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Setting Limits to Caregiving

By Roberta Satow

(Page 1 of 3)

When people confront an ocean of need, they feel anxiety. Some run for their lives; others jump in and drown. Both reactions are rooted in the inability to stay separate and set limits in a healthy way that balances generosity with self-preservation.

After my mother had a series of small strokes and was increasingly unable to take care of herself, I felt overwhelmed by her neediness. She was going to a dozen different doctors who were not communicating with each other; she was losing weight and constantly complaining of nausea; she had stains on her clothes; she couldn’t remember her keys or that she had just found them; she couldn’t remember if she had sent her rent check or not; she couldn’t remember if she had taken her medication or not; and she couldn’t remember my husband’s name or my birthday. She called me all the time—to ask me the same questions over and over. My sister said it was my mother’s anxiety; she often felt angry toward her. My sister is the oldest child and her anxiety about drowning in my mother’s neediness made her feel so overwhelmed that she needed to withdraw from my mother. She could hardly bear to visit her. In addition, my brother rarely visited and never indicated when he was going to. I felt guilty and frightened.

What could I do? I felt that my only alternatives were doing nothing at all or letting her take me over (i.e., live in my house; change my relationship with my husband and my children; interfere with my work, my friends, and my routines). I had to face a new phase in my own development. For a long time I dealt with my mother by trying to keep my distance. During high school and college I imagined whom I would go to for help if I got pregnant—my mother was definitely out. When I was in college I had mononucleosis and I was in the university hospital. I did not tell my mother. As a young married woman, I never talked to her about anything personal that mattered to me. It was easier to report on facts of my children’s lives (i.e., Jason has a cold or Matthew got an A on his English paper) or day-to-day activities and events in my life (i.e., I spoke to my cousin or I went to the dentist). My withdrawal from my mother was a result of my insecure attachment to her—and that remained inside of me, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously.

The early insecure attachment creates a wish to be comforted and a wish to run away from danger. The problem is that the person from whom you want comfort and the person who is dangerous is the same person—that creates an often life-long conflict. The mother you yearn for is the mother you withdraw from; the mother you are afraid of is the mother you cling to. Children with school phobias offer a good example of this paradox—the inability to leave home is often a response to a perceived threat from the parents. Thus withdrawal and clinging are two different anxiety responses resulting from an insecure early attachment to the mother.


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