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Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson

This entry is part 49 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts get published with some lag. I’m trying to be more punctual, though, and this one’s very recent.

There’s a vogue these days for criticizing people who talk about parental failings as a root for one’s problems, and believe me, I get it. As a parent, you cannot be perfect, cannot always be present, and you’re going to screw up sometimes: either your patience wears out when it shouldn’t, or you say the wrong thing, or you can’t understand your kid’s behavior because you missed some context, or… well, there are endless possibilities. There’s also a feminist aspect to this reappraisal of parenthood and its psychological effects, with “mother-blaming” being the term used to argue that there’s more than a little misogyny involved in always tracing one’s problems to the mother. (Which makes me wonder whether the people arguing this have heard of “daddy issues”?)

I think there’s something to noting that mothers tend to be saddled with much more pressure than fathers, and that this was even more so in the past. Still, I suspect there’s also a certain refusal of responsibility involved in saying we shouldn’t blame mothers—that we should treat them like fathers—rather than that we should think mothers and fathers are both equally responsible for this stuff. There’s also a certain dismissiveness to it, rooted in a dismissive attitude toward people who actually do struggle with the way their upbringing affects them. I can’t help but think of this song, which I’ve always found kind of glib:

There’s a kind of posturing I sense here: the songwriter turned out mostly okay and had a mom who did her level best; therefore those people who experience less optimal upbringings and (as a result) end up vulnerable and preyed upon in a various ways are whining and blaming their parents and complaining instead of taking responsibility for themselves. 

Of course, there are people who do this, but it’s a false dichotomy: there’s a huge spectrum of other possibilities between these two extremes, and it’s within that middle range where lies the that the terrain covered by Gibson’s book. Gibson argues that part of taking responsibility for your life is recognizing how and why you ended up in crisis, whatever form it takes. As an analogy: if someone has an eating disorder, it does them no good to just exhort them to eat sensibly and stop being so weird. Their dysfunctional behaviour comes from somewhere, after all; it’s driven by something—and Gibson’s argument is broadly in harmony with a lot of therapists and psychologists that early childhood experiences are a common source of brokenness in human beings. If you’ve lived the same last few years I have, you probably have a sense that a lot more people are more emotionally and intellectually broken than we ever realized, too—especially people in the older generation, or from strict and “traditional” upbringings. I think a lot of people I know would see some of their own childhood experiences—or some of their parents’ behaviors—in this book’s pages. 

The book is written in that way a lot of pop-psychology/self-help books are, with a lot of summaries of individual case studies woven together by commentary. That led me to skim a little more than I’d like, but I still thought the broad-strokes content makes it worth reading. (Especially if you’re in the market for a sort of brief taxonomy of ways in which emotional immaturity manifests in parental behaviour, and not just the more overtly and obvious toxic ways that tend to get a lot of attention.) 

I’ll also add that the author’s explanation of these forms of emotional immaturity are empathy, and engender empathy: she makes clear that emotionally immature parents likely ended up that way due to how they themselves were parented. Readers are therefore encouraged not to see themselves as victims of their parents, but rather to use the self-consciousness they achieve in recognizing these dynamics (and getting therapy) to be the point in a long legacy of unhealthy patterns where things change, the pattern breaks, and a healthier path is taken. The impulse behind this book, in other words, is to empower people and free them from the patterns they grew up with. The prose is merely serviceable, but the insights it offers are useful.  

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