I want to have an ongoing relationship with my mom, but it is stressful trying to do so
March 22, 2009 2:13 PM   Subscribe

I want to have an ongoing relationship with my mom, but it is stressful trying to do so. How do I cope with her?

For the sake of brevity, I will just say my mom has a lot of emotional and mental issues. Every time I talk to her there is some sort of nuclear meltdown occurring, and she has always been like this. But I am a young adult, and I am trying to get my own life in order.

She is not a responsible individual. For instance, I just spoke to her and she has run out of money, so she is afraid she can't pay her rent. And this is just one instance of many troubles that seem to occur by her own doing.

I love my mom. She has been there for me when I have had my own hang-ups or problems to cope with. But because of my mom's choices in her own life she, for lack of a better term, burdens those around her. I hate to say that. But it's true. I can't help but feel resentful that she puts herself, and those around her in a state of panic because she does not want to make the hard choices to put things on the right track.

I want to talk to her. And she likes to hear what's going on with me. I care about her, and that's why I get upset hearing these things. I have a career I am devoted to, and hobbies - but I let her problems seep into my own life, and I don't know how to stop it.

So for those that have dysfunctional immediate family members, or just want to give some advice, how do you keep yourself sane trying to deal with those family members, and how do I compartmentalize the chaos that endlessly seems to follow her?
posted by helios410 to Human Relations (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You need to create some good boundaries. If there are some things that you talk about that constantly upset you, you need to tell her not to talk about them. Make sure you say things like, "Mom, it really upsets me to hear about this, and it would be better if we didn't talk about XX topic."

Also, limit your conversations, in terms of frequency and time. Keep the calls to say 10 minutes, or whatever seems reasonable.

You just need to figure out what is healthy for you, and create some very clear boundaries based on that.
posted by E-Boogie at 2:20 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

But because of my mom's choices in her own life she, for lack of a better term, burdens those around her. I hate to say that. But it's true.

When you agree to shoulder those burdens, it tells her that you still love her. You have to stop doing that. Do it now before this behavior destroys your love for your mom. Keep telling her you love her, but let her carry her own burden.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:26 PM on March 22, 2009

It starts with compassion. She must be in a tremendous amount of pain. From what you say about her she has some capacity for empathy and other good traits, as she has been a help to you in the past.

Decide what you can do and what you can't do, and then do what you can and not what you can't. Give her real reasons for these choices - i.e. what you can afford, what you think your responsibility should be.

Most importantly, be sure that your words and actions to her value her as a human being and that she can hear and see that. One of the most insidious things that keeps people falling down the hole of self degradation is the fact that people begin to see the failings more than the person. Validate her as a person, over and over again.

If you start religiously imposing boundaries without that valuing action, your mom could easily see that you're distancing her. Let her be involved in and agree to the boundaries. Seriously folks, people pick up on all the little polite passive boundary-setting stuff.. it's quite alienating and disempowering if you refuse to discuss it. Give her the opportunity to flex the positive communication muscles, she may surprise you.

This process is also useful for yourself. If you evaluate the situation and decide that you don't want to have a relationship, then DON'T. Not doing this would be the same as not breaking up with your significant other because you don't want to hurt them. Don't be in a relationship with her because you want to avoid feeling bad about yourself.

A good therapist may be able to help you with these processes but I warn you I've been unable to successfully find / work with a therapist thus far so my answer may be skewed.
posted by By The Grace of God at 3:50 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Set up specific times when you speak with her where she's allowed to vent about these kinds of things. Other times that you communicate have to stay on the positive. You can make a list of the kinds of things that she burdens you with and tell her that you only want to hear about those subjects on Sunday at 8 p.m.

If she's unwilling to stick to a schedule like that she may be a little more selfish than you realise.
posted by fantasticninety at 3:52 PM on March 22, 2009

I hear you. It's so painful when parents, who are supposed to guide and protect and support their children (even into young adulthood) prove incapable of managing their own lives.

You're obviously a caring and compassionate person; the fact that you feel for your mother through all of her (self-inflicted) calamities shows this. But as you said, you have your own career, your own life, and you have *every right* to live it, in the most healthy and rewarding way possible. Your resentment is completely understandable.

I have been / am in your shoes. My mother also has "emotional and mental issues". Huge ones. As does my father and my only brother. My entire immediate family is sick and self-destructive.

I 'coped' by distancing myself, both literally and emotionally. I moved 100 miles away as soon as I was out of school and made a new life for myself. I'm happy. This didn't happen overnight. I longed for a family. But I finally recognized that MY family has nothing to offer but grief, and that there is nothing I can do to help them.

But this might not be ideal for you, as you state that you love your mother and want to talk to her (which is admirable, as long as it doesn't take too great a toll on you).

One thing that might help you... it helped me tremendously when I was able to stop thinking of her as "MOM" and see her as... a person. An adult woman who is responsible for herself and her choices.

It's not easy to watch someone make poor life choices again and again... it can be devastating when it's a PARENT. But part of growing up is realizing that parents are just people. As flawed and fallible as all people are.

I like to think of Bull Durham, when Crash tells Nuke not to freak out about his father being in the stands. "He's just your father, man. He's as full of s*** as anybody."

I also agree with the advice given about boundaries. You can't stop your mother from making bad choices. But you can choose not to enable them. If she's bad with money, do not loan her money. Be sympathetic, be kind. But do not take it upon yourself to dig her out of each hole she makes for herself.

All of this is easier said than done. And be prepared to deal with some major motherly GUILT. But you need to make those good life choices for yourself, first and foremost. Good luck!
posted by GuffProof at 4:00 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

My Mom is what I affectionately call "touched in the head".

Some of the things she likes to talk to me about are things she should really be discussing with her therapist, because I am simply not equipped to deal with. I won't go into detail, but just want you to know that I understand what you're saying.

As E-Boogie said above, you need to set out your own personal boundaries of things you just will not discuss.

Explain to her that you love her to pieces, but that you aren't able to deal with X, Y, and Z because they upset you and that you'd be overjoyed to talk about A through W with her anytime.

If possible, make time for your Mom on a regular basis where you guys do whatever it is she wants to do so that she can feel less isolated and less prone to dump crazy stuff on you in order to get attention.

In regards to feeling less resentful, it's really hard to deal with having a mentally ill parent, because the things they say and do make you question your own sanity, and can make you angry that they are asking you to shoulder both your own weight and theirs. Feeling resentful is a normal feeling, you shouldn't feel ashamed about it, just don't let it poison what you have with her.

Sounds like you and her have reversed roles a bit. Try to get back to being the daughter, tell her all about what you've been doing, reminisce with her about the special things you remember as a kid, typical "You're my Mother, not my kid" types of things.

Best of luck to you, and remember that your sanity is worth just as much as hers.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 4:06 PM on March 22, 2009

I can't help but feel resentful that she puts herself, and those around her in a state of panic because she does not want to make the hard choices to put things on the right track.

You can't control whether your mother makes bad choices, or whether she panics when her bad choices come back to bite her in the butt, but please note that there is one part of the above dynamic you do have control over: your reaction. The only thing you're going to be able to change here is yourself.

I think the first thing to realize is that your worry and concern are not ever going to change things. For me, sometimes it feel kind of bad to not be really stressed about my parents when some foreseeable financial stuff is happening to them. But the truth is, I know that there are some things that I just can't control, and letting worry or stress get to me is only going to poison the relationship I have with them now. Not being in a state of panic about the thought of one of my parents shortly losing a house to foreclosure doesn't make me a bad daughter, it makes me one that can love that parent and that recognizes the fact that I don't control other people's choices. So: in the long term, I think you need to be trying to achieve an attitude of "let go and let live."

In the shorter term, I think what will be helpful is thinking through exactly what you're willing and able to do to help your mom out. What do you feel you owe her? Not only in the short term, but over the course of her life. It may feel a bit morbid, but think through all the bad scenarios that could happen in the next 40 years: what do you think you owe your mother if she becomes very ill or disabled? If she becomes frail as she ages and can't live on her own? If she becomes homeless? Knowing what you're prepared to do (e.g., move her in with you when she becomes old enough that she can't live independently) will help a lot with being okay with what you're not prepared to do (e.g., send her money every month when she's short for rent). I definitely wouldn't recommend sharing these with your mom, but it might be helpful for you to write them down somewhere--kind of a way to formalize your commitment to yourself, so that every time she's talking to you and she starts to get upset about a crisis, you can remain even-keeled. The reason you'll stay even-keeled is that you don't have to think through what you're going to do now: you already have a plan. It's written down, you don't have make a decision every time this comes up, you don't have to feel pulled in half every time. It's taken care of, so you can make some generally comforting statements ("oh gosh that sounds bad, mm-hmm, wow") and really feel some sympathy without starting to get panicked and resentful.

I care about her, and that's why I get upset hearing these things.

Yes, but I'm guessing you also have friends or acquaintances that you care for, yet you probably don't get quite as upset when you hear about the things going on in their lives. Why? Probably because you don't feel the need (and conflicted about the need) to solve their problems for them--you can just hear what's going on, offer sympathy and support, but go home at the end of the day and sleep fine. That's the state of mind you're shooting for if you want to preserve your relationship with your mom despite her chaotic life: love but not a suffocating sense of responsibility for her life and her choices.

Good luck. Figuring this stuff out really isn't easy, but on the upside, it's something that will serve you really well for the rest of your life. Knowing how to differentiate between loving someone and needing to take on responsibility for fixing their problems is a really important adult skill that some people don't figure out until they're in their 40s or 50s. You're just getting to figure it out a bit earlier.
posted by iminurmefi at 4:31 PM on March 22, 2009

I once read someone describe a dysfunctional family as 'crabs in a bucket'...once a family member seems to be escaping and beginning a happy, successful life, the other family members tend to try to pull her back into the 'bucket.' You are not required to be your mom's therapist or best friend. You are the young daughter in this situation and trying to get on your own feet and make a life for yourself.

I've found that keeping conversations upbeat and focused helps...don't get her on a spiel where she continues to spiral downward. Keep your time together super structured and if possible, bring along another family member or friend to act as a buffer. Being kind, but also extremely pragmatic helps. Recommend social services, counseling or a financial adviser when she begins telling you about problems that you aren't qualified or able to help her with. For awhile, my mom went through a phase where she would hint that she was suicidal when she wanted some attention or wasn't getting her way. I would try to get her help and she would be totally offended. The threats ended when I told her I would call the police and explain that she was threatening to harm herself.

One bittersweet benefit to having a parent like this is that we learn from their mistakes and frailties. Having parents with some of the traits as yours has made me a hyper-responsible adult who is careful with my money and avoids drama.
posted by pluckysparrow at 7:09 PM on March 22, 2009

the problem seems to be not that she expects you to fix her problems, but that just hearing about her problems makes you worried and anxious, correct?

But given her problems are a big part of her life, you feel refusing to listen would be damaging to your relationship.

I think the only thing you can do in that situation, is learning not to take 'ownership' of her problems. In the same way as you accept that someone else likes a different colour, and while you wouldn't wear it it's their choice, and it doesn't bother you, but on a vastly more dramatic level - that fundamentally, they have made their choices and while you feel compassiong towards them, you are not responsible for their choices, the results of those choices, or the ripples of anxiety and concern.

It sounds difficult, but it's basically the Buddhist idea of attachment - you don't feel attached to those drama's, while still feeling compassion.

If, after a conversation you feel worried, sit down and ask yourself realistically if there is anything you can do. And NOT in a massively self-sacrificing away. Maybe you're thinking she could talk to a budget adviser? Cool! Find the contact details for one, and then give it to her. There. You have done your bit, you have tried, now let go and move on.
Mentally and responsibility-wise, delegate 'worrying' about her to people who can actually help her, or back to herself.

If she has always been like that, I'm guessing you grew up deciding to be more 'responsible' and have succeeded! Accept that as one of the payoffs, and work on not feeling OVER-responsible, as it is all too easy to do.

Finally, see if you can get her to talk about the things she LIKES at the moment, small little things that are going right. Talking about her drama is probably part of the pattern of BEING in drama all the time - talking about other topics may be a bit aside from her standard conversational repartee (I have no idea). If it is, try something cheesy like starting a daily/weekly 'Gratitude list', and see if you can get her to join you on it. When she calls, tell her 5 things you've been grateful for (how the park looked on a beautiful day, a great meal with friends, doing a project), then get her to do the same. Or, find see if you can find some other thing to relate with, which is a conversational change from the current situation.
posted by Elysum at 5:51 PM on March 24, 2009

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