When I was an adolescent, my mom used the word “enmeshed” to describe women who had unhealthy relationships with their daughters. They were too entangled, too invested. They had fallen into the trap of “living vicariously through their children.” This was not an ailment to which we had succumbed; we had healthy, appropriate boundaries. While my mother was very much concerned for my well-being and was always there to support me, she was not living vicariously through her children, and the two of us were decidedly not enmeshed.
When my own turn came for raising children, I was determined that I too would maintain such impeccable boundaries.
I sailed through my children’s youngest years without displaying any warning signs. I religiously carved out time for myself despite guilty flares that my independence indicated that I was a selfish mom (slightly less egregious than an enmeshed one). Sure, my oldest daughter and I shared many attributes, and people often called her my “Mini-Me,” but I maintained a firm hold on our separateness.
But as we sat down to choose courses for seventh grade — her first year of middle school — I felt the boundaries begin to slip. Students were allowed three electives each term. Several of these were year-long commitments — band, orchestra, Spanish and yearbook — and the rest rotated at random. A student could skip the year-long electives and opt for a sampling of tech ed, drama, leadership, the modern version of home economics and, of course, P.E.
Physical education was the bane of my childhood existence. During my senior year of high school, I wrote a persuasive essay on why it should not be part of the graded curriculum. I wrote, of course, from the jaded perspective of a student whose GPA was threatened by a handful of B’s in PE.
But it wasn’t just my lack of aptitude and subsequent less-than-perfect marks that caused my great dislike for gym class, it was the sheer discomfort of it all. It was the changing of clothes, revealing my painfully skinny and flat-chested frame. It was the utter humiliation of adorning the prudish black swimsuit in the middle of the day during seventh grade, followed by a shower that would ruin the best of luxurious hairstyles, let alone my frizzy post-perm train wreck. It was my inability to climb a rope or do even one pullup. I dreaded gym class because it magnified all the things I hated about myself: my lack of grace, my awkwardness, my weakness, my scrawny physique.
My daughter and I perused the elective options and sweet relief flooded through me. “You can sign up for band, Spanish and yearbook, and you won’t have to take P.E. — ever,” I told her. I settled back into my chair triumphantly, a weight taken off my chest. My daughter, however, frowned. “But I’m not sure I want to take Spanish. And I want to do the leadership class . . . and try drama!”
I interjected with more practical wisdom. “You can’t pick the electives you want, though. They’re assigned randomly. So you might get drama and leadership . . . or you might get gym class or tech ed.”
She considered this. “I also kind of want to try tech ed.” I sat up straighter. “Seriously?” I still have nightmares about constructing a lamp out of a soda can.
“It would be a gamble,” I told her. “You might get the classes you want, and you might not. Is it worth risking having to take P.E.?”
She chose to take the chance and signed up for band, yearbook and one period of the unknown elective. And I reined myself in. She is not me, I reminded myself. She is braver, she knows who she is, she is more comfortable in her own skin. I felt relieved, knowing I could relax my hold just a little.
This healthy non-enmeshed relationship thing is a work in progress. My daughter came home from a failed sleepover after a friend had pushed boundaries, shown her scary movies despite her protests, then abandoned her to sleep in her parents’ room. My daughter lay awake in a strange room in the dark, rehearsing what she would say to request to go home.
After holding her while she cried, I spent the next hour wide-awake and flooded with adrenaline, understanding every pang she had experienced that night as though it were happening to me circa 1990. The separation between us vanished. She is me.
At her age, I too was the one always pumping the brakes while my peers tested limits. I was the one clinging safely to the side of the metaphorical pool while others explored. How can you not be enmeshed with yourself, reincarnated?
I thought living vicariously through your children meant watching your kid win the high school award you never did, or emailing them for daily updates while they studied abroad in college. It wasn’t supposed to mean sprouting sympathy acne on your chin in the same place where their first-week-of-school-breakout occurred. But it seemed I was mistaken: this brand of vicarious travel meant revisiting the still-fresh hell of the worst years of your life. The weekend before the first day of my daughter’s seventh-grade year, I dreamed I was roaming crowded hallways, searching for my locker and classrooms amid the chaos.
But I am not going into seventh grade again. I survived that year of crying daily into my pastel bed pillows, desperately scanning the cafeteria for a place where I wouldn’t feel painfully out of place, and yes, hyperventilating in the locker room after a cruel remark made by a friend after gym class. I am done with seventh grade. It is my daughter’s turn, and although her emotions and sensitivity mirror my own, she is a kid who does not strategically fill her schedule to avoid gym class. She is her own person, and while she is fragile and easily hurt, she is also stronger and more confident than I was. I understand, cognitively, that the work ahead of me is an exercise in letting go. As with so many things parenting related, though, it is easier said than done.
It seems entirely likely that watching the baby you raised wade into the alligator pit of middle school is actually worse than enduring it yourself. Motherhood, after all, is “to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body,” author Elizabeth Stone said. Sending that heart to a landscape where cruel children turn their backs on your child’s ingenuous greeting? Unfathomable.
I stood in my driveway that first afternoon, waiting to see her appear at the end of the street, having walked home from school for the first time ever. We saw each other at the same time, both breaking into a sprint. Smiling and breathless, we held our arms out as she cried, “Mama!” I felt my heart swell larger than it perhaps ever had before, and I hoped for a good report.
Stephanie Sprenger is a freelance writer, editor, and mother of two girls. She is the co-editor of The HerStories Project, a writing and publishing community for women. She blogs at stephaniesprenger.com, and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.