If you are contemplating this question, there’s a good chance your mom does lean on you too heavily!
Idealistic notions of Mothers abound in our culture. It’s wonderful when a mother and
adult child enjoy a close and loving relationship that is mutually satisfying. But sometimes, the closeness takes on an unhealthy dynamic called enmeshment that overwhelms or burdens the child, and serves primarily to meet the needs of the parent. Often this dynamic is established early the child's life.
I’m focusing on mothers because I don’t see this pattern with fathers and children as frequently - but of course fathers and children can be too close as well.
How do you know if your relationship with your mom is TOO close?
To answer this question, first ask yourself what you are feeling and experiencing that led you to google this question or read this article with interest. Are you confused by how much more involved you are in your mother’s life than your friends’ are in theirs? Does your mom call or text you too much? Do interactions with your mom leave you feeling drained, anxious, guilty, exasperated, or angry? Does your mom’s frequency or urgency of contact feel burdensome and intrusive upon your time/ work/ relationships/ need for personal space? Do you feel unheard and irrelevant because your conversations with your mom are largely one-sided and focused on her feelings and concerns? Is your mom treating you like a best friend, reaching out first (and only) to you any time she wants emotional support?
The parent’s job
Let’s review the job of parenthood in the most fundamental sense. A parent’s job is to emotionally nurture, teach, provide for, and protect their child as he grows, helping him develop the internal resources and practical skills to thrive in the world as an adult. It is natural and necessary for the child to seek greater and greater independence over time. Every child must distance himself from his parents in age-appropriate ways in order to master new skills, develop other meaningful relationships, and to develop his identity as a distinct person, separate from his parents (a process therapists called individuation). This includes the development of his own social support network outside the family - friends, romantic partners, and children of his own.
Parents need to allow and encourage appropriate individuation. They also need to develop and maintain their own healthy adult relationships and support systems, taking care not to impose their emotional needs on their children.
So while the parent must be present and available to meet the growing child’s needs, the child is not responsible for meeting the parents’ needs.
But for a variety of reasons, some mothers didn't get the memo.
Who is the adult here?
In a confusing role reversal, some mothers look inappropriately to their children to meet their own emotional needs, rather than the opposite. This places a double burden on the child, whose own emotional needs may be largely unmet, and additionally, she must carry the weight of her mother’s emotional material. Furthermore, her mom may demand a level of intimacy or involvement that is inappropriate or overwhelming for her child, who has her own life and relationships.
Your mother is your mother
If you and your mom are very close, and it is truly by your choice, and it truly nourishes you, then good for you! But if you are sometimes - or often - feeling overwhelmed by your mother’s needs or demands, and you don’t feel you can get the space you need, it’s time to take a good look at the relationship and consider what changes can to be made to increase your relationship satisfaction.
Remember, at the end of the day, your mother is not your best friend, your spouse, or your patient. She is your mother. She is a generation older than you, and she is in a position of unique power over you by virtue of the powerful mother-child relationship. She is a grown woman with her own life separate from yours, her own relationships (hopefully), and her own capacity to find the resources she needs. You have a right to live your own independent life fully and without guilt!
Read this blog post to go deeper into the signs and consequences of enmeshment, and some of the reasons this type of dynamic develops in families.
Maysie Tift is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Certified Master Hypnotist with offices in San Rafael, CA and San Francisco, CA.