Last week, I shared a fairy tale which explored a parent child relationship in which the parents are ashamed or embarrassed by their child. There is a similar tale that explores this – and darker themes. A recently published book by Orna Dornath entitled Regretting Motherhood: A Study explores the difficult subject of mothers who regret having had children. You can read more about Dornath’s study in this short article.
Dornath is exploring maternal regret through the lens of sociology, and her work is an important contribution to a neglected subject. As a therapist, however, I am more interested in the experience of maternal regret from the point of view of the individual. What is it like to find that you regret being a mother? In my experience, mothers who have difficulty attaching to their children have often themselves experienced extreme stress or trauma.
One of the most unusual and oddly lyrical fairy tales in all of Grimms touches on this taboo subject of poor attachment between mother and child. The beginning of the story is of most interest to us. Text of the full story can be found here.
Once upon a time there was a peasant who had money and land enough, but as rich as he was, there was still something missing from his happiness: He had no children with his wife. Often when he went to the city with the other peasants, they would mock him and ask him why he had no children. He finally became angry, and when he returned home, he said, “I will have a child, even if it is a hedgehog.”
Then his wife had a baby, and the top half was a hedgehog and the bottom half a boy. When she saw the baby, she was horrified and said, “Now see what you have wished upon us!”
The man said, “It cannot be helped. The boy must be baptized, but we cannot ask anyone to be his godfather.”
The woman said, “And the only name that we can give him is Hans-My-Hedgehog.”
When he was baptized, the pastor said, “Because of his quills he cannot be given an ordinary bed.” So they put a little straw behind the stove and laid him in it. And he could not drink from his mother, for he would have stuck her with his quills. He lay there behind the stove for eight years, and his father grew tired of him, and thought, “if only he would die.” But he did not die, but just lay there.
Now it happened that there was a fair in the city, and the peasant wanted to go. He asked his wife what he should bring her.
“A little meat, some bread rolls, and things for the household,” she said. Then he asked the servant girl, and she wanted a pair of slippers and some fancy stockings.
Finally, he also said, “Hans-My-Hedgehog, what would you like?”
“Father,” he said, “bring me some bagpipes.”
When the peasant returned home he gave his wife what he had brought for her, meat and bread rolls. Then he gave the servant girl the slippers and fancy stockings. And finally he went behind the stove and gave Hans-My-Hedgehog the bagpipes.
When Hans-My-Hedgehog had them, he said, “Father, go to the blacksmith’s and have my cock-rooster shod, then I will ride away and never again come back.” The father was happy to get rid of him, so he had his rooster shod, and when it was done, Hans-My-Hedgehog climbed on it and rode away. He took pigs and donkeys with him, to tend in the forest.
Although the tale eventually ends, happily, I find that it contains some of the most heartbreaking images of any fairy tale. A hedgehog child is an eloquent metaphor for a child who is, for whatever reason, unlovable.
Wikipedia tells me that hedgehogs are spiny mammals. When threatened, they roll themselves into a tight ball, causing their spines to all point outwards. Certainly, there are children – and adults – who show similar psychological defenses, such as is the case for those with reactive attachment disorder. Because of profound early trauma, children with RAD may be difficult to comfort. They find it difficult to attach to a caregiver, or receive love.
Imagine trying to nurse or cuddle a hedgehog!
The image of child as hedgehog could also be an apt analogy for a poor temperamental fit between mother and baby. Researchers have noted that a baby’s temperament has a significant effect on the relationship between mother and child. Babies with difficult temperament may be hard to soothe, making parenting them more challenging and less rewarding. Some of that research can be seen here. It is instruction to compare and contrast the tale of The Little Singing Frog that we looked at last week with Hans-My-Hedgehog. Both animal offspring are redeemed in the end by a royal marriage and transformation to human form. The little frog’s redemption, loved as she is by her parents, is much less complicated and difficult than that of poor lonely Hans, who lives many years alone in the forest. This can indeed be the psychological experience of those whose parents were, for whatever reason, unable to love them.
The fairy tale is relatively silent on the subject of Hans’ mother and father. They want him dead. They want never to see him again. At the end of the tale, Hans finally reconciles with his father, who rejoices to learn of his son’s good fortune. By this time, the mother is not in the story at all.
I suspect that hers is a particularly difficult story to tell.