I'm 26 and am very confused about whether or not I should extend my study abroad trip
November 25, 2008 5:43 AM   Subscribe

My mother thinks I should stay home. I'm having an internal conflict about what I want to do. Whenever I tell myself I want to return to Copenhagen, I immediately doubt it and think I should return home. If I say I want to go home, I feel like I will regret not returning to Copenhagen forever.

I'm 26 and a graduate student. I have lived in the same town my entire life, going through all of my schooling there (preschool through college) and also I am enrolled in grad school there (at the same university where I did my undergrad). I was living at home while going to school.

My grad program is 2 years long and this is the first half of my second year. I decided to study abroad in Copenhagen for the Fall semester to try something different. I've had a good time here overall, yet I feel like a semester is too short and there were a lot of things I wanted to do but didn't have enough time to do (such as traveling around Denmark and Europe, experiencing more of the Danish culture). It's just taken me 3 months to get used to it and now I only have a month left before it's time to go home.

Therefore I am considering the idea of returning to Copenhagen after the holidays (I'm going home for at least a month for Christmas and New Year's). Both my school in Denmark AND my school at home say it's possible.

I am living off of federal loan money and I will have considerable debt after graduation next December. But I am not taking out any more loans than I would have had I not gone abroad. I feel that I will be in debt no matter what so I may as well make it count for something.

My mother is not happy about me wanting to return to Copenhagen after the holidays. She did say that it's my life and I have to do what I want, plus she told me I didn't have to justify my reasons for wanting to go back. So I thought she was cool with it, even if she was sad.

But then last night she sent me an email asking me to reconsider; that her heart is broken far more than I can imagine. She said that she wishes she could tell me how much I am needed at home, and that she has a strong feeling that I should stay home, that it may be intuition and that she wants our family together again. She said she had a lot of fun things planned for us to do while I was at home in the Spring. Also she said I would save money.

I feel horrible and I have no idea what to do now. I don't know if I should just stay home or if I should go back abroad or what. I feel that a lot of her arguments are emotional (except for the one about saving money) and that it's just hard because I've never lived away from home. Plus she isn't married so I think she has put a lot of her focus on my brother and me. I don't know if it's just empty nest syndrome or if I am being selfish by wanting to experience another country for 5 more months. I will be home for good in June, until I graduate and decide the next step to take in life.

I haven't responded to her email yet and I don't know what to say. I'm doubting whether or not I want to return to Copenhagen. What if her intuition is right?? If I go back abroad and something horrible happens to me?

On the other hand, I am 26 years old and I'm the only one of my friends who still lives at home and has never ventured off. So it's not like I am being completely out of line by wanting to stay a little longer...right? I have a good relationship with my mother and I don't want this to drive a wedge between us. I don't want to hurt her. But I have to make decisions about what is right for me...I just don't know what the right decision to make is. How can I help her cope with this?

Thanks for any suggestions and I know this question was long.
posted by starpoint to Human Relations (35 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Go to Copenhagen. Travel, explore, reassure your mother (a bit), but overall live your own life.
posted by that possible maker of pork sausages at 5:48 AM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

One more thing I forgot to add...part of what I'm worried about is losing my relationship with my mother over this. We do have a great relationship, as I said earlier, but I think in a lot of ways I am psychologically dependent on her. She is probably the main person who truly cares about me and I am afraid that if she cuts me out of her life over this, I will be alone in the world.
posted by starpoint at 5:49 AM on November 25, 2008

You won't. It's what happens when mommy's baby (because that's what you are in her eyes) has never really been away from home for 26 years.
posted by theichibun at 5:53 AM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Part of becoming an adult is doing something a parent expressly doesn't want you to do and being okay with it. You never really want to do this, but it's difficult for parents to realize that their children lead their own lives when they become adults.

Write her back and say look, I appreciate that you want me home but I want to go back to Denmark, so I'm going. She'll deal with it and it might drive a temporary wedge in between you, but that's kinda what becoming an adult is. She'll get over it.

You and her aren't breaking up from being mother and child, you're redefining your relationship.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 5:55 AM on November 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

Invite her to come visit you. Pal around with her in Copenhagen. It will redefine your relationship and you'll have a great time.
posted by jouke at 5:59 AM on November 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

Sooner or later your mother is going to have to come to terms with your leaving home. You're 26, for heaven's sake. And it's only for a few months this time.

Your mother is behaving selfishly and trying to put undeserved guilt on your shoulders. She should be suppporting and encouraging you. The best thing you can do is be firm about this - your mother needs to come to terms with the fact that you're got your own life: you don't want to be that person who still lives with his mother at 35. Your relationship may suffer slightly in the short term, but in the longer term it'll be good for both of you.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:02 AM on November 25, 2008 [6 favorites]

I am in a similar situation though I am older and out of school, but I have an elderly relative who uses guilt in order to keep me geographically confined because they have no one else to depend on.

The fact of the matter is, you can spend the rest of your life at home with your mother (or at least the rest of her life) and wonder what you could have done, what life you could have had if you'd reached out on your own, or you can try it.

Home is always someplace you can return to, but in my opinion people have to live their own lives; they can't spend their entire life submitting to the wills and whilms of any relative.

What you're getting is a standard-issue guilt trip. And because you have such a good relationship with your mother it is hard to deal with. But the fact is, good relationships CAN be sustained with family members over long distance through thoughtfulness--phone calls, letters, visits, etc.

You have a once in a lifetime opportunity here. Do as the above posters suggested to soften the blow (suggest she come visit you, etc) but take the opportunity you have been given.
posted by arniec at 6:06 AM on November 25, 2008

How often do you talk? My advice is not to communicate by email so much, invest more in phone calls instead. It's more immediate and thus may reduce separation anxiety.
posted by blue mustard at 6:17 AM on November 25, 2008

I understand your concerns and your fears, but I would go to Copenhagen if I were in your shoes.
Your mother will not cut you off as a result. Her intuition is just serious discomfort at what she sees as you developing your first real independance from her. It is very important for your future health to have an independant life as a young adult. I would go further and say if you do not take this opportunity to return to Copenhagen you will probably never get another chance to define yourself as an individual. Because your mother will know she can manipulate you whenever she likes.

I do understand she loves you, but the way she is expressing that love is not very healthy for either of you.

Empty nest is difficult but it is a normal part of life. Take some time while in Copenhagen to seriously look at your relationship with your mother.
posted by Wilder at 6:21 AM on November 25, 2008

Either she's really scared of losing her little one, or there's some subtext here. How about this sort of response?

"Gee mom, is there something going on you're not telling me about? Because I'm only talking about staying abroad for a few more months and your tone has me worried. You're not sick are you?

I've been wanting to invite you out here and showing you my bit of europe - the place where I've been living, gallery X, country walk Y, and now you've got me concerned that there's some sort of problem at home I need to come look into. We can chat about this when I'm home for a month over the holidays (which by the way will be FANTASTIC! REALLY looking forward to seeing you guys!!)."
posted by handee at 6:24 AM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have a great-aunt in her nineties that stayed at home because her mother wanted her to. She's lived a long time but she's never had a life, you know what I mean? Even after her mother's death she was too scared to leave. Go, live your life.
posted by saucysault at 6:30 AM on November 25, 2008

So it's not like I am being completely out of line by wanting to stay a little longer...right? You are not at all out of line, and I think you suspect this. Studying abroad can be a formative, once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people.

It is hard on a parent when their children go away for college - or grad school, or what have you. But your mother's delayed that separation for a good eight years more than most parents get. This may have been good in a way, inasmuch as it sounds like you guys generally have a strong, close relationship. But right now, she's guilt-tripping you because she's lonely and scared, not because it's automatically the best thing for you (or, in the long run, for her.)

Her arguments are almost all emotional; you can do fantastic things together over the holidays or after June comes, and intuition isn't the kind of basis you want for decision-making. After all, what if something terrible happens to you if you go home for good when the holidays come? A terrible random accident is always a possibility, but it's a remote one. And as you say, you're not in any more debt due to staying in Copenhagen than you would have been had you stayed at home.

It's possible to reassure your mom. I know that in my first few terms away from home, I found it hard to get the correct balance of communication down. The same went for my first months overseas. If you're not calling her, call her; that kind of communication tends to be much more satisfying for family than emails. Use Skype, if possible, since it's cheaper and you won't have to let expense limit your calls. Consider setting up webcams for yourself and her when you're home for the holidays. Send postcards, and invite her over for a (relaxed but limited) visit.

You're not going to lose your relationship with your mom. She may well be frustrated, irrationally worried, and lonely for a while, but that's not avoidable. Hopefully, you'll be able to redefine your relationship a little, making it a relationship between a parent and an adult child. You have to live your own life sometime, but you can make a place in your life for your mother even if you're not living with her.
posted by ubersturm at 6:39 AM on November 25, 2008

Thanks for all of your answers, they are very helpful. Yeah, we do have Skype set up but whenever I try to call her over the phone to discuss this, my mother says she can't talk about it because she's too sad. She would rather discuss this over email. But we do use Skype to communicate in general and talk about once a week. I think my brother's computer has a web cam so I will ask him if we can set something up like that over the holidays so that we can do video chats during the spring.

I guess this redefinition of our relationship is the hard part, and it feels so strange because it's so new. We've never really gone through this as a family so I guess it was bound to happen at some point.
posted by starpoint at 6:50 AM on November 25, 2008

Honestly, you might want to consider calling more often (even if they're very brief conversations.) I had to do this when I moved out. As the oldest child, my parents were pretty worried about me, and at first, calling them several times a week for brief conversations made them more comfortable - perhaps because they could be sure that nothing terrible had happened to me.

Don't necessarily discuss the extension of your stay in Denmark over the phone. In fact, you might want to specifically limit discussion about it, since it's primarily serving as a source of stress. Instead, focus on telling her about all of the cool things you've done, the strange and fascinating differences between Copenhagen and your hometown, cool Danish customs, what have you. Take pictures and dump them on Flickr or your webpage or something so that she can see where you are - it will demystify your life abroad, a little. Above all, make sure that there's something to look forward to in conversations with your mother, and that they don't all devolve into her moping about your absence and you feeling guilty.

Good luck, and have fun in Denmark!
posted by ubersturm at 6:59 AM on November 25, 2008

I studied in Russia my junior year of college. I was 21 at the time.

My mom balled her eyes out when we said goodbye at the gate in August, but I called with some regularity, e-mailed a few times a week, and otherwise stayed in touch. I came back to the States for about two and a half weeks just after the holidays because classes at the university didn't end until after New Years.

When my pictures were developed and we had time to talk about how everything was going, she was very excited for me. And when I left for the spring semester, she didn't ball her eyes out and didn't tell my dad how worried she was. She missed me, I'm sure, but she also realized that it was a fantastic opportunity I may not necessarily have gotten again.

You're five years older than I was at the time, studying in a country that was not the sworn enemy of your home country for most of your mother's lifetime, and you spent your undergrad years in your hometown. At this point in your life, you need to do what is best for you and while it's great to take your mother's feelings into consideration, unless there is something significant preventing you from going back to Copenhagen (serious illness, severe family problems, etc.), then there's no reason not to go back. With all the planes, trains, and automobiles these days, it'd still be remarkably easy for you to return to the States in a hurry if you needed to.

It's wonderful that you have a close relationship with your mother, but does that close relationship have to be within such a close proximity for the rest of your life?
posted by zizzle at 6:59 AM on November 25, 2008

Your mother is being selfish and manipulative, and very unfair to you. Go back to Denmark. She is not going to cut you off, and she will get over it. And if you're absolutely sure that there's no chance that you'll move to Denmark permanently, tell her that. It will make her feel better. She's probably afraid that you're going to decide to stay there forever.
posted by amro at 7:00 AM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

She just misses you. Does she have friends? If you (or your brother) can somehow facilitate that, it could help a lot.

Get your brother a really great Christmas/Hanukkah/whatever present; he's probably dealing with some side effects of this situation.

If there's some way you or your brother could arrange a lunch or dinner for her and her friends, maybe at her house, that could be an awesome way for your Mom to get just a little bit closer with her friends. She could at least talk with someone besides you about how she feels :)
posted by amtho at 7:04 AM on November 25, 2008

I previously faced a similar decisions but with different factors... overall one of the most important things to keep in mind is what an opportunity this is and how youll regret it if you dont do it. Only the strongest of reasons should stop you... so You most definately need to stay and not regret it.
Your mom wont actually cut you off, she should understand that its temporary and has benefits just like she did the first time around.
Its unfair of her to cause you guilt without a stronger reason, I think she'll realize her error if so.

Maybe try to make it a point to stay in better contact the second time around so she doesn't feel your absence as much. Spend lots of quality time together over break, remind her to keep up her other hobbies and friends as distraction, teach her how to chat on Skype... look into jouke's idea of inviting her for a visit.
posted by nzydarkxj at 7:06 AM on November 25, 2008

I don't understand why you'd even bother going home for the holidays! You could save more money by just staying In Copenhagen the entire time. (rather than flying back and forth).

You are 26. your mother has no right to complain- she is being totally unreasonable. Spend a couple of months wandering around Europe, especially as it sounds like after that you are just goign to go home anyway.

- You and your mother have a lifetime left to hang out and be close. whats a couple of months in the whole scheme of things.
posted by mary8nne at 7:10 AM on November 25, 2008

Three examples for you:

I'm someone who left my country aged 18 to go to university and stayed there for four years. I came back a different person, there's no denying it. I'm the eldest and was the first to go. What I learned about other people and about myself during those four years made me a different person, a better, older, more tolerant, more interesting person. And the bulk of that learning took place after the first few months, after I'd got over the 'whoa' stage and really began to explore myself and the wide world around me. And then again a few months after that, once I had accepted the newness, and started learning to live in it. Whilst I was gone my family had issues, the country had a coup, but things knitted together again. I felt incredibly guilty being away but now, a few years after I graduated and returned to my hometown, I don't regret it. My being away gave my younger siblings a chance to blossom in ways I'd never realised.

A friend, 'Kitti', left home to do her masters in the UK aged about 23. She came back after her 1-year course, profoundly dissatisfied, feeling that she had only just begun, in her last few months, to cease exploring a new place and learn to live in a new place (if you can see the distinction). She was not satisfied until she had a chance to go back for another couple of years, and only then she felt herself in the same mental place that I am.

Another friend of mine, let's call her 'Arifa', is 29 and has never left home because her mother, a single mother, couldn't bear it though she had opportunities. Arifa is successful and moderately happy, but she is not in the same place as those of us who left the home, even if we came back.

My own view - and I come from a culture where people live at home till they are married, and sometimes after - is that being away from home is vital for your personal growth. If you have the chance to travel to another country, then there's nothing better. Neither you nor your mother, if she has your best interest at heart, will regret it.

Finally I'd ask you to consider this. Your mother may well be regretting that email now. I know my mother might have said something similar in a fit of emotion and regretted it afterwards. Maybe you could ask your brother what he thinks.

As an aside, again from my own experience, I would suggest you not communicate more than 1-2 times a week, or at least no more than you feel comfortable. Constant communication rather defeats the purpose, and may make it harder for you to maintain the distance to decide without getting bogged by emotion. But that's my own view, see what you think.
posted by tavegyl at 7:12 AM on November 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

What everyone else said: you should go. Your mother has to learn to cope with this kind of thing sooner or later. I get the impression from your original question that you know you should go already and are just looking for reassurance, in which case you have a couple of dozen people telling you that it is definitely OK for you to want to do this. Go for it, as you really won't get the chance again.

I also like the idea of inviting her to stay with you. Maybe you shouldn't go back over Christmas & New Year and should instead get your mother (and brother?) to come stay with you? If she gets a measure of your life over there and sees that you're doing OK, she might calm down a bit - in which case, the sooner the better.
posted by Kirn at 7:14 AM on November 25, 2008

You sound pragmatic and conscientious. Even though you were in a new and exciting city, you were putting your energy into school and now you'd like to take an opportunity to capitalize on the effort it took to acclimate to being away. It's a smart, sensible thing to do.

If you don't go because of guilt, then lingering resentment might eventually do more harm to your relationship with your mother in the long run.

Maybe your mother just feels that she's put off a lot of her own dreams or was brought up to consider a trip like this to be a needless extravagance. She could be worried you'll you'll have too much free time and meet someone and want to stay forever.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:17 AM on November 25, 2008

You have to go back to Copenhagen if that is truly what you want. Spend a wonderful month with your family over the holidays and then go back. It seems like you really want this.

Imagine if you stay at home in order to please her. What about the next time an opportunity comes up for you? Will you be expected to pass on that one too? And the next one? And the next one? Until there aren't any more?

I feel for your mom. I really do. Maybe she never got to make these kinds of choices for herself. Maybe she sacrificed a lot to raise her children. Maybe she never got to pursue her dreams.

But you have to pursue yours.

The showdown with your mom over this is coming, someday, if not now. You're not going to be living in her house forever, are you?

On preview, what bonobothegreat said.
posted by isogloss at 7:19 AM on November 25, 2008

Please, don't let your mother stop you.

There's some great advice already in this thread. But I wanted to address this:

One more thing I forgot to add...part of what I'm worried about is losing my relationship with my mother over this. We do have a great relationship, as I said earlier, but I think in a lot of ways I am psychologically dependent on her. She is probably the main person who truly cares about me and I am afraid that if she cuts me out of her life over this, I will be alone in the world.

She won't cut you out of her life about this, even if she is unhappy about your choice initially. Would you abandon her for doing something you were unhappy with? Really, I think it will be psychologically healthy for both of you to have more space apart to grow as individuals. At twenty six, it's great to have a close relationship with your mother--but you shouldn't be psychologically dependent on her. Trust me, your relationship will be much healthier and happier if you introduce some space into it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:52 AM on November 25, 2008

posted by pokeedog at 8:06 AM on November 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

What everyone else said. And definitely make plans for her to come visit. While she's there, take her on lots of outings, but also make time to sit in cafes talking or reading, people watching, etc. Do stuff, be active, but also make time to just be together. Be really prepared for your time during her visit to be shared, and don't get all territorial or bossy. She'll see why you're so happy there, and see how you're growing up. She's just scared, empty-nesting, and lonely. Help her a bit with those, but also set boundaries.
posted by barnone at 9:46 AM on November 25, 2008

oh, I agree with everyone else and would like to confirm what you have already started to realize: the longer you stay, the deeper your experience will be. as you said, you spend the first couple months just getting your bearings, and then you start to really feel at home. if you stay for another semester you will make better friends, you will know the city better, you will find hidden little spots that most tourists will never see... it will be a completely different experience than just one semester. you will find a second home. even if you do have the chance to go back again later in your life, it wouldn't be the same. and yes--you should definitely take the opportunity to travel more widely as long as you are there! finish out the school year and then take another month to travel!

I completely understand that your mom will miss you, but a few more months is really not that big a deal--especially if you are coming home for the holidays. if you have a great relationship, there is no way that a few months apart will drive a serious wedge between you. I think the experience of living and studying abroad will mean far more to you in the long run than missing you for one semester will mean to your mother. invite her to come and share the experience with you.
posted by ialwayscryatendings at 10:24 AM on November 25, 2008

Your mom is throwing one hell of a guilt trip at you. Telling you her "heart is broken more than you can imagine" and "she can't talk about it because she's too sad" is downright manipulative. And "you're needed at home?" For what, exactly?

She's going to have to come to terms with you moving away someday, so it may as well be now. Either that or you're going to have to come to terms with living in the same town until she dies.
posted by ook at 12:01 PM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

My parents have done this. It felt so much better to go.

posted by divabat at 1:19 PM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would strongly reconsider the "hey mom, come and visit me!" scenario. I tried the same thing with my mother years ago - oh, god, it was 20 years ago, sheesh - and she FLIPPED OUT. And my mom wasn't trying to keep me at home the same way yours was. So - I understand why people think it's a good suggestion, but I don't recommend it. AT ALL. Unless you can completely afford to pay for her to travel there and put her up and you are willing to spend every moment with her (because clearly she's not the type of woman to go off on her own and enjoy it), this is only going to be more fodder for a fight.

If your mother is going to cut you out of her life because you choose to pursue your life and your studies, then she isn't a very good mother. It's not like she's (heaven forbid) in some kind of ill health or your income was needed at home to stop the family from spiraling into poverty.

You will also not be alone in the world.

I do not believe your mother is having any kind of special intuition. What she's worried about happening is you becoming independent and not needing HER as much as you used to. She also has less control over you over there.

You will never regret extending your time abroad. You are right to want more. It expands your mind and your intellect and your view of the world. It makes you a different person. It can only help you as you go through life.

She will do everything she can to make you feel bad but she will not cut you out of her life over this. Trust me here.

Go, live. Enjoy.
posted by micawber at 1:48 PM on November 25, 2008

Look, my daughter is 25. She's going to be moving out soon, and it's rough. We are really close, but it's just another necessary developmental stage. She needs - hell, we both need - to figure out what our adult relationship looks outside of the context of our roles as mother and daughter.

I'm a single parent, so it's been just the two of us for a long time. It's also the second time she's moved out and somehow this time it's even harder to let go. So I feel for your mom - I really do. But she's not doing you either of you any favors by guilting you into staying close.


If living your own life hurts your mom, then it's your mom who has some growing to do. It's not your job to help her get around it.

Best of luck - I truly envy you your European adventure!

PS: Nothing horrible is going to happen to you. That's your guilt, not your mom's intuition talking.
posted by Space Kitty at 2:14 PM on November 25, 2008

You are 26. And your mom needs to get her mind around the fact it's time for you to spread your wings.

I have grown children; the letting go part is hard but necessary. The longer you put it off the harder it will be for both of you.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:25 PM on November 25, 2008

Your mom won't dump you because she is too codependent to live without you.

Note: I have a mom who is somewhat less bad than yours, but suffice it to say I've heard this shit before. At least mine didn't throw a shit fit when I moved a few hours away, but she still periodically pouts and whines that I abandoned her...for college. Thank the gods my hometown does not have a 4-year-school in it and that I could not get employed in the hometown if I wanted to.

Odds are you are going to spend your entire life at home with Mommy anyway if you keep doing what makes her happy at the expense of you. She won't die of loneliness and OMGSADNESS that HER PRECIOUS BABY LEFT if you spend more time in Copenhagen. You'll never hear the end of the guilt trip for ABANDONING HER, mind you, for the rest of your life, but at this point she'll still feel ABANDONED because you left for a few months, and being gone for another few months won't make the guilt trip any better.

posted by jenfullmoon at 2:51 PM on November 25, 2008

What Jouke said. "Mom, I miss you too, but I'm going back to Copenhagen; why don't you visit for a week or so come next spring?". Show her your new environment, and your new life as an independent adult, treat her to a good time: this'll (hopefully) help redefine your roles a bit.
posted by _dario at 2:56 PM on November 25, 2008

Thanks again everyone for your amazing answers, they have really helped me to feel so much better about the situation. I sent her an email response based on your responses. And I have some good news. My mother sent me an email a while ago telling me not to feel sad about her emails. She said that she is still sad but she isn't going to talk about it any more and that she's going to focus on having a good time over the holidays. We've already made some plans about what we're going to do. So being clear about what I wanted to do seemed to work, I just hope we don't have any breakdowns over the holidays. But I'm glad this dialogue is happening now, because as someone pointed out, she will have to go through this when I get married or move out for my job/career. So it's better to go through it now.

Thanks again! :-)
posted by starpoint at 3:51 PM on November 25, 2008

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