Mommy Dearest
November 10, 2017 10:22 AM   Subscribe

How do I continue my relationship with my mother? Wall below.

My mother is 76. She has depression and anxiety. She also, I believe, has narcissitic tendancies, which she inflicted upon myself and my family as I was growing up. I came to the conclusion about her narcissism based on the fact that she came from an abusive upbringing, is at heart extremely insecure and uncertain of herself, and so, to make herself feel better, demands that everyone around her conform to her ideals so that they reflect well upon herself.

She seems incapable of hearing any advice or suggestions regarding her unresolved issues with her upbringing and marriage, laughs at the idea of a therapist, and absolutely refuses to accept that her rigid views on what is proper and how the world is supposed to work have alienated myself, my sibling, and pretty much everyone except for casual acquaintances and extended family whom are aware she has mental health issues but do not quite get the brunt of them as she always puts on her best face in order to seem proper and well-mannered, etc. In a nutshell: she is extremely rigid and depressed.

I had a falling out with her early this year. I have since tried to express some of the faults in our relationship through letter, which went ignored. I then took a tack of trying to re-establish some kind of friendly link by sending cards with pictures in them of the dog, myself, etc, and friendly how-are-you kind of messages. (I don't call anymore. She gets to me, and even if I don't cry, my voice becomes monotone and defensive, which in turn sets her off.) She responds to these with icily-worded cards in kind. I can tell, though, from the lettering on the envelopes in particular, that she is angry and depressed. It's something I just know from knowing her so well. They scrawl across the envelope, take up all the available space, and I can see her face and posture exactly as she is writing - the fury at me, at my refusal to be submissive as I have always been in our relationship prior to our falling out - and can see as well her dramatic, self-pitying depression, which she always made me responsible for as a kid, which I felt responsible to correct, rather, and which has given me co-dependent leanings that are very much a problem in my current life, and are part of why we had a falling out - I turned away from her demands, for the first time in my life. Her cards make me visualize her misery, as it were. Her last card stated acidly that such communications were so pitiful, and would I just come and see her already. Here's the thing. She won't come to see me where I live. Absolutely will not. She has forbidden my father to come and see me where I live. She despises my life and everyone in it, and her way of getting around that is to have me come and see her in her house, so she can ignore my life. My question is this. Do I go and see her? I don't want too, because of how miserable she makes me feel, guilty, shamed - the delinquent daughter, the failure, the one who utterly failed her narcissistic need that I reflect well upon her and the family. However, she is 76, as I said. She is mentally unstable, and I am afraid that she will get sick, and that I will have turned away from perhaps the last few years I could have spent time with her, and shortened that time by refusing to go and see her, by insisting upon my autonomy and my right to be respected for who I am, and not who she wants me to be. And that makes me so sad. I want to spend time with her. But not if it means being made to feel miserable.

Mefites, how would you handle this situation?
posted by Armed Only With Hubris to Human Relations (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Do I go and see her?
Good lord NO.
posted by uberchet at 10:48 AM on November 10 [26 favorites]


From one child of a narcissistic mother to another: therapy, therapy, therapy.
posted by snickerdoodle at 10:52 AM on November 10 [18 favorites]


She's 76. She is not going to change her approach at this point. You do not have to go and you should not go when you know it will make you feel bad.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 10:54 AM on November 10 [17 favorites]


First off, you don't have to spend time with your mother if you don't want to. You just don't. Not ever. Even though she is going to get sick and die at some point. You could cut her out of your life tomorrow, never see her again, and that would be OK.

That said, you don't *have* to cut her out of your life, either. If you want to maintain some kind of relationship with your mother, my advice is to drastically lower your expectations. Like, how low can you go? Lower than that.

Your mother is not going to get better; at age 76 she is not going to get a handle on what you see as her unresolved issues, accept you as you are, and become a happy person who you enjoy spending time with. This is who your mother is. She can't fix her, and you certainly can't fix her. It is better at this point to stop trying. She's absolutely not going to come to your house and go "Oh wow, daughter, your life is actually pretty great! I now realize that I have been making myself and my family miserable unnecessarily."

Maybe you will find that you are able to visit your mother for limited amounts of time if you know that a) you can leave whenever you want and b) you don't actually agree with your mother's distorted thinking. You do not believe the things she believes! Try to remember that and ignore her when she says things that are supposed to make you feel bad.

You *do* deserve to be autonomous and respected for who you are. The good news: your mother can't take away your autonomy. The bad news: she probably can't provide you with that respect. So, is it worth it for you to spend time with her? Would it help if you had someone to debrief with/rant to afterwards (e.g. a sympathetic friend or a therapist)?

Also: stop reading things into her handwriting, her phrasing, whatever. If she wants to say something to make you feel bad, let her do it. Don't you go to all the work of reading the tea leaves to figure out that she might be mad at you. That was a probably necessary skill when you lived in her home and she had control over your life. But you are an independent adult now, and you do not need to worry about whether your mother is upset. You weren't responsible for it as a kid, and you're absolutely not responsible for it as an adult.

And again: you don't need to spend time with her at all, ever again. It is your choice whether you want to or not.
posted by mskyle at 10:55 AM on November 10 [36 favorites]


You really answered your own question here: "Do I go and see her? I don't want too, because of how miserable she makes me feel, guilty, shamed ... I am afraid that she will get sick, and that I will have turned away from perhaps the last few years I could have spent time with her, and shortened that time by refusing to go and see her, by insisting upon my autonomy and my right to be respected for who I am, and not who she wants me to be."

So you're feeling guilty because you feel like you SHOULD want to spend time with her and time is getting shorter. But what's the benefit to spending time if neither of you will get any happiness out of it? You'll be miserable because she's judging you and she'll be angry because you're not letting her steamroll you the way you used to. If fluffy card messages about your dog already make her angry, what good is going to come out from seeing her in person? It just keeps everyone in a cycle of unhappiness. It's ok to not play into that.
posted by brilliantine at 10:58 AM on November 10 [2 favorites]


Your Mom is who she is and she is responsible for herself. You are clearly kind to her, sending cards and pictures, and that's to be commended. I'm a Mom. My Mom was likely bipolar, definitely alcoholic, and could be terrific once in a while, but was often mean. I moved 1,000 miles away when I finished college, and went a year with no phone (back before mobiles). That allowed me to be in control of her ability to call me to manipulate, engage in drunken tirades, etc. You've done that by limiting your contact to mail. At some point I decided that if my Mom was unkind I would leave. I've left conversations, rooms, houses. I told her, I don't want to be around you when you treat me this way and got my stuff and out the door. Or off the phone. I also praised her when she was kind and listened.

If she isn't too far away, you could visit and have coffee or tea, stay 1/2 hour, then leave. She might bitch about the short visit, but tell her you have plans and just go. There are some strategies that can help a little. Have a list of safe conversation starters. When things get weird or ugly, change the subject. I once freaked out a couple siblings by randomly asking my Mom about her plans for drapes when she was gearing up and getting into emotional meltdown territory. It worked; she started discussing drapes and the meltdown was avoided. She isn't going to live forever; ask her about her family, her childhood. I visited my Mom's childhood home once and it bought me a couple months of her feeling happy with me and nice to me.

Don't put up with any crap. You don't deserve it. But confrontation is generally useless with narcissists. If she asks Why don't you want to visit longer? you can honestly say Sometimes the emotional level gets too strong, and I want to see you, but it's to much for me. You're doing great. She isn't likely to give you the validation, support and love you want, and that's sad. But you can accept what love she can give and reject the hurt.
posted by theora55 at 12:17 PM on November 10 [8 favorites]


Don't make her misery your responsibility. You are not responsible for saving her or easing her resentment.

Do what brings you peace and contentment.*

Your only obligation is to your own happiness, inner well being, and sanity. Part of that is going through the pain of coming to terms with your relationship with her, and coming to terms with the unconscious way she's chosen to live her life. She does not to have to realize anything or change for you to deal with this. You can do it without her. In fact, it sounds like you may have to, given how stuck she is.

I'm so sorry you're going through this. Therapy helps.


*Don't equate your happiness with appeasing her or acting out of obligation.
posted by onecircleaday at 12:27 PM on November 10 [2 favorites]


I should add that my Mom died 10 years ago. Sometimes I miss her, but I'm glad I built the best relationship it was possible to have. I wish it had been different, but I just didn't get dealt that hand. I have no guilt.
posted by theora55 at 1:18 PM on November 10 [2 favorites]


As another child of a narcissistic mother, take care of yourself first (therapy! reading books! being especially kind to yourself!) and then take care of yourself some more. After that, do more nice things for yourself.

I wouldn’t go. Keep up with sending letters and photos if it makes you feel better, but consider not even opening the replies. It may feel weirdly transgressive, but you know what will be in them anyway. It’s strange and liberating.

I’m going to go do something nice for myself now... I hope you do too!
posted by bighappyhairydog at 1:40 PM on November 10 [2 favorites]


I don't know the answer re: going to see her. As yet another child of a similar mother (i could use some of your text verbatim to describe mine) all i can say is i feel you and its super hard and not fair. I don't have a lot of this business of "how-to-deal-with-an-aging-difficult-parent-like-this" figured out exactly either. I too feel screwed because I was formed (to varying degrees) by a lifetime spent around her crazyness, and it sure does make it hard to think clearly and be sure of myself. I know that being kind to oneself is supposed to help - trying not to always put others' needs first even if that's whats comfy .. as i think others have mentioned. But eesh, easier said than done. If you ever need an ear/want to chat with someone who can relate feel free to get in touch, really. Having / talking to people in my life who "get it" has helped me over the years for sure.
posted by elgee at 3:34 PM on November 10


The way I handle a similar situation is by only being around her when someone she wants to impress is also there. An acquaintance, a neighbor, the extended family. She gets to save face so she doesn't come across to them as if she's so awful her daughter refuses to visit her. Because look, there I am visiting, right there where they can see. And she doesn't get the chance to push my buttons. Partly because there's only so much she can say in front of others without looking bad, and partly because therapy has helped take the sting out of some things.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 4:18 PM on November 10


She has forbidden my father to come and see me where I live.

This is lousy, and worse, it means your dad is no prize, either. If you want to visit your parents, meet up with them at a neutral location (say, for lunch). Your mother's insisting on visits only in her home, on her terms, to keep manipulating you. Don't let her. There's a lot of wisdom in previous answers -- please see a therapist, and stop doing such heavy lifting in interpreting her handwriting, her iciness, any and all of it. She's tried to infect you with her misery for years; good on you for resisting it, and drawing some safe boundaries.
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:21 PM on November 10 [6 favorites]


Don't you go to all the work of reading the tea leaves to figure out that she might be mad at you. That was a probably necessary skill when you lived in her home and she had control over your life. But you are an independent adult now, and you do not need to worry about whether your mother is upset

This is important. When you were a kid, you needed this person to survive. You don't anymore. Just drop the rope. Do the minimum necessary preserve your own inner peace.
posted by rpfields at 7:51 PM on November 10 [2 favorites]


Hi there! You sound like you could be my sister. My mother is almost 86 and also suffers from anxiety, depression, and narcissistic tendencies. She abused me, my three children and my husband. She can do no wrong and we even attended family therapy where she told the therapist that we were the problem and the ones who were mentally ill, not her. I even moved 1500 miles away from her to escape her poison.
I call her occasionally, but have to psych myself up for about two months. Your mother is NOT going to change. if you continue to have a relationship with her she will continue to emotionally abuse and drain you. You don't need this in your life. if you get what i call an "attack of the guilts", you can call, but try to keep the conversation light and superficial. Don't ask how she is because this will invariably lead to a long conversation on her depression and your lack of caring. When I call my Mother I start the conversation with "Hi Mom, what's new?" That way she doesn't get an opportunity to tell me her tale of woe. Don't go to her. I am 55 and have been dealing with this a long time. Longer than I like to admit. It's very hard to find a kindred spirit in this area. If there was a way you and I could talk through email or phone I would have no problem with that.
Good luck. My last piece of advice is you are not the problem here. You are not responsible for your mother's happiness. If she is miserable, let her be that way by herself.
posted by LOOKING at 3:25 AM on November 11 [2 favorites]


I should add that my Mom died 10 years ago. Sometimes I miss her, but I'm glad I built the best relationship it was possible to have. I wish it had been different, but I just didn't get dealt that hand. I have no guilt.

This is me also. My mom died this summer. And it was tough but, frankly, not impossible. I miss having a mom but I only sort of miss having that mom; I mostly miss the mom I never had, the mom my mom could occasionally, and randomly, be. Oh well.

I think boundaries are worthwhile. I decided to maintain a relationship with my mom but on my terms. I emailed her every day. I wasn't mad at her, I just couldn't be around her. I stopped by when I was nearby but only with a few hours notice so she wouldn't have time to make it weird, and only for a few hours. She was a really interesting person and a rock in her community but she wasn't a great mom.

So, the specifics of what is up with your mom don't really matter. You are allowed to have the relationship with her, and with her father (who is making his own choices, he is a grown-up, I am sorry) that you want, more or less. You just can't make them do things they don't want to do. You don't want to see her, don't. Spend time with people who like you. Spend time with people who can be sympathetic to you about your bad mom. Get therapy so you have someone to work out your feelings with who is not your mom. It helped me.
posted by jessamyn at 6:26 AM on November 11 [3 favorites]


I'm also the daughter of a narcissist/enabler pair, and I went no-contact with them about five years ago. It was rough at the beginning, and it's not been without pain, but I am absolutely certain that it was the right decision. This is true, even though it caused me to miss the last year of my mother's life, and my mother (the enabler part of the narcissist/enabler pair) was once an incredibly important part of my life.

For me, the key was realizing that there was no way to spend time with the parents I wished I had. The only people available to me were the parents who actually existed. This meant that I had to learn how to separate "parents" as an idea from the specific human beings who raised me. And for me, once I was able to do that, everything became extremely clear.

Nothing could make me go back, now. Nothing. I do sometimes miss my mom, but I do not have a single regret.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 1:58 PM on November 11 [4 favorites]


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