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Happy S'Mother's Day: Is your mother over-involved in your life? Add to ...

There was a time in my life when my mother was my closest friend and confidante. I was 13, my parents had just split up, and I had moved with my father to another city, where I knew no one. I visited my mother every other weekend and eventually came to rely solely on her for venting my teenage angst about teenage problems: friends, girls, fashion. She'd listen, give advice, and then make me dinner.

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I recall this period now because of a book I'm reading, which comes out the first week of May, just in time for Mother's Day. It's called S'Mother: The Story of a Man, His Mom, and the Thousands of Altogether Insane Letters She's Mailed Him. The man in this memoir, Adam Chester, starts by sharing an event from when he was 13: His mother barges into the changing room of his junior high-school gym while he and the rest of the boys are half-naked. "You forgot to bring your sweater!" she shouts. "It's going to rain today!"

The book really gets going, however, once Mr. Chester moves away from home and starts receiving weekly letters from his mother, letters that continue to arrive even as he becomes an adult with his own kids.

She pleads with him not to walk in Central Park after dark, warns him of sharks in the waters off Australia and, after reading an article about a surgeon who discovers a worm in a man's intestines after a Japanese meal, sends him a note that contains only one line: "Please don't eat sushi! Thank you."

Mr. Chester saved all the letters, knowing full well that they represented a brand of over-the-top overprotection he'd be able to use one day. But despite that awareness, he nevertheless found that his mother's vigilance gave him an intangible anxiety about his human fragility - about the worst thing that could happen at any moment.

His story is extreme, but probably familiar to most of us. We grow up, but our mothers are always with us in some way. The open question is how to navigate the relationship without ending up on anti-anxiety medication. Certainly, one's 20s are no time to be overthinking mortality.

While Mr. Chester's mother is a catastrophe-minded newspaper reader, my own is a psychotherapist. After I'd moved away from home, if I'd call and tell her about problems I was having with friends or girlfriends, I'd often get the response: "Have you had any dreams lately?"

My mother's habit of guiding me through my unconscious to fix whatever was mentally ailing me brings to mind the urban legend of the mother who lifts a car to save her child. If it's in a mother's power to help her son - whether it requires a PhD or a superhuman adrenalin surge - how can she resist?

As the son, you do find ways to test your own independence. And, of course, the best way to do this can be in opposition to your mother's worries.

When Mr. Chester received the letter warning him against sushi, he recalls, he turned its consumption into something of a personal religion. As for me, I tended to date and befriend individuals whom my subconscious probably would have warned me away from.

A while back, I met a guy whose mother was also a psychotherapist. He told me that when he was a teenager, she wanted to talk him through problems he was having with his homework - "she was trying to get to the root of my blocks," he said - but he eventually discovered he was better off working through his projects alone because the focus on his anxieties were making them worse.

I appreciated his precocious wisdom, but then he told me that his solution as an adult was to no longer share anything personal at all with his mother.

While it can at times seem like something of a curse, should a mother's concern - certainly the original blessing of human nature - be dismissed outright?

When I told a friend this week about my mother's long-standing concern for my mental health, he expressed some envy. He said that when he visits home, his mother barely acknowledges his presence when he enters the door. "She wouldn't notice if I was on fire," he joked.

She asks him vague questions about his life and is satisfied with vague answers. "I had to figure out how to relate with women all on my own," he said. "And I only figured it out 10 minutes ago."

It occurs to me that when you're a kid, your parents set boundaries to make sure you grow up safe, but when you're an adult, growing up means setting the boundaries for them. The trick is to do it without entirely losing your first confidante.

"That's a balancing act that I struggle with," Mr. Chester told me over the phone last week. He'd pulled over to the side of the road to take my call.

"My mom's here with me right now. She's outside smoking. At times, I want to drive away and keep going."

He laughed, and I imagined him looking over at her with a mixture of angst and love. "But she probably needs a ride home."

Micah Toub is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks

Follow on Twitter: @MicahToub

 

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