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  • Writer's pictureSusan Howell

The Meddling Mother

By Susan Harris Howell, @susan_h_howell

I saw a movie this week that made me think about motherhood and the transition it requires when done well. The Meddler[1] depicts the struggle to establish appropriate boundaries between a mother, played by Susan Sarandon, and her young adult daughter, played by Rose Byrne.

As a young woman who is building a career while establishing adult relationships, Lori wants her mother, Marnie, to give her space. Marnie, however, has just relocated across the country to be near Lori and wants to be involved in her daughter's life. The continuous phone calls, text messages, and surprise drop-ins eventually push Lori to demand her space and force Marnie to build a life for herself beyond that of being Lori's mom.

I felt compassion for the characters and enjoyed the storyline. I was glad to see Lori, finally, in a moment of fear, reach out to her mother and Marnie find a purpose in life apart from her daughter. I liked that the movie portrayed an issue to which most parents of young adult children can relate.

I know I can relate. My husband and I are in the process of recalibrating our relationships with our own young adult daughter and son. Creating space, while still being available, is hard work. Being supportive, without intruding, is almost an art form. Letting go of the children they were while affirming the adults they are becoming is necessary, yet admittedly, a bit painful. It's hard to get it right. Most days I'm not sure if I even come close.

But my reaction to the movie went beyond my feelings as a parent of young adult children. I also reacted to the gendered messages reflected in the meddling mother theme. Namely, that motherhood consists of being over-involved, intrusive, and unable to respect a child's passage into adulthood.

While I try not to be "that mother," I realize that for this stereotype to resonate with so many, as evidenced by the laughter I heard that day in the theater, there is probably a grain of truth in the image presented. And when an unflattering truth presents itself, particularly for my own gender, I want to know why it exists and what can be done to correct it.

So, allow me to offer a suggestion as to how the proverbial meddling mother comes to be.

Throughout a woman's lifetime, she is encouraged to have children, as motherhood is often assumed to be her highest calling. She receives countless messages, particularly from the church, that hers is the most crucial role in the formation and well-being of her child and that no one else, even the child's father, can do what she alone was created to do.

Therefore, she is encouraged to take work that is flexible so she can meet the needs of her children, even when her abilities and talents would take her in a different direction. Her own interests are assumed to be less important, certainly not a calling, and enjoyed only as a secondary pursuit.

Then, her child grows up. Her son no longer needs the amount of nurture she has made it her business to provide. Her daughter sees her attention as interference. Her helpfulness has, almost overnight, become a character flaw and a cause for collective eye rolling, not only from her children but from society in general.

She is now expected to move from being the most crucial person in her child's life to being a supporting character. She is told that she needs a life, outside interests, maybe a career! She is chided for making her child her world and reprimanded for not moving away from that "highest calling" she was encouraged to embrace just a few short years ago.

While this is certainly not the experience of all women, it is frequent enough that the image portrayed in this movie is relatable to many. And in acknowledgement of that, I suggest we move toward a healthier, more productive image based on a broader view of women and our purpose in life. The following are my suggestions:

1. If you are a mother to young children, carefully consider your own needs and interests along with those of your children. Do not make them your entire world. You are more than their parent. You were a whole person before they were born, and you will continue to be once they no longer need you as intensely as they do now. Stay in touch with your own gifts and talents; nurture them as time allows.

2. If you are a father to young children, realize that you too have responsibility for your child's well-being. Sharing the load now will ease the burden off the mother and will foster a deeper relationship with your child than you would not have otherwise. Realize that you too might have difficulty letting go, so maintain balance in your life as well.

3. If you are in the process of learning to parent a young adult, attend to how well you are transitioning into this phase. Ask your son or daughter how you are doing. Ask how they feel about your relationship. Let them know that this is new territory for you. Ask for their suggestions and listen to their answers.

4. If you have knowledge or experience that can shed light on this issue, share what you know with those who need to hear it. The church needs to broaden its view of women and our place in God's work. The secular world also needs a more comprehensive view of women, rather than confining our value to what we do in service to men and children.

If you have a voice in your church, use it to effect change. If you have expertise in gender, provide information to dispel the myths our church and society perpetuates. Speak out within community organizations, at professional conferences, in letters to newspapers, or articles for secular and faith-based publications. Our world needs what you have to share. And in the meantime, watch The Meddler. Marnie and Lori eventually find their way, giving hope to us all.


[1] Wettels, J. G. (Producer), & Scafaria, L. (Director). (2016). The Meddler [Motion Picture]. United States: Sony Pictures.

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