I happened to sit next to a worried looking mother at Star Bucks only to find her wanting some conversation. She was a block away from her eleven-year-old who was with a friend at a movie theater. She felt she was giving her daughter much wanted independence yet close enough if she needed her.
Remarkably she was reading a book on her Kindle that I was the author of, Unlocking Parental Intelligence. She explained she was trying so hard to be with her daughter. Then she added she actually was working at trying to be with her daughter.
This struggling young woman vented about how her daughter and she didn't get along because her tween complained relentlessly that she was an only child who spent too much time with her mother. This devoted mother did all she could to relieve her daughter's complaints. She let her have sleep-overs as often as she wished, chauffeured her to her friends' houses regularly, and then here she was spending at least an hour and a half by a movie theater to please this child.
Then she poured out her greatest feeling of rejection. She felt scorned. Her daughter told her she had a secret that she wouldn't tell her. Her eleven-year-old said she told her friends and even a friend's mother. The fact that she ironically openly revealed she had a secret that she wouldn't tell drilled into this woman's maternal heart to the core. She felt like an outsider in her daughter's life, excluded and deeply hurt. Why would her daughter reveal what she wanted to hide? This eleven-year-old wanted her mother to know she had a secret but she also wanted her to know her mother was never going to be privy to it. Alas, this was painful!
This sensitive mother said she knew from the book that her reactions were as meaningful as her daughter's. She knew her daughter wanted to be separate from her but this was just too much. I underlined that what seemed like a physical separation, like going to the movie, was more importantly an emotional separation that her daughter was experimenting with. Having said that, I had to confess that I was the author of the book on her screen and a therapist. I considered keeping this to myself, but why else would I be offering this advice?
She seemed both intrigued and somewhat self-conscious as she started to apologize for her messy hair, but it didn't stop her from continuing her sad saga. She said she tried to share with her daughter some of the benefits of being an only child, but this fell on deaf ears. Beyond that, it was still the secret that was bothering her. She'd even learned from the other mother that the secret was just that her daughter was afraid to go to junior high school next year. Why couldn't she tell her that?
I offered another explanation. I said that I knew that she didn't think so right now, but actually she was very important to her daughter in fact so important that it was only she whom she selected not to tell her secret to. I said that what I imagined was that if her daughter revealed that she was afraid to go to junior high school, it would make it much more scary. That is, to say it specifically to her loved mother would make it much more real to her. When you say something out loud to someone who is so central to your life, what you imagine becomes very real. The reality of going to junior high school was seriously frightening her.
The mother thanked me saying she never would have understood that point of view and actually it was quite comforting. Before we parted, I reassured her that she was most certainly a very devoted mother and I was sure her daughter knew that deep down.
It's heartbreaking for mothers to experience the shift from little girls who tell you everything to tweens who don't. This mother was facing that. She also was learning how essential it was to hold back revealing all her reactions openly to her daughter. She was learning how to step back from burdening her daughter with her feelings, but she was hurt, nonetheless, and it was very difficult.
Ahh--the potential joys of watching your child grow up along with the painful woes of experiencing new emotional distance.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst with a new book, Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child's Behavior, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Familius and wherever books are sold.