mother/child relationship. Every culture views the bond between a mother and her child as a fundamental part of the child’s development. But, what about the situation where a mother is incapable of raising her own child? What forces would be unleashed upon the child, if their own mother was too irresponsible to perform basic parenting functions?
Today’s column will answer these questions and give you a better understanding of the loss, confusion and anger children experience when they are not raised by their birth mothers.
Let’s start by meeting a young child, Courtney, 9, whose mother, Anna, left her when she was two, to live with her new boyfriend. Courtney’s father, Ben, divorced Anna and has been raising his daughter ever since. Anna was granted visitation, but she only sees Courtney on an irregular basis, claiming “my car broke down” or “I had to work.”
Courtney’s story begins with a diary entry she made as she waits for her mother: Oct. 9, Friday: “Dear Diary, my mom is picking me up at 5 p.m. today, so I get to be with her for my 10th birthday. She promised to take me to Build-a-Bear. Awesome!” 6:30 p.m.: “Mom has not come yet, is she OK?” 8 p.m.: “Mom didn’t call or come. Dad said she must have had car trouble.” 9 p.m.: “Dad said I need to go to bed, but I’m too upset. Why didn’t mom call me? I think it must be my fault — if I was really special, or smart, mom would be here (as tears rain down upon the pages of her diary)”.
Here are the thoughts Courtney’s mother, Anna, has on Friday, Oct. 9, the day she failed to pick up her daughter: Anna, too stoned and drunk to drive, tells herself, “I’ve let my daughter down again. Why am I such a bad mother? I’m too ashamed to even call her.”
When Courtney turns 11, Ben marries his long-standing girlfriend, Sherri. When Courtney turns 12, she begins to have behavioral problems: anger outbursts directed at her step-mother; falling grades; nasty attitude; defiance with all authority figures. When Courtney’s principal calls Ben to inform him that his daughter had violated (again) the school dress code by hiking up her skirt and using makeup, Ben and Sherri realized it was time for professional help.
First office visit: Courtney’s almond shaped green eyes, high cheekbones and light brown, shoulder length hair makes her look 16. She jumps in, “I’m not the one who needs to be here -— it’s my psycho step-mom. She and Dad hate my mom and they will tell you I should not be allowed to see my mom.” After talking with Ben and Sherri, a treatment plan is formulated:
1. Do not try to remove Courtney’s hope that her mom will stop her drug use.
2. When Anna “forgets” to pick up Courtney for visits, make Courtney talk directly to her mom, or, have her write a letter about her anger and hurt caused by her mom not showing up.
3. The relationship between Courtney and step-mom needs to become closer. Courtney resents step-mom because she is standing upon “sacred soil,” which Courtney believes is reserved only for her mother. Step-mom is advised to do one activity a week, with just her and Courtney, to rebuild their relationship.
4. Establish clear rules and consequences for lying, anger outbursts and refusal to do homework. Reward Courtney for positive behavioral changes.
5. Meet with her teachers often to obtain feedback on school performance.
Last office visit: Courtney speaks first: “I used to believe my job was to fix my mom by helping her quit her drugs. I felt like somehow, it was my fault she had such a hard life. I also used to push my step-mom away, like it would be disloyal to my mom if I got close to Sherri. But Sherri and I really seem to get along with each other. I still talk to my mom, but her drug addiction is getting worse.”
Courtney’s story teaches us that a child’s wish (I can get my mom to stop drugs) is a stabilizing structure needed by the child to navigate the turbulent waters caused by the loss of her birth mother. Like training wheels on a bike, or the weighted keel of a sailboat, Courtney’s wish keeps her from flipping over or capsizing. If we — the parents — have the wisdom to not remove the wheels or the keel, then Courtney can build a permanent and stronger structure for emotional stability: deeper bonds with her step-mother and father. The content of this article is for educational purposes only, not treatment. The characters in this story are not real. Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Dr. Richard Elghammer contributes his weekly column to the Journal Review.