January 15, 2005


A mother's defining role in the family is to tie it together.


We call it mother love and hope we grow up without it becoming a mother load.


One of my patients spent years of therapy in a tough-love parents group before she mustered the courage to evict her son from their home.


Growing up in this household hadn't been easy for this only child. As a youngster, he had lost his dad to mental illness, throwing his mother and himself into an insular and intensely dependent relationship.


But she couldn't begin to deal with his teenaged anger and violent outbursts when he towered over her in height and rage. In fact, in one of these battles, she ended up with a broken arm.


Even then, she dismissed it, saying she had brought it on herself by being too provocative. When he finally left home, he became a global wanderer without roots. Gradually, from this great distance, they started talking and became more cordial. Why?


Perhaps he grew more securely into his manhood because he had separated himself from the intensity of his bond with his mother. Perhaps she mellowed with age and menopause and was able to envision her own world with fewer struggles.


Whatever soothed their fractiousness, the turning point occurred when his aunt, who came into a lot of money, offered him a hefty allowance, provided that he use it to go back to school to acquire a trade or a diploma.


An adult-to-adult agreement evolved. His mother agreed to house him and pay for his food and clothing. He was accepted into a highly technical two-year training program and now, both sure and mature, he excelled.


For two years, he lived at home. When he was finished, job or not, they agreed he would move out. At the end of the program, there was no job, but with a wealth of experience in fending for himself, he was now able to scout his prospects without boundless anger and rejection. He moved out with his mother's blessing this time and both have a much firmer handle on her mother love.


Another patient hadn't gone home for Christmas, nor had she turned up for her mother's birthday a few days after. This was no teenager; she is a 50-year-old, independent professional. The trouble had begun in the summer when mother and daughter had disagreed over a trivial matter.


But the "thing," a casual comment about her career, festered until it erupted with decades-old pain about her mother's ceaseless criticism, about never being good enough. She reacted by banishing herself. "I won't go home; I'll never subject myself to that woman again."


But no matter how far you flee, there's always a "home" that centres on mom.


Such an infantile response in grown children is viewed with surprise by many a parent. That's because parental comments that cause such grief are usually dumb knee-jerk responses. I say dumb because most parents do know how much power they still command even after children are grown up. That is why so many homecomings are fraught with endless replays of old grudges and old hurts.


But does it work not to go home again?


I would have thought that for my patient, the trade-off in not putting herself in the line of fire with her mother would be peace of mind and solace. Instead, she confessed that she felt only heightened aloneness and increasingly sad, especially through the holidays.


People who are used to being on their own are able to join friends to replace their family obligations. But without any sort of backup plan, my patient floundered.


Indeed, part of the comfort of going home, not only for her but for many of us caught in old patterns and old ways, often is to ensure that every dysfunction remains intact, entrenched, immovable, foreseeable, and that our responses are equally predictable, rote and expected. To shake this up, to try a different way of interacting with mom and dad, is not the kinder, gentler path: It is a minefield.


Though my patient didn't make Christmas or her mother's birthday, she'll need to build a new pathway to her mother in order to resolve her depression. Further, while no one expects that an 80-year-old will change her tune, it is my experience that even at that great age, small miracles happen when adult children go home with a different expectation.


So this is an appeal to all mothers who wait for any sign, any indication of willingness on the part of those absent children to be present or to return. Welcome your children home. Bury the bitterness. Embrace the unexpected. Enjoy.

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.