At one recent therapy session my therapist said, “I think you may have missed some developmental stages during your adolescent years.” I said that that wasn’t the first time I had heard that and I also considered it valid from my own research in working with Third Culture Kids and recognizing how my emotional development track doesn’t necessarily follow the peer reviewed/research-based/commonly used arc of what Erik Erikson deems as “normal” and trackable Adolescent Developmental Stages.
And it’s OK. That’s OK.
I’m working through my approach to understand how the codependency tendencies versus cultural context and/or values versus societal expectations versus peer remarks versus ideal desire complexities, nuances, beliefs, and norms track with my “developmental progress” now into adulthood.
Easy peasy work, therapist. Thanks.
But this article is not about my skipping “key” developmental stages as it relates to autonomy and shame and/or initiative versus guilt. It’s about the woman who has spoken words over me, to me, and for me that have shaped my perception of self, affirmed “you’re enough” and challenged me to wrestle with my definition of “success.” If anyone taught me about what “being on track” is, it’s my own Mother. Not a therapist. Not society. Not my peers. And certainly not a psychologist who created “the stages.”
My mother: the woman who continues to ground me. At 33 years of age, I still feel the freedom and invitation to throw my legs across her lap as an oversized toddler asking to “cuddle.” And in those moments of psychological and physical safety, I couldn’t give a bleep about “developmental stages.” All I care about is the deep gratitude in the moment I have to be present with my mom and to appreciate her grounding me to be mindful of the present and to know that in these moments she creates unique opportunities for me to share what I see, think, wonder, fear, and believe. She grounds me to perceive and consider what’s not only in my head but also in my heart.
I don’t have many photos of just mom and me from my childhood. I suppose it has something to do with growing up in the 90’s when mom was the film loader and photo taker and then film dropper offer and then photos picker upper – what a process before the iPhone camera era and before selfies were a socially acceptable and normal thing to do! But I have one candid capture of us from my senior year of high school in Tel Aviv, Israel embracing one another in my room. It’s one of my favorites because I have an associated memory triggered from this photograph of her just holding me one night in that bedroom as I cried without restraint because I was so distraught about saying goodbye to my friends, moving to my “home” country (I hadn’t lived in the US for 15 years! Why was everyone asking if I was happy to be going back “home”?!), and closing my childhood chapter. I was headed to the US for university and the weight of reality of leaving my friends, my home, my things, and yes, even my mom came out uncontrollable tears. She grounded me in validating my needs. That night she held me silently as I processed the pain of acknowledging those tangible and intangible losses. And she grounded me in her love. The love that allowed me to move through the layered grief and loss of childhood into adulthood.
A couple weeks ago, I had a similar emotional moment with her as I cried (an ugly cry) about feeling like I didn’t have authentic friends and that I didn’t feel I belonged authentically in (or to) any community. As she stroked my hair she said, “Don’t stop being a friend……because the reality is, I don’t think you can even if you tried.” She reminded me that if I continue to go out to look for friends, I won’t find any; but if I go out to be a friend, I’ll have many. She grounds me in acknowledging my relationship anchors.
I frequently think about my mom’s and my global travels together and over the past couple of weeks we’ve discussed where we’re going to have a girls-only trip next…once travel is allowed and safe to do again. She has visited me in every city, country, and State I’ve lived in solo. One of my favorite memories of one visit is when we took the train from my home in Hungary to neighboring country: Austria. One afternoon, we went to a Starbucks in Vienna. At that time, I couldn’t quite pinpoint why I had such a peace and homeful feeling of nostalgia; as if in and through all our change of places and stages in life, I felt like a child with her there. And then I remembered. When we lived in Tokyo, Japan during my early high school years, we had a routine to go shopping every Saturday and ended up at one of the four Starbucks within a mile radius of our townhouse. She would order a Tall Latte, and I would order a Tall Caramel Latte. Every Saturday. And so, that afternoon at Starbucks in Vienna I had the emotional tie to a relationship ritual that had deep magical powers of empathy and care swirling around me. This tradition anchor continues to ground our relationship and we delight in our Starbucks excursions together.
As I thought about today (US Mother’s Day), I wanted to capture our relationship, rituals, and roots in some sort of word formation. This is it (in addition to the card I’m writing out for her after I finish this article – aka “word formation”). But in doing so, I’ve also thought about a couple phrases unique to her and I. One is “don’t be scared” and another is “just keep swimming.” Both point to the same root intention of advocating for courage and pressing on in adversity. But equally important to mention is that these phrases never carry an expectation or agenda. They’re not tied to any version of “success” or perception of “what’s good enough” as I strive in the “swimming” of my goals pursuit. They rather acknowledge and affirm to me “you’re so brave” and “I see you” in goal chasing. She grounds me in truth and freedom of shaping my future as I want to shape it and invites me gently back to resilience-building and practicing when I don’t reach a goal or a dream I have set for myself.
I feel immense gratitude and privilege that in this “stay at home” / “lockdown” season I live with my mother. And I hold in balance the understanding that seasons change and our relationship and rituals will take on versions of their own in future seasons. I’ve noticed that seasons in their cyclical fashion can take on similar form and tradition and yet they are never ever the same as they were before.
In my childhood seasons, I may have missed out on some “normal” developmental stages according to Dr. Erik, but maybe it is in this season that I am “arc-ing” in a way that stems from this season of learning how to bend toward independence rooted in authentic love, stability, values (re)alignment, care, calm, and the power of gentle cuddles.
My mother grounds me in roots nurtured globally and yet exposes the narrative that they were home-grown all along.