Parenthood and couple situations
A common approach to the education of their children by parents with diverse sensitivities and gifts is of great importance for the growth of children. Yet this is not always easy to implement, especially when parents are separated. What do we have to pay attention to? Antonella Deponte, author of this article, is a graduate in philosophy and psychology; she holds a PhD in experimental psychology and is a couples and family counselor. An expert in social psychology and the psychology of aging, she is currently professor of The Psychology of the Person at the Sophia University Institute (Loppiano, Italy); she practices in Trieste and collaborates with a social cooperative in psychiatry.
Until some time ago, in Western culture, the identity and the appearance of the family were well defined: a married couple became parents and they became a family. In turn, they were inserted into a larger family, where more generations met: tasks, roles, and functions were clearly separated and distinct, clear enough to be implicit, and integrated in social institutions.
Not anymore! But it’s not the purpose of this work to dwell on the sociological aspects involved in the change of family relationships in Western society. Instead, I propose some reflections on the psychological and psycho-educational aspects of modern parenting, most of which is expressed in mono-nuclear separated or reconstructed families, often led by single parents.
Dual parenthood and common child-rearing approach
The richness of perspectives that is brought by two parents engaged in a common project to raise children is without doubt. Each of the two parents is a distinct person, with his/her own personality and history, his/her own way of thinking and seeing the world, and of communicating with the world. Forming a parental couple, the two bring into play their individuality to develop a common project. Sometimes they will present this project together to their children, sometimes they will also bring it on behalf of the other partner, but alone and each in their own way.
This wealth of perspectives, which is presented within a lively dialectic of values and behaviors, within a single horizon, child rearing is valuable for children who are immediately confronted with different ways of being in the world, with different ways of saying - and acting about - the same things. This difference is precious because it helps them to develop a more elaborate way of thinking, and provides material and methods to build their own model of a person both alone and in relationship.
However, we cannot hide that the condition we just described - two parents who develop and carry out a common educational project, in daily harmony and reciprocity - often is not even present in many couples who might be united on other topics. It is easy to imagine how separation will further complicate the achievement of a comprehensive dual parenthood project, especially if there is a high degree of conflict, or if there are cultural, social, socio-economic, or other reasons that do not give the opportunity to achieve it or not, even, sometimes, to think about it.
In general, dual parenting represents an “ideal” to tend towards: it implies mutual parental dialogue, a dialogue that begins well before children arrive, and then continues, evolves, and deepens to adequately address the various developmental stages of children and the so-called child-raising challenges. It implies an agreement on a joint educational plan, it implies equal responsibility for bringing up children, while respecting the individual differences in terms of tasks and roles. It means sharing the hardships of education, outlining a common style for dealing with different situations, and avoiding contradictions ...
Maybe it seems an ideal, perhaps it is, but we cannot give up proposing it, tending towards it: the children have the right to have both parents, the adults have a duty to contribute to the development and the well-being of their children. Above all, being engaged in a parent-child relationship means vitality, energy, and creative power for all the people involved and for all of society. It is worthwhile to go through with the journey till the end, to complete what we have undertaken at the moment when we accepted life. Let us see how parenting takes shape in every situation: when the couple splits, when a parent remains alone, or when a parent builds a new family with a new partner.
There is the time of separation, and, even before that, there is discomfort and possible conflict, more or less open within the couple. It is a time of great stress, of suffering in an adult person. Separation is a transition phase, so it is easy for people to feel wounded, tired, and irritable. Some become depressed; in all likelihood they will be less available and less reliable. Reduced availability (and reliability) may show itself, instead, even after separation, as people are then full of projects to the point of forgetting about their own children.
It seems that for some the end of the marriage bond leads to disengagement, to unresponsiveness towards the future generation. It is, instead, time for a twofold task: to manage the end of the conjugal relationship and to reorganize the joint parenting. After separating, the dialogue on parenting should continue. It is a question of hierarchy of values: the rights of the other person, of the child, come ahead of me and ahead of us in his/her right to receive. The commitment to the new generation should transcend the pain of separation. (1)
This is a very difficult task. Perhaps there is an agreement in words but then there is not the strength to put it into practice consistently. In both parents - I stress both - there might be more or less unconscious dynamics of rivalry, challenge, to prove that one is better than the other, that the child loves one more than the other and so on. Cases where the mother or the father are seeking to devalue or even destroy the other in the eyes of children are more common than one would think. Another situation could be to substitute the former spouse with the child, loading him or her with roles and expectations that do not belong to them. These dynamics must be uncovered as much as possible because they limit a person's ability to adequately address reality.
Well before the separation, it is necessary to take a costly, in psychological terms, but indispensable step: to accept that the other develops a personal relationship with the children, that he or she interprets parenting in his or her own way albeit from the shared model. I emphasize, this is a step that is required of all parents, regardless of the conditions in which they find themselves as a couple. While a shared child-raising ideal is desirable, it is equally natural that each one then interpret it according to his or her own sensitivity and personality. The other parent must therefore be first accepted; the fact that the parent-child relationship of the other parent will be different from mine must be accepted. I cannot start thinking that the other is totally incapable of being a parent, just because I do not like some of his or her approaches. In cases of conflicting or separated couples, these dynamics are likely to be amplified. So, whenever possible, each member of the couple should get in the "triangle" mother-father-children, accepting the challenge of a dialogue in diversity, and then helping the others, the other parent and the children, to do so.(2)
But there are cases where a person fails to perform his or her parenting duties, and does not really want to know anything about it, but just walks away. In these cases, the responsibility for raising the children falls on the shoulders of a single parent.
It becomes more important than ever to network with other parents, to get support from the family and friends, to use the family support services, in short, not to let the person become more isolated than he or she already is, considering all the physical and mental fatigue involved in taking care of children. Support does not mean delegation or substitution: this parent remains responsible for the implementation of the educational model for his or her children; he or she is the guardian of the idea of family that could not be fully realized but still is present in the identity of the children.
From another point of view, it is important to remember that the single parent has certainly a very big responsibility for bringing up children, but the outcome of this upbringing does not depend only on him or her, or on the parental couple or on the difficult situation. It also depends on the children, their personalities, their experiences, their way of being in the world. Children do not all react the same way, even twins. Moreover, reaction to the separation of parents, despite being a traumatic event for children, is experienced differently depending on the age of the child and subsequently has different consequences. Therefore, we must help the parent to do his or her part, but also help him or her to become aware of the fact that his or her very precious work is only one part: no matter how great this part is, it is not the whole picture. This is important because it relieves the guilt and fear of making irreparable mistakes, feelings that often accompany parenthood, especially in the beginning but also in crisis situations.
Another type of situation occurs when one parent sets the children against the other parent, demeans the other parent, opposes the choices he or she makes ... or does not share in the educational project, although maybe it had been thought through together.
Here psychology says that we should, as we said before, go beyond the pain and maintain an attitude of non-judgment, of openness, so as not to put the children in front of very difficult choices (whose side am I on? Do I have to lie not to hurt/upset one or the other?).
Unfortunately it is not so easy, the pain of separation could lead to making mistakes. How to regain control of one's parenting in these cases?
It should be remembered that parenting itself, being separated or not, is subject to making mistakes. It is the human condition. Indeed, there is a lovely book by a childhood psychoanalyst that is entitled "An almost perfect parent"(3) that helps us understand that it is inevitable to make mistakes, it happens in all relationships and thus also happens with our children. But that's okay, he says, because if parents do their best, if they commit to do their part by trusting, if not in their capabilities, at least in their desire to love the children, then, should they make a mistake, they will be able to start afresh. The children will understand. Indeed, it will be good for them too, because seeing that parents are not perfect, but that they try, they too will not feel compelled to be "perfect children." In the painful case of separation, this topic assumes an even more specific meaning. We want to shelter our children away from the experience of pain. This is a must, absolutely, and it is the reason why we should not manipulate them, embroil them into the marital conflict. On the other hand, however, sometimes this leads to hiding the pain that the parent is going through, pretending that everything is fine, convinced that if we do not say anything to the children, they will not realize it. Actually they realize it all right, but because they do not want, in turn, to hurt the father or mother, they too strive to pretend that all is well. But, in this fashion, they do not feel free to express their feelings, their emotions, even negative ones, and everything stagnates, stuck in place.
So, it is certainly not a matter of "unloading" our pain on the back of our children, but of admitting it, recognizing that the situation is painful, that there are things we do not understand ... It is not necessary that "all is well" or that we need to justify behaviors for which there is no justification. But the important thing is - whenever possible - to give one's own experience, without judging the other, "I do not like this; I do not understand that, but there must be some reason ...", and at the same time take advantage of the opportunity to repeat to the child that we still love him or her, that we are sorry that he or she is in the midst of these unclear situations ... in short, there is a big difference between admitting before our children that there is conflict and suffering, and unloading it on them.
Again, this applies regardless of the situation of the family, although of course it is more common in separations and in situations of single parent families, where loneliness sometimes intervenes to increase the chances of suffering that cannot be shared with another adult.
Sometimes we blow our top, we express our exasperation or tiredness in an inappropriate fashion. Here we must clearly distinguish the situations: if those episodes happen with a certain frequency and are accompanied by acts such as corporal punishment and excessive scolding, this is an alarm bell indicating the potential for physical and/or psychological abuse, even for violence. It is a clear sign that the adult is suffering and is no longer able to play his or her educational role and therefore it is necessary to intervene with the available means, until he or she recovers the ability to be a parent.
If, instead, within the family we occasionally snap or whine or scream, let us not dramatize, or feel too guilty or make the others feel guilty because, as we said before, we are not that perfect. If this is the case, we may briefly clear up the issue or apologize if we have offended our children and then we begin again anyway. We start loving our child again, using our head, taking care of him or her and not worrying.(4) Most of all, we must put ourselves back in a listening attitude, in an attitude of dialogue with our child. There will be times when they will not accept this dialogue, they will not want to have anything to do with it; often, especially in adolescence, suffering is expressed by a closed in or aggressive behavior or aggression, or, at the other end, by indifference. Never mind: just by our presence we will offer the possibility of a dialogue, at the right time, in the right way. There is a language that expresses love without words, through concrete care and concrete attention.
Another psychoanalyst says: "It is not necessary that the children are always happy, the important thing is that they can continue to grow, by fulfilling their potential and realizing their aspirations".(5)
Families rebuilt with a new partner
I want to say a word about reconstituted families, where there are children of one, or the other, or both. It must be clear that the children have the right to maintain a relationship with their parents. These situations must be handled with great delicacy by the partners, and it is very important to remember the distinction between the conjugal couple and the parental couple, which in these cases are not the same. The new partner cannot replace the single parent, and at the same time, in the new home, minimum coexistence rules should be established that apply to all children.
But let me conclude with a thought for those who, after the separation, are to live without children. This is mostly fathers who, against their will, have to interrupt or limit their experience of parenthood and experience heavy obstacles in their relationship with their children. Often the other party - the custodial parent - hinders the expressions of parenting and intervenes in the relationship with the children. It is a very painful situation, because one risks losing this relationship or seeing it compromised. It is painful to see that the child feels uncomfortable, does not go willingly with his/her parent, would like to maybe go out with friends, just on that Saturday when at last the father (or mother) could see him or her.
I know that I am saying a difficult thing, but here letting go does not mean to abandon, nor does it mean to be abandoned. Sometimes time is necessary for solutions to emerge, or to be negotiated (6). This does not mean giving up parenting, but implementing it in the most appropriate way and time for the child. Sometimes it means losing the child, but if the parent has patience and does not give up on waiting and loving - knowing how to love as we said before beyond the pain - the child will find him or her again. It is important then to allow oneself to be found.
1 G. Tamanza, Rimanere genitori per sempre, in “Famiglia Oggi”, n. 10, October 2006.
2 On “triangular parenthood” also see L. Fruggeri, Diverse normalità. Psicologia sociale delle relazioni familiari, Carocci, Rome 2005.
3 B. Betthelheim, Feltrinelli, Milan 1987.
4 Chiara Lubich said at Riva del Garda in 1995, talking about the children: "We must take care of them, without worry! ... They must absolutely not feel the weight of your worries, because you have to throw your concerns in God. He must be the one who worries, not us, and He always takes care of things. This is our daily experience."
5 S. Vegetti Finzi, Quando i genitori si dividono. Mondadori, Milan 2005.
6 L. Formenti, Per non dividere in due il proprio figlio, in “Famiglia Oggi”, n. 10, October 2006. The author makes an interesting observation when she says that the right to relationship - as expressed, for example by Italian law - is not a right of ownership, and it is abnormal for it to be exercised by adults over children, rather than vice versa. This means that, although our reasons are sacrosanct, and now also recognized by law, to have a mother or a father's heart means going beyond our claim to seek the good of the child.