Of all the toxic patterns of maternal behavior, perhaps the most emotionally confusing—and one of the hardest to navigate and deal with—is that of the enmeshed mother. If you were to ask if she loves her daughter, she’d answer you with the utmost surety because, as she sees it, her love is boundless. In truth, it lacks any and all healthy boundaries. What makes it confusing for the daughter is that her mother does love her but this variety of love has a special kind of toxicity nonetheless. It lacks oxygen, for one thing. It is consuming, for another. And, finally, it ignores the fact that the daughter is an individual in her own right.
My friends all adored my mother and envied me. She was always there, anticipating my every need—or so it seemed. When I was a teenager, she suggested I straighten my hair and get my nose fixed to ‘maximize’ my beauty, as she put it. It made me feel flawed—I thought my curls and my nose were fine—but I did it anyway to make her happy. And besides, she was so good to me. She called me five times a day in college and when I didn’t pick up, she’d call my friends to find out where I was. She found me my first job and my first apartment which was three blocks from where I grew up. You see the pattern? I was drowning in love.
Love without boundaries
Culturally, we tend to think of love as being the opposite of a boundary or wall; this is most evident in our tropes about romantic love—as in “being swept off your feet” or “consumed by love”—but it trickles down to the mother-daughter relationship. Popular opinion aside, the psychological truth is that a sense of separateness, along with deep connection, are both necessary as the foundation for the kind of love that helps you thrive. An attuned mother teaches her child that “I am me and you are you” together with “though we are separate and whole on our own, we are closely connected and nourished by our bond.” This is not how the enmeshed mother sees it.
As I discuss in my latest book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, the enmeshed mother, despite all the apparent attention she lavishes on her daughter, ignores her emotional needs just as a dismissive mother does or one high in narcissistic traits. Like the narcissistic mother, the enmeshed mother sees her daughter as an extension of herself. But the effects of having an enmeshed mother, while similar in some ways, are importantly different in others.
The stage mother and other examples
The so-called stage mother is a variation on the theme of enmeshment—a woman who appears to sacrifice her own life and independence in order to garner her daughter fame, fortune, or both. But the sub-plot is quite different as biographies of Gypsy Rose Lee, Judy Garland, and many others attest: The enmeshed mother’s ambitions are the driver, not the daughter’s needs or wants.
Of course, you don’t need to become a movie star or celebrity to have an enmeshed mother, as Vivian Gornick’s searing memoir, Fierce Attachments, makes clear. In fact, you can grow up relatively ordinary in a small American city in New England and have precisely the same experience:
My mother always saw me as the answer to her own thwarted ambitions. I was going to be important and admired as she never was. She pushed me hard and I became an attorney and, for the longest time, I thought that was what I wanted. But despite my success, I was miserable and after wrestling with it for a decade, I quit my law partnership at age 40, retrained, and became a school teacher. Make that a ‘lowly’ teacher in my mother’s eyes. No money and no prestige. It doesn’t matter to her that I’m happy, only that I disappointed her and ‘threw it all away.’ To say that she’s never forgiven me is an understatement. Worse, she’s convinced anyone who will listen that I’m crazy or stupid or both. I had no boundaries with her for years; I do now.
It may take the daughter decades to realize how she’s been affected even if she’s chafed at her mother’s interference from time to time. After all, how her mother behaves feels like love even if it sometimes drives her crazy.
Effects on enmeshment on the daughter’s development
Again, it’s important to realize that these daughters see their mothers as loving and also suffocating which makes for a lot of emotional confusion. It’s only when the daughter finally realizes how she’s being damaged by her mother’s behavior that she begins to take steps to disentangle herself. Many of these mothers are single or widowed; the daughter may be an only child, the only girl in the family, or the last-born separated by a number of years from her siblings.
What differentiates the enmeshed mother from the other types, other than the role-reversed mother, is that, deep down, she does love her child. With therapy and support, this is one of the few mother-daughter relationships that can be salvaged if the mother is willing to listen and accept and respect boundaries. Often, they are.
That said, these are the major effects on a daughter’s behavior and development:
- Has trouble recognizing and articulating her own wants and needs
- Has an impaired sense of self
- Alternates between feeling guilty and feeling angry about her mother
- May be drawn to relationships that are equally engulfing or controlling
Love isn’t really love without the proper balance of separateness and connection, interdependence and independence.
Photograph by Gellinger. Copyright free. Pixabay.com