By Esther Mann, LCSW
This week’s letter is being answered by Jennifer Mann, LMSW.
Many moons ago I was a young mother, raising a young family. I had five children in seven years, and was I a busy bee! I went to ballet recitals and baseball games, and if I could have had more children I would have. I was always involved in some way or another in my children’s schools and opened my home every Shabbos to all the neighborhood children. I kissed every boo-boo, never withheld affection even in the most trying times with numerous children in adolescence.
I just ran into an old friend of my son’s who told me that he always thought of me as June Cleaver. Your younger readers may not understand the reference, but I can say that his words were music to my ears. I know in my heart of hearts that I was a good mother.
Four of my children have always been on the right track. They are all married and have various professions. I am so proud of all of them and respect their individuality. It is my fourth child, “Mindy,” who concerns me greatly. Mindy is in her late thirties, never married, no career, and still living with us in her childhood bedroom. When I look at or think of Mindy, my hearts swells with pain. As a child, Mindy was different from my other children, who were naturally athletic and brainy. I have my regrets with Mindy and believe there are things I should have done differently. I am angry with myself for letting Mindy fall through the cracks.
When her peers began getting married, Mindy was unfazed. She goes out here and there, but I don’t believe she has ever had a serious relationship. I am beginning to think she will never get married. She has a few friends she has maintained contact with and loves to go to the mall and the movies, out for lunch, and on fun weekends with these women.
Mindy cannot hold a job for more than a few months and right now she is unemployed. I make her do odd jobs around the house and run errands just to make herself useful. She hates her chores and argues with me about it, which infuriates me. I always try to engage her in conversation about her living situation and she claims that she is happy. How can she possibly be happy? She has no life.
I want to enjoy my golden years with my husband. We are no spring chickens and, as they say, “this isn’t a dress rehearsal.” I want to travel and go to shows and go out to eat with my husband and friends, but I can’t, because of Mindy. My sister and her husband suggested the trip of a lifetime, spending Sukkos together in Israel, and my husband and I had to pass. She thinks I have lost my mind and that I am the one who needs therapy! Do you have any light to shed on an increasingly desperate situation?
Too Old for This
Dear Too Old for This,
Your situation must be a daily struggle. I believe every parent has concerns for their grown children, but most are able to put them on the back burner. You, on the other hand, have to face your concern at the breakfast table, run into the concern in the laundry room, and unwind with your concern over dinner. This is clearly a delicate situation for you and Mindy, and emotions are running high.
I am sure you were and continue to be a devoted mother. Raising five children is no easy task, and no one said every child turns out the way you would have hoped. How wonderful that you have four children who are living their best life. Be proud. It sounds like you laid the solid foundation for their flight into adulthood. Mindy, on the other hand, is a different story. From your letter it seems as though you live with guilt about various things that may have happened or not happened. You wrote there are things you “should have” done differently. Whenever I hear “should have,” I see five destructive letters: G-U-I-L-T.
Raising a child is perhaps the most complicated, delicate job a person can do. It requires infinite decisions, and sometimes we don’t make the right ones. There will come a time when you will have to forgive yourself for the past. You did not include any details but only said that she “fell through the cracks,” so it would be silly of me to surmise or respond to this sentiment. But, if your heart was in the right place and you made well-intentioned decisions, the only thing you can do now is forgive yourself. You were a wonderful mother but you weren’t given a how-to manual for each child.
Where did you get the idea that you “should have” had the answers for each and every child? As successful as your children are, I would bet money that they will make mistakes with their children too. That is just the way it works.
I think the first step to a healthier lifestyle is letting go of the past and forgiving yourself. I think you hold yourself responsible for her mistakes as an adult and you allow her to stay in the house as a way of saying, “I’m sorry for all of my wrongdoings.” This allowance is no favor to Mindy and may be part of what is holding her back from becoming an adult.
Even though Mindy is in her late thirties, she lives like a teenager, arguing about chores, living in a time warp in her preserved childhood bedroom. Mindy is a teenager and you are behaving like the mother of a teenager. This cycle needs to stop so Mindy can leave the nest and you can spend next Sukkos in Israel. The question, then, is how this cycle can be stopped. Expecting the first move to come from Mindy is probably not realistic, so it will have to come from you.
Sit down with Mindy and have a loving but frank conversation. “I realize that our current living situation doesn’t work for me any longer. I love you and want you to live your best life as an independent woman. It is for this reason that we are asking you to leave the house.” You may want to give her a time frame to find a place of her own and a job. The amount of hand-holding you do at this point is up to you. But be very clear that this is over.
Apologizing to Mindy for mistakes you made as a parent may be a very rewarding and freeing experience for you. If these ideas seem like an insurmountable hurdle, then you may want to speak to a qualified therapist about this. He or she may even suggest having the conversation in the therapist’s office to hold your hand through this process.
You are entitled to live your life even if you made mistakes along the way. Be strong, roll up your sleeves, and get ready to do the work. You are about to navigate uncharted territory and “cut the cord.” It may feel scary and at times you may feel downright awful. But have faith that you are doing what is best for you and your daughter. If these feel like gigantic steps that you are not ready to take just yet, then you can still claim your independence in smaller ways. Go out with your husband, have lunch with a friend, and leave the guilt at home.
Jennifer Mann is presently working as a psychotherapist at Ohel. She also works as a relationship coach and can be reached at 718-908-0512.