Letting Go as a Mom of Grown Children: Is There Ever a Time When Detachment Is a Healthy Idea?

When I think of detachment, I think of a husband unlovingly detached from his wife, or a depressed mother who is detached and uninvolved with her child.

In these contexts, detachment occurs in unhealthy relationships. Indeed, the ‘problem’ in each of these situations is the detachment itself. But are there times when detachment can be a healthy thing?

I initially bristled at this idea. I approach my relationships and pursuits with passion. The ability to invest my energy totally or give my heart fully is such a part of who I am that functioning with detachment was unthinkable.

But there is another way to look at detachment.

When I became a mom, I studied the ‘attachment theory’ as I was trying to decide how I would mother my family. While balancing career and motherhood, I wondered if being available, especially to young children, would be of value to them.

The research suggested that there are enormous benefits to the child. I read about a British researcher named John Bowlby who studied maternal deprivation. He looked at how separation from mothers affected children in the 1950s.

Bowlby warned against separating children from their mothers, even less-than-perfect mothers. His reasons were that such deprivation put the children at increased risk for physical and mental illness.

He thought that such separations thwarted the child’s instinctual need to keep mom close by. This was demonstrated by such behaviors as sucking, clinging and following mom.

In a landmark work on the subject, Bowlby outlined his underlying belief that a child needs a reliable, ongoing attachment to a primary caregiver and that she suffers, perhaps irreparably, if that attachment is interrupted or lost.

Bowlby believed that the young child’s hunger for his mother’s love and presence is as great as his hunger for food, and that her absence inevitably generates a powerful sense of loss and anger.

Bowlby was the first in a long line of experts whose research substantiates what mother wisdom has told us all along. Our babies need us. In fact, her emotional attachment to you is crucial to her emotional development. The effect of parental absence on children can be devastating.

It was obvious to me that children need the consistent, available love of their mothers. Without it, they feel unloved and may experience difficulty in intimate relationships for the rest of their lives.

Based on research, as well as the longings of my own heart, I left my career to be a full-time mother to my children.

Having raised four young souls to adulthood, I am now asking if there can be such a thing as being too attached.

Sometimes, this attachment to our children can become problematic. As the child grows and their universe expands, moms can have trouble letting go. With mom remaining too strongly attached, the bond can become unhealthy.

For some of us, that attachment functions almost like an addiction, serving to make us dependent and unhappy. What happens when we are overly attached to our child, and that person rejects us, or becomes estranged from us? We can begin to feel anxious and depressed, frustrated, irritated or angry.

When we feel less than whole without the love of our child, we can feel fearful, jealous, hopeless, and disconnected. So, is there a way to care, yet not care? To love, but be detached in a healthy way? If you have suffered the loss of love or the estrangement of a child, what can we learn from this?

As we process our feelings about our children, we can grow in our thinking as well.

In his book, therapist Ryan Elliott, MSW says, “It’s not an either/or dilemma. This is preoperational thinking – in other words, thinking characterized by children under the age of 7.

“Black and white thinking, right vs. wrong thinking, either or thinking, once something is one way it can’t be changed kind of thinking, the law is the law type of thinking. Mature thinking is mediated by mercy and understanding.”

The choice is not just to love, or not love. In other words, thinking our only choice is to love or not love is immature thinking. It is not a black or white issue.

As a goal of detaching from an estranged child, we can learn to love, but not have the behavior or estrangement make us crazy. It requires maturity on our part. And maybe some therapy.

Are you too attached to your grown children? Has that attachment caused problems for you? How does the idea of detaching from your child make you feel? Please share your thoughts below.


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