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Therapy with Mothers of Adult Children

Supporting women during the perinatal period is the focus of Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, which begins today. But what about the later stages of motherhood? What psychological and emotional challenges may be faced by women with adult children? From loss and jealousy to insidious societal stereotypes, psychotherapist, author and mother Annette Byford suggests some common themes and experiences for us to listen out for in therapy with not-new mums.


The potential impact of becoming a mother on women’s mental health is widely known and documented. Less attention has been paid to the challenges of later stages of motherhood, in particular the adjustments women have to make when their children grow into adulthood. I am myself a mother of two ‘children’ now well established in adult life and I had to learn that parenting continues in tidal waves, with phases of distance and separateness, followed by phases of intense engagement. The rules of engagement keep changing and what is the right amount of distance and closeness has to be constantly negotiated.

Just as when becoming a mother, seeing our children grow up presents women with the task of an enormous social and emotional adjustment, often accompanied again by hormonal upheaval, this time the menopause.

Becoming a mother is a process that changes a woman’s identity and the social and emotional map of her life forever. Children growing up, and having to adjust to the changing relationship with them, has a similarly profound impact. Mothers have to deal with the task of becoming gradually and increasingly observers of their children’s lives rather than core participants.

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This brings with it experiences of confusion about where to position oneself in the new family network which may gradually include newcomers, in-laws and grandchildren, all with their inevitable impact on the mother’s position. It may involve painful feelings of loss, exclusion and jealousy. We know as therapists that the stirring up of such feelings tends to threaten established patterns of coping mechanisms. Old patterns that may have worked well for quite a while are being challenged and mothers may be facing at least a transitional period of being at a loss of how to cope.

This is made more difficult by the fact that, just like when they became mothers, this time again they are walking into a storm of societal expectations and stereotypes: their children’s age highlights their own ageing in the face of negative attitudes towards older women. To be a mother-in-law draws negative stereotypes. Becoming a grandmother, whilst for many a joyful event, can also bring with it expectations of involvement that may clash with the woman’s wish for a less domestically dominated life.

In all these scenarios the mothers are on the receiving end of changes in their children’s lives. At the same time, they may have to negotiate pressures unrelated to their children, such as ageing parents, retirement, and generally having to think about the next phase of their own life and what to do with it.

As psychotherapists we need to be alerted to some of the following issues:
 

  • We need to listen out for the theme of loss in our clients’ material.
     
  • Depression and a sense of lack of purpose are a danger, particularly to those women who have identified themselves centrally as mothers.
     
  • Our clients’ past coping resources will be challenged and dysfunctional patterns of the past may re-emerge, often re-enacting scenarios of their families of origin.
     
  • As always in the connection with mother/child issues, expectations are high and both society and mothers themselves fall prey to perfectionism: self-blame and a sense of failure are never far from the surface.
     
  • In an attempt to fend off depressive feelings there may be manic acting out, for example in the form of forced youthful denial of getting older, or getting overinvolved as a grandmother.

 

Transitions like these have the potential to expose fault lines in an individual’s psychological make-up. If we can attend honestly to the associated difficult feelings of disorientation, loss, disappointment, jealousy, and rage, then our chances of helping mothers of adult children to find creative and psychologically healthy solutions and to forge new identities are much increased.


Annette Byford’s new book, Once a Mother, Always a Mother: On life with Adult Children, is published via Free Association Books.

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Annette Byford

 Annette grew up in Germany where she taught at a secondary school, before going on to study psychology and train as a psychodynamic psychotherapist in the UK. For the past 25 years, she has worked as a psychologist and psychotherapist in private practice and as a lecturer and supervisor in various settings, including universities, the NHS and within the voluntary sector.

Annette is a chartered counselling psychologist and a senior practitioner on the Register of Psychologists Specialising in Psychotherapy. ​She is a contributor to a book edited by Anne-Marie Sclösser, A Psychoanalytic Exploration on Sameness and Otherness and the author of A Wedding in the Family, which looks at weddings as rites of passage in the family life cycle. Annette is married and has two adult children and a grandchild.

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