Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Speaking The Unspeakable: Divorcing Your Child

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 29, 2011

  “I want my child to go away,” reports a mom to me about her fourteen-year old daughter. “You mean you need a break from her,” I say, trying to clarify. “No, I mean I want her to go to another family,” Zoey, forty, tells me with little anger, but with a great deal of tension. “You know, I wish I never adopted Eli,” Yumi tells me about her three-year old son, explaining that she honestly feels she made a big mistake. Both Zoey and Yumi have difficult marriages, with little perceived support from their husbands. They both have other children which they are content with. They are not begging to resign from parenthood, only to resign from parenting this particular child. These words can never leave my office, as the admission of such feelings seems unbearable, and yet bringing them to the light of day is somehow helpful. The obvious trap that both Zoey and Yumi feel is palpable. Neither one can act on their impulse to expel their children, but the worry that this feeling could harm their respective children rises as the words flow out of their mouths. As a child psychiatrist, I think about their children, but my job in the moment is to help Zoey and Yumi come to grips with what they are feeling so that we can process together these complicated emotional experiences. I have a strong hunch that Zoey and Yumi are both displacing their disappointment with their husbands on to their children. This hunch will be explored, but our first step is to struggle with the shame associated with these feelings. Mothers are supposed to always want to be mothers, or so our society seems to tell us. Women are born to reproduce, many women feel.

   The unacceptable wish to return your child to its maker needs to be understood as a feeling that needs to be examined and metabolized, not denied and displaced. “You can want your child to go away,” I say, “but let’s see what is underneath those feelings,” trying to explain that wanting to get rid of your child does not mean that you want to get rid of your child, but rather it means that in this moment, you are having a hard time and that is the thought that occurs to you. I try to grant permission to Zoey to have her feelings, however dark they may be. This will open the door to new ways of seeing her world. It is hard to acknowledge that a mother may have feelings of regret about mothering. It is hard to see that in oneself and in one own’s mother, yet the reality is stark. Of course, a long-term commitment such as parenting, is bound to create the deepest kind of ambivalence. That is obvious on the one hand and deeply shameful on the other. Zoey, Yumi and I have a lot of work to do.

4 Responses to “Speaking The Unspeakable: Divorcing Your Child”

  1. Shelly said

    Perhaps Zoey and Yumi really and truly do feel like they wished they never had those particular children, and it had nothing to do with ambivalence about motherhood or displacing disappointment of their husbands on their children. Some children are toxic in families, and the poison leaks out and affects everyone in the family unit. Since both women have other children in their families whom they do not perceive in this manner then the issue obviously is not their motherhood nor their mothering but something specific about each of these children and their interactions. I would explore these interactions further.

    • Hi Shelly,
      I agree with you and with Eleanor, as I see the child’s issues as a contributing factor to “wanting a divorce”. You are right that in some families, certain children create a tremendous amount of regret, along with the unconscious wish to undo their birth, and this may have little to do with the ambivalence about parenting. Typically, this happens when a child has mental or physical problems, creating enormous stress on the family, explaining why the divorce rates are so high in these circumstances.
      The point of my post is to encourage people to speak the unspeakable so that the factors contributing to those feelings can be explored. If the “unspeakable” is never spoken, then the mysterious underpinnings of those feelings are left to leak out in other undesirable behaviors such as self-injurious behaviors like substance abuse, and/or aggressive behaviors like domestic violence and child abuse.
      Thanks, as always.

  2. I personally think these situations described have everything to do with displacement…not only involving the current family but more specifically with fire added from family of long past.

    • Hi Eleanor,
      Thank you for your comment. I agree completely. The child bears the burden of both the past and the present difficulties, but of course it takes a lifetime for the child to figure that out. SV

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