Resolve The Past in Order to Be a Better Parent Today

Every person alive has experienced some form of loss; it’s just part of the human condition. We may have lost a parent or a sibling, or lost our sense of safety because of being abused or neglected as a child. We may have lost a dear friend, beloved babysitter or grandparent. We may not have lost anyone to death, but instead lost their love and affection because of illness, depression, addiction, anger or stress. These old losses can have a big impact on our ability to be effective parents.

In a fascinating study, adult attachment research pioneer Dr. Mary Main and her colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley interviewed pregnant women about their childhoods. This interview predicted how securely or insecurely attached the mothers and infants were with each other a year later. The key was not whether or not they had experienced loss – they all had – but how they dealt with it. The study concluded that parents who have resolved their losses are better able to provide a secure attachment for their children.

So how do you know if a loss is still unresolved? In this study, the most important factor was how the mother-to-be told the history of her early experiences of attachment and loss. Some dismissed the pain of the past, pushing it away and refusing to face or feel any sad or angry feelings. Others were preoccupied with the loss, unable to move forward with their emotional lives. Those who had resolved the losses still had feelings about those old events, but they were not overwhelmed by those feelings, and they could focus on their entire history, remembering good and bad times.

It’s pretty clear how these patterns can affect parenthood. If we try to bury our own painful feelings, we’ll have a hard time responding empathically to our children’s painful feelings. If we are preoccupied with loss, we won’t have much room left over for joy.  Most important, unresolved losses in our past make us fearful of attaching again, which keeps us distant from our children.

I experienced this 15 years ago, shortly before my daughter was born. I noticed that I wasn’t having any warm-fuzzy feelings toward the baby-to-be. This was very different from a few years before, during a pregnancy that ended sadly in a miscarriage. During that time, I had felt – for a few short weeks – an incredibly close bond with that little spark of life, and an overwhelming grief when it was cut short.

Why was it so different the second time? I think I wasn’t letting myself feel too close, so I wouldn’t have to feel that unbearable loss again if something bad happened. But that was nonsense. Of course, I would still feel the loss, no matter what. That kind of grief isn’t something you can protect yourself against. I also realized that even if I could protect myself from grief by refusing to attach, it wasn’t worth it.

As I pushed myself to attach anyway, in spite of the risks, I discovered piles of leftover sadness about losing that earlier child. Working my way through that grief left me with much more room to love the baby who was coming. When my daughter was born, I was glad I had a head start on loving her. If you wait to attach until you know everything is going to work out OK, you’ll wait forever and miss everything.

So if you tend to be dismissive of old losses, take a good look at them. Spend some time talking about the losses you’ve experienced. I know, it’s like reopening an old wound that you’d rather leave alone, but it can give that old wound a chance to heal properly. This is especially true of losses directly related to parenthood, such as miscarriages, abortions, giving children up for adoption or loss of a parent.

If you tend to be preoccupied with past losses, see what you can do to move on to the next stage – maybe write a “letter” to the person you lost, perform a farewell ritual or push yourself to remember the people and things that kept your hopes up and sustained you during that troubling time. Even if your past is fairly well resolved, tell your history to someone who cares about you; you might find, like I did, that there are still hidden pockets of “unfelt feelings.” And feel free to cry; those old losses deserve a bucketload of tears.

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Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., is a psychologist who specializes in children’s play and play therapy, and is the author of several books, including the award-winning Playful Parenting.