Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

Observations of a new parent (of twins!) : Seeing the triangles and managing my anxiety – Fiona Taylor

Since starting the Certificate Program at the Family Systems Institute, I have struggled to understand my own primary triangle- that is the triangle of relationships between me, my mother and my father, because such a critical person in this puzzle, my mother, had died when I was only six years old. The first, and probably the most important “exit” in my life. My sense was that our family has some predisposition towards managing the chronic anxiety in the system through child focus. As much as possible I want to minimise that focus so my children’s emotional  growth was not disadvantaged by my immaturity and the multi-generational transmission process. I have to admit, on the brink of parenthood, there’s a certain amount of pressure in studying Family Systems Theory to be more mature, manage one’s anxiety better and find some extra differentiation, … from somewhere, with the main goal of not messing up the kids. Yeah right! Try being mature on a recipe of clueless first time parents, sleep deprivation, crazy hormones, breastfeeding challenges and teeny tiny premature babies… times two! Maturity and working on being more differentiated didn’t really register on my radar… until I started back in the Certificate Program in August 2012. After approximately 12 months since my two beautiful boys were born 7 weeks early, I had some time to reflect on my and my families reactions to our two new additions. This blog includes my observations about triangles and managing anxiety at this nodal point in our lives when our two beautiful babies entered the world and our family. The following reflections are excerpts from my larger presentation I am doing for the FSI New Year Symposium. My full presentation will outline more of my observations about togetherness force and triangles in my family of origin.


Kerr and Bowen (p. 136): “In unusually quiet periods, a triangle may be so inactive that its basic relationship process es are not observable. In unusually chaotic periods, so many triangles are intensely active that it can be difficult to perceive any order in the process….Triangles are most easily observed during periods of moderate tension.”


I come from a peace-agree family and have found it difficult to “see” the typical triangles in our family because things are usually so calm. The birth of my boys really shook things up, creating quite a bit of acute anxiety and possibly triggering the chronic anxiety about loss. So it was interesting to observe the emotional process from the epicentre, where I felt I was piggy in the middle trying to manage other’s anxiety.


To give you some context – my identical twin boys were born 7 weeks early right before Christmas. I went to see the obstetrician for a check up and was admitted that day with pre-eclampsia. The boys were born the next day by caesarian section. I became even more unwell after they were born.


Seeing triangles at play:

Observing the triangles within my family of origin has been useful. (I will share more of this at the symposium) Additionally seeing the triangling process emerge in my new nuclear family, between me, my husband and two baby sons has been interesting.


With two babies, my husband was usually involved with them when he was home – we would have one each and in the pursuit of being “fair” we would alternate the babies for different activities – eg.  If I’d fed “A” his bedtime bottle I’d take “C” for his 10pm bottle. So, one day when A was sleeping longer because he was sick, my husband and I were both playing with C and it just felt so intense, this focus on one child. It made me realise how true it is that the more people in the system, the more the anxiety is shared. And instead of one triangle at play we suddenly have four. It made me wonder, does having twins protect them a bit from us parents having too strong a child focus?


1)    because I can see that they take it in turns to display difficult behavior so I don’t get too hung up on behavior I might have focused on if there was only one child, and

2)    because I have my hands full, I don’t have extra energy to devote to worrying or focusing on any particular child. It kind of forces me to respond to their reality needs, rather than responding based on anxiety.


That first year also reinforced how uncomfortable I am about being on the outside of any triangle. Logically I completely understand that when my husband comes home from work he is a novelty and has enormous energy for the boys, which they lap up. But initially I was taken aback at the strong emotional reaction of jealousy and hurt when they only had eyes for their dad, who I nicknamed “Rockstar Daddy”. This response was especially strong when the roles were reversed and the boys barely looked at me or showed any excitement when I came through the door after an afternoon at the FSI. What I realise now, is that this feeling is short lived.  I have become more comfortable about being on the outside when my husband is having fun with the boys, as logically I know this doesn’t threaten my relationship with them, it strengthens their relationship with their father and it frees me up to do things for myself. This is most noticeable to me after a long day with just me and the two boys, when it is a welcome relief to have the intensity of their focus shift from me to their dad.


Noticing my experience of anxiety during that first year and my efforts to manage it:


“ a stable twosome can be destabilised by the addition of a third (and I’m going to add ‘a fourth’)”

– Kerr and Bowen p 138. .


While it is usually a happy time, entrances, like exits, are typically full of anxiety. And the birth of our boys was no different. First, there was the anxiety about how we’d manage with two babies at once, then with them being premature there was the anxiety about their health and future, then there was the constant anxiety about having enough milk to breastfeed them, which I desperately wanted to do, there was the frequent crying (often in stereo) and the anxiety about what was the cause of the tears, then the massive adjustment to being a first time parent and not really knowing what to do. (All of these acute anxieties influencing the ebb and flow of internal resources available to manage relationship anxiety). I know that I am a pretty capable and organised person so I found I could manage most of those things if I had a plan, had contact with relevant professionals, and had the support of family and my husband. What I noticed, however, was that I became completely destabilised, with my anxiety spiking to uncomfortable levels, when my husband wasn’t coping and I know this was in response to the fear of losing him/ losing this relationship. Fear of him saying “this is too hard” and “I can’t cope” and leaving me with two children to raise alone. Having lived that experience as a child (even though mum didn’t choose to leave the family), part of me knows that it can be a reality, and this activated chronic anxiety about being left alone as a single parent.


Like I said, all of those other stressors I could deal with or find a solution to. On reflection, my anxiety was and is highest when my husband is upset: Upset with me, upset with the babies, upset with anything. I notice I take on responsibility for his upset and focus my energies toward reducing his upset in some way.


If he’s upset with the babies, I do this by stepping in and relieving him of whatever task he’s doing, or trying to make the situation easier on him – eg. If it’s dinner time, I’ll either take over the job or distract the boys so Rich can feed them, if they’re crying I either try to quiet them – dummy, cuddles, removing / giving a toy, or I try to explain to Rich why they are upset – they are hungry or tired.


When it’s upset to do with something other than us, I try to either be helpful (advice giving, problem solving) or if it’s something I can’t control (like getting stuck in traffic when we are late or he’s aggro at a bad driver) I try to let it wash over me. But I notice I do go quiet, so not to add to his upset.


When he’s upset with me – this I find the hardest. I’ll either be defensive (as I feel he is being critical when I’m trying my best – eg. Babies crying in the middle of the night) or I try to say sorry and make up as soon as possible. Sometimes I back down on what I want in order to smooth things over.


I know that these response comes from my sensitivity to disapproval when growing up, and as mentioned earlier my chronic anxiety about being left. I was very aware of my father’s moods after mum died and in order not to stress him more, me and my sisters were good girls and tried to be perfect so as not to add to Dad’s problems. We were also pretty bright and good at most things we did, probably because we didn’t continue with things we weren’t good at, so if we got something wrong or perceived criticism, we would become very upset. My husband is now the most important male figure in my life, and I can see I have brought these sensitivities with my father into our relationship. Fortunately, I think there has been some growth since I was a child, and I find I can talk to Rich on important issues with much less anxiety than I have talking to Dad about important issues.



The togetherness force is a natural process which is a very powerful mechanism, both protective and adaptive when activated in appropriate situations, as was our case – new parents with premature twins. Luckily for me very powerful.


I’m not sure I have grown in maturity during this process of becoming a new parent, but because that first year was filled with a higher level of chronic anxiety/ tension, I found I could more easily ‘see’ the patterns of emotional flow through the triangles in our family and ‘see’ the rescuer role I tend to jump into when I am in contact with my husband or my children’s upset.


Jenny Brown says in her book “Growing Yourself Up” (p18): “Learning how not to do for others what they can learn to do for themselves is one of the golden rules of adult maturity”. This is definitely going to be my biggest challenge in being a mature parent and partner. I know I need to ask myself “Is this something they can do for themselves?” before automatically jumping in to rescue or take responsibility for their upset. Of course, that is if I can think about it before responding automatically and jumping in.


Observations of a new parent (of twins)! is written by Fiona Taylor – presenter at our New Year Symposium & graduate of the FSI Certificate program.

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