In therapy there is a term used to describe the healthy separation between people, especially a parent and a child. Differentiation is the word that says you did a good job, you have a healthy separation from each other and basically the nest can be disassembled and rebuilt differently. Like that hilarious commercial when the son goes off to college and the parents tearfully bid goodbye then run into the house to turn the kid’s bedroom into a Jacuzzi bathroom. Differentiation allows the natural separation to be normal, tearful yes, but a healthy one.
There are lots of little steps leading up to the true and finite land of differentiation and all of them lay the groundwork, (hands in prayer position here) for the final move out to their own apartment or house at some later time. But differentiation is more than a physical change of scenery, it is psychological and human too. It is the proverbial disconnect of needing to parent, to mother and allow your child to parent himself. Leaving him for the first time at day care, putting him on the school bus to kindergarten, teaching him to swim and letting him go into the ocean for his first time while you watch from the shoreline, the first day of middle school and high school, hugging them after their first broken heart, being there at their first strike out at a playoff game. The list goes on and on and they all build off of each other each time gaining momentum and strength for later. Later. When the emotional bond between you shifts and though you love each other immensely, you don’t need each other for survival, physical or emotional. You can still have the most open and connected heart, but you are ok with yourself enough to separate and fly, free and healthy. Free from issues of abandonment or over parenting that may find you in therapy later on struggling with your own relationships. Differentiation says I love you, you love me but we are not so intertwined in each other’s lives that we either can’t separate or we can’t wait to separate. It is the more neutral in the middle of it, the sweet spot of the hard worked results of parenting well, or as well as you thought at the time.
I understood this concept only recently as both a daughter and a partner. It has taken me all of these years to truly comprehend the true definition of its power and once I recognized the true sense of differentiation, I welcomed it into the life of my son and me wholeheartedly. He has actually taught me differentiation by his own sense of self. Another unexpected gift of being a mother and a parent for the last twenty one years. Differentiation is also the ability to be able to disagree without that volcanic surge causing a behavior that in retrospect certainly serves no one. I would also call this choosing not to take the bait. The bait being when a family member says something to get a response out of you, usually one that causes that previous mentioned surge. My son and I haven’t had that experience and I don’t anticipate it; I would say we have a pretty healthy mother son relationship, but I won’t really know this until he navigates his own relationship in the future. Relationships are the unique viewfinders we get to look through to see what our parent child relationships were really made of.
In anticipation of my son’s trip to Israel last week, he had to get to NYC the day before as he was going to meet a friend. He is a mature twenty-one and this was as simple as getting on a train and heading south where his friend agreed to meet him and escort him back to his house in Queens. As I write this from the position of After, it is a no brainer. For some reason though, I was filled with anxiety, stress, worry and no matter how much meditation and self talk I did, my heart would not stop racing and the anxious thoughts would not settle. Where was this coming from? I finally realized that I had two very definitive travel experiences involving NYC and when I traced back to the exact moments of those, I was able to at least give some credence to my angst. This had nothing to do with his own experience, it was my stuff from my past that was informing this present moment. Wild.
When I was twenty three I went to Paris by myself for a month, flying over with someone I worked with where we would stay together for three days and then part ways. I had a blast and learned so much about myself in this experience. This was before credit cards for twenty year olds, before cell phones, before Google maps. Just me and Rick Steves’ book on Paris for 10.00 a day or something like that. When I came home I had a hundred dollars in my pocket and the flight was late. I took a bus from JFK to Penn station and realized there were no trains that late and I had no way to get back to Rhode Island. Penn Station in 1989 was frightening and there was no way I should have been near the place at 11:30 pm looking like a vulnerable young woman. Some man came up to me and offered to help me with my bags and in my stupor, I agreed as I made my way to the taxi stand to fortunately go to a friend’s house who when I called on the payphone answered and told me to come there immediately. When the taxi driver saw this man with my bag, he began yelling at him that he was ruining tourism and that he was trying to take advantage of me which promptly forced me back into a quick wake up. What an idiot I was. But at the same time, I felt like there was some higher force looking out for me. I safely got to my friend’s apartment and all was well.
The second experience was much later. I was headed to NYC on the train from Providence to attend a training seminar and I was to arrive for a 10:00 am class on a Tuesday on Park Avenue. Excited to be in New York I vowed to myself that I would visit more often as it was such a short train ride. I remember the day and date well. It was September 4, 2001 exactly one week before September 11th at exactly the same time I arrived at Penn Station. I was struck by the random dates and times we land someplace or don’t. I hadn’t been to New York for at least five years and there I was exactly one week by pure chance earlier then the worst terrorist event of my lifetime. All of this showed up to the table unannounced, long tucked away with cobwebs in the attic as I helped my son get ready for his trip. This is amazing to me as it proves to me that traumatic events never leave us and make their reappearances like a well planned surprise party.
My son and I made it to the train station with him not rolling his eyes even. I kept telling him that my nervousness had nothing to do with my trust in his ability to navigate and he reminded me that he has lots of outside US travel experience. The irony was that I was not even the least anxious about him going to Israel. An area the size of New Jersey surrounded by countries that hate them, it was that New York thing. This is why I knew my worry was not about Michael. It was my stuff and I had to go deep in the vault to be able to say a normal goodbye to him as I brought him to the train station last Sunday. I hugged him and kissed him more than he would have liked but he allowed it. No I didn’t go into the train station with him and wait, this was as much about him leaving as it was about me letting him leave, more differentiation steps for the likely final one of him really leaving at some point in time. All normal. All healthy. All the way it is supposed to be between a parent and a child when you get it right. I got in my car after saying my final goodbye and sobbed my eyes out like I had just put him on the kindergarten bus for the first time. I know now that the tears were the final release of the grief I must have felt in those unique experiences. He made it safely to his friend’s and is in Israel now having what I suspect is the time of his life. Just how it should be. AMEN.