Weddings, Graduations and Other Chapter Endings
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.
Summer is prime time for weddings. Anyone who has planned a wedding - or been close to someone who has - knows that they, like other milestones, are complicated and not always filled with bliss. During wedding planning, seeds of conflict can ripen into family feuds. Details take on exaggerated, symbolic importance, as family members jockey for position in the new family constellation. Arguments over wedding minutiae disguise deeper anxieties about loss, loyalties, boundaries, and autonomy - potentially hijacking the mother-daughter relationship, which is at center stage in this drama.
Julia’s mom wanted her daughter to have a traditional religious ceremony. Julia, however, had recently declared herself an atheist, which her mom took as a personal affront. Ironically, Julia chose to marry a man from a traditional background - filling her mom with hope. The blow came at the beginning of the wedding planning. Julia announced casually the type of wedding she had in mind. There were no signs of anything traditional. She and mom became involved in a struggle, culminating in mom attempting to pull Julie’s fiancé into the divide. The relationship between Julia and her mom predictably spiraled downward. Increasing distance developed between them as Julia shut her mom out of her personal life. At first her mom was angry but, as she began experiencing the reality of losing her daughter, anger turned to fear and sadness.
Difficulties with separation are often activated during developmental transitions: starting school, adolescence, graduating high school, and, finally, marriage. At these junctures an essential task is to step back, staying connected as needed by the child, thereby facilitating maturation to the next level.
Research demonstrates that unresolved issues around separation and loss in mothers may affect their capacity to be guided by the child’s needs and rhythms rather than the other way around. Psychological vulnerability in various forms may be transmitted to children when parents’ needs conflict with developmental needs, requiring children to adapt and detach from themselves, rather than grow. A telling example of this is the finding that mothers of children with separation anxiety when starting school may have their own disavowed and dormant separation anxiety which, when treated, can resolve the child’s symptoms.
When girls get married, the final stage of letting go in the mother-daughter relationship, moms may instinctively hold on tight to ward off separation and loss. Here, Julia’s mom’s hopes and dreams for her daughter, and need to feel a sameness between them, felt imposing to Julia as she struggled to sort out her own beliefs from her mom’s.
“Good enough mothering” from the start involves a delicate dance of noticing and attuning to the child’s own rhythm, and adjusting one’s own rhythm to be in sync with the child’s need for closeness or distance, stimulation or retreat. Healthy attachment requires moms to be secure enough to allow their children to differentiate from them without pulling them back in - or withdrawing out of feeling rejected.
The conflict between Julia and her mom represented a battle over autonomy and separation. In a struggle to find her own voice, Julia defined herself by opposing her mom and being different from her. Ultimately, Julia’s mom found the wisdom and courage to back off from her investment in Julia’s choices. As she was able to make peace with differences between them, she successfully eased back into her life from a position of inner strength and openness.
When Julia’s mom gave up needing her daughter to make her feel secure, Julia’s decisions were no longer confounded by having to react to her mom by either subordinating or proving her identity. Ultimately, Julia decided to have a traditional ceremony - which she only divulged to mom shortly before the wedding. With the space to sort out her own beliefs, Julia recognized that she genuinely shared certain values with her mom, which she could now embrace as her own.
At critical transitions with children we are challenged by loss and good-byes. Letting go - taking the child’s lead - can be the best parting gift. Doing so, and refraining from seeking reassurances of closeness, we can redefine our relationships on new terms, creating more flexible and sustainable connections.