November 2020: The Meaning of ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’

Most of us, even when we are well and truly adults, refer to our parents as “Mum” and “Dad” (or something similar).  We rarely call them by their names, and we rarely think of them in terms of their names.

This reflects the symbolic meaning that our parents have in our lives.  I like to say that children “own” their concept of “Mum” and “Dad”, and it is a separate and distinct concept from the people who are their parents.  This explains why children can feel abandoned by an absentee parent who they never knew.

If we think of a child’s concept of “Mum” or “Dad” as something they “own”, and something that is really important to them, it highlights the importance of separated parents not talking badly about each other.   A child, especially an older child, may share a negative opinion about some aspects of Jim or Jane’s personality or behaviour.   But it is challenging for them to internalize a negative opinion about “Dad” or “Mum”.   This probably relates at some level to children having a general sense, and later an intellectual understanding, that their DNA is 50% Mum and 50% Dad.

The bottom line here is that when we are separated, we have a beautiful opportunity to separate our view of our ex-partner from the fact that our children see that person as THEIR “Mum” or THEIR “Dad”.  And then we can devote our energies to supporting their right to love and honour both of their parents, regardless of our view of what went wrong in the relationship.

Children of separation can be absolutely fine, and we can make it happen as separated parents as we understand more about the psychodynamics of parental separation for children.