Thursday, July 18, 2013

Emotional Starvation: a mother's legacy

The other day I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window and I thought I was looking at my mother!  When did that happen?  For several years now I have heard her voice coming out of my mouth, but I’ve also heard my voice coming from my daughter’s mouth as she interacts with her own daughters!  What is it about mothers and daughters that causes them to perpetuate and repeat the patterns and behaviors of the past?

As I continue my work on the final chapters of my book, I have begun to ask myself, “What’s the point?” By that I mean what would encourage a reader to say, “That’s interesting.  I’d like to know more.” What I hope the reader will take away as a result of all my reading, thinking, research and writing is that the mother-daughter relationship is a mirror reflection of the culture of the times and the emotional condition women and girls are living in.

I began the book with a question, a puzzle that I didn’t understand but wanted to, and a vague sense of what an answer might look like. Why is it that although the women in my family were bright and highly educated, they chose partners in life who were needy and led them into a life of poverty and/or abuse? Why was this pattern repeated over so many generations? I hoped that out of my early research there would emerge a solution-- an idea that seemed promising. So I started writing to see whether I could build a story that would illustrate and shed light on the puzzle.

One of the strongly held themes I discovered was that selflessness by the women in my family was treated as a badge-of-honor that they had learned to wear proudly. Each woman had experienced a change in their understanding of their roles in life.  As each one chose a life partner, they silenced themselves from being strong, independent women to women who accepted invisibility and a belief that caring for others and not herself was “a woman’s lot in life”.  And each had passed this sense of invisibility on their daughters.

As I wrote, I saw in front of me, as if projected on the wall, a time-line of all the abusive experiences, events and emotional neglect my grandmother and mother had experienced.  I say and even felt how each of them had suffered life-stripping emotional neglect because no one had asked them what they needed or felt.  I also felt how each of them had survived this silence and invisibility by learning to believe that it was a normal state for women.

Our emotional needs are the bedrock of our ability to know ourselves, take care of ourselves, know what is right, set boundaries, be authentic and visible in our relationships, and importantly, protect ourselves from abusive people. Silencing women’s and girls’ emotional needs is the same as sentencing women and girls to lives of emotional starvation, invisibility, inequality, and being set-up for abusive relationships.

I began to see how the emotional neglect and invisibility had shaped not just their relationship with themselves, but how it had shaped their relationship with each other. I saw how their shared experience of emotional deprivation had created an emotional hunger in the mothers that they then passed on to their daughters. They didn’t know the words to say or how to feel entitled to claim ownership for their needs or their right to feel heard, visible, and nurtured. This understanding was as foreign to these women as a language they did not understand or had even heard of. Not having anywhere to be emotionally fed, and not knowing how to feed themselves or that they could ask to be responded to, each mother had passed their feelings of emotional starvation on to their daughters.

This left their daughters feeling the same invisibility and emotional neglect that their mothers had felt. It left the next generation of daughters spending their childhood and adult years learning about what others needed rather than learning about what they needed. The mothers had passed on to their daughters their own complete oblivion that something essential was missing. In their flurry to care for others, the daughters did not realize that their own emotional needs were missing and that they didn’t know the language or own the sense of entitlement to claim their needs. Just like their mothers, they did not recognize how emotionally starved they were and that they had learned to accept emotional starvation as normal. In this starved state, they also did not recognize how dangerous it is to be disconnected from your emotional needs. They did not understand that not feeling entitled to ourselves leaves women (and men) vulnerable to being and accepting abusive behavior from others.

Emotional starvation occurs when our basic need to feel important to others is not met. We all need emotional support.  It helps us to feel that our life has meaning beyond our jobs and tangible accomplishments. We are most satisfied when we feel that our hopes, dreams, feelings and desires are loved and appreciated. Emotional starvation occurs when people allow circumstances to bind them so tightly into responsibility roles that no time is available for intimate communication. Focused intimate conversation looks more like taking a quiet walk while you talk privately and listen intently to each other away from the hassles and responsibilities of daily life. It takes place at a slower pace than other forms of communication and it is not outcome driven. There is no final goal to achieve.  The sole purpose derives from the process itself.  For those involved, it is enough to feel symbolically connected via the sharing of their experiences. 

When there is almost no time spent in intimate communication, a bonded relationship will start to dysfunction because emotional needs are not being met.  Most women like to view themselves as more autonomous than they really are. As a consequence, they underestimate or even completely eclipse their own emotional needs from their awareness. It’s as if a person is starving but has no hunger! When this is happening, most people will turn the hurt into feelings of resentment and anger. They become hypersensitive and anger is provoked by even small issues.

In my book this phenomenon is illustrated in the lives of the three predominant women in the story. They act as though they do not have emotional needs.  They act stronger than they really feel underneath, and thus, reinforce the deprivation.  Because they do not expect emotional support, they do not ask for it, consequently, they do not get it. They also choose significant others who cannot or do not want not give emotionally.  They often choose partners who are cold, aloof, self-centered, or needy, and therefore likely to continue to deprive them emotionally.

Because their emotional needs were never met, the women in my story are not even aware that they are emotionally deprived. They suffer from depression, loneliness and other physical symptoms, but never make the connection with the absence of nurturing, empathy and protection. As a result, they deny that their needs are important or worthwhile and believe that strong people do not have needs.  They consider it a sign of weakness to ask others to meet their needs and have trouble accepting that there is a “lonely child” inside them who wants and needs love and connection from others in their lives. I hope my characters can learn to find the balance between strength and vulnerability in life.  To only have one side--to only be strong--is not to be fully human and denies a core part of who they are as people.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Importance of Grandparents

“A people without a history is like wind on the buffalo grass.”
—Sioux Proverb.

The American Family is in transition! The nuclear family of a mother, father and children no longer seems adequate to cover the wide diversity of household arrangements we see today. Over the century, there have been significant changes in the family’s structure and functions.  Prominent among them has been the extension of family bonds, of affection and affirmation, of help and support, across several generations whether these be biological ties or the creation of kin-like relationships.  But as families have changed, they have not necessarily declined in importance.  The increasing prevalence and importance of multigenerational bonds represents a valuable new resource for families in the 21st century.

Urbanization, increased individualism and secularism and the emancipation of women have transformed the family from a social institution based on law and custom to one based on companionship and love. In the last few decades, with the shift to a postindustrial domestic economy within a globalized capitalist system and with the advent of new reproductive technologies, the modern family system has been replaced by what has been called “the postmodern family”.
Each child born is granted the gift of life by their parents. This gift is a link to their ancestors who lived before them. From the beginning of time people have sensed a need to belong. Without this connection to our ancestors we would have little knowledge of our culture or how we fit in. Through discovering our roots we become aware of who we are as people. We also come to understand more about our purpose in life.
Valuable lessons can be acquired by learning about the ethics of our ancestors. The way an individual behaves and their ideals are often passed from generation to generation. People are referred to as being a descendant of so and so. In reality, it does not matter if our ancestors were heroes or scoundrels. We cannot take credit for their achievements nor should we be blamed for their faults. It is important to realize that as individuals we are accountable for our own actions.
In recent years the age structure of most American families has changed with more family generations alive but fewer members alive in each generation. Family relationships across several generations are becoming increasingly important in American society.  They are also increasingly diverse in structure and functions. As the demographics of the country changes with the older generation living longer more active lives, the result is longer years of “shared lives” between generations.  As family dynamics change there is an increasing importance for grandparents and other extended family members in fulfilling traditional family functions.
Grandparents have become important role models in the socialization of their grandchildren. They provide economic resources to younger generation family members, contribute to cross-generational solidarity and family continuity over time.  They also represent a bedrock of stability for teenage moms raising infants. In the context of marital instability, the breakup of nuclear families, and the remarriage of parents, it is clear that grandparents and step-grandparents are becoming increasingly important family connections.
An unfortunate stereotype of the older generation today is of “greedy geezers” who are spending their children’s inheritance on their own retirement pleasures. In reality, most grandparents are providing some form of help and assistance to their children and grandchildren. They have been described as a sort of “Family National Guard”: Although remaining silent and unobserved for the most part, grandparents (and great-grandparents) muster up and march out when an emergency arises regarding younger generation members’ well-being.
Multigenerational bonds are more important today than ever before, particularly with regard to the network of family support across generations. These multigenerational relationships are increasingly diverse in structure and functions within American society.  Because the increase in marital instability and divorce have weakened so many nuclear families, these multigenerational bonds will not only enhance but in some cases replace some of the nuclear family functions that have been the focus of so much recent debate.
So let’s hear it for grandparents! A family is not a set of unconnected individuals doing their own thing; it’s a cluster of related generations. A loving grandparent has so much to give to the grandchildren but they can learn from them as well, and this adds to the general health of a society.  Much research, over the past few years has provided evidence that grandparents can be vital in providing family stability. With both parents working, family stress and all the confusions of modern life, grandparents give children unconditional love, support and valuable life lessons. They are family historians with unique experiences who are contributing to the future by passing on important values and also learning about what matters to younger generations.  
In my exploration of changing family dynamics over three generations, I have discovered that while it is also true that grandparents can rule with an iron rod, undermine the daughters-in-law that come into the family, interfere between parents and children, prevent or make very difficult the introduction of change and create factions within the wider family, grandparents have always had a role in passing on the culture of their society. A study of past generations can shed light on recurring patterns of behavior that if repeated or misunderstood can create further disfunction in the family. This communication and understanding can help to bridge what can be a significant gap between generations and improve the harmony of the family as a whole.