I am reposting this piece that I wrote a few years back because today is my mother’s birthday. While this is only one of many memories I have of my mother, it remains one of the most salient. Whenever I hear the word individuation, I immediately think of this conversation she and I shared.
Today I worked with a graduate student in Psychology on a paper on “Differentiation in Family Systems.” Differentiation is basically when children establish their own personhood that is separate from the family unit. I remember a moment when I was 13 when this concept played out in my own life.
When I was 13, I hated everything about my mother. The way she walked, talked, and even breathed. I’m sure this was evident to her in my sassy attitude, rolling eyes and long sighs whenever she said anything. Some of this was normal for an adolescent; some of it was born from my anger at her for going to graduate school and leaving our family (and me) for long stretches while she studied in one town, worked in another and lived in a third.
One day my mother, who was working on a Ph.D. in Psychology, sat me down for a chat. I don’t remember the occasion, but I do remember her words very well. She said, “What you’re going through is a developmental phase called individuation. You are becoming your own person separate from the family. This is not only normal but also important for your human development. I can promise you that no matter how much you dislike me now, one of these days, you and I will be friends.”
I remember feeling a huge amount of relief at her words. I felt guilty that I hated her so much. I was glad to know there was a word to describe what I was experiencing.
She was right. Over time, we did become the best of friends. Gone was the need to exercise my power to be different; replaced by my pleasure at having her near.
I was reminded today of how helpful it is to have ways to identify family dynamics in order to facilitate understanding. This is one of the true benefits of psychology and one of the great helps of psychotherapy.
I also am very aware that I was lucky to have a mother who was so tuned in to human behavior. This helped me to shift from guilt to growth and move forward to that time she had predicted.
I emulated my mother’s approach when my own children were teenagers and throwing all their irritation in my direction. I saw relief on their faces when they heard this was “just a phase.”
I am also lucky to have students who give me the opportunity to revisit information that was presented to me so long ago. Nothing like a discussion on individuation to spark memories of my mom. Yes, I was truly fortunate to have that sensitive and sensible woman in my life.