May 16, 2008

Sacred Contracts: Doris and Lydia

I had no idea it would be so difficult to write about my relationship with my daughter. It sounded like a good idea at the time; but the more I’ve thought about offering people advice on parenting, the more inadequate I’ve felt. After all, the wisest thing my children taught me was this:

“Mama doesn’t know much and what she thinks she knows does not apply to us.”

My daughter came into this world screaming obscenities at the obstetrician for paddling her behind and making her cry. It hasn’t been an easy road being a status quo mother with a defiant daughter rebelling against femininity every chance she got. I tried. O, lordnose I tried to make her conform to ribbons and bows but she wouldn’t have anything to do with whatever was perceived to be ‘female.’

Thirty-five years have passed before understanding her resistance, but maybe now I have insight as to why she assumed men had unrighteous dominion over women. As far as I could tell, life was arranged that way just because God said so. I didn’t question my potential vulnerability as a stay-at-home-mom since a good man always keeps his word, right? Besides, it was comfortable fitting into the social order without making a fuss---unlike my daughter who suffered the insults of self-definition. 

As Maya Angelou wrote in my prior posting, 
“…when a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thin or too sexual or too asexual, that's rough.”
And let me tell you, it’s no picnic in the park when Doris Day gives birth to Lydia Lunch either. Can we talk about a mother's metamorphosis when the image not-of-her-making is in her face every day? I’m laughing now but that girl broke every assumption I had about the sacrosanct division of gender. If there was any issue lurking in my unconscious like a rotting piece of forbidden fruit, she managed to dig it out with a shovel and say, “There ya go, Mom. What are ya gonna do now? Bake a cobbler?”

I learned to unlearn my parenting scripts and ad lib relearning from the heart because any tactic gleaned from raising younger siblings was shattered in the raising of my own child. She tweaked and twisted me from a perfect mother to one that was Good Enough and bless her fierce nature for refusing to conform and making life all-too-easy for a mother who needed to have her heart freed from a prison she couldn’t even see. It hasn’t been easy. For either of us.

Overidentification: "Excessive psychological identification"

I didn’t have fancy words to describe psychological processes nor stages of child development, but I’m here to say we can be wonderful parents, exactly the parent a child needs without relying on psyche books quoting expert pediatricians. If we’re capable of introspection, we can avoid confusing a child with unfinished business from our past. We can reflect on assumed expectations as to whether or not we’re asking our daughters to live our dreams for us, denying her true personhood and ultimately dissatisfying both mother and daughter.

Maybe a good example of overidentification is the Stage Mother forcing her daughter to perform and then standing to take a bow when the concert is finished. I read a comment that summed it up pretty well, “Overidentification is when the child coughs and the mother takes the cough drop.”

I believe my daughter prevented me from over-identifying with her. Why? Because we’re as different as pickles and ice cream and you can likely figure out who’s the Dill Pickle wrapped in a napkin, and who’s the Macadamia Nut Extra-Cream Haagan Dazs centered in a silver bowl.

I’ve read about parental overidentification with children and how women become enmeshed in mother-daughter relationships. Since I enjoy reading dissertations on women’s psychological development, I’ve found plenty of experts writing about blurry boundaries and a girl’s reluctance to individuate the way boys are encouraged to do. Which is why some psychologists suggest women become enmeshed with their daughters and can’t separate without radical surgery.

But I’m thinking a lot of a mother’s problems stem from a lack of connection if her husband/partner is narcissistic and incapable of reciprocating emotional nurturance. She may discover that her relationship with her daughter is emotionally satisfying and in that way, she avoids facing the emotional desert of the N-relationship. Rather than demanding her partner meet her needs (because he can’t or won’t, as the case may be), she takes the path of least resistance. She identifies with her daughter who is more than likely capable of empathy whether said daughter wears ribbons and bows or not.

When a partner is narcissistic, we may interfere with our daughter’s individual agency by expecting her to be our peer. Because we are authority figures (whether we’re comfortable with the fact or not), the power differential will influence her desire to meet our expectations, rather than the appropriate opposite. She may feel flattered we consider her an ‘intimate’ and yet, she’ll resent being asked to do something she is incapable of doing---which only makes her feel incompetent and overwhelmed.

We are her parent, not the reverse.

The narcissistic mother’s lack of boundaries ultimately creates fusion between herself and her daughter. The problem for the daughter is being able to establish a clear sense of her self, which will only be achieved after a long struggle with guilt and self-blame for desiring separation and viewing her individuation as abandonment of her mother. Was there some of that in my mothering that required my daughter to differentiate herself as drastically as she did? Probably. There’s a fine line between empathy and overidentification, which means we’ll learn by trial and error when we’re treading on a daughter’s boundaries or seeing too much of ourselves in her. If women are lucky, Lydia will tell them right away that she’s feeling suffocated by smother’s love and we’d best back off and give her some space.

Yea, I suppose it’s a bit odd to see Doris and Lydia walking hand-in-hand to a Women’s Studies Course at college, but being able to see one another as unique yet attached individuals is the hallmark of respect for one another’s autonomy. I sat in class with one leg crossed daintily over the other and my daughter sat next to me: her Doc Martin feet spread like every man takes for granted as his privilege. “I’ll take up all the space I want!” she said, much to my chagrin.

But the next time I went to class, I didn’t cross my legs. By the end of the semester, my backpack took up half the aisle, my coat encroaching the person’s desk behind me; no thought as to whether or not I was ladylike. I was in class to get an “A” or maybe an “A+”. One thing for sure, I was going to do as well as my daughter. Which wasn’t easy. She’s smart and unafraid of showing it. After two years of study, I was awarded college recognition for my scholarship and unabashedly admitting I had brains, even as a midlife housewife. But don’t heed my example without a healthy dose of reality, please: Now I’m divorced and my daughter’s never married.

I guess the point of this message is to bring up an all-too-common reaction to being a single mother whether we’re married or not. And that’s overidentification with our children.

Identification is essential to feelings of belonging and mutuality; but just like everything else there’s a continuum from healthy to unhealthy. What we need to avoid is enmeshment, which is frequently defined as not knowing where we start, and where our daughter ends. Having respect for the unique differences between daughters and mothers requires maturation of a mother’s underdeveloped self and respect for her daughter’s developing self.

The truth is, every woman needs validation, support, a sense of value and emotional nurturance, exactly what society suggests men are incapable of doing. That answer doesn’t satisfy women’s desire to be seen and heard, it just means we seek other people to meet our unsatisfied needs. Unfortunately, this may lead to exploitive relationships with our children, what psychologists call enmeshment. The more enmeshed the relationship becomes the more our daughter’s sacred individuation will be delayed, if not stunted entirely by the dependent relationship. If she defines herself as different, we may become resentful she’s wearing Doc Martin boots and leaving Mom stumbling behind in an awkward pair of heels.

To me, I think we’ve let men off the hook and now we’re seeing the results of social overindulgence of sexual differences. We don’t expect men to be sensitive and nurturing because so-called-experts suggest men are from Mars and have no clue how to please Venus. Which is a bunch of hooey because every human being has basic instincts to nurture (care for) others, especially for an intimate partner. I’d agree that men didn’t know how to empathize were it not for the truth that they expect to be empathized with. As long as we maintain old ideas privileging men to escape responsibility for co-nurturance by saying insensitivity is a ‘guy thing’, women will resort to other means. And those means might lead to dysfunctional bonding, viewing our daughters as peers or extensions of ourselves. If we do not question social assumptions about gender, we pass an abusive legacy forward---complicit in an unequal society disabling both men and women at the same time.

Ask yourself: What are your expectations? How have you assumed daughters should act, think, believe, or behave? Do our expectations honor her different-from-us self? Have we excused our partner by assuming men are not emotionally connected the way we expect women to be? Rather than dismissing emotional deficits as Gender Differences, I think it’s important to focus on the vastly greater similarities between men and women and not let anyone off the hook for creating families that nurture children---without using them to fill empty spaces between intimate partners.

I remembered a poem that helped me decades ago when I struggled with a daughter who did not reflect my expectations nor behave in accordance with the social norms of my culture. The words of Kahlil Gibran sum up everything I’ve read about good parenting but he said it in a meaningful way by speaking to my heart. His words were scribbled in every journal I ever started writing and never finished. This poem assisted my struggle breaking through overidentification and gendered expectations thwarting the development of a healthy relationship with my daughter. I had no psychological knowledge about the process taking place which only goes to show that parenting from the heart is good enough.

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said,"Speak to us of Children." And he said: 
Your children are not your children, 
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. 
They come through you but are not from you, 
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. 
You may give them your love but not your thoughts, 
For they have their own thoughts. 
You may house their bodies but not their souls, 
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, 
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. 
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. 
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. 
You are the bows from which your children 
as living arrows are sent forth. 
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and 
He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far 
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness; 
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, 
So he loves also the bow that is stable 
~Kahlil Gibran, 1923, The Prophet

Much love to all,

Merry, Molly. The Over-Indulged Child 


  1. HI CZBZ, What a Wonderful article you have written here. What to say. Well I can tell you that the pickle wrapped in the napkin reminded me of being a child at the Commisary. While I was only tall enough to reach into the bin of pickle which was loaded with ice and large pickles enclosed by plastic and surrounded by sour/salty juice. I would leave mom and her cart get to the bin and get me one...bite through the plastic and start with drinking the juice.

    What a blessing to read a mothers voice about new insights about being a parent.

    I have often thought abut bringing up the word enmeshment with my mother but I think she is too old now.

    Compliments on your growth and awareness. i am working to be able to press the internal refresh and accept button every minute of my life. Then the growth and create button is available.

    Cheers, Anonymous Eyes

  2. Thanks for commenting, Eyes. I'd like to write short, clever messages about mothers and daughters but our relationships are far more complex than one-minute sound bites. So thank you for reading my five-minute essay.

    Once we become aware of the 'bigger picture', the challenge is putting our experience into words other people can relate to---and hopefully, increase everyone’s awareness rather than entrenching defenses in either mothers or daughters. I’ll get to sons later since I was lucky enough to have both a daughter and a son. A son who wore a skirt for a while. ;-) And no, that did not make Daddy happy to see his six-foot-plus son cavorting around town in female attire.

    Gender Benders. That’s what God blessed me with.

    I have a very good relationship with both my children, but it hasn't been a simple process and certainly did not reflect the status quo. A status quo suggesting I enforce Tough Love---more akin to rejecting my children than manifesting love. If you know what I mean.

    Just so everyone knows, my daughter has given full permission for me to write anything I want to write about our lives. When she read this essay, she said, "So you think I'm a dill pickle, Mom? THAT'S GREAT."

    She prefers being a dill pickle to being an overloaded bowl of Haagan Dazs.

    Dill pickles make us wake up. Too much ice cream makes us take a nap.

    In a metaphysical way, I'd say mothers who need to wake up, are blessed with kids who sound alarm bells. Rather than pushing our big fat thumbs on their silence buttons, we're better off getting out of bed and facing reality.

    Hopefully, mothers will stop blaming the alarm clock and “snoozing” their opportunity away.

    I may have been in dreamland for a few years, but my kids led me out of LaLaLaNd by refusing to conform to the status quo. God Bless ‘em…or as you say Eyes, Goddess bless ‘em. Ha!



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