Family Roles and the Inner Child

When I was born in 1942, I was destined as the “replacement child.” My sister Suzie had been diagnosed with Down syndrome (Mongolism, they called it then). As my mother wrote to her sister (in a letter I have in my hands), the doctors were urging them to have another child  quickly and send Suzie off to an institution.

My parents had just moved to Orange, New Jersey, during a hot and sweating summer, with young Suzie. My father hated his job, as he hated every job where he worked for other people. My mother, both intelligent and ill-fitted for motherhood, was stuck at home with Suzie and then me. Father’s outlet was anger that came in unpredictable bursts. Mother’s style was to take it in and slowly despair.

In came I, blessedly normal and smart. There’s a photo of me at 10 months and this child is so bright-eyed and willing to please, she practically jumps out of the page. I was born to set it right. So I tried, being good and winsome and all of that. And of course I didn’t cure everything. Father was still angry, mother was still depressed, and my sister was still needy. She was sent to a well-run private institution when I was two, and then it was just me and the parents.

This young soul concluded, with child-logic, that if she tried and tried and still the parents were unhappy and at odds, it must be the her fault—she wasn’t loving enough. And this is one of the set patterns that my Inner Child carries, the feeling she hasn’t done enough for others and it’s her failure of soul.

I don’t suppose that feeling will entirely go away, but I can sit and hold my Inner Child and tell her it’s really not her job to make things OK for everyone.

My Inner Child Speaks and is Heard

A couple of months ago I wrote about feeling very scared in a group situation where I was afraid to state my needs. I felt everyone else was fine and I must be abnormal. It triggered feelings from very early when I learned that the needs of everyone else in my family were more important than mine.

Well, I spoke up to the group and said I sometimes felt lonely and as if the crush of conversation just passed me by. It turned out I was not alone. Different people felt left out for a variety of reasons. We risked telling each other what we needed. It wasn’t like it all became perfect, since we do still have different desires. Some people like light chatting as a relief; others (like me) prefer quiet.

I didn’t blame anybody or get angry but I did say how I felt. My relief was enormous and I feel so much closer to the group now. Maybe this speaking up can work! My Inner Child is happy and amazed.

My Evolving Relationship to my Inner Child

Someone who ordered my booklet, Caring for the Child Within—A Manual for Grownups asked how my relationship to my Inner Child had changed over the years. I see there has been growth.

When the abuse memories came and I was getting to know my Inner Child, she was like a real adopted child, one who has been traumatized. She needed so much attention and tender care. I had to learn how to like her and love her: a sad, weepy child is not always what we wish for. So it was a time of sitting and listening, learning how to be a loving parent and how to value the Inner Child’s being exactly the way she was.

Just like an adoptive parent, I also needed to learn how to set  limits. I made time for her every day, just listening, and also time for art work where she could be free to draw dark images or light ones, real objects or color patterns. But I needed to develop a little bit of healthy distance, not to be consumed by the Child’s terror and hopelessness, nor taken over by her enthusiasms.

Has my Inner Child grown up? No. Now I feel she’s even more free to be childish and silly and sad and scared. But she’s become more secure in those moods and in knowing that I love her. And I’ve learned to be a much better Mommy for her—willing to listen to the sad and scared parts without shrinking away or trying to talk her out of them, able to handle the quick switches in mood. It feels like a real relationship, one that I still sit with every morning.