How I broke the toxic cycle of co-dependent parenting to let my teens live their own damn lives.
(Also published on Medium.com)
I love this picture. It brings up images of parents that are there for their child but willing to let them run free. It’s a wonderful symbol for what I strive to be for my own kids.
In my last post I spoke about how I was going to take advantage of my forced vacation from school (AKA: My Coronacation) to spend more time with my children. By “children” I mean “very tall teenagers.” And by “spend time” with them I mean “not micro-manage their every move.”
To be clear, I by no means am going to let my 4-bedroom home become a movie set for Lord of the Flies, Coronavirus 2. Nor am I sewing myself a cosplay outfit ala Captain Vontrapp either, complete with a military style schedule and a whistle. (I could never look as hot as Christopher Plummer, so why bother?)
But this wasn’t always the case. There was a time in my parenting career where I lived and breathed everything my children did. I wasn’t a helicopter parent, but I was absolutely an enmeshed one.
Definition of an Emeshed Parent
According to Psyche Central, you might be an enmeshed parent if this applies to you:
- “Your children’s good or difficult behavior, and successful or unsuccessful achievements, define your worth.”
- “Your children are the center of your life — your sole purpose in life.”
- “Your entire focus is on taking care of your children, rather than also taking care of yourself.”
- “Your happiness or pain is determined solely by your children.”
- “You are invasive — you need to know everything about what your children think and do.”
If you asked me if I fit that description, I’d give you a hearty, “Hell, no! Just look at my house. Do their disorganized bedrooms, and their less than perfect school grades, match the traits of someone who is overly concerned with her kids?
But the more I researched it, the more I realized how wrong I was.
An enmeshed parent doesn’t apply to a child’s exterior life. It applies to their emotional ones which, to their supreme detriment, is bound up co-dependently with their parent’s feelings of well being.
My Daughter and Her Enmeshed Mother in Transition
As I’ve mentioned before, my daughter is super independent. She’s smart and sassy and doesn’t take to people telling her what to do. That said, she is still only 15. She simply doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. As her mom, it’s my job to set boundaries with love.
It just so happens that yesterday, on our first day of our Coronacation, we decided to take a walk on the beach. There were no people there… lots of open space… no fears of people coughing Covid 19 over our sun screened faces. It was a perfect time to talk about something that had been on my mind for a long time: her grades, her time management skills, and a particular class next year she really wants to get in.
That last item? She doesn’t just want a spot in this prized class. It’s all she’s been talking about all year. There is an audition component to getting in and, as much as I hate to admit it, I’ve been super anxious about her getting in myself.
Happy vs. Enmeshed in Our Kids Lives
I mean, who wouldn’t want their kid to be happy, right? But if I’m being honest, it’s more than that. I have the tendency to want her to be happy so I can be happy, and that’s never a good combination. That’s enmeshment.
I’m really careful about these days about this toxic parenting. But I wasn’t always. The old Andrea would have been up my daughter’s butt for six months telling her what she needed to do to get ready for the big try out. But this new Andrea — the one who is writing enough herself to not have to live through her daughter’s dreams — was able to be more chill about it.
I’m pretty proud of how the conversation went. It involved more questions than directives. I only brought up the topic when I was calm. (Hence not in the car when I was still pretty irritated about a dental appointment that didn’t go so well.)
Instead of launching into a lecture, I said a little prayer before I began speaking: God, let this conversation be about what is best for Evie’s life, not my enmeshed Mama ego. Let me remember that this is her life, not mine. Let me remember the difference between control and suggestion and have the wisdom to know the difference. (That last bit, God, I suck at. So feel free to smite me when I go overboard.)
Our Healthy Conversation Along the Beach
Me: So, Evie, I’d like to talk to you about your tryout. Is this a good time?
If she said no, I’d have dropped it. I mean, what’s the point of having a conversation with your teenager, unless it’s truly life threatening, if they are not ready to listen?
Her: Sure. What’s up?
Me: Well, I know how badly you want this particular class. And I told you in September I wouldn’t bring this up anymore — and I didn’t. But… you now have three extra weeks to prepare for the tryouts thanks to our enforced time off from school.
Me: And… I’m not seeing you rehearse that much for it. What’s up with that?
Her: Oh that’s simple. I’m not rehearsing!
Me: And… this is because…
Her: It’s because there’s another piece to the audition that I’m much weaker on. I have been using my time to work on that instead.
Me: (Starting to get frustrated… enter enmeshed mama trying to break in) So the first piece isn’t that important?
Her: Oh, no, it totally is.
Me: (Truly stumped) Can you explain to my why, if it’s so important, you’re not doing it?
Her: Yeah. It’s because forever I felt that you wanted me to have this more than I did. And that didn’t feel particularly amazing.
Note: “Hmmm” is my go-to when I know my kid just needs me to listen. And also when I know she’s right. Translation: May day! May day! My ego has just taken a big hit and it needs comfort big time! Pass the wine!
Crap, you don’t drink anymore! Pray! Breathe!
So I did. Then I pressed her for more detail and braced myself. (Her frankness is not always pretty.)
Her: I sometimes think you don’t see how hard I’m working at other areas of my life and just focus on the areas that are important to you.
Me: Yeah, I can see that. But on this occasion, I do know how much you want this class. I wouldn’t be a great mom if I didn’t at least point out where you have an opportunity to improve.
Her: I know. It just reminds me of how you used to be.
I wanted to scream, “And I was right then, too! Just as I am now!” Instead I went with:
Me: Okay, you have my word I won’t bring it up again.
Her: You won’t have to. Because, don’t freak out, Mama Llama, I’m going to practice more. I just needed you to back off first.
Enter angels singing on the beach! (Okay, not that last part — but it was a victory!)
Lest the above conversation sounds like a cheesy script for the Family Channel, those sentences really did come out of each of our mouths.
We didn’t yell. We didn’t get snarky. We just shared from the heart. None of it would have been possible had I still been acting from my enmeshed mama’s ego.
I Want My Kids to Succeed!
Of course I want my daughter to get into her class, but more important to me is that she wants it. There is nothing in my kids’ lives, minus their health, that I should want more than they do. If I do, I’m bordering on obsessive again. And that, my friends, isn’t healthy.
As an adult, I’m only now finding my way in this world without needing to be propped up by anyone but my own higher power. Rather than have my kids have to figure this out in 12-step rooms, I’d rather they learn this now.
This comes from being a mom who listens more than she talks.
Who asks more questions rather than assumes.
And who has enough of her own life that my kids can go on to have their’s.
As far as my daughter goes, it means that if (worse case) she doesn’t get into that coveted class, she has a safe person to share her disappointment with.
Until next time, may you be less enmeshed, ask questions and, when in doubt, go for a walk on the beach. It really is the balm for all grrrr. (Even more than wine. I promise.)
Until next time,