Awareness of ‘countertransference’ - the danger of viewing Jill through my cornucopia of emotions about motherhood - kept me focused on her needs.
In the 12 years I’ve been a psychotherapist this question has been posed to me numerous times: “Are you a mother?” I either answer truthfully or ask why the patient wants this information. But, last week when a lesbian couple raising a 10-year-old girl asked if I had a child, the lie slipped out: “Yes.”
They peppered me with questions, “Boy or girl?” “How old?” “Do you ever think of yourself as a bad mother?”
If I assuaged my conscience by confessing my childless state, their therapy could derail. Therapists expect patients to sometimes fudge the truth: A 2016 study in Counseling Psychology Quarterly found that 93% of 547 adult psychotherapy clients lied to their therapist, typically due to feelings of shame, embarrassment or not wanting to hurt the clinician’s feelings by, for instance, admitting the therapy is not helpful.
I’m among the 96% of therapists who withhold personal information if it might harm the patient. I won’t admit your personality isn’t riveting, or that I despise your politics. I sometimes commit white lies: “I’m not sleepy. The sun is in my eyes.” My mother fib was a new category of untruth.
I was raised in Little Neck, New York, the youngest child of Holocaust survivors to whom the mission of life was to expand our family. I neither wanted nor didn’t want a baby. To me, motherhood felt like an option only with a man clearly born to be an amazing co-parent.
My one pregnancy, an accident, at 19, was not with such a man. My then-fiancé Jack was emotionally unstable and occasionally volatile. I thought it was my job to save him, not bring a child into his orbit. He held my hand during the abortion at Bill Baird Clinic. While I knew the termination was the correct action, decades later I still flinched at the memory of the nurse assuring me, “Sherry, you’re not pregnant anymore.”
After my inevitable divorce I had several long-term relationships: only one, in my thirties, with someone who’d unequivocally be the perfect protector and playmate to little ones, as well as a trustworthy, emotionally generous ally to me. Paul was staunch Irish Catholic, which is why, for years I kept our relationship secret. What ultimately collapsed the romance was my parents’ hysterical reaction when I finally confessed to loving a non-Jew (Mom: “Dig a hole and I’ll jump in it!”) and Paul’s and my heartbreaking inability to agree on what religion to raise the children we wanted together.
In the ensuing years my biological clock seldom tick-tocked as I indulged in travel adventures, switched careers from magazine editing to social work, welcomed two beautiful nieces, and watched my parents decline and eventually die.
A motivator for becoming a therapist was my second-generation Survivor’s Guilt. I had an insatiable need to ‘give back’ as justification for my relatively easy life. This new work suffused me with purpose; the occasional ‘Helping High’ I experienced seeing a patient learn to steer away from the shoals of emotional self-destruction was my crack.
While my practice ranges from people in their teens through the mid-eighties, those in their twenties and thirties - the ages I imagine for the children I never had - can burrow into my marrow. When a patient I’ll call Jill, pregnant and afraid she’d be an unloving parent, confided that her mother’s nighttime lullaby typically included a few choruses listing the myriad ways Jill fell short as the ideal daughter (i.e., idealizing the father she saw just once a week), I yearned to swoop in and whisper into her hair how proud I’d be to mother such a fine young woman.
Part of the therapeutic process is helping patients who carry the psychic pain of inadequate nurturing experience being mothered in a reparative way. This bath of acceptance, appreciation, and yes, love, teaches people to come to terms with their parent’s flaws. The objective: to become adept at emotionally mothering themselves versus staying stuck in the quicksand of longing for what they never had.
Awareness of ‘countertransference’ - the danger of viewing Jill through my cornucopia of emotions about motherhood - kept me focused on her needs. We talked about her mother’s upbringing as a hostage to emotionally cruel parents.
I said, “Your mother parented you the way she was parented. She didn’t know any better.”
Jill sighed, “Yeah, grandma was a horror. I guess mom raised me the best she could.”
I pointed out, “Because you’re brave enough to open the wound and sit with your pain instead of running, you can move beyond it and break the family legacy of poor mothering.”
“That’s what I want, Sherry ... to love my child the way I deserved to be loved.”
We both tearily smiled. As the session ended I allowed myself the vicarious satisfaction of being a good 50-minute mother.
Paul and I found our way back to one another in our fifties. He also never had a child. While I’m content overall with my life’s choices, I lied about having a child because no matter how many times I’m asked “Are you a mother?” the question always twists the knife of what-might-have-been.
“Boy or girl?” “How old?” “Do you ever think of yourself as a bad mother?”
I debated either confessing the lie (No!) or compounding it: “A boy. He’s 28.”
I opted to do my job, telling my patients: “It’s normal to fear being a bad mother. Let’s talk about your fears.”
And we did.
Sherry Amatenstein is a NYC-based psychotherapist, author of three books, including THE COMPLETE MARRIAGE COUNSELOR, editor of the anthology HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL? True Confessions From Both Sides of the Therapy Couch, contributor to numerous publications including Washington Post, The Cut, vox.com and Good Housekeeping and mother to a terrier/schnauzer/yorkie AKA pettable co-therapist. @sherapynyc
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