Daughters Growing Up, Mothers Growing Scared
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.
Weddings, and wedding planning, are ripe for seeds of conflict to bloom into family feuds. Details take on exaggerated, symbolic importance as family members jockey for position in the new family constellation. Quarrels over plans disguise deeper anxieties about loss, loyalties, boundaries, and autonomy. Especially for mothers and daughters for whom the wedding provides a stage for enacting these conflicts.
Difficulties with separation often are activated during developmental transitions such as the first day of kindergarten, adolescence, high school graduation, leaving home and finally, marriage. At these junctures, mothers need to step back and let go, allowing their children to mature and transition to the next level. When girls get married, the final stage of letting go in the mother-daughter relationship, mothers may hold on too tight in an effort to ward off anxiety associated with separation and loss.
Julia’s mother was traditional and wanted her daughter to have a traditional religious ceremony. But Julia recently had become an atheist, which mother took as a personal affront. Ironically, Julia chose to marry a man from a traditional background - filling her mother with hope. Her fiance seemed open to either lifestyle.
The blow came at the beginning of the wedding planning. Julia announced casually the type of wedding she had in mind - and there were no signs of anything traditional. She and mother became involved in a struggle, culminating in Sandra’s attempt to pull Julia’s fiance into the divide.
Not surprisingly, mother’s relationship with Julia began spiraling downward. As the distance between them increased, mother became peripheral in Julia’s life. At first mother was angry, but this turned to fear as she began experiencing the reality of losing her daughter.
This crisis was the impetus for mother to relinquish control and back off her position. After a few months, she tentatively eased back into Julia’s life - this time from a more neutral position. Relieved to be back in the fold, she was able to notice and make peace with differences between them, thereby making room for Julia. Interestingly, Julia ultimately decided to have a traditional ceremony - a decision she only divulged shortly before the wedding.
“Good enough mothering” involves a delicate dance of noticing and attuning to the child’s own rhythm, and adjusting one’s own rhythm to be in sync with the child’s need for closeness or distance, stimulation or retreat. Healthy attachment requires mothers to be secure enough to allow their children to differentiate from them without pulling them back in - or withdrawing - out of feeling rejected.
Psychological vulnerability is transmitted through an emotional landscape which requires children to detach from themselves and adapt to dynamics created by mothers’ needs. Unresolved issues from the mother’s own childhood, particularly around separation and loss, can impede their capacity to allow the attachment to be guided by the child’s needs and rhythms - and not their own. Children who demonstrate separation anxiety when starting school frequently have mothers with untreated separation anxiety. When the mother’s problem is treated, the child’s symptoms often disappear.
Julia fought for her autonomy rather than give in to her mother’s need to reaffirm their oneness as the wedding approached. In the absence of mother supporting this psychological transition and allowing Julia her own voice, Julia needed to sort out her own beliefs from those she may have taken on to please, or defy, her mother. She needed to test her own resolve and be willing to bear the risks this would incur.
Ultimately, Julia was released from the distraction of having to prove - or submerge - her sovereignty when mother gave up the need for Julia to accommodate her. From a position of choice vs. defense, Julia had the clarity to recognize that she genuinely shared certain values with her mother, which she had previously rejected and now could embrace as her own.
Julia and her mother did the groundwork of redefining the parameters of their relationship, accommodating Julia’s differences and allowing a more natural rhythm. The terms of their connection will continue to be tested over time, especially when Julia has children of her own, when similar themes will reemerge.