What's my role as a mom?

I'm stuck between my husband and my daughter

By Cary Tennis

Published October 30, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

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

Dear Cary,

What is my role, or rather what should my role be, in an ongoing conflict between my 15-year-old daughter and her father?

Many years ago, I began to notice that my husband had begun ignoring our eldest daughter. I became very concerned and eventually suggested that he needs to spend more time with her and show interest in her experiences and passions. My "parenting advice" fell on deaf ears and he continued to basically give her very little attention. I began to suspect that the more I vocalized my concern the more he pulled away from her so I decided to keep my mouth shut.  We have two other younger children, a son and a daughter. They are both soft-spoken, easygoing, and are interested in similar things that my husband is interested in so he finds more common ground with them.  My husband is also extremely solicitous toward my son.  Toward our youngest daughter he shows some affection and attention but it is nothing like the doting relationship he has with our son.

When adolescence hit my eldest daughter, she began to argue with her father, have huge emotional meltdowns and finally now exhibit intense rage. This gave him a perfect opportunity to withdraw further from her and behave like he was the victim. When she was obnoxious he would look at me with a look of, "See. She is the problem here." Then my daughter would appeal to me in tears to "get" her father to be more kind to her and to spend time with her.

Initially, I felt that I needed to support my daughter and advocate for her but soon I began to feel like I was getting in the middle of a crazy sibling conflict -- often my daughter behaves more like the eldest sister to my husband. I tried to guide my daughter about how to speak to people when you're angry or sad but she seems to have very little control and her behavior can often be described as totally obnoxious and quite frankly frightening for me and my two youngest. Most recently, I've told my daughter that she needs to work things out with her father and to stop looking to me to solve this problem. When she is sad about their relationship, I've told her to tell her father how she feels, etc. But this new boundary I've put in place ends up feeling like now she has two parents who don't validate her feelings of sadness and anger about this broken relationship.

The back story, which may already be obvious, is I went through a similar sadness, rage experience with my husband over neglect in our marriage. Over time, I made a decision to stay in the marriage because I had no family support and no solid employment. I basically came to terms with the distance in our marriage and decided to begin a long-term plan of getting full-time work so that I would have more autonomy.

While I went back to school and have worked really hard at contracts and part-time work, the elusive solid job is still a dream. I feel tremendous guilt now because I wonder if I had separated from him it may have saved my daughter from some of this pain. I was stupid enough to think he would treat only me with distance. I foolishly gambled that he would not treat any of our children that way. I know we are a family in desperate need of some counseling but I also would like to hear your advice. My daughter seems to be in significant pain -- she seems to fall apart and then within minutes regain her composure and carry on only to fall apart again the next day.


Dear Perplexed,

Mainly I hear a lot of distance. Things are messed up because there is too much distance. Distance is about silence and coldness. What keeps distance is routine and thinking and talking and constant activity and expectations and blame and anger and uncertainty and fear and constant activity and thinking about everything everyone else is supposed to do and worrying about every little thing and being angry at people without telling them why you are angry and not saying the thing you are thinking or feeling for fear it will cause something unpleasant and not just sitting there looking at each other.

Try sitting there just looking at each other.

Go to your daughter and see what she is doing. Don't ask her to tell you what she is doing. Just watch and see if you can understand who she is and what she is doing. Give her a hug. What is her body like? Does she seem angry and tense as she ties her shoes? Is she looking at herself in the mirror? Go and be close to her and see if she gives you something. Maybe she will give you something or show you something she has in her room. Anything she says to you will be treasure. Maybe she will ask you a question like what dress to wear or if she can't find her shoes she may ask about her shoes. Breathe deeply and just be in her presence. That may seem odd to her. She may look at you oddly and say, Like what are you doing? Just tell her you are just hanging out enjoying being with your daughter.

At first it will be weird. But the idea is to cut through all the crap. The idea is to cut through all the ideas. There are too many ideas and too much thinking. Think of other ways to break through all the crap of ideas. Maybe if you all went swimming in a lake together it would cut out some of the distance.

Distance and silence are ways of pushing aside the here-and-now emotion you feel.

There was probably a lot of distance between people in your family. People did not tell each other what they were feeling and thinking and they did not stay to listen to each other or just be there. There was probably a lot of approximation and evasion. So that seems normal to you, except when there is too much of it like now. But it's not even all that normal or good in the first place. Maybe try going to the other extreme for a while, having too much closeness.

I think the cure for this is to begin living in the present, just seeing what is in front of you. Breathe deeply and look around you. Stop solving problems. Just see what is in front of you. That is only the beginning but it is a necessary beginning because none of your problem solving can happen before the problem is concrete and in front of you.

Another thing to do is stop being in the middle and start having one-to-one relationships with each individual.

I mean, you ask what your role is. Your role is to be there, one-on-one, for your daughter. Not in the middle but there, you, one-to-one; not intermediary, not trying to mediate between her and her father but you being there for her. That is your role: you being there for her. Concentrate on that. You have a relationship with your daughter that is between you and her. Concentrate on that.

You also have a relationship with your husband, just you and him. Go and be with him where he is sitting putting on his socks or putting on his shirt, the green one or the red one, or his belt. Try to look at his face and see what is in his face. What is there in his face? Do you see his eyes? What are his eyes doing? Will they look at you or are they looking away into the distance?

Obviously the cure for distance is closeness. In each of these troubled relationships I suggest you move closer to the person involved. Move close to your daughter. That means being there for her for real, in the moment, just being there for her.

It means getting out of the middle and being there just one-to-one with each family member. That is hard because families triangulate. If you read about Bowen family systems theory you see how alliances form and shift. Especially if we feel alone in the family we will seek out one member to become close to and exclude others. Right now your husband has triangulated with his son, placing his daughter on the outside. He also is placing you on the outside. Your daughter is trying to triangulate with you to place your husband on the outside. Your job is to manage each relationship as a one-to-one relationship, maintaining your own autonomous boundaries, and managing each relationship as one with an individual. It will help as you do this to stay out of all conversations about other family members. If your daughter has something to say to your husband, get your husband in there and let your daughter say it to him. Don't be carrying messages for her. Show her it's OK for her to talk to him directly.

Try not to be the referee. They have to work things out with each other.  Manage this by moving closer to each individual in the family, but concentrating on that individual.

The same thing with your husband: Concentrate on what is going on on-to-one between you when you are with him. Talk with him about what is going on with you and him when you and he are in the same room doing things. Look at what you are doing. Are you doing the dishes? Are you looking down at the yarn in your hand, or picking up a green sock in the bedroom, or looking at his back as he rushes out?

Look at your husband closely and see what he looks like. Is he looking at the ground? Is he staring out the window? What does his voice sound like? Is he being silent? Sit with him. Look at his hands. Are they sitting on top of his knees as if he were about to spring up and walk out the door?

Look at him. That is your role for now: Look at him.

Look at your kids. What are they doing? Go see your daughter. See what she is doing. Ask her what she is feeling. Don't give her any instructions. Just go be with her. That is your role.

For a while, do things like this. Let your unconscious figure out what is going on. Things will start to sort themselves out. Meditate. Breathe. Look into family systems therapy.

There is one more big thing here we haven't gotten to that we are getting to now. Sometimes the story takes a bit to develop, like in a novel. It starts with your daughter and your husband but then it turns to you.

This is about you. You play a lot of roles. You have a lot of relationships. Your most important relationship is with yourself. Your role in that relationship is to understand your own life. That is your biggest role.

Cary Tennis

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