‘I longed for her attention’: how my intense relationship with my mother shaped my life

Leah McLaren idolised her beautiful and brilliant mother, whose ‘benign neglect’, yet deep love, affected her childhood. Looking back, she examines their ‘enmeshment’ and how it changed the way she parents her own sons

I was in my early teens when I first heard the clinical term “enmeshment” – not from a psychotherapist, but my best friend at school who, like me, was a precocious child of divorce.

This was in Toronto in the late 90s – a city once accurately described as “New York run by the Swiss”. My friend and I were classmates at a selective state-funded secondary school for the arts in the city’s north end. I lived with my single mother (a magazine journalist) in a basement flat in Chinatown, having followed her to the city from the small town where I’d grown up. My girlfriend and I were the free-range children of urban intellectuals in a school that worshipped at the shrine of Antoine Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty – breaking the fourth wall (the dissolution of boundaries in general) was the order of the day along with high self-esteem and “being yourself”. My mother, in particular, took this to heart.

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