Tuesday, June 9, 2015

In Search of a Self

“I can’t believe it,” Janice says throwing her hands in the air. “Why does she feel she has the right to tell me what I should wear to my child’s graduation? I’m 42 years old. Shouldn’t I know what’s appropriate to wear and what isn’t?”

Janice is talking about her mother’s intrusiveness, a situation that has only worsened since her family moved to Florida a little over a year ago.

“Well,” I ask, “what does give her the impression that it’s all right for her to tell you what to do?”

“She’s always done it. That’s how she was when we were kids – especially with me as the only girl – and that’s how she is now. ”

“What did you say to her when she was telling you what to wear?”

“I said, ‘Ma, I’m a big girl now, remember?’”

“So you don’t confront her; you kind of make light of it.”

“I don’t scream at her if that’s what you mean.”

“No, I wasn’t talking about screaming at her. I was talking about having a genuine conversation about how you’re a grown woman who doesn’t need her mother to tell her what to wear and how it doesn’t feel good to have her invading every aspect of your life.”

Janice pauses and then asks, seemingly puzzled, “What’s the alternative?” 

Similarly confused, I say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”

“Well, when you just said it doesn’t feel good having her invade every aspect of my life, it suddenly felt scary to me, like if she wasn’t invading every aspect of my life would I feel, I don’t know, would I feel lost, abandoned?”

“That’s a very insightful question,” I say, thinking back on my own relationship with my intrusive mother. Early in my life I experienced her hovering as protective and safe, but I grew to chafe against it and needed to set my own boundaries. Perhaps Janice isn’t there yet. “So you’re saying that as much as you protest about your mother’s intrusiveness, perhaps there’s a part of you that still longs for it.” 

Janice looks at me, looks over at the clock, looks back at me and says, almost mournfully, “Ten minutes left.” 

So Janice longs for me as well, I think. I remain silent giving her the chance to pursue her own thoughts.  

“It’s so easy to me to feel lost, empty. Even when I’m with my kids, even when the house is bursting with noise, I often feel alone. I feel alone right now. You’re not saying anything and the session is almost over and I feel scared. And when I feel scared like this at home I call my mother. I sometimes fantasize calling you, but I wouldn’t do that – unless there was really some kind of emergency.”

I wonder how it is possible that I haven’t seen this side of Janice before today, how I accepted her protests against her mother’s intrusiveness at face value and didn’t see the scared little girl underneath. Was it because of my own experience with my mother? Perhaps. But I have an alternative thought. With her mother, Janice is the obedient child who accepts – and perhaps even welcomes - her mother’s intrusion into her life. With me, she is still the obedient child, but she knows – consciously or unconsciously - that I want her to be separate and independent, so she’s being as I want her to be. But as long as she’s being how I want her to be, she’s still not being her own separate person.

“I was just thinking, Janice, that you’re always trying to be the person the mothers in your life want you to be, whether that mother is your biological mother or me or perhaps other people as well. I think in the process of trying to please us all so you don’t have to feel scared and alone, you’ve kind of lost who you really are.”

“That feels really scary. Truthfully I’m not sure I’ve ever known who I am. I was my mother’s child and my husband’s wife and my children’s mother, and my brother’s sister, and your patient. I think all those people are different. I don’t think I have one me.”

“I can understand how that feels really scary, Janice. So I guess we know what we need to do. We need to find out who Janice really is.”

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