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Daughter seeks escape from clingy, overbearing mother
July 18, 2007 9:24 AM   Subscribe

My mother has become very clingy. I have things I want to say to her but I don't want to hurt her, as it isn't her intent to hurt me.

First off - yes, I am already seeing a therapist, and this has been discussed to some degree, though there have been more urgent issues as of late. This is ongoing background noise that has steadily increased in volume.

Since I got engaged two months ago, and moved (one state away from her) a few weeks ago, my mother has been nearly relentless with phone calls and visits and gifts. She wants to help us move. She wants to clean the new house. She wants to reupholster our (practically new) furniture (Wha?!).

Some very relevant background: She is bipolar, and while she's well-medicated now, she neglected to take her meds while I was a child. There was a lot of craziness: mostly verbal abuse, some physical, and a ton of emotional, um, irregularity. Of course, no one told me that she was mentally ill, so I just thought I deserved it, which led to a lot of self-destruction, and later, anger at her. (by the way, I was an only child, and my parents were divorced, so I bore the full brunt of her nutty episodes.) After a lot of therapy and discussions with her, I have totally forgiven her for what she's done in the past. Really, I have (not sarcastic).

But this new behavior is really getting irritating. I've had to put my foot down a few times and say "No, Keith and I don't have time to come up there for dinner" (2 hour drive). "Thanks for your offer of assistance but we're all set with the move." She acts like she's listening, and a day later she'll say the same thing. Since her intent is to be helpful, I get wore down and finally accept. For example, she's insistent on getting me a subscription to a wedding magazine even though I won't read it and it's a waste of money & paper. She's also bought me a book of wedding vows and bookmarked a few she thought I'd like (GRRRR). I am really overwhelmed with a bunch of other things in my life, and fighting her is one more thing I don't need.

As I write this, it occurs to me that she's probably in a manic phase where she's trying to do 10,000 things at once. I know I can't use reason to talk her out of that. I do want to write a letter describing the effect it's having on me, but I'm having trouble with the wording. Here's what I've got so far:

I feel pressured when you want to do something for me, because it often creates a burden on me.

I feel like I'm obligated to be your friend because you don't have any others. I feel as if I'm a project for you. I feel like you don't listen to what I really want, or don't allow me the space to decide what that is.

I feel like you're not being genuine, like you've put up a shell around yourself, and the phoniness really irritates me. I would rather you just be honest with me. I feel like you're still trying to shelter me.


Hive mind, I'm looking for ways to express myself better in a non-hurtful way. I'm also looking for any other tactics to deal with her behavior in the short term, as I really can't afford any more emotional hemorrhaging this month.
posted by desjardins to Human Relations (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
This sounds like a combination of things:
1) yes, possibly the beginnings of a manic episode (IANAshrink, but I had a bipolar mother too);

2) a case of the weirdly vicarious, inappropriate buttinsky syndrome some mothers and other relatives get when it comes to their Dear Little SnookieChild's wedding; and

3) a more generalized empty nest panic since you moved noticeably farther away.

And it's all just spiraling into crazy-making intrusiveness. I think you're stating your feelings and the impact of her behavior on you straightforwardly, which is a good thing. I would do two other things: begin the letter with an acknowledgment that you know she's happy for you and wants to be involved and that you know that these changes in your life may make her feel unneeded or marginal -- and reassure her that, while your relationship may evolve, it's not going to stop.

Then, bring the hammer down and enumerate your reactions as you have here. For each one, include or substitute a specific instance or two -- so, instead of, "I feel as if you're being A or not being B," it's something like, "When you do X, it makes me feel Y." That is, focus on describing her behaviors and your emotional responses to them (anger, irritation, distrust, sense of burden) or the concrete ways in which they're negatively affecting your life (stress, making it hard to adjust to the changes, tiredness at work, etc.)

Other tactics? Not to be a jerk, but y'know, if she's bugging you, don't answer the dang phone for a while.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:40 AM on July 18, 2007


Since I got engaged two months ago, and moved (one state away from her) a few weeks ago, my mother has been nearly relentless with phone calls and visits and gifts.

This does seem like 2&3 from Fellini's list above - you're approaching a major transition in your (and her) life, going from single daughter to married woman. Even in a perfectly normal household, trust me, this causes some sturm und drang, as it can take both parties some time to figure out how to juggle their new lives.

I question whether a letter would do anything more than create massive hurt feelings. The key problem to me seems to be:

Since her intent is to be helpful, I get wore down and finally accept. For example, she's insistent on getting me a subscription to a wedding magazine even though I won't read it and it's a waste of money & paper.

You give in. You are teaching her by example how many repeated requests it takes for her to get what she wants by "helping you."

So I suggest the best thing you could do for yourself and your mom is:

First, write your letter. Don't send it.

Second, practice the phrases, "No, thank you," and "Sorry, Mom, already said I can't." Don't get into debates about why - just focus on politely turning down her requests and sticking to your guns - disengaging from the conversation (walking away, hanging up - "I'm going now, mom.") if necessary.
posted by canine epigram at 9:49 AM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


I should have added that I went to college 1500 miles away from her (in the late 1990s), and I've lived nearby for the last 6 years, so I'm a bit mystified why moving some 100 miles away has gotten her so wound up. She actually accused my fiance of taking me away from her, and he's more indulgent of her whims than I am.
posted by desjardins at 9:56 AM on July 18, 2007


I agree that while you may need to write that letter in order to vent your feelings, you probably shouldn't send it. Yes, the letter is true and accurate and it's her behavior that is unreasonable. But this is your mother, and I think that letter would hurt her and your relationship much more than you want or intend. Instead, I would have another talk with her. (I'm sure you've already done this, but do it again) Tell her you appreciate everything she's trying to do for you and your partner and that you understand that she's doing it out of a place of love. However, sometimes there will be certain things you just do not want and cannot accept her help on. Tell her you will let her know when those times occur. From now on, as others have said, do not give in no matter how many times she suggests something if you really do not want it or it will unreasonably upset your life. Find yourself a little mantra you can repeat. "Thank you, Mom. We really appreciate the offer but it's simply not necessary for you to do that." Use firmer language as necessary.
posted by theantikitty at 10:01 AM on July 18, 2007


Because those hundred miles are symbolic of the vast gulf widening between you and your mom, as you prepare to marry someone and make a new partnered life. Regardless of how you treated her before, you were her daughter. Now you're someone else's wife, and of course she resents him for "taking you away from me."

It's not rational. Heck, one time my wife was briefly hospitalized for observation, she instructed me to tell her mother to stay home (instead of making an hour-plus trip only to stand around for nothing) -- so I did.

Later, my MiL briefly expressed a similar sentiment to her daughter, that I was "keeping [her mom] from her." I couldn't help but laugh because it was so ridiculous, and knew that it was simply because of the seismic relationship shift that happens when people marry. and my MiL is a sweet, if sometimes "too helpful" woman.
posted by canine epigram at 10:06 AM on July 18, 2007


I used to live with someone who was bipolar, and she behaved in exactly this way (though less helpful, and more badgering). Your post has made me remember just how trying it was. She was heavily medicated also, although that did not have a noticeable effect on the mania or depression. I do not know whether there was simply a lack of effective treatment for it, or whether she was failing to take her medication as directed.

I put my foot down as often as I could stand to, even though it usually seemed to result in real pain for her. That seemed passing, though, and as you noted in this thread, sometimes the best way to deal with people who are acting illogically is to treat them like everyone else, and let them see what they're doing on their own.

Also, I think what canine epigram said is very important, and maybe you should just try talking to her about that issue.
posted by zebra3 at 10:14 AM on July 18, 2007


It sounds like maybe you actually haven't figured out how to live with her illness, despite the fact that you have forgiven her for it? Her recent clinginess in almost certainly a product of her manic phase, so the question here is really how you define your boundaries. Since you're going to be busy (and she's going to be manic) for the next few months, why not just set up a schedule of events with her and stick to it? (x amount of time to talk on the phone about the wedding; a visit every other week; etc.)
posted by footnote at 10:14 AM on July 18, 2007


What theantikitty said. Also, pick your battles: if she wants to give you books and subscriptions, what harm does it do you? Don't even waste your breath putting up a token fight, just say "Thanks!" and throw the things away when they arrive. Save your mental/emotional energy for the times when you really need to talk her out of something. And remember, some of this may be bipolar (I wouldn't know, no experience), but a lot of it is normal mother-of-bride craziness. Try to let it wash over you as much as possible and hope it all subsides after the wedding.
posted by languagehat at 10:19 AM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Can you write her a letter? I know it seems impersonal, but it's sometimes a great way to get all of your feelings out in a measured, premeditated way (ie no screaming or yelling, or speaking hurtfully) and also gives the recipient a chance to sit down with it and read and re-read and hopefully begin to see where you're coming from. You can couch everything in how much love her, how you don't want to hurt her, etc.

If you think she needs to somehow have her hand in the wedding, can you give her something to be in charge of-- something that is sort of inconsequential but that makes her feel like she's involved? That way, maybe she'd leave you alone about all the other stuff?

Good luck.
posted by sneakin at 10:20 AM on July 18, 2007


Can't you redirect her energy in ways that is helpful rather than makes you grit your teeth? It sounds like she is afraid of being left out and wants to be a key part of your life. Can you find a way to meet her need and giving her guidance about what is helpful to you?
posted by zia at 10:20 AM on July 18, 2007


Make yourself less available.

You can see who's calling on your cell phone - don't pick it up all the time when it's her. Call her back at your convenience, every few days, and give a non-specific excuse about work/life being busy. Reply to emails tersely - one or two sentences, and wait a day or so before responding. Accept dinner invitations only occasionally. Have excuses ready about work, plans with friends, errands to run, etc.

And don't send the letter. No matter what you say in it, things will not go well.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:26 AM on July 18, 2007


My father is a well-intentioned "too helpful" meddler. He often simply does not understand when his suggestions are not appropriate, and will repeat them over and over, as if I simply didn't realize what he was saying the first fifty times. I just thank him but firmly refuse each time.

I nth the advice upthread about writing that venting letter but not sending it. Re-read what you wrote about and think about how she will interpret it -- will she understand what you're driving at? Most of us don't look consider how all of our actions could add up to "behavior" -- we take things day-to-day and think in terms of our specific actions, you know?

With my dad, I do look for opportunities where he can help and will call him for specific advice on something. This helps keep both of us calm -- "I don't need you to drive three hours to reorganize my sock drawer, but thank you so much for your help with [choosing thing he knows something about.]
posted by desuetude at 10:36 AM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Bipolars tend to get triggered by major life changes. This is definitely a major life change for her as well as for you. She is feeling very insecure, probably, with the relationship y'all have from each other.

She wants to be helpful. Since probably she definitely is in the beginnings of another episode, can you contact her doc and suggest a tweak in meds? Or at the very least give him or her a heads up about Major Life Change in mom's life?

If you can spare the time, pick an evening or an afternoon where you two can go out for a bite and just spend some time together. Make an appointment for that time. Let your mom know that you will be fairly busy between now and appointment time but that you are looking forward to it.

When the day arrives just reassure her you love her. Make a deal where if she gets too buggy you can tell her and she can back off. If you are able to help HER gain some control with this it will help.

As for the wedding suggestions, just say thank you then do as you will.

(I have been bipolar in the past but I have also dealt with a mom-i'm an only child too-so I think I can see both sides here. Oh, and I'm the mom of grown kids, one married. )
posted by konolia at 10:39 AM on July 18, 2007


It's very important in these situations to A) be as specific as you can, using a concrete example to focus on; and B) offer a clear alternative behavior you'd like to propose.

Hitting her with your behavior has been very clingy lately, and it hurts me gives her such a wide, generalized problem that all that can happen is a cascading trade of generalities. Find a very specific instance, such as a persistent offer of coming to dinner, and focus on that and that alone. Do not use it as a window into the discussion of general issues. Take this problem on one case at a time.

As for alternatives, think about what you would like to do with and for your mom instead, and offer those as exact alternatives. Make a date for her to drive up to see you, then, when other offeres come up, gently remind her of the date you made. Be very gentle but very clear — an unmoveable object.

Also look closely at how clear or unclear you are being. Are you vague, slippery, conciliatory? Do you sound uncertain, as if you're waiting to be talked into something? Next time, say: "We're not available for dinner, but remember we're getting together next Friday" and leave it at that — no apologies, no explanations, no excuses. It will be hard work, but if you can both adjust yourselves to a matter-of-fact relationship, which you need to generate, you'll be much happier.
posted by argybarg at 11:04 AM on July 18, 2007


Several people have suggested that you shouldn't send the letter because it "won't go well." But I don't think that your purpose here should be to make it "go well" -- which is another way of saying "avoiding conflict."

Now, maybe you've decided that your mom is a lost cause -- that she's just too emotionally unhealthy and incapable of a real relationship with you. In this case, you may just want to limit the stress that she puts on you by maintaining minimal contact with her, so conflict-avoidance would be a good tactic.

But, if you want to have a real relationship with your mom, you're going to have to stop trying to protect your feelings and just be honest. Bluntly honest -- not cruel, just straightforward. And, yes, you can expect that it won't always go well. But if your goal is to adjust this situation over the long term, you're going to have to learn to be honest, blunt, and consistent. I think it's possible to do this while still being kind and respectful -- in fact, I think it's more respectful to just state your needs clearly than it is to muddle around with a lot of ambivalent, indirect "I statements". What's happening now is that you're letting her steamroll you -- and the more you let her do it, the more you resent her, the more you feel guilty for resenting her, the harder it is to say no.

To put this another way: you've taken on the burden of being "non-hurtful." That's not your burden. If your intention is not to hurt her, and your words and actions are respectful, then it's up to her to be hurt or not hurt. When you say something to her, you cannot and should not try to control how she feels about it. I have a mentally ill family member and I know the temptation to try to protect them, to calculate the possible hurtfulness of every word, but -- you can't. And you shouldn't, even if you could. You're doing her no good by being less than honest with her. You're just perpetuating an unhealthy relationship.

So, concrete suggestions.

- She offers to help in some non-helpful way. You say, "No, Mom, I don't want you to do that. I know you want to help, but that would actually create more burden for me."
- She asks again about something you've already said no to. You say, "You've already asked me that, and I've already said no. Please don't ask me again -- I'm not going to agree to it."
- She wants you to come visit (for the millionth time). You say, "No. I don't want to."

Resist the urge to explain, apologize, and soften. If you find yourself in the middle of a conversation, calculating how best to put something -- just throw out your carefully calculated phrases and say what you mean in the clearest way possible, even if it seems unkind. I think you are hypersensitive to possible unkindess right now -- you're going to need to train yourself to let that fear go. It will be difficult, but it will be good for the both of you.
posted by ourobouros at 11:47 AM on July 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


canine epigram is so right, so right that I had to pay five bucks to tell you how right he is. So right that when everything crashed during registration, I rebooted just to come back here, find your page, and try again.

Specifically:

You give in. You are teaching her by example how many repeated requests it takes for her to get what she wants by "helping you."... practice the phrases, "No, thank you," and "Sorry, Mom, already said I can't." Don't get into debates about why - just focus on politely turning down her requests and sticking to your guns - disengaging from the conversation (walking away, hanging up - "I'm going now, mom.") if necessary.

She is hearing "No, no, no .... yes" from you, so she's just going to try that much harder to get to the "yes." Stand firm. No explanations, just "no", and say it clearly. As ourobouros said, diplomacy--the white lies we often employ to soften a blow--is not your friend here.

I also agree with c.e., and others, that writing a letter is more likely to be hurtful than helpful at the moment. Even if you say your piece quite diplomatically, something about seeing words written down in a permanent form can make them feel particularly harsh.

Finally, can you talk honestly with her about what you see as an oncoming manic episode? Even if you can't reason her out of it, maybe you can heighten her self-awareness a little on that front?
posted by Herkimer at 1:09 PM on July 18, 2007


That sounds like a great letter to write and not send.

I like a lot of advice in this thread, especially the bit about "taking on the burden of being 'non-hurtful'." I also grew up with a mentally ill family member, and I echo what ourobouros said there. That's not your job.

That said, if your wedding is coming up soon, you may be able to find some way to keep her busy that helps her feel like a part of things while keeping her out of your hair to some small degree. My mother is not the mentally ill family member, but she was driving me up the wall when I got engaged. Constantly she'd insist that I had to drop everything and allow her to help me do some damn thing I didn't actually want to do in the first place. Setting and maintaining boundaries against that was indescribably irritating and wearisome. Then I set her to making paper cranes for wedding decorations. Scads of them. It was meditative, it gave her somewhere to direct that jittery energy, and it seemed to help her bring that "helpful" insistence down to a livable level.
posted by sculpin at 1:12 PM on July 18, 2007


I'd like to agree very much with languagehat here. The folks saying that you are reinforcing her behavior with the "No... no... no... OK." thing are right, but realize that she does have to hear "That would be great!" occasionally, so that she can learn what would actually be a help to you (or what would be minimally annoying, at least).

For example, she's insistent on getting me a subscription to a wedding magazine... She's also bought me a book of wedding vows and bookmarked a few she thought I'd like

These seem like very nice and thoughtful things to do for someone planning a wedding, and if they are the extent of her meddling in your wedding, consider yourself very lucky indeed. With all due respect, perhaps you could look into your own issues with receiving gifts and help in your therapy, if you are not doing so already. Perhaps a solution will be reached more quickly if you work at the problem from both sides, so to speak.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:34 PM on July 18, 2007


I'd like to agree very much with languagehat here. The folks saying that you are reinforcing her behavior with the "No... no... no... OK." thing are right, but realize that she does have to hear "That would be great!" occasionally, so that she can learn what would actually be a help to you (or what would be minimally annoying, at least).

Thirded. In my particular wedding situation, we had complete control of everything, but made sure to find things that the moms could do to feel involved and part of what was going on.
posted by canine epigram at 2:06 PM on July 18, 2007


Can't you redirect her energy in ways that is helpful rather than makes you grit your teeth?
zia is on the right track. See if you can find a hobby group, Bridge club, ESL teaching, some volunteer opportunity that you can guide your mother into. She needs something to do, especially if she is not working. She is looking down the long empty years and shuddering.
(Blessed are those who are not an only child.)
posted by Cranberry at 4:05 PM on July 18, 2007


Here's how to reword what you already wrote, with the implicit attacks taken out:

When you want to do something for me, I feel pressured because it often creates a burden on me; I feel like I have to put aside my own plans and fit in with yours.

When you ..., I feel like I'm obligated to be your only friend.

When you ..., I feel as if I'm a project for you rather than an autonomous person; I feel deprived of the space I need to make my own decisions, and I don't feel really listened to. I would rather believe I had your blessing to make my own mistakes and explore my own life.

When you ..., I feel like there's a shell around you, and I get really irritated. I would rather we could just relax and talk honestly with each other, instead of constantly trying to keep on top of a wave of projects.

posted by flabdablet at 4:11 PM on July 18, 2007


Why don't you give her a list of things she CAN do for you that will keep her busy and let her feel needed, thing that you don't want to have to deal with anyways? Surely with a wedding and a move you need someone to lick some stamps or keep track of RSVPs or test bakeries something.

I know this doesn't really address the larger question, but I thought I'd say it anyway.
posted by np312 at 4:16 PM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think the letter would not be effective because it reinforces over-involvement. Make sure you have caller ID. Don't always answer her calls. Say no, and don't explain. You might be able to redirect her energies if you can think of anything she might enjoy, esp. if it would actually be useful. I got my Mom to address wedding invitations, and do some minor shopping. She turned these tasks into an enormously huge deal, but it kept her from bugging me about other stuff. Sometimes I prepare a list of topics to use to sidetrack her in conversation. "Have you heard from cousin Jim" can distract her from bugging me about stuff.

She's going to be your mom, and be bi-polar, for the foreseeable future. The more techniques you have for coping and having the best possible relationship, the better.
posted by theora55 at 5:10 PM on July 18, 2007


First off, you should be grateful that you have a mother who is so devoted and, you know, gives a damn. You would be shocked how rare and special this is. The solution to dealing with such 'clingy' people is to establish boundaries and then stick to them. Your mother calls you too much? Call her every Sunday and make it a tradition. If she calls you and it's not Sunday then just say 'I'm terribly busy but I'll speak to you Sunday.' She's overly helpful? Then tell her no, you don't want her advice, but you would like her advice about X, Y, and Z. Asking for her advice (while making it clear it's advice) is how you let somebody help you without having them take over your life. And when parents do try to rule over you then a pointed reminder that you're an adult and they raised you right usually does the job of setting the appropriate boundary.

For example, she's insistent on getting me a subscription to a wedding magazine even though I won't read it and it's a waste of money & paper.

See, this is the sort of harmless thing where the appropriate response is just to smile and nod. It's a wedding magazine. Even if you immediately throw it away it's worth it just because it makes her happy.

The goal is to find a way to co-exist with your mother. A framework in which you both feel happy and secure and supportive of one another. This requires compromises and sacrifice and honesty on both your parts. In the end you may simply have to forgive your mother, to just say 'that's the way she is' and move on. Unless she's really causing you harm then learning to laugh at her at her neurotic behavior may be better than getting yourself all worked up over it.

as I really can't afford any more emotional hemorrhaging this month.

I think you've got unresolved issues with your mother. The whole sob story back story about growing up in a bipolar household and being alone suggests that you're still stewing over past 'slights'. I don't think you've forgiven her and it's tinting your thinking now. So forgive her and then help her. Instead of writing a letter to your mother detailing all the things she does wrong you should write a letter explaining all the things she does right, explain that you're grateful for it, and explain that you intend to repay her by doing X, Y and Z. People respond better to positive feedback and this will, perhaps, make it clear what each of you getting of out of the relationship and what might be improved without falling into pointless melodrama.
posted by nixerman at 8:02 PM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


n+1 np312 and nixerman's comments. It sounds like you need to set some ground rules with her at this moment. They need not be "dont call me i'll call you". Perhaps you can have a standing dinner date every other friday and a phone call every tuesday?

I think sending the letter would be a good idea only if you suggest ways that she can feel involved without crossing your boundaries into uncomfortable clingy behavior.

Also, just keep in mind that even the sanest parent will never truly see you as an adult. At some point they will remember that they changed your diapers and all that respect for you as an independent being will go out the window.

It is the gift and curse of parents.
posted by softlord at 6:08 AM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


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