Each issue, columnist and author of Shoot The Damn Dog: A Memoir Of Depression (Bloomsbury, £15.99), Sally Brampton explores an emotional issue with a reader. This month, Julie a 44 year old estate agent tells us why she can’t escape her need mother
JULIE: My mum’s been going through a really tough time. My grandmother died recently and my mother’s life revolved around caring for her. I want to support her, but I’m worried about her turning all her attention on me.
SALLY: Are you an only child?
J: Yes. My parents split up when I was young and we lived with my grandparents. My mum and I shared a room until I was 16. I have always been her focus and now that my grandmother is gone, I’m worried that focus will become even more intense. I find it difficult to be kind to her. I’m very critical and tend to be snappy, which I hate.
S: Is that because you feel claustrophobic?
J: Yes, I think it probably is and I may have built up a lifetime of resentment.
S: Maybe you’re trying to push her away because you feel overwhelmed. Does she have friends?
J: She lost touch with a lot of them over the years because Nan was her main priority. She was quite obsessive about making sure she was comfortable at all times and had her every whim fulfilled immediately.I try to encourage her to get on with her life, but I feel guilty if I’m not there constantly. I feel it’s my responsibility to care for my mother emotionally.
J: It’s the way I was brought up. My mum used to say that if anything happened to me, she would kill herself because her life would be nothing without me.
S: That’s a very heavy burden. Tell me more about your childhood.
J: My dad was quite a lot older than my mum. She met him when she was 16 and had me at 18. I think she married for a bit of independence, but they ended up living with my grandparents. My dad left when I was seven and has never been in touch with me.
S: That must hurt.
J: It’s been a big sadness and I’m not sure I’ve come to terms with it, even now.
S: Was the divorce acrimonious?
J: Yes, and I think I was a bit of a pawn. My mum was quite happy for me not to have a relationship with him, so I’ve got some resentment towards her around that.
S: Where do you live now?
J: About five minutes’ walk away. I’ve always lived in that neighbourhood and chose to stay close by because my nan was very poorly. I felt guilty because mum had to deal with everything – my grandmother was a very demanding woman.
S: Why did your mum feel such an overwhelming need to care for her mother?
J: Nan was her life. She never separated from her. We moved away for six months, but went back because she couldn’t bear to be away from her. My grandmother was quite happy to let my mum run around after her and mum could never say no. She’s always trying to gain approval, asking me if I’m proud of her. She’s in constant need of praise and reassurance.
S: That’s quite childlike, but if she never separated emotionally from her parents she may have remained a child, emotionally.
J: Yes. I feel guilty when I’m mean to her because she’s so dependent on me.
S: So it becomes a vicious circle. You feel guilty for getting angry – which makes you feel guilty, making you even angrier.
J: That’s exactly what happens. I don’t go out as much as I want to because she always wants me around, so it builds up into resentment.
S: Do you think you’ve ever emotionally separated from your mother?
S: So the relationship your mum had with your grandmother repeats itself in you. It’s interesting that you chose to live so close to your mum, just as your mum did with her mum. Do you ever say ‘no’ to her?
J: Yes, but she often turns up unannounced. One time I was with a boyfriend and she kept ringing the doorbell in the early hours. I couldn’t explain to him, ‘Oh, that’s my mother’. I’m 44 years old.
S: So there are no boundaries.
J: Probably not, no – but how do you establish them?
S: Well, the very first word is ‘no’.
J: But it must feel to her that there’s not much left. Her mum’s gone, her sister died, and I’m an only child.
S: You’re still entitled to your own life, though. Parents have to let children go.
J: That’s not a lesson my mum learnt from her own parents, so I think I have to learn that one for myself.
S: Criticism and anger is not a boundary. It’s a wall to block her out.
J: Yes, it’s horrible, isn’t it? It’s not nice for her and it makes me feel dreadful. She’s always been very vulnerable. She’s such
a sensitive person.
S: It’s a burden when a parent acts like a child. It’s not good for either of you.
J: Sometimes I think she’s very weak, which makes me angry. I think she should be a bit tougher; life is hard for everybody.
S: Who supports you?
J: Nobody, really. I never go to my mother with my problems.
S: It sounds as if you’ve always put your mother’s needs first, so perhaps it’s time to think about yours.
J: I think I’ve lost sight of what I want and ignored my own issues. I probably need to do some work around my feelings about my father and romantic relationships. My tendency is to push people away.
S: Perhaps, because you have such a claustrophobic relationship with your mother, you fear being overwhelmed by intimacy.
J: Yes, it’s exactly like that.
S: We look to our mothers as role models in teaching us how to form healthy relationships. If she is weak and dependent, you don’t get to understand healthy emotional behaviour. It’s as if you’re allowing her to enmesh you.
J: That’s true, but I’m probably frightened of her floating away because I haven’t got a father, I haven’t got children, I’m an only child and I’ve never had a good relationship.
S: You’re suffering, too, but you always have to be the brave one.
J: I bring it on myself. I’ve always thought it was to do with abandonment by my father and having to put on a brave face.
S: So you bottle up your feelings and pretend everything is fine, which is a lonely place to be. It’s important to allow people to help us rather than always being the helper.
J: Perhaps that’s why I’m quite independent and self-sufficient. I don’t want to be a burden to people. Perhaps I’m worried I’ll turn into my mum, so I go the opposite way.
S: If you felt supported, you might not feel so resentful towards your mum. It’s not selfish to look after ourselves – we can’t help someone who’s drowning if we’re drowning ourselves. As you obviously have some co-dependency issues around your mum, have you thought about contacting Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) – a support group?
J: Yes, but I haven’t done anything about it, although I’ve got lots of friends who go.
S: That’s interesting – maybe you’re attracted to people who also have co-dependency issues because that’s how you grew up?
J: Yes, perhaps. I’ve never thought about it like that. It’s been helpful to look at it in a more objective way and also at my own part in my relationship with my mum and how I’m perpetuating it. I knew I needed to set up some boundaries and I’m beginning to see patterns of behaviour attached to co-dependency with my mum, as well as abandonment by my dad. I think I’ll get some support and counselling around that.
For further reading, see Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power by Terri Apter (WW Norton, £16.99).
If you have an emotional issue that you would like to discuss with Sally (this will be kept strictly confidential), then write to: Healthy, River Publishing, 3rd Floor,
1 Neal Street, London WC2H 9QL, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.