I'm back. I usually post something new to this web log every Wednesday, so if you want to add it to your favorites list you can usually count on finding a new idea or commentary toward the end of each week. The last two weeks were an exception as I was on vacation, traveling to visit family in Michigan. I had a great time exchanging genealogical information and old family photos with some of my cousins as well as celebrating the 85th birthday of my husband's father with his family. While I'm still thinking about what we inherit from our families I think I'll write about an idea I had some years ago about where (and when) we can best intervene to improve the mental health of our family line.
IDEA #11 Therapy for New Parents
A popular cartoon some years back showed a large auditorium with one person sitting in the midst of a sea of empty seats; on the wall behind him was a banner reading "Welcome Adult Children of Normal Parents!" Over the past twenty years or so the words "dysfunctional" and "family" have come together to describe what most of us grew up in and perhaps passed on to our own children. The dysfunction of the family came out of and produced various forms of mental ill health, from anxiety to depression, compulsion and addictions.
Some of us unknowingly carried on the family line, producing another generation with our family's brand of dysfunction. Others swore to "break the chain" that bound them and erred just as grievously by doing the opposite of what their parents did until they discovered in their mid-forties that they had, in fact, become like their parents in spite of their best efforts. A few were forced to become aware of how they were thinking and acting by some crisis in living--a "nervous breakdown", severe depression, "hitting bottom" with alcoholism or addiction--and sought help and support in making deep changes in their approach to life. Often these changes came too late to help their children who had already "grown and flown".
As I have observed this in my own life and the lives of others over the years I have pondered on where meaningful intervention in this ongoing family pattern could do the most good. After all, mental health resources are chronically too scarce to deal with all the dysfunction in individuals and families in our society, so where could they be best applied to give the most "bang for the buck"?
Some attempt has been made to identify "at risk" individuals, often in childhood or even infancy, in order to provide preventive services that have the potential to save both suffering and tax money in the long term. This seems a move in the right direction, but, in my opinion, is usually too narrowly focussed--the problem is not in the individual child but in the family culture. How does that culture get transmitted from one generation to the next and how can it be most effectively modified in a healthy direction?
A book I read several years ago convinced me that a Swiss infant psychiatrist's work points the way we need to go. The book is The Scripts Parents Write and the Roles Babies Play: The Importance of Being Baby
by Bertrand Cramer. For this gentle and humane doctor, "the 'patient' is not a lone baby perched on a couch but is at least two people--mother and infant--or sometimes three, including the father." (p. vii) As Dr. Cramer notes, "Pregnancy and birth make women particularly amenable to therapeutic intervention. From the point of view of a psychiatrist, this period is a 'privileged moment' for preventive psychotherapy." (p. 118) I believe this may be equally so for a new father, especially if he was a labor coach for his wife and was present at the birth of the baby.
Surely the moment of birth is a sacred moment in any family and deserves to have every support our society can manage to provide. Gentle care in preparation for the birth, in the delivery itself, and in the adjustment to parenthood for the new parents can go a long way in healing the wounds of the past and providing a new, more loving family relationship for the growth of a new family legacy. Therapy for new parents with their infant can be a crucial component of this transition to healthier families.
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