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How do I get across to my controlling parents?
November 26, 2012 4:59 PM   Subscribe

My relationship with my parents is affecting me emotionally, and has echoes in my professional life. I really want to get through to them across a generational/cross-cultural gap -- but how?

I am female, in my late 20s, single, was born and raised in India, and moved to the US (by myself) for college. I stayed for a doctorate, and I'm now working as a postdoc. I visit home 1-2 times a year during university breaks, usually for a month at a time, which I get away with to an extent because I can do my research remotely.

My mother stays at home and has centered her life around taking care of the family. This manifests itself in paranoia and controlling behaviors. So it's pretty surprising that she allowed me to go to the US for college, and I'm grateful for what must have been an enormous sacrifice.

When I'm visiting home, I'm under house arrest. I can't even go for a walk without my parents freaking out. I don't get a say in my schedule -- if they've decided I need to go somewhere with them, I have no choice but to go, often with no advanced notice. They once created an emotional scene when I went to the ATM to get money (from my US bank account), because they were insulted that I wasn't letting them pay for all my expenses during the visit -- which effectively means I can't go out without their permission since I don't have my own access to cash.

This problem is partly on my end in that I've lost touch with most of my old friends, and many have moved away, so I have no concrete social plans. But I would like to go to the gym or work in a cafe sometimes, at least to get out of the house. (It's a big, modern city, and I know won't look strange for a young woman to be hanging out alone, but my parents insist that it will, or that it's not safe.) When I protest at these restrictions, their responses range from how they miss me the rest of the year and want to maximize their time with me, to how I have unlimited freedom otherwise so I shouldn't grudge a month of restraints, to how I've become too Americanized, to how my mother's parents are more authoritarian (which is true) and curtail her or monopolize her time when she visits them even now, so it's just natural behavior which I should accept.

I've sort of made peace with this, though the initial few days of each visit are hard, and I go stir-crazy by the end of the trip. But taking 1-2 months off every year does affect my work. While they do understand this and let me focus on my research (barring other plans on their schedule for me), it's clear they don't think my work is serious enough to give me uninterrupted concentration. I have my own room, but my mother prohibits me from locking the door, and often randomly walks in to chat. She'll peer at my computer screen with a "gotcha!" if I happen to have a non-work webpage open. She told me today that I should feel lucky that I can take a week to myself at anytime, while she has never had the chance (since she went straight from her parents' house to marriage). I sort of see what she means, since she always had family responsibilities, but I was shocked that she thought I could really blow off a week of work without consequences. Her response was that my work is a choice, whereas her marriage and taking care of children wasn't. I see the difference, but it's also symptomatic of how my parents treat my career as a personal indulgence that they're allowing me to pursue, rather than a serious contribution to society. (Even when I'm in the US, my mother insists on talking on the phone for an hour every day, and gets irritated/hurt if I can't sometimes because I'm busy.)

That's not to say they're not proud of me -- they were thrilled when I got my PhD, get excited when my papers are published, and my mother keeps saying she prays for my professional success every day. But it seems like they expect all of that to come to me without effort. Or they expect me to work extra-hard while I'm in the US, but keep myself free when I visit them... I don't know. They also don't realize being a postdoc or a grad student is a year-round job and that I'm technically expected to stay on campus during breaks, and when I explain, it doesn't seem to sink in. (My mom never worked, and my dad is a self-employed businessman, so they are also sometimes clueless about professional work ethic.)

I could theoretically make shorter visits, but I don't have the courage for many reasons. My parents will get emotional and accuse me of neglecting them. They have started having some age-related health problems (nothing serious, but still), and I feel terrible that I don't live closer to be there for them. It doesn't help that I have been carrying a burden of guilt for moving to the US for many years. It helps a bit that my brother lives in India, or I would probably have moved back home.

Anyway, tl;dr -- how do I communicate to my parents that my career is important and that my visits shouldn't be taken for granted, and that they should respect the time I need to work, while still showing that I care for and appreciate them? Joint therapy is out of the question because of cultural taboos. I'd especially like to hear from people from Asian or other conservative cultures where your parents never really treat you like an adult.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
This isn't specific to the cross cultural part of your question, but it's often advised that you try to get another family member on your side. Is there someone in India that you could sit down with an ask their advice about how to get the space that you need to breathe? By doing that, you will hopefully end up with an ally.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:05 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not Asian, but am Jewish...another culture where parents "never really treat you like an adult!" ;-) I'm much older than you, but am also a well-educated woman. My parents have always made me feel guilty for not transforming back into their little girl, even after many years of practicing law and living apart from them.

What has helped our relationship the most has been for me to write them a number of letters, telling them how much they mean to me, and also about how I changed as a result of my education, living apart from them, and also being a woman on my own. I think sometimes we just need a bit of honest communication in a non-threatening venue. I have found that a letter, sent when a visit is not in the works, usually is the best way to go.

Usually, before I visit I try to send my parents a letter and remind them of my responsibilities, my obligations, and how much they mean to me. I set out how much time I will have for them, how much time I need for work, and how much time I need for myself. It seems to have helped a great deal.

I hope some of this might help. Good luck to you!
posted by furtheryet at 5:09 PM on November 26, 2012 [10 favorites]


I could theoretically make shorter visits, but I don't have the courage for many reasons.

Anyway, tl;dr -- how do I communicate to my parents that my career is important and that my visits shouldn't be taken for granted, and that they should respect the time I need to work, while still showing that I care for and appreciate them?

You can't continue to behave as if all the demands on you are really okay, and somehow magically have your parents get that it is not. For example, you can't protest that 1-2 months is an unacceptable demand on your time, and then go visit them for 1-2 months. Why would they change if you still do what they prefer, even when you object? As long as they set all the terms of the relationship, you will have to abide by them. That will probably still be the case when you are in their home, but you can change the duration of your visits and phone calls. I would start with those things, because they hinge on obligations you have here. "Mom, I can only come for three weeks because that's the only time I have at the moment." Then you do that. Your actions need to indicate that you view your work as serious and important. If you protest and then give in, you send the opposite message. They will get emotional; this has worked in the past to keep you doing what they want. You're just going to have to be politely firm and apologetic without giving in. Reassure them that you love them and care for them, but stand your ground. Nothing will change about your dynamic otherwise.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:57 PM on November 26, 2012 [12 favorites]


I could theoretically make shorter visits, but I don't have the courage for many reasons. My parents will get emotional and accuse me of neglecting them. They have started having some age-related health problems (nothing serious, but still), and I feel terrible that I don't live closer to be there for them. It doesn't help that I have been carrying a burden of guilt for moving to the US for many years. It helps a bit that my brother lives in India, or I would probably have moved back home.

Get over it. This is your answer.

Spending a more reasonable amount of time with your parents is not inappropriate. Don't let them, or your subconscious emotionally blackmail you into not achieving a more appropriate degree of separation.
posted by wrok at 6:41 PM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Hello, fellow South Asian. I think we have the same parents. I don't even have the freedom to decide how long the visits will be, because they're usually covering my airfare for them.

I'm not sure there's a lot that *can* help, honestly, and this is coming from someone who has tried for YEARS with everything we can think of. It seems our parents have no concept of boundaries and trying to get them to understand does not work.

Do as much as you can for yourself, however your limitations. It's going to be hard and I'm sorry I don't have more to contribute asides from commisserations, but feel free to Mefimail me if you wanna chat.
posted by divabat at 6:41 PM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Have you sought therapy for yourself? You will not be able to change them, but a therapist can help you change the way you interact with them.

Another thing you might try is seeing if they will come visit you. Maybe giving them the opportunity to spend time in your environment will demystify it and make them feel less fearful.

I suspect that your mother is probably deeply jealous of your freedom and views your choice of a different life than hers as a rejection of her values.

I think ultimately you will be happier if your visits are shorter. Perhaps you could start by curtailing the phone calls. Once it becomes clear to them that you are setting boundaries, you will probably have an easier time negotiating the length of your visits home.
posted by elizeh at 7:11 PM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Would it be possible for your parents to (briefly!) visit you, next year? They might not appreciate the full range and extent of demands on your time, but perhaps a glimpse into your world might bend them, a bit. E.g., maybe take them on a tour of the campus, your office, etc. Show them your drafts and inbox. Explain what you can of your day. (I'm assuming you've tried at least some of this already, but actually seeing the buildings, etc, might make the point more forcefully.)

Also, wondering if having them meet other parents in a similar situation, who've come a bit more to terms with things, might help them grasp things a bit better.
posted by nelljie at 7:30 PM on November 26, 2012


is there an indian community in your area? maybe you can talk to some of those people, young and old, and they can offer some specific advice.
posted by cupcake1337 at 7:53 PM on November 26, 2012


They keep freaking out because it works. If you want them to stop you need to stop responding.

Mom wants to talk for an hour when you've got a paper to submit? "I'm sorry I can't talk more now. I'll call you tomorrow.We can talk for 20 minutes then." Then hang up. If she brings it up the next time you talk just say "I told you how much I could talk. I won't talk further. Now tell me that funny story about the neighbors."

Parents mad that you're going to a cafe? "I'm sorry you feel nervous. I'll be back by x time." And then just leave. If they make a scene when you come back: "I won't discuss this with you. come get me when you're feeling calmer."

If they try and rearrange your schedule, say "I'm sorry I can't make it. Next time please tell me in advance." If they accuse you of neglecting them, say that they know that's not true and that you'll come back to the conversation once they've calmed down.

With all of these, you're sympathizing with how they feel while setting the terms under which you're willing to engage with them. You will feel shitty doing this at first. Remind yourself that these limits are reasonable and that it's ok to prioritize your needs. This can be hard to convince yourself of, especially if you've been brought up to do the reverse. Some individual counseling might help with that part.

Finally, the thing that helps me is to remind myself that ultimately, your parents love you unconditionally. You can set the terms of your relationship with them however you want and they will eventually give in, because no relationship would be worse. (there are exceptions and extreme cases but I don't think this is one of them). This might seem a little manipulative, but I think it helps to remember that you have agency and control in this relationship.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 8:06 PM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


It sounds a bit like your guilt is causing you to give in when they freak out. They can only control you with freaking out if you let them. It always interests me the way people phrase these parental issue questions; they say, "my parents won't let me do X." If they aren't physically restraining you or stealing your car keys or purse, they don't have the power to prevent you doing things, only the power you give them. Reassure them that you love them, give them what you are able to, but set limits--"Mom, as I've told you before, this is my busy time of year/month/week; why don't we do it at X time instead?" "Mom, you know I love you and want to spend time with you, but I need to go do Y now. I'll be back in two hours."
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 9:32 PM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm also South Asian, and it sounds like we have very similar parents! I was the first person in my large family to move away from home for university, and I completely get the guilt and conflict that comes with it. On the one hand I felt incredibly grateful that my parents had given me this opportunity, unlike so many other girls I knew. On the other hand, I was now submerged in a culture with far more liberal values and heaps of freedom. I had the same experiences as you when visiting from uni - no personal means of transportation or access to cash, my schedule completely controlled. Infuriating!

I just wanted to say… I know how impossible it feels right now to stand up to them and assert reasonable boundaries. I would break down in tears every time I imagined doing it. Getting into personal therapy was a huge help for me. It gave me the courage to understand that I couldn't keep living my life for my parents rather than for myself. It also helped me to accept the fact that I have different values from them. That doesn't mean their values are wrong, or that I have stumbled down the path of sin… it's just that I need to live in a different way in order to be happy, and that's perfectly okay. My life has been too different from my mother's life for us to have the same attitudes and expectations, and that makes perfect sense.

I think you have to rip the band aid off and tell them how things are going to be from now on. Don't make excuses or engage in debate about it, as it will give them ways to tug at your guilt. Just tell them simply that you are too busy to visit for as long as you have been doing. You get to decide what 'busy' means, not them. Doing it over the phone is perfectly okay, too - personally I feel stronger when I'm outside the range of my family's emotional vortex. There were lots of tears and recriminations when I first told my parents about my white boyfriend, and things are definitely still strained between us, but man, the relief I feel! It's worth every painful confrontation. Good luck and do memail me if you ever want to chat.
posted by guessthis at 2:00 AM on November 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm also South Asian, and the eldest daughter. I really understand where you are coming from and know how you feel. I go home once a year and invariably argue with my (loving, but very different from myself) family about many things.

I've found the best thing in these situations is to unemotionally state your boundaries, and keep stating them until they get it. At first your folks will be surprised and hurt and vocal about this, but the second you let yourself get drawn into an argument you lose because they know you feel some sense of guilt about this and they will - unintentionally or intentionally - use this to make you concede to their demands. Plus, it's exhausting. (I have started to simply get up and leave the room when things threaten to get emotional. It takes the wind out of their sails somewhat and once my grandmother stopped scolding me in order to burst out laughing and say I was like a cat that gets up and walks away when it's had enough of you.) But I digress. State your boundaries. Do not get tangled up into emotional arguments.

You have your own room. Lock the door. OK, Mom won't like it. You can do what I do, and make a deal with her - "Mom, I'm going to be working solidly for the next two hours, but after that let's have a cup of tea / watch some TV / go and visit So-and-so Auntie." And stick to that deal. When you are spending time with her, be present and affectionate.

I was shocked that she thought I could really blow off a week of work without consequences. Her response was that my work is a choice, whereas her marriage and taking care of children wasn't. I see the difference, but it's also symptomatic of how my parents treat my career as a personal indulgence

While, trust me, I am sympathetic, this is not really your problem. They love you and are proud of you, but they don't quite get it - that's not an exclusively Indian or South Asian thing.

If you want to feel less angry and frustrated, you're going to have to take a step back and look at the situation dispassionately. It's very hard, I know, but if you care so much about upsetting your parents you will never put yourself first.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:59 AM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


And PS: I just wanted to second divabat and guessthis in saying that if you ever need to talk, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:51 AM on November 27, 2012


I am SouthEast Asian, but have gone through the same thing with my parents. To be honest, the only thing that worked was not visiting for a couple of years. I basically said I couldn't come home during break because I was too busy, but I would go for a shorter amount of time later. It sucked, but they finally got the message, and we get along better now.

Still doesn't stop them from forwarding me every job posting and real estate listing from within 30 miles of their house, though.
posted by snickerdoodle at 7:17 AM on November 27, 2012


I'm Bangladeshi. My parents say wacky things to me in order to induce guilt. For example, "If you don't call your mother more, she will die and it will be your fault" and "When your father dies, you'll probably miss the funeral because you never pick up the phone." This sounds akin to what your parents say to you.

Choose to not feel guilty. It is the only way to deal with emotional manipulation like this. Be confident that your boundaries and your preferences are reasonable. Then communicate them and be firm. Ignore their hysterics. Repeat. This will feel like you're being selfish but you're not. This is your life, not theirs, and this shenanigans is not good for you--professionally and emotionally.
posted by anthropomorphic at 9:46 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


You know, if only you had gone to university in your home country, you would probably have learned how to get around your parents by now. Probably the fact that you live and work abroad means you feel guilty enough for emotional blackmail to take effect.

In my experience, in countries where conventional appearances really really matter, people have all sorts of ways of appearing to conform while sneakily doing whatever they like - this is what you are missing through having studied in the US rather than South Asia. You haven't quite learned how your peers manage, and additionally you're handicapped by the guilt of having left home.

You could also try talking through the guilt with a counselor, as accepting that one's own personal cultural identity is necessarily different from one's parents can be difficult in these hybrid times.
posted by glasseyes at 10:57 AM on November 27, 2012


Who's Pulling Your Strings? is a book which helps breaking such "prisons". It has very down-to-earth examples of how to respond to your mother when she tries to make you do things (or feel something) when you don't want to.
posted by flif at 6:51 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


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