Motherhood: Where Codependency is Born
She's an accomplished therapist, a passionate animal advocate, loving wife, daughter, sister and friend. She's also wildly codependent. And I did that to her.
Due to the busy nature of her lifestyle, we don't get to spend as much time together as we'd like, so when the stars do line up just right and I get my "Kelly time"* it is as though I am rediscovering her all over again. I see both the progress she's making as a strong, thirty year old adult - and I am also reminded again in living color, over and over again how I saddled her with all the traits of a full blown codependent woman. The guilt is overwhelming.
Her naturally caring and overly responsible personality has elevated her to the top of her profession in a remarkably short time. But because she struggles with weak boundaries and approval addiction as well as the never-ending need to make everyone in the world happy, her well intended empathy crosses over into hyper-vigilance coupled with a subtle but powerful need to control the universe. I see it because I was the same way.
One would think that as a successful therapist who specialized in addiction and all that goes with it, she would be painfully aware of her tendencies. But that's the dirty little secret of the codependent disorder: we immersed in fixing and helping everyone else because working on us is just too scary. In addition, there is the lethal belief that is often permanently embedded in the mind of someone conditioned in a dysfunctional environment: "I am so messed up that I am beyond help. I am a fraud. Who I am is not acceptable." These kinds of thoughts result in the person 'acting' her way through life, being whatever and whoever she needs to be in order to fit in and not be rejected. This is a particularly dark and deep hole in the mind to crawl out of. I know from personal experience, too.
People like Kelly are cherished by all because they are loving without limits and can't say 'no.' To this end, Kelly has been in no less than eighteen weddings in the last five years, which gets to be exhausting and expensive. But she still says 'yes' and even throws the bridal showers.
As a still-wet-behind-the-ears young professional barely out of graduate school, she accepted the offer by her employer to start up an entire department. Two years later she was a nervous wreck, losing her hair, depressed, anxious and angry. It took the enormous and relentless pressure of single-handedly being responsible for the well-being of a large group of addicts in recovery along with the frightening task of handling the business end of a hospital department in a remote location (i.e. literally alone) for her to finally beg for help. The experience of having to speak up has been one of the most painful and empowering lessons of her life. I'm grateful for that.
As the mother of this cheerful, engaging and generally delightful young lady, I'm very proud. But when I look closely at her with my 'mom' eyes, I am filled with regret. Her skin is still breaking out, her hair is thinning, she seems like someone whose had way too much caffeine. In reality, she's vegan, drinks no caffeine and very little alcohol. She and her husband of five years are trying to conceive. So far, it's not happening. personally, I wonder if its because she just can't relax.
And I can't get over the idea that in a way, I'm responsible for all of it.
*names are changed
What Went Wrong?
You may wonder what kind of sick childhood her father and I subjected her to. The truth is, she was a much anticipated and adored baby. We thought she was perfect in every way. In retrospect, that belief is, in fact, the foundation for codependency. I expected her to be perfect. And I wanted to be the perfect mother since my own upbringing was absolutely messed up. It never occurred to me that I couldn't model what I had never seen. I would just do the opposite of what had been done to me.
There was an unfortunate divorce when she was five. I remember well the moment when we were at the kitchen table and her father explained that he was moving out. The confusion and sadness on her face was too painful to look at. I was ashamed that I was putting her - my perfect child - through such an ugly experience. Although I was too lost in my own pain to realize it at the time, that was the day - the specific day - Kelly started having headaches which resulted in endless trips to doctors and ultimately a wonderful counselor. Kelly was following me everywhere to the point where I couldn't turn around without tripping over her. The counselor told me that if we didn't get to work fast, Kelly could easily become Borderline. Not fully understanding what that meant, I did know that she was suffering because of my choice to leave her father. More guilt.
Fortunately, Kelly responded well to treatment. Either that or I chose to go along with her ever-escalating need for approval behavior. Regardless, she was compliant and seemed to be happy. I was working full time, managing our home and also trying to raise my second daughter who was born with a myriad of physical and intellectual problems. Once again, I was overwhelmed and nobody can do a great job of parenting in that state.
Although I adored my kids, I had a low tolerance for conflict. When I wanted them to do something, I expected the to do it. For better or worse, they're both stubborn. On many occasions life became a battle of wits. No matter who won, we all lost because I had the guilt from losing my temper and they learned to feel nervous for fear of being wrong or less than perfect which opens the door for the fear of rejection. All roads lead to the terrifying thought of abandonment, a natural outcome of divorce.
I told myself they had it made compared to what I was raised with. I made sure I told them daily that I loved them. I am a touchy-feely person so I hugged and cuddled with them a lot. Nobody ever did any of that in my childhood.
I spoke validating words to them so much that an outsider might have thought I was obnoxious. But that was to compensate for the endless times I was told by my parents that I was stupid and worthless. Their actions (or lack of responses) also sent the clear message that I was just in the way. I was determined to make sure my own daughters knew how important they were to me.
How confusing it must have been to them to have me assuring them in the morning that they were the most wonderful children ever only to be snapped at in the evening because they wanted to play when all I wanted to do is put my feet up. Although I never broke my promise to myself not to call them names or compare one to the other, all moms know that we can set a child's heart to pounding with one certain, hateful look. My grown kids still talk about mine. It was scary, I admit. It sent a loud, unmistakable message: 'you are bad.'
The good news is that because I am very upfront about my feelings, my daughters and I have always been very close. I am quick to apologize. I do it a lot, both for things I do and for those that I did all those times in the past. We have healthy conversations about emotional health, divorce, and other difficult topics. I'm very grateful for that.
The fact that I've put my whole life (including some things I had never told them about previously) in a book about codependency has forced us to have many frank conversations. Fortunately, it has worked to make us even closer and more honest.
However, when I see how my daughters still struggle with the after effects of flawed parenting (not all together bad parenting, just flawed) it hurts. As their momma, I wish I could do some things all over again so they would never have to experience that kind of inner turmoil.
I am reminded in those times of the story about the well-meaning man who couldn't bear to watch a tiny bird trying to break out of its egg. He felt so bad for the baby as it struggled so hard and the man simply wanted to help, so he broke the shell open to make the baby bird's entrance into life easier. But alas, because the chick didn't have to go through the hours of work to come into the world, it wasn't strong enough to survive and so it died without ever having lived.
Our struggles make us stronger. This is my redemption: I inadvertently set my girls up to get stronger through adversity.
What I've Learned: Tips on Healthy Parenting
I have no right to call myself an expert on parenting, but I do believe that if we're smart and learn from our mistakes, we do have the responsibility to pass that knowledge on to others who may be heading down the same path. And I have learned a few things.
- Unless you are one of those fortunate people who were raised in stable, secure homes, seek out healthy role models. If you fantasize that you're just going to do the opposite of what you know, like I did, you can't help but fail because you just don't know what to do when the hard parts come. Read, take a class, get counseling or join a support group. Even a kind neighbor can be a lifesaver. Learn what good parenting looks like. This is no time to fake it.
- Be mindful. Notice when you are exhausted, or when your child is having a bad day. Try to give yourself and him a little extra latitude. In other words, stop trying to make everything go the way you think it should in your perfect plan.
- Stop trying to control everyone and everything. This is the single biggest stress trigger in life over all. Learning to breath and let things be is a lot harder than it sounds. But it will help snuff out daily melt downs.
- Let your children's characters and personalities form. Trying to make them what you think they should be is a terrible burden to put on them and only results in compliant and eventually rebellious attitudes.
- Take care of you! I learned the hard way from years of exhaustion and endless maladies that if I don't nurture myself I cannot be good for anyone else. A tired mother is an impatient, mean and potentially dangerous one. Rest. Walk. Pray. Maintain your hobbies. Remember to laugh. Sounds impossible? You have no time? I thought that, too. This is why I put my first tip at the top. You must have some sort of support system in place so you're not alone in the uniquely important job of parenting. Make certain your partner does his or her share.
I often wonder what my family might have been like if I had been raised in a happy, safe environment, was instilled with healthy beliefs and had a loving family around to help me raise my own beautiful children.
Every time I let myself do that, I always come to the same conclusion: if one thing had been different, I wouldn't be me and my girls wouldn't be them. And although there has been and will always be problems, we are blessed with the strength and wisdom that can only come from overcoming.
Kelly is on a path of discovery. And while she may be tightly wound, exhausted and losing hair now, she is on a journey. She is, after all my daughter. One day, she will be a much finer, stronger woman than I ever could be. And when her babies are born (and I know there will be babies) she will be a much better parent than I could ever hope to be. Her children will grow up to be more solid and well adjusted than she and I were. It will go on and on until one day, codependency and dysfunction will be a distant, forgotten memory in our family.
That's the beauty of progress and that's why I can forgive myself for my errors and release the guilt I feel when I see myself in my daughters. Nothing stays the same. With work, we continually evolve. Now, I can even see that my parents weren't bad people, just damaged ones. What must they have been raised with? And their parents and those before them?
Just as codependency is a generational problem, it also presents a generational opportunity. I stand at the crossroads looking at where I came from and where my daughters are going and I see progress.
When I put my 'mom' eyes on and look at my girls, I do feel my constant companions Guilt and Worry. But more than anything, I feel grateful.
Jeanette Menter is the author of, "You're Not Crazy-You're Codependent"