When I consult psychiatrists and talk about my dysfunctional family, I never fail to refer to my maternal aunt who had a dominant position in the family. Psychiatrists often point out that it is the mother-child relationship that has exclusive importance in child development and so my aunt could only have had a peripheral role in my development at most.
Let’s look at the problem more closely. My mother had a close relationship with her older sister, a relationship that would be described by psychoanalysts as having narcissistic intensity. Aspects of my mother’s personality that came into play in her relationship with her sister would have come into play in my mother’s relationship with me. Even if we isolate out the role of my aunt in my development, in fact, my mother’s relationship with her sister highlights important aspects of my mother’s personality that would have come into play in my mother’s role as parent.
Lack of Autonomy
First, my mother lacked autonomy in her relationship with her sister. My mother could not hold ideas of her own that were inconsistent with her sister’s ideas. My mother did not have a firmly developed self concept. How did the personality trait “lack of autonomy” affect my mother’s parenting of me?
(I am reminded of a legal analogy. The states of the United States constitute a federal union in which the individual states have delegated supremacy to the federal entity. The individual states are lacking in autonomy. Thus, if the federal government were to prosecute a Colorado resident for selling marijuana — a violation of federal law — the resident could not defend and the state could not intervene on the grounds that state law permitted the sale of marijuana. Speaking metaphorically, I grew up like a resident of Colorado with the federal government threatening to prosecute me.)
My mother lived in a black and white world. People were either “all good” or “all bad.” In my mother’s view her sister was not simply “all good,” she was perfect. How did the personality trait “identity diffusion” affect my mother’s parenting of me?
Inability to Defend Against Third-Party Aggression (Negligence)
Because my mother viewed her sister as “all good” or perfect, she could not acknowledge or recognize my aunt’s aggression against me. For example, when I complained to my mother that my aunt’s having me help her clean the family bathroom at age 12 made me feel uncomfortable, my mother said, “That’s not nice.” A mother’s failure to protect a child against third party aggression would be termed maternal neglect. How did my mother’s inability to process third party aggression directed at me (maternal neglect) affect me?
So, what I am saying is that we can isolate out the mother-child relationship in my case and we are still left with issues of the mother’s (1) lack of autonomy, (2) identity diffusion, and (3) inability to process aggression (neglect).
Why don’t psychiatrists see these things?