The first installment of “The Mean Dad” series begins on 12/4/16.
Amy: As promised, Dana and Jacob brought their kids in for a long-overdue session. (See post from 1/6) They trooped in, the two teenagers, Lila, seventeen, and Lance, fifteen, trailed by the parents. Lila ‘s radiant, freckled face looked, as my Irish grandmother used to say, “like the map of Ireland.” And Lance, long and lanky, looked more mature, less child-like than when I’d last seen him nearly six months ago. Dana said they’d decided to leave the six-year old twins at home with a babysitter.
After a few minutes of small talk–me commenting how great both these young people looked, Lila mentioning her “exhaustion” after finishing her college applications, Lance talking about an “awesome” basketball game he’d attended the night before–we settled into family business.
I asked these little adults how they thought their family was doing. Lance looked at his mom; “A little better. Not great, but better.” Lila chimed in, looking at her mom and dad; “My dad and I still get into it sometimes. He can be a real pain.” Ouch. Honesty. But still, ouch.
I asked her to elaborate. Lila’s story about a recent battle pretty much lined up with how her folks described these blowouts. She talked about the night following her last slumber party, when her Dad got pissed off at the mess she and her friends had left. She said, “He always goes too far. He gets too mad. It’s not such a big deal.” She looked at her mom as she complained about her Dad’s temper. I said it sounded like her Dad didn’t come out of the box really mad, but that the skirmish escalated into a brawl. She agreed, but said it was “pretty quick”.
I asked Dad and Lila to talk together about what happened. As I watched them bat it back and forth, it became pretty obvious that Lila had a stake in not letting her Dad “win”. He made his point–emphatically–about wanting his house “respected”, but Lila responded by trying to take him down a peg, chiding him about his “OCD”, and his “neat-freak” personality. Jacob looked annoyed. He said, to no one particular, “She never listens to me.”
I asked Lila about what looked to me like a desire to put the old guy in his place. She said, “Someone’s got to.” My face looked like a question mark. She continued, “Even though it’s gotten better, my Dad still likes to push people around sometimes.” I asked, “People?” She said, “Yeah, me. And my mom.” Lance grunted in concurrence. I asked Lila to talk about how she thinks her mom gets stepped on by her dad.
Lila talked about hearing her parents recent argument in the kitchen. She heard her mom trying to convince her dad of something and her dad refused to give in. She said, “I never see my Dad give in. It’s alway my Mom. She’s a saint.” Both Dana and Jacob were listening intently. I said softly, “So you’re trying to show your mom how to fight?” Lila responded, “Yeah, I guess so.” “How’s it going?” I asked. Lila smiled. “Not so good.”
We spent the rest of the session addressing this crucial interior family architecture. I asked for Mom and Dad’s reflections on Lila’s dilemma: Dr. Lila was trying to help her mom, but this meant putting herself into a box, plus screwing up her relationship with her Dad. Dana spoke first: “I don’t need that of kind help. And I don’t want you fighting my fights for me. Actually, when I think about it (she smiled) that’s downright disrespectful… you assume I can’t take care of myself!” Lila looked surprised. Jacob watched quietly.
Both Dana and Jacob began to fill their kids in on some of the discoveries they’d made in the course of the therapy. Jacob talked about how he knew he was “too anxious” about the kids, and what could go wrong. He said he was working on his “perfectionism”, as he called it, but he needed their Mom to help him. He added that he was trying not to “withdraw’ when he felt hurt. He said, with a semi-jokey voice “I’m learning to talk about my feelings.”
And Dana said, “And I’m learning to listen. It’s not easy. Marriage isn’t easy. But we’re learning from each other. I think we’re better partners now that we were.” She took her eyes off her kids and looked at Jacob. He returned the gaze. Everyone was quiet for a moment.
The last few minutes were lighter in tone, and I noticed a shift in Lila’s relationship with her dad. She turned to Jacob; “Oh yeah, I meant to ask you. I’m signed up for that bike race that I told you about. Do you think you could help me train for it?” Jacob smiled, trying not to appear too enthusiastic. “Of course”, he said.
As they left the office, I thought to myself, “That was a really useful session.” I probably should have shown greater persistence in having the kids more involved in the therapy. This meeting revealed an important–and very common–dynamic in families. In this case, Lila’s battles with her Dad were a reflection of her attempt to take care of her mother. She decided ( with her mother’s unconscious request for help) to fight her mother’s battles, worried that Mom was too fragile, not up to the task. It felt to me like this last meeting put those issues out on the table in a new way.
I wasn’t sure yet about the result. Our next meeting let me know. It was our last.
Next post: 1/8