Friday, December 6, 2013

Symbiotic Parenting: What Is It and Is It Contributing To the Paralysis Over Family Policy Reform in the United States?

In this post, I'd like to look at the problem of "symbiotic parenting", which may be contributing to the paralysis over family policy reform in the United States, including the continued discrimination against shared earning/shared parenting families.

What is "symbiotic parenting"?  Symbiosis is defined by a dictionary of psychology as follows:

"1. In animal world, connection between organisms that share close bond that is beneficial for both of them; 2. Developmental psychology defines symbiosis as a phase in early development when child is completely dependent-physically and emotionally closely bonded with mother."


Symbiotic parenting is when the parent and the child become a merged psychological unit, the child is completely dependent on the parent, and the parent seeks to get his/her needs met by the child as the child seeks to get his/her needs met by the parent; this appears on the surface to be "mutually beneficial" to the parent and child.

Because historically all women have had personal responsibility for meeting children's needs, but only some men have taken this responsibility (perhaps because paternity was not provable/disprovable), this is usually a problem of the mother doing this and, as I will illustrate, it occurs most often (or even only) when women are the only parent responsible for meeting an infant or child's needs.  Ironically and contrary to myth and scapegoating, this happens most often not in "single mothers" but in "stay-at-home mothers", whether married or not, where the father takes little or no personal responsibility for meeting the needs of the infant/toddler/child.   Single mothers and single fathers may be at risk for doing this, however.  It also relates to the problem that women have not had equal rights to men in most political economies, which actually increases the risk and likelihood of maternal symbiosis occurring and damaging a child's development and makes the problem invisible and even "normalized" so that it is seen as the healthy standard.  One reason for this is that these legal systems render women into a "childlike" status themselves, blocking girls from reaching adulthood. It is often very difficult for women to process this debilitation.  They then act out subsconsciously their issues of dependence themselves via the child's more understandable developmental dependence.

This subconscious "acting out" can take different forms with boy children and girl children.  A boy may be seen as "different", "other", not understandable, and given a "larger than life" status, encouraged to act out aggression, anger and other feelings and behaviors not allowed in women.  One psychologist, Lloyd de Mause, thinks that many wars of aggression have been based in this subconscious issue being acted out by men, often doing it for the "mother country" (including reflecting the displacement of the issues of the mother onto something that doesn't have a gender, a country).  A girl may be used to serve a mother, such as to listen to her issues and attempt to feed the deficits or crippling in the mother's development (something it is impossible for a child to remedy, for a number of reasons, especially because of the limitations and developmental stages of a child's mind).  Alison Bechdel's "Are You My Mother?" is a look at how she was used by her mother in this way. 

It is very important to keep in mind that symbiotic parent is usually subconscious by the parent; the parent does not have control over this behavior or access to what is driving her/him to parent this way.

Also, it is important to distinguish the phenomenon of a child's symbiosis with one or both parents and the parent's symbiosis with the child.  Because children, especially infants and toddlers, are completely dependent on adults for survival and because their brains are undeveloped (most brain growth occurs after birth and doesn't finish until a child is in his/her early twenties), their identification or merging of themselves into a parent's identity may be a normal stage of development.  There is debate today in psychology over whether a child's confusion of him/herself with the mother or father is a healthy and normal stage of development or whether it reflects a pathology in the parent that has caused a pathology in the child.  Research into families where both parents are taking personal responsibility for meeting the personal and developmental needs of infants and children by Kyle Pruett and others has indicated that children in these families are more likely to see themselves as separate from the parents and to be able to handle that, even though they are in normal stages of childhood dependence and brain and physical development, than children who have only the mother responding to their needs in a personal way.

In this post, I am referring to "parental symbiosis" as a general term and "maternal symbiosis" for the particular gendered version of it, which has its own set of issues.  While "paternal symbiosis" happens, it is less likely because of historical requirements of gender roles.  The fact that paternity was not provable until 1970, and only recently became inexpensive to prove, also may have contributed to many men not being personally engaged enough with children to engage in parental symbiosis.  Men with symbiosis issues often acted them out in the broader world, in politics, jobs, careers, etc. while women acted them out by having a child and repeating the cycle.

As recently as the 1970s and Margaret Mahler's 1975 publication of The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation, written in 1975 (with Fred Pine and Anni Bergman), maternal symbiosis was considered normal and healthy parenting, however, and even required for a child's development.

With Dorothy Dinnerstein's publication of the The Mermaid and the Minotaur in 1976 and Alice Miller's publication of The Drama of the Gifted Child in 1979 this view was deconstructed and seen as a pathology, however.   Dinnerstein and Miller both called out that many women have a desire to have a baby out of a subconscious need to address deficits, including abuses and neglects, from the woman's childhood as well as general problem of women not being seen as adults and holding rights of adults.  They illustrated the harm to the child, which was often lifelong and carried into the child's adult life and acted out in the world and repeated in the next generation, unless something happened to make the subconscious issues conscious so they could be dealt with in a way that did not harm a child or others.

While the prevailing view in psychiatry, in writings of Donald Winnicott and others, had illustrated that such harm to a child is a contributor to misogyny in both men and women (but particularly in men for reasons I'll explain later), the "cure" for misogyny advocated by Winnicott and others was that a person should forgive or feel gratitude to a mother who had so harmed him/her in order to reach maturity.   [In a 1964 talk on feminism, Winnicott states: "We find that the trouble is not so much that everyone was insides and then born, but that at the very beginning everyone was dependent on a woman.  . . . [Winnicott sees this dependence as the root of misogyny.] . . . The awkward fact remains, for men and women, that each was once dependent on a woman, and somehow a hatred of this has to be transformed into a kind of gratitude if a full maturity of the personality is to be reached."]

Dinnerstein and Miller illustrated the fallacy in Winnicott's view of forgiveness or gratitude and how such a view would actually cause these problems to be perpetuated. 

Because of this historical view that maternal symbiosis was a healthy thing, many men and women reach adulthood with "baggage" of subconscious resentment regarding it.  The resentment usually does not get resolved with the particular mother of the person, for a number of reasons, including societal taboos and requirements to "honor your mother and father", as well as problems of still needing the mother or her help, as well as the huge psychological fact of the child not having been brought into the world if it were not for the mother having the child and doing at least some of the work of tending to his/her needs in childhood.  The resentment and other subconscious baggage is there, however, and gets displaced onto women generally, perhaps by seeing women as less-than-human or by expecting all women to be "nurturing" even in contexts where this is not appropriate.   Some Supreme Court Justices, such as Antonin Scalia, actually state that in our Constitution  any woman (not just his mother) is less than a person, perhaps as a result of this phenomenon!  Likewise, some elected officials, such as President Barack Obama, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, create programs like the Affordable Care Act, which contain biological fictions that women are the only parents of children as well as distortions of the care into a required provision of a "well woman visit" (regardless of whether a woman is pregnant or even of reproductive age) and no similar "well man visit."  I list some of these distortions in the Affordable Care Act here.  A recent paper by a Yale sociologist also discusses this distortion, as does this book by a public health academic.

Scalia's view of women as not "persons" or citizens" is particularly interesting in that, as I've mentioned in this post, some of the framers of the Constitution, particularly those with Quaker backgrounds or who represented Quaker-populated areas, deliberately ensured that it was built around "rights of person" not "rights of man" and were themselves engaged in peer marriages, which were very difficult as they required a type of civil disobedience of laws of coverture of the time.  I suspect that if the United States Constitution had not been drafted around "rights of person" and instead was based in "rights of man" it would have drawn strong protests and would not have been ratified by the populations in the Delaware Valley.

Did the 17th and 18th Century colonial United States Quakers understand the problems of "maternal symbiosis" long before it became a more widely understood problem in the 20th Century?  Perhaps they did, as their insistence on seeing men and women as separate people, even in marriage, and their view that children should be seen as separate people as well, suggests.  I suspect that many of them had difficulty following through on this, however, because the phenomenon of the subconscious was not well understood then, and they had only primitive techniques to bring the subconscious to the conscious, such as their meeting style of a "priesthood of all believers".  The Quaker meeting involved the participants, men, women and children all in the same room, sitting in silence until one person is moved to speak. That person speaks and then sits down.

In any event, today we have many more tools to help ourselves and other people deal with subconscious "baggage" that leads to problems of parental symbiosis.  Preferably people deal with these issues prior to having a child although because the nature of the problem is subconscious, this often doesn't hapen.

The two-earner/two-parent family helps reduce risk of this problem occurring for children, however.  This is because the child has two parents to go to meet his/her needs.  If one or the other parent engages in symbiosis, the child can object to this and resist it because s/he has another parent also meeting the child's financial and personal needs.  Also, if one parent is present while the other parent is doing the symbiosis, the nonsymbiotic parent may be able to empathize with the child and be an ally in the face of this parental pressure (hopefully in a manner respectful to the symbiotic parent, who unfortunately is not in control of his/her behavior).




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