After I separated from my daughter’s dad I thought seeing a counsellor for myself would be a good idea to keep my thoughts straight and find a way through the confusing mess created by the issues he kept secret throughout our relationship. I was extremely lucky to see a great counsellor through my university’s free counselling service. I had had counselling before, but this time there was so much going on that my counsellor decided to work with me for just over a year. Obviously we covered many issues to do with my relationship, but as many people probably know, ending up in a co-dependent role as I did is usually the outcome of childhood programming which has gone wrong at some point.
With my counsellor I worked out that my attachment with my mother is likely to have been ambivalent attachment. There is a very concise list of possible manifestations of this attachment style here, if you want to find out more. My counsellor didn’t go as far as diagnosing anything because she does not practise that kind of therapy, but what she told me about this kind of attachment style, and what I subsequently read on my own, resonated with me. I know, and she knows, that my mother has her own issues, and I have certain theories about her childhood and attitudes to my sister and me, but I don’t want to go into them now.
Suffice to say, I do not want my daughter to grow up feeling how I did. I never felt close to my mother, or comfortable spending time with her. If for Sartre ‘hell is other people’, then for me hell is sitting in a quiet room on my own with my mother because I know that the way I am sitting, every breath I take and every time I swallow my saliva will be judged, and that judgement will be expressed through glances, humming, and hurtful little digs designed to undermine my confidence. My mother has never told me she loves me. Really. Ever. This is not normal. The only time she told me that she was proud of me was when I told her I had made my husband move out (with good reason) because she had not managed to do this in her own marriage until the situation had gone past untenable. I still feel awkward when it comes to physical affection, or even just proximity, with friends and acquaintances.
My daughter is kissed and cuddled every day, and she recently started telling me occasionally that she loves me, indicating, I hope, that she feels loved, and that she understands that what we say to people can have an impact on how they feel. I hope affection will be a part of normal life for her. Similarly, I want her to be independent, as well as supported. She will never be told that I have to say no in order for her to learn frustration tolerance. This does not mean I will allow her to do anything and everything, but in everything I do I strive to show her that I acknowledge her wishes and to treat her with respect. Most of all, at the moment I think avoiding extremes and rigidity is important, and seeking moderation and picking one’s battles might be the most healthy way forward.
At the moment, although I have been feeling great recently, some of my issues with my mother have been coming to the fore again because of her visit. This visit has followed the usual pattern of excitement at her arrival, feeling overwhelmed by all the gifts she has brought with her, disenchantment at the realisation that she is still locked in the same thought patterns, resentment, feeling guilty for the resentment, and finally feeling sad when she has to leave again because she is my mother, and she does try hard to be better sometimes.
This time her visit has been especially taxing because my daughter has discovered a small, but very important word since the last visit: ‘no’. She enjoys making up her own mind, having her own plan and sticking to it. I know this is healthy and normal, she’s testing her boundaries etc. etc. Usually I would do some reading on how to handle this new phase in my daughter’s emotional development in a way that makes her feel safe, loved and taken seriously, and that lets me remain calm and positive.
This time though, the new phase hit out of the blue. One week we were enjoying the birthday comedown, the next we have hours (well, feels like it) of negotiations regarding on which side to get out of the car, as well as constant attempts to run across roads. Putting it like that, perhaps it would be best for all of us to avoid cars for a while. I couldn’t find any parenting inspiration because I usually do that online, and my mother has a deep suspicion of people who use the internet for longer than two minutes.
On top of this came my mother’s insistence to be involved in every single negotiation I had with my daughter. Often our conversations didn’t even start out as negotiations, but simply as quick conversations about what we would do next in order to go to the park while it’s still sunny. My mother’s insistence on being involved, talking, being heard, giving instructions, commands, on taking over my role, meant that by the end of most days daughter and I were a frazzled heap of mixed emotions and short fuses. For my daughter this was complicated by the fact that her grandma and I spoke German to each other, and I’m never sure how much she understands. For me it was difficult because my mother’s way of handling diverging opinions reminded me so much of how she was when I was younger and still living at home. As I said to my daughter’s dad on the couple of occasions I made him stay after her bedtime so I could offload my annoyance, I’m not surprised that I became the person I am. Even my just three-year-old daughter gets no compassion, no empathy, no understanding, no niceness from her grandma as soon as she has her own opinion.
I am not proud of the way I handled these difficult situations. On a couple of occasions I lost my patience and ended up picking up my daughter and carrying her where I wanted to go rather that trying to talk her round or letting her have some autonomy, although I had previously decided only to do this in dangerous situations. I did not confront my mother about how her behaviour was making my daughter feel confused and isolated. One morning I attempted explaining my current strategies for diffusing tantrums about to happen and key phrases that seem to work well, as well as my reasons behind them, only to be met with a host of parenting tips (‘at this age they really need to know boundaries’ – well yes, but not such harsh pointless boundaries that they end up too scared to say a word in public or to form any opinion at all! / ‘Please don’t leave her at home on her own while you go out in the evening’ – It hadn’t even crossed my mind, and I’m insulted that you think I might do this before she is at least 16!) that made me feel so misunderstood, patronised and disrespected as a parent that I decided keeping my mouth shut for a while would be the safest option.
Our contact is already limited because of the great geographical distance, and after deliberating for several months I have decided it would be beneficial for my daughter to have some sort of (heavily monitored) relationship with her grandma. But before the next visit int the summer I have some serious preparation to do, as well as work on standing up for my daughter’s best interests more.
I’m just glad to have done so much counselling, because I’m not sure that I would be able to disentangle my emotions arising from my daughter’s behaviour from those brought about by the way I was parented.