Posted: Wednesday 9th December 2020
That Martini thing…
When I was about 12, I went to a friend’s house party and got drunk for the first time. I very quickly drank what seemed like a whole bottle of Martini (it was the 80s), and spent the next six hours throwing up into the kitchen sink until my parents fetched me home and dawn eventually brought relief. To this day, the merest whiff of Martini sets my stomach churning instantly. The very thought of that dreadful brew is enough. For me, Martini is toxic, it’s poison, and if I spot a glimmer of possibility that it’s coming my way again, I crush that possibility like a tonne of bricks. I found myself sharing this story with a colleague whom I clinically supervise the other day. And here’s why…
My colleague told me about two different foster families that she is working with. Both foster families are, in their own ways, struggling to look after children who each hail from different biological families of origin. Although not officially connected with the biological families of origin of the children, each set of foster carers happens to have some knowledge of their respective child’s original family.
Both children in question are now teenagers, and as teenagers can do, the two are each doing some edgy things. In response to these edgy things, both sets of foster carers worry and try their best to set their young person on the right path. One set of carers said to their teenager ‘There’s a good road and a bad road. If you’re bad you’re no good. If you’re not good then you’re bad. Make the right choice’. The other set of carers said to their teenager ‘Don’t be bringing that mess into this house. You leave it outside of this family, where it belongs.’.
As my colleague continued, I wondered if I saw a parallel amongst these stories of two unrelated families and their struggles. Both sets of carers seemed to meet their teenager with ideas of the world as it had already been lived by adults before them. Ideas set into ‘this is how it is’ and so ‘this is how it is for you too’. One set of carers seemed to communicate an idea of the world that ‘People are either good or bad. Not both, not neither. One or the other. And you will be too. We only hope you can be good like us.’. The other set of carers seemed to communicate something similar like ‘There are bad people in this world who make a mess of things, and we’re not people like that. We only hope you’re one of us.’.
This made me wonder. When you’re trying to help a child to live a different life from the mistakes of the adults who have gone before them, their parents for instance, might the very possibility of the child being anything like those parents feel toxic, like poison? Just like Martini does to me? Might even a whiff of edgy-ness create a fear that terrible trouble is certainly coming? And when that fear of trouble arises, might we come down on it like a tonne of bricks?
How can a foster carer, who knows about the mistakes of a child’s parents and their painful impacts, feel confident that the child themselves isn’t destined for the same path, even when they edge on some ‘badness’ and ‘mess’ as they journey through adolescence? And how can a teenager do what teenagers need to do, how can they explore the world and find out who they are, if they are barred from exploring the edges of things because it might smell too much like toxicity, like Martini? When your parents have messed up, must you be good just to reassure others that you’re not bad? And what if you find that this isn’t possible, that in fact you are both; you do well and make mistakes, you please and displease, you succeed and you fail? How can you be better than you are? Better than any one of us is?
We need to let teenagers be themselves and become themselves, and not allow the legacy of the adults who have gone before to define their options. We can’t let our anxieties box them in to limitations that we’ve already drawn up. How do teenagers become themselves? Well how did you become uniquely you? Hopefully, you were allowed to find out who you are, not forced into acting a character that someone else wrote for you. It is possible to be our parents’ children and yet completely our unique selves. It is possible to do some bad things and still be a good person. It isn’t always that Martini thing.
Jen & Jael