When Mommy’s little girl grows up and goes off into the world to have her own life, struggles with issues of separation and difference may occur. Eye rolls, hugs, tugs-of-war, and tears are familiar to those who have witnessed or participated in mother-daughter relationships. Frequently, in this new phase of their relationship, mother and daughter are unprepared to deal with their differing needs for the amount, form, and content of contact. Moreover, the impact of physical separation between mother and daughter is affected by the degree to which each needs to feel connected, or to not feel rejected or disconnected.
When adult children desire to individuate and develop autonomy, they may struggle to trust their choices and may fear being unable to withstand mom’s influence. Often, to avoid feelings of criticism or incompetence, the daughter will pull away. (These may be the daughter’s feelings and may not reflect the reality that mom feels critical or entitled to continue her earlier, authoritative role.)
From early childhood, mothers and daughters tend to identify with each other. As the daughter moves into adulthood, both may have difficulty with the daughter’s developing an identity that differs from a past shared view of being alike. For some mothers, this can be experienced as a rejection of the mother’s character, worldview, values, opinions, etc. Daughters may have a similar experience. Although we typically think of the daughter needing to pull away from mom to individuate, some daughters who are ambivalent about developing a separate life and sense of self may find they are being pushed by a worried mom to do so. These mothers may try to influence what they see as necessary individuation by reducing the amount and nature of contact with their daughters.
When Daughter Wants More Contact
Maggie began therapy at the age of 26 when her mother told her she didn’t think it was good for them to speak every day. She said Maggie should talk to someone to help her feel more confident and self-assured. Maggie sounded irritated when she told me she didn’t really want to be in therapy:
“I don’t see why I need a therapist. My mother has always been the one in my life who’s made me feel good about myself. She reassures me. I know my biggest issue is I wish I had a boyfriend. I know mom thinks I’m smart and cute and there is no reason for me not to find a man. I’m not so optimistic. There’s something about me that I can’t seem to find a relationship that works. It’s true; I don’t feel so good about myself. But if Mom hasn’t succeeded in helping me, I don’t know what you can do.”
I asked Maggie why she thought her mother wanted her in therapy. Maggie began to cry and barely managed to speak:
“This has never happened before. I guess I’m upset with Mom. How can she do this to me? I tell Mom everything. I rely on her for everything. She’s always there for me. Lately, she’s been pulling back. I feel so rejected. I don’t know what’s going on. She tells me I need to learn to rely on myself and trust myself. How can I do that if she rejects me? Doesn’t she know I need her input? I feel so abandoned. How can therapy help me? I just need my mother back.”
When you are the same or one, the relationship is symbiotic, with no space between the two. When you are two separate, distinct people, there is a space within which each can attach to the other. That may be the best contact of all.
Maggie and her mother had rarely experienced conflict:
“I always felt we were on the same page about things. She had great ideas and I was happy to do what she suggested. I took up piano, which we both love, and went to her alma mater when I decided on a college. I enjoy making her happy. I always feel safe that she knows what’s right for me. Now she seems to be telling me that what’s right is to be more on my own, have my own ideas. I do have ideas. They just happen to be the same as her ideas. How would I know what other ideas to have?”
Maggie decided to work with me and see if I could help her sort out her feelings about being more separate from her mother. She is beginning to realize she felt good as long as she was living the life her mother valued. She hadn’t recognized that she was so used to looking to her mother for guidelines for living, she paid little or no attention to her own wishes and desires. In fact, when we started working together, Maggie had no concept of her own unique needs, separate from what her mother believed would be good for her. The notion of differences between them was not part of her thinking or feeling.
Maggie has begun to think about how her reliance on her mother has limited her by preventing her from developing herself through her relationship to the world. She is considering that her mother may believe she had interfered with Maggie’s ability to individuate and was pushing Maggie away not to reject her, but so she could develop her sense of self. The challenge for Maggie is to move beyond her mother’s wish for her to individuate, and choose to grow her own desires and develop the capacity to feel self-confident and derive self-esteem from a variety of experiences.
When Mother Wants More Contact
Susan was beside herself. Her 34-year-old daughter, Isabel, who lived in another state, just had her first baby and wanted Susan and her husband to wait a month before visiting their new grandson. Susan had been seeing me for three years when she came into her session overwhelmed with feelings:
“I can’t believe this. You know how I’ve been so excited about going to visit Isabel and the baby and helping out. I assumed she would need me as soon as the baby arrived. I know she can bristle when I give her my opinions or suggestions about things. But I figured she doesn’t know anything about babies, so this was going to be different. Finally, she would let me be a mother.”
I asked Susan why she thought Isabel wanted her to wait. Susan let out a huge sigh and responded:
“I guess I should have anticipated this. Since she left home for college, she’s been keeping me at a distance. When I worried about her in college, she would take forever to respond to my contacts. I remember explaining that it’s a mother’s job to be concerned and she told me it made her feel like I don’t think she can take care of herself and I need to stop. She was partly right. I still don’t think she knows how to be a mother to a newborn and should welcome my input. But I fooled myself about this. I suppose I need to feel like I’m valued as a mother, and I do get worried that she is too independent and will get herself into trouble.”
I reminded Susan that she has been talking with me for some time about how distressed she is about Isabel. When she first came to see me, she was overwhelmed with anxiety that Isabel was about to make a mistake and marry Jake. She was hurt and angry that she had been given no clue that the relationship had progressed to the point of engagement. I recalled that early in our work she had told me she didn’t know why Isabel kept her out of the loop on everything, and I reminded her that we have been looking at that question in our work. Then I asked, “What have you come to understand about this?”
Susan shook her head sadly. “I know, I know. Isabel has to live her own life. Jake turned out to be great. I have to remember that my anxiety about Isabel’s life is about my own needs to feel like a good mother. When she was younger, I felt we were two peas in a pod and I always knew exactly what was right for her. That made me feel like a good mom. Now, she has such a different life from mine that I don’t always know who she is or how to be her mom.”
I recognized how painful this was for Susan, who wanted to feel like a good mother and desirable grandmother. I thought it important to remind her that lately she has been doing a good job thinking about what Isabel wants and being less intrusive. I told her I knew it was difficult to wait for Isabel to ask her on rare occasions for advice. I also hypothesized that perhaps becoming a grandmother triggered her feelings of wanting to be a good mother/grandmother and she was reverting to old patterns of wanting to be involved on her terms, not Isabel’s.
Hopefully, Susan will have an opportunity when she visits Isabel to practice what is so difficult to do: not attempt to influence Isabel’s thoughts and feelings. She knows the more she can admire and recognize Isabel’s differences, the more likely Isabel will learn to see her as uncritical and not controlling. Susan is working on this.
When mom and her little girl spend their early years thinking of each other as the same, the daughter’s seeking to separate can become a painful process for both. If the daughter wants to remain the child and not venture into the grown-up world, the mother who sees this as problematic faces the dilemma of how to help launch her daughter without creating feelings of abandonment and rejection. When the mother finds separation painful, she has to learn how to give her daughter space so they can attach in a new way.
Mother and daughter ultimately have to understand that being separate and different, rather than the same and enmeshed, facilitates a stronger experience of attachment: When you are the same or one, the relationship is symbiotic, with no space between the two. When you are two separate, distinct people, there is a space within which each can attach to the other. That may be the best contact of all.
Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.
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