By Esther Mann, LCSW
I’m writing to you regarding my daughter, who is married with five children. I’m very concerned about her situation and don’t know if there is anything I can do to change things.
“Malka” has always been a high-strung girl. At least that’s what we called it years ago, before the term “anxiety” became so popular. Now everyone has anxiety. But Malka really has a lot of it. She doesn’t cope well. When life becomes overwhelming, she removes herself. Tunes out. Turns off.
And her life becomes overwhelming often. In addition to having five children, she works and is constantly busy with community projects, sewing projects, redecorating projects, you name it. When she tunes out, there’s no one left minding the store. Her husband has to miss work, I’m called upon to pitch in—even though I have a full-time job—and even her children take up the slack, handling cooking, cleaning, and watching the baby. And the oldest is all of 11 years old!
The situation makes me sick. It wasn’t my place to suggest that maybe she wasn’t capable of raising five children, though each time I learned that she was pregnant, I cringed. Each pregnancy left her on bed rest for several months and everyone else’s life subsequently turned upside down. After each pregnancy she would suffer from postpartum depression for a while, and was again “unavailable” as a mother and wife. The lunacy of repeating this process again and again made me crazy. But I bit my tongue, pitched in as much as I could, hoping that I wouldn’t get fired from my job and praying that it would be her last pregnancy.
Recently she took on the job of heading up a major school event. She is already a nervous wreck, barking at everyone, staying out of the house constantly to get together with her friends in order to work on it, and leaving her children to fend for themselves.
This was not how I raised her and her two brothers. I was always around, always available, and never made them do more than a child should be required to do. She experienced a totally hands-on mother. So where is this behavior coming from?
By the way, money is very tight for them. How successful could her husband ever become if a week doesn’t go by that he doesn’t have to help Malka out in some way. My poor son-in-law Steve always looks exhausted. After work, he’s busy giving the kids supper, bathing them, and putting them to sleep. He’s up early packing lunches and making sure everyone gets off to school. What a scene. He’s such an angel that he never complains—at least from what I can see. He loves my daughter so much and would do anything for her. And he does.
My husband and I are not rich people, but we are always giving them money here and there, because we know they can use it. I’m a generous person and don’t mind helping out, but I feel like I’m contributing to this crazy situation and by giving them money or running over to help out, I’m encouraging a lifestyle that I really don’t understand or respect.
Do I have a right to tell my daughter not to have any more children? Do I have a right to tell my daughter to quit her extracurricular activities and focus on her family? Do I have a right to tell my daughter that I believe she needs medication to help her with her anxiety? Until now, I’ve gone along with everything, without speaking my piece to her. But maybe that hasn’t been the right approach. Sometimes I think that I ought to just stop giving them money and help, and maybe Malka will be forced to reevaluate her life and choices. But I always cave in about five minutes after this thought pops into my head.
I’m just not sure about appropriate boundaries and would like to hear your take on this situation.
This does sound like a very difficult scene to observe and to be sucked into. You are a loving mother and grandmother, and it’s easy to understand why it is hard for you to just stand back and watch your family flounder. How you’ve come to contribute to the fragile balance that is now holding your daughter’s life together is not hard to see. Though Steve sounds like an outstanding husband and father, without your financial and practical help this ship would fail to float!
Your questions are excellent, though you may not feel my answers are. Regarding what you have a right to tell or suggest to your daughter, I need to hedge my answer. I know there are many parents out there who feel they have the right to tell their married children just about anything. These parents will always view their children as children rather than adults.
Some of these parents give nothing financially or physically of themselves to their children, and yet still feel it is their right and even duty to make demands and impose their opinions on their children. For those parents who do give of their money or time, and believe that they have every right to call the shots, the control they possess can be profound. This sort of relationship usually starts off early in life and is typically set in way before adulthood and naturally continues. Sometimes it’s even successful, if it’s done respectfully and the children truly want to benefit from their parents’ experiences and (hopefully) wisdom. But there is also a downside, as these grown children often do not fully separate from their parents and never quite learn how to make their own decisions and navigate life independently and with confidence.
Obviously, the type of relationship that I’ve just described couldn’t be further from the reality of your relationship with your daughter. Though you love her and are there for her in many ways, you’ve always respectfully kept your distance when it came to advice, while you quietly observed her make many life choices that you didn’t agree with or even understand. Many people might say that your parenting techniques are appropriate. That we all need to learn by making our own mistakes, even if it means falling down occasionally.
There would be nothing to talk about if Malka acted in ways that mirrored your own parenting style and you felt she was doing a responsible job as a mother and wife. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case, as you’ve continued to witness Malka’s choices and behavior. And yet you’ve kept your mouth closed, probably believing that she wouldn’t listen to you anyway and it would only cause friction between the two of you. Can’t argue with you there.
Since it is very challenging to rewrite the script between a parent and a grown child, and there is usually tremendous resistance to changing the rules at that point, I have to wonder if there is a middle ground to pursue. Rather than telling Malka what you think she should do (clearly not something she would embrace with excitement), have you ever tried to create the type of relationship with her wherein she could feel safe and comfortable sharing with you the stressors of her life and her own frustrations? Could there be a way that together you could share ideas for a better way of doing things?
Are you able to ask her questions like “What’s it like for you when you’re stuck in bed and unable to care for your children?” Or, “Do you ever worry whether Steve might be sabotaging his job by showing up late so often?” Or, “With everything on your plate, I’m curious why you’ve taken on this new project.” Obviously, these types of questions have to be asked in a gentle way that does not smack of judgment, because if they do, Malka will immediately become defensive and your opportunity for meaningful conversation and connection will be lost. But if you could act more like a neutral sounding board, encouraging new ideas and a better way of looking at things, you might have an opportunity to effect some change.
In a perfect world, Malka would learn to someday look to you as someone she is able to brainstorm with, in order to create order out of all the chaos in her life. However, if you are unable to create this rapport with her, my guess is that suddenly removing your financial and physical help would cause things to get even uglier. And I believe the burden would ultimately fall even harder on Steve’s already slumping shoulders, and disaster could prevail. I don’t suggest that you allow yourself to be sucked into her troubles to the point where you might risk losing your job or putting your own finances in jeopardy. But showing up and helping is what we parents tend to do, for better or for worse.
G‑d willing, your grandchildren will grow up nicely and be none the worse for wear, despite this flawed scenario. They may even turn out to be amazing, having learned to be responsible at such young ages, and use their childhood experiences as springboards toward great futures. Steve is another story. Hopefully, someday he will find enough time in his busy schedule to reflect and decide whether some major changes need to take place within his family. But that will be his “aha moment,” and he has to come to it by himself.
For now, like so many other parents and grandparents, you’ll continue to try your best and daven your hardest! And believe that it will all work out, because it probably will.
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.