The Case Of The Invisible Mom

As a family therapist with many years of practice under my belt, I've had the occasion to see quite a few women -- and men -- who have lost their voice in their intimate relationship. Interestingly, sometimes this "invisibility" disguises itself as anger, and becomes hard to recognize. A case from my office illustrates how this can work: (All identifying data has been changed.)

The Case: I first saw Amelie and Bob when they came to see me at the advice of their family doc. They had been fighting a lot lately, and they worried about the toll on themselves and their two daughters. Bob made the initial phone call, saying Amelie was "reluctant" to come in, but could probably be persuaded.

Amelie, a Swiss-born fashion designer, and Bob, a poet and "house-husband" had been married about ten years. When I first saw them, Bob-a wispy, rather effete guy, complained mostly about how Amelie "picks" on him. He described how when she arrives home she finds fault with his housekeeping, pointing to "smudges on the wall", which he found "minuscule." He made it sound like he quivered in anticipation of her rebuke.

As I observed this couple, I saw a duet that looked different than the one Bob described. While he saw himself as the victim of his wife's domestic tyranny, Amelie looked to me like a depressed and defeated woman. When she tried to answer his charges that she "berated"him, she came across like a woman without much power in the relationship. With her prominent French accent, she acknowledged that she "over-reacted"to the messiness of the house. But she said with a sigh, "I feel like the house is the only thing I have."

She went on to describe how Bob is so busy with their two daughters when she gets home that she doesn't want to "interrupt" his schedule with them. The only bread-winner, she works a demanding schedule at her design firm, often arriving home at seven or eight p.m. As she haltingly talked about what family life is like for her, it sounded to me like she didn't have a place in this family, that somehow she had become marginalized over time. I made a comment to this effect, and she nodded. I think she felt relieved that someone understood her pain. Bob looked on as I talked to Amelie. This wasn't the conversation he expected, but he seemed interested. I asked for the kids to come in for the next session.

Family Session: The parents walked in with two adorable-looking little girls, aged five and seven. These girls looked European in their neat dresses, and, in fact, they went to a Swiss school and spoke French with their mother at home. Bob spoke with them in English, though he had a decent understanding of spoken French.

I asked these little girls about their family, and they acknowledged that they worried about their parents' frequent arguments. I noticed how, in the session, Bob freely criticized his wife in front of the kids, though Amelie did not respond. Both daughters climbed on their Dad, clearly enjoying an intimacy with him, which he obviously encouraged. He was a "magnet" Dad.

As we talked and I observed their dynamics, it became clear that Amelie did not know how to enter this cozy trio. And it looked like there was no room for her. At one point the oldest daughter, Claire, had to go to the bathroom. When Mom offered to take her, Claire refused, saying she wanted Dad to take her. Mom backed off and Dad moved to take her. This family was used to the kids openly rejecting Mom and opting for Dad. No one questioned it.

When they returned I commented on this strange thing, that Mom's qualifications as loving parent had become suspect. Dad proceeded to criticize Mom as "too picky" or "not involved enough," but I stopped him. I said it looked like both these little girls needed some body warmth with Mom. I then asked Mom to spend a few moments with her little daughters, one at a time, in the session. (I wanted to stretch these rather rigid family patterns to see how the family would respond.) As we watched, Mom gathered Lola to her, and put her on her lap. They quietly began speaking in French, each absorbed in the other. Dad busied himself with Claire while watching Mom; this kind of intimacy between Mom and child stood in stark contrast to their usual patterns.

Mom and Lola blossomed like flowers. Mom's body softened, and they looked like they could have remained locked together for hours. Soon Claire clamored to be let in; the coziness looked inviting, and Mom took her on her lap. It got too crowded, so Lola got down from the chair and went to the corner and began drawing.

The session was drawing to a close, and I commented on Mom's beauty as she cuddled with her kids. Mom responded quietly, almost apologetically, "That felt good. I don't get to do that too often." Dad, to his credit, did not use this as a chance to attack Mom. Instead, he seemed like he enjoyed what happened. This was not the family he came in with, but this different version seemed to satisfy him.

Follow-Up: Amelie and Bob returned for a follow-up visit before they left for Switzerland with their kids to visit the grandparents.

The previous session initiated some new movement in the family. Amelie commented that Bob had begun leaving her with the girls in the morning, so she was able to get them dressed and off for school. Amelia said she "loved" this time with them, and said she "wanted more". For his part, Bob said it was "easy" for him to stay out of the way, and he had used the time to do some of his own writing.

I congratulated Bob on his "mini-retirement," and he chuckled, saying "no problem." Clearly the patterns of this couple and family had begun to shift, in small but important ways. As I saw it , Amelie's fussiness about the house represented the only way she felt she had a voice in this family. Her irritation masked a depression at feeling marginalized as a mother, and Bob's prize-winning, non-stop parenting has contributed to her feelings of second-class citizenry.

Until then, Amelie only knew how to become visible through her anger and upset. She only knew how to complain about "the smudge on the wall", not about the pain of feeling unwanted. She did not know how to talk to her husband about what it felt like to be an outsider in her own family. And he, like all of us when we're in it, did not know how to recognize her anger as pain.But now, her distress at feeling unloved had begun to acquire a voice. And Bob appeared to be listening.

Postscript: I got a followup phone call from Bob when the family returned in the fall. According to him, he and his wife were fighting much less, and Amelie continued to be enjoying her greater involvement with her children. He let me know all was well and that they would return to see me if needed.