Sunday, April 6, 2008
A Sadness Not My Own
Psychologist Dr. Marian Radke-Yarrow for 23 years documented the effects of maternal depression "as they wreathe through the lives of the children who mature in a sadness not their own."*
I am such a one; a daughter who bore "the weight of her mother's moods," and who tried to help her mother to "mother against the odds."
One of the effects of growing up in the shade of my mother's depression was that, despite my naturally sunny disposition, I developed an ambiguous relationship with happiness.
My mother was like the bumper sticker that reads, "No One Is Truly Free When Others Are Enslaved," except read "happy" for "free," and "sad" for "enslaved."
She, otherwise a brilliant woman, encouraged the twinning of our emotions.
Her favored model from history to teach me, her child, was the Holocaust, which I believe reflected how she felt, like a woman persecuted with emotional pain for nothing she had done.
The Holocaust displayed human nature at its roots, she implied; the world is a concentration camp, and you are either innocent or you are guilty. My child mind came to associate sadness with innocence, or with being on the side of the victims. Happiness was suspect, indicating guilt or at least a lightweight approach to life.
My sunny nature weathered all this, more or less. As an adult, I intellectually reject my childhood equations--to start, suffering is no indicator of innocence--but sometimes I still feel guilty for being happy, as if it means I've gone over to the dark side.
Radke-Yarrow's research was on my mind the other day, when I spent an afternoon with a friend and her 7 month-old baby, Kira.
My friend, a first-time mother, mused about how she has learned to communicate with her daughter. She told me that Kira expresses her basic needs really clearly, with a distinct cry for hunger and another one for sleepiness, and so forth.
Kira is a pumpkin-headed happy baby, who burst into laughter, over and over, when I played peek-a-boo with her.
I said that laughter also seems to be part of the baby's basic communication.
My friend agreed, as if it were the most natural thing in the world:
of course babies laugh before they can talk or think in words, unless something's wrong.
I suppose that's obvious, and I already knew it; but it struck me in a new way, as if the universe had given me a replacement bumper sticker reading "Being happy predates moral choice."
In fact, if little babies express happiness, it's probably somehow to our biological advantage to be happy. Next time I feel especially happy, I will try to remember to think,
"This is an evolutionary development, not a moral failing."
That may seem pretty convoluted, but when you grow up in the shade, sometimes you take corkscrew turns to reach the light.
*Lauren Slater, "Marian Radke-Yarrow: The Anthropological Psychologist," New York Times Magazine, December 30, 2007, 32. This article is a brief overview of R-Y's methodology, from 1979 to 2002, more than a presentation of her conclusions.
[The smile pictured is mine.]