"My mom is my best friend. I can talk to her about everything, she helps me through everything. We don't really have any secrets," I said, playing with the weave of the orange upholstered chair I was sitting on in a cramped therapist office at the University of Wisconsin's free health center.
"Maybe that's a part of the problem," said the therapist, kindly.
Maybe that's part of the problem. You're living in a house without walls. Your house needs walls."
"I don't think you understand," I clarified. "This isn't, like, a weird family bed situation."
"No," she said. "Emotional walls. Maybe the fact that you've given your mother so much access to yourself and vice versa has made it more difficult for you to feel like your own person."
Hearing this, my immediate reaction was to reject the theory. I physically recoiled to the point where the therapist asked me to examine my own body language and, when I did, I realized that I had practically folded myself into the chair like a pretzel; my arms were crossed so tight that my elbows hurt.
The reason I was in this office to begin with was because I was feeling so isolated that I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It had gotten to the point where, when I wasn't in class, I was usually lying alone on the living room floor crying and, up until that point, my mother was the only person I could talk to about how I was feeling.
"You're saying I should block her out?" I asked, stunned.
"No, I'm saying that you need to set boundaries."
At the time, this information sent me reeling — how was I supposed to get over feeling like a broken puzzle piece by rejecting the one person who had always accepted me for who I was unconditionally? — but looking back, she was right.
My mother has been my best friend for as long as I can remember. In high school, while other friends were having screaming matches with their parents over curfews, I was leaving house parties early to watch What Not To Wear on the couch with my mom because I preferred her company. Since I was a child, our weekend ritual has included walking together to get iced teas at the local coffee shop where they have always saved us two of our favorite kinds of muffins (which both of us, strangely enough, eat with a knife and fork). My mom is kind, intelligent, funny and a good listener. I can say without bias (okay, fine, with total bias) that I've never encountered a person more worth being friends with.
New York Magazine recently did a feature on Julie and Samantha Bilinkas, a mother and daughter who, lo and behold, enjoy spending time together. The piece explores the dangers of a close mother/daughter friendship, like how mothers will often forego rules and boundaries in order to seem fun and youthful:
I see women at the gym who I know are 50 and they look 20," says Deborah Carr, a Rutgers sociologist and co-author of Making Up With Mom. "This moms generation — especially if they're baby-boomers or Gen X — they're such a part of this youth culture they don't actually see themselves as the old mother.
Says psychologist Camilla Mager, "I had a lot of patients saying, ‘My mom's my best friend.' I remember thinking, That's because you don't know any better or because there's something really fucked up going on."
This applies to the Dina Lohans and Jaid Barrymores of the world more so than it does Julie Bilinkas, who, rather than shove coke down her daughter's nasal passage, has done her best to enrich Samantha through travel and education. Perhaps I'm being sensitive because Julie and Samantha's relationship reminds me a lot of my relationship with my mother — though Julie is wealthy enough to take Samantha out of school to visit India for a week or two, whereas my mom would occasionally let me skip a day so that we could drive down to Chicago together in our Dodge minivan.
Then there's this:
Some mornings, Samantha and Julie met in the kitchen only to discover they were dressed in each other's clothes or in nearly identical outfits, a variation on jeans, a white T-shirt, and a brown jacket, usually Urban Outfitters (Samantha) or Anthropologie (Julie), which Samantha calls the Urban Outfitters for adults. "Really, Mom?" Samantha says if they happen to twin up, though secretly she doesn't mind.
I've had this happen countless times. Though for some parents and teenagers this could be a real problem — picture moms showing up wearing crop tops and silly bandz (is that what the kids are wearing these days?) — with my mom and me, it was more an issue of wearing the same Doc Martens or cardigan color. Contention was usually born because A.) she wouldn't let me wear her vintage cowboy jacket or B.) she refused to change when I felt we looked too similar.
Of course, there's the issue of boundaries. My mother and Julie Bilinkas have both set up relationships with their daughters where it's safe to say anything. My mom told me that it was fine for me to drink socially or — if I really wanted to — have sex in high school so that if I ever found myself in trouble in either of those situations, I wouldn't hesitate to ask for her help. The result? I never drank or had sex in high school to the point where now I wish I could go back and do it over without being such a big dork. (JK, there's no fucking way I would go back there.)
So where is the problem?
In my case, having such a comfortable relationship with my mom has made forging relationships with other people near impossible. Because I never had a contentious period with her, I never experienced the us-against-them mentality that drives teenagers together (or at least so I'm told by Skins). Sure, I had friends, but I just liked my mom more than them. I didn't feel the need to walk in my high school graduation and I've kept contact with hardly anyone from those years of my life. To this day, I tend to relate better to people decades older than me.
At 25, I am only now learning how to make and maintain friendships outside of my family circle, and that's simply because I made myself move out of state, half a country away from our easy relationship. The physical distance was crucial. This delayed attempt to come into my own, this arrested development, has manifested itself in some pretty ugly ways. While most have moved on from throwing tantrums by my age, it sometimes seems as though I'm just starting, only, rather than slamming the door to my bedroom, I'm slamming shut my laptop to cut short a Skype session with my mom that isn't going my way. What's flattering about an adult woman behaving that way? The answer, quite easily, is absolutely nothing. It's gross. I feel gross when I act that way. But it also feels somewhat necessary.
Feeling that my mom doesn't understand my life has encouraged me to develop a pretty close circle of friends that has nothing to do with her. And much like my therapist encouraged so long ago, it's helped me to keep some things private from her. She doesn't need to know about the occasional weekend where I drink too much and wake up on a friend's couch wearing only a t-shirt and a pair of tights. She doesn't have to know when I make out with someone or what music I'm listening to. Of course, I still feel the urge to tell her those things, to verbally vomit every single thing that happens to me, but now there's a hitch, a voice in the back of my head that reminds me some things need to be mine and only mine. By nature of being a great best friend and parent, my mom understands and accepts this, though I'm sure it can hurt her as much as it does me.
I hope it's a compliment to my mother that her role in my life, her role in fucking me up a bit, has always been being too comforting and too loving — so much so that I had to move half way across the country escape the appeal of her company and insights. So much so that I trust her not to give up on me when I, a stone's throw from thirty, will still occasionally yell about how she doesn't get me and how she can take her advice elsewhere. (Side note: Mom, never stop giving me advice. If it wasn't for you, I'd have never filed my taxes).
Image via Kuzmik/Shutterstock.