Moms and Codependency, Part One
We’re Swiss Cheese People: Pinpoint Your Needs and Your Pattern of Parenting
*This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of our magazine. Part two is in the current issue mailing this week! If you're not current a member, register now to get a beautiful, inspirational mom mag in your mailbox every couple months.
I’d love to go on a date with my husband, but I can’t,” an exhausted mom explains. Crying, she continues, “Our toddler falls apart whenever I try to leave the house. My husband pushes me to take more time away … he thinks I’m crazy. I just feel SO awful when our daughter gets upset, because meeting her needs is my most important job in life.”
Hmm ... so no dates with hubby, I reflect. “What about hobbies?” I ask. “Goals? Friends? Self-care?” Her answer seems defensive: “Never.” We talk at length and find that this pattern started long before she became a mother.
“We’re all born Swiss cheese — full of holes — needs that are starving to be met,” I say often from my cliché black leather therapist’s chair. If we’re parented well and life is relatively trauma-free, then we grow up with a strong sense of identity. And we become fairly balanced in meeting our needs and others. But if childhood needs aren’t met, codependency may become the lifelong survival strategy.
Neglecting Your Needs and Interests
What is codependency? Controlling or excessively taking care of others to the neglect of self is the basic idea of codependency —a term that describes a collection of painful symptoms. Codependent people chronically overextend themselves, rescue others from natural consequences, nag, worry, smother, cling, can’t say no, feel guilty when they do. In general, they’re martyrs. Other symptoms of codependency include prioritizing your own needs, wants, interests and goals so far behind others that you feel lost and confused as to what those things even are or allowing others to disrespect your boundaries and limits.
So what happens when a codependent person has a baby? A baby flips life upside down. When a child is born, every single need of a baby has to be met by someone else. So it’s natural and necessary for a child’s parents to be consumed with the baby’s needs. The problems occur when this pattern doesn’t change as the child gains independence.
Codependent parents neglect their own maintenance and development while meeting only their children’s needs. They never regain the balance of meeting their own needs, even after their child begins to meet his/her own needs. A parent’s emotions are often dictated by those of the child.
Struggling to set limits and enforce consequences, rescuing their kids from developmentally appropriate struggles with peers, teachers and extra-curricular activities are other examples of codependent parental behavior. These parents just cannot tolerate their children’s pain or failures.
But this behavior trains the child to be overly dependent upon the parent in order to dictate his/her identity and emotional stability. For example, a boy grows to expect his mom to attend to his every desire, so he melts whenever she can’t. She fruitlessly expects him to get filled up enough to give her a break, but he won’t because he needs her in order to function.
Growing Up Swiss Cheese Survival Behaviors
Let’s go back to the Swiss cheese analogy: full of holes — needs that are starving to be met. A child growing up in a chaotic family begins to strategize ways to get her needs met. The child subconsciously reasons, If I fix what is bothering Mama and Daddy, then we’ll be a happier family. Or, everyone here fights so much, I have to be even more low-maintenance and not add to this chaos. Or perhaps a codependent mom models her extreme self-neglect to her daughters who in turn grow up to imitate this behavior, believing, This is just what a good mom does.
These thoughts become survival behaviors that become habits that in turn become a way of life. Though the adult child no longer has to serve others in order to survive, she finds herself unable to resist the compulsion of over-focusing on others to the neglect of herself. The adult child is just doing what she was raised to do.
Pursue Yourself & Take Back Parental Authority
If you’ve been codependent with your children, here are two areas you can begin to heal. One, be intentional about gradually pursuing yourself. And two, take back the parental territory you’ve abdicated.
Pursuing yourself means practicing self-care and that looks different for every person. Find activities that are life-giving and energizing and make you feel alive from the inside out. While you’re doing these activities, abstain from your to-do list items and serving others — even when it’s hard. Self-care may not feel natural to you in the beginning, but in time, taking care of you will become part of the intentional rhythm of your healthy family.
What area of parental authority have you given away that your gut (and your husband) tells you needs to be reclaimed? Bedtime? Bath time? Your ability to leave the house? Quiet, solo play? Start with one area. Then talk about how to address this problem ahead of time. Plan extra time for your child’s strong emotional reactions. Be prepared to enforce reasonable consequences for misbehavior and work toward consistency while patiently empathizing.
Start slowly and do not make drastic changes in a panic. Be prepared for your children to grieve (um ... throw big fits) in response to these changes. Do not stop their grieving by fighting back, bargaining or talking them out of their feelings. Tolerating your child’s big feelings can be very painful, but they desperately need you to develop their independence. Reassure him/her by planning a future play time just for you and your child.
Turning my client’s life upside down for her child’s chronic, intense needs was 100 percent normal when her daughter was a newborn. But once the family caught their rhythm, it was time to remember that mom’s life is a precious gift too. And just like her baby, mom is a treasure with a world of potential to be developed.
"Pursuing yourself means practicing self-care and that looks different for every person.”
Self-care for Mom
Self-care isn’t just a buzz word. Have you ever seen a severely anorexic person? Did you try hard not to stare at her gaunt, emaciated body? Did you think, HOW can she do that to herself?
What if other people could plainly see our emotional and psychological health? How many mothers would look starving, weak and barely able to function? But since we can’t visibly see these things, we can appear strong, robust, organized, serving … and no one is the wiser. Even ourselves.
When you don’t care for yourself, you are sentencing yourself and your loved ones to live with a lesser version of YOU.
You will be less alive, creative, present and strong in this world. When you’re chronically running on nearly empty tanks, how often do you laugh? How patient are you? How present are you? Taking a small amount of time and energy to regularly fill yourself up pays off exponentially to the people closest to you.
Do you have nagging unfulfilled dreams? Is it possible to explore even a portion of one of them? What activities feel like play to you? What budget of time and money is realistic for your family to put toward your repair and maintenance?
- Do I give freely or is my giving out of obligation? How do I feel when others don’t do for me what I have done for them?
- Do I chronically feel stuck in my parenting, like I am a victim of my child’s emotions?
- Have healthy friends or family members expressed concern for my level of self-sacrifice as a parent?
- How do I feel about my children’s pain? Their risks? Their successes and failures?
Kelley Gray, MA, LPC, is currently thrilled to be recovering from codependency while managing her private counseling practice of 12 years. She lives with her husband, Brian, and two daughters in the Denver, Colorado area. Follow her at website or on Twitter.