You must get on with your own life – and, if necessary, encourage your grown-up daughter to seek help, says Mariella Frostrup
The dilemma My youngest daughter, 26, has just split up with her boyfriend of nine months. She is a homeowner, a graduate and has a great job, but when her relationships don’t work she can be volatile and has attempted or considered attempting suicide.
Every time this happens to her, I spin out of control and become very unhappy. Her father left when I was seven months pregnant with her, and my eldest daughter was two. He has played no part in their lives. Once they became old enough to contact him they did so, but he is not interested, and neither are they. As a teenager she had counselling and medication when her mental health was challenging. Now, she will either ring me a lot or be silent for days – and I fear the silence.
How can I sleep when I worry that she might do something terminal? I need to care less, but can’t. I retired at the end of March and plan on relocating so that I will be closer to her and my eldest daughter.
I even thought I might find a boyfriend/partner of my own. I have been entirely single (no dates, no intimacy) for 27 years. I’m 56 now. I’ve become accustomed to living vicariously and wonder if this is why I suffer so much when my daughter struggles. Do I need to find a way to let her keep getting it wrong without intervening?
Mariella replies Bingo! Your daughter is an adult and all that investment of yours has paid off. She has her own flat, a good job and she’s trying to find lasting love, a tall order for most of us – and even more so if a parent has left you feeling abandoned.
You don’t need years of psychotherapy to understand that your girl is struggling to fill the cavernous space left by her disengaged dad. The sad truth is she’s probably looking to men with similarly recognisable foibles, which is why each unreconciled relationship feels like so much more than the end of an affair.
Tip-toeing around her romantic happiness is no life at all for you
You surely know that although your daughter presents herself as sanguine about not seeing her father she’s mourning his rejection deep inside. Equally, your own sense of abandonment must have been immense when he left you at such a vulnerable time. It’s bound to have instilled a protective instinct in you that outweighs even the most natural concerns of a mother. I’m sure your elder daughter has struggled with a similar emotional legacy, but as you don’t mention her I presume she has healed her own wounds.
before you start embracing the blame, it’s not your fault. Your commitment to their parenting, single-handed, has clearly paid off. You sound as if you have been a great mum. You’ve been there for your girls when their father wasn’t and still, to this day, are available to provide support.
You mention the unpredictable nature of your daughter’s communications – welcome to parenthood! It’s perfectly natural that she zooms in when she needs you and out when she doesn’t. The difference here is that you’ve made her your permanent point of focus – and that’s going to be just as much of a burden for her as it is for you. You know as well as I do that living your life tiptoeing around your daughter’s prospects for romantic happiness is no life at all. And moving to be closer to both of your children is only a good idea if you have improved potential to resurrect your own personal life.
It’s natural to want to protect your child, but it’s impossible for you to ring-fence her from all emotional eventualities. At a certain point she has to be responsible for her own destiny and you must take charge of yours. You absolutely do need to find a way of loosening your heartstrings so that you don’t feel every tug on them.
You sound very focused on your youngest, which is interesting in itself. Being abandoned while pregnant with her must have been one of your lowest points. If life resembled a magic-realist novel your tears would have suffused her soul, and I can’t help wondering if that’s what you think you have to make up for.
It’s as important for you as it is for your daughters that you come out of your self-enforced seclusion and get on with your own life. Where you choose to do that is entirely up to you, but it needs to be your best interests that are served, rather than those of your grown-up girls.
If your daughter is still fragile and emotionally vulnerable, or potentially suicidal, your job is to encourage her to seek help to find her own feet. There are plenty of organisations equipped to deal with her condition, such as Mind or the Samaritans (call 116 123) and I would advise you to encourage her to engage with professionals next time she appears to be in danger.
There will be benefits for both of you when you learn to live independently.