BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I was married for five years and had a daughter during that time. My divorce became a family crisis for my parents; they’d been married for 29 years and they did not approve of my pursuing a divorce. After I got divorced—when my daughter was 2—my ex was not around and my mother helped me raise her.

My daughter is now 9 and I’ve finally moved on with my life. I live with my fiancé and my daughter calls him Daddy. We have been together for four years and he’s a great father figure. He drops my daughter off at school, helps with her homework, and got her involved in softball.

My mother doesn’t love my fiancé’s involvement. She feels that he’s constantly “suppressing” my daughter by applying rules and boundaries. She wants my daughter to be “free and happy,” and constantly reminds me that he’s not her real father and should not have a say in her life in any way, shape, or form. My mother feels that my daughter shouldn’t be denied anything, because she’s been through so much (my divorce and an absent father). I disagree, and I don’t want her to grow up to be an inconsiderate, spoiled adult.

We are constantly having arguments over this. When I go to my mother’s house, I’m afraid to say no to my daughter, because it will become an argument and my mother always ends up blaming my fiancé.

I love my parents deeply, but I’m starting to feel that I’d be better off having a more distant relationship with them. My fiancé and I are even considering moving an hour away. I just don’t know what to do anymore, and wish I could end the drama once and for all.

Anonymous
Coral Springs, Florida


Dear Anonymous,

I am so sorry that you’re going through this. Many women struggle with mothers who have different ideas about how to raise children, whether the issue is discipline, diet, sleep, or manners. Because grandparents have raised kids before, they tend to think that their advice is for their grandchildren’s benefit. But now they are in an unfamiliar role. If grandparents get all the freedom of not being directly responsible for their beloved grandchildren, they also get none of the agency they had as parents. They don’t get to decide what their grandchildren eat, how much TV they watch, whether they send handwritten or electronic thank-you notes, when they should wear a coat, whether they’re allowed to quit the soccer team, or how to handle their tantrums.

When grandparents intervene in these situations, in their minds, they’re coming from a place of love and concern. There’s a difference, however, between concern and control, just as there’s a difference between a suggestion and a criticism. You don’t say what your mom was like when she was raising you, but it sounds as though she has a hard time seeing other people as separate from herself. She believed that how she felt about divorce should be how you felt about divorce. And now she believes that if she feels that your fiancé’s parenting style is restrictive, then your daughter should feel that way too.

In many cases, when a child grows up with a mother who has difficulty seeing where she ends and where the child begins, the child becomes an adult who has difficulty tolerating differences between what she wants and what her mother wants. That may be what’s happened with you and your mother. For instance, on the one hand, you disagree with your mother’s point of view; on the other, you keep trying to merge with her by either pleasing her or getting her to see things your way. There’s no room for you to be two separate people, and for that separateness to be okay with both of you. You can’t seem to agree to disagree about whether you say yes or no to one of your daughter’s requests; you each try valiantly to get the other to think and feel exactly the same way.

To change this dynamic, you can start by recognizing that your mom brings her own emotional history and makeup to this situation, and that your job isn’t to change how she thinks or feels. It’s simply to get comfortable with the discomfort of her being separate from you. You might start by noticing how intense your mom’s reactions have been to your decision to leave your marriage and to your fiancé’s involvement with your daughter. She didn’t just share her view about divorce with you; the situation became “a family crisis.” Similarly, she doesn’t just want your fiancé to say yes more often to your daughter; she wants him to have no role in caring for her whatsoever (“in any way, shape, or form”), despite how strong their relationship seems to be.

This level of intensity reflects a struggle in her that has nothing to do with how valid your choices are. It could be that she’s jealous that your fiancé has moved into the role she held for the past several years as the co-parent to your daughter, and she’s having difficulty dealing with this loss. Or perhaps her own experiences growing up contributed to her projection (and it is a projection) that your daughter has been so damaged by the divorce and her father’s absence that reparations must be made in the form of indulgence in order for her to have a happy childhood. It might also be that she’s still angry about your divorce and is doing everything she can to push your fiancé away in order to hold a place for your daughter’s father. Or maybe she grew up with parental absence (emotional or physical) and she’s conflating her own pain with the pain your daughter might be experiencing around her dad’s absence. Whatever it may be, it is not your responsibility to heal her by parenting the way she wants you to.

Instead, your job is to get clear about how you think and feel as a parent. Based on your letter, it sounds like in the four years you’ve known your fiancé, he and your daughter have formed a warm relationship that you feel has enriched her life. It also sounds like you believe that kids do best with clear rules and expectations rather than having free rein. (Research supports you on this.)

With that in mind, you’ll need to focus more on being your daughter’s mother than on being your mother’s daughter. This means that when your mother pressures you to do things her way, you explain that you appreciate her concern, but that you feel good about the way you’re doing things and that you don’t need to agree with each other. This also means that you don’t try to justify your position, convince her of anything, or please her. When she continues to push you (and she will), you can explain that what would be most helpful for your daughter’s well-being would be for her to give you positive feedback on what she admires about your parenting, when she feels so inclined, and to find a way to enjoy the fact that her daughter has such an involved male role model in her life; and that although you love her and want to have a close relationship with her, the more she insists on treating you like a child instead of the adult you are, the less time you’ll be spending around her—not only because it damages your relationship, but because it’s not a dynamic you want your daughter to witness.

Throughout all of this, try to remember that even when your mother is terribly upset with you, she loves you very much—she just doesn’t know how to express her love. Keep reminding yourself that her actions say more about her than about you. It will take some time, but if you make these changes, you’ll grow in your confidence as a mother, form a stronger partnership with your fiancé, create a healthy home for your daughter, and finally see how glorious true adulthood can be.


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