The Child in Every Grownup

As I walked the other morning listening to Krista Tippet’s interview with Alain de Botton, I was struck with how I had been raised by two children. Not literally, of course, but emotionally, playing out for their entire lives the emotional wounds they carried from childhood.

My mother was the only child of Finnish immigrants who came to this country in the 1920’s. Though I never heard my grandmother speak of it, I remember being told at some point that her father was an abusive alcoholic. My grandfather was an anxious, quiet man for whom frugality was religion. My grandmother, who could be ebullient and nurturing, handled any displeasure by visibly sulking and refusing to speak. My mother said that when she was a child, my grandmother wouldn’t speak to her for a week, and my mother didn’t know what she had done to be shut out. As a result, my perpetually anxious mother spent the remainder of her life attempting to please and never disappoint my grandmother. The frightened little girl who needed her mother’s approval and care took over the intelligent, competent adult my mother was in other arenas of her life, except, at times, when it came to my father.

My father, on the other hand, often spoke of how neglected he felt by his mother, the story being that he would come home from school for lunch and find a can of tomato soup on the kitchen table with a note from his mother instructing him to make that for his lunch. She was out playing bridge with her friends. He never forgave her for this. It seems so trivial, and yet he carried the emptiness from not being emotionally and physically fed into and throughout adulthood. There were undoubtedly earlier experiences with his mother that were the petri dish for this story of neglect to flourish.

My father’s hunger to be nurtured with food dovetailed with the food-centered culture of my mother’s little family. Food was the centerpiece of life, the dinner table the altar at which they gathered. So my mother was perfectly suited to be the supreme feeder to my father’s insatiable need to be fed. She was also careful to please and avoid all conflict and upset. The little girl who needed to feed and please wed the little boy who saw food as a symbol of love.

My father adored my mother for being the mother he never had (though he wouldn’t have seen it that way), and she basked in the security of being so adored. Both of them, despite being college-educated well-read individuals, played out their childhood hurts with each other and, in that respect, never grew up.

Alain de Botton’s point was that we are all “flawed,” and it is important to recognize that and be able to see the child in our partner in order to have compassion for one another, and, I would add, for ourselves. In the work my husband and I do as therapists, we draw on Harville Hendrix’s imago theory to help partners become aware of when those old childhood wounds (the sustained hurtful stories about ourselves and our worthiness, importance, safety, or lovability) are triggered by our partner’s behavior.

It’s inevitable. It always happens. It’s just a question of whether we become conscious of those early emotional wounds and are able to talk honestly with our partner about how we feel from an adult awareness, rather than reacting in the ways we learned to do to survive as a child.