Anna Freud pointed out to school teachers that often the rivalry they witnessed in the classroom was a displacement from sibling rivalry at home. Children were assigning the crucial parental role to a substitute, the teacher. Depending on the emotional strength and experience of the teacher, some classrooms seethe under the weight of such complex tasks whilst others are contained. A good-enough teacher can divert powerful rivalry into useful channels. However, sometimes the sibling rivalry is exacerbated or even instigated by the adult. As we need to remind ourselves - there is not only an Oedipus complex. Jocasta and Laius also existed.
Many parliamentary debates and work discussions carry these complex components from past family life. However, they may not get adequately recognised because they are hidden under plausible adult settings and language. Under unpromising terms like “audit” or “purchaser and provider” there is a wealth of psychological data. “When I land a bigger commission than my colleagues by selling more”, said one business executive, “I remember the thrill I felt when I first got pocket money and my little brother was too young to get any. I feel it all over again!” Being praised by the Boss, like being praised by a favourite teacher, can also revive the pleasure of earning paternal or maternal praise.
However, as Peter Hildebrand points out in his succinct book “Beyond Mid-Life Crisis”, whilst mother-son relationships are well documented in literature and, at a displaced level, in politics, the relationships between women and their daughters has not received the same treatment. These can include rarely examined and taboo issues. For whilst younger male sibling can say to older sibling or parent “OK, I am younger but that means you are going to die first”, there is a female version in which daughter can say to mother “You are now infertile whilst I can conceive”.
Mrs A writes in that she sadly came to motherhood late. Her only daughter B was born when she herself was 42. Now B is 12 and her periods have begun just as Mrs A’s have stopped. “I was so busy telling her how wonderful it was that she was now a proper woman I failed to realise that I was telling myself that I no longer was. B somehow picked this up and has been taunting me about this mercilessly. In front of her two closest girlfriends last week she loudly said she would have to keep extra stocks of sanitary towels since I no longer needed to buy any. I ran out of the room to have a cry”.
Having a baby past the mid-life point can delay or conceal some of the psychological aspects of ageing. For those who have beaten the biological clock with late pregnancies it can be a shocking surprise to deal with the menopause at the same time as a girl child’s puberty. Was Mrs A exaggerating how wonderful it was that B was now a woman because she was trying to conceal her own sense of loss? If B is Mrs A’s only child, conceived at a late age, perhaps after many attempts, does the casual fecundity of her young daughter hurt her? It is not possible to tell from such a brief letter whether B has been offered this subject on a plate by her mother, whether it comes from her own script or involves both elements or indeed others.
However, a woman who has processed the meaning of her biological status would not need to run from the room in tears on hearing her daughter’s comment. She would be able to say “ That’s quite right and I am glad you are thinking ahead to next month” or “You are being impolite discussing my body functions with your friends-stick to your own”. In the meantime, B is being allowed space for a triumph that is damaging to both her and her mother. Mrs A needs to think very carefully about a possible level of hostility towards her daughter that might be hidden under the eulogistic words. Is her daughter’s aggressive behaviour a reflection of her own?
C, aged 13, was very aware of her menopausal mother’s strong feelings about her new menstrual position. “She kept telling me I smelled like a fish-shop and how pleased she was that hers were all over - that she could go swimming or on holiday with no worry - whereas I should take great care. Before every holiday she would get out the calendar so I would not be “embarrassed” at the seaside. But she always picked my period time for us to go away”. Unlike B, C did not taunt her mother. She took inside herself her mother’s negative comments and developed painful periods preceded by premenstrual tension. By having stomach aches she neutralised her mother’s jealousy and gained sympathy for the “curse” she was suffering from. C’s mother could then adopt a free pre-pubertal child-like position, revelling in daily swims, whilst C had to be the ill mother. Work with the mother revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, the lack of worth her mother passed on to her when she menstruated. There can indeed be an inter-generational “curse”.
The poets Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle, who have conducted major research on menstruation and dreaming, point out that menstrual blood and its smell are associated with the first occasion on which we smelled blood - our birth. They show how the primitive power of menstruation is societally hidden but can be recovered through dream-work. Fear of the smell, converted to dislike, could be a way of concealing a primitive response. The menstrual imagery of blood finds its expression in art, literature and cinema but is curiously under-represented in discussion.
However, one mother, Ms D wrote in that she cannot stand her daughter’s complaints about her period. “Mine have all stopped - and there she is - pouring with the red stuff - and complaining she does not like it”. The emotional power of menstruation and ovulation is strongly communicated in the lavish expression “pouring with blood” but is nonetheless minimised in our society.
Whilst men have produced various blood-letting rituals in different cultures in order to become blood brothers the possible rivalry with women has rarely been mentioned. Women bleed naturally and not through injury. There is a primitive magical quality to that. Women sharing the same house often develop a shared menstrual timing. However, whilst we have the term “blood brothers” we do not have “blood sisters”. Perhaps if we understood these issues more fully there would be less male blood shed and a greater ease between women.
“Alchemy for Women: Personal transformation through dreams and the female cycle” Penelope Shuttle & Peter Redgrove, Rider
“Beyond Mid-Life Crisis: A psychodynamic approach to ageing” Peter Hildebrand, Sheldon Press