The very qualities that attract people to our community, when played to an extreme, can also cause unnecessary tension within our families. These qualities of connection, closeness, and a sense of belonging are the ones my patients from other cultures tell me they so admire about Jewish families. What outsiders often don’t see however, is the stuff that Jewish comedies are made of, a tendency to confuse worry with love.
A friend of mine recently told me that since getting an iPhone, her father enjoys constantly texting her mother and asking her what she’s doing only a few seconds after she leaves the room. It’s silly, even sweet because obviously he can easily get up and see what she’s up to.
But the not so silly side of this story is that sometimes, in our desire for meaningful connection, we struggle to understand the balance that relationships require of us in taking and giving space to our loved ones. Sometimes we misinterpret our partner or our child’s desire for space with a lack of love for us, even guilting them into our own confusion that love and worry are the same.
(Insert voice of any character playing a Woody Allen character’s mother): “If you loved me, you would call!”
Sound familiar? Growing up in the modern Orthodox community, after years of socializing exclusively with peers who were so similar to me that it was often challenging to figure out how we differed, I remember telling my first non-Jewish friend how often my friends and I spoke to our parents.
“Several times a week”, I’d report. “Sometimes, several times a day for some of my friends”.
She was shocked.
“Several times a day?” she asked sounding perplexed. “What do you guys have to say to them that often?”
“Well, you know, they like to know what we ate, what we did, what we thought about today, who we saw (if we went to shul). Those kinds of things.”
“Really? What you ate?! But why do they care? I mean, do you want to tell them all that?” she continued with genuine interest and a touch of horror.
“ Sure,” I said, though not realizing at the time, well, maybe not. But what did I know? That’s just what “you did”.
Sometimes these close encounters of the Jewish (Greek, Latino, Italian) kind can be a good thing. Sharing such intimate details makes us feel close and cared for.
But sometimes not.
It really all depends upon what drives these connections and the degree to which they occur. Is a parent’s request for information or constant text intrusions coming from their genuine desire to connect and hear about their loved one’s life (constant texting usually not!), or is it coming from a demand underlying the parent’s own loneliness or desperation to avoid their own feelings that they just don’t know how to look at and manage?
When as grown children we give ourselves space to pause and notice how we feel when a parent demands constant connection with us, we might notice it can feel smothering and burdensome. When as parents we pause long enough to see why we’re so revved up about making contact in an excessive way with our child, we might learn something new about ourselves, even our own childhoods.
Connections are healthy when they permit a child (or even a parent) some flexibility with the contact and an ability to say: “dad/ mom, I don’t want to talk right now. I just need some time alone in my room now.” (And a parent does not sulk his way out of their room!).
A common conversation I witness between parents and their children, typically around the time of adolescence, sounds like this :
Teen: “Why do you make me call you so many times when I’m at my friend’s house? I wish you would stop worrying about me!”
Version one: Mom (usually mom/ sometimes dad): “Honey, I worry about you because I love you, don’t you know?”
Version two: “Because I’m a mother. And that’s what mothers do. We worry!”
(Funny in a movie; Not so funny in your real life).
Herein lies the confusion. Love and worry are not the same. True, they have been living together in many Jewish homes as if they are Siamese twins but in fact, they are not even relatives.
Consider this example: A child goes away to sleep away camp. His mother can’t sleep, she can’t eat, she’s “worried sick” about him until she hears from him knowing he’s okay and settled. Once she receives word, she can finally breathe and get back to her life (at least for a few minutes until the next impending crisis). “Oh good, I’m so glad you called. I was so worried,” she shares.
This is not love. This is worry.
What this mother is really conveying to her child whether he’s in the next bedroom brushing his teeth or sitting around a campfire in Honesdale, Pennsylvania is “I don’t feel okay until I know you’re okay”.
This is co-dependency. As if she and her child are “one”.
And we may want to be one.
But not with our moms!
And in a different sort of way.
While this worry dance may seem to work for this mom (or she may think it does on some level), no child wants to be involved with his parent’s emotions in such an intense way. It’s overwhelming for him. And while hovering over her child may feel like love to this mother because perhaps this is what she learned love was from her own mom, (who waited up every night unable to comfort herself until her daughter came home), this is actually worry.
Worrying doesn’t mean we’re coming from a bad place (or that we shouldn’t ever wait up for a child or should suppress our feelings). But we need to consider the impact it has on our child when we share our panic-filled moments with them.
If you tell your child (repeatedly) that you need him to call because you worry, (and I’m not referring to the requisite “I got to x’s house safely” or “I’ll be home by 10” calls), you convey that he needs to do this so you can feel okay, and you turn his concern from himself onto you. This sets in motion a process where your child now begins to worry about making you feel okay often resulting in his alienation from his own feelings. He loses a sense of what he wants.
“Do I want to call her?” an older child may ask while he’s away at college or am I obligated to call her to keep her happy/ to calm her down?
So how can we distinguish between the two?
Love doesn’t possess. In love, we leave space for the other person to have their feelings without interference, agenda or pressure to make them feel a certain way. In love, we come to the other not out of need but out of a sense of wholeness and a desire to share and be a part of their experience, knowing we can adjust and cope when they need space.
Love feels easy. Not urgent. And love trusts the other to come back because it knows the connection is a solid one.
Worry is what happens when we can’t bear our own feelings so we instead convey to our children that we can’t feel better unless they do something to reassure us (guilt). Usually, worry involves an attempt to predict or control how the future will go rather than allowing things to unfold.
Worry comes from fear and not from faith.
Worry that markets itself as love is really saying “I need you to manage or distract me from my feelings of emptiness, fear, loneliness etc., by keeping me occupied with your life (or my worry about you) or by helping us both avoid difficult feelings.
The problem with worry hiding in love’s clothing is that the child knows it’s worry. It effects how he/she feels and what she chooses to share with her parents. This is the teenager who learns not to tell his parent where he’s going when he leaves the house because he’s learned this is the best way to avoid a dramatic scene centered on a parent’s anxiety. He’s learned to predict his parent’s overreaction to his independence and his lying has become a smart adaptation to avoid feeling smothered and having his sense of freedom thwarted.
Worry is the little girl who doesn’t tell her mother she’s feeling anxious about a fight she had with her friend in school that day because she has learned that her mother will take on her worries as if they’re her own if she tells her how she feels. To avoid having to take care of her mother’s feelings instead of the reverse, she smartly avoids talking to her mom.
I see so many children and adolescents who talk about having to put their parents’ feelings ahead of their own. They come to resent it and they feel unseen, so they distance themselves knowing that there’s no room for their feelings.
Of course, most parents understandably worry and will want to be on top of new situations and transitions that come up for their child like when they go abroad, when they start a new school or attempt to walk home from school alone the first few times. The key to checking in with a child is to do so in a balanced way. We can do this by learning to become aware of what we feel. When we begin to take time to reflect on why we’re asking for something, what we feel, it means we are also willing to take the other person into account.
This is authentic relating.
In our close Jewish families, we sometimes tend to conflate love with enmeshment. Enmeshment is when we either take on or take responsibility for another person’s feelings. We get too involved in trying to solve their feelings or attempting to make the anxiety WE feel go away that we end up not leaving them room to work things out so they can come to trust (and trust our belief in) their own skills in doing so. Compassion (and respect) is what we offer when we make space for another’s feelings.
So what should you do if you tend towards worry?
Awareness is always the starting point. Once you’re aware of what you feel, from that space you can make a different choice such as spending some time inquiring as to why your need for contact feels so intense.
Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt therapy defined it this way:
“Awareness is the spontaneous sensing of what arises in you-of what you are doing, feeling, planning; introspection, in contrast, is a deliberate turning of attention to these activities in an evaluating, correcting, controlling, interfering way; which often, by the very attention paid them, modifies or prevents their appearance in awareness”.
Becoming aware of our feelings is a gentle process, not a critical or judgmental one.
When you become clearer about what you feel, it is best for your child’s development that you generally do not to share your fears and intense feelings about separation from him- with him. Consider speaking to a friend, a partner or a therapist about these feelings instead. This will preserve your connection with your child.
The next time your child (any age, even an adult child) shares his feelings with you, just notice what you feel as you listen. What does her feeling bring up in you? Does it make you want to fix things? Do you rush in quickly to solve her dilemma? Does it make you as upset as your child so that you’re unable to just hear her out and leave some space around her feelings for a few moments to just listen?
Ask yourself: “Would it be possible for me to love and not worry about her? Can I listen to her without worrying about her?”
Of course we feel empathy when a loved one, especially a child, is hurting. But the best thing to do to guarantee a strong connection with a child is to create space for them to feel understood rather than jumping in to fix things for them and to demonstrate to them that we know how to handle our own feelings. It may require going against our familiar way and it may be uncomfortable. But in time, we will adjust.
When you ask your child to call you- a lot- ask yourself, who is this for? It may be for both of you or it may be one big knot. To begin to try and sort out your motivations, ask yourself, “Am I coming from worry or from love?
Connections become solidified when people honor each other’s feelings. They sound like this: “I know you’re busy and you’ll call when you can”. (These are not veiled demands. They are sincere).
Healthy connections are inspired by choice and led by our hearts, not by guilt that we’re not doing the right thing.