Much like modern relationships, families have become increasingly complex environments over the past 70 odd years driven by huge social change, longevity and the movement of people.
Families are now often shaped by divorce, isolation from other generations of the family and constituted by step-parents, step-children and step-siblings. All of the these mean that many of us now live in blended families with unrelated individuals with different belief systems and who have been shaped by different experiences and family rules.
Children and teenagers also have significantly more freedom than previous generations and whilst freedom and choice can be positive, both come with responsibility – something parents can find hard to instil in children at times.
What has not changed is that it is in our families where we develop and establish a relationship to ourselves and others. Families can either be nurturing safe places where we learn about exploration, respect and boundaries, all the way through to abusive, toxic environments where self-expression and boundaries are non-existent. And statistically over half of us grow up in families and with relationships to our primary caregivers where we do feel safe, secure and wholly loved.
Through working through how your family of origin has affected you and bringing into awareness the unspoken rules that were taught and passed down in your own family of origin, you can start to take more conscious choices about what may be being repeated in the here-and-now of your own family.
If, when growing up, our family felt like a restrictive and painful environment rather than a cohesive and connected environment, then we may find ourselves re-triggered either at the thought or prospect of starting our own family or at finding ourselves back in a family environment, albeit one we seem to have consciously chosen. All this in turn can lead to heightened feelings of anxiety, anger, guilt, depression and confusion.
In essence, being in a couple or family creates both the perfect storm for resurrecting unprocessed grief, sadness and trauma, as well as the perfect environment to work through our past and stop the transmission of multi-generational trauma.
There are also two gender specific issues that come up often that warrant attention under the topic of family issues:
The ‘Perfect Mother’ trap
Being a mother is probably the hardest job on the planet. And, unlike any other job it is not one that you can resign from.
Modern life has made being a mother significantly tougher. Mum’s are now expected (and expect themselves) to be expert jugglers, somehow holding down a career, being a mum, being a partner and having some semblance of a life, all at the same time!
Mothers have always been under enormous pressure to both be perfect and to ‘love the job’. However, there is no such thing as a perfect mother, meaning most feel some guilt in relation to their performance, their child’s expectations and the expectations of the family and society as a whole. All of this can create a highly pressurised environment where mothers can feel unable to express their feelings to their partner or other mothers as a result of shame. It is therefore unsurprising that post-partum depression is on the rise.
Whilst counselling or psychotherapy cannot eradicate the very real challenges presented by becoming, or being a mother, it can help you work out whose expectations you are carrying and whether these actually are a true reflection of what being a mother means for you. The process can also provide you with some space – thinking and breathing – to start to feel empowered enough to define how best you can be a mother. Happy and secure babies, children and infants are a direct product of Mums who feel they are expressing their version of being a mother as a true reflection of who they are as women.
The role of men
Men are in crisis. They have lost much of their identity and it is causing huge emotional psychological and relational difficulties.
Much like for women, traditional gender roles have been eroded and this has brought with it much more equality in status between men and women which is a quantum leap from a social perspective. However, quality in status does not and should not imply that men and women are built the same and have the same primal, evolutionary and existential needs.
Where is the evidence for this crisis? Suicide is now the leading cause of death amongst males between 20 and 34 years of age; male suicide rates that in 1981 made up 63% of all such deaths, now account for 78% across the UK; and whilst female suicide rates have halved since 1981, male rates have increased.
The reasons for these grim statistics are multi-fold and certainly not solely due to social changes and developments around equality. Culture plays a strong role too whereby evidence suggests that men, and particularly those from British backgrounds, or culturally influenced by Britain, such as Australia, can find coming to talk to someone about their problems tantamount to betrayal of their gender. Men in the UK are still culturally expected to ‘suck it up’, get on with it, provide for the family and not have feelings. As a result, men will often hit absolute rock bottom before reaching out for support.
Entering a period of therapy to work out how you can be a man in the world and in integrity with yourself, can be a life changing experience and in some cases, life saving.
Not so many years ago, starting a family was considered outside the usual expectations of gay people. This has changed dramatically now and many lesbians and gay men these days expect to and do become parents.
The decision to start a family as someone gay or in a same sex relationship has its own particular complications, some in place of, and some in addition to, those of the straight population (some of which are outlined in the sections above). There are four main ways in which gay people start a family; donor insemination, surrogacy, co-parenting and adoption. Each of these pathways will involve particular decisions and implications.
Same sex couples are unable to make a biological baby through sex together and this raises practical questions as well as, for some, a sense of loss and sadness which may need to be worked through. The absence of procreative sex also means lesbians and gay men are placed in a position where they have to make a deliberate and conscious decision to start a family. The space this creates for consideration can be a positive thing and gay parents can be particularly well prepared by the time children arrive. However for some, the lack of spontaneity and the emphasis on deliberation can become inhibiting and lead to over-thinking, causing indecision and paralysis.
The models of families and parenting that gay and same-sex parents draw on, like the rest of the population, are often from their own family of origin, as well as social information, networks and trends. However, gay parent families are still a relatively new and minority social phenomenon and this can lead to a sense of being outside established family models. This can be liberating but can also leave some people feeling isolated, misunderstood and unsupported.
Gay parents also have to manage social attitudes. While these have changed positively in this country there may still be, in some parts of the population, direct hostility about gay people having children. Some gay people may also need help to challenge their own negative feelings about their suitability for parenthood which might well arise from internalised homophobia. Homophobic bullying in schools might also give cause for some concern for gay parents, and sometimes schools need to be worked with to counter prejudice being directed towards their children.
Becoming a parent for everyone will throw up past experiences of being parented and part of a family. Psychotherapy or counselling can help explore what being a parent means to the individual, how it might relate to historic experiences of family and, in the case of lesbians and gay men, how this might interplay with the particular challenges and implications of being a gay parent.