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Can my daughter be my best friend?

Dear Elisheva,

I’m a 43 year old wife, mom, and professional. I have a happy marriage, amazing kids, and a satisfying job. My oldest daughter Atara just spent her year in Israel, in seminary, and came back in June. Since then, I’ve been troubled by the changes in our relationship. Looking back, it probably started in the second half of high school. As she was growing up, we were always incredibly close. I never had the problems with her that other people describe with their kids. Atara was always kind of like my best friend. She told me everything, and I shared a lot with her too. We would often spend a whole day out shopping and going out to eat, gabbing nonstop.

But over the last few years, and specifically this last one, there’s been a major change in our relationship. She shares less and less with me, and more with her friends. She’s connected with some mentors as well, from camp and from seminary, and she has long deep conversations with them. She’ll tell me a three minute version of a story or idea, but then later on, I’ll overhear her on a call with someone else, sharing way more detail about it, more enthusiastically.

She’s planning to live at home while in college, but I already see she’s spending more time out of the house than she used to. She’s not rude to me at all, and I don’t think she’s keeping any big secrets from me. She’s still helpful in the house, and happy to hear anything I want to share with her. It just feels like I’m being replaced as her “main person,” and being moved further down the line of importance to her. It’s not that I don’t want her to have other meaningful relationships; I do, and I always have. I just feel like I’m slowly losing my baby and my best friend, and it hurts. I’ve mentioned it to her, and she told me that she still feels super close to me, but that she’s just really excited about all her new friends and mentors too. Is there anything I can do about this?


Lonely Mom

Dear Lonely Mom,

Congratulations. It sounds like you’ve raised a healthy, competent, socially well-adjusted young woman, with whom you have a loving, stage-appropriate relationship.

Parenting young adults is often an adjustment after parenting kids and teens, particularly when they are still living under our roofs. Your daughter’s progression from “Mom’s little girl” to social teenager to independent young adult sounds well integrated. But I hear why it’s emotional for you.

Some experts discourage the idea of a daughter and mom being “best friends,” favoring instead a more hierarchical model of parent-child attachment. There are several challenges that can sometimes arise in this potentially enmeshment style dynamic of “my child is my best friend.”

One is the child not learning to follow rules or show respect to the parent, who feels more like an equal than an authority figure. But it doesn’t sound like this happened with Atara, whom you describe as respectful and helpful.

Another concern is the “parentified child syndrome” where a kid feels pressured to be overly mature for the parent or responsible for the parent’s needs, feelings, or household tasks. I don’t know if Atara experienced this or not, but it sounds like you tried to be mindful not to burden her in that way.

A third concern, which it seems you are encountering, is how you personally experience her launching. From what you describe, it sounds possible that you may have come to rely a little too much on Atara emotionally, even if she didn’t feel it explicitly. It’s wonderful to enjoy our kids, but it’s not their job to make us feel whole. Atara’s job now is to develop and evolve into an autonomous young adult. But you’re, understandably, feeling a sense of loss as she spreads her wings and explores new social and experiential vistas beyond her family of origin.

In family therapy terms this process is called differentiation, and it happens over time. For example, our babies and toddlers need us more more than our 6–10-year-olds do. Eventually, tweens and high schoolers begin shifting from parent-centered to peer-centered influence.

As our kids mature, the hope is that we’ve built them a foundation of love, values, and safety that they can then use to make more connections and learn new ideas from a variety of sources. And as they’re venturing farther and farther out into the world, they know they can always circle back to our home base to process, share, and integrate, when they want to. It sounds like you and your husband have done a great job of creating this paradigm for Atara.

Regarding your daughter, it sounds like she’s doing exactly what she should be. In terms of your feelings, maybe we can work on a reframe of this situation for you:

As Atara was growing up in your home, you created an environment and a relationship in which she felt comfortable sharing copiously with you. Over the years, she’s become more social, mature, and independent. She’s still close with you, and still shares with you, and she now has other connections that she prioritizes as well. Enjoy and savor the conversations you have with her. Be proud of her, shep your nachas, and honor both sets of feelings internally:

“I feel sad sometimes as I realize that Atara is growing up and I see that this means I will be playing a relatively smaller part in her life for now. And I’m also glad for her that she’s branching out and accruing such a full and growing repertoire of quality people and experiences.”

Consider investing a bit more in your other relationships as well. See if you can gently try and redirect the time and intensity of focus that you’re using to miss what you used to have with Atara into other areas of your life. Maybe you can make an effort to connect more meaningfully with some of your adult friends and share deeply and mutually with them. Maybe you want to schedule some quality one on one time with your husband and/ or other children or relatives. Maybe you can rediscover creative interests or hobbies. Maybe you can sit down with a journal and some chocolate and maybe a friend who’s in the same boat, and have a cathartic ugly-cry about how bittersweet it is that kids grow up.

One more idea, which I’m not sure is advisable in your case, is to restructure your time with Atara. For example, instead of waiting around hoping she’ll find you and start chatting organically, do you think she might be interested in you inviting her to a “regular” something, like a weekly lunch date, an activity you both enjoy, or a joint learning project? The reason I’m not sure whether it’s advisable is because if Atara is already starting to feel like you’re clinging to her in a needy way, efforts like this could unintentionally create a feeling of discomfort that might make her pull back more. But if it doesn’t seem that way, and you can offer this as a “really no pressure, only if it works for you” idea, maybe you could try it once, and then if you both enjoy, see if she’d want to do it more regularly. But I would tread lightly with these invitations.

One of the best ways to drive away anyone is by pushing ourselves on them in an unnatural way. It sounds like she genuinely enjoys and values your relationship, and treats you well, so I’d encourage you to maintain that by allowing it to continue on a wavelength that works for her right now. You can even be open with her about this, letting her know that you’re trying to be balanced in showing her that you love spending time with her, but you never want her to feel obligated.

I know it's hard to let go and let our babies fly, and it’s also one of the greatest gifts we can offer them. And like that old cliché with the butterfly or puppy or something: once we set them free, when they come back to be with us on their own, because they want to, then we know the love is authentic. All relationships evolve over time, and feature more prominently in some seasons than others. Right now, she’s exploring novelty and her new adult identity, and this is good for her. As she moves into future phases, she may seek out your primary closeness again. Your children will hopefully have many lovely friends and mentors, who often come and go in life, but they will only ever have one Mom. And it sounds like your kids got a good one.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might also like this: Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking

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