(1) The Queen of Enmeshment

We've talked about finding meaning in life, the search for self and identity, and how the dynamics of our closest relationships, enmeshment in particular, can make that quest seemingly impossible.
Cheryl Rice

But nobody will teach you more about what it is like to really be enmeshed than Cheryl Rice. How the needs of a parent can hijack a child's sense of independence and well-being are the essence of her memoire, Where Have I Been All My Lifethe definitive treatment on the subject.
Where Have I Been All My Life

I don't want to spoil it, but the first obvious sign that Cheryl is in trouble starts with kindergarten. Most children are anxious, their moms excited to send them off to their first full day of school.
Have a great time, don't forget to write!

Cheryl can't handle the separation, probably because her mother set the stage. She can't handle it.

Tears of separation anxiety, sobs of sadness, breaks even the unbreakable resolve of kindergarten teachers, those masters of child psychology, professional child wranglers, my personal heroes.

Only attachment-disordered children fail kindergarten, have to start over the following year. Kindergarten is only the beginning. In a few short years Cheryl will tearfully, hysterically, beg the staff at summer camp to send her home. She will plead non-stop, yearn for her mother's warm cocoon, love sick, wondering if this longing for her other half will ever go away.

Textbook enmeshment, her father is powerless, can't look his daughter in the eye, suffers his own emotional demons. When he does deign to speak he is critical, unhelpful. Cheryl's take on it: her idol, her father, can't possibly love her, not if his few comments all point to her weight.* Eating disorders, come to her naturally. She welcomes anorexia, her relationship with food, like her relationships to everyone, grasps at control.

Enmeshed children know only one relationship, that with a needy parent. Rejected by one parent, captured by another, Cheryl's feeble attempts at surviving relationships are all about pleasing. She is good, kind, giving. Literally self-less. Intimacy, sharing about herself is impossible, for she hasn't a clue who she is. 

Yet this young woman is bright and hard-working, marries and has a career as a life coach. She may not know it at the time, but she writes well and is very funny, creative.

In her mid-forties she suffers the the worst thing possible. Her mother dies, little warning. cancer. Cheryl is back to therapy, and that relationship, with its ups and downs (she falls deeply in love with her therapist right away) is the path to wellness. Apparently everyone falls in love with their therapist.
I had no idea.
Parenthood Screen Shot

(2)  Parenthood, the TV Show 

It starts with the theme song Forever Young, by Bob Dylan

May god bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every run
May you stay, forever young

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you

May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
And may you stay forever young

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
And may you stay forever young

We all have our shows, and one that millions of Americans pine for, a second only to Everyone Loves Raymond as a dramatic, yet sweet enactment of enmeshment, is on its way out. On Thursday, January 29, 2015, fans will say goodby to Parenthood.

Get the tissues ready.  True Parenthood fans watch it for permission to cry.

I came in a few seasons late, as young mother Kristina (Monica Potter), battles cancer. She makes a friend in treatment, one who will ultimately surrender to the disease. So charming, so kind, we know the friend, a mentor for survival, won't survive. One of the very few relationships that exists outside of the family doesn't last.
Not to be left out, I catch up to learn that Sarah Braverman (Lauren Graham, still a  Gilmore Girl at heart) has returned home, a failure as a single mother with two teenagers. She can't make it alone. Her family supports her decision to return, helps her find work, and counsels her children, lost and confused, now separated from their alcoholic father, a grade B musician.

There's conflict with that loose end. What if Dad somehow steals back the loyalty of the kids? What if he sobers up? Will he take Sarah away again, too? We are left thinking her decision to leave the first time a consequence of poor decision-making. She is a poor decision-maker without her parents. And why would a Braverman ever leave Berkeley, anyway? Mother Camille (Bonnie Bedelia) doesn't say I told you so outright. She doesn't have to.

It is the family support that neutralizes the tension, that tension of too much closeness in the family. Even therapists will learn from the treatment of Max (Max Burkholder), the grandson with high functioning autism (formerly Aspergers), and the management of his disorder. We witness a family's love, caring and patience with Hank (Ray Romano), too, Sarah's boyfriend, who has the same problem as an adult. 

As the seasons progress, it is implied that, Zeek (Craig T. Nelson), the patriarch of the family, is often on another planet, not fully present, perhaps a function of post traumatic stress suffered as a Vietnam war veteran. Yet everyone loves him, respects his opinions, and he learns to be present, a powerful lesson. He will ultimately make difficult decisions regarding his health, and the idea that he might not be around much longer has the family scurrying maniacally to support him, to make his last years richer, to show their love and appreciation.

This is functional stuff, if seriously bordering on enmeshment at times. We haven't even talked about Crosby (Dax Shepard), the middle son who still brings his laundry home to his mother, until Jasmine (Joy Bryant) captures him with her pregnancy and beauty. That's enmeshment, bringing home your laundry in your thirties.

Maybe we should define enmeshment as expected, unbounded family loyalty that conflicts with one's likelihood and capacity to meet developmental milestones.

But the Bravermans, for the most part, meet theirs. Far from feeling pathological, it feels lucky, good to be in this family. Season after season, the in-house support makes us all wish we were Bravermans. Maybe this accounts for the show's popularity, living it vicariously on Thursday nights. The intimacy in Parenthood takes our breath away.

What we'll miss, besides the Dylan song, is the thought of three generations constantly colliding, noisy family dinners around an exceptionally long dining room table, the family's sprawling Berkeley homestead, complete with barn. We'll think of adult siblings frequenting each others' living rooms, endlessly toasting to small emotional victories. And the idea that everyone is expected to attend everything.
Adult siblings survive a nephew's school play by sneaking off to smoke pot in the school bathroom together.

Attendance is mandatory at Little League baseball games. The scenes with Victor up at bat, the adopted son having difficulty finding his place, move us, despite the predictability, in a wonderful way.

We'll think of barbecues, old cars, and botched home repairs that require son-in-law Joel, the Jewish carpenter, to rewire; and the emotions that each grandchild suffers, trying to cope with problems that everyone will share with everyone else. All secrets are spilled, shared. All doors are open, even at the workplace, where family members habitually barge in to offer advice or beg opinions, support.

Enmeshed, sure, but is it so bad, these travesties, when people make one another happy? There is no turning anyone away because of that expectation: We will be there for one another.

Just don't leave.


PS. Haddie, one of the grandchildren, does leave. Off to college with her female lover, ten will get you twenty she's back for the last show. 

*Take note, parents. Kids get it when you think they are fat, and translate fat to ugly. Not good for their self-esteem.

Finally, thanks to Cheryl Rice for sending me her memoir. I hope I did it justice, feel your pain and love that it is a story about recovery, growth and healing. I'm sorry for your loss.

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