Not even Mommie Dearest...
October 8, 2008 7:51 PM   Subscribe

Parents splitting up after 35 years -- maybe temporarily, but I'm betting on the long-term. They're both crazy, but my mom is C-R-A-Z-Y, and her poisonous attitude has now doomed this relationship for good. Our own relationship has always been strained, but how do I even begin to relate to her now?

Background: I am in my late 20s and see my parents about once a week. I'll be in town for at least six more months as I finish grad school. My parents have had various problems for a long time, especially since my brother and I moved out, and now my mom has announced that they are "taking a vacation from each other." She will be staying in the family home, because she "knows how everything works" and she works out of the home; my dad will be renting a room a few blocks away.

My dad is hardly perfect, but he has tried so hard to do things on her terms and ask what he can do to make things better. My mom's M.O., however, is to have absolutely no idea what she wants and then, when presented with something in exasperation, yell, "OH, ANYTHING BUT THAT!"

She is your basic passive-aggressive responsible first child Midwesterner. She has this habit of getting an idea in her head and, when things don't go according to plan, she gives up and shuts down. To give you an idea of our relationship, she once told me that she felt like a failure because things did not go the way she wanted, primarily because I had free will. (????) I know she was reflecting on herself, but I am an opera singing gameshow champion who will soon graduate from a master's program completely free of debts, police records and drug problems. Hel-LO.

She is just SO un-self-aware, and it has ruined our relationship. She is absolutely obsessed with propriety and the way things should be, so for example she manhandles me in public if I am bouncing my legs. But she thinks nothing about her own propriety, to the point of telling people she barely knows about how I supposedly spent my high school summers having sex in my boyfriend's dirty basement. No boundaries, no respect, nothing.

So she told me about the separation by saying that, "oh, it's no big deal" and then, as I sat there slackjawed, jumping straight into some breezy little anecdote about something funny that happened AS SHE LOOKED FOR A NEW HOME FOR MY DAD. And that's not a big deal? This is very typical. Throughout my life, I've been taught that my emotions are completely backwards from what they should be -- both from what she thinks they should be and what everyone else feels.

Hell, I've been upset with our relationship since I can remember. We're talking power struggles since I was 3. But what is usually a politely concealed simmer is making me want to napalm her house. Her behavior has made her waste money, fill the house with junk, and now has taken the last shred of stability away from my dad. I'm not even mad at them for separating; I've been separated myself, so I know it could go either way. But I am so very, very angry with her for treating this -- outwardly, at least -- as an opportunity to lie around with a margarita.

Where do I even begin?

(Yes, I've been in therapy for a long time, and have made some progress, and am staying as far away from the situation as I can.)
posted by Madamina to Human Relations (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You could do what I'm doing, 20 years old and parents married 22 years splitting up right now, and that is to get into a huge fight with your mom about how you were raised and stop speaking to her. probably shouldn't do that. But I'm interested in your thread!
posted by shadowfelldown at 7:59 PM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

You could hang out with your dad, because from what you said he seems pretty normal and could probably use the support. It may be cathartic for both of you.
posted by Loto at 8:01 PM on October 8, 2008 [9 favorites]

Agreed, my FIRST thought was for you to take the vacation as an opportunity to bond with dad! Imagine how he must feel... there's not even any mention of him. I don't see anything that needs fixing with mom except a cordial relationship.
posted by crapmatic at 8:13 PM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Probably time to distance yourself from everyone involved. Sounds like you know what's what, and trying to change her at this point in her life, especially while she's going through this, is an exercise in futility.
posted by limeonaire at 8:14 PM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow. I'm sorry to hear you are going through this, on so many levels. Two very focused suggestions:

Make it clear to both of them that they need to be responsible about deciding what will happen over the holidays. Don't allow yourself to be drawn into a power struggle about whose holiday celebration you'll attend. If they ask anyway, tell them flatly that the two of them need to decide together what they will do, e.g. Dad will invite Madamina to his room for Thanksgiving, Mom will get Xmas, or that they will suck it up and all do it together.

For your own mental health, set limits about your interactions with them. Make it very clear what you won't talk about, then if they persist in bringing up a specific topic (So how did your Dad seem when you visited him? What did you talk about?) tell them firmly that you're not going to talk about that topic and, if necessary, leave.
posted by arnicae at 8:21 PM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

get into a huge fight with your mom about how you were raised and stop speaking to her

I think part of growing up is getting pissed at your parents for their failures in raising you, and then really growing up is forgiving them for being human. This experience is more than common, although the level of emotion and expression thereof vary widely.

As for the situation at hand, I wouldn't go taking sides, but your parents are likely to either explicitly or implicitly request that you do. Avoid that trap. They are both your parents and they both need your support, despite their relative levels of craziness, guilt, whatever. Leave the relationship between them to them and concentrate on your relationship to each of them.
posted by caddis at 8:24 PM on October 8, 2008 [4 favorites]

I am so sorry. I have been there, too, and spent years working this out.

I must agree with caddis; everyone, even seemingly normal families, have to come to terms with their parents being human and screwed up in some ways.

My experience, in an extremely similar situation, was to learn to take care of myself and avoid getting enmeshed in my parents' drama. Decide, before you talk to them (or to your mom, who seems to be the source o' drama currently) what your boundaries are. Example: "Mom, I love you, but I would prefer you didn't speak to strangers about my personal life. If you are going to do so, I am going to limit what I tell you. Thanks." AND THEN DO IT. You MUST stick to this for it to work. Continue to express yourself clearly, but with love, for each of your boundaries.

DO NOT TRY TO FIX THEM. This way, trouble lies. Trust me, I have material that would fuel sitcoms regarding the things I tried. Walk away. It is their thing.

It is easy to demonize one and celebrate the other, but try to recognize that your dad, who appears to be an innocent victim, is anything but. They both were complicit in a long relationship. They both have responsibility. You have no idea what he did/didn't do, and as a male of that generation, he is unlikely to spill. Assume he ain't perfect, either.

Most of it is learning as you go along; I'm sorry I cannot give you one, perfect, all-encompassing answer. I wish you the best and know that your inner strength will pull you through, as it has the rest of us. Good luck.
posted by Punctual at 8:49 PM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

My mom is a bit like that, but not to such an extreme. When she bitches, I just ignore her or change the subject. Your mom is obviously jealous of you.
Hang out with your dad.
Limit contact with mom unless she is civil. You sound independent, emotionally and financially, and obviously don't enjoy spending time with her. If she is the one wanting to keep contact, it can be on your terms. You don't have to explicitly tell her this, but if she's crappy when you see her, see her less often. Maybe she'll get the idea and act more normal when you see her. Maybe she'll go even more nuts and start complaining about how you don't appreciate her. You never can tell with some people, but you don't HAVE to visit her if she's treating you badly when you do.
posted by fructose at 8:53 PM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

You're not required to relate to your relatives at all, if you don't want to. I haven't spoken to one of mine in something like 12 years, and I don't really see where I'm missing out on much, except a shitload of drama I didn't want in the first place. My relationship with my mother has been similarly fraught at times, especially on the topics of achievement and autonomy.

If you really do feel compelled to put up with your mom's crazy, try to limit it to the telephone, and practice using the phrase "Mother, I am going to hang up the phone now and I will talk to you later, when we're both feeling calmer."

I had to delete my folks' number from my phone's speed dial for a bit, too. It was way too tempting to fall back on "I'll call my mother and she'll be a parent to me! We won't have any of this bullshit!" This expectation was rarely rewarded, in my experience. I set harder limits and she's finally settled down a bit and stopped trying to bait me on various hot-button topics.

I also got married, which seems to have quelled a lot of her "oh lord, why must you have free will" issues, because now Mr. F is obviously entrusted with complete control of my existence. We let her think that because it's easier. Obviously, I don't advise marriage as a route out of your familial issues-- it just happened to work out for me.

Good luck.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 9:05 PM on October 8, 2008

Oh my god you need to disconnect from this situation. I'm going to say it once slowly THIS IS NOT YOUR PROBLEM. I know you want to help, I know this is upsetting, I know you love your parents, but this is not your drama or your problem to fix. Seriously. This isn't your marriage, this isn't your life. You are an adult and your parents can run around making disasters of their own lives and it isn't your problem. At some point you have to let go and walk away. I'm not saying to disown them, I'm saying you need to accept that they may utterly self destruct but that doesn't really affect you. Yes, it is sad, but it isn't your life that is self destructing. Don't let them reel you in and don't let yourself get involved, it may be hard, but this isn't your battle to fight. Just let them go. See them for a dinner now and then, help your dad pack, but that's as far as you can get involved.
posted by whoaali at 9:21 PM on October 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Distance. Accept a job offer on the other side of the continent. Live your own life. Concentrate on your career. Eat healthy food and exercise regularly. Cultivate stable people for friends. Learn from others. Continue your therapy. And be thankful that you have escaped your family-of-origin.
posted by exphysicist345 at 10:15 PM on October 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

Sounds like you need a vacation from your mom, too. Hang out with your dad. Or not. But your mom, as hard as it is to accept, sounds like a poisonous person to you. The good news is that this could be temporary, even if it's gone on forever. As in, your relationship could improve if you get some distance from her.

If that doesn't work, let her know your boundaries. If she's gossiping with her friends about your sex life, let her know, politely but firmly, but in no uncertain terms that her doing that is not ok. Draw boundaries. And don't try to change her mind on anything. Just focus on what you can take from her; if you find you can't take much, then don't allow her to poison you. Stay away from her, at least for a while.
posted by zardoz at 12:26 AM on October 9, 2008

Do nothing. It ain't your problem. Live your own life.

If you feel like hanging more with dad, well great, but focus on finishing school and moving towards a career. If you need even more space, you might try moving further away, like another state, or another country fora real adventure.

Your mom might chill out when she gets older, but her chances are better if your dad leaves permanently, the kids keep their distance, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:44 AM on October 9, 2008

It sounds like her "FINE THEN, I don't even CARE" reaction is triggering lots of issues for you. You're seeing that and getting mad about all the little things that have built up. Be upset about what's happened (for all these years!), but if you want to napalm her house every time you talk to her, then you've got to take a step back for your own health. Insist on expressing your (totally valid) emotions, but at the same time... don't let her yank your chain every time she gets the urge.

She's "taken the last shred of stability away from [your] dad". Or not! Maybe this is your dad's chance to start a new chapter in his life, a chance to live in peace and quiet or to find someone who isn't constantly tearing him down. This is a chance to get to know him without Mom nosing her way in. He's an adult. This could be a very good change for him.
posted by heatherann at 5:38 AM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am the dad in a similar relationship. Leave our relationship alone. We will work out our issues. If you want to talk to either of us feel free to do so. If we start babbling about the other parent just say it's not a topic you have any input for and disengage (hang up, leave, whatever). Yeah, I know your mother is over the edge, I've been living with it and around for longer than you've been alive. I'm enjoying my time off more than you'll ever know and if there is ever a time I want to get back into the house I'll move. I love my children very much, and wish that things had turned out less dramatic, but that's the nature of just another dysfunctional family, each is unhappy in their own way.
posted by ptm at 5:44 AM on October 9, 2008

Sounds like my grandmother, who is classic borderline personality disorder material. There is a bounty of literature dedicated to living life with borderline mothers (not just parents -- mothers!) that might help you.
posted by spamguy at 6:33 AM on October 9, 2008

Listen to PTM. That's pretty much what my Dad said to me, when I was going through a very similar situation with my parents.

My best coping skill was not to engage with my Mom on anything related to the divorce, she would try to talk to me, but I would tell her to stop right away. I told her I loved her, but I started to loose my breath when I tried reasoning with her, so i stopped reasoning. Due to the fact she kept bringing the divorce up, I pretty much avoided her for a year. My sister avoided her for 3. We didn't really talk to our Dad either (although he didn't really bring up the divorce, he more asked if our mother was getting along ok by herself, a different dynamic than mom-crazy).

There's quite a few emotions going around right now, decades worth of emotions. After my parents' divorce, I think they both became better people. My mother is still crazy, but she is so much better than she was. Being apart from my Dad helped her grow as a person.
posted by pokeedog at 6:33 AM on October 9, 2008

Your mom sounds a lot like mine (incidentally, mine is bipolar). If she has no sense of boundaries now, it's pretty unlikely that you'll be able to drill any into her at this point, but you can control your own boundaries. Talking to my mom drives me nuts, it's always drama, drama, drama, so what works for me is only talking to her on the phone a few times a year (holidays, birthdays, the few times that she has dire news of some sort and insists on calling), and keeping all other contact email-only, that way I can respond when I'm up for it and can ignore the drama stuff that I don't want to be involved in. After my parents divorced I made it absolutely clear to her that I wouldn't be passing messages along or anything like that, and had to stay firm when she tried to wheedle me into playing intermediary between her and my dad and brother. It was hard to deal with some of her histrionics while I was setting some of these boundaries, and I felt like a bad person for wanting to set them, but now that we're years into interacting this way, it works fine.

Your dad will be ok. It may take a bit of time for him to adjust to life without the crazy, if they do split up permanently, but he will find his own way. And you know, if you enjoy spending time with your dad more than your mom, there's nothing wrong with playing favorites. Nothing says that you have to give them equal talking/hanging out time.

Also, having a state or two of distance between you and your parents can be a wonderful thing.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 7:07 AM on October 9, 2008

Wow, I have a lot of long-lost twins in here! Just wanted to add to the chorus of "set your own boundaries and STICK TO THEM", even though you'll probably feel like a terrible person at first. Keeping distance between yourself and your family is absolutely OK and sometimes essential.

As you get older your parents will become less and less important in your life, and you'll make a new life for yourself on your own terms. If that means minimal or no contact with parents, fine - it's whatever works for you that's important. Stand up for yourself and eventually the crazy will recede into the distance. Good luck!
posted by Quietgal at 10:01 AM on October 9, 2008

Best answer: She is absolutely obsessed with [...] the way things should be

I know you don't want to hear this, but it sounds like you likewise obsessed, at least with her behavior. You think your mother should be a certain way, and you aren't happy with the way she is. Not that you have to be - you have every right to want to distance yourself. But if you're in your early 20s, she is likely to be at least in her mid 40s, and that makes it unlikely that she will ever change in any significant way.

I know how you feel, really. My mother is bipolar and was unmedicated for most of my childhood. To say the least, it was interesting. It's still a challenge for me to spend time with her, even though she is being treated. (I just got married and I'm an only child, so believe me, I have very recent, ahem, stories.) However, I realized that my anecdotes about how crazy my mother is/was reinforced my self-identity as a victim. You're a successful woman. You're not a victim. It doesn't matter what she does. What she says is not the Word of God; you don't have to put one ounce of stock in it. You're letting yourself be jerked around by her erratic behavior. You're letting yourself get hooked into the idea that she should be someone else, and getting frustrated when she isn't.

Just stop, for your own sake. There is nothing you can do to change her - you already know this on an intellectual level. It's up to you whether you want to be around her or not, but there is nothing that you need to do. You can decide how to relate to her - as a crazy, controlling person, as the woman who raised you at least well enough for you to be a success, as a troubled person worthy of sympathy, or as someone who's not emotionally safe for you to be around. It's all up to you, not her.

However, you're not going to be able to make any choice at all unless you express your anger and come to a place of clarity and centeredness. You don't have to express your anger at her; this is unlikely to be at all productive. The best way I've found to begin to release anger is to write a no-holds-barred letter, read it to my therapist or a trusted friend, and then burn it. The more you tell these stories about her behavior, the deeper your resentment will grow. The second best thing I've found - and I know this sounds extremely weird - is to say aloud that you wish the best for her. If you're inclined to pray, ask God that good things come her way. It's impossible to sincerely wish good things on someone and be angry at the same time. If you wish bad things on her, no harm actually comes to her, no reform is possible, and you only hurt yourself. So you might as well wish good things.

Sorry this is so long, but I've been precisely where you are, and while we're not BFF, I can at least spend the afternoon with my mother without any trace of resentment.
posted by desjardins at 2:29 PM on October 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

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