‘What am I supposed to do?’, the 41-year-old woman opposite me looks lost. Her mother passed away last week. Moniek lived around the corner from her. They went to yoga together, to their allotment garden together and on vacation together. The silent, empty future frightens her. “She was my best friend.” When I hear this sentence during a new intake, I hold my breath because is that healthy?
Somehow I’m jealous of that deceased mother. She was cozy with her child until her death. I also like to be with my daughters, but the eldest left two months ago. Just 18 and gone. The wide world beckoned and I dutifully let go. I feel the pain of loss deep in my poor soul. Her room is empty and ridiculously tidy. I don’t hear anyone singing upstairs anymore.
As tempting as it is to maintain the symbiosis with your child, it is not good. There’s a time for everything. Protection and encouragement at the beginning, letting go in love at the end. I can still see the shy face in front of me. She clung to me. Step by step I taught her that she can do it herself. Now she has her own living space, cooks healthy meals with friends, has fun!
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Moniek ends up in a depressed mourning state. She has no partner or children and hardly any friends. Colleagues at work are kind to her and joint contacts from the garden complex also offer help, but she is completely locked up. She stubbornly insists on an autism study. She isn’t, but then why is her life so bare? She increasingly stays at home and watches television.
What should she feel? That is actually the question in every therapy. Moniek would benefit from feeling that she is allowed to be there as a human being. That she can handle life without that eternal driving force of her mother. Autonomy is a human right. As horrible as it is, mothers need to let go. Her mother apparently couldn’t handle that or didn’t know that she subconsciously kept her daughter small.
Finally, there will be sadness and a little bit of anger. ‘She abandoned me,’ says Moniek. That’s how it feels. She quits Yoga and says goodbye to the allotment garden. Those were actually more her hobbies. There follows a seriously passive time in which she floats on despair. In fact, I worry that she’s going to opt for an untimely end. The doctor prescribes antidepressants.
Meanwhile, my daughter in Amsterdam has a whole new circle of friends. She feels at home there and has dived into her studies. I’m happy and proud, but she hasn’t been home for two weekends and I feel something akin to heartbreak. I had wanted to go on with her for another hundred years, but she declined. Our paths will certainly continue to cross and I look forward to meeting each other. Yet.
Like Moniek, I am in a grieving process. The big difference: I have a sweet partner, a sparkling 16-year-old daughter and empathetic friends. She still has to learn how to live without a mother on her own at the age of 41. I learned that when I was 18e year to study. I still regularly came home to cry or refuel, but only now do I realize that my mother lost me quickly.
Only when you distance yourself from your mother can you grow up to be an independent and autonomous individual. You learn to face problems, make contacts and calm yourself down when you panic. This process starts early. Butter your own sandwiches. Pick out clothes. Only on the bike to dance class. The key to go partying while mom and dad go to sleep. Mothers must learn to trust in their child’s self-reliance.
That didn’t go very well for Moniek. She is only strong in her work. That’s her salvation. She also has the idea that people find her boring. But Monique will be fine. There are more lonely people who crave contact. In therapy we work on a positive self-image and she practices entering the world. At the end of the process, we only say goodbye when she is ready.
And I? Two more years and number two will go. Sigh. I try to enjoy the now, aware of how time flies. When making video calls with my eldest daughter, I enjoy that familiar face. It eases the pain. It’s getting used to. I look forward to Sinterklaas. Then she will definitely come. I am learning to reconcile myself with the next phase. Back to a life without maternal duties, but with wonderful visits from two wonderful people that I will love for the rest of my life.
(ed) Guest blog by psychotherapist Catheleyne van der Laan. She is also the author of the book Unnoticed further.
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