I am the worst daughter
January 18, 2012 10:35 AM   Subscribe

I've achieved having an emotionally calm and pleasant daily life for myself, but I'm worried that once my mother passes, I'll forget the reality of our dynamic and feel like a horrible and evil daughter.

My mother has deep emotional problems and acted immaturely, selfishly, and childishly many times, crossing boundaries I set for years and years and years until I couldn't take it anymore and cut off contact. I feel evil for even writing this, but I think her depression and problems had a lot to do with the deep depression I suffered as a child and teenager growing up in her house. After I estranged myself from her (I only exchange emails with her through an email account I set up and check only once in awhile because she sometimes writes a million upsetting emails to me about how horrible I am and how she's going to die and how "the whole family" is gossiping about my being such a horrible daughter), I became much happier in my day-to-day life. I'm healthier and happier in so many ways.

I never give her my address or phone number or work phone (once she called my office ten times when I was out of the office demanding to speak with me because my cell was off and even though the receptionist said I wasn't in for the day).

I am hypersensitive, but only to her, even though I know she has problems and I shouldn't take her seriously.

I know I should be an adult and be able to handle her behavior, however inappropriate it is, but I'm not any good at it and it hurts, saddens, and depresses me deeply after I try and fail or try and succeed. I don't know why it packs such a punch to me, why she's the only one able to turn me into someone who literally can't enjoy life, but I've been so much happier not being in contact with her. I'm terrified of returning to the old me, the one who just wanted to do nothing more than get far far away from her.

I'm worried the punishment for being happy will come when she passes away, and in my head I'll somehow think the way I cut her out of my life was not understandable or the right response, and then I'll punish myself for it and feel ashamed, even though I know it's not good for me.

Is there any way in which I can ensure that I'll remember the reality of what life was like with being in contact with her. I do love her very much, and I want the best for her, but I'm ill-equipped emotionally to be able to handle her and I don't know how to make myself believe that it's okay.

How can I make sure that I don't feel guilty about her in the future? How do I make sure I don't forget the reality of what it was like being in contact with her regularly?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I suggest some books. My Mother, Myself (by Nancy Friday) and the Deborah Tannen book about Mother/Daughter relationships (Something like "Are you going to wear that?")

And therapy. Find yourself a therapist that is a good fit for you. Bring up all of your fears around this. Dig into the really ugly emotions of not being good enough to make your mother love you. Oh, maybe that's just me. In my own brain it's not her craziness that's at fault, but my own inherent unlovable-ness. Address that and get it out of the way before she dies.

My own mother hasn't died yet, and it's likely going to be decades before she does. But I do dread it, because I worry that my brain will short circuit and try to morph her into a gentle, loving sweetness that she just never could be in my life. (We don't speak, and have not since I was 16. I'm now 30. I gave up when we went into the death threats territory.)
posted by bilabial at 10:47 AM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Two things help me in these situations.

1) Ask yourself lots of "what if" questions in the moment. "What if Mom were here right now?" What would happen if your mother was at a particular event, or giving advice about something, or involved in what you were doing. What would you want to say to her? What would she want to say to you? How would that go? Try to be realistic in spinning these scenarios: don't explain the worst case to yourself. I have plenty of challenges with my father and we're not on speaking terms right now, but I have to remind myself that meeting with my father wouldn't really mean a blowout fight: it would more likely mean an awkward conversation during which we talked about almost nothing while both of us seethed inside with the unspoken issues under the surface.

2) Keep a journal. Having a record of your thoughts and emotions, about your mother and about your life in general, will help you look back on the life you built with an accurate perspective. Memories are malleable, but a written record of your actual experiences, especially your internal world, will help you review your past with a more objective eye.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 10:50 AM on January 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


First, in my view you are being an adult by setting boundaries with her that allow you to enjoy your daily life, rather than having to constantly be reacting to her phone calls and e-mails.

I think that it is easy to second-guess a decision like this. I am in contact with my parents and see them a few times a year, and we get along well, but it's pretty superficial. Whenever I try to take things deeper, by revealing something about myself, for instance, I am immediately reminded of why it is a good idea to keep that barrier up.

In your case, to help you remember: save at least some of the e-mails. Maybe you could put them in a folder or document called "mom reality check" that you could pop into every so often when you need to be reminded of why the decision you've made is a good one.

The other thing I would do is take a little time to write something or somethings for yourself. You might title them things like, "What it was like when Mom had my home phone number," or "What it was like having a conversation with Mom in person," and then just let yourself describe it. The ten phone calls to your work when she knew you weren't there? That's golden! You might include as well, "How my life is better since I stopped giving mom my phone number."

And, remember: You are not going to be punished for being happy by anyone but yourself. You may feel guilty from time to time, or sad that you can't have more of a relationship with her than you do. I know I have these feelings sometimes, but I remind myself that what I am mourning is not really that I wish I could be closer to my mother--what I really wish is that I had a mother I could be closer to, if that makes sense. I'm wishing for, and mourning the lack of, something I never had, and never will with the mother I have.

Also, at any time when you start thinking that what you have done is not "understandable" or "right," find a way to talk to other people who have drawn firm boundaries with parents, so that they can remind you of things like: "I've been so much happier not being in contact with her. She is able to turn me into someone who literally can't enjoy life." In what world could it be wrong to separate yourself from someone like that? If you can't find others to reflect that back to you, remind yourself over and over that it is your job as an adult to be as healthy, functional, and happy as you can be, and that by cutting off your mother--as you would any other person who undermines your health and happiness--you are doing exactly what you are supposed to do.

Your compassion for your mother is admirable, and that you wish you could somehow cope with her and allow her into your life. But your compassion for yourself has to be bigger than that.
posted by not that girl at 10:54 AM on January 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Is there any way in which I can ensure that I'll remember the reality of what life was like with being in contact with her. I do love her very much, and I want the best for her, but I'm ill-equipped emotionally to be able to handle her and I don't know how to make myself believe that it's okay.

How can I make sure that I don't feel guilty about her in the future? How do I make sure I don't forget the reality of what it was like being in contact with her regularly?


I know this is an oft-heard response here, but dang, I could have written your question a few years ago. The answer, for me, has been therapy, as well as completely cutting off my parents. I'd stopped contacting them just before therapy. Going over childhood events with my therapist, who has served as a clear, level-headed, well-informed voice of sanity, e.g. "that is not healthy, that is not how loving parents behave towards a child, that's obsessive behavior, that's extremely immature behavior," etc. (all about my parents, mind) has finally helped me come to terms with reality.

Namely: I know I should be an adult and be able to handle her behavior, however inappropriate it is – no. She should be an adult and be able to take responsibility for her issues, at the very least, respect boundaries you clearly set.

When a parent consistently, repeatedly, unabashedly crosses boundaries, well, that's called "abuse" for a reason. It's abusive. Adults can choose not to put themselves in abusive situations. That's how they're handled too.

On preview, I also had death threats from my mother! That was a pretty clear boundary I didn't want crossed any more. "No contact" works beautifully for that.

On second preview:
Try to be realistic in spinning these scenarios: don't explain the worst case to yourself. I have plenty of challenges with my father and we're not on speaking terms right now, but I have to remind myself that meeting with my father wouldn't really mean a blowout fight...

If the OP does indeed mean what they said about consistent boundary-crossing, that's pretty different from what happens with your father. I too used that "what if" trick with my parents to calm myself before contacting them... and got myself, in no particular order: smacked, punched, kicked, spat on, called "whore", told "you deserve to die", told "why didn't you die from X health issue", "we hate you", "you don't deserve us as parents", and so forth. In other words, there are indeed parents that are worse than your worst imagination. It does depend on the OP's situation and details.
posted by fraula at 10:55 AM on January 18, 2012


Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers. Go to the site. Read. Join the forum.

You are not alone. Every mother drives their kids crazy but some things go beyond the normal. She makes you unable to enjoy life. That is so far beyond normal that it isn't even on the same map.

When you can't even live your life without fear of her reprisals then it's time to accept that the problem will never be and has never been with you. There is something seriously wrong with your mother and if it is Narcissism then unfortunately you did the only thing you could. There is no medication or treatment for Narcissists. We can only distance ourselves from their toxic behaviors.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:57 AM on January 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'll add one more thing, since you mentioned your mother's death as a time these feelings may come up: my mom is 78 now, and in poor health. For awhile I was having a lot of complicated emotions about this, that made me realize that I was still harboring some hope that our relationship would change someday. It was hard for me to accept that the days are running out, and that most likely there will be no transformation. I think that someday when she dies, my real grief at her death will be mixed up with grief about the final closing off of that possibility for a different relationship. It's going to be messy, and part of the mess might be guilt that I didn't try harder with her. But that's OK--there's no other way it could be, given who she is and who I am.
posted by not that girl at 10:58 AM on January 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wow, I feel like I could just about have written that question myself. I feel your pain, anon.

I was also similarly estranged from my mom (my choosing) before she died about a year and half ago. Before she passed away, I used to worry that I would feel crippling guilt when she died, for not having been a better daughter while she was alive.

The strangest thing is that when she passed away, I was actually overwhelmed by the lack of guilt I felt. There were a few pinpricks, sure, for things that I hadn't done, or not done often enough. But overall I actually felt real peace about my mom for the first time ever. Not only did I not have to actively worry about the way she was living her life anymore, I just found a knowing that anything I could have done just wouldn't have been enough. She had chosen her way (consciously or otherwise) and the freedom I felt from letting go of the guilt and worry was so incredibly ... liberating. I felt sad - very sad - for the loss of all the wonderful things she was and all the things that could have been, and I cried a lot. But guilt? It was gone. I finally just accepted that I'd done what I could.

I could write a novel here, but I won't. Suffice it to say that this is your life, not your mom's, and you do the world a lot more good by holding on to your joy and peace than by worrying about something you can't change. Be joyful. That is what her spirit - her soul - would want for you.

Good luck. It gets better, it really does.
posted by widdershins at 10:59 AM on January 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Check in with your friends who have known you and this history a long time. My old friends are great reality checks to remind me that yes, my parents are mean and crazy. A few old letters and emails also work. But most important, I had a real epiphany moment when I decided to give up on them. I think back on that, and on subsequent improvements, and I know I did the right thing.
posted by yarly at 11:41 AM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think this:

I know I should be an adult and be able to handle her behavior, however inappropriate it is.

is at the root of your problem. You seem to mistakenly believe that, as an adult, you should be able to handle any behavior that is directed at you. This is simply untrue. Your job as an adult is to do what you have done - handle what you can and limit your exposure to what you can't. I think a lot of your guilt, current and projected, is coming from a sense that you're handling this situation in a less than ideal way, when, in fact, you are doing the absolute best that anyone in your situation could do.
posted by Ragged Richard at 11:51 AM on January 18, 2012 [12 favorites]


This book might help.
posted by foxjacket at 11:58 AM on January 18, 2012


You likely have PTSD from the emotional bombardments you've endured over the years, so you need to deal with that. I was just discussing today a study that was done about infants who's parents are depressed or otherwise mentally challenged - apparently there are a lot of "cues" that go back and forth between parent and child - when a parent's ability to respond to an infant's cues are compromised, there is a lot of brain-mapping that doesn't happen as the child develops - this leads directly into depression for the child as he/she grows into an adult.

I'm here to tell you that you can overcome ALL of this, and the answer is to put a lot of love, passion, and dedication towards healing and growing into the wonderful person you know you are deep down inside. Just a little insight. You're not damaged goods or alone. You can overcome shitty parenting. A lot of people do! You're going to be OK. The first step is identifying that these issues exist and are holding you back. Hurray! You've done the hard part - you're on your way!!

Seek your own Peace and Healing.

Best to you.
posted by jbenben at 1:06 PM on January 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Honey, you should be afraid. Because the kind of revisionist history you fear is totally common with crazy, abusive or alcoholic parents. The emotional urge to retrospectively make everything OK ("she wasn't that bad, there were all these good points...") is enormous. It is the instinct of children, and the impulse to normalise as soon as the threat has passed - daddy gets old and frail, mommy gets sober, daddy dies, etc.

You need two things: a record of the crazy (a journal or blog), and witnesses. I am very lucky that my husband actually witnessed a serious melt down of my dad's, and I know that when he dies and I get all boo hooey about my poor beleaguered dad, my husband will call bullshit right out loud. But you know, I tell people - here, my girlfriends, total strangers - about my dad, and so I have witnesses who I will not let me forget the stories they know, or re-write them. Tell, tell, tell and make your witnesses.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:00 PM on January 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


(PS: I also don't speak to my dad, for about the last 5 years, and only send books through Amazon - he's in a long term facility now. I feel little guilt about this now, and I remind my future self of that fact every time I think of him.)
posted by DarlingBri at 2:13 PM on January 18, 2012


I'm estranged from my parents. I feel like shit about it a lot, esp. w/r/t my mom, who is in frail health. Nthing those who say that a friend who is a witness helps, because, lo these many years, it takes one email from ma or others in the family that starts up this cycle: They are family! The most important thing in the world! Yeah, ma beats that drum a lot, and it' s a Golden Oldie in Angrycat's mind.

An old friend, when I was caught in the latest cycle of crazy, burst out with 'She's lucky she hasn't been arrested!' Instant, magical reality check. Thankfully, this is a dear dear friend who is enormously patient; I also trust him to not look down on me because of stories of my fucked-up childhood. If you are like me, OP, it may be really hard to not kind of hate yourself because your parents did X, Y, and Z.

And there's where the magic of therapy kicks in; it's like, 'wait, I thought the world was flat -- I'd been taught the world was flat -- it's not flat?' Except because it's psychology, it's more like -- 'wait, I thought this was normal -- it's not? people should not be treated this way?'
posted by angrycat at 2:19 PM on January 18, 2012


I know I should be an adult and be able to handle her behavior, however inappropriate it is, but I'm not any good at it and it hurts, saddens, and depresses me deeply after I try and fail or try and succeed. I don't know why it packs such a punch to me, why she's the only one able to turn me into someone who literally can't enjoy life, but I've been so much happier not being in contact with her. I'm terrified of returning to the old me, the one who just wanted to do nothing more than get far far away from her.

I know how you feel. I grew up in an environment in which my mother was not that great in some ways and great in other ways. As I grew up, my anger toward her never went away but the distance between us made our relationship better (only because we didn't have to deal with each other).

I know that if my mother passed away, I would feel unbearable sadness. I would feel guilt but that's natural when someone you know passes away. I think the best you can do is take it one day at a time and deal with it the best you can. I know that if she were a good mother, she would love me regardless of our relationship, just like how much I love her regardless of our less than ideal mother-daugther relationship. So hopefully, that faith will help you through when your mom does pass away.
posted by xylandaria at 3:21 PM on January 18, 2012


I feel evil for even writing this, but I think her depression and problems had a lot to do with the deep depression I suffered as a child and teenager growing up in her house.

I don't think so. I think that your depression as a child and teen had a lot to do with her depression/problems/immaturity/etc. Be easy on yourself--you're the child of a mom that has depression (and possibly something else) and it's really not your fault. You ARE a good daughter. She's a depressed mom and it's healthy and okay to choose not to be in contact with her. Good for you that you've created a happy content life for yourself and that you know the way to a happy and healthier life involves keeping her at a distance.

It may not help but I agree with the advice to as yourself "what if..." Is there anything you would want to say to your mom? Are you still expecting anything from your mom at this point? After my mom died, my dad got into a crazy situation that I didn't want to be around. I stayed away as much as I could. He also had a lot of health problems and I periodically would check in with myself and ask, if he went tomorrow, would I be okay? That answer was yes. It's now been 2 years since he passed away and like widdershins said, I really did feel okay.
posted by biscuits at 4:33 PM on January 18, 2012


My mother has been mentally all her adult life; I too could have written this question. I ask myself this every single day but I think I've finally come to terms with it. The grief that other people experience at a parent's passing, we feel now. It's just extended with no closure in sight. I finally made the decision to minimize the exposure my children and grandchildren have to my mother for their sake and mine, even if I knew it was hurting my mother. I do what I can on any given day and most days by far that means no contact.

Do I feel sad about it? I wish I had a mother I could go to lunch with, or shopping with, or even just visit the way other adults do with their mothers, but I just don't and never will. Once I accepted that, I didn't have to be that angry, sad person anymore. The only emotion I expect to feel at her passing is relief, maybe a little regret at what I wish could have been, but certainly no guilt. You are not the only one!
posted by tamitang at 5:09 PM on January 18, 2012


"Every mother drives their kids crazy" said TooFewShoes.

This is not true. There are wonderful mothers with whom daughters had conflict during their adolescent and young adulthood but whose behavior was always loving and respectful -- my mother was one.

Your mother is not such a mother. There are mothers who are narcissistic or otherwise mentally ill who abuse their children, some of them criminally. It sounds like your mother was not a good mother and has continued to abuse you as an adult. You were brave and wise to strictly limit her access to you and I urge you to maintain the line. You are not retaliating or harming her in any way and she has tortured you as much as she was able all your life. She is pitiful and you cannot fix her. She is poison to you. Keep her access restricted. Do not go near her. If she is hungry someday, and you want to be a dutiful daughter, send food money by a third party. That is respectful and sufficient. And you certainly do not have to show up at her death bed to give her the opportunity to deliver her final curse. Let her go, leave her to heaven. Pay your share of the headstone if need be and pray for her soul if your custom decrees it. It any event, it is perfectly acceptable to feel sad for what might have been but never was and to decidedly feel relieved.

I hope you will find as much love and happiness as you possibly can in your life. You always had a right to be loved and cared for. So now, resolve to love and care for yourself and those you choose to have in your life. Be a good mother to you.
posted by Anitanola at 9:01 PM on January 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


You're not evil, you're human.

Write a journal to yourself in the future. Title it "how contact with mom makes me feel, and why I decided to minimise it to be happier". Write in simple declarative sentences about how you felt and what she did.

Make sure you've said everything you need to say to her before she goes, but don't expect reconciliation. It's rare.
posted by ead at 9:04 PM on January 18, 2012


I know I should be an adult and be able to handle her behavior, however inappropriate it is, but I'm not any good at it and it hurts, saddens, and depresses me deeply after I try and fail or try and succeed. I don't know why it packs such a punch to me, why she's the only one able to turn me into someone who literally can't enjoy life, but I've been so much happier not being in contact with her. I'm terrified of returning to the old me, the one who just wanted to do nothing more than get far far away from her.

Making and keeping boundaries is being an adult. Your mother is an adult, even if she can't behave like one, and is responsible for her actions. Protecting yourself from her insanity is healthy.

I also suggest keeping a journal (paper or online) listing what your mother was like. Any time you feel regrets, refer back to that journal.


I have cut my father out of my life. [Lots of irrelevant info redacted.] I will have no regrets when he dies.
posted by deborah at 9:37 PM on January 18, 2012


As others have said before me, I could have written this post. I had a very button-pressing, abusive, difficult relationship with my mother. I wanted to cut off contact but she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when I was in my twenties and I stayed, ever dutiful in the face of her terrible behaviour. We had a small, tiny rapprochement about a week before she died when I was looking after her at home. A 'sorry, I've been terrible to you' means something to me I guess, but it doesn't take the pain of my childhood experiences which were freighted with her issues., and which reverberate in various forms throughout my adult life. I have no doubt that I would have ended communications with my parents entirely if I hadn't felt obligated to take care of her in those years.

She's dead these last fourteen years and whatever feelings I have at her death - grief, guilt, questioning, judging myself harshly, anger, sadness - is not as damaging, difficult or conflicting as the bullshit I'd be putting up with if she were alive. I think the fact that there is no new impetus for misery by her continuing shenanigans, means I can finally deal with the effects of the 27 years I did have that misery enacted repeatedly. With her death has come a kind of calmness, forgiveness and empathy that I would never have if she were still alive. I'm okay about my mother's death and I feel like I am free to be me, to enjoy life without guilt or shame.
posted by honey-barbara at 12:11 AM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yes, her depression affected YOU, and made you deeply depressed. Meeee tooo. The point is, you were the child, and she was the parent. It was her responsibility to find a way to be a healthy parent.

I'll use myself as a case study:
Just because my mother is the way she is because of the way she was treated by *her* mother, she has not chosen to face that shit down. She has not, in fact, done *anything* to grow or heal or do anything to get better. She has never done so much as read a self-help book, not to mention see a therapist or even recognize that she's mentally ill. I'm doing those things for myself, but she's never taken the first step except to blame me, try to rope other family members into the guilt train, and continue the bullshit her mother laid on her.

Well, if that means we're alienated, is that my fault? No, that's me trying to be sane.

Here's something that grew out of something my therapist said to me: What would a good daughter look like to your mother? In my case, it would be someone who was always respectful, in the face of being disrespected. Someone who never spoke up, or contradicted her. Someone who put up with being treated like shit, and never talked back. Someone who looked different from me, dressed different from me, lived different from me. Someone who, in fact, I would *never* want to be, and the effort towards which would have made me an even more self-hating mess than I am right now.

The point is, you can not be a good daughter to your mother, because that standard is something that would kill you. Is that what you owe her? There might be other siblings who don't seem to be affected this way. Good on them, but it doesn't reflect on the relationship you have had to put up with, and it doesn't reflect on your character.

Your mother's mental illness is not because of you. You cannot fix her. You could never have fixed her, and if you had tried, you'd have sacrificed yourself for nothing but pain.

So yes, journal it out, as others have mentioned. But remember what a good daughter would have looked like. You wouldn't have wanted to be that person.
posted by RedEmma at 1:57 PM on January 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


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