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Psychology of Supernatural: Family and a Mother's Love

November 6, 2016
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*You are reading a review of a psychological theme in Season 12 that has major Spoilers up through episode 3. You have been warned!*

The overarching theme of family is evident from the moment any person first watches Supernatural. It is present, front and center, in almost any episode, mainly because the lead characters are brothers. I believe this is a big reason the series is so popular twelve years in. My own family dynamics are a big reason why I feel drawn to this series: much like Dean, I was responsible for caring for my little brother most of the time, and my father was also absent from my life by choice (though, no, he wasn't looking to avenge his wife being murdered by a demon :P).

The older sibling-younger sibling relationship and the fact that Dean has had to assume many responsibilities from a young age is only one aspect of the family theme. The role of fathers is another (read about both aspects here). This season, (season 12!) we are presented with another family dynamic we had never fully explored in Supernatural: mother and child. 

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A Mother's Presence

Most people have a pretty good idea of the impact of a mother in a child’s life. A mother’s love is crucial in creating a sense of safety from the moment of birth and throughout the formative years. A mother’s rejection can create a sense of not being good enough, not lovable, not worthy, or worse. A mother’s love can instill positive attitudes about oneself, a sense of self efficacy, while a mother’s rejection can place a child at risk for behaviors that may get them in trouble later in life. A mother does not have to be perfect (there is no such thing), but "good enough." And the presence of a "good enough" mother can adequately prepare a child for life's challenges, as they have internalized her positive regard and love. 

In real life, nobody has the opportunity to get their mother back years after their death, but the reappearance of a mother after a long absence can have a strong impact. When a mother reappears in a child’s life it can answer many questions. When her presence is consistent, even if she does not live with the child, it can provide a sense of stability. When the child is an adult, they can reach a totally different level of understanding of their parent’s absence, and perhaps reach forgiveness. 

Of course, Mary Winchester was neither absent by choice nor did she return by choice. Her return has a significant impact on both Sam and Dean, although in different ways. 

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Dean's Experience of His Mother

Dean actually had a relationship with his mother for the first several years of his life. Dean had a mother who loved him, cared for him, fed him pie, and gave him hugs. She met his needs. She provided comfort. Although she was taken from him at a young age, he had her for those crucial first years. He was able to go through toddlerhood with his mom and dad, he had the experience of individuating from his mother at his own pace (realizing he is a different entity altogether-usually happens when the child is super young), he learned to speak, and probably learned his ABC’s and 1-10 with his mother’s help. She was present to help set him up for later childhood.

Dean internalized the message at an early age that he was loved and important. It was also pretty engraved in him that family is important. His mother did not leave him because she wanted to, and by extension his father did not make that choice either, but was driven to avenge his wife's death. Although John may have been absent a lot, Dean believed in his heart that there was an external reason for this. So then, perhaps in Dean's point of view, neither parent chose to leave him.

From early on, he had the experience of feeling what having a nuclear family was like. He had stability. The sudden stripping of this then sends him on his life mission. But I believe that those early experiences may have played a role in whatever gives him the strength to later on take on the roles that are imposed on him by his dad, including being a ‘parent’ and being a hunter. 

{Random thought: *I imagine a 4-year-old Dean immersing himself in taking care of baby Sam, giving him his bottle when he cried, carrying him as best as he can, redirecting the pain from the loss of his mother into caring for Sammy. Maybe this is one reason why Dean presents with a strong persona, not spending too much time talking about feelings. He has learned to push them down. For survival reasons.*}

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"Sammy" and His Big Brother

Sam’s experience was totally different, because he truly had neither parent. His mother died when he was a baby. Not to say that this wasn't traumatic; in some ways this is more traumatic. John's pain and narrow focus on hunting made him an emotionally distant and often physically absent father. For children whose parents are absent, life can feel pretty unstable and unpredictable. Their emotional needs are not met as they should be. There’s no grounding force, no real nurture. Sam never had a sense of “normal”, never had a 'home,' no stable family.

Fortunately for Sam, Dean was there trying his best to fill that role. Dean was a big protective factor, and Sam eventually found comfort in school as well. His role models, besides his big brother, were his teachers. 

Older siblings are usually looked up to as role models, and can be those to talk to about things you may not want to talk to your parents about because they’re closer to you in age. We may feel protected by our older siblings, so that if we are picked on at school we have someone to tell. Having a cool older sibling can even be a school status influencer. Older siblings may introduce us to aspects of growing up that parents don’t, won’t, or can’t. They may even show us how to get away with things!

Because John was absent much of the time, and because John and Sam seem to have had a strained relationship, the most stable relationship that Sam had was really with his brother. Even though being his ‘parent’ was not the healthiest for Dean, for Sam it may have been his saving grace. He had that one constant in his life. He didn't know anything else. His entire experience of his family was his older brother.

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A Mother's Abandonment... ?

Dean and Sam have different ways of approaching their mother's return. For both, it was a moment of incredible happiness. But for Dean it really was a return of someone he had before, whereas for Sam it was the real first time he ever met his mother (besides the time traveling). He doesn't have anything else to compare it to, and he didn't really have the family that Dean had. 

The important piece here is that Dean has known the loss of his family, in that he had them and then he lost them, in many ways in the same night. Sam didn't really know family in the same way. His mother's sudden return is not to be minimized at all, but Sam never really knew what it was like to have her, making her sudden presence an amazing, but extra, event in his life. 

So, when Mary expresses that she needs space, Sam is willing to accept this, because he was ready to accept her fully to begin with. Dean remembers what it was like to have a mother, whether his memory is accurate or not, and her choice to leave does not fit into his conceptualization of his mother or what his family would be like now that she is back. Because she does not behave according to his idea of her, and because he has known and grieved her loss before, Dean feels betrayed, and perhaps abandoned. Because, as opposed to the first time, Mary is now making the choice to leave. 

We are only a few episodes into season 12, so we have a lot more to go. I am looking forward to see how the Winchester family is put back together, if they are. What do you think? 

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