When a baby is born the process of Separation/Individuation begins. First, baby and mother are one. Mother has the wish to love and protect her baby. She wants to keep her from physical and emotional harm. She bonds with her baby and these loving and protective feelings give mother pleasure as she enjoys the closeness and the wonderful feeling of oneness (symbiosis). Baby thrives with this oneness and is blissful. As baby grows and develops, the oneness will become twoness in which baby suffers the reality of a separate mother who no longer responds to every need. Mother also suffers from the loss of her own blissful feelings of oneness. Over time, as the child separates and individuates, both mother and child begin to experience the rewards of a mutual relationship between two different and separate individuals. When this process goes awry, the developing adult may find herself in conflict. She wants to be independent but also likes being taken care of. She may be concerned that asserting her individuality would result in her mother being hurt or upset. This may also lead to fear that mother’s love and approval could be jeopardized. These kinds of conflicts can interfere with the child’s becoming a person who feels she knows what she wants and how to get it.
The following is a conversation between mother and her nineteen year old daughter who is midway through her freshman year at college. The occasion for this conversation is that Ginny, the daughter, has decided to have a talk with her mother about their relationship. Ginny has been experiencing mom, who has always been very loving and responsive to Ginny, as too concerned about Ginny’s life. It has been hard for Ginny to talk with her mom about this because she doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. Mom calls Ginny every few days, emails her several times a day and worries about Ginny. She asks about how she is managing with her classes, her friends, her plans, her boyfriends. She asks Ginny if she needs to come home. Ginny realizes that although her mother wants to take care of her, Ginny ends up having to take care of her mother’s anxiety about Ginny’s life. She has to constantly reassure her mother that she is all right. Mom has always been very involved but now it has started to feel like too much to Ginny. So she has decided to have this conversation.
G: Mom. I’m really glad we are having this conversation today. You know, I think we have a really good relationship and I want to keep it that way. Lately, a few things have been bugging me and I thought it would be a good idea for us to talk about them.
M: I’m so glad you asked me to have this talk with you.
G: I have to tell you I’m a little nervous about this. I don’t want to hurt your feelings so I need you to be really clear about how much I love you and what a great mom you have been. I am becoming a grown up and we need to figure out a way that I can have a little more space from you right now.
M: Honey, you can have all the space you want. Tell me, how am I interfering? We don’t even live under the same roof now.
G; You see mom, now that I am almost 20 years old, I need to not tell you everything. I know you want to be involved, but when you ask me about boyfriends, or how things are going with my room- mate, I don’t always want to give you all the details. You seem so worried that everything in my life isn’t perfect. I feel like I can’t really tell you when something isn’t fine because you get so upset. But if I don’t tell you everything, I feel bad. Sometimes I even get annoyed with you.
M: I thought you sounded a little put out with me when we were talking about the hours your roommate was keeping. I was just concerned that she was interfering with your sleep and your studying. I had no idea that there was anything I did that bothered you.
G: You see mom, I need to work this out on my own. If I have a problem with my roommate, I need to feel like I have what it takes to deal with it myself. When you step up all the time to be helpful, I don’t get a chance to learn that I can help myself or know what to do or what I want. Sometimes I get so focused on making sure I’m not upsetting you, I don’t pay enough attention to myself.
M: I know I can get upset when I hear about things not going as well as I would like for you. It scares me to think that you might have a problem with your roommate and that you aren’t happy. I feel like it’s my job to make sure everything goes just right in your life. I feel like I’m not doing my job as a mother if you are unhappy. That is very upsetting to me.
G: I know mom. But I’m not a kid anymore. You’ve done a fine job, but now I need to see if I can handle these things for myself.
M: I remember when you were growing up and you were afraid to sleep by yourself at night. I would come in and stay with you. You seemed so happy to have me there. And I loved snuggling with you and making you feel safe. I still get that good feeling when I know I can jump in and solve a problem for you.
G: I know you do mom. And I remember how you would stay with me at night too. But sometimes when I think back on that time, I wonder if I didn’t call for you more than I had to. I think I knew how much you liked taking care of me that way. I felt that if I was scared, you would get scared too. That would scare me. I didn’t want you to feel scared. So I guess I was trying to take care of both of us.
M: I never realized that you were trying to take care of me. I guess I still get scared and worried when you tell me about a problem or I sense there is something wrong. I never thought of that before. It isn’t good for you to take care of me. I should be taking care of you.
G: No mom, you need to take care of me a little less and I have to be okay with your not always being comfortable with that. Maybe I have to take care of you a little less too.
M: I can’t promise I will stop being worried, but I do want you to not be responsible for making me feel okay if it means it is interfering with your being your own person. I guess I have to learn that you can take care of yourself and then I won’t have to worry so much. I think it’s hard to accept you might not need me the way you used to.
G: Mom, I can’t believe how much you just got what I was talking about. Are you really okay? I didn’t hurt your feelings?
M: Isn’t this where you are supposed to stop worrying so much about my feelings and recognize that what you just did by talking with me about this shows that you can take care of yourself?
G: I guess so mom, I just don’t want this to be so black and white. I still want you to be interested and involved in my life. And I will always care about how you feel. It just has to have balance.
M: Ginny, I am so proud to be your mom. It’s hard for me to think I haven’t been a perfect mother. I will try to be more aware of what I’m doing. We have to keep talking like this. I know we will have a better and stronger relationship if we do. Thank you for trusting that we could talk about this. I love you honey.
This conversation is imaginary. It is unlikely that these kinds of issues could be so quickly resolved. But although it is imaginary, the conversation illustrates real issues and dynamics that exist between many parents and children. It is frequently not so easy for parents to give up the pleasure of oneness. As long as the child continues to need the parent to manage her life, the parent can continue to feel the pleasure of this special connection.* Worry can give the message that the child is not okay on her own and that she must depend on the parent to help make everything all right. When the child believes this message, it gets in the way of developing self confidence, independence and a separate, unique self.
Having a conversation which addresses the conflict that many young adult children face – taking care of parent vs. taking care of self—takes a lot of courage. Not all parents will be so immediately responsive as Ginny’s mother was in the example. But with work, many parents and children can be helped to understand the impact they are having on each other. Engaging parents in this conversation can be the first step in the process of communicating that “I am a separate individual who still needs and loves you, but I need space to become the self confident adult you want me to be.”
*The pleasure from this connection and the need can also come from the child. It is often very hard for the child to separate and individuate out of fear they will have to give up the specialness and approval that comes with a more symbiotic relationship.
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