By Esther Mann, LCSW
I have three children: two boys, and a daughter in the middle. Maybe because my own relationship with my mother was never great, even as a kid I thought about the kind of mother I would be to my daughter. I dreamed about how close we would always be and the activities we would share. I hoped that we could feel like friends as well as like mother and daughter.
I encouraged Shana to stay connected to me from a young age. When away, she followed my instructions and phoned home constantly. When she went to camp, I wrote to her daily. My friends admired our close relationship. Even during Shana’s teenage years, which are often tumultuous for most girls that age, she remained close and would confide in me about her relationships with friends and everything else.
When Shana started dating, I would wait up for her after each date so we could review how it went. Her friends came second. This was flattering to me and I felt blessed. I couldn’t have asked for anything more from my one, precious daughter.
Shana got married about two years ago. She and her husband, Yitz, moved into an apartment that is about a 20-minute walk from our home. I was thrilled. It was great knowing that we could always see each other on Shabbos and holidays without a problem.
But there are many problems. First of all, Yitz is getting fed up with her. They’ve gone to his parents in Queens for a Shabbos only a handful of times. It’s not that Shana does not get along with her in-laws. She likes them just fine. But she has no desire to be away from me and my husband over Shabbos and certainly not for a yom tov. At first I didn’t realize how peculiar this was. But I’m finally seeing what is really going on here. She is just too attached to me. And it’s not fair to Yitz or his family.
Also, Yitz has complained to me about the fact that she doesn’t want to go to friends for a Shabbos lunch or have friends over, because Shabbos lunches are reserved for me and my husband. Because they are a young married couple with an infant, and most of their contemporaries are in the same boat, they don’t socialize Friday nights. Shabbos lunch is when it all happens. And Yitz feels that they are getting left out of the bonds that are being formed now among their peers. I’m sure they are. Shana is oblivious. Sometimes I think I’m her entire world.
Finally, now that all my children are out of the house, I’m beginning to want to enjoy a different kind of life. I’d like to have friends over for a Shabbos lunch meal and reconnect in a relaxing way without children and grandchildren around. And frankly, I think I would enjoy quiet Shabbosos alone with my husband, just the two of us. We enjoy each other’s company and I think this new chapter for us could be really nice. But the fact is that Shana and Yitz are over every Shabbos and I’m unable to realize either of these possibilities.
I used to think it was so nice that Shana called me four or five times a day. Just to chat, sometimes for a recipe, or to ask me where to buy something. Often, it seemed, for no reason at all. Now I have to be honest with myself and admit that I don’t want these constant calls. I don’t want to have to look at and approve or disapprove of every item of clothing or anything else she purchases. I’m starting to find the constant need for approval almost annoying. I can’t go for a walk with a friend in peace, without a call from Shana interrupting me. I can’t have a relaxing lunch with a friend without her calling me. Sometimes I’m tempted to get rid of my cell phone! Am I wrong and is it fair of me to feel this way so suddenly?
I know that I’m responsible for creating this situation. It’s what I thought I wanted all along. But I never anticipated the serious downsides to being thick as thieves.
It’s a funny thing. I don’t know what happened to make me start feeling this way. But my gut tells me that I need to start shaping my life differently and also that I’m not doing Shana any favors.
How do I extricate myself from my daughter so that we can still be close but both start to have lives of our own in addition to the life we share? I’m so worried about hurting her feelings. She is pretty sensitive and I can’t even imagine what I could possibly say that would get the message across without devastating her.
I also don’t want to damage the normal part of our relationship. What if she got so insulted, she stopped talking to me? I could never deal with that.
Is it too late to turn this thing around and create a whole new type of relationship with my daughter?
Dear Too Connected,
You know what they say—be careful what you wish for. Sometimes what we imagine to be ideal turns out to be anything but. Shana was a pleasure to raise. She was compliant and stuck with the program you created, which not all girls, teenagers, and young ladies are eager to do. And it served you both beautifully for many years.
But something is happening to you. Empty-nest syndrome (but in a good way)? Midlife crisis? Personal growth steering you toward the need for greater autonomy? Whatever the reason, you are a different woman today than you were even a year or two ago. You are seeing yourself and your life through a different lens and you realize that perhaps there is a more fulfilling way to live your life. You don’t want to discard the wonderful relationship that you have with your daughter, Shana, but rather to expand on it by adding other meaningful layers to your life.
You mentioned your desire to spend alone time with your husband. That’s such a wonderful thing and says much about your marriage. So many couples lose sight of who they are married to and sometimes lose the connection they initially had. One day they wake up and realize that they don’t even really know who their spouse is. And for some of these people, the thought of being alone with their spouse can feel frightening. Thank goodness you are excited by the idea of being alone with your husband and relish the opportunity of having private time together.
You mention friends. Walks, lunches, activities that may be something new for you. This is all good stuff. You should be allowed to focus on them without feeling too guilty to actually shut off your cell phone for an hour or so. How can you be totally present for your friends if one eye is constantly on your phone? It’s unfair to your friends and, frankly, unfair to you as well.
And how about just “being”? Enjoying time alone with yourself, without the need to grab a phone and check in with your daughter or accept her calls? Part of growing up is learning how to just be—to be able to feel safe and happy alone with oneself.
You are clearly feeling all of these longings. Not only is there nothing wrong with your desire to let go of the strings, but I commend you for it. However, where does your growth spurt leave your daughter? Obviously she has a lot of catching up to do, not to mention the fact that you trained her to be attached at the hip.
I don’t think you can sit Shana down and tell her point blank that there’s a new mom in town and this new mom has a whole new framework from which she wishes to operate. Too big, too much, too painful. She’ll wonder when the body snatchers arrived and question what they did with her real mother.
We are all products of conditioning. Shana has been conditioned to be extremely enmeshed with you. Which now more than ever is not at all helpful to her, her husband, or her growing family. It’s as good a time as any for her to be slowly reprogrammed, but through baby steps. I might begin with shutting off my cell phone while taking walks, eating out, and otherwise engaging in something meaningful to you. Many of us older folk lived without cell phones for most of our lives. A few hours off now and then won’t change the world. And when Shana asks you why she wasn’t able to get through to you, just casually tell her the truth, that you were out for a brisk walk and wanted to focus on it. Of course Shana will be surprised and confused, but she’ll deal with it and eventually get used to it.
And even if your cell phone isn’t turned off at certain times, that doesn’t mean you have to be a slave to it and answer it every time she calls. If you’ve already spoken several times that day and you feel there’s nothing else worth saying, you’re allowed to not answer the phone. If there’s G‑d forbid an emergency, she’ll leave a message. But an “emergency” shouldn’t be whether Shana should purchase the green towels or the yellow ones. It’s a good time for her to start learning how to make decisions on her own. You won’t always be around for her to check in with. (Maybe you’ll move to Florida someday.) It’s important that she develop the confidence to trust her own instincts.
Once Shana gets used to your not being at her beck and call, try making a dent with Shabbosos. With plenty of notice, tell Shana, matter-of-factly, that you’ve decided to have some friends over for lunch and you’re sorry you won’t be seeing her. She’ll be shocked and maybe even hurt, which isn’t the intention. But this may force her into doing the same thing. Ultimately, Shana will have to get used to the idea that despite the two of you being extremely close, you also have separate lives that require nurturing.
There are several silver linings here. Firstly, you won’t find yourself resenting anything about your relationship with Shana. It will be great. You will no longer feel as though she is keeping you from a fuller life. Secondly, Shana and her husband will begin to live fuller lives for themselves. And finally, Shana will learn how to stand on her own two feet, with the ability to finally trust her own instincts as opposed to relying on yours.
You can do this. I know that caring people like yourself often feel it’s not permissible to change the rules midstream. But nothing could be further from the truth. Life is all about change. What worked at one point of our lives may be the very worst thing at another stage. Or maybe we set things up initially with all the right intentions, only to ultimately discover that we were misguided. If that’s the case, accept responsibility for the mistake and work on getting it right.
Sounds as though you and Shana have a loving and special relationship, one that is strong enough to withstand a little tweaking. When you successfully revamp some of the boundaries, my guess is that you’ll find your relationship even stronger and better than ever, and certainly healthier and more mature.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.