My friend is in a relationship with her mother. Not a romantic relationship, but a relationship nonetheless, and it’s not as rare as it might sound. I grew up envying the closeness the two shared, I too wanted a Mom I could talk about boys with, party with, gossip with, and I thought it was kinda cool that they knew each other’s secrets. Tyler and her mom were truly best friends, and at the time I didn’t see a single downside to that. But as we got older and the rest of us were establishing boundaries and creating space between ourselves and our parents, Tyler couldn’t seem to shake hers. Ms Taylor claimed squatters rights in the common room of our university quad, often made Mommy-Daughter plans with zero consideration for any pre-existing ones we may’ve had, and implemented mandatory weekends at home despite campus being just 30 minutes from our neighborhood. And once we reached legal drinking age, things really ramped up between the pair. Instead of Spring Break in Cabo with the rest of us, Tyler would be on a couples cruise to the Bahamas with her mother…. and other actual couples. Things were getting weird and Tyler was starting to notice.
But it wasn’t until she tried her hand at dating that we realized just how serious things had gotten. Eventually she accepted that nothing of hers’ was off limits to her mother, not even her love life. Her mother had taken the stance of “If they can’t handle US, then they’re obviously not the right one for you”, and when confronted about her inability to respect her daughters’ boundaries, all hell broke loose. She recounted every dollar spent, every sleepless night, every stretch mark worn, every sacrifice made in order to give her daughter a decent upbringing, how dare Tyler be so ungrateful? Especially when SHE was the parent that stayed, unlike Tyler’s chronically absent father. Wasn’t she owed something for that? Well, not exactly.
Emotional incest, not to be confused with overt incest, is a type of parental abuse in which a child is tasked with providing the emotional support that would normally be provided by another adult. It can look like asking a child for advice on adult issues, using a child to boost ego or an inflated sense of self-importance, making a child responsible for providing therapy or crisis management, or in Tyler’s case, a couple of best friends. Unlike overt incest, these inappropriate relationships are in no way sexual in nature, but the emotional and psychological effects are undeniable. This phenomenon affects same sex and opposite sex parents, single and married alike, and blurs the hard line between keeper and companion. The dynamic often traps children between feeling overwhelmed by the burden and feeling empowered by the responsibility, and because the child ultimately takes on a parental role, the essence of their childhood is lost. We may not recognize this damaging dynamic when it looks like an adorable 5 year old tending to their distraught mother after a custody hearing, but when it grows into a 30 year old who doesn’t date out of fear of alienating their emotionally enmeshed parent, things become a little clearer.
Picture this, a young child finds their mother curled up in her bed, sobbing uncontrollably. The concerned child approaches their mother to console her, slightly frightened by the display. The child says, “Don’t cry Mommy, I love you so much! If you stop crying I’ll give you all my toys!”, and gives their mother a huge hug. The mother looks up and with a smile on her face says, “Thank you sweetie, you always make Mommy feel better. See,” she says as she wipes her eyes, “Mommy’s not sad anymore. She just needed one of your hugs.” The child proudly marches off to the next room to watch cartoons, having just saved the day and fixed mommy once again, and all is right with the world. Or so we think.
The problem with emotional incest is that it’s not as vulgar or offensive to our sensibilities as incest of the sexual kind. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about a child consoling their parent through a tough time, but when it becomes the norm for consolation to flow from child to parent, it communicates that maintaining mommy’s or daddy’s wellbeing is a responsibility that falls on the child. Let’s be clear, our emotions are not other people’s responsibility, and we learn that by watching our parents model healthy emotional expression and maturity. But when our parents miss the mark, we struggle with emotional intelligence and accountability. And every time we dump our adult-sized baggage on our children or make them referees in adult conflict, we teach them that other people are at the helm of our stability and happiness. As they navigate the dating pool, they’ll either seek out relationships with emotionally unavailable people or they’ll avoid intimate pairings altogether. This dynamic sets children up to be adults who are more caregiver than self lover, or creates adults who use people as their emotional asylums, a danger either way.
My friend picked up in her mother’s life where her father left off. I imagine it’s painfully difficult to conceive a child in love and deliver them in heartache, but the absence of a child’s father (or mother) is neither their fault nor their responsibility. Ms. Tracy convinced herself that her daughter was born to offer her comfort and solace in her time of grief, because God wouldn’t give you something so beautiful at such an ugly time if it wasn’t done with you in mind. Right? Tyler was the distraction her mother needed to keep from focusing on her healing, it was easier to believe that the solution to her problems was already nestled neatly in her arms, loving her unconditionally, never to abandon her, always taking her side. She made a companion out of her child, tampering with the delicate balance between motherhood and mentorship, all to avoid the discomfort of scabbing up of old emotional wounds.
And while dodging her own healing, she missed a bigger opportunity to end the cycle of parental abuse with her daughter. She chose the pacification of her pain over the health of her family and while she may not feel the implications of that decision, her daughter is the walking embodiment of them. Instead of learning that a full range of emotions is a healthy thing and that it’s perfectly normal for adults to cry and process through them, Tyler’s mother modeled emotional manipulation. What it taught her was that emotions and their physical display are a means to an end, a way to have your needs met by the people around you. Instead of learning about emotional accountability, Ms Taylor her modeled emotional dishonesty. What it taught Tyler was that if you’re unable to meet your own needs, you can task someone else with the job, including your own child, because having your needs met is the ultimate priority. And what’s a little emotional support in exchange for the gift of life, food and shelter?
I feel for my friend and the countless other people who struggle to engage in relationships with the opposite sex because their parents occupy emotionally intimate spaces in their lives. Have you ever tried dumping your Mother? But the truth of the matter is that titles don’t heal us. A woman or a man with unresolved trauma will become a parent of the same nature, and if we’re not clear with ourselves that our healing is our responsibility, then we’ll assign those tasks to the people we love the most. It’s not a child’s job to heal their mother, or their father, or anyone for that matter. It’s not their job to pacify their parent through their poor decisions. And it’s certainly not their job to help their parent process the pain of their failed relationships, even the one with the child’s biological parent. We need to learn to break up with people who lure us into one-sided, unrequited relationships, especially if those people are our parents. It’s no longer sufficient to recognize the patterns, we have to be willing to break the cycles. And for many of us, these cycles start at home.