Dear Donagh,

               ….I had a row with my daughter a couple of months ago and we said hurtful things to each other that we both now wish we hadn’t said. Later that day we made up but you can't unsay things you said, and we have had to do a lot of mutual reassuring since then. The thing that won’t go away is that she called me “a control freak” that day, and I've been waiting but she has never taken it back. She is not ungenerous, and I feel that the reason she has never taken it back is that it’s true, or that she thinks it’s true. She’s a good girl, sensible in her way (she is 17), and I should trust her more. My fear now, strange to say, is as much for myself as for her. I want to be someone she can turn to later on when she is married and rearing her family, but if she sees me as a control freak she will tend to hide from me rather than confide in me…. Can you suggest anything for a control freak?! Miriam

  Dear Miriam,

               ‘Control freak’ is very strong language, and it might suggest that this condition is rare - freaks are a rarity in nature. But instead I think it’s quite common, even normal. I was with a family the other day where there is a 2-month-old baby, and the mother’s behaviour towards the baby could be described as that of a ‘control freak’ - but the word ‘freak’ would be entirely inappropriate there. If our mothers weren’t totally intent on our wellbeing during the early stage of our life we might not have survived. So don’t consider yourself a freak for wanting to control what happens to your daughter.

               Of course your daughter is now more than 200 months old! There are lots of things she can do very well for herself, and lots of other things that she can do badly. But how do we learn to do anything? By doing it badly! How did she learn to walk? By walking badly at first. How did she learn to talk? By talking badly. If you had never allowed her to walk or talk until she could do them perfectly she would still be unable to do them. I know of course that you are fearful she will get hurt in the wicked shallow world of pop culture. You have every reason to be afraid of that. But you cannot isolate her from it. You can foster her inner strength and self-confidence; these are the things that will bring her safely through it. And you can be the one she confides in when she is hurt and confused. But, as you are so aware, she will not do that if she sees you as over-controlling.

               Your question was about yourself, not about your daughter. You want to trace the source of your urge to control. In fact you have done so already, in your letter. It is fear. Fear is a very powerful instinct - perhaps often the most powerful. It creeps in everywhere, not only into our weaknesses but into our strengths. It makes us cling, even when that is against our best interests, as in the case of a drowning man. You can already see the reaction in your daughter. It doesn’t follow from this that you will now find it easy to release your hold and give her freedom in wise measure. I don’t know if there is anyone who can tell you how to do that. You have the grace of motherhood, which I don’t have. You just have to rely on it; it’s your source of wisdom.

Here’s my suggestion. Distinguish your mothering from your fear. Think about them separately. If you use a journal, write extensively for yourself about each of them, separately, keeping in mind to distinguish them and keep them apart. This is not easy. But it is essential work. Later, you can bring them together and see how fear is interfering with your mothering.

Fear is not only a powerful instinct but a subtle one. It knows how to disguise itself, and you have the job of unmasking it. You could ask yourself, for example, why you want your daughter to confide in you later on. Any mother would want that, I'm sure, but in your case could it be a need to control her through the years ahead? Only you can say, when you look very carefully and for a long unhurried time.

If you don’t control your fear, it will control you, and through you it will try to control your daughter. You have to break the cycle. You can help yourself to control your fear by looking carefully at it. Where does it come from? It is a natural instinct, but it is not enough to say that. You have to see in detail how it works in you, where it comes from, what activates it, what you typically do when it comes at you….

If you look at the archive list under ‘Jacob’s Well’ on this site you will find two articles, ‘Fear’ and ‘Fear and Faith’. And in this month’s ‘Wisdom Line’ I used a passage from the Lebanese Christian writer Kahlil Gibran. These may be of some help to you.

               Donagh O'Shea

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