The Study Abroad Dilemma

In the study of foreign language / literature / culture, it is extremely helpful to visit at least one country where the language you are learning is spoken. This is why every foreign languages department organizes Study Abroad programs for students. In the case of Spanish Majors, students have the option of going either to Spain or to Latin America.

Here is the problem, however. Latin American countries are very much behind even the US in terms of the rights of women. Like light-years behind. Intense harassment of women on a daily basis is rife. I first traveled to Cuba when I was 23 and even though I come from a country where men routinely beat women in the streets to huge popular acclaim and every other woman reports being raped, I was shocked at what I experienced in Cuba.

Of course, in the end, I’m glad that I’ve been to Cuba, Mexico and the DR and experienced Latin American machismo first hand. This gave me a profound understanding of the culture that I would have never acquired otherwise.

But here is the dilemma. Our female students – who are very sheltered by their life in small rural communities in the Midwest – go to Latin America on Study Abroad programs and return in a state of complete shock and panic. They even find endless cat-calling in the streets (and when I say endless, I mean it) to be very traumatizing, not to speak of more serious stuff. Of course, we warn them about machismo before they travel but this is not something you can even begin to imagine before you experience it.

Our students routinely complain that the Latin America they see on their trips is plagued with crime, violence, sexual harassment. But we can’t offer them a prettier Latin America because it does not exist. If we send them to programs where they spend all their time locked up with other US students to protect them from the contact with the non-cute Latin America, they complain they don’t get to have an authentic experience.

So what should we do? Cancel all Study Abroad trips to Latin America and send students exclusively to Spain? They insist they want to see Latin America, however, and then they come back angry. The only positive thing is that they now can express their grievances in very good Spanish because these trips improve their language skills dramatically.

I would still like to hear any suggestions if you have them.

Parents and Children: Towards a Healthy Relationship, Part II

Why does it happen that people who seem to be intended by nature to have profound, fulfilling, beautiful, supportive, mutually enriching relationships either destroy each other’s agency and identity (the enmeshment model) or destroy the relationship and closeness (the distancing model)?

The entire process of growing up consists of different stages of separation of a child from the parents. The very first such stage is the moment of birth when a child emerges from the mother’s body and becomes a person. The second stage is weaning from the mother’s breast. The third stage is taking a first step. And so on. All of these stages of separation have to happen at the right time in as non-traumatic manner as possible. To give an example, if you try to make the child walk at the age of 4 months, you will end up hurting the child. But if the kid still doesn’t try to walk at four years of age, that’s a huge problem, too.

Among all these stages of separation, there are two key ones.

Stage I happens in early childhood when a child first begins to realize that s/he is an individual, a person who is not part of the mother and the father, a separate human being. If a child is not allowed to complete this stage of separation unproblematically and in a timely manner, s/he and the parents will end up in an enmeshed relationship.

How do problems arise at this stage? When the parents refuse to accept that a child is a separate human being, with thoughts, dreams, ideas, opinions, desires, personal space, and needs of his or her own, the child fails to pass through the stage successfully and remains enmeshed with the parents. Such a child has no idea where his or her identity ends and the parents’ identities begin. The desire to manage every aspect of a child’s life creates big problems at this stage of development.

Now, for the distancing model. People blame its prevalence in North America on how mobile people are geographically and how often they end up living far away from their parents.

This is a very stupid explanation. People who want a relationship will have a relationship even if one of them emigrates to the Moon.

An example: My sister and I have lived in different countries for the past 10 years. This does not prevent us from having the most close, supportive, phenomenal relationship ever.  Distance has in no way prevented us from being a crucial part of each other’s lives. We discuss everything on the phone, holding long conferences every night during which we discuss how to raise her daughter, how to enrich my tenure dossier, how to solve issues with her employees and with my students. Or relationship is very healthy because there is no enmeshment (we have families, careers, friends, and hobbies of our own and respect each other’s personal space) but there is no distancing either.

Distancing is so ubiquitous in North America not because of people moving to another location but because of how the North American English-speaking cultures handle Stage II.

Stage II happens when a child comes of age and integrates him or herself into society as an independent, self-reliant participant who is fully prepared to assume all legal, financial and emotional responsibility for his or her actions. This is a hugely important moment, but the North American culture is as likely to fuck it up as my culture is ready to fuck up Stage I.

The healthy way of passing through that stage is a gradual one. There should be some rites of passage that accompany this important process. Instead, what people experience when they turn 18 is that they are expected to turn from dependent children into independent adults overnight, move away to college (or to a job), and figure life out completely on their own from there on.

Of course, most people do manage to figure their life out because by the age of 18 they have every capacity to do so. However, what they feel towards their parents is subconscious resentment for what they perceive as a betrayal. This feeling is similar to what children feel when parents teach them to swim by throwing them in the water and turning away. As a result, the relationship grows cold.

Parents and Children: Towards a Healthy Relationship, Part I

There are two prevailing models of relationships between parents and children that I have seen first in my own culture and then in North America.

The model of my culture is that of complete enmeshment. The North American model is that of extreme distancing. Here is what these models are like in practice:

A. Enmeshment. In this model, adult children’s only true partners in life are their parents. As a psychotherapist I know told me, “It is shocking how often Russian-speaking clients mention their mothers. It’s like they have no other issue, problem, or topic of conversation. You ask them about the weather, and they manage to find a way to bring the discussion back to their mothers.” These enmeshed relationships are always very intense. Parents and adult children engage in passionate fights, scenes of jealousy, constant bickering, endless criticism of each other, unceasing attempts to control each other’s lives. No other relationship can compete in importance and intensity.

The results of all this are quite sad. Here are some stories (completely real one, like all stories in this series of posts) illustrating where such enmeshed relationships lead in their more egregious manifestations.

Story 1. A 37-year-old man lives with his mother. Neither of them has any personal life or has had any romantic attachments for at least a decade. The man never managed to make more than a minimal kind of living. His mother pays the bills, cleans, cooks, and takes him out for walks. The man is in no way disabled, in case you are wondering. He spends all his time playing on a computer and fantasizing about a family he will one day build and a great career he will most certainly have.

Story 2. A 35-year-old woman lives with her parents. She has never in her life been on a date, even though she is strikingly beautiful. Her parents accompany her wherever she goes, so she never finds herself alone outside of the house. Hence, the absence of dates. These are not religious people, in case you are wondering. They have a shared budget, go on vacations together. The woman has no friends. She makes a decent salary and could easily afford to live alone. But it never even occurs to her because she would feel too unsafe and too lonely.

B. Distancing. The North American model (and please understand that I’m talking about broad trends. There are exceptions and overlaps in both cases) is the opposite extreme of the Russian-speaking enmeshment model. In it, adult children and their parents behave like complete strangers. They meet two or three times a year and speak on the phone maybe once a month out of the sense of obligation. There is no real closeness or communion between them. The happy feeling of “I just had this brilliant idea for an article let me call my mother” or “I’m not sure about this new hair-cut I got, I need to discuss it with my father” is unknown to them. Here are some stories illustrating this model:

Story 1. “I need to call my father,” a 40-year-old woman sighs. “I haven’t spoken to him in 6 months. And I haven’t seen him in. . . let me see. . . was it 18 months? Or more like two years? I’m not even sure.” This father didn’t abuse her or abandon her in childhood,  in case you are wondering. In fact, she doesn’t have a single complaint to make of him. He is a good, decent man who raised her, took good care of her, was always present, always attentive to her needs. But still, there is no relationship between them today and the lonely old man just sits there alone, away from his daughter.

Story 2. “My mother was an exceptional woman!” a man of about my age tells me. “She was a true intellectual and a phenomenal mother, too. I was very lucky to have her raise me.” “When did she pass away?” I ask with compassion. “Oh no, she’s alive,” the man explains. “But she lives on the West Coast, so we never get to see each other any more.”

You have to agree that something is deeply wrong with both models. In Model A, adult children are adults only in name. They never manage to grow up completely and form identities of their own. In Model B, this is not an issue but the absence of a profound relationship between parents and children is hardly something to celebrate. People in this model are emotionally and intellectually orphaned while their parents are still alive.

I have thought about all this long and hard, folks, and I have figured out what causes these two models to develop and, more importantly, how they can both be avoided in order to create a healthy, mutually enriching relationship between parents and their adult children.

[To be continued. . .]