Psychoanalysis and Parenthood
Bertram J. Cohler
University of Chicago
Parenthood is both one of the most central of adult social roles and also a subjective experience endowed with particular meanings fashioned over a lifetime. Although a couple may anticipate and plan for the first birth and the transition to parenthood, evidence from studies of the transition to parenthood suggests that prospective parents cannot fully anticipate the significance of caring for the baby (Bibring, 1959). Furthermore, as the psychoanalyst Therese Benedek (1973) observed, once a woman or man has become a parent, one is a parent as long as there is memory; Benedek also suggests that even following the years of active parenting, mothers and fathers continue to feel particular responsibility and affection for their offspring. Across the course of life, parents continue to induct their offspring into new roles through forward socialization just as offspring continue through backward socialization to influence parental conceptions of self and management of such adult roles as being parents of yong adults. This process of continued reciprocal socialization across the course of adult life is experienced by both parents and offspring in ways shaped by their own conceptions of self, their unique life history and accompanying memories and hopes, and living in a particular time and place.
In this chapter we consider parenthood across the course of adult life from the dual perspective of psychoanalysis and the contemporary social context of adult lives in the United States. While acknowledging the many satisfactions of being a parent, parents in contemporary society all too often experience feelings of role strain, overload, and conflict (Cohler, 1985). More than four decades ago, an ethnographic and comparative cross-cultural study showed that parenthood was a greater source of both anxiety and hostility for American parents as contrasted with those in the six other cultures around the world for whom comparative data were available (Fischer and Fischer, 1963; Minturn and Lambert, 1964). This anxiety regarding being a competent parent is also reflected in the preoccupation of parents in our society with guides and primers regarding childcare and with feelings of responsibility for how children “turn out” as adults (Clarke-Stewart, 1978; Ryff, Schmutte, and Lee, 1996).