In 1960, Random House published “Are You My Mother?” by P.D. Eastman. I was 3 then, and it is the first book I ever remember reading.
It is a story about a bird hatching while his mother is away looking for food. So the youngster heads out to find his mother. In order, he asks a kitten, a hen, a dog and a cow, “Are you my mother?” Each says “no.”
The hatchling chick then asks a car, a boat and a plane the same question, each time rebuffed. Finally, he asks a steam shovel, which, in reply, picks him up and drops him back into his nest as his mother returns from foraging. Parent and child are reunited.
Little did I know at age 3 that I would someday study psychology and specifically Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. And thus, little did I know at age 3 I was reading a book about modern marriage.
Not really joking here.
It’s amazing, if you listen carefully, how frequently the little bird’s question is present in marital interactions. Nobody says it out loud, but the inquiry is there, loud and clear, in implication and subtext: “Are you my mother? Are you my father?” And, depending on the specific marital encounter, “Would you be?” Or, “Would you stop being my mother/father?”
It’s in the very nature of marriage to provoke and arouse long-ignored, unconscious or not-quite-conscious memories of our earthly mother and father. Positive memories. Not-so-positive memories. In some cases, really painful, traumatic memories. And not so much historical memories; rather, emotional memories. That is, patterns of learned, emotional reaction.
This aspect of marriage could rightly be called “transference,” a word normally reserved for the transferring of feelings about (usually childhood) relationships onto your therapist. That is, confusing, for a moment, your therapist with your mother, your father, or other important people from your childhood.
In therapy, transference is predictable, expected and useful in the hands of a competent clinician. In marriage, transference is not generally predicted and expected.
So, let me try to shine some light into these shadows.
First, all healthy, thriving marriages contain chapters of “reparenting.” I mean that, over time, spouses learn something of their mates’ childhood wounds, insecurities and empty places. They learn to identify their mates’ neuroses, ego defenses and preferred compulsions. And, in love, they move to reparent these wounds. The marriage provides the soothing nurture, champion advocacy and encouragement a lucky child receives from a competent mother and father.
Like the wife who said to me, recently, in speaking about her husband: “He was, in our early days, at once my constant champion and utterly intolerant of my reflexive self-put-downs. I couldn’t get away with even the slightest self-scorn or negative self-talk. He was literally the Good Father I never had.” Or like a husband who said of his wife, “She at once won’t let me get away with any shoddy, selfish behavior, yet somehow does that without leaving me feeling constantly criticized.”
In addition to reparenting, all marriages sooner or later manifest “parentification.” Whereas “reparenting” is most often a good and loving thing, parentification of your spouse tends toward not so useful. And generally erosive to romance and thriving sexual courtship.
Oh, a little parentification, here and there, can be endearing. Like the stereotypical husband with the flu, who transforms into an irritable little boy, and then transforms his wife from peer/lover/mate into mother/soother/forehead stroker. Or the cliche wife who, upon seeing the spider or cockroach or mouse, transforms into a 6-year-old damsel in distress, and then transforms her husband from peer/lover/mate into father/rescuer/conqueror of rodents, insects and arachnids.
But chronic parentification requires action. Without intervention, it is guaranteed to erode respect, which is guaranteed to erode marital love. I’m saying that, if you should begin to “hear” in your mate’s reactions to you the implicit question, “Are you my mother/father?” the correct answer is “No and hell no. Remember me from the wedding?”
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays.
Contact him at 227-4165 or