The Unlived Life of Parents

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”
– Carl Jung

“I remember so well the agony of being torn between my love and joy for my child, and my desperation to hang onto a sense of my self. There is something very seductive about being the mom of an infant. All those maternal hormones kick in, and often you literally ‘lose’ yourself in the wonderful, joyful bond with this tiny, perfect little human being. It has been equated with the same intensity of feeling as falling in love. I think it can be the greatest challenge of young motherhood to know when to take a step away from this primal bliss, and say, ‘Now, wait a minute, how do I structure time in my new life for my own personal growth?’ Knowing you are still a separate person, with her own likes, loves, and passions makes a huge difference to your development, and to the healthy development of the baby.”
– Elizabeth Carl-Stern (Jungian Psychotherapist)


Jung’s maxim about the unlived life of parents has been understood by psychotherapists to refer to parents who directly or indirectly pressure their children to succeed in those fields where the parents would have liked to have succeeded in life but did not. The father, say, may pressure his child to excel in football, because the father had tried and failed to do so as a teenager, or simply because the father admires the glamorous lifestyle of famous football players and dreams that his son will join their illustrious clan. The “unlived life of a parent” generally refers to the negative effect a parent’s unfulfilled life has on a child’s psychological make up.

There may be many causes for the unfulfilled life. Many people stop pursuing their highest aims or their ideal life sometime in mid-life: entangled in the struggles of everyday life, some end up moving along a tangent that steadily takes them further away from the main highway of their lives; others are unwilling to venture into the unknown; some are afraid to take the necessary risks that life may demand in order to reward one with self-fulfillment; still others simply postpone taking that difficult single step that would help materialize their dreams.

Since psychology has striven for decades to become an exact science based on observation, I will dare to venture into the field – apologies to the experts – by contributing my own observations and ideas, based on my travels around the world and my studies of many different cultures. Well, I have come to the conclusion that of all reasons leading to an unfulfilled life, the most common one to be found in all countries, all nations and societies, is related to parenthood itself: As soon as many people become parents, they cease to pursue their own life’s-path and concentrate exclusively on the lives of their children. Granted, a significant proportion of such parents may have already resigned from the task of pursuing their own aims in life before they decided to procreate – having children was just a way of creating meaning in a life that had already lost its bearings. I am not talking about these cases alone, but for all cases where the whole life of parents ends up revolving around their children’s lives in such a way that the parents’ fulfillment becomes secondary. In these cases, we may say that the parents’ lives are sacrificed on the altar of their children’s lives.

It turns out that parenthood is often both the cause and the effect of many unlived lives!

After parenthood many people cease to pursue their own development in order to supposedly cater to their children’s lives. Yet, the abandonment of a parent’s fulfillment in life has, as Jung says, a negative effect on their children. Paradoxically, the exclusive emphasis of parents on their children’s lives is one of the most detrimental elements of parenthood! As Elizabeth Carl-Stern’s quote above asserts, “taking a step back from the primal bliss” of parental love in order to continue one’s personal growth is probably the main challenge of parents.

But what is wrong, one may retort, with loving parents permitting their children’s lives to hold primacy over their own? Is not, after all, sacrificial love one of the highest virtues mankind has been honoring for millennia? And ought not parents put aside their own ambitions, dreams, and creativity, in order to assist the pursuits of their children?

The answer to these questions is not so simple, and we may need to take a circuitous path to tackle them. The first question encloses a hidden contradiction: If the parents’ main aim in life is to secure the highest they can envision for their children irrespective of what the parents’ lives end up being, and if in turn, their children’s lives are similarly directed to their own children’s lives, then we have an endless, infinite regress* of lives whose highest aim is always the fulfillment of the lives of “the next generation.” This is actually no different from the biological theory that the purpose of an organism’s life is procreation – the successful survival of one’s offspring for the continuation of the species is life’s purpose. But Man is not born as merely an animal. His life cannot easily be defined nor contained by his biological roots. Not to mention that this simple “biological purpose” is meaningless to Man: why should the species continue in the first place? For continuance’s sake? Furthermore, if the primary purpose of a human life were simply to procreate and assure the best possible life for one’s offspring, without regard to the parent’s life, then a parent would actually be failing his or her own parents whose aim was just that! By “passing on” the baton, so to speak, without themselves having run their part of life’s track (which their own parents had worked hard to prepare them to run!), the parents become engaged in a meaningless passing on of dreams and purposes and achievements they themselves have not striven to complete. There is a covert resignation from life itself when parents desert their own life in order to exclusively pursue the life of their children. In so doing, not only are they failing their own parents, but, as we will soon see, themselves, and most importantly, their own children. So, the simple answer to the first question is the following: if the primacy of one’s life is substituted by that of one’s child’s, an infinite regress is created that is both meaningless and self-defeating.

But what about the virtue of “sacrificial love”? Well, the simple answer to this is that one cannot love another unless one first loves oneself. Jesus’s saying, on which most of Christian ethics is based, is “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Jesus did not say “love thy neighbor as you love your child”! The love of “thyself” is the highest you can experience, and it is a prerequisite for the love of another. It is while one loves oneself that one loves another, too. Both are intertwined and both are necessary if love is to exist in the first place. And one need not “sacrifice” one’s life for the sake of sacrifice. There must be some reason. If you have to sacrifice your life to save your child or your beloved from mortal danger, that’s one thing; in these cases, the ideal of sacrificial love is relevant and applicable. But not fulfilling one’s highest aims or ideals in life is another thing: a pointless sacrifice that Life does not require of us – exceptions notwithstanding.

Concerning the third and most important question, “Why ought not parents put aside their own ambitions, dreams, and creativity, in order to pursue those of their children?” we may reply with the following: Parents who have not themselves striven to achieve their own life’s highest aims cannot easily guide their children to achieve theirs. First of all, if the parents have not led the life they are about to teach, how could they possibly have the skills to guide their child properly? Second, even if they do have the skills (say the father was a great football player in his youth!), they do not have the correct mental mindset, for they are indirectly seeking to fulfill their own unfulfilled lives through their child. Such a mindset is unhealthy, as many psychotherapists have been explaining for decades, and it often leads to obsessive behavior in the parent who wants to make sure the child succeeds in whatever field the parent has chosen. Third, if parents show through their own actions (and let us not forget that in parenthood, leading by example is crucial) that their primary concern in life is their children, they are basically teaching their children that nurturing their dreams must end when they one day will have kids! So they are, stealthily and unwittingly, working against the realization of their children’s dreams for which they supposedly put aside their own. Fourth, and most importantly, the whole idea of becoming completely involved in conceiving, planning, and then pursuing “an ideal path” for one’s child, which emanates from the parents’ life and understanding of life, is not in harmony with Life’s free-flowing energies, nor with man’s freedom in general. Kahlil Gibran, in one of the best ever poetic renderings of this idea, says:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

Parents cannot easily plan their children’s lives, for Life has other plans!

What is most amazing with Jung’s maxim is that, although it apparently seems to be an incitement to “less parenthood,” it paradoxically ends up being the deepest of all parental advice. A parent who has lived his or her life fully is obviously a better parent than someone whose main purpose in life was to be a good parent. For what are the skills, abilities, and experiences a good parent must have? In order to be a good guide to her children, the mother must have delved in as rich a life as possible, must have experienced the struggles and difficulties of a life-path that was in harmony with her highest aims. More importantly, she must continue to do so without pausing her life after she has become a mother. It is by and through experiencing the ascent towards what Jung calls individuation that parents reach their full potential and can therefore be better guides to their children. (Individuation is a psychological term for what Jungian psychologist Anthony Stevens calls “the process, simple or complex as the case may be, by which every living organism becomes what it was destined to become from the beginning.”)

The wisest and safest way for parents to know they are doing the best possible job as parents, is to feel good about themselves and continue to pursue the highest aims they had set for themselves before they became parents. Living the fulfilled life, becoming what one “was destined to become from the beginning,” is the best guiding principle for both one’s own life and that of one’s children.

*Infinite regress in philosophy is a proposed chain of causation in which each purported cause itself requires another event of exactly the same type to cause it ad infinitum.

© 2024 Nicos Hadjicostis