Balancing the helping hand

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I met with three different women last week each of whom was concerned about her mother.  One of my clients was in her mid twenties, another in her mid thirties and the third woman was in her early forties.  Each of them are worried that their mothers aren’t doing enough in their daily lives.  They worry that their moms are isolated, don’t get out and don’t have peers or interests.  Two of the moms have husbands that work during the day and the other mom  is living alone.  My clients each came to me with personal  issues and struggles, but this one week they all happened to be discussing their moms.

I was thinking about how much each daughter should encourage, urge or interfere in her mom’s lives.  What is the right balance? One client was attending a workshop and her mom came along, another was joining her mom at worship services.  The third has been an integral part in her mother’s ‘new normal’ of adjusting to living alone.  The one who was attending church with mom began to feel badly when she wanted to explore some other spiritual options;  she was torn between meeting her own needs and meeting the needs of her mom.

As a therapist, this is an interesting dynamic to witness.  My client is my interest; my job is to provide the tools for my client to  feel better, achieve her goals and find calm and joy in her daily life. I hear about, in this case, their mothers and have new concerns and empathy.  Would we call this a client ‘once removed’? What  happens when what is best for my client may be in conflict with what is best for the client once removed?

The twenty-something woman has recently moved into her first apartment after years of schooling.  Her mom is struggling with her baby becoming an independent adult.  My client feels torn between having dinners with her mom and taking care of her own social needs.  I help my client with her boundaries; encourage her to take care of herself, live her new ‘adult’ life and nurture her independent relationships.  Is it my client’s role to fill her mother’s emotional needs? Not necessarily.  In a perfect world, the ‘client once removed’ would begin her own therapy  to empower herself  to make changes  to become personally fulfilled without tugging at her daughter to feel complete.

Three weeks ago, the client in her early forties was so worried about  her mom that she asked if she could bring mom in to her therapy session.  After talking about the pros and cons and discussing all confidentiality needs, we agreed that this would be an appropriate move.  The next week, they both came to the session. At almost eighty, mom was full of life; proud and in charge and chatty as could be (unless I asked her something that made her uncomfortable or was too close to a real feeling.  She repeatedly told me that in her day one didn’t go to therapy except for one person she knew who had a “breakdown”and was taken to the “sanitarium”).  Mom insisted that she was happy, enjoyed her television shows and socializes when she gets her hair done  and with the people at her favorite restaurant  that she frequents up to three time a week.  The following week my client/her daughter came back for her session.  She said that she had “let go”;  hearing her mom talk with me had convinced her that mom was going to call the shots.  As much as my client would like for mom to get out more and have some friends, she was letting go, it wasn’t her call to make.

Last  month a friend’s mother had surgery.  This morning she was sharing with me how her mom had been doing. My friend was hands-on during the initial time of surgery and recuperation.  She has since backed off; “my mom (who is eighty)  is very independent and doesn’t need me to be hovering”.  Just recently she told her mom to drive over to her house, she told me “I had to push her for fear that she would be too afraid to resume driving.”

As she talked,  I had an “aha” moment about this half-written post.  There is a time for a dinner with mom and extra visits after surgery, but there is also a time and a need for boundaries.  It can be very complicated to set those boundaries  for fear of hurting “mom’s” (or anyone’s) feelings.  Taking care of one’s self is not selfish, it is self-care.  When my clients are giving all of their time and energy over to their moms, they rarely have anything left for themselves.  The more they learn in therapy how to take care of themselves, the more balanced and healthy energy they will have to give back to their moms and others in their lives.

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