When Will I Be Good Enough? A Replacement Child's Journey to Healing
by Barbara Jaffe
Lisa Hagan Books

"Today, I accept that my intense love for my mother was not reciprocated in a language that I understood—in words or hugs or open doors."

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.

Jaffe went to a college away from home, met a man she loved, married, and had three boys, maintaining her relationship with her mother all the while. She eventually became a success, even in her own eyes, teaching English. But those years were still fraught with echoes of her upbringing. She felt inadequate as a mother, as unsure how to treat a peaceful baby as to take care of a colicky one; and in her academic life, her overbearing need to go be the best at her work became a deficit among colleagues who were not so keen to go that extra mile.

Writing sensitively about a traumatic subject, the author has composed a cathartic recollection that can serve as a guide for those suffering similar circumstances. She writes with emotional intensity, examining in often painful detail what it was like to be the less-than-welcome replacement for a deceased sibling. She vividly describes her bouts with anorexia and her lingering obsession with calorie counting. Despite her sense of desperation at never quite measuring up to the absurdly high standards she set for herself because of her mother’s rejection, she has sufficiently grown enough through these harrowing experiences to be able to advise others.

While pursuing her Ph.D.—in another attempt to prove her worthiness—she happily realized she had an undeniable gift for prose composition. That gift is immediately evident in the skillful organization of this combined memoir and psychological self-help manual. In the second half of the book, she sums up her victories, congratulates herself for her own considerable accomplishments, forgives her mother for her failures, and offers comforting suggestions to her readers. This section is incredibly useful and includes questions to ask oneself about unmet needs and unreasonable expectations. She concludes with a helpful list of further resources and the wish that her personal story may provide lessons to others.

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