How I Started Recovering from Enmeshment by Starting My Own Family

Embarking on my journey of how I started recovering from enmeshment, I realized that it is more likely to occur in Black families due to the greater freedom to switch positions within households. Changing the dynamic can be difficult, but it’s certainly not impossible.

Until I let out a deep sigh, I didn’t realize I’d been holding my breath. I sat on the green futon couch my mother had bought me in my new apartment and waited for her to answer the phone. When I finally described my frightened plans, she said resignedly, “You made someone a commitment. I’m going to respect your decision.

I nearly exclaimed, “Thank you, Mama,” as I smiled widely in appreciation. “I really appreciate your patience and insight.”

I was so relieved. When I was 24, she gave me the go-light to marry my fiance. My mom sighed, so I continued my ramblings on how amazing and patient she was. Working with AmeriCorps gave me a great deal of independence, and at the age of 18, I was legally able to make decisions without anybody else’s input. Although my fiancé’s announcement to his mother did not go as smoothly, I knew I was lucky to have her. Friends had a harder difficulty breaking the news to their mothers that they couldn’t answer the phone because they were in the shower than I did when I told mine about the engagement.

In light of it, I decided this situation wasn’t so horrible. Even though things weren’t as horrible, I was still entangled since my mother’s emotions had such a profound effect on me. Enmeshed homes are ones in which the parent and child share no emotional space or autonomy. When a parent and a single child become so emotionally close that their boundaries become porous, that is the same as emotional incest.

Our toxic relationship was reflected in my feelings of guilt. My mother wanted to leave her marriage but couldn’t afford to do so before she told me it was good to be engaged. Her plan was to move in with me, collect my AmeriCorps stipend, and use it to supplement her disability check. I got through challenging times by reminding myself that my mum sacrificed a lot for me. My mom always said my dad cheated on her and left her and our three small children. She gave us whatever we wanted and took care of all my bills until I moved into the place where we were talking. While I knew I wouldn’t enjoy spending my early adult years sharing a home with her, I felt terrible about informing her that I didn’t want to. A separate existence was what I yearned for.

Adult offspring of interwoven families, in which personal boundaries are not respected, frequently have feelings of uncertainty similar to mine. “We often see adult and young adults who grow up in enmeshed family systems have difficulty making decisions for their future—where to live, where to go to school, what career to choose, and who to date—based on the lack of boundaries and opinions from family members,” says Erica Tatum-Sheade, a licensed clinical social worker and owner of Integrated Mental Health Associates.

Tatum-Sheade is an expert on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), play therapy, shame resiliency, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing with children, adolescents, and young adults (EMDR). As noted by Tatum-Sheade, for various factors, black families are more likely to have multiple generations living under one roof and to have less defined family units than other groups. Several hallmarks of African culture include close family ties and fluid gender roles at home. There is a disproportionate lack of economic opportunity for black households. All of these factors influence embedding rates. It’s possible that the child mistook the grandparent for their own parent. Some typical cases of role confusion in African households, both current and historical, include:

  • One’s parents needing psychological or monetary help from one’s children.
  • Having to rely on a grandchild who is too young to care for them full-time at home.
  • Parents who look to older children to provide parental care for younger children.
  • A parent who discusses their romantic life with their child or seeks the young person’s guidance in love-related matters.
  • Several relatives work together to persuade an adult kid to accept a job offer to make a parent pleased.

In my own case, once my mother had verbally accepted my decision to marry, she voiced her displeasure to other relatives. After that, they either stopped trying to dissuade me from getting married or flat-out refused to attend my wedding celebration.

When my aunt’s friend asked me to write a paper for her, I politely denied, and it eventually turned into a fight. In response, she exaggeratedly claimed that I was holding myself back, refusing to move forward, and thus wasting my life. It didn’t matter that I was working full-time and attending graduate school at the same time. They thought I was going in the wrong direction with my development, and they made their dissatisfaction clear to me. I had to marry because I was head over heels in love.

In enmeshment, “we often find that when creating boundaries, there is a level of pushback,” as Tatum-Sheade puts it. There’s no bad thing about getting along well with one’s relatives. But if you start making choices based on worrying about their reaction or that they will stop providing emotional support, you may want to evaluate that connection’s boundaries (or lack thereof).

Black people may have a hard time breaking free of dysfunctional family ties. To be sure, it’s not impossible. Tatum-Sheade says the first thing to do is to work on strengthening your sense of identity. Also, “it may be necessary to work with a competent professional to assist you address the influence growing up in an enmeshed household had on your development.” Realize that not everyone in your family will be ready to alter their behavior at the same time you are. Setting limits is an important part of taking care of yourself. Tatum-Sheade says, “If we are taking care of ourselves, we keep those boundaries that are leading us to a more healthy sense of self,” referencing a phrase by Prentis Hemphill. The distance at which my love for you and myself coexist is called a boundary.

I looked for evidence of improvement from the time I announced my engagement until I gave birth to my fifth child, a span of eight years. No single person in my immediate or extended family was open to altering their ways. I doubt that I would have evolved had I not taken the risk of getting married and starting my own family. I know that my desire to provide a safe and stable home for my children drove me to pursue positive connections. It was jeopardized in practically every manner by my relationship with my family, so I had to cut ties with them permanently. The problem now is to alter the habits I’ve developed as a result of growing up in a new family dynamic. The point is to let my family be ourselves. And the purpose of the employment is to allow me to rest and recuperate.

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