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a mother-daughter love story
I was in my early teens when I first heard the clinical term “enmeshment” -- not from a psychotherapist, but my best friend at school who, like me, was a precocious child of divorce.
This was in Toronto in the 90s – a city once accurately described as “New York run by the Swiss.” My friend and I were classmates at a selective state-funded secondary school for the arts in the city’s north end. I lived with my single mother (a magazine journalist) in a basement flat in Chinatown, having followed her to the city from the small-town where I’d grown up. My girlfriend and I were the free-range children of urban intellectuals in a school that worshipped at the shrine of Antoin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty -- breaking the fourth wall (the dissolution of boundaries in general) was the order of the day along with high self-esteem and “being yourself.” My mother, in particular, took this to heart.
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Mum often described herself as having been “born without the nurturing gene,” a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that established her former life as a small-town housewife and stay-home mother had been a passing charade. After leaving our family and moving to the city she took the opportunity to reorganise her priorities according to her own interests, which in turn became my own. Romance, work, reading, conversation, parties and holidays (with her single friends) took precedence over everything else.
We were close friends, our relationship was open and loving, but she was clear about her parenting philosophy which she openly, in a joking-not-joking way, described as “benign neglect.” Mum absolutely did not attend parent-teacher meetings, she had zero interest homework or report cards. She did not believe in bedtimes or curfews or family meals that weren’t dinner parties -- she was an excellent cook but there was rarely any food in the house. Smoking and drinking was fine, so long as I wasn’t messy about it and I didn’t touch the scotch. I was welcome to stay out all night or bring my boyfriends home, so long as they were tall, did not leave their shoes strewn about and read The Globe and Mail.
She was beautiful, brilliant, ambitious, funny, warm, charismatic and primarily interested in herself. From a young age, the process of drawing my mother out, engendering her trust, had become instinctual, by the time I was in my teens it was second nature. Styling myself as her confidante wasn’t difficult – like many interesting, well-read people, my mother loved to tell stories and talk about herself. Getting her to depend on me as a sounding board was the only reliable way I’d found to sustain the restless, wandering spotlight of her attention, which I longed for in the way a seedling craves oxygen and sunlight. She was my mother and I wanted to live with her -- I did what I needed to do to accomplish it.
My mother abandoned us when I was little but I followed her. Looking back I now understand that even during those golden years of our enmeshment, my mother was always leaving – overnight or away for the weekend with her boyfriend, or on holiday in Mexico with friends or on a press junket to Sweden or Greece. For my last year of high school she took a job in another town a two hour drive away, leaving me to sort out final exams and university applications myself, a fact that now seems almost unfathomable. But at the time, within the context of our enmeshment, my mother’s restlessness, her need to not be needed and to prioritise her own desires above all else -- was natural and normal. I didn’t resent her because I loved her and more importantly I knew nothing else.
I thought I was independent in those years but in fact I was codependent. What I mean is that instead of feeling my own feelings I was carrying my mother’s emotions, her thoughts and desires became my own. By the time I reached adulthood, this habit (enmeshment) was so ingrained it informed everything. When I began to have relationships with men I instinctively tried the same strategy. For a myriad of reasons it did not work out.
Enmeshment, also known as “covert incest,” was a pschological concept introduced in the 60s by the theorist Salvatore Minuchin, the father of structural family theory. Back in the 80s, the term was barely known outside academic circles but in the 21st Century it’s become a common field of study. The current leader in the field is Kenneth M. Adams, an American psychologist. He is also the founder of Overcoming Enmeshment, an online and live forum devoted to the study and treatment of the condition. Enmeshment theory is complex, but in psychiatric terms it’s broadly viewed as generalised attachment disorder, its treatment (a mixture of one-on-one and group therapy) is not dissimilar from that used for so-called “love addicts” or the co-dependent adult children of alcoholics.
The term “covert incest” is a startling one – and a part of me balks at the idea that children like me who were inordinately close to one unconventional, mixed-up-but-loving parent should be pathologised in this way, but there is no getting around it: enmeshment messes with your ability to connect. On the Philip Larkin Index of stuff-that-fucks-you-up, it is not the going to prompt any concerned calls to social services -- but that doesn’t mean it’s not a cause of suffering, or an emotional knot worth untangling. Childhood enmeshment, in particular, distorts a person’s templates for love and intimacy – arguably our deepest and most urgent impulse after basic survival. The problem with parent-child enmeshment is that, like addiction, half the battle is admitting it’s a problem in the first place. Firstly because the enmeshed parent is often vulnerable and troubled to begin with -- to be sure, my mother had deep, unresolved trauma of her own -- and secondly because the enmeshed child, by contrast, feels special and loved. When a child feels this way, for whatever reason, it’s hard to let go of the once-happy narrative, even if it causes you misery down the road.
The problem with enmeshment emerges later, when the child grows up and wants to have serious intimate relationships – or children – of her own. How does the adult daughter of enmeshment learn to love in a way that is based on understanding her own wants and needs as they intersect with those of her loved ones? How can she identify and respect the boundaries of where she ends and her loved ones begin? Answer: She cannot — or at least, not without first acknowledging the enmeshment that formed her codependent template for love in the first place. This is hard and painful work – but it’s worth it.
Here is an example: After I became a mother, whenever my sons wandered into my darkened bedroom at night and asked for a cuddle to soothe them back to sleep I found myself panicked. It wasn’t just that I wanted space or sleep but that the idea itself, their needing to be close to me, physically induced a strange nausea and confusion.
When I was a small child myself I was never (that I can remember) allowed to sleep with my mother -- I don’t even remember asking, it just wasn’t an option. But after the divorce, when I was about eight, this suddenly changed -- on her terms, not mine. I would go to sleep in my own room only to wake up and find myself in my mother’s bed (she would have moved me in my sleep), she would cling to me and sob and talk about all manner of things -- regrets and fears, night terrors essentially -- which would not be mentioned in the morning. I was a quick-study as a child and soon learned how to soothe my distressed mother back to sleep -- by stroking her back and telling her everything would be alright.
Called upon to offer the same basic maternal comfort to my own children, I became paralyzed with anxiety. Once I’d grasped my nature of enmeshment, the reason why became obvious: The first time I comforted someone I loved in bed I was confused and terrified. I said “everything will be alright” feeling it was a lie. Untangling this emotional knot has helped me to soothe my children in a way that is now (I hope) a healthy comfort to us both.
My school friend who used the term “enmeshment” did so in a critical sense. She was savvier than me and better read. She’d been complaining about her relationship with her father (also divorced), and his long standing habit of slipping into her bedroom late at night where he would sit at the foot of her bed and confide in her about the various neuroses arising from his on-going midlife crisis, then ask for her advice. What startled me about her disclosure was not that my friend’s father confided in her, but the fact she found it a burden. Mum also told me everything, her relationship and mental health woes, dating and career struggles -- these topics formed the framework of our lengthy and frequent conversations. By the time I was in my early teens I knew much more about my mother’s inner life than she knew about mine.
I understood our inordinate closeness wasn’t normal, per se, but until the moment I heard the word “enmeshment,” I’d never considered the idea that it might be transgressive, let alone damaging — I thought it made our relationship special. Later, I looked the term up in the library and learned it described a filial relationship in which the roles of parent and child are reversed and the emotional boundaries dissolved. I filed this information away like a calling card for later in life. A part of me knew I would need to return to it.
My mother left our family when I was eight and my sister was six, casting off her old life as a Stepford wife in search of a glamorous career as a single woman in the city. Not only did I not hold this fact against her, I actively revered her for it. I missed my mother desperately after she left and in order to reconcile her choices I conflated my identity with hers. In short, I idolised her. From the time I could read, I’d been raised me on a steady literary diet of Betty Friedan, Erica Jong, Gloria Steinem, Marilyn French and Doris Lessing. I identified with the women in these books not because they were like me but because they were like her. Instead of being the woman who abandoned me she became a renegade feminist role model.
By the time I reached adolescence I was focussed on the singular goal of following my mother. I was determined to flee the small town home I shared with my father and sister and move to the city so we could be reunited. In order to achieve this I understood I would need to learn to stop being an encumbrance. In essence, I became the perfect roomie -- always willing to listen, free with a cigarette and heartfelt advice, never demanding, a drag or a bore. I was a child but I learned to love and connect with my mother as a faux-adult. This is how enmeshment works.
Faced with the challenge of nurturing my own children I was forced to admit that the love I’d shared with my mother was perhaps not quite the nirvana I’d imagined. I had no template for motherhood because I’d been taught that family life was a trap (“Commitment sucks the life right out of you,” was quite literally our family motto, printed out on a sheet of A4 and tacked to the fridge). In my late 30s, on my increasingly infrequent visits with my mother, I began asking questions, not to draw her out as her confidante but because I wanted answers as her daughter, now a new mother myself. To say this upset the balance between us is an understatement. My mother was outraged -- indignant and deeply betrayed. Our relationship became fraught, then combustible. My mother often says she has “a lot to answer for,” but when asked for answers she vacillates between white-hot rage and frigid silence. It’s one thing to leave your children but when they later grow up and express their sadness and confusion, it’s quite another to treat it as a personal affront.
My mother’s unwillingness to fully engage on this issue has been frustrating at times, but writing about it has helped — if only because it has marked the true beginning of the end of our enmeshment. The unravelling process has been a painful process, but also an optimistic and hopeful one. I love my mother deeply and I will always love her, she is and will always be my deepest and truest first love (does anyone ever really get over their mother?) but I had to take a clear-eyed look at what happened between us in order to move on and be accountable to my own children. It’s an imperfect process, I’m an imperfect mother – but such is life. And on we go.
Even if I could – I promise you this is true – I would not change a single thing about my childhood, not a week or a day or a minute. Not a single fraction of a second would I alter if I could. She made me who I am, she loved me and made me feel special and that is a gift I have no wish to relinquish. But growing up and becoming a mother myself has forced me to understand that even specialness has its limitations and caveats. (The main one being that specialness is universal, as it applies to literally everyone.) I dislike the abused term “snowflake” but I’m Canadian and a child of the 90s so perhaps in this instance you’ll forgive the metaphor. Snowflakes are glittering things, dazzling, magnetic, but their boundaries are fragile. I’m a mother myself now, I cannot afford to melt.
An earlier version of this story appeared in last Sunday’s edition of the Observer Magazine in the UK.
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