IT ALL STARTED OUT with psychoanalysis when people realized that repressing children's personalities might be doing lasting damage, but somehow things have gone too far. Women are now so concerned about their children's personalities that they have repressed their own in the heady pursuit of raising the emotionally stable child. Not a child who can get along in the world and cope with adversity, but one who is happy, gratified, well adjusted.
Dime store psychoanalytic theory has replaced common sense and has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams: We have raised a generation of selfcentered children and angry, guilt-ridden mothers. This is the contention of author and psychotherapist Elaine Heffner, who wants us to come back to common sense.
Heffner argues in her book, "Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud psychoanalysis we have been buffaloed by the mental health professionals into believing we know next to nothing about raising children. We have been hoodwinked into believing that we certainly don't know how to aviod damaging their mental health. Of course no one defined mental health and no one taught mothers how to turn an uncivilized 2-year-old into an emotionally well-balanced person. Mothers knew the basics, such as don't frustrate your child. That would warp his personality for sure. Don't take the candy away, give it to him. He may get cavities but he won't be frustrated.
Before Freud, parents ruled the house. If the parent wanted the child to eat, he ate. Then came the era of psychoanalysis and we discovered that forcing a child to eat could ruin his appetite forever, if not his sex life. So either we didn't force him to eat, in which case he became hungry later, or we waited for three hours while he fooled with his food. And we got angry and annoyed and yelled and later on while he fretted in his bed we felt guilty as sin for hollering.
Heffner says mothers have been receiving three messages during the past 30 years: a good mother will think first of her child, a mother who doesn't meet her child's needs properly can ruin him on the spot, for life, and there is a right way and a wrong way to raise children.
Faced with the new knowledge that they could, in a mere slip, destroy their children, women turned to experts for guidance. They turned to the mental health professionals who persuaded mothers that they alone knew how to raise children and make them emotionally well adjusted. The mental health professionals, writes Heffner, operated on "the unspoken assumption that life without frustration and deprivation is in fact possible."
Heffner may be dealing a deadly blow to the mental health professionals, all the more so since she is one of them. She is a senior teaching associate in psychiatry at Cornell. She is also the codirector of the Nursery School Treatment Center at New York Hospital, Payne Whitney Clinic. She is also the mother of two sons, and she is contending that mothering should be returned to those who know how to do it best and that once mothering is done properly and professionally it may again be a job worthy of "self esteem and the esteem of others."
While experts can deal in theories and systems, mothers deal in the specific welfare of their child, she says. "Mothers and children are all individuals quite different from each other. What is good for one child may be bad for another. The right way for one mother is often the wrong way for another...
"She may not know it, but a mother has a range of skills that qualify her as chief expert for her child. She knows her child better than anyone else. She has been observing his behavior from birth and has learned to interpret it... Finally, no expert is in a position to do for a child what a mother can do. Physically, emotionally, legally, the mother has responsibility for her child beyond that of any expert, and this responsibility brings rights as well as obligations."
That's right. Heffner says mothers have rights and that is an early and important lesson to teach their children. "What is involved here is nothing more or less than the need to consider the needs, wants and feelings of others," writes Heffner. A mother should understand the needs, wants and feelings of her child and teach the child to understand that she, too, has needs, wants and feelings and that compromises must be struck. Teaching him to handle frustrations, deprivations and confrontation with her is the first step toward teaching him to cope with the conflicts, choices and necessary compromises in the real world.
The key word is to teach, and mothers may have to learn how to teach their children, and once they have gained that expertise they will have to learn to remain in charge of their child's development, says Heffner. Such mothers will be labeled problems and difficult by institutions that thrive on conformity and mass production of children, but never mind. Mothers need to challenge doctors, teachers and school counselors who only see one aspect of the child. The mother needs to analyze and decide what is best for her child, not what is best for the institution.
To do this, mothers have to be independent, autonomous, self-confident, and assertive. "Mother-hood is a profession for the mother who chooses to make it one," writes Heffner. "A mother is a professional, if she chooses to be one."
The task for mothers that Heffner sets forth is not easy. She is as much against mothers ruling their children as children ruling their mothers. She advocates a system in which both the needs of the mother and the needs of the child are considered and that, as every parent knows, is not easy. She also is in favor of women being able to enjoy their children, of establishing goals in mothering that will attract women and not repel them. She is in favor of mothering without guilt.