Necessary confrontations: Women's dilemmas exercising authority in the parental role

Laura Englander (1994)

The purpose of this study was to investigate women's perceptions of their internal experience as they grapple with the day-to-day tasks that require them to exercise authority with their children. Drawing on contemporary psychodynamic thought, self-in-relation theory, developmental psychology and the parenting literature, an original conceptualization of authority involving the domains of personal and parental authority was developed. Personal authority, or "authority of the self," was defined as the legitimate expression of self in the interpersonal setting. Parental authority, or "authority in role," was defined as the exercise of personal authority in the parent role. Parental authority was further conceptualized as a psychosocial task of the parent role that involves communicating values and expectations, and setting limits and consequences for the purpose of establishing, communicating and enforcing the rules and conventions of the family. Eleven mothers of children between the ages of five and seventeen were interviewed for one and one-half hours each. A semi-structured interview was used in which the goal was to gather data on women's perception of their internalized psychological experience before, during, and after situations in which they have had to exercise authority with their children. Interview questions focused on gathering anecdotal material that elicited the subject's thoughts and feelings about themselves and members of their family. Collected data were qualitatively analyzed and presented. The results illustrated ways in which the exercise of parental authority is a very complex and deeply personal process that involves the negotiation of specific tasks and dilemmas around the exercise of power and the capacity for mutuality. The exercise of parental authority was shown to stimulate a reconsideration of parents' pasts and offer a fertile context for the ongoing development of the parent. Object relations theory, specifically the ideas of Winnicott (1947, 1950, 1965, 1971, 1993), Scharf (1992), and Scharf and Scharf (1987), formed the basis of speculations regarding the unconscious dynamics involved in the necessary confrontations associated with the exercise of parental authority. Limitations of this study, as well as its implications for further research and clinical practice, were considered.