By Esther Mann, LCSW
I am the mother of two sons and two daughters. If you asked most people to describe me, the label “Chatty Cathy” might come to mind. I like to talk. I like people. I’m very social. I care about what people think and have to say. And I like to share my feelings and thoughts. It’s great. It makes for wonderful, satisfying relationships.
Three of my children are also personable and interact well with others, but I guess what’s most important to me is that they interact well with me. We talk on the phone, we talk in person. We talk! It’s wonderful and I feel blessed to have such nice adult children to connect with.
I’m writing to you because of my youngest daughter, whom I’ll call Caren. She’s a good person. I know that her heart is in the right place and that on a practical level she is there for her family and friends. She’ll run to do favors, try to find solutions for people’s problems, and is definitely appreciated for her great qualities. The problem is that she isn’t a schmoozer. You just can’t sit and shoot the breeze with her. When she has to tell me something, let’s say about what time she’s calling a dinner for, the entire conversation will take about three seconds. It will sound something like this, “Hi, Mom. So I’m calling the dinner for 6 o’clock. Can you pick up some dessert? Thanks, see you then.” Not even “How are you?” No small talk.
It’s even worse when I go to her home for a visit. She can busy herself with all sorts of things, including reading a book. I don’t believe she acts this way to hurt me on purpose. I think she just doesn’t get the “social” thing. I sometimes wonder how she even has any friends. (And she does have some friends.) So I don’t understand how that works. Though I’ve been hurt, disappointed, and saddened time and time again, it never ceases to amaze me and hurt me all over again the next time it happens.
After a recent encounter (or lack thereof), when I was feeling particularly abused, I decided to not call her for several days. The crazy thing is that I don’t think she even realized anything was wrong or that I had been avoiding her. It goes totally unnoticed. When I finally picked up the phone and called Caren, she sounded as though she had no clue that I hadn’t been talking to her for several days. It’s crazy.
Even though I’m with Caren often enough, I feel as though I miss her. Like I don’t get enough of her and she isn’t the child she was supposed to be in this regard. If I’m being honest, I would have to say that I hate the fact that she’s not like me and my other children. I feel embarrassed that I somehow raised such a child, and embarrassed over what people might be saying about her and therefore how it reflects on me.
What does a mother do with a child like Caren? How can I fix her? Change her? Help her to realize that it’s not OK to be unsocial? Why can’t she just be like the rest of us regular folks, who enjoy the easy banter between people who love and care about one another?
By the way, you should know that Caren is in her mid-thirties. So it’s not like we’re talking about a spaced-out kid or sulking teenager. She’s an accomplished adult who still is capable of making me feel so devastated when she tunes me out, which is most of the time.
What can I do?
You are clearly disappointed in the way that Caren has turned out—at least in regard to her social skills. I understand that you love her and care deeply about her, but you just don’t find her enjoyable to be around. She doesn’t seem to be able to or want to give you what you seem to need so desperately. And maybe most important to you, she is a source of embarrassment, since you feel her behavior reflects directly on you.
You are hoping that I can give you some helpful hints regarding how you can mold Caren into the exact person you would like her to be. If only life were so easy. But maybe if life were that easy, the downside could be devastating. Are we really supposed to mold others? Surely, when our children are young, we try our hardest to instill in them our values and belief systems, in an attempt to raise lovely people who can someday go out on their own and live wonderful lives. But do we really have a right to expect our children to mirror our very personalities? Why is that even necessary? Shouldn’t we all be able to see our children as individuals, with their own strengths and weaknesses, separate and unique unto themselves and certainly worthy of our love and respect?
The real question is, why has constructing a new and improved Caren become so vitally important to you? Of course it would be nice to schmooze with her the way you do with your other children and your friends, but it’s not like you are starving for conversation. There’s got to be more to it.
Let’s explore some possibilities. You mention that you find Caren’s behavior embarrassing to you. Does it actually make you feel “less than” as a mother and a human being, because you weren’t successful in cloning yourself through your children? That’s an extreme characterization, but it speaks to the fact that many parents, believe it or not, do feel this way. That any character flaw that their children possess (or at least what in their perception is a character flaw) reflects poorly on their own image and makes them feel as though they themselves are failures.
As I’m writing this, it sounds convoluted even to me, but this dynamic happens all the time. Parents worrying about being judged because their children aren’t perfect. Surely as parents we all deserve to be viewed in a more compassionate and loving way. At this point, it might make sense for you to ask yourself how you view your friends who struggle with less-than-perfect children. Do you find yourself judging them harshly—or loving them even more because of their challenge? If, however, you judge others by the hardships they go through with their children, this should serve as a learning opportunity for you to grow into a kinder, more evolved individual.
Maybe you are bothered by Caren’s quieter nature because you feel she can’t possibly be happy, since she doesn’t get the fulfillment you get from chatting up others. If that is part of what prompted you to write in, let me just say that it’s important to recognize that we are all different. We all need and want different things from our relationships and our lives. Why would you assume that what works for you should work for your daughter? Could there even be a touch of arrogance in such an assumption?
Do Caren’s silences make you feel uncomfortable? Do you need constant chatter to feel relaxed, soothed, maybe even alive? You have an opportunity here to work on being OK with silence. That is an excellent goal to work toward. Sometimes it means learning how to be OK with only yourself and how to not only tolerate silence but to even occasionally embrace it.
Maybe Caren’s silences make you feel unloved. Could that be part of it? If so, try to think about the ways in which Caren is able to show love. You mentioned that she is always quick to show up and help others. Some people show love with words and some through their thoughtful deeds. Neither one is more valuable than the other. They are just different ways of showing that one cares.
I could go on and on with my theories. Some of them may tap into what is really bothering you about Caren and some may not feel relevant in the least. What really matters is the notion of acceptance. Caren sounds like a wonderful young woman who approaches life differently from you. Hopefully, it’s working for her and she’s comfortable and happy in her silence. It doesn’t sound as though she’s told you otherwise.
Your work is to accept Caren fully, love her unconditionally, and recognize that your children don’t have to behave like you in order for you to feel comfortable around them and for you to embrace them fully. It’s time for you to surrender your ideas of control, your belief that you even have the power to change Caren’s behavior. For better or for worse, control over our adult children is an illusion. In a healthy relationship, we shouldn’t want it, have it, or need it.
I’m hoping you can try being with Caren in a whole new way. Lose the expectations and disappointments, and learn to appreciate her in a different but meaningful new way that may even surprise you with fresh and satisfying experiences.
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.