What “Hansel and Gretel” tells us about our Core Dreads—and how they affect our Parenting

June 24, 2009

Tree and RainIn further exploring fears in the service of better parenting, today we take a look at our two core human dreads:  abandonment and engulfment.  Although we reflexively tend to turn away from dark issues, this week is specifically all about our fears because when we are willing to deal with them our kids almost magically brighten.  Please read consciously in the service of your child, and track if it has any subtle effect on your kid.

All children suffer through oscillating fears of abandonment and engulfment, and these are particularly challenging during stages of significant transition:  becoming acclimated to life outside the womb (emerging from oneness into terrifying dependency); learning to walk (and thus walk away and risk becoming lost); and transition into adolescence (baby one moment, would-be grown-up the next).  A closer look at Hansel and Gretel may be useful to illustrate this dynamic as it contains both key dreads (as for insights into psychologically reading fairytales I must give nods to Bruno Bettelheim and Marie Louise Von Franz, both well-worth reading).

Hansel and Gretel have a weak father and a wicked stepmother who insists on abandoning them because of scarcity in the house (i.e. a child’s wish for freedom, morphs into the paranoid fear of abandonment at the hands of the “bad mother” who is split off from the “good mother” as the “step-mother”—wicked, of course).  The two sibs come to a gingerbread and candy house (in contrast to dad’s meager shack, this house is a symbol of a more abundant self, which they do not yet possess, and thus want to literally eat in order to incorporate it).  The witch, who wants to eat the children, is essentially a symbol of the devouring mother, and stands as a defense against the abandoning mother, as we prefer to be “wanted” even as dinner than to be utterly unwanted (this is similar to Max, in Where The Wild Things Are:  “I’ll eat you up I love you so.”).  The children must learn to work together to turn the tables, modeling the growth from complete self-focus to a more relational identity.  The witch ends up in the oven, implying that they turned her into food; and by not actually eating her, she becomes a sort of burnt offering, by which they gain their freedom (i.e. they burn away their own overly hungry aspects, and triumphantly survive being lost in the deep dark woods of the untamed and wild Self).

We all emerge from Oneness (perhaps transcendent, but at least maternal) and we subsequently spend much of our lives trying to be both our own unique and distinct Selves, and at the same time we forever yearn to return to the Oneness.  We oscillate between the two poles of isolation and merger and, if all goes well, we become solid enough to join with others, and with the group, without losing our selves in the bargain.

Our cultural and archetypal libraries are full of stories that illustrate these two poles.  Abandonment is a central theme in all orphan stories, from Moses, to Oedipus Rex, to Oliver Twist, to Babar, Bambi and Harry Potter.  One of the reasons we love orphan stories is that they show us an example of our worst fear, followed by survival and success.  We tend to find these stories comforting, whether we are six or sixty, and this underscores how universal our fears of abandonment are.  Grown-up versions of more existential abandonment can be found in 2001 A Space Odyssey (particularly in the image of an astronaut who’s umbilical cord of life-giving oxygen is cut and he drifts terrifyingly into space), The Sheltering Sky, and Into The Wild.  In these stories we are not so reassured that all will be okay, but we find something deeper in their dramatization of one of our deepest dreads.

On the other side of the spectrum, engulfment is typically symbolized by being swallowed up or eaten in stories such as Jonah and the Whale, Little Red Riding Hood, Where The Wild Things Are (also mentioned in last Monday’s post), and on to the grown-up versions such as Moby Dick, Jaws and Silence of Lambs.  One reason that we are fascinated by devouring monsters and cannibals is that we secretly long to merge with the “other,” and this is both desired at the same time forbidden (i.e. to return to the mother is incestuous; to merge with the other is to disappear ourselves).  This sheds light on why the French sometimes refer to sexual orgasm as “le petit mort” (the little death).

When we grown-ups have not been able to achieve a cohesive sense of self, generally related to an insecure attachment with our caregivers, we tend to oscillate, just like frightened children, in our own relationships—yearning for closeness until we have it, and then fleeing.  Eventually we are so lonely that we can’t stand it and come seeking closeness again, only to flee when we get close to the flame of being swallowed up.  This makes those who love us frustrated, hurt and confused; and those who fall for us in that state of constant oscillation typically have some parallel wounds of their own (i.e. the macho man who falls for the wounded bird, but can’t deal with her once she is no longer wounded and dependent).

So, if we hope to be our best Selves as parents, and to have nourishing relationships with other grown-ups, we are well served to deepen our understanding of the two dreads of abandonment and engulfment.  It may help to realize that all of us have these fears to some extent.  It may also help to strive to hold these two opposites at the same time:  we are all connected in the family of humanity and the oneness of nature and we are all unable, in some core place of our loneliness, to fully connect with, and be understood by, others; we touch upon it, but we always fall back.

When parenting, it helps to keep in mind that our kids oscillate in seeing us as abandoning and devouring.  They also swing between wanting, and fearing, their freedom and autonomy. 

Let’s dedicate today to integrating our two dreads, trying to simultaneously hold the ideas that while we are to some extent alone, we are also together; we are an inexorable part of many groups, and we are also unique individuals.  Although this may sound obvious, clarifying it for ourselves may help us, when our kids alternately suffocate us with their needs and give us the cold shoulder, remain steady in our patience, our abiding love and our loving limits (even if these provoke our children to see us as hungry witches and callous abandoners).

Namaste, Bruce