My daughter moved from Vancouver to Britain some years ago to go to university; eventually marrying another student. She found stable employment and recently gave birth to her first child. I love her very much, and the geographic distance has been difficult for me to bear, although we talk and email, and I visit regularly, spending time, energy and thousands of dollars per trip to maintain our relationship and be supportive of her pregnancy and labour. The underlying problem is that my daughter suffers from anxiety, and when she is panicked, and especially during pregnancy and after, she can be very hard on herself and those closest to her.
Her mood swings exhaust me. I realise I am dealing with postnatal depression, and am relieved that she has the benefit of a good therapist, a devoted man, friends and support groups. If it weren’t for my grandchild, I’d consider taking a break for a year, and just phoning or emailing. This would be hard on me, and probably on my daughter as well, but I’m tired of holding my tongue in order to keep our limited time together peaceful. (She had an outright meltdown recently, shrieking at me when I made a gentle suggestion about how she might get more rest.)
My daughter is a person of considerable character and intelligence. She’s also a perfectionist who says that she wants stability and routine, and then makes decisions that keep her life complicated; a kind-hearted soul who alternates between humorous charm and lashing out at those who love her the most. I’d like to find a middle road between tiptoeing around her and being snapped at. I’d greatly appreciate your perspective.
It’s brilliant that you have invited a different perspective because when an exchange between two people keeps snagging on the same bushes, one really needs to look at taking a different route. There was a tightness about your letter. I could almost feel you thinking about every word you typed. I wonder what it is you are trying to hold so firmly on to?
It must be hard for you to see your daughter exploding at seemingly small, helpful suggestions you make, but I wonder if you might see that to her, they have long, long roots that lead to somewhere else. Perhaps your suggestions are seen as criticism.
The psychotherapist Naomi Stadlen, who has written much about mother/child relationships, calls these roots “the small print”.
“New mothers,” explains Stadlen, “yearn for the loving kindness of their own mothers, even if it was in short supply when they were younger. What they don’t need, as new mothers themselves, are critical mothers. So [with] the little things, like gently suggesting she gets more rest, your daughter may hear criticism in the small print.”
The criticism being that she is not getting enough rest, as if she is a small, over-tired child, instead of seeing her as a responsible mother doing her utmost for her child. You see the difference in emphasis?
You may, at this point, think you are not being critical but I would suggest gently that your actions speak louder than your words. Your letter is full of the things you’ve done to keep your relationship with your daughter going – the air-miles, the emotional and financial cost. Yet there she is anxious, critical, depressed, non-compliant. Do you think you might be able to step back and look at this differently?
Stadlen thinks that your daughter’s mood swings were “probably the result of her struggling to be polite: you’ve spent so much money and energy travelling all that way to visit her – and then you say something annoying and she can’t hold her temper in any longer. The clue is in the ‘meltdown’ which you relate in brackets as ‘(shrieking at me when I made a gentle suggestion about how she might get more rest)’. Your daughter doesn’t need unasked-for suggestions, not even gentle ones. ‘Suggestions’ usually mask a criticism of how a new mother is managing. If she asks you for a suggestion, that’s a different matter.”
Your daughter seems to have a lot going for her, what about you? What is your life like without her? What was her childhood like? What was yours like? What is stopping you from being able to relax into enjoying your relationship with your daughter and her child? What are you afraid of?
You say your daughter suffers from anxiety and she may well do; you say she has postnatal depression but is that a diagnosis or a guess? Either way, do you think you could support her without judgment? Have you asked her what sort of help she wants from you?
Stadlen asks: “Could you also be suffering from anxiety about your daughter and so exacerbate the problem? What your daughter needs is your trust and confidence in her. If you think about how well your daughter has done, there is plenty to feel trusting and confident about – if not downright proud of her. If you can’t trust your daughter, she will feel tense and have times of snapping. If you can think about her and feel less anxious, she can [also] relax.”
It’s clear how much you love your daughter, but I think perhaps you need to show your love with a lighter, almost invisible, touch. Love without criticism is still very much love.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 2 January 2016.