I have a fairly new friend who’s the mother of an only child, a friend of my daughter. I like both of them just fine. Except there’s this little switch somewhere in my mind that flips when I hear or think “only child” that turns on a sign, much like the EXIT signs in a movie theater. This particular sign says “Enmeshment”.
I don’t think it’s a guarantee that every only child is going to have an enmeshed relationship with one or both of their parents. It’s just a warning of potential sign, which is not limited to only child situations. And, of all the things possible that can happen in parent-child relationships, there are degrees, some more harmful than others. Some enmeshment is silent and insidious, some is overt and obvious, sometimes the kids don’t realize what’s going on any more than the parent does, sometimes the kid feels it when they get older and want to undergo normal separation, sometimes there are so many benefits, particularly material ones, that the kid consciously participates in maintaining the enmeshment. I don’t think any truly loving parent means to get so overly involved in their child’s life that they start occupying their emotional space. I think sometimes, it’s just a thing that happens.
In my own history, I have distinct reasons for being sensitive to enmeshment. My mother was so completely absorbed in my older sister’s life that she pretty much ruined my sister’s chance to have healthy, normal relationships. For my sister, Mom was constantly telling her what to do, what to think, what to wear, doing mind-reading that was largely egocentrically reflective of Mom’s state of mind or motivations. She’d spend hours and hours brainwashing my sister. There were secondary consequences, too – she had my sister convinced for years that the normal state of affairs in a relationship was for the other partner to be obsessed and completely preoccupied with what my sister wanted, thought, felt, might think, and that the other person should be able to read her mind to know her wants. It was scary sometimes, even after my sister moved thousands of miles away from Mom. And, to me, it’s sad. It’s taken my sister decades to recuperate even a little from the narcissism that Mom brainwashed her into. I’m awfully proud of her that she has done so and continues to do so; I know it’s been an immensely hard journey for her.
When my sister went off to college, which was the same year my parents divorced, Mom was so absorbed in herself and her own feelings that I was ignored, which was not a new state of affairs for me; Mom had pretty much ignored me for most of my childhood anyway. The difference was that when she did notice me, Mom wanted ME to be absorbed in her pain, feeling everything on her behalf, suffering for her, and any deviation from that she took as a conscious betrayal of her right to occupy my emotional space. That caused her a lot of rage, and she took it out on me.
It’s been a lot of years since then, and not by any stretch of the imagination do I think that that particularly twisted, dangerous and intensified form of enmeshment is the norm for only children. I don’t automatically assume that all enmeshment is that severe or damaging. I think the net result, as the two things cross, is that I have overly sensitive trip wires, which cause that “Enmeshment” sign to turn on in my head.
Sometimes I hear stories, told in completely innocent obliviousness, of parenting that seems to cross the line into enmeshment or distinct over involvement. But, it’s not my life, and no one put me in charge of anyone else’s parenting. So, when that happens, I think of it as merely a starting point for evaluating my own parenting. As a mother, it’s easy to be too much of a mother and smother kids with love, attention, affection, interest, and input. At what point does it become too much? At what stage am I crossing the line between being loving and involved and wind up treading in their emotional space instead?
When the kids were little, my husband gave me some good insight. I would lunge for Spawn every time he thudded into something, thinking I was being a good mom in preventing him from bashing his brains out onto the floor, or thinking it was my job to keep him from hurting his tiny, fleet-footed, heedless self, and I should kiss all the boo-boos and promptly bandage all the scrapes. Hubs pointed out that Spawn needed to crash into a few things to learn for himself to be more careful. He also pointed out that I was depriving Spawn of the chance to recover from doing so on his own and, here’s the big point, I was preventing him from learning to trust himself to be able to recover from a mishap.
He needed to learn to trust himself. And, it is good mothering to let him do so, even if I can fix a problem faster, better, more efficiently, and deliver a lecture on how to avoid whatever it was in the future. The point is not that I can do it for him; the idea is to let him learn to do it himself and then trust himself to do it. Over time, he’ll get better at it, and, maybe someday, he’ll ask for advice. Or not. And learning that starts early.
That goes hand in hand with another adage I remember from the early years of parenting, that a little neglect is good for kids. They will learn lessons in your absence that they need to learn, too. One of those lessons is self-sufficiency, another is self-confidence.
I think it’s those are profound, valid, and important lessons. Too much neglect is bad, of course, but I was not being a good mother by being constantly in Spawn’s space any more than it would have been good mothering to ignore him for days at a time. It’s harder though. It’s harder to be a little neglectful, a little distant, to ignore them a little, to be a little unconcerned about what goes on when I’m not looking than it is to be involved in their minutiae.
And, I think that’s what often gets left out of the parenting of only children and why my “Enmeshment” sign goes off. Are the kids being given enough time to be someone else, someone who can rely on him or herself? Do they get to make mistakes? And fix them? Are they being urged or emotionally forced to share the who, what, when, where, how of their learning? Do they get to have and keep experiences that don’t involve their parents? Including bad ones? Does everything have to be a family venture? Do they learn to deal with failure and success all on their own? Do they have enough privacy and personal strength to occupy their own personal space in the universe without it depending on their parents in any way?
I don’t know if I’ve done a good job picking times to stay out of my kids’ business and times to stick my big foot in. I know I’ve tried. Sometimes I’ve failed, and I know that, too. I do think, though, that just knowing and understanding the lesson my husband passed on has been a huge help to me.