Mind Matters — Idealizing versus Reality

Ah, families! If you have a belly button, you can be rest assured you have had an umbilical cord that connected you to a woman and her womb. Biologically speaking, she was your mother. She may also have been your familial mother—the person who raised you along with your father. That is, the stereotypical family, where biological mother and father and children live together as a unit. There are many variations, however. Some of us are adopted, some have lost a mother as early as in childbirth. Or not have a father due to death or divorce or abandonment. There are extended families where generations live together, there are blended families, where divorced parents remarry to re-constitute a new constellation of children from previous marriages; there are same sex marriages with children.

What we all have in common, no matter the varied circumstances is the negotiating of our own individual development—call it individuation in Carl Jung’s terms or call it differentiation in family therapy ala Murray Bowen’s terms.

What this individuation (differentiation) means is that we need to define ourselves apart from our family of origin in order to become a mature adult.

This entails living the tension between family loyalty and individual autonomy. Every “family” provides us with a mythology to live by—and rebel against.

“Family Mythology” is the unwritten rules or lack thereof that create the worldview of the family. They encompass all facets of living: what role religion plays; whether there is a moral compass or not; what are considered threats to the family; how is safety maintained or not. What is the relationship of the family to money? Do the parents hold a deprivation or an abundance mentality? Some folks can have a lot yet feel deprived. Others may have little and yet feel they have much. What is the work ethic? Immigrants, for example, generally are considered to have a very strong work ethic.

Contrary to a strong work ethic, some families may have a sense of entitlement or privilege. And what is the mythology of education and learning? Is that considered a priority or not?

Consider the family mythology in terms of social connection and community. Is there a sense of community, social justice and care for others, or does the family feel a tribal sense of “us against them,” fearing the stranger as “other.”

What is the family perspective on diversity, women, equality in general? We take for granted how ingrained our belief systems are until we begin to differentiate ourselves from our origins. Our beginnings form us—maybe even de-form us—to a point and then it is up to us to differentiate from our past to make the present as well as the future different.

I remember as a child asking my mother about how she was raised. She admitted that her father, whom she loved, could be harsh and punitive and how she knew what he did was wrong. She would not use the belt or hit as he had. She changed her family mythology in many ways. Yet she knew that more change would be even better. That perhaps I would carry on the change with the next generation. I didn’t get it perfectly either.

Each generation can improve upon the past generation when the individual takes responsibility to differentiate from the automatic givens of his or her mythology.

The tension of life is that we love our families all the while recognizing what of their choices in the past we cannot abide. We refine their choices—retaining some, letting go of others. This is the way we create a better future for our children.

Come to think of it, that is changing perspective too. There was a time when some families actually didn’t care about future generations. Perish the thought. Cherish the children!