The constant attention we provide our children can certainly become a habit for all mothers. But what happens when providing our children with constant attention makes rational decisions harder? Or when finding time for self-care becomes deprioritized? For mothers, there’s a fine line between the love she has for her children and codependency.

How mothers become codependent

In its simplest terms, a codependent relationship is when one human needs the other partner, another human, who in turn, needs to be needed. It is a pattern of responding or coping as it relates to one’s connection with another person. This is usually learned earlier in life, but can also show up in adulthood. The identity shift that occurs in motherhood is expected and it’s due to the major life event that is bringing a child home. It’s similar to the identity shift that a person experiences when they move, divorce, retire, or lose a loved one.  There’s a period of transition that elicits fear, doubt, and an exploration of “who am I?” and “what am I supposed to be doing?”

Codependent mothers are often well-intentioned enablers who over time can strain relationships with their children (and themselves). For example, we must parent for (arguably) the first 18 years of their life, but when a mother needs to be needed by her child, the relationship becomes codependent.  It’s important to note that codependency is an adaptive response, meaning people respond with codependence because it served them in some way, or met a need somehow (no matter how unhealthy). Licensed Clinical Psychologist Dr. Ashurina Ream says codependency can look like:

  • Feeling responsible for other people
  • Being overly-invested in the lives of others
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Feeling victimized
  • Repressing your own feelings and thoughts
  • Becoming obsessed with the problems of others
  • Desiring to control those around you
  • Having poor boundaries

How does one know if they are experiencing codependency or just going through a hard time?  

When a mother is going through a “hard time” (or navigating a challenging experience), this is a time-limited experience and it isn’t solely focused on how the parent relates to other people.

But codependency is a pattern of responding and coping—it’s not a fleeting moment. 

“When a parent does some self-exploration, they may find a repeated pattern that has been passed down to them, as well as repeated in different relationships.  Codependency creates worry and internal pressure to be others-focused,” says Dr. Ream. There are many ways these behaviors can manifest in parenting:  

  • A parent might find themselves in a battle to control their child and their behavior—perhaps guilt tripping as a form of coercion.  
  • They might try and rescue their child from having a painful emotional experience at all costs.
  • Their esteem is tied to their child’s feelings, behaviors, well-being, etc.
  • They may have a hard time enforcing boundaries, primarily due to their fear that their child will reject them or distance themselves.  
  • There’s an overinvestment in the child’s life that results in the abandonment of one’s own identity, passions, etc.
  • The parent may also lean on the child for emotional support or involve the child in matters that are inappropriate.

Stories about codependency from mothers

“Not giving my kids space to grow is what my mom did and basically smothered us into codependency. When I almost canceled a trip to California so my daughter wouldn’t feel anxious I realized I was doing the same thing.” - mothernation

“My aha moment came when I paid 3 months of my 21-year-old son’s rent (and skipped a mortgage payment of my own) because it’s easier knowing his housing is secure than to properly and formally put boundaries in place that may require immediate investment and change from him.” - @elle_acha

“I had to find an outlet for my own fears so I wasn’t projecting onto my 10-year-old daughter. I think I will always skew towards permissive, indulgent parenting, and just being aware of that has helped me to find ways to enlist other adults at times when that isn’t helpful.” - @noramke

“Recently, my best friend who’s a social worker/guidance counselor explained that while using “I feel” statements are great ways to communicate, sometimes it can create codependency behaviors. I always thought that’s how I was supposed to communicate with my kids, but it turns out there are times when the kids need to do what I say just because I’m the mom.” - @alizafriedlander

“One of my kids would get angry/frustrated when I asked him to do chores or follow thru on things when he was little. I did a lot for him growing up. Summer before he left for college he told me he was super worried because he didn’t know how to do a lot of things for himself—like laundry, cook, make a doctor’s appointment. And of course, this was my fault. I was protecting him and myself and took away the opportunity for him to feel self-sufficient and feel like he can take care of himself.” - Anonymous

How to stop  the “need” to be needed and embrace self-care 

“It’s imperative that we bring the focus back on us. This doesn’t mean we stop focusing on our children and families. This means we place much-needed attention on our own needs so we can be more than ‘mom’.” Dr. Ream adds that when we do this we’re able to experience more joy as human beings. Bonus: navigating challenges becomes easier because we’re not running on empty.

I often hear women tell me they don’t practice self-care because they have no time. Over the years I’ve found there’s a clear relationship between codependency and self-care; the more codependent the relationship between a mother and her child, the less time she has to devote to her own self-care. 

Since codependents tend to have an unhealthy attachment to those around them, Dr. Ream explains it’s also helpful to learn how to detach.  “Detachment requires a person to ask themselves ‘is this my problem or am I trying to get involved in someone else’s problem?’ Sometimes this means getting comfortable with the uncomfortable, meaning you sit with the urge to react and you resist the urge no matter how uncomfortable it gets.”

Becoming self-focused and caring for yourself in a meaningful way is critical. This may be tricky at first because it’s a skill that needs to be developed but paying attention to your specific likes, dislikes, desires, interests, feelings, thoughts, etc. as a woman, not a mother.

The moms I’ve met who have empowered their children to make their own decisions and voice their opinions—as well as delegated household tasks to their children—have reclaimed their identity. These mothers now have the bandwidth to reinvest in themselves. Setting boundaries with their children have allowed them to take a  break from responsibility. (Yes, even children as young as eight months old who once needed their mothers to rock them to sleep every night.)

I believe in the power of mothers. We will do anything to protect and nurture our children in the name of exemplifying strength. But working through codependency takes a great deal of work and awareness.  Knowing that you have a problematic pattern of relating to others is imperative to do the work of unlearning these patterns. It’s important for us to recognize when our power is secretly disguising our weakness, and reset our behavior immediately.