My parents drive me crazy.
February 20, 2009 1:32 AM   Subscribe

How do I deal with my parents on limited resources without sending all of us into a fit? (likely to be TL;DR)

My parents and I have a very strange relationship. Over the years it has gone from really bad, to quite good, to distant, to just weird. My mother, in particular, has a lot of issues that come into conflict between us.

She's the eldest of two, from a South Asian country, but was brought up by her grandparents as her school was nearby. Her parents died when I was very young; she migrated with my dad to Malaysia when my sister was a little kid (I was born & bred in Malaysia some 11 years later). Her sister is currently in the US with her family, and she's got extended family elsewhere.

She's always talked about how lonely she feels, how she feels that her family keep walking away from her. Unfortunately for her, her immediate family (us) are also the type to fly away. My sis is in the UK, I'm in Australia, and my dad's work takes him travelling often. We're far away not because we deliberately want to avoid her, but because we're all nomads and have found better livelihoods overseas. Still, she often tearfully accuses us of "abandoning" her, of "not wanting a mother anymore".

My dad isn't so great with emotional support. He's a typical dad - logical, stoic, sometimes formal. I'm the apple of his eye (Mum used to go on and on about how as soon as I was born Dad forgot about Mum and my sis and just focused on me) but it can be hard to get Dad to see why I do the things I do. He's very stubborn and has a certain view of what the world should be. Whenever any of us expresses a problem or vent, he either announces that he'll fix it all, brush it off with "don't worry be happy", or thinks we complain too much. The last bit sets Mum off SO MUCH to the point of fights - "Why don't you want to listen to me?! You're always away! You don't value me!!" I've often asked Dad to look after Mum a bit more but all Dad says is "she misses you two. Come back and she'll be better."

My sister and I, despite our age difference and she being far away for most of my life, are very very close. We've both turned out to be iconoclastic eccentric rebels (of a fashion) and we both understand and respect each other's life choices. My parents often try to ask one of us to lecture the other one on their choices "can you tell T not to travel so much? Can you tell M to call us more often?" but often we don't agree with the parents, we think the other's doing OK! Yet when we say this they launch into this tirade of us not caring about each other. My sister gets the worst of it - she's been yelled at so many times for supposedly not supporting me in my depression, for not paying for my education (there was a deal that she'd pay for my uni studies if she got her Ph.D. paid for; she never got enough money to do that but I wasn't too bothered either way), for not caring about me. Even though she's the only person in the family that respects me in the first place!!

My sister sometimes feels bad for me because she went through all the disappoint-the-parents stages first: changing her career from science to illustration, living together with her British fiancé before marriage, going off to weird arts festivals. This has put extra pressure on me to be the "good girl" - which, by my parents' standards, I absolutely "fail" at. They've just had a big upset over my sister declaring herself atheist (after her fiancé refused to perform the Muslim conversion ceremony at the upcoming wedding) - they will freak out if they discover my Pagan leanings!

I've just graduated university in Australia, and have just received a great opportunity that would involve staying here for at least another year. I like it here; I get to be myself without feeling like I'd be punished for being deviant. Due to high costs and restrictions on jobs, my education and life so far has been mostly subsidised by my parents. Getting the visa that lets me stay here longer, find a self-sustainable job, and develop myself to do the things I like costs more than what I have in my bank account at the moment, so I've had to rely on them again for money.

There was some back-and-forthing (which I thought was weird since my parents were pretty keen on me getting Aussie PR and were pushing for it at one stage) but they're now supporting me financially. Hopefully when I finally have this visa I'll have financial freedom and stop leeching off my parents. It doesn't give me emotional freedom though - my parents (my mother, especially) call up wondering where I am, why I don't call back (when I *do* call they think I've gotten into an accident, even though I just want to say Hi), etc etc etc.

My mum has been especially emotional lately. She told me she was "extremely sick"; I asked Dad about it and he said she was working herself into a tizzy because she thought we were fighting over visas (we have disagreements, which are tiring, but nothing to get sick over). It was only after I wrote back with lots of emails saying I'll be fine, I'll look after myself, I'll be responsible, I understand your troubles and know you want me safe etc etc, that she calmed down a bit.

Then today on Facebook, despite all my best attempts at privacy management, she found some photos of me at a Pagan ritual. "OMG SHE'S JOINED A CULT AND PRAYING TO STUPID GODS!!" I had to dodge my dad's questions and build a cover story of us "play-acting", just so they can maintain the illusion of a good little Muslim daughter. (I defriended my mum after another freakout over a blog post - one that she claimed will "send her into hospital with a heart attack". Backfired. She got EXTREMELY upset and claimed that I wanted her out of my life.)

My sister and I have both felt like cutting them out of our lives. But not only is it not possible, it's not very desirable either. When Mum gets a hobby, like interior designing a house or something, she becomes SO MUCH better. She leaves me alone for once! She becomes awesome. Yet now she's afraid of being alone and lonely, desperately wants us back into a country that won't welcome us, doesn't know what to do. And we both know that cutting them off is equal to murder - it's their worst fear ever.

I'm stressed out and tired of having to build my life around my parents. I don't want to feel like I have to hide things from them, but I've already seen the consequences of that. I want to be completely independent of them, but until I get a job I'll still have to depend on them to some extent. They'll always think I'm their "baby" and probably never will think of me as an adult. They absolutely hate the term "It's MY life"; when my sister told them that some years ago they went ballistic.

What do I do? How do I cope mentally and emotionally with this? Am I selfish for wanting to lead my own life even though it clashes with my parents' values? How can I talk to them without every conversation ending in tears (and me being worried about Mum's sanity) or shouting or anger? How can I be true and honest around them if my truth scares them so much?
posted by divabat to Human Relations (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
A friend gave me amazing advice once based on a book I never bothered to read. but I can paraphrase the website.

There are (in this view) five major ways to show & receive love:

Compliments: "I love you, you're a great mom." "You're so handsome & funny, I'm glad I married you."
Quality Time: Maybe making dinner together, or chatting over a cup of tea, or helping solve a problem.
Gifts: any size, ranging from sharing the first bite of my dessert with you to buying you a Porsche.
Acts of Service: Doing her laundry, offering to drive her somewhere. Noticing the little things and helping without being asked.
Touch: hugs, cuddles, or, in a romantic situation, sex.

Most people will naturally want to do a couple of the five things to express their love for others. And most people will really feel loved if another person does one or two of these things for them. The catch is that which kind of love you like to give, and which kind of love means most to you when you receive it, can vary widely from person to person. And if someone gives you love in the wrong language, it can feel unsatisfying.

For instance, I don't care that much about quality time. I will happily sit in the same room as a friend and use my laptop and ignore him for hours, even if we don't see each other often. Several of my friends are totally fine to do the same, ignoring me to use the computer, and I don't mind a bit. One friend once sent me a very thoughtfully chosen and expensive gift, something I really wanted but would never have bought for myself, and oh man, I felt really loved. Another friend wrote me a sweet, loving birthday letter, and I cherish it- her words made me feel so loved. Carefully-chosen gifts or loving words translate as "a lot of love" in my books. Quality time does not really "feel" like love to me; I'm totally able to conduct a meaningful friendship with very little facetime.

Now when I love someone, I find that I want to show it with acts of service. If I love you I will wash your dishes, whether you want me to or not. Sadly, some people do not care about the dishes, and so my doing the dishes at a friend's house will often be interpreted as weird and maybe even judgemental (oops).

And my boyfriend does not want his dishes done. He thinks it's weird that I'd do dishes instead of sit on the couch with him, and he feels hurt and ignored when I use the laptop instead of interacting with him. This is because he LOVES quality time, and he doesn't care at all about acts of service. And eventually I realized, that if I only give love the way I want to give it (acts of service), I am kind of serving myself more than I'm loving him. I personally don't care much about quality time, but my boyfriend does. So now I make an effort to show him love his way: by closing the laptop, leaving the dishes piled in the sink, and laughing at infomercials on TV with him. Our relationship really improved when I started doing this. And eventually I asked him for a love letter, because he's not one to express love in flowery words (he thinks it cheapens love to say it out loud!) And when he finally did, that letter meant a lot to me.

So I think you need to figure out how your family members each give and receive love. Then figure out how to give them each they type of love they can receive, and also help them to express the kind of love they each naturally want to express.

For instance:
If your mom wants to give or get quality time, you could have a weekly half-hour phonecall (while you fold your laundry is a good time, I find). Have detailed conversations "And then what did she say? And then what did you say?" etc.

If it's acts of service, you can let her express that love by saving up questions to ask her so she can feel useful during the call. "Mom how do I make that stew again?" "Mom, I need advice!" "Mom, can you make me a warm scarf?" Whatever, make it up if you need to- just let her feel helpful & involved. My mom likes to give advice, so sometimes I ask her questions I don't even care that much about- "Mom, why is my plant sick? It has bugs!" "Mom, what's my RSP contribution limit this year?" And she goes off & researches it & sends me a zillion clippings and I tell her they were really helpful, and then she feels closer to me and we're all happier. If you think your mom misses receiving acts of service, you could send her gift certificates or thoughtful newspaper clippings.

If your mom feels love via gifts, send her some. Via compliments, write her a "mom loveletter". If it's touch- well, that's hard overseas- maybe mail her some soft cozy clothing and tell her the sweater is a proxy for a hug!

Just make sure to give her love, not in the way you like to give it, but the way SHE likes to get it. I think that strategy will help, and it can be applied to any loving relationship. Good luck!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:34 AM on February 20, 2009 [83 favorites]

I think that becoming financially independent will really give you a whole new perspective on this. "If you take X's money, you also have to take X's crap" is a pretty widespread belief and often applied to parents. And from their point of view, they're subsidizing you on the understanding that you'll do certain things; they don't want you doing other things that they believe, with sincere certainty, are mistakes that will end badly for you and the family. You seem to have internalized this belief to an extent (you use the word "leeching"), so that probably isn't helping you.

Once you achieve financial independence, and are in a position where you no longer have to rely on your parents' good will to achieve your career goals, you will be much better able to deal with them because you will not have to worry about saying the wrong thing and getting assistance withdrawn, or breaking some sort of implied "deal."

It may be that your mom is sensing this change in the relationship coming up and that's why she's being extra-emotional, weird about visa issues, etc. So following pseudostrabismus's advice above and making sure that she knows you love her and aren't abandoning her is really important.
posted by No-sword at 3:54 AM on February 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

The Dance of Intimacy is a good book for dealing with this. Also, The Dance of Anger.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:51 AM on February 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I absolutely don't want to sound unsympathetic, and I am not sure whether the visa restrictions on work are adding complications I'm missing, but just on this point:

develop myself to do the things I like costs more than what I have in my bank account at the moment

It sounds slightly as if you might be evaluating this and coming out on the side where developing yourself trumps cutting your cloth to fit your measure, which is self-sabotage on the financial independence front and consequently also when it comes to being able to truly make your own choices - if so, you may want to examine whether that's the adult choice. From what I know from your MeFi history, you sound totally great and ambitious about developing yourself and pursuing a meaningful life, which is laudable, but that phrase here just made me wonder if sometimes it ties you to dependency. (If not, please disregard.)

I think pseudostrabismus is onto something great, and personally I find that having real phone conversations with my parents in the kind of minutiae/chat I'd have with friends makes it much easier for each of us to understand where the other is coming from about bigger choices. YMMV on how possible that is within your family, but evolving beyond the parent/child dynamic and relating as adults (where they have fears and hopes and frustrations as well, rather than just being there to hear yours or fret) is great if you can do it.
posted by carbide at 6:14 AM on February 20, 2009

Seconding pseudostrabismus and No-sword. Definitely work on achieving financial independence - it's a wonderful feeling to know that you are not beholden to anyone, including crazy parents.

Also wanted to point out that cutting off the parents is not literally murdering them, and buying into that just feeds the drama. It might be their biggest fear, but some people have to worry about bombs and land mines and your parents are lucky that their biggest fear is a few months without a phone call. Your parents won't self-destruct if you cut them off (unless your Mom has serious mental health problems, in which case she needs professional help - but chances are, she's just being a drama queen because she gets something out of the drama and attention).

I wouldn't recommend cutting them off completely, cold turkey, but definitely limit contact and make it on your terms. Especially if you don't have to ask them for money (!) There are tons of AskMe threads on dealing with helicopter parents, and most answers agree that you have to train your parents to accept you as an independent adult - it doesn't just happen gracefully and spontaneously. This will take time and patience, because they've spend the last ~20 years treating you as a child, and old habits die hard. But you can learn an old dog new tricks (no offense) with enough time and patience. Also, expect an extinction burst when you first begin the new "training program"; don't give up just because Mom gets even crazier for a while. Stick with the program and eventually they'll learn that the drama just won't work any more. Good luck, and feel free to MeFiMail me if you want to vent.
posted by Quietgal at 8:57 AM on February 20, 2009

Everything you really need to know is here:

I'm stressed out and tired of having to build my life around my parents. I don't want to feel like I have to hide things from them, but I've already seen the consequences of that. I want to be completely independent of them, but until I get a job I'll still have to depend on them to some extent.

Get a job, and become fully independent. Once this happens, you could walk away and never speak to your parents again if you wanted to. But you'll be less likely to want to, because being independent of your parents allows you to view them as people instead of a hybrid of benefactor and boss.

There isn't a single person in my life whose relationship with their parents didn't improve when they became fully independent. That doesn't mean the parents were happier -- just that the relationships were easier to manage and more tolerable to put up with.
posted by davejay at 1:44 PM on February 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and one more thing: you owe everything to your parents, and you owe them nothing. Love them for what they did for you, and love them for who they are -- and you can do both of those things without living your life for them or doing everything they ask.

I say this as a parent
posted by davejay at 1:45 PM on February 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This may sound a little hippy-dippy but bear with me.

I think people like us, with immigrant parents and grandparents who survived wars, semi-voluntary relocations and deprivations can be really helped by understanding all the things that drive us crazy about our families as being personality adaptations for hard times that just don't fit current conditions. But they DID fit past conditions, and if they hadn't gotten passed along, we wouldn't even be here.

When our parents drive us nuts with this stuff, they're passing on messages that are generations old. Stay close to the family. Strangers can't be trusted. Being alone is DEATH. Doing things differently is CRAZY.

These messages don't correspond to the reality we live in and they don't even really correspond to the reality they are living in. But they kept our great-grandparents and grandparents alive. And if they hadn't stayed alive and nurtured our parents, again, we wouldn't even be here.

So you can honor your mother's fears and see your past in them - generations of people who acted to keep each other safe from harm, and all together, made you and your sister safe and free. Every time you have one of these interactions that makes you bugnuts, it's like your ancestors asking to be remembered in the wonderful life they made possible for you.

Full disclosure: my family's version of this stuff is so toxic and divorced from reality I cut all contact completely, but my mother is of the generation who should have confronted the immigrant baggage and failed to do it and really messed me up. This is another reason to recognize the deep family history at work here: if you don't, you are likely to pass it on.
posted by daisydaisy at 1:47 PM on February 20, 2009 [11 favorites]

Your mom has abandonment issues out the wazoo. For very good reason, because everyone DOES leave her, all the time, since she was a kid. I can ah...relate to you. Some of this stuff I could have written. My mom yells at me that I don't love her or care about her oh...frequently, whenever the ABANDONMENT rears its ugly head again.

What do I do?

Someday, therapy. Seriously, when you've got the money (I'm sure you're gonna say you don't have it). Living in another country helps, 'cause she isn't necessarily going to be better if you move home and never step outside your door again.

How do I cope mentally and emotionally with this?

I don't even know. You are coping now, it's just not...bearable? Fun?

Am I selfish for wanting to lead my own life even though it clashes with my parents' values?

No sane person is going to say, "yes, you're selfish" to this one. Just to let you know.

How can I talk to them without every conversation ending in tears (and me being worried about Mum's sanity) or shouting or anger?

Well, getting your mom into therapy (yeah, I know, you can't, she won't want to, other countries) would help a lot. Things did not start improving with mine until we started doing it, though. Sorry, but it didn't. And she was anti-therapy for herself for years.

How can I be true and honest around them if my truth scares them so much? can't. If they freak out immediately, I wouldn't be honest. I really have to carefully manage what I tell and don't tell, and stop being honest when the freakouts occur. That's the fun of being in a minority religion. If they are going to freak out, it proves they are not up to handling who you are, and if you aren't ready to bail out on them entirely, then you have to make the choice you can live with. And just plain not telling them that you went to a ritual or whatever may not be what you want, but it may be what everyone can live with.

Argh, I gotta go, but I hope this helps.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:56 PM on February 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

One more thing: Two things that came from therapy that worked were (a) having a neutral party around to mediate the "Waaah, you don't care about me" vs. "You're smothering me!" arguments, and (b) laying some bare ground rules for what makes her feel like she gets (barely) enough attention.

I have to call mine twice a week or she goes nutty. I hate this with all my heart, mind you, I'd rather call because I want to rather than "If I don't call, she throws a shit fit and cries and blah blah blah", but...that's the family I drew. And she acts less needy/crazy if I give in to that. And if she knows to "expect" the call on certain days I'll get less nagging to do it the rest of the week (sometimes, some weeks the needy just kicks in).

Getting her a hobby does help as well, but you don't have any power over that one.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:30 PM on February 20, 2009

Wow, jenfullmoon, you get off easy. If I could have kept mine happy with twice weekly calls I wouldn't be estranged from them now. :(
posted by daisydaisy at 7:04 PM on February 20, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, I really appreciate it. My mum's been breaking down and just this morning she sent me a message saying she feels down, she knows we think she's clingy, but it's just because she considers us her most precious people and she keeps worrying we'll be in danger. (Dad isn't of much help - I had one bad conference, and one bad camp experience, and now everyone I mention going to another one of those EVER AGAIN. Even though I've had tons that went OK. gah.) So yeah. It's heartbreaking because I've been where she is with the utter depression, but I have no idea what to do that could help.

I'm in therapy, have been for years. The therapists are usually sympathetic to me, but the one time my mum joined me (in the very early years, in high school) she got into a fit whenever I tried to hint to the therapist by writing about how what she was claiming about me wasn't exactly true. Meh. They're all for therapy, anything to help me feel better, but they're reluctant to go into therapy themselves. I think our family doctor has actually brought it up, and so has the rest of us, but I'm not sure what exactly is holding her back.

All the answers here are great, but I marked daisydaisy's as Best because it tapped into something that I only vaguely noticed but now understand better: this mode of thinking was what kept them going in their past. It doesn't work for my sis nor I because we live totally different lifestyles. They don't grok that. So they don't know what to do.

carbide: Well it's more the visa itself, and things like paying rent and feeding myself etc that gets really expensive, especially when you live overseas and the exchange rate's not great. I am applying for jobs now, and thank goodness Dad's cool with the visa, so hopefully I can get a better life. (Honestly though, even if my relationship with the parents was stellar, I'd still push for a visa here. I feel a lot free-er to be me here than back in Malaysia where I'd get arrested in a second for existing! I just hope they don't take my migration wishes TOO personally - they may be a factor in my decision, but not overwhelmingly so.)
posted by divabat at 9:59 PM on February 20, 2009

Hey Divabat,

This is sort of a late response, but I've been sort of thinking about it over the past week.

Looking over your past questions it seems that we have somewhat similar cultural/familial experiences; I'm a 'TCK' (It's an apt word but also sort a cheesy one, no?) as well, having grown up alternating between Korea and the US, really left 'home' around age 14, and go back every year or so. I'm around your age as well.

My parents (especially my mom) used to drive me crazy as well. There was an extended period of time when every phone call would make me grind my teeth and pull out my hair in utter exasperation. Mostly what happened was that 1) they got busier and 2) I learned how to deal with them.

Now 1) is sort of beyond your abilities, but I guess 2) -- learning how to deal, learning to give them what they want was sort of key for me. I learned to be strategic, deliberate, not just open in relationships with my parents. Not manipulative, but just considerate. I thought this was sad or less honest, especially since we live far away from each other (geographically and culturally) anyways, so I'd use to say what would be on my mind, and we'd get into these quasi-fights. I say they're fights, yeah, but for my parents they were uni-directional lecturings -- I'm sure as you're familiar with non-Western cultures -- and so things would generally blow up, etc. etc. etc.

Reading your question it seems that your parents are entirely well-meaning; they're just doing whatever they think is best for you. I'm sure you know this as well. My parents are the same. (Of course, the trouble is when 'what they think is best for you' and 'what is actually best for you' doesn't coincide...) What I learned, at least in my case, is that my parents just wanted to help; my mom especially connected my independence and her lack of direct involvement in my life to a lack of mutual love and an increasing dissolution of our family. I wouldn't be surprised if your parents had similar dynamics/issues/values concerning how parents should interact with their children. In addition (at least for my case), my parents had a bunch of guilt mixed in about how they sent me abroad alone at a young age and that I had to deal with living alone, among other things, by myself. Also, now that they've done that, I've changed beyond what they initially wanted me to be. (I moved from studying engineering to the humanities.) I don't want to assume anything about your own situation -- just wanted to share what it was like for me -- but from reading your question, it sounds like these things might also be similar for your family.

Anyways, what I ended up doing actively was to force myself to call them often. 'Often' meant like once every one or two weeks for me, and I tried to explicitly to talk about non-big-issues or non-argumentative topics -- not "what are you doing with your life?" or "why are you doing this?" but "how are you doing" or "what are you feeling". Eventually, the frequency of the calls meant that my parents didn't feel like they had to get a lot of information/life-lessons crammed into each rare phone call, and calling was substantially less stressful and is pretty enjoyable, now.

Another really important thing was that I started asking for things from them. This is really key. Whenever I went back to Korea, they'd want to buy me things like clothes, vitamins, etc. I'd usually shrug these things off like an idiot because I didn't really want them, I wanted to be independent, and I also felt bad having them spending money on me. Sometime later I had the epiphany that things would be much better for them if they did something for me, because they wanted to do things for me. It's the gesture that's important. Now, whenever I go back, I write down a list of specific (and relatively inexpensive) things to buy -- certain spices, or a pair of new jeans, food, etc. etc. etc.

You mention that you wrote your parents emails that said "I'll be fine, I'll look after myself, I'll be responsible". Having you be a responsible and independent person is probably what they want to hear, but much of them perhaps also wants to look after you -- it's the parental instinct, maybe. Try asking them for specific things, like some clothes or food-things from home or whatever, or maybe some of your mom's cooking in vacuum-sealed packages, or a specific recipe, things like that. They won't think of you any less of an adult for wanting these things because it's not like you're asking for real help; it'll make your parents feel like they're helping; you'll get fun packages. Even if you don't necessarily need anything, it's the symbolic gesture that really really helps; it did so in my case. I have vitamins stored up in one of my closets that I'm slowly eating my way though; I don't want to tell my parents not to send any more, though, because I can hear the satisfaction in their voices when they ask me "Do you need more vitamins?" and they hear me say "Yes, I do".

Wow, that was much longer than I thought this would be. Apologies if I came off as somewhat lecture-y -- it's just that I can totally relate well to your current situation. Anyways, I can't can't can't can't can't stress the letting-them-help-you-on-purpose part strongly enough. Don't cut off contact with them -- It'll make things worse. Strategic and caring maneuvering of letting them have what they want (to keep in touch with you and to take care of you) without compromising your independence or your values is key. It'll take a bit of time, maybe a few months to a few years. But once you start calling like clockwork every week, maybe just to talk for five short minutes, they'll loosen up really quickly.

Email in profile if you want to talk more.
posted by suedehead at 7:14 PM on February 27, 2009 [6 favorites]

« Older Help me help my plant   |   How can I easily backup Outlook? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.