Weddings, and wedding planning, are ripe for seeds of conflict to bloom into family feuds. Details take on exaggerated, symbolic importance as family members jockey for position in the new family constellation. Quarrels over plans disguise deeper anxieties about loss, loyalties, boundaries, and autonomyespecially for mothers and daughters.
Difficulties with separation often are activated during developmental transitions such as the first day of kindergarten, adolescence, high school graduation, leaving home and finally, marriage. Mothers need to step back and let go at these junctures, allowing their children to mature and transition to the next level. When girls get married, the final stage of letting go in the mother-daughter relationship, mothers may hold on too tight in an effort to ward off anxiety associated with separation and loss.
Julia’s mother, Sandra, was traditional and wanted her daughter to have a traditional religious ceremony. But Julia recently had become an atheist, which Sandra took as a personal affront. Ironically, Julia chose to marry a man from a traditional background – filling Sandra with hope. He seemed open to either lifestyle.
The blow came at the beginning of the wedding planning. Julia announced casually the type of wedding she had in mind – and there were no signs of anything traditional. She and Sandra became involved in a struggle, culminating in Sandra’s attempt to pull Julia’s fiance into the divide.
Not surprisingly, Sandra’s relationship with Julia began spiraling downward. As the distance between them increased, Sandra became peripheral in Julia’s life. At first Sandra was angry, but this turned to fear as she began experiencing the reality of losing her daughter.
This crisis spurred Sandra to relinquish control and back off her position. After a few months, she tentatively eased back into Julia’s life – this time from a more neutral position. Relieved to be back in the fold, she was able to notice and make peace with differences between them, thereby making room for Julia. Interestingly, Julia ultimately decided to have a traditional ceremony – a decision she only divulged shortly before the wedding.
“Good enough mothering” involves a delicate dance of noticing and attuning to the child’s own rhythm, and adjusting one’s own rhythm to be in sync with the child’s need for closeness or distance, stimulation or retreat. Healthy attachment requires mothers to be secure enough to allow their children to differentiate from them without pulling them back in – or withdrawing – out of feeling rejected.
Unresolved issues from the mother’s own childhood, particularly around separation and loss, can impede their capacity to allow the child’s needs and rhythms not their own to guide attachment. Children who demonstrate separation anxiety when starting school frequently have mothers with untreated separation anxiety. When the mother’s problem is treated, the child’s symptoms often disappear.
Julia fought for her autonomy rather than give in to Sandra’s need to reaffirm their oneness as the wedding approached. Because Sandra initially did not allow Julia her own voice, Julia needed to sort out her own beliefs from those she may have taken on to please, or defy, her mother. She needed to test her own resolve and be willing to bear the risks this would incur.
Ultimately, Julia was released from the distraction of having to prove – or submerge – her sovereignty when Sandra gave up the need for Julia to accommodate her. From a position of choice vs. defense, Julia had the clarity to recognize that she genuinely shared certain values with her mother, which she now could embrace as her own instead of rejecting.
Julia and her mother did the groundwork of redefining the parameters of their relationship, accommodating Julia’s differences and allowing a more natural rhythm. The terms of their connection will continue to be tested over time, especially when Julia has children of her own, when similar themes will reemerge.