In group. All women.
Alison: “Mom’s sick again, and she wants me to visit her, and I feel guilty because I don’t want to. I feel like a bad daughter.”
Her mom is a active alcoholic who is often ill and lives five states away.
“And a good daughter would want to,” I say.
“I see.” I turn to the group.
“Any other bad daughters here?”
Barbara nods. “I feel guilty because I’ve given up trying to repair our relationship. All my mother does, ever, is complain. Most of the time I can’t even stand to make eye contact with her.”
Cathy says, “I feel guilty because I don’t know how to be with my dad. We can’t even have a normal conversation. He barely speaks to me, and I have no idea what to say.”
Denise says, “I feel guilty because my dad sent a message through my cousin that he wants to talk to me. I don’t want to.”
I feel the group stiffen a little. Her father abused her emotionally and physically throughout her childhood, and is the main reason she’s in therapy.
“So,” I say, “to summarize: If you were good daughters you would…
(to Alison) “put your job and family aside to go be with your sick mother, and”
(to Barbara) “listen patiently to your mother’s endless complaints, and”
(to Cathy) “just know how to talk with your nonverbal, emotionally unavailable father, and”
(to Denise) “reconnect with the dad who abused you for sixteen years?”
I look around the room. “Is that right?”
They stare back at me glumly.
“So notice two things,” I say.
“First, your idea of what a good daughter would feel and do is at best unrealistic, at worst inhuman. You know this because when you hear each other describe this imaginary person your reaction is something like Whaaaat? Am I right?”
“Second, you’re overlooking the main reason you all feel like bad daughters:
“Your parent is unhappy.
“Kids who grow up in dysfunctional families tend to feel responsible for their parents. If mom or dad fight, or drink, or get depressed or anxious, or just have a bad day, the kid feels like she’s supposed to fix it somehow.
“Part of this is normal in all families. Parents set the emotional tone. You’ve heard the saying, When mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy? Kids like mama happy just because it makes life more pleasant for everyone.
“But in other families the problem runs deeper. In a those families the boundaries between family members get blurred, and kids can’t tell where they end and others begin. And they grow up feeling responsible for the happiness of other people.”
“But isn’t that how it should be?” asks Allison.
“No. In a healthy relationship, I take responsibility for my happiness, and you take responsibility for yours. We’re connected, we love each other, we support each other, but we’re responsible for ourselves.
“That goes for family too. And if we choose to stay connected it’s not because of guilt or obligation or coercion, but because it makes us happier than being apart.”
“That’s not what my parents taught me,” say Barbara.
“Mine either,” says Cathy.
“Mine either,” says Denise. “But I wish to hell they had.”