The wounded parent, Part 2: Something Helpless

by Wolf Pascoe on June 20, 2011

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something helpless

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Perhaps
everything terrible
in its deepest being
is something helpless
that wants help
from us.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

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I was going to be so much better a parent than my mother. How had it happened that I turned into her?

Nick had kicked me. He had crossed the line into a way of behaving that I found intolerable. In that moment, I had responded with rage.

Years before, when I was Nick’s age, I had crossed the same line when I woke my mother by drumming on the stairs. That was as intolerable to her as Nick’s kick was to me. And she reacted to my ruckus as if I had struck her.

In some homes, joy and exuberance are punished. In others, aggression or lying. But there is a commonality underlying all punishment, and it’s this: when parents punish, they punish what is to them, in that moment, intolerable.

My mother and I found different things intolerable. But in our responses to what we found intolerable, we were not so very different. I can’t begin to express what a profoundly depressing realization this is. It means I am capable of practicing on my own son wrongs that were practiced on me. Worse, I may not just be capable of doing it. I may be called to do it. Like mother, like son.

THE COMPULSION TO REPEAT

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compulsion to repeatThe psychological phenomenon of traumatized people re-exposing themselves to situations which mirror the initial trauma has a name. It’s called the compulsion to repeat. It’s a familiar story—the abused child who grows up and becomes an abuser. But until Nick kicked me at the camp out I never understood the simple mechanism of how this repetition comes to be, never felt it operating in my body.

This time I did.

The longer I delayed expressing my anger at Nick, the more helpless I felt. The more helpless I felt, the more my anger turned to rage. In essence, feeling helpless is something so terrible that I will do anything to avoid feeling it. That’s the mechanism.

I know in my own parenting, I have chosen a path quite different from my mother in many ways, while holding to some of the tenets of my upbringing, that I’ve been able to see as valuable.

— Big Little Wolf

It may sometimes happen that people, if they feel they were wronged as children, set out to right those wrongs when they become parents. In my own case, perhaps because I was raised with punishment, I’ve tried to raise Nick without it. Consequences and limits, yes. But punishment, no.

Nora and I don’t want Nick squelched. We don’t want him afraid of his own shadow. We want him able to know and to speak his mind, to ask for what he wants, to have real choices.

raising a childIt’s not easy raising a child this way. It’s even dangerous. So we do a lot of listening in our house. We have a lot of family meetings to thrash out problems. We rely on honesty rather than manipulation, negotiation rather than authority. We send him to a school, an un-school really, that does the same.

But it’s a messy and uncomfortable process. Nick gets to do a lot of things that Nora and I were forbidden to do as children. He’s constantly testing limits. There are times when I just want to lay down the law.

It’s those times, the laying down the law times, that are the most tricky. Whenever Nick appears willful to me, whenever he tests a limit, whenever he does anything I was forbidden to do as a child, then suddenly I am young Wolf again, with salt thrown on an old wound.

Nick is a messenger from my past. Watching him grow powerful reminds me of how helpless I was. Watching him free reminds me that I was not free.

KILL OR BE KILLED

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If I experience Nick’s behavior as intolerable, it’s really the old helplessness that I’m feeling. And I know I’m in danger of doing anything to avoid feeling it, anything to squelch the behavior that reactivates my old wound.

It’s a choice, really. Either bear the unbearable news, or stop the messenger. Shame him, attack him, condemn him, hurt him. Whatever works. Whatever distracts me from what I don’t want to feel. Whatever gives me the illusion of power. Emotionally speaking, it’s kill or be killed.

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kill or be killedOn the day Nick kicked me, I gave in to rage. I can’t fool myself that I did it to enforce a limit. You don’t need to rage to do that. Rage was a defense against feelings that were intolerable to me. A defense against feeling defenseless.

And so I raged, because the alternative in that moment was to return to my eight-year-old bedroom, with my mother throwing my desk to the ground and life spiraling out of control.

And that was unbearable.

THE QUICKSAND UNDERNEATH

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I don’t like telling this story.

I don’t like any of this.

I don’t like it that children routinely violate limits. I don’t like it that when one’s limits are violated, old wounds are re-activated. I don’t like it that unless one fully re-inhabits the old wound, one is in danger of inflicting a new one. Of course one needs to be strong and firm with an unruly, intolerable child. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the cost, the hidden tax, the quicksand underneath.

It’s never appropriate to shame and condemn and attack a child. If I’m feeling that temptation, I know I need to get the hell out of there.

The best I can do at such a time is to tell Nick, “You know the limit. I’m angry now. I need to take a break.” Then I have to get right with myself, in order to get right with him. Because that’s the only way (in words that Bruce Dolan used in a comment last time) to earn my security when it was not bestowed organically in the beginning.

This is the work of breaking the cycle.
. . .

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RELATED POST:

This is the second post in a two-part series. Read The Wounded Parent, Part 1: Lessons

I’m not your house elf

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YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:

Help For an Abused Family — from Motherlode

Memories of a Father’s Rage by Corbyn Hightower — from Motherlode

It Takes Two Hands to Hold the Mirror Steady by Big Little Wolf — from Daily Plate of Crazy

Enjoy is an odd word in this context. The first Motherlode article is instructive, but not enjoyable. The second two essays are another matter. In them, the authors raise their descriptions of an abusive parent to poetry. Read poetry not to be instructed, but transformed.

Childrens’ art credits: “Vitality,” poster colors, by Kim Kean J., Age 1, Singapore; “Playing,” chalk, by Hannah G., Age 4, Alberta, Canada; “Upside Down, and Inside Out – At Night Time the Sun Will Come Out,” Microsoft Paint, by Marina B., Age 12, Ontario, Canada. All images ©2011 The Natural Child Project. Used by permission. The Natural Child Project provides resources on unschooling and empathetic parenting.

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EXPRESS YOURSELF!

Ever felt helpless? I bestir, charge, and exhort you to add your comment below. I always respond here.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

BigLittleWolf June 20, 2011 at 11:36 am

Your honesty and openness here is both painful and instructive. Perhaps even more so to those who don’t want to face the reality of some of this behavior – or tendency toward behavior, as a consequence of cycles that play out from generation to generation.

This remark struck me: when parents punish, they punish what is to them, in that moment, intolerable.

And also, this, Wolf: So we do a lot of listening in our house. We have a lot of family meetings to thrash out problems. We rely on honesty rather than manipulation, negotiation rather than authority.

Do you realize that all parenting is “messy and uncomfortable,” but that your determination to listen is exceptional, even through the mess and discomfort?

And as for rage, might I suggest that you forgive yourself that very human emotion and recognize that you didn’t lash out horribly as a result? You didn’t damage or diminish the relationship with Nick. And none of us can exempt ourselves from some legacy of what we’ve lived. We can, however, do the work of breaking the cycle.

And you’re doing that. Every day, you’re doing that.

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Wolf Pascoe June 20, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Listening is key. I don’t think it’s possible to listen too carefully. To listen you have to abandon all outcomes and theories and stop thinking of what you’re going to say next.

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John June 20, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Thank you for this. This touched me and reminded me of the parent I want to be.

I was going to say that I completely identify with the cycle of rage and shame but I’m not sure that it’s exactly the same and I wouldn’t want to lay my nastiness on you accidently. I’ll just say that with my son, when he hurts me or seems to be willfully upset or accidently rips off one of my many emotional scabs I want to frighten him into submission. I want to use my virtually unlimited power to punish him like I was punished. I want him to feel hurt and shamed so that he will NEVER DARE CROSS ME AGAIN.

And that sounds just like my mother.

That is how I was raised and that is why I am, at my core, terrified of the world.

I have given into this impulse a few times in his young life and I’m deeply shamed by that. I pray that I have not done terrible damage but I know that I have. I just hope that it will be less, much less, than the damage done to me.

Thanks again for this.

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Wolf Pascoe June 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm

When I think of the staggering unconsciousness I’ve seen in my parent’s generation, and the attempts to come to grips with its legacy that I’ve seen in my own generation, I know we can’t help but do better.

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David June 20, 2011 at 5:45 pm

This is the hero’s work you’re doing, Wolf—breaking down those moments of volatile unconsciousness and bringing light and understanding to them. It is compassion and evolution in action. I believe that this work can change the past and the future because of the brave humility you’ve taken to tackle the challenge these difficult present moments you describe.

My worst moments with my daughter came about when I couldn’t bear the feelings of helplessness as well. Moments when I felt I couldn’t please her needs and couldn’t please my own needs and not knowing how to proceed felt cornered. That’s how I’ve characterized my own rage igniting circumstances: when I feel cornered it’s unbearable and rage seeks to put an end to it. It’s similar to helplessness and perhaps that word gets closer to the root of it. In any case, my rage spewed forth and it was shocking to us both.

I ended up apologizing and then talking about what went on. In the end we’ve become closer as a result of that talk. She clearly stated her take on things and it turns out there was a big misunderstanding on both our parts. It was scary for me because I realized that the trust she has in me can be doused in one horrible exchange and I never want that to happen.

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Wolf Pascoe June 20, 2011 at 6:24 pm

How great was your apology and the talk you had with your daughter after. You not only repaired some of the damage, but also modeled the kind of mindfulness that enables emotional intimacy.

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Barbara S. June 20, 2011 at 10:59 pm

The pain you’re going through echoes through me – the shame of losing it in front of your kids. I’m sure you apologized, and that in itself is such an important lesson to our children. And it’s great for them to see we need time-outs just like we impose on them from time to time. Wonderful post!

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Wolf Pascoe June 21, 2011 at 12:21 am

Thank you, Barbara. I confess to an abiding curiosity about what, exactly, my son sees in me.

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Charlie June 21, 2011 at 1:03 am

You follow this uncomfortable parenting dilemma down to its messy and difficult core. Never easy. Most of us avoid looking into the mirror at such moments.

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Wolf Pascoe June 21, 2011 at 7:36 am

As to the looking, it pains me to agree.

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Sirena June 21, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Yes, it’s a tricky balance and a fine line between punishment and consequences. As always, I encourage you not to be too hard on yourself because even though you may not be perfect all the time, you are forever conscious and evolving and that will only make you a better parent. I’d be curious what Nick would say if you asked him how he thought of you as a parent. Could you write some happier, funnier blog entries now?

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Wolf Pascoe June 21, 2011 at 6:01 pm

I never ask Nick what he thinks of me as a parent, but he volunteers the information. When he gets what he wants, I’m the best dad. When he doesn’t, it’s unprintable. Par for the course.

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David June 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Not sure what last commenter meant by “happier funnier blog entries”. I laugh at some point in each of your blog entries. I find your sense of humor subtle and refreshing. And as to happier I’m really perplexed by that reference as happiness to my mind is a waft of sweetness that comes and goes through life and your entries are full of those moments.

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Wolf Pascoe June 21, 2011 at 6:00 pm

I think it’s like asking Woody Allen to write happier, funnier movies.

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Sirena June 22, 2011 at 5:43 pm

Yes, exactly! I was going to mention the Woody Allen movie where everyone kept saying “we liked your earlier, funny movies” but couldn’t remember what movie it was. It was a joke, but not everyone appreciates my sense of humor. I love your blog the way it is Wolf. Peace David.

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Wolf Pascoe June 22, 2011 at 7:17 pm

I think it was Stardust Memories. It was some aliens who made the comment. I’ve always felt I had a future in outer space.

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Lady Fi June 22, 2011 at 11:30 pm

What a wonderfully raw and honest post. Parenting is tough – we all do it in different ways and many of those ways are direct opposites to the way our parents did it.

I used to give into that rage far too often – throwing a kind of adult tantrum, I guess – but time, patience, limits and kindness really do work far better – both for the kids and for myself.

Thank you for such a heart-felt post.

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Wolf Pascoe June 23, 2011 at 10:51 pm

I find kindness the best of medicine. Especially applied to oneself, which is very hard. Thanks, Lady Fi.

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Jennifer Lehr June 23, 2011 at 11:11 pm

i’m really moved by how aware you are that we as humans have the compulsion to repeat our past. i know that so much what i think of as unhealthy parenting that I witness that drives me crazy because I so deeply empathize with the child, is because of what was done to the parent in the first place. and yet i blame them and then i blame myself for blaming them. i just want the kids to have it better than they do. kudos to you. sounds like u and your wife are parenting beautiuflly in the face of serious challenges. i’m now really upset at your mom for knocking that stuff off your desk…and yet i know her mom likely did the same. or worse.

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Wolf Pascoe June 24, 2011 at 10:14 am

Thanks for getting it, Jennifer. What’s funny is my mother and her sisters described their mother, who was born in a house with dirt floors in Europe, as a saint. But I think that speaks to their unconsciousness, not my grandmother’s sainthood.

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Planner2015 June 24, 2011 at 12:01 am

Wolf, you have done all you can do with this event. You’ve dissected it and studied its parts, and next time you’ll be a little stronger. Don’t beat yourself up any more about it.

Nick is your first child, correct? If so, then he has the special honor of watching you learn to be a parent — on-the-job training at its finest. If you think kicking you is intolerable (and I agree) … wait until he’s a teenager.

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Wolf Pascoe June 24, 2011 at 10:11 am

Wish it didn’t sound like I was beating myself up.
Yes, first child.
What do they do when they’re teenagers, shoot you?

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Planner2015 June 25, 2011 at 7:45 pm

I would say the pain they inflict as teenagers goes much deeper than the flesh. Sometimes intentionally. Most often not. Just part of them growing up. And us learning to let them go.

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Wolf Pascoe June 25, 2011 at 8:06 pm

More like a knife than a gun then.
Ripeness is all.

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Tiffany Hendrickson July 30, 2011 at 10:03 am

“My mother and I found different things intolerable. But in our responses to what we found intolerable, we were not so very different. I can’t begin to express what a profoundly depressing realization this is. It means I am capable of practicing on my own son wrongs that were practiced on me. Worse, I may not just be capable of doing it. I may be called to do it. Like mother, like son.”

Wow, did this shake me to the core. For the last year or two, as my first born left the toddler years and is now entering the land of making his own choices I have been trying to trace the rage I felt when he chose to test the limits. I have been confused by its ferocity and my seemingly inability to harness it. But, as I read your story I couldn’t deny my own childhood memory sneaking up on me. It is one I tell sometimes to get a laugh at parties, because it always ends up with the Mommy Dearest line, “I said no wire hangers!” And these were recurring themes to my childhood. My own mother’s rage at a messy bedroom or chores neglected echoed in my ears.
I now have a map tracing the rage I have been feeling when I have to get out the vacuum once again that day and try to avoid looking at my son as I am yelling because I know if I do, I will feel nothing but shame and guilt. But in the moment the rage is telling me I am right, he is disrespecting my time and effort.
And suddenly, I am her. A face contorted inches in front of mine, shaming me. My feeling of helplessness, both as a child and a mother.
Now that I know its origination, I will do better next time. It may live in me, but I don’t have to give it a life. Thank you so much for your honesty. You have changed me for the better.

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Wolf Pascoe July 30, 2011 at 10:45 am

Tiffany,

Thank you so much for writing, and telling your story. That’s it. That’s exactly it.

All blessings.

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