- The "Abandoning Impulse" in Human Parents
We all know that parents and children don't get along. In psychiatry, it is usually conflict arising within the family that moves people to come for help. Since Freud (and for centuries before Freud for that matter), explanations of troubles between parents and children have regularly tended toward blaming the children.
For example, if a little boy fears his father, it is because he has a forbidden rivalry with his father, wishes him dead, fears his vengeance, and so forth. In other words, the boy's "castration anxiety" makes him difficult to live with and is the reason for his uneasy skirmishes with his father. Other similar formulations abound.
However, life is rarely as one-sided as these familiar psychoanalytic "explanations" would suggest. It makes more sense to assume that parents, too, contribute their full share of irrationality and unconscious conflict to the turmoil of family life.
The behavior of parents, good or bad, is, of course, due to the vectoring out of the same genetic, developmental, and situational forces which determine all human behavior. Some parents have been remarkably well prepared for their job by the lucky combination of good genes and graceful parents. Others haven't been so fortunate. We know, for example, that parents who were brutalized as children commonly abuse their own children. Both the luck and the sins seem to pass inexorably along from generation to generation. These generalities constitute the given background. However, there is one universal characteristic of the inner life of parents which calls for more careful attention. It is ambivalence. From a biological point of view, the ambivalence of parents would seem to be wired in and therefore inevitable. On the one hand, nature tells humans to seek pleasure, to fight against or flee from pain, to be selfish; on the other hand, to propagate, to protect and preserve the species, to be self-sacrificing. The immediate interests of the self are often at odds with the requirements of caring for the young. This is the dilemma of all parents and the source of their ambivalence (toward both the job and the child).
The dark feelings of parents have received less recognition than they deserve as a force in human life. For the purposes of this paper this force [End Page 32] has been given a name which is meant to sum up and to stand for the multitude of forms and intensities which the hostility, resentment, fatigue, indifference, and selfishness of parents may take. The term is the abandoning impulse. It implies that all parents sometimes experience the wish to be free from the burdens and constraints of childcare and that they are therefore (naturally) inclined to resent the child whose living presence frustrates that wish.
This paper will trace the steps leading to the abandoning impulse idea and construct a kind of patchwork argument in support of it. It is what Erik Erikson called "a conceptual itinerary" and it begins with the story of Sue, a psychiatric patient.
Sue was the youngest of three sisters. Her mother was unable to welcome her, having discovered that the two little girls she already had were too many for her. When Sue was two years old, her father fell ill with a chronic debilitating disease which soon forced him into invalidism at home. Sue liked sitting with her father and felt close to him until his illness turned him inward and irritable. With her mother and sisters she felt "extra" and unwanted. As father's decline increased mother's burden of work and worry, both parents became more unhappy, preoccupied, and cross or indifferent. Sue remembers a vague feeling of impoverishment, that "there was never enough to go around," even though there was plenty to eat and no material deprivation.
When Sue went to school her first grade teacher read fairy tales to the children. One day the story was Hansel and Gretel, a tale unfamiliar to Sue. Terrified, she ran from the room and down the street to her house where she clung to her mother's knees, sobbing.
A year later her father died. Funeral arrangements worked...