For the longest time, I swore I didn’t want to have kids. My husband and I married in the summer of 2003. He was 21; I’d turned 22 two days earlier. I adamantly insisted we would not only wait to extend our family, but I even suggested I’d rather not. Like my parents, I married young. Unlike my parents, I did not wish to bring children into the world until I could be certain I wouldn’t perpetuate the abusive structures I recognized in my family system–structures which had been present long before even they were born.
Thus, I was extremely critical of young couples who got pregnant right away. How could they do that?! They aren’t ready to provide the emotional support their children need! There is no way their relationship is strong enough to survive parenthood! I deplored the special treatment my 23 year old co-worker received for her planned pregnancy, when her husband had no job and she, working at a private school making pennies for an annual salary, was forced to be the bread winner. They planned to have that baby, in spite of their economic hardship. I would never do that!
Of course, I was transferring my experience onto their little family. My parents struggled financially. My mom often berated me for the sacrifices she had to make to provide for my basic needs. I always found it so hypocritical because she also touted how long and hard she’d prayed to get pregnant for both my brother and myself. How did she not realize she would have to make financial sacrifices to share her resources with her children?!
Nevertheless, each time a friend or acquaintance announced they were expecting, I became fiercely jealous, but rather than owning this jealousy, I raged silently, or clandestinely to just my husband’s ears, against their irresponsibility.
What I did not realize–what I would not acknowledge or confess–was that I desired, also, to be a mother. I desired to build a family with my husband, but I was scared as shit that I’d turn out like my own mother. Thus, I rejected motherhood before I could be rejected by it (which is a pattern I’d mastered well).
Spoiler alert for new readers: I eventually had two children with my husband, and while parenting is not at all easy, I make it my mission to break the cycles of abuse and trauma into which I, myself, was born.
This entire anecdote exemplifies the process of reaction formation, which is an unconscious defense mechanism in which we deny and displace one detestable feeling, replacing it with a much preferred opposite.
I could not admit my desire to have children. I was afraid of the desire. The desire caused me pain. This is because I didn’t feel fit to be a parent, and I couldn’t imagine ever doing to other little humans the dumb shit that had been done to me. Therefore, I denied the desire–pushed it deep into my unconscious, and instead, became intolerant of and contemptuous towards any and all young parents.
Reaction formation is a natural human defense. We all employ it from time to time. I think it becomes recognizable when we investigate the motivation driving intensely impassioned feelings of hostility towards another. When left to its own devices, however, reaction formation can damage relationships, and alienate those who are willing to be vulnerable.
“In all of these cases where a reaction formation is at work, you will notice a particular intensity of response that seems unusual and may surprise or even offend other people.”Joseph Burgo, Why Do I Do That?
Can you think of a time when you employed this defense in your life? I would love to hear about it in the comments!