Angel Soft toilet tissue has posted an interesting and provocative ad for this Father’s Day. The short video features adult men and women thanking their single mothers for fulfilling the role of mother and father. The ad ends by wishing all the mothers a Happy Father’s Day.
The sentiment is sweet; grown children acknowledging the difficulty of solo parenting by mothers, and is clearly designed to bring a tear to the eye of the viewer. However, and perhaps predictably, the ad has turned out to be something of a lightning rod for controversy. And not just because Angel Soft failed (intentionally or not) to balance the scales by wishing single dads a Happy Mother’s Day last month, or because they didn’t wish dads a Happy Father’s Day at all.
“Mothers can NEVER be fathers and fathers can never be mothers,” says Clayton Craddock in his blog The SoCraddock Method.
Some of the comments posted on the internet are too inflammatory to be referenced here. The gist of many of them seems to be that women and men bring separate but equal value to the table (with the scales leaning toward the higher value of a strong father figure for African American males) and that holidays celebrating mothers and fathers should remain separate but equal. There are also articles expressing the opinion that the ad is an assault on the traditional family unit.
From a Family Systems Theory perspective, any debate about the relative importance of mothers versus fathers, or even single versus two-parent families, obfuscates the universal dynamics underlying all human families.
Murray Bowen was a Psychiatrist who started studying families in the 1950s. Through careful observation of clinical families throughout his career, he developed his Family Systems Theory. This theory goes way beyond culturally based norms for male or female behavior and the nuclear family structure. Family Systems Theory describes what is common to all human beings.
What the Angel Soft ad does well, if indirectly, is highlight the need for a certain level of flexibility in the family. From diagnosing car trouble to teaching sons how to throw a punch, single moms develop skills beyond the traditional female behavioral repertoire. The ability to demonstrate that level of healthy adaptability is a hallmark of a successful family, (Bowen, 1978).
How a family adapts to having one parent in the home is of far more significance than the fact of having one parent in the home, or the gender of that parent.
In the Angel Soft ad one of the grown children goes out of his way to stress the point that after his father died, mother…”raised us completely by herself.” It is doubtful this would be true. In fact, part of the success of the human species can be attributed to the ability of people to modify the family structure when necessary. Few so-called “traditional” families exist in complete isolation from extended family, and those that do are often more stressed. The number is even lower for single parent families. Extended family is an essential resource (and maybe should get its own holiday; Extended Family Day).
Adapting to Change
Individuals and families vary in their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. A family’s ability to adapt successfully; that is, with a lower degree of symptoms or life problems developing over time, depends on multiple factors including economics, cultural norms, and the political environment. Family Systems Theory describes the factors that Bowen believed are universal for the human species.
One factor that influences all others is Differentiation of Self. Differentiation of Self is a quality observed by Bowen that describes the ability of the individual to separate thinking from feeling. Bowen thought of emotions as being the sum of all the automatic processes that are involved in keeping an organism alive. Feelings are subjective, automatic and partially conscious reactions that come out of these emotional processes. The emotional processes are increasingly complex moving from single-celled organisms up to animals with more well developed intellectual, or thinking centers, that are integrated into the emotional being. Humans are thought to have the most highly developed intellectual capacities of any animal. Yet humans vary in their ability to access the intellect, particularly when under stress. In other words, when the individual is anxious and its biochemical fight/flight/freeze mechanisms are activated, thinking in the face of intense emotional activity becomes more of a challenge. Automatic feeling-based behavior can easily take over (think stampeding out of a burning building, or screaming at a beloved child who’s narrowly missed getting hit by a car).
Family members have strong, biologic emotional connections to one another. This means that when one member of a family is under stress, everyone is equally likely to be under stress, even when they don’t realize it. Therefore, the entire family may struggle to think clearly during times of heightened stress or anxiety. Stress may occur as a result of a discrete incident like an illness or accident and be fairly easily resolved, or it may last over long periods of time-even generations-so that it becomes a chronic underlying issue for the family. Some individuals, and some families, do a better job of maintaining their ability to think productively and creatively under duress. Generally speaking, families with the best life adjustment may have members with slightly higher levels of Differentiation of Self.
The most challenging aspect to understand about this concept is that Differentiation of Self is not the same as healthy or unhealthy, or functional or dysfunctional. During times of low stress a family with a lower level of Differentiation of Self can function quite well, and during times of heightened anxiety, even a family with a relatively high level of DOS may develop symptoms. It’s not about judging people, or diagnosing them. It’s simply about describing and accounting for variations in peoples’ ability to adapt to their life circumstances.
One’s level of Differentiation of Self is largely inherited, although people can choose to work on strengthening their ability to think through the dilemmas life hands them.
Ability to Adjust and Adapt is Key
Rather than judging a family as good or bad according to a cultural ideal of what a family should look like, Family Systems Theory considers the functioning of the family, as a whole and over time. The Angel Soft ad, whatever its weaknesses, does a good job of highlighting that any family has the potential to be successful, as measured by the life adjustment of its members. Differentiation of Self is a concept that helps us to understand how this happens. Moms don’t necessarily have to act like Dads but the ability to adjust and adapt to changing life circumstances is one that has served the human species well over time.
Angel Soft and their horrible advertisement about celebrating mothers on Father’s Day, Craddock, C, http://www.socraddockmethod.com/angel-soft-and-their-horrible-advertisement-about-celebrating-mothers-on-fathers-day/, June 17, 2015
Bowen, M. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson, Oxford, UK, 1978