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How to respond to this kind of venting/anger?
January 29, 2014 6:18 AM   Subscribe

How do you respond to family members venting/unloading on you? This past week, my mother and I kept playing phone tag, which culminated in her blowing up at me. I am sick of repeating this behavior pattern. Pertinent details:


*I missed a call from her on January 21
*I missed a call from her again on January 23
*I called both her cell and landline back, later on January 23. No answer on either.
*She called me back AGAIN on January 23, and missed me
On January 24 I texted her: “haha we keep missing each other.” She texts back: “I wanted to know if you got those boxes (she shipped me some stuff). I texted back to say yes I did. That was the whole exchange.
*She called me on Jan 27 and missed me
*I truly did intend to call her last night, but she called first…

*All the times she called and missed me, she never left a text or a voicemail. This is pretty usual for us and I assume she’s just calling to chat unless she leaves a message.

*Perhaps pertinent: I set up auto-reminders on my calendar this year to call her every 2 weeks, because otherwise we would and have BOTH gone for a month without calling (not even missed calls, just not called), and yet, she never expressed any blame in this and when we would eventually get in touch, would always complain that I “never called” or she never heard from me. I would say 90% of the time since my 2-week setup, she has not called me at all in between my 2-week calls. Yes, I am annoyed by this and yes, I accept that it may be coloring my view here.


When I finally reached her last night, she lit into me with a rant about how I never answer my phone or return calls, and how is she supposed to get ahold of me, it always goes straight to voicemail, she doesn’t know if my phone even works, once upon a time I was having trouble with it, I should only call her landline because her cell is unreliable, turned off, etc.

I pointed out that:
-she often calls me FROM her cell phone, so I’m just pushing the callback button;
-several of the times she called was during my workday, so I couldn’t talk anyway, and a few of them were after I’d gone to bed;
- I am human and turn my ringer off and forget it or don’t hear my phone in the next room, but I had indeed attempted to return her call as well as texted her this week;

All of this was ostensibly because she was trying to tell me I had to return a gift by the end of the month if I didn’t want it… which she could have easily told me in a text or voicemail, or indeed, she’d actually left me a note on the gift itself, that I already had.

So anyway, she ranted at me for several minutes and then said “well, I’m too frustrated and crabby to talk right now, so bye”. After she called me. Okay.

I am sure that a lot of this boils down to different phone etiquette and just plain miscommunication, but nonetheless: my mom has this pattern of blowing up over a little thing and suddenly EVERYTHING YOU’VE EVER DONE IS TERRIBLE AND WRONG AND ALSO YOUR PHONE DIDN’T WORK ONE TIME THREE YEARS AGO (she is the the mom who blames you for “downloading something” when her computer breaks after you’re home… despite the three zillion toolbars that were there already). These types of blow-ups are much rarer now that I’m an adult, but they make me feel like I’m still a teenager butting heads with her, and she wants me to fall into line and either apologize for however I’ve wronged her, or promise that I’ll “be better” about answering the phone, etc. (which I think I did in totally normal parameters, here).

Frankly, of course, I’m not keen on doing my dutiful “two week phone call” right now. I’m pretty sure the outcome of this conversation will either be: one of us calls the other and we just pretend this never happened; or I wait for her to call, which could be up to a month, and I guarantee you one of the first things out of her mouth will be that she “hasn’t heard from me in forever”. Well, no shit…

So either a) what do I do to handle this specific behavior? I’m open to sending her some sort of text or email, but she’s very much a “this is the way I am” person so I doubt she will make any real promises to stop doing this;

Or b) how do you handle people in your life in general who are like this, where as soon as they get mad about one stupid thing, suddenly everything ever is on trial? Growing up, I always just sort of rolled my eyes, accepted that she just wanted to go off about whatever, and then eventually she ran out of steam and everything got swept under the rug. But I really hate repeating that pattern and I especially don't want to deal with it over the phone.
posted by nakedmolerats to Human Relations (35 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Mom, I'm willing to discuss this particular issue to come to a reasonable agreement, but if you insist on being angry and/or bringing old issues into the discussion, I'll have to go."... calmly, clearly, and follow up with a "Sorry, I'll have to go now." if she wanders into that territory.
posted by HuronBob at 6:27 AM on January 29 [6 favorites]


The most effective strategy, I think, is to wait until she acts that way again, and then immediately shut it down; tell her that she's acting weird and that you're going to go, and to call back when she's calmed down.
posted by sid at 6:28 AM on January 29 [1 favorite]


Why do you have to call her every 2 weeks? I have a perfectly fine relationship with my mother and we speak less than once a month. She calls me or I call her, only when we have something to say (and requires a conversation rather than just a text or email). If she wants to talk to you more often, she has your number, if she's the one that desires the contact, she should be the one to make it.

If your mum starts going off on one just interrupt and say, I'm hanging up now, then hang up. Every time she does it, just tell her to stop and if she continues, hang up. If you want you can tell her she's free to call back when she's calmed down but that might cause more trouble that its worth.
posted by missmagenta at 6:30 AM on January 29 [1 favorite]


If she can say "this is just the way I am" then so can you. "Sorry mom, I'm not going to sit here and be yelled at over such a small thing - let's talk later. No, this is just the way I am, sorry. Love you, bye!"

She may come to see the value of compromise. Or not! Either way, you're not getting yelled at.
posted by Drexen at 6:32 AM on January 29 [9 favorites]


I applaud you for 1) being able to recognize this pattern and 2) wanting to break the pattern.

It sounds to me like your mother gets unwarrantedly frustrated over a certain very specific little things. It also sounds to me like her rants are not necessarily always about those little things, whether she knows so or not, but these things are just kind of her way of letting things out. I think moms' generation were socialized to talk about their life crisis through metaphors of, I don't know, unsifted flour. Talking to her ABOUT these little things will get you nowhere...because both of you will get more frustrated, and it was never about the little things anyway. Talking about communications when she's upset will also get you nowhere.

Instead, just circumvent at the heat of the moment. Don't react emotionally, and don't respond to the specific little things she's fretting about. If she yells at you for not calling back, say in a light, pleasant tone "thanks for the gift and the reminder mom! oops, gotta go, love you!" React as if she wasn't blowing up, basically.

And then, when you are having a good moment with her, tell her that whenever she yells at you, you miss the point of her message. Put the blame on society or generational differences, but not her. Example: "Hey mom, my generation is used to taking things pretty literally, so sometimes when you yell all I hear is that you are angry." AND THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT: ask her how she would like you to communicate with her, too. "What does your generation do for clear and effective communication?"

There will inevitably be more blow-ups after you've had that talk. You might have to have that talk many times. In each blow up, reward positive behaviors, and ignore negative ones. For instance, next time she might yell at you for five minutes, pause, and say, "I guess I am saying it's important that you get this message." In which case you say, "Oh! that's so much clearer now! thanks mom!"


Your interaction reminds me a great deal of how my mother and I have talked (more like fought) for years...well into my mid/late 20s, in fact, and we still go back to that mode of interaction occasionally, although we are both much more adept at fixing it nowadays.

It sounds like you want to have a good relationship with your mother, and she's also trying. If that's indeed the case, I'd strongly advise against hanging up on her when she rants. You are two people with very different habits of communication AND emotional processing, forcing her to do things the way you want is as uncomfortable as her forcing you (by yelling at you and making you respond).
posted by redwaterman at 6:46 AM on January 29 [4 favorites]


a) what do I do to handle this specific behavior?

You could be a little more proactive -- for example, it's entirely possible she's upset you didn't contact her to confirm that boxes came (which is just a courteous thing to do, to promptly thank someone for their time and effort in sending you something and notify that the item arrived safely). And then it just blew up from there. She's completely at fault for blowing up at you, but I think you could have curbed it by responding in a more timely way. Why wait two days to call her back?

Sometimes people act the way your mother is acting when they feel that the other person seems begrudging or doesn't value them. The tone in your question sounds awfully begrudging to me.

She's less likely to hassle you if you are respectful and busy instead of begrudging and busy. Her time is important, too.
posted by mochapickle at 6:48 AM on January 29 [15 favorites]


Are there any times during your week when it'd be convenient to call her? During your commute, or waiting is pick someone up? However, if you do go this route, you've got to learn to say "ok, I've arrived at work, gotta go..."

Teach her to text. Start sending her the occasional text, "Thinking of you", or "Let's talk tonight".
posted by at at 6:59 AM on January 29


I'd bring it up when she's in a calmer frame of mind and try to understand better what her expectations are here so that you can come to a compromise. Clearly she has some idea in her head about how often you should be calling, and may also think it's on you to be the one to initiate contact. I'm not saying those expectations are reasonable nor that you have to accept them, but I think if you wanna get somewhere on this like rational adults you have both got to understand what each other's expectations are, otherwise you'll both just em stuck thinking g that you're the reasonable one and the other can't be buggered to act like a courteous person would.

Once she's out in the open with her ideal vision of how often you call her and how that happens, then I think you'll be better placed to make counter-demands --- like "look, I know that you'd prefer I get back to you that afternoon if you call in the morning, but I can't take personal call during work, so I might not hear it until that evening and may not be able to return it until the next day".

The key I think is if you go to her with the proposition "look, I want you to be happy and I want this to not be an issue for us, so let's figure out how to get to get there" I think she'll be much more willing to accommodate your needs than if you start off with "the way you handle this is wrong, it irritates me, and I demand that you stop."
posted by Diablevert at 7:00 AM on January 29 [2 favorites]


If your Mom complains that you don't call often enough, a good answer is: "The phone works both ways."

If you and your Mom are playing phone tag: "I know, I was frustrated too."

If your Mom won't let it go: "I'm not going to be yelled at about this. I'll talk to you when you can be pleasant."

You can't reason with people who aren't reasonable, all you can do is manage them. You'll never make your mother understand that she's being unreasonable, so do your best to manage her.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:07 AM on January 29 [5 favorites]


Yikes.

To be fair you were kinda slack in getting back to her. A little text "hey saw you called will call back in 2d" goes a long way to calm her down.

Ok here is what I would do
1. bark back: mom, knock it off stop yelling at me.
2. [ideally address the situation like adults but we know that' snot possible]
3. give some time to settle
4. act like nothing happened. continue calls as usual
5. set your relationship expectations accordingly - this will be a superficial relationship without a true back & forth. sad but true.

Another option is:
1. Wow mom you sound really upset. I assure you I wasn't intentionally avoiding you. what is it you wanted to talk about?
2. ignore her dredging up shit from the past
3. carry on as usual "so how's the weather etc etc"
4. set your relationship expectations accordingly. note that your mother is a sensitive snowflake and needs kid gloves.

It just depends on what kind of relationship you want to have with her, how much you're really getting out of the relationship, and how much effort you want to put in.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:08 AM on January 29


Your mom sounds like my mom. Except that in addition to blowing up, she will also call 8 times a day until she finally gets ahold of me.

What helped was a combination of redirecting her to other means (text and email), and cutting it off when she started to escalate. "Mom, we've settled this. [Change subject]. Mom, I'm not going to talk about this now. Call me back when you're calmer."

(Although to be honest, nothing really "cured" it until I had babies and could distract her with them. "Wanna Facetime the baby?" works every time.)
posted by snickerdoodle at 7:22 AM on January 29


She texts back: “I wanted to know if you got those boxes (she shipped me some stuff). I texted back to say yes I did. That was the whole exchange....

All of this was ostensibly because she was trying to tell me I had to return a gift by the end of the month if I didn’t want it… which she could have easily told me in a text or voicemail, or indeed, she’d actually left me a note on the gift itself, that I already had.


Are you sure this isn't about the present? Did she give you a gift and you didn't thank her?

I set up auto-reminders on my calendar this year to call her every 2 weeks.... I would say 90% of the time since my 2-week setup, she has not called me at all in between my 2-week calls.

Do you mean, you set this up over a year ago, or a few weeks ago?
posted by Houstonian at 7:41 AM on January 29


I agree with redwaterman that when she goes on a rant it's probably not about the thing she's actually ranting about. In your example - please note I'm just playing devil's advocate - she sent you something. She maybe thought you'd be pleased or grateful. Maybe she expected a call to say "Hey great, thanks so much, you're the best!" When it didn't happen she rang you. When she missed you she waited two more days and still nothing. She called you again. By the time she finally got to speak to you she might have been feeling any number of things: hurt, rejected, foolish for thinking you'd be pleased with her, etc. So instead of being able to say "You know I'm hurt that I sent those boxes to you and you didn't get in touch with me to thank me" it came out as "RAR RAR PHONE RAR etc." Now, I'm not trying to guilt-trip you. I'm just wondering if it might help, the next time she goes off on something, to slow it down and say "I can hear you're annoyed but I wonder are you really upset about X or is there something deeper you're feeling about this? Because it would be good if we could talk about it without either of us getting angry, because we both love each other and I know we both feel bad when we fight."

Basically, it sounds like she goes into Critical Parent mode which means you revert to Child mode (feeling like a teenager again) when really you're both aiming for Adult mode. So taking the adult stance of remaining calm and trying to get to the bottom of what's going on might take the heat out of some exchanges. And the same goes for your own feelings. It might be helpful to say "I'm feeling criticised/blamed by you saying X which is making me feel defensive" rather than "I did NOT break your stupid computer maybe if you didn't download so MUCH CRAP!!" (Ok maybe that one was me...)
posted by billiebee at 7:48 AM on January 29 [7 favorites]


set boundaries.
call your mother.
she's worried.
posted by watercarrier at 8:12 AM on January 29 [3 favorites]


You could be a little more proactive -- for example, it's entirely possible she's upset you didn't contact her to confirm that boxes came (which is just a courteous thing to do, to promptly thank someone for their time and effort in sending you something and notify that the item arrived safely). And then it just blew up from there. She's completely at fault for blowing up at you, but I think you could have curbed it by responding in a more timely way. Why wait two days to call her back?

I agree with this. If you receive boxes and you know how your mother is (and it is polite as well), text right away and say "hey! Thanks for the boxes!". I could go on but basically redirect the communication as you want it. If you can't answer the phone, just email her and say "I can't talk right now, what's up?" Then she can email you back or not. No more missed calls. Then you end up with an email relationship but maybe you can schedule Sunday calls or something...anyway, the idea is to some how get out of the "disgruntled and avoidant teen/nagging mom" mode.
posted by bquarters at 8:12 AM on January 29 [1 favorite]


My mother does the same type of thing. I've tried everything suggested upthread and her default position is that it's the child's responsibility to call the parent not vice versa. My mom also refuses to text, email or respond to voicemail as those forms of communication "don't count."

If I call her every six days as opposed to seven, she will still say on that 6th day, "I was about to call the police to check on you; I thought you were dead."

And it just kind of occurred to me at my ripe old age of 49 that my mom is a TOTAL MISERY QUEEN. When she is given a delicious box of chocolates she will say that:

a) we want her to get fat;
b) there aren't enough salted caramels;
c) there are too many salted caramels;
d) we spent too much money on this gift; what did we do that we feel so clearly guilty about.

My mom thrives on...nay...she is 100% utterly and completely fueled by drama and misery.

I have tried over the years to set limits, to have honest discussions with her that I want us to be close, I want her to be happy, and it's never gotten me anywhere.

I'm not saying that this is YOUR mom, but I'm saying this:

Once I realized that my mom is basically a very unhappy woman who can only find the bad in most things and is never going to change, I stopped reacting to her never-ending guilt trips and whining. I just feel bad for her.

Feeling compassion for my mother's behavior ultimately made me feel a lot better about our relationship. It may be the same for you.
posted by kinetic at 8:13 AM on January 29 [11 favorites]


Texting has been a blessing for me. I send her pix and comments that, it just so happens, include the fact that I am just now finishing lunch and have to go back to work or am on my way to a dinner or something that means I have to log off in five.

Cowardly, but effective.

And, yeah, if she sent you stuff and you didn't ping her about the arrival that's churlish.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:14 AM on January 29


To answer a few things...

Sometimes people act the way your mother is acting when they feel that the other person seems begrudging or doesn't value them. The tone in your question sounds awfully begrudging to me.

I do accept this. I am sometimes begrudging because, as I said, I feel like I do most of the heavy lifting at actually keeping in touch routinely, and I still get mostly negative feedback - "you don't call enough" or in this case, even though I call HER without prompting at least 80% of the time, she freaks out on the rare occasion she calls me and claims she "can't get in touch with me" - I'm the one getting in touch WITH HER most of the time!

Are you sure this isn't about the present? Did she give you a gift and you didn't thank her?

I don't think so - maybe she was frustrated that I didn't text her right when the box came, but that didn't sound like her main source of frustration. And I know it's gauche, but our family has never done thank you notes, so it would be quite sudden for her to be upset about that. (The box was sending me some gifts from Xmas I didn't have room to pack - they had already been received and thanked for at Xmas).

Do you mean, you set this up over a year ago, or a few weeks ago?

Several months ago, I started doing the every-2-weeks thing. Before that, we would go many weeks without either of us calling, but when one of us did finally call she would complain that she didn't hear from me.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:22 AM on January 29


And yeah, I see a lot of comments that it was rude to not let her know the box came - I agree, but that was nowhere in her long screed about never being able to reach me, so if her main beef was that I didn't let her know the box came, it's a weird sublimated way of showing it.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:25 AM on January 29


My mom is like this. Except a bit more extreme. If I don't contact her when she would like me to, she threatens to call the police. Her time frame is private and illogical. Sometimes we won't talk for a month and that'll be fine, but other times just a few days go by without me calling back and she becomes super dramatic.

It helps me to know it's about her, not me. I also will tell her, as some others have suggested, "Mom, sorry, I can't talk about this." I find this phrase to be a lifesaver. I guess I didn't think I was allowed to say that or something for many years, but it's a good, not too rude way to move the conversation on. I still get very frustrated, but I think that's just mamas for you.
posted by amodelcitizen at 8:33 AM on January 29


my mom has this pattern of blowing up over a little thing and suddenly EVERYTHING YOU’VE EVER DONE IS TERRIBLE AND WRONG AND ALSO YOUR PHONE DIDN’T WORK ONE TIME THREE YEARS AGO (she is the the mom who blames you for “downloading something” when her computer breaks after you’re home… despite the three zillion toolbars that were there already).

First of all, I am not getting "everything you've ever done, etc" from the phone call you're reporting. And "I'm too frustrated and crabby to talk right now"is exactly the right thing to say if you are indeed frustrated and crabby and don't want to torpedo a conversation.

Second of all, it's probably worth noting that in the above description, you are doing exactly what you're accusing her of doing.

Also, you're a grown-ass adult, your mama should not have to make four calls for you to acknowledge boxes she was nice enough to send you, and acknowledge the deadline of the note included. If you can't reach her, send her a text. Or a postcard.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:49 AM on January 29 [3 favorites]


Try ending the conversation with "ok, I'll talk to you in 2 weeks" or "talk to you on Valentine's Day" or what have you. Manage her expectations - if she knows what to expect, that might help her relax.
posted by lyssabee at 8:58 AM on January 29


how do you handle people in your life in general who are like this, where as soon as they get mad about one stupid thing, suddenly everything ever is on trial?

Breathe deeply.

Try to stay calm. When somebody is yelling at you, the natural reaction is to get defensive and angry. When you start feeling this way, try to relax. Literally try to relax your tensed muscles and slow down your pounding blood. Remind yourself that your mom is angry, but you don't have to react by getting angry too.

Echo back to her how she's feeling. "You are really angry that you haven't heard from me in a few days. It was really frustrating for you that we couldn't reach each other all weekend." Sometimes this defuses things very quickly; sometimes she'll just go on yelling.

Don't argue. Arguing will only turn this conversation from a one-sided rant into a fight.

Accept that this is part of your mom's personality, and as long as you feel good about what you are doing, you're fine. If she thinks your not picking up the phone is a sign that you're a terrible son or daughter, that's on her. You don't have to worry about that.

I used to have a hard time with my mother yelling at me for no apparent reason too. I understand that frustrated rage you're feeling. Then a couple of years ago, I saw my mother start screaming at my father because of something to do with placemats, and I watched him just stand there and nod, and then she eventually stopped and neither of them ever mentioned it again and went on like nothing happened. It really helped me understand that this is just part and parcel of life with my mom.
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:00 AM on January 29


I promise to stop threadsitting, as I can tell I am emotional and stressed out about this situation, but seriously: based on growing up with my mother and having had this type of fight many times growing up: I really really don't think it's about the box.

The box contained items I already thanked her for, I had already thanked her for sending the box in advance, she is just really not the type to get bent out of shape about not hearing about the box.

Based on experience, I think this is an "I'm frustrated about this thing that happened ---> I am going to accuse you of always doing this thing forever" and I need to figure out how to handle that as an adult.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:25 AM on January 29


I hope I'm not overstepping, and please forgive me if I'm projecting, but have you ever checked out Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers?

The situation with your mom may not be so frustrating as this website warrants, but due to my own history I tend to be very sensitive to this kind of behavior, so please disregard this if I'm misreading it, but from your OP and followups, I get a sense that there might be some undercurrents in your relationship with your mom that DoNM could help you with.

Even though some of DoNM is cliché and over the top, if applicable, there are some things on there that can offer insight into the mentality of the folks that raised you and how to set boundaries with them. For me, awareness of a pattern of behavior on my mother's part, where empathy was fundamentally lacking on her side, helped me get a better knowledge of myself and may be helpful in understanding what's going on when your mother, and the world at large, interacts with you in a way that makes you feel like less than an adult.
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 9:48 AM on January 29 [1 favorite]


People share a lot of themselves when they rage. Often, angry people share way more, and way more generously, in their rage than in their more positive affections. If you can observe with a detached attitude, you'll notice how much they're giving. In some cases, it's almost like they're giving their glands, their blood pressure, their very health - like they're almost pushing themselves to a stroke or heart attack or an out-of-body experience in the service of maximal giving.

Watch long enough, keenly enough, and detached enough, and you'll realize rage is actually love with a filter. And it's not hard to shift your attention from the filter (i.e. the specifics of what's being said, facial expression, vocal tone, etc.) to the underlying current of pure love streaming through. If someone is actually hitting you, it's harder to retain detachment. But so long as it's verbal, you can see it for what it actually is.

You don't have to dance with other people's emotions. But you don't want to shut yourself off, either. One answer is to see what's truly happening, and be awed and touched by the generosity of rage. It's certainly not generous - or any other positive thing - in its specific intent. But, as is so often the case with human beings, specifics have little to do with the deeper impulses. We little know ourselves, and never less than when feeling strong emotion.

Acknowledge the depth of heart of someone sharing their deepest rage. It's a shame they can't harness that heartfulness in other, more constructive ways. But it's what they have to give, in the way they are able to give it, so the depth and the power of that reflect the true depth and power of the person.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:12 AM on January 29 [3 favorites]


how do you handle people in your life in general who are like this, where as soon as they get mad about one stupid thing, suddenly everything ever is on trial?

The great thing about the phone is that you can hang up. No one deserves to be treated like that, even (or especially) from their mother. Hang up. Call back when it's next convenient for you. Refuse to engage on the topic ("I'm not going to call you if all we talk about is the frequency of my calls"....she continues harping on it...."Goodbye mom." Hang up, don't answer any call backs from her.). Either she'll get it and stop, or she won't, but either way you've protected yourself from the verbal beating.
posted by melissasaurus at 10:24 AM on January 29


So either a) what do I do to handle this specific behavior? I’m open to sending her some sort of text or email, but she’s very much a “this is the way I am” person so I doubt she will make any real promises to stop doing this

I moved to a foreign country from where calling regularly would be expensive, and inconvenient due to time zone differences. Drastic, I know. But highly successful.
posted by elizardbits at 11:20 AM on January 29


This is my mom, too. I just had a baby three days ago and she's mad I didn't pick up the phone last night during a marathon feeding--not to talk about the grandchild but rather to hear her rant about her job.

Strict boundaries are the only thing that's worked for me. When she starts guilt tripping me, I tell her she's being absurd: we talk daily, or nearly, the guilt trips make our conversations unpleasant, I'm easy to reach via text or email at any time. If she keeps it up, I tell her we can talk about something else or talk later.

She hates this--says I'm always telling her what she's allowed to say. That's fine with me. I've dealt with her setting the standards of communication for years, in ways that felt crummy or actively hurtful. I'm a grown up now and have every right to demand to be treated well. You do, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:26 AM on January 29 [4 favorites]


I'd say - compassion.

From a similar experience, I think your mom might feel lonely, and needy.
The anger might be a symptom of frustration with the fact that you don't need her as much as she needs you. There is a power imbalance, I think, in many older parent-adult child relationships. The parent might crave affection/attention from their child, the child has a full life.

I don't think this is about the boxes, really. She might have felt like she needed an excuse to call you and not appear needy or weak. Maybe she only feels noticed and loved when the other person makes the effort to connect.

Just my two cents, you know your mom best but I would just try to be cordial and let her know I do value the interactions and am not treating them as a chore.
posted by M. at 11:30 AM on January 29 [1 favorite]


Set boundaries. Do not reward her with attention or defensiveness when she lashes out. Don't make accusations. You really really can move the goalposts and establish more reasonable behavior by her, but honestly, it's going to feel a lot like being a parent of a small child sometimes.

It took me a really long time to acknowledge that my folks were being emotionally manipulative, and yes, that's what it's called and I'm not a horrible person for recognizing it as such. (I mean I recognize it for myself, this isn't a thing I'd say to them because they'll take it as a weaponized accusation, which is the opposite of helpful!) Realization #2 was that the fact that they are emotionally manipulative doesn't have to mean that they are horrible, terrible people -- they're just flawed humans, like we all are, who happen to be not terribly self-aware about some of their insecurities.
posted by desuetude at 12:36 PM on January 29 [4 favorites]


Based on experience, I think this is an "I'm frustrated about this thing that happened ---> I am going to accuse you of always doing this thing forever" and I need to figure out how to handle that as an adult.

Deborah Tannen's "You're Wearing That? : Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation" may help you learn to articulate and change this dynamic. A brief overview from Tannen.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:19 PM on January 29 [1 favorite]


You might try the "give your relative the same courtesy you'd give a neighbor/stranger/friend" thing.

If a friend sent you a bunch of stuff, would you not get a quick message off to them saying you received the stuff and thanks? If a neighbor signed for a package for you and brought it by when you got home from work, would you not express your gratitude?

The phone tag thing is just going to happen sometimes, but maybe an e-mail or txt can get a message through when the phone doesn't work. All your mother probably wants is assurance that you're okay and she's okay with you too.

As far as manipulative parents go, oh there are some winners alright, but really and truly, most parents just can't figure out how to quit being in their kids' lives after having been there in an important position for 20+ years (I'm talking about ordinary, decent parents here).
posted by aryma at 4:23 PM on January 29 [1 favorite]


Seconding MonkeyToes's recommendation re Deborah Tannen's book.

"I'm frustrated about this thing that happened ---> I am going to accuse you of always doing this thing forever" and I need to figure out how to handle that as an adult.

Have you tried discussing this (i.e., telling her how this makes you feel) with her outside of the times you are arguing over something? After I told my mother that her references to a behavior that I had dropped 25 years ago made me feel like she didn't think much of me and, therefore, hurt my feelings, she stopped bringing it up. (Frankly, I was surprised at the change, although I don't know why—I know she loves me and wouldn't intentionally be hurtful. Needless to say, YMMV.)

I agree that you need to set boundaries, but I encourage you to keep the lines of communication open as you do so and to treat her as the adult she is, not a child, throughout the process. For example, if you need to end a phone conversation, I suggest you say something like "Let's talk later - this is upsetting to me, etc" rather than "I'm hanging up - we'll talk when you can be reasonable." The latter may get her to shut the fuck up about a subject, but it won't bridge any communication issues or bring you closer.
posted by she's not there at 6:00 PM on January 29 [2 favorites]


If she says "only call the landline", could you try doing that? I understand that she calls FROM her cell phone, but it is really no more difficult to return a call to the landline instead. I do this - I have a ringer on my landline. I always hear my landline if I am home (which is most of the time), and can easily see a missed call or voice mail. Though I often call people FROM my cell, my cell ringer usually stays turned off, and I rarely have the cell phone on my person at all times. I really see my cell phone as a device for MY convenience and almost nobody else's (okay, maybe my husband's!). I get flustered taking calls in traffic or even away from home sometimes so I don't do it.

It seems like a very small thing, but it is so frustrating when people get annoyed with me for "not being responsive" to calls when I have repeatedly said "the landline is the best way" and they keep calling my cell anyway. My reasons for managing my two phone lines this way mostly have to do with babies/children, but your mom could also be concerned about minutes too if she is on a budgeted cell plan. If she makes the call she knows she has the minutes for it. Even though that's not an issue for me, I would still prefer to have a leisurely chatty conversation on my home phone rather than my cell.
posted by FuzzyVerde at 7:33 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


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