I feel trapped by my family

How can I move on with my life without abandoning my mother?

Published November 21, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I recently stumbled upon your column, and have been enjoying your artfully put words of wisdom. I hope you have something similar for me.

I am a 22-year-old recent college graduate with two BAs, a member of the "overeducated and underemployed" community living and working in New York City. I came to New York after graduation in May for an internship opportunity, but mostly in order to stay near my school (where my then-boyfriend continues to attend) and my family -- I grew up in a suburb.

Cary, New York City is bringing me down. I broke up with my ex (thankfully with very little emotional scarring), and have found it easy to maintain my close relationship with my brother via Internet and phone -- he spends most of his time away at school anyway. I have rarely left the East Coast and have only left the country once, on a trip to Canada that I was too young to remember.

I have been to New York City for every field trip, family outing and special occasion.

Now that I live here I have this constant nagging urge to get out! Go west, north, south and see what else is in this country. I'm young, with nothing tying me down except the need to eat, sleep in a bed and slowly chip away at my student loan debt. I could do this anywhere, even in the service industry, where I am currently employed. Frankly, I could probably do it more easily in another city where the rent isn't so high.

The problem is my mother. Our parents are long broken up, something she has always had trouble accepting and coping with. The resulting debt from the split and both parents' unemployment or underemployment since has forced her to sell our house. She will soon be moving into an apartment as she cannot afford even a more modest home. Alimony from my father is not an option, and I am in no position to help her financially.

My mom's had a rough go of it, and she's never been able to handle change well. The house, to her, was a symbol of the life she was going to have: housewife to a handsome husband, two kids and a dog in an affluent community. Now, in her mid-50s, she considers her life a failure. She cries all the time. (It's important to note that while the actual sale of the house is recent, our financial situation/my mother's mental health has been like this for at least five years.)

I've mentioned leaving the East Coast before when I was considering graduate school, and every time she flies off the handle, claiming that I would be snubbing my roots. She's never lived more than a few miles outside the town I was raised in. I worry that telling her I want to move away will destroy a woman who is already so fragile. It's just her and the dog now, and she is so lonely. She has friends, but they are all married and well-off. She can't really afford therapy, but goes occasionally anyway, not that it seems to be helping.

I take on a lot of responsibility in this family. I convinced my mother to sell the house not only to save herself, but to keep my brother in school -- he is in a highly respected program that he deserves to be in. I hope to find a job where I can finance some of his education personally. I counsel my mother in most of her major decisions. I am the liaison between my father and every other member of my family. I can do all this from another location, but I fear that it will be viewed by my mother as abandoning her in a difficult time. Is it? I feel so selfish.

Should I put off my desire to a more opportune time? Will there ever be such a time? If I did leave, it wouldn't be for at least six months, though I doubt she'll be much happier then. How can I break it to my mother that I want to live a plane ticket away from her -- at least for a little while? I'm at a loss.

The Guilty Daughter

Dear Guilty Daughter,

You need to separate yourself from your family and create your own survival mode and identity. This is a real need. It means breaking with your historic role in the family. But it does not mean abandoning your family and giving up the vital role you play.

This real psychic need may express itself to you as a desire to flee and never come back. That is understandable. I have felt that same impulse. However, what you need is a life that keeps you connected to your family while also allowing you to fiercely and wholeheartedly encounter the wild, uncharted nature of the world and of your own soul.

I think you should look for a place in your area that you can call home. But I also think you need to respect this desire to flee. Take it seriously and understand what it is. It is a psychic need. It can be met. You don't have to abandon your family to meet this need. Paradoxically, having a home will allow you to flee. You can meet your own psychic needs without scorching the landscape of your family connections.

I note that you have strong competing drives. You want to help your brother financially even though you yourself have college loans to pay off. So you have a strong ethic of family responsibility. This is a good thing. It may feel at times that you are being held back by this. But it is a good thing. It is a source of strength. You have an important role in the family. This is not something you want to throw away. Nor is it something that you can fulfill admirably at a distance. You could do the minimum while living far away. But you could not really do what your family needs.

You say you could play the role of liaison from a distance, but in practice this role is going to require your physical presence. Your parents are not doing well in a concrete sense. What they will need is your physical presence. And I do think that being there for your parents is a valuable role for you spiritually. If you abandon that role, further deterioration of the family may result, and you yourself will feel a certain arid emptiness and wonder where it's coming from. At the same time, I understand how hamstrung it can make you feel to be needed by your parents, how frustrating it can be, and how it can make you feel that you will never, ever, get away to pursue your dreams.

How can you achieve your dreams and meet your psychic need for individuation without moving 3,000 miles away? I see two main tasks. You do need to get away physically, but not 3,000 miles. You do need to get away for a significant period of time but not for years. You can psychically differentiate yourself by having an experience, or series of experiences, that answer your need for a clean break with your past. Such experiences can initiate you into the next phase of your life, which involves independence and self-reliance. This might mean immersion in nature, perhaps in an alien landscape. Perhaps a long sailing trip or an extended stay in the wilderness would provide you with the deeply desired and needed experience of true separation. To experience a different way of surviving, a different way of eating, of making money, of working: This is the way the spirit can satisfy its craving. (You might take a look at the book Nature and the Human Soul. It speaks eloquently about the need for transformative experiences in order to move from one sacred phase to the next.)

At the same time, especially since you have recently lost your family home, in which much was invested and many treasured memories resided, your longing for a home will be strong. You mother sounds like she is suffering great emotional loss. Perhaps you can establish a home midway between Manhattan and the place of your suburban upbringing where she can visit you.

This is long-term thinking. This will provide the best nest for your continued growth as a person. Meanwhile, have fun in Manhattan.

Our true needs sometimes wear disguises. We may think we need to move across the country as a way of expressing who we are. This is the symbolic representation of a need. The real need is to encounter your own wild soul, to be in nature, to individuate yourself and to forge a new mode of living in the world.

This can be done without abandoning your family.

So I suggest that you make yourself a home in the area but plan elaborate and lengthy excursions. Make these excursions that will challenge you spiritually, mentally and physically. Make wild nature a component of them.

That is what I wish for you.

By Cary Tennis

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