My mother (depressed, long divorced, estranged from much of her family) feels that I am not there enough for her. Since I started a serious relationship three years ago, the situation has deteriorated greatly. I feel that she depends on me far too much -- and the rest of my life is suffering -- but I'm too consumed by guilt to figure out concrete ways in which to handle this. I would appreciate suggestions for both short- and long-term strategies for building a healthier relationship.
posted by anonymous to human relations (23 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
My mother has depended on me emotionally since I was very young. My parents divorced when I was a child. I visited my father during school vacations, but most of the time, it was just my mom and me. We are Europeans living in the US, and we do not speak English together. My mother, "Mary," is extremely well educated, but she is shy, withdrawn and wary of others. I grew up being her linguistic, cultural and social translator.
Six years ago, Mary had a nervous breakdown. She called me in hysterics while I was away for my first professional presentation. I was powerless to do anything except listen to her sob at me and felt awful that I was on the other coast of the US and unable to be with her. But I did what I could: I found a therapist that spoke her native language, I called her every day, I encouraged her to get medication. From then on, her dependence on me as her only emotional support became even more overwhelming.
Mary has always shown scant interest in my life. She asks me no real questions, she avoids the topic of my relationships entirely, and she didn’t want my father’s name or his family mentioned. She also very openly told me, when it became clear that I was gay, that it was a part of me she hated -- all the while needing me so much.
I am now in my late 30s. I have been living with my partner ("Lily") for 2 years and this relationship has been difficult for Mary to accept. Now that I am building my own family, I have had to reduce the time I spend with my parents. This has been a source of constant and very stressful drama -- from my mother's side. (My dad, who lives in Europe, is very supportive and low-key. But as my mother points out, he isn’t “completely alone in the world.”)
I have been trying to set boundaries. I don't answer the phone if I don't want to, I don't call every day, and I have reduced the time I spend with her. Mary has responded to this last boundary very strongly, really laying on the guilt and making me slide back into my old ways more than once.
Lily is not my first relationship, but it is the first time that I have openly talked about a partner to my mother. Our first year together, used to catering to my mom's needs, I put most of my effort into preserving my routine with my mother. Both during Christmas and over the summer, I spent large chunks of time with my mother, away from Lily, despite the fact that both times Lily was hospitalized, once for major surgery. This was difficult for Lily.
Since last Christmas -- the latest visit, to the home that Lily and I share, was rather a disaster -- my relationship to my mother has been punctuated by depressed and sometimes sobbing phone calls during which she states that either 1) Lily doesn't want me to see her and I am under her spell and don't realize it or 2) I don't actually want to see my mother and my attempts to distance myself are yet another form of rejection. Obsessed with being rejected, she has spiraled into limitless depression.
I wasn't originally going to see my mother this summer. Lily is tired of my being away -- between my Europe trip and a job trip, I was gone for almost a third of the summer. But eventually Lily and I agreed for me to go out to visit Mary for her birthday. Though we had a good time, she never missed an opportunity to tell me how short my stay was and how sad it was that it had come to this.
Since I've come home, she's been worse. The people she has talked to about this agree with her. Her friends are all European and have a different idea of what are appropriate parent-child bonds, which complicates my ability to reason with her.
Every conversation now is about this. She is devastated by what she sees as the deterioration of our mother-daughter relationship. These conversations leave me anxious for days. My emotions seem to be dictated by my mom’s moods, and this makes Lily feel very unsteady. Though she sympathizes with my mother’s depression and feels sad for her, she also feels angry at her and frustrated that after 2 years this is still an issue in our relationship.
Christmas is coming and the whole drama will start over. If my mom somehow joins us, am I going to be caught up again, making my partner feel like she is alone, while my mother feels rejected? If my mother spends Christmas alone, I honestly do not know how I would handle the guilt.
I am becoming less emotionally healthy by the day. I can't get any work done and am spiraling into feeling increasingly powerless and useless. I am in therapy; my therapist suggests that I ask my mother to reflect on how this all makes me feel, to make her take some responsibility. My attempts to set boundaries with Mary haven't paid off: she continues to guilt trip me, I continue to feel guilty, and Lily still feels like the "other woman."
I am looking for suggestions on the following:
1) How should I handle this coming Christmas?
2) How might I talk to my mother about boundaries, such as about length and frequency of visits, to reduce her spiraling into rants about abandonment and rejection?
3) During or after our conversations, how do I stop my own spiraling guilt and anxiety?
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