There is a term well recognized in psychological circles—replacement child. But when the author was a little girl, she knew nothing of such terminology; all she knew was that her mother suffered and that she was somehow the cause. During much of Jaffe’s childhood, her mother spent long hours in bed and wounded the author with an oft-repeated statement: “If Jeffery had lived, you wouldn’t have been born.” This ingrained in the little girl’s mind the sense that she was an accident—an accident that could never go away, that would continue to torment the mother she tried so hard to love. Surrounded by pictures of Jeffery who died at age two proudly held in the arms of the same mother who treated her so coldly, it wasn’t long before Jaffe developed feelings of inadequacy as well as eating disorders that plagued her all her life. Not only that, but she was unable to score well on testing, being left behind by peers who excelled, while her mother told her grimly to simply accept that “it’s better to be middle of the road.” Even when she made A’s in school, Jaffe felt that she was merely average. The basic message instilled in Jaffe’s young mind was that she and her mother did not really need one another, except in emergencies, and that, in general, she was a burden that had to be borne.
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Barbara Jaffe has delved into territory I had not heard of until I read her autobiographical account: The lifelong challenge of the Replacement Child, someone who is born not to be loved intrinsically and unconditionally but as a parent’s (or parents’) act of desperation in the aftermath of a lost child. Ms. Jaffe’s brother Jeffrey died as a toddler, and she grew up with the dark cloud of grief over her existence, especially her mother’s grief, over Jeffrey’s death. Rather than being celebrated for her own merits, Ms. Jaffe was taught—implicitly and explicitly—that she was put on this Earth to assuage her mother’s grief, that she could never really be good enough, and that she must show gratitude for her existence by letting her mother control her. At one point, her mother says, “If Jeffrey had lived, you wouldn’t have been born.”
This is the hell, I learned, of being a Replacement Child. But rather than emphasize self-pity, Ms. Jaffe dives into a courageous introspection to find what demons lurk inside her psyche. One of her biggest demons is her desire for approval: in the realm of looking beautiful, of success, or with a food obsession, in which we find food becomes a substitute for love and affection. Ms. Jaffe examines a bottomless pit of need that afflicts children who did not receive unconditional love. As psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson famously observed, children who don’t receive unconditional love fail to develop “basic trust.” In the absence of this trust is mistrust, anxiety, and depression.
Realizing that her life meaning is not surrendering to the despair of being a Replacement Child, Ms. Jaffe shows the reader how she navigated a path into helping others with her teaching. She utilized Viktor Frankl’s profound insights in his memoir Man’s Search for Meaning: She realized there was nothing she could do about her past; all she could do was salvage her life by finding meaning in her personal afflictions by helping others through teaching and mentoring. This book, too, is a sort of outreach, a glimpse of wisdom for other children who feel like replacements, misfits, and freaks, and who seek to feel loved. Perhaps we learn, through Ms. Jaffe’s wise and compassionate book, by growing up and showing compassion to others we sometimes become the real parents to ourselves that we never had.
M. Jeffrey McMahon
This is an intensely personal story that will speak to replacement children and anyone raised knowing that they were somehow deemed inferior to their siblings. Dr. Jaffe reveals the struggle many of us face to navigate the world authentically and does so in beautiful prose that is quote worthy.
Steven Funk, Ed.D.
I found Barbara Jaffe’s telling of her experiences in childhood, the effect those had on her development as an adult, and how she grew through an honest exploration of the choices she made to be truly inspiring. It’s rare to read a memoir where the author has the courage to not only see what happened in childhood but then to own their contribution as an adult as well and sub-sequentially transform themselves through a journey of deep self-reflection. Barbara inspires us all by openly and bravely sharing her journey with the world. That takes true courage! As Brene Brown said, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”