Mothers, set your daughters free

First published in the Sunday Independent (April 17, 2016)
Good parenting is about equipping children with the confidence to eventually leave you; but some mothers just won’t let this happen, writes psychotherapist Gayle Williamson

“My boyfriend and I have been fighting a lot – we’ve never been away and he wants us to take a holiday together… But I won’t go. I just can’t.”

I was listening intently as my client began describing what had brought her to see me. “I can’t leave mam, you see. She’s so lonely and she relies on me… Even if I did go, I’d just feel guilty all the time.”

‘‘So your mum lives alone, Mary (not her real name)?’’ I asked.

“Well, no; but she and my dad don’t get on, they never have. So we’ve always been really close.”

The mum in question, you might be surprised to hear, was 58, in good health, worked part-time, had no money concerns and was still married to her husband. Yet somehow, she had managed to make her daughter so worried about her wellbeing that she couldn’t pursue her own life and love or even leave the country for a week.

It’s alarming how often I encounter this mother-daughter dynamic; where the daughter has been ‘taught’ to feel responsible for the mother’s happiness. Unfortunately, it’s usually just the daughters who show up in my consulting room, often suffering from anxiety, a lack of confidence and poor sense of self – along with crippling guilt whenever they take any steps to separate from their mother.

London psychologist Oliver James’s new book, Not In Your Genes – reported on in the Sunday Independent recently – comes down firmly on the side of nurture in the great nature/nurture debate, attributing mental health problems in young people to bad parenting and not genetic predisposition. James, author of the bestselling ‘They F*** You Up’, which described the failings of his own mother and father, has taken flak for ‘blaming’ parents. However, for James, it’s all about gaining more understanding and working towards solutions.

Like James, I don’t believe in blame as such. There are very human, often tragic, reasons why the mothers I speak of here have chosen not to fulfil their own lives and instead to look to their children to entertain them, comfort them, and make them feel worthwhile. It also goes without saying that parents have the toughest job in the world, that it’s impossible to get it all right. And frequently, of course, it is still the woman who does the lion’s share of parenting.

Unfortunately, however, it is simply a fact that some mothers don’t do such a good job. It might be helpful to detail what ‘the job’ actually is: in the earliest months of life, it’s all about meeting a child’s basic needs for sustenance and emotional attunement and regulation. As your child grows and makes their first moves at independence, it’s about being a consistent, supportive presence to which he or she can return. It’s about encouraging self-expression while providing appropriate discipline and boundaries; and allowing them to learn from trial and error. It’s about letting them be different from you. Ultimately, it’s about equipping them with the necessary skills and confidence to leave you.

But many mothers just won’t allow that separation to take place. The seeds of this squelching of autonomy were probably there from early on. A key time is perhaps when a child starts to walk, at around 10 months – when they can move out of their parent’s sphere of control and explore. Imagine if their adventures are encouraged – delighted in, even – versus the child who is all the time restrained, or met with anxiety or punishment. An anxious, overprotective mother will pass on a message of fear; the child will stay close and form an identity around her, rather than one developed out of interacting with his entire social environment. A depressed, unfulfilled mother will produce the same outcome: essentially, the child relies on mother for survival, so when there’s something obviously wrong with mother, the child worries for its very survival and focuses all its energies on her. And if you had to take care of someone who was actually meant to be your caretaker, you’ll grow up thinking other people’s feelings and problems are your responsibility to fix. There will have been the subtle transmission of messages like “Take care of others and don’t prioritise yourself – that’s selfish” or “Don’t grow and change or have fun (because then you might leave me).”

And then there’s the phenomenon of the daughter who, as a child, was emotionally abused and neglected by her mother but who as an adult will describe their relationship as ‘close’, and be fiercely loyal and protective of her mother. Last week, a 39-year-old mother was convicted in Galway of viciously assaulting, starving and neglecting her eight children. Fortunately, I haven’t come across such a severe case of child cruelty; but the cases I do deal with are disturbing enough – think Faye Dunaway as the crazy, abusive mother in the drama Mommie Dearest. I wouldn’t be surprised if the victims had cut off ties or at least distanced themselves from such mothers. But instead, what you often hear is a deep empathy with the mother’s life and feelings, a strong loyalty and defence of why she was the way she was, an ongoing sense of responsibility for her or a need to please her. What’s going on here? Essentially, a child’s response to a threatening or neglectful caregiving environment will be fear and rage – but of course, expressing any such extreme feelings is not an option. In the child’s fantasy, doing so could provoke retaliation or risk annihilation of her caretaker, such is the strength of the rage she experiences. So the child blocks out reality and turns the rage against herself. Fast-forward to adulthood, and you’ll meet a well-defended individual who as a way of denying or avoiding her own anger, and the pain of the rejection, hatred, sadness, craziness or coldness she experienced in childhood, has built an identity around caring for others. Or she may still be clinging to the hope of achieving the ideal relationship with the parent that never was by being the perfect, self-sacrificing, dutiful daughter. But it is in giving a voice to the anger that the possibility for redemption lies.

Of course, while I’m focusing here on daughters; it isn’t just daughters who get trapped in a symbiotic dynamic with their mother, it’s a thing I’d also see in sons who are only children. One client, Stephen (not his real name) recalled that his mother looked to him to meet all her needs, intimate and practical, when his father died when he was 10. She’d confide in him, share her sadness and regrets, expect him to go places with her and comfort her. “I essentially became her husband,” he told me. “You say I have a right now to go and live my own life, but it’s not so easy when I know just how lonely she is at home and how much she depends on me.”

There is no end to the reasons given as to why mother is the way she is and cannot change, from “But she has no friends, no one to talk to except me”; to “She can’t drive, so if it wasn’t for me and my car she wouldn’t be able to go anywhere” or even, ironically, “She had such a difficult childhood, she wasn’t looked after”. But what is forgotten is that the mothers, like all of us, have choice (and an existential responsibility to themselves): ie, they could choose, for example, to pursue activities where they could make friends; choose to leave an unhappy marriage; or learn how to drive. The mother of a good friend of mine learned to drive only a couple of years ago at the age of 90.

As I alluded to earlier, however, usually the mothers themselves are suffering from the very same lack of confidence or anxiety or depression or lack of identity that has brought their daughters to therapy. But then their choice is about whether to seek help or not; to burden their family with their unhappiness or not – and I would suggest that, as parents, they have a responsibility to step up. Show children by example how to look after yourself, manage your emotions and live a fulfilling life. Don’t put responsibility for your own happiness, your loveless marriage, your unfulfilled ambitions, your unhappy childhood or your lack of friends on to your child.

And most importantly, set your child free. As Stephen Johnson says in his fascinating exploration of personality disturbance, Character Styles, if you support your child to gradually separate from you, then you become less vital to her sense of identity; but if you don’t allow that, you ensure that your now adult child remains stuck at the emotional level of a very young child – not the ideal position from which to broach adult, autonomous life.

If this sounds like you, I appreciate this may have been uncomfortable reading. But we do need to speak about the role of parenting in mental health – instead of, as Oliver James says, passing the buck to the much more comfortable realms of psychiatric diagnoses and genetics – if we don’t want to keep raising a nation of adult children who feel unable to leave home.

Client confidentiality has been respected.
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