Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Price of Emotional Dependence

As my parents have gotten older and are having increased trouble both physically and with their dementia, some stuff has been percolating up about my relationship with them, and specifically with my mother.

She grew up with a very cold, Jewish-Russian mother who, as my mother puts it, didn’t want kids at all in her life.  My grandmother was one of a very few Russian women who had earned her doctorate and was a physician.  She immigrated to the United States with her husband, an entrepreneur, just before the Holocaust reached it’s tipping point.


When she got to America, she had planned to continue as a physician and start a practice in the States.  However, she got pregnant and ended up having three daughters, each about 4-5 years apart from each other.

As my mother tells it, her mother felt burdened by her first daughter’s arrival, my mother’s older sister.  And when my mother arrived, her mother was derailed permanently from her career and was unkind enough to remind all three of her daughters about it for the rest of her life.

Now who knows if she really would have continued to practice in America even if she never had had any children?  The point is that my mother’s cold, critical and unloving mother made my mother feel she was an intrusion and never shared any warmth with her.  For the rest of my mother’s life, I believe she has been seeking the feeling of connection she didn’t have growing up.

I’m sure a whole book could be written about the dynamics there, and it’s a no-brainer that my mother’s younger sister has stayed neutral and out of the way of all of the family ‘mishegoss.’  This includes living 3000 miles from her other two sisters.  A short visit every three months or so suites her fine, and I really can’t blame her, actually admire her for knowing how to maintain whatever distance she needs.

But as she has gotten older, and my mother is having trouble maintaining the way she had generally done ‘business’ in her relationships.  Some of the ways she interacted with people are not possible anymore because of her deteriorating mental capacity, and as a result, her methods have become more transparent.

My mother has always been a personable and helpful person.  She was a child development specialist in trade, so her desire to help others less fortunate than her is clear and deep.  I can state without any speculation that she has this motivation to help others because of how ignored and inconsequential she was made to feel by her mother.  She has told me this many times over her life.

I do love my mother and am grateful for what she has given me in my life.  And one would think that being the adopted son of my mother would be a fine match; a needy kid who has lost both of his parents and a well-to-do child development specialist who couldn’t have kids of her own would blend into a perfect symbiotic relationship.

However, like most things in life, it hasn’t been that simple.  My mother’s desire to help people came from that very painful and dark absence of connection and compassion from her mother as I described, and so in her desire to help others, she unconsciously wanted something in return in addition to the good feeling she got from assisting others.

Her helping others, especially when it got into lengthened and meaningful relationships, had an undercurrent of wanting to keep people dependent on her.  I’m sure this filled a need to feel loved and wanted, something I’m not sure if she even got very much from my father.  This is true for a lot of people, however, with my mother, it was intense and shaped the dynamics of how her relationships with people were molded.

And while I have great compassion and admiration for her, I write this knowing that I was not alone in how I felt manipulated at times in my relationship with her.  Others have confided similar feelings to me.  The way it worked was that my mother would understand what someone desired, give it to them, and in return, got a feeling of some amount of superiority. 

There were times growing up that I wanted something for myself, and she put her desires ahead of mine, but not in a clean, clear way.  Her desires would be presented for my own good or pleasure.  All parents do this to some extent now and then just to get their child to do something or behave.  But she operated in this mode all of the time.

I remember one trip to New York where we would stay with my aunt in her Central Park West apartment.  This trip was during college when I was really into acoustic jazz.  I had found out that Woody Allen played clarinet in a little Dixieland jazz ensemble on Monday nights in a restaurant called, “Michaels” on the East side of the Park.  I had planned to see him for weeks before the trip.

The afternoon of the show, which was made up of two sets, my mother said that some cousins were available for dinner that night, and that she wanted me to go with her and my father.  She said I would have an enjoyable time with them.  I reminded her that this was the night I was going to go see Woody Allen, but she said that she really wanted me to go to dinner and spend time with the family, and then I could go to the pub later.  I finally relented and went to dinner.

After dinner was over and I had served my time, I got myself over to Michaels to find that Woody Allen ritually only plays in the first set of the evening, and that I had just missed him.  I remember feeling like I had yet again betrayed myself to please my mother and accommodate whatever vision she had for our New York evening, and that I somehow wasn’t allowed to have “Fred’s New York evening.”  And again, my frustration didn’t come from this one incident on this one night, but rather a recognition that this was a pattern of hers.  And I had nothing in common with those cousins at dinner by the way.

Throughout most of my growing up, I remember my mother often giving away things; money, clothes, accessories and jewelry.  On the surface, it appeared that she liked doing things for people, and in her heart she did.  But it’s what was going on underneath in which there was an air of passive condescension that made her interactions “not clean.”

By giving something to someone, she was saying in a way, “You look like you could use something to liven you up or make you look a bit more sophisticated.”  Or she often did actually say, “You look tired,” or “That’s a bad cut (haircut).”  She believed she was giving you permission to feel tired, or allowing you to not be at your best looking.  But it was the fact that she felt entitled to give you the permission in the first place that made the interaction uncomfortable.

I borrowed money from my mother on many occasions.  It’s one thing to own money to someone, or maybe be given money by someone as a gift.  But there was a different feeling involved with I was given something from her.  The favor always smacked of her seeming to have some say over my sense of well-being; that she then gave herself the freedom to be critical of me, and that it was a way to leverage my attachment to her.  I know this because of my long-time compulsion to always be “ok” or “fine” around her.  If I let slip that was anxious about something, or that I wasn’t sure of myself, then I was about to sign a contract with my mother extending an uncomfortable emotional dependency on her.  It was a heavy price to pay.

It was always easy to fall into because she has always been very warm and psychologically soothing to talk to, and in this way, she draws in a person’s trust by asking questions about their personal life and then forming an attachment with them.  But in that very process is where she starts to feed herself with the feeling of helper to helpee and creates a dynamic that is not an even playing field.

Another example of this pattern could be seen in the extended relationships she made with former youngsters she worked with.  I felt that these relationships went way beyond what is appropriate for teacher-student or teacher-client relationships, not physically in any way, but in terms of length of contact. 

My mother was a kind of social worker for the court system checking to see if kids should be kept in their homes, or if they needed to be placed with foster-care.  She would help inner city kids with their cases for some period of time.  But in several instances, she maintained contact with them for years and years, giving them gifts and money when they asked for it.  It was a sort of enabling that prevented these kids to go off on their on and take care of themselves. 

Her reason for this was that she wanted to provide these kids with at least one consistent person in their lives, namely her, since these kids often bounced around from placement to foster home.  There might have been something to this in theory, but the fact that she provided the gifts and the money made it clear to me that her own need was at play here.  She wanted to feel needed, and the things she gave these former clients ensured that they would depend on her.

There was one former client in particular, the last in this series, who our family literally had to force away from coming to my parents’ house asking for money.  At the age of 30, this person would never be independent because of his lack of maturity and, if given the chance, would always seek out my mother. 

It was a perfect scenario for my mother until she started losing her facilities and couldn’t maintain the complicated meeting arrangement they would make to avoid my father’s fury about the whole matter.  When we were heavily discouraging my mother to continue to maintain a relationship with this person, my mother admonished us saying that this person was “hers.”  It was bizarre to say the least.

What she feared the most in all of these cases and interactions was for the person not to need her anymore and to become independent.  And, although growing up, she gave me most of the tools to become independent of her, it still follows at the time of this writing that she always feels closest to me and most satisfied and satiated with my visits when there is some problem I am presenting her that she can solve for me or give advice on.  And in these meetings, I can feel within these transactions, marbled and baked, the sense that inside her, she is saying, “See, you really need and benefit from me; what would you do without my advice?  So I am still very careful about what I reveal to her.

As her verbal skills have diminished and as she is not able to “keep it together” very well or for very long, this behavior has become more transparent because she can’t really go through the whole process smoothly, and as a result, I think it’s become more clear to me recently how this emotional currency worked and why I have reacted to her behavior in certain ways.