Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. Today she counsels a middle-aged woman whose shyness has crippled her life: She never married or had children, she lives at home with her mother, and she has never held a job.
Dear Dr. Ford:
I am 45 and have not had a period for a year. My doctor did tests and told me that I am, in fact, already in menopause. I cannot believe this. I am not married. I never had children. I live at home with my mother, and I’ve never worked.
I tried to go away to college, but I had such fears of living in a dorm, fear of being called on in a classroom, and, really, fear of being away from home. My mother is a vivacious 76-year-old widow who has tons of friends, goes out all the time, and has too many interests to mention. She never made me feel bad about just staying at home with her, gardening, reading, and taking walks. She always told me that I was just different, but that she loved me just the way I was.
This menopause thing has knocked some sense in to me. I realize that my life is half over now and that I have to find a way to fix my shyness and begin to venture out into the world, on my own, not just in my mother’s company. My mother has discouraged me from talking to anyone about my shyness and fears, because “people in our small town will talk.” I have a small inheritance that is safely invested, and Mother has the bulk of my father’s estate. She has told me that as long as I stay at home, I won’t ever have to worry about working. She never said that if I were to leave, she would leave me out of her will, but I have the feeling that she might. She tells me that she counts on me to be with her now that she is growing older.
I am so confused, and I think I am angry. Shouldn’t my mother have helped me to recover from this paralyzing shyness and move on into the world when I was younger? At least I have a computer and am quite good at connecting with the world online. This is how I know that I am not SO different. I have found descriptions of people who feel like I have all their lives and yet somehow get out and get a life.
Where do I start?
Dr. Ford Responds:
Though you are on the earlier side of average, it is normal for women to begin experiencing the symptoms of menopause (or “perimenopause”) between the ages of 45 and 55. It is also common, if not universal, for a woman facing this transition to feel it as a milestone, if not an outright loss, and to find herself asking questions about what she has accomplished in her life and what she would like to do with the years she has left. The loss of the ability to bear children, even in women who have had them and are clearly satisfied by their “parenting” years, at the very least illuminates the fact that our bodies and our capacities are not eternal. For a woman like you, who now realizes that you have not engaged in the world fully and that things have passed you by, this realization can be devastating.
The worst part of this may be your insight that the life you have led has not been entirely by your choice. It is safe to say that you have been the victim of both nature and nurture: born with innate shyness, you have a mother who, rather than having encouraged you to overcome it so as to develop relationships and work outside the home, instead has enabled you to live like a recluse. While she may have been motivated by empathy for your sensibility and a wish to spare you the pain experienced by many socially avoidant people, there is little doubt that your mother ensnared you as a lifelong companion as a result. What is even worse, you have indicated that you are living with an implied threat that if you leave her, you will be disinherited.
Your road ahead involves overcoming these obstacles, and while they may seem daunting, the fact that you are recognizing this now is a very good sign. I have had the unfortunate experience of helping patients who have been kept completely dependent on their parents, only to be devastated and left helpless when they died. If you start to develop coping skills now, including implementing a plan that includes independence, you can begin to live a more fulfilling life—and a life, thanks to our now extended life span, that can include many healthy decades ahead.
If this were a Hollywood movie, such as the classic Now, Voyager (1942), in which Bette Davis plays a woman whose mother has purposely kept her at home to be “a comfort to her in her old age,” you would strike out on your own, inheritance be damned. But, unfortunately, the modern world is not a kind place for people without money and who have no job experience. You will have to plan carefully if you want your small inheritance to last, and the ideal strategy would be to enlist your mother’s support and endorsement of your plan. Although at the moment you are quite understandably angry, it will be easier for you to start to move apart from her if the two of you can reach an understanding. If not, she will sabotage and/or penalize you, and the anger and guilt you will experience may undermine your efforts.
The first step is for you to seek guidance from a psychotherapist as soon as you can. If you suspect your mother will object, don’t tell her at first, and use your own money. Besides addressing your obvious need for help in sorting out this emotional entanglement, psychotherapy will give you crucial experience with interacting with, and forming a bond with, an ally besides your mother. The therapist can also help you define and implement your plan. It may be that psychopharmacological intervention will be useful as well. Psychiatrist Peter Kramer has written very poignantly about how small doses of SSRI medication (Prozac and similar drugs) have been able to revolutionize the lives of patients with social anxiety. Finally, the therapy should include, eventually, sessions with your mother, or a referral for you and her to a family therapist so you can untangle your relationship as mindfully as possible.
Take these steps, however, even if you cannot enlist your mother’s approval. My hunch is that she needs you too much to cut you off completely, and even if you move out against her wishes, a rapprochement will still be possible. If you are too afraid to live alone, find a roommate or another family member to live with while you are still working on your long-term goal of independence. Meanwhile, find activity outside the home as soon as you can, especially if it can help you to a job, career, or even an abiding interest. Many women find that employment, far from being just a means to gain financial remuneration (as your mother has implied when she says you “don’t have to work,”) is a key element in their sense of identity, self-worth, and satisfaction.
Psychologists who study mental health and the positive aspects of human development have found that people are happiest and healthiest when they are actively engaged in activities that exercise their abilities and help them grow. Even more important, study after study has revealed that degree of support and interaction with other people is one of the greatest predictors of health of all kinds. Quite possibly you have as many years ahead of you as you do behind you. Fortunately, you can take steps to living a life like this beginning today.
Dr. Cecilia Ford