Imagine having just given birth and being told by the doctor that your baby probably wouldn’t live, that you should get ready to say goodbye. But then baby miraculously pulls through. The challenge, and the growth, are not over with those magical words. Baby girl has been left with a disability which challenges the marriage, as patience and goodwill fray under the strain of now finding ways to keep baby alive with medical interventions.
To their credit, this couple came for counselling to help them stay loving towards each other under post-traumatic, and sometimes recurring, traumatic circumstances. To be told your child will probably die throws parents into a trauma and grief response. Trauma is often defined as experiencing an extreme wounding which was unexpected and out of one’s control. Naturally, parents will do everything possible to guarantee the survival of their children, harnessing the nervous system to be ready for action. Then the news that their baby would survive, but with a serious disability, engages the grief and fear response in addition to the traumatised one.
The couple came to see me for family counselling because they were constantly bickering about how to care for both the new baby and their toddler, whose needs were so different. Their arguments were about time and money availability, methods of care with new medical procedures, all exacerbated by sleep deprivation.
When I counsel families I inquire about relationships with previous generations. In our joint inquiry, I learned that the mother’s mother had lost a baby before my client’s birth; that my client had an older sibling who had died suddenly and inexplicably when only a few months old. I said, “Oh, so your mother also experienced trauma around her baby.”
When my attention was drawn to the parallel experience between client and her mother, it was as if a puzzle piece had fallen into place for my client. She began to see how her experience of feeling smothered by her mother was seated in her mother’s unresolved trauma for the loss of her older brother. A compassion for her mother’s trauma replaced her habitual and lifelong resentment of her mother’s perceived criticism. She began to see how the criticism was merely an attempt to protect her. My client spoke of feeling constantly rebellious with her mother, and pained at the distance it put between them. She ached to have a close relationship with her mother, and also to find self-acceptance. She also worried that her own over-protectiveness would eventually drive the same wedge between her daughter and herself as it had between her and her mother.
We linked her defiance with her mother to an argumentativeness that was appearing with her husband. She needed space to be herself and to be respected for who she is. Once her husband saw that this immensely positive intention lay underneath the drivenness and perceived stubbornness, he was able to find compassion for her. She relaxed and therefore was more cooperative, which reduced his combativeness, but equally, his empathy for her need for autonomy and respect negated the need to fight back.
They are now re-united in their parenting of their children and feeling much more confident that they can do it effectively. Seeing the link between the generations is allowing them to have a richer understanding and empathy with each other, which may not halt the bickering, but certainly cuts it short, as self-empathy and understanding of each other has grown.