While the daughter of a dismissive mother suffers because she’s ignored and can end up caught in a cycle of behaviors meant to elicit her mother’s attention—either highly constructive or destructive or both—the enmeshed daughter disappears in the hot glare of her mother’s attention. This daughter lacks a sense of self because her mother only sees her daughter as an extension of herself, and observes no boundaries. The way out of this especially tangled relationship is very difficult and singular because even though the daughter may feel as though she’s choked by the connection, she may also feel loved. It’s a thorny paradox.
The classic example of the enmeshed mother is the stage mother—Gypsy Rose Lee, Frances Farmer, and some contemporary stars had them—or those who hope to live off of, be enriched by, or aggrandized by their daughters’ achievements or status. (Kris Jenner, anyone?) Still others—such as the mother of Vivian Gornick as portrayed in her memoir Fierce Attachments—look to live through their daughters vicariously. I actually went to college with someone whose mother changed her own name to her daughter’s—yes, they became known as Jesse Senior and Jesse Junior—and had her hair cut and dyed to match. She bought doubles of outfits in different sizes and, even though the invention of the cellphone was still thirty years away, managed to call her daughter every morning and evening to “see what she was doing.”
This mother-daughter relationship by definition recognizes no boundaries which in and of itself is highly damaging to the daughter’s development since, in addition to love and support, a child needs to have her sense of being separate validated. An attuned mother communicates the message: “ I am me and you are you and I love you for being you.” The enmeshed mother sends a different one: “You are me and you are nothing without me.”
Sometimes, the enmeshed mother is a woman without a partner or spouse, either because her husband has died or left her; it’s her own unfulfilled needs that drive and define how she connects with her daughter. The enmeshed daughter is often an only child but she may also be the last-born of a number of children who are separated by years. Not knowing where she begins and Mom ends, this daughter looks to her mother for everything from advice to company, unconsciously subjugating her own needs and wants—if she can even recognize them—to her mother’s. During childhood and adolescence, the daughter may chafe at her mother’s intrusiveness but, often, she simply gives in and settles into the routines dictated by the person who says she always knows best.
Young adulthood often presents a crisis for the daughter as she tries to find her own voice—and her mother pushes back. Some enmeshed daughters make it to college and may manage to live on their own, but others fail, moving back to the safety and oxygen-deprived atmosphere of their childhood rooms.
Enmeshed daughters have great difficulty recognizing the problem until they seek professional help and, even then, it can be a uphill battle as Karen’s story makes clear: “My father walked out on our mother when I was fourteen and my brother was twelve. He took everything with him—the paintings on the wall, the furniture in the living room, the sheets and pillowcases in the linen closet—and my mother learned he was gone when she came home to a pillaged apartment after work. She was a salesgirl in a clothing store, and there was no way we could survive on her salary. My father tied her up in court proceedings, knowing she’d have to cave in because she didn’t have the money for an attorney. Well, she borrowed money from friends, cajoled suppliers to give her merchandise on credit, and started a business. My brother and I worked in the business, and we owed her our lives—or, at least, I thought I did. The business was an enormous success, by the way. My brother managed to move out and away, but I didn’t really. I lived at home until I was 29 and then moved to an apartment she picked out and furnished for me. My therapist tried to help me become more independent but, honestly, I don’t think I ever made a decision of my own until she died when I was fifty. She loved me but not enough to let me go and to stand being on her own. That’s really not love, is it?”
Patterns of enmeshment may also emerge from relationships with self-absorbed or narcissistic mothers who also see their daughters as extensions of themselves. These are a bit different since the enmeshment is one-sided, and driven by the daughter’s need to please her mother and stay within her orbit. The mother, in fact, is not enmeshed but a solitary planet.
If daughters who are dismissed, unlistened to, and marginalized suffer from a lack of belonging, enmeshed daughters, in contrast, suffer from a lack of separateness which, without intervention, may put them in the unlucky position of not seeing themselves or being able to identify their own needs. It takes real work to set them free.
Photograph by Miguel A. Amutio. Copyright free. Unsplash.com