It is excruciating for therapists to watch the media circus and commentary on the case of the so-called Octo-Mom, knowing how painful is the internal life of someone so damaged and how empty and invisible a person has to feel to seek attention this avidly. In misguidedly seeking the spotlight, she has been the recipient of derision and contempt from the onlookers, as the average person is unaware of the dynamics that underlie her actions and therefore are understandably repelled by the distortion and self-absorption she exposes.
This drama is testimony to how when one feels this insignificant and unloved, any kind of attention is better than no attention at all. Children who bang their heads most vividly demonstrate how crucial attention is to survival, being willing to literally bash their skulls till they bleed in order to get that necessary and intensely-craved attention, of which they have otherwise been deprived.
The desire to have children for someone like Suleman is an attempt to fill her unmet need for love and attention, even though this makes no rational sense as children obviously need to have a parent who is capable of attending to them, not the reverse. We see this parent-child role reversal all too frequently played out with many teenage girls who get pregnant, their longing for acceptance displaced onto the child.
As with the cycle of child abuse, emotional neglect experienced early repeats itself unendingly from one generation to the next unless there is intervention and treatment, and unfortunately for Nadya Suleman and her 14 children, this did not happen at any point in her life. Instead, she has been enabled by her fertility doctor and the exploitative media to continue to avoid her core issues and re-enact her own deprivation, creating more victims.
Emotional neglect, like abuse, can come in many forms. It might be the lack of quality attention or loving support, the child may be subjected to unpredictable periods of emotional withdrawal by the parent or to lack of empathy by a parent who is narcissitic and self-absorbed,or it could be the opposite: a smothering, overindulgent parent who doesn’t set appropriate limits and allows the child to run the household, giving in to her whims and tantrums. Either of these situations is a form of emotional abandonment in which children do not get their needs met, and can lead to low self-esteem, difficulty with boundaries, and self-defeating behavior.
We therapists understand, however, that with the proper treatment she could have received the validation and support she so desperately needs, her early trauma could have been healed, and this tragic situation and its accompanying theatrics could likely have been prevented.