Is Parenthood Doomed?
Back in Boston, a friend of ours came over for dinner one day and told us that she was going to attend a week-long program to “undo” the effects of her parents. This program, called Hoffman Process,
“…brings into awareness the counterproductive beliefs, perceptions and emotional needs that have been adopted from parents…”
Our friend was working on her third masters degree at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. This program was available to the students with funding from alums. My first reaction was, “sounds like hocus-pocus.” As our dinner conversation went deeper and deeper into the subject, I changed my mind.
Think about the people you know well. Maybe yourself. Then think about these people’s self-confidence, interactions with others, ideas about achievement, friendship and spirituality, household routines… Do you see parental halos in them? Pay attention to emotional habits, particularly the bad ones. In these things, people often mimic their parents’ habits, or behave in a violent reaction to them. If a program lets you at least recognize, oh, I’m acting this way because my parents did such and such or raised me in such and such way, that has a lot of value. We’re products of our parents more than we like to admit. A mother’s comment about weight can alter eating habits for life. Most of us, conscious or not, seek approval from our parents even after we’ve grown up.
The irony is thick. These Harvard students, having reached the pinnacle of academic achievement, must be the pride and joy of their parents. The most prestigious of all bragging rights. Those parents must have done a great job raising their kids, right? But there they were, these students, going into therapy to undo what their parents had done to them.
If you take your blinders off and observe beyond the superficial, you must see broken parent-child relationships everywhere. Of course, good relationships do exist, but they’re not as common as one would expect. I can’t help but wonder if the parent-child relationship is doomed from the beginning.
Here’s one way to look at it. Ever since condoms became widely available, people have children primarily as means for self-fulfillment. I, myself, wanted children because I thought it was one of the essential life experiences. With emphasis on the word experience. Much of the current topics on parenthood: Tiger moms, diaper-free babies, etc., when you boil them down, are about creating the best experience and end product for the parents. When a child eventually grows up, he or she will surely have a violent reaction to this. In the age of individualism, nobody wants to be object of someone else’s fulfillment. Then, on top of this, we have impossibly high expectations for parent-child relationships. There you have it, a recipe for problems. The Harvard students going through the Hoffman Process illustrates this vividly: Parents fulfilled with their children attending Harvard, while the children searching for their inner individuals by identifying and removing their parents’ imprints.
Perhaps, when it comes to raising a child, parents have to be completely selfless. In their interactions with their children, they should be entirely driven by the children’s pursuit of happiness. But parents are humans, too, and this is not possible for most people.
Like every young parent I know, I say to myself, I hope we don’t screw this up. But are we just kidding ourselves? What if the cards were already stacked against us when we decided to have kids?
Notes After All the Comments: Touchy subject! I realized that it’s impossible to read this post as a social commentary without it sounding critical to the relationships with your own parents and your own children. I didn’t mean to do that. But I’m glad I brought it up. There’re too many broken parent-child relationships. Not from outright parental abuse, but from motives and actions that are seemingly innocuous, but damaging still. When you think about the fact that many people in their last days in life have regrets about their children, it’s important to talk about how to make these relationships healthy and make them powerful and enduring sources of happiness. Obviously I don’t really believe it’s truly doomed. But I do want to point out how hard it is. And I do believe that parents bares the heavier share of the burden: they create the relationships and shape them from the beginning. I recently read a nice article by a Harvard Business School professor. He talks about how one should look at this relationship as a long-term endeavor with no immediate gratification. That could be the right way to look at it.