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October 25, 2010 10:46 PM   Subscribe

How do I talk to my mother about her depression, especially when I'm trying to create better boundaries but simultaneously plan for my family's future?

My parents and I live in the same town and have overlapping social circles due to things like choirs, food culture, etc. I have made several posts and comments about my relationship with my mom; suffice it to say that it is complicated.

She and I have never been great communicators (understatement of the century), but she keeps insisting that family is the most important thing to her, and I keep trying to interact with her in ways that don't get my heart stomped on. But even when she sees me on a regular basis, she won't tell me things like, oh, "Dad broke his foot" (I only found out from people who asked me what happened), much less anything about her physical or mental health or their money situation. I've found out about their problems with the IRS because I poked around her desk. Given our family history with illness and financial problems, I don't feel like worrying about a secretive couple in terrible health in their 60s is unwarranted.

I'm in therapy, but I just left my last therapist because she patronized me and trivialized this situation. I agree that I need to get less enmeshed in it, but come on -- if someone had cancer, or a broken leg, would you just let them sit there in pain?

It's just so hard trying to interact with this lifeless husk of a person, or watching her spiral further down than I ever thought she could get. She won't do any of the things that used to be really important to her; she's nearly incapable of having a conversation because she doesn't connect with anything she says or hears. My dad isn't himself, either; her awful behavior has contributed to him getting completely bitter and losing touch with reality. And to top it off, she's somehow supporting her two depressed sisters as well.

I've seen this thread -- I don't feel financially responsible for them... yet. And this thread -- I am not responsible for their happiness, and they will likely not change. And this thread -- yeah, there are a lot of similarities between our situation and alcoholism. My fiance comes from that background, and he recognizes a lot of the same dynamics.

But I'll be starting my own family within the next couple of years. My parents will be the only grandparents this kid will have. All I want is a chance to have some semblance of family a couple times a year.

What do I do?
posted by Madamina to Human Relations (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My parents will be the only grandparents this kid will have. All I want is a chance to have some semblance of family a couple times a year.

You want what you can not have. It is sad, but there it is. Try and work on with your next therapist processing the relationship with your parents as a loss.
posted by mlis at 12:23 AM on October 26, 2010 [5 favorites]

All I want is a chance to have some semblance of family a couple times a year.

That is not something that's within your power. You cannot make them average people by sheer force of will because that is not who they are. As frustrating as it is, not everyone gets the type of family that they want. Believe me, I understand what it's like to wish that your mother was not the Mayor of Crazytown but mine is and so is yours.

Your job now is to protect yourself and the family you are going to create and you do that with really firm boundaries.
posted by crankylex at 3:43 AM on October 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

That is not something that's within your power. You cannot make them average people by sheer force of will because that is not who they are.

This. But I have good news: your children will grow up to be perfectly happy anyway! I didn't have a typical extended family growing up and only saw grandparents once every 2-3 years. But as a child I knew my parents loved me, and that was plenty for me. I don't feel like I missed much.

So when you have kids, you can just concentrate on being an involved parent who sets appropriate boundaries. Yes, it would be nice if we all had a storybook family growing up, but not everyone does - and that's okay.
posted by Tehhund at 4:52 AM on October 26, 2010

It is so, so hard to want a better life for someone you love (especially a parent)... when you're unable to convince them that they, too, should want - and deserve! - a better life.

I've run into similar issues in my family. Trying to convince the severely depressed of, well, anything... it's like herding cats. It's unlikely that you can change your mom (although I understand all too well the need to keep trying to get her to improve her life).

What you CAN do is change the nature of your interactions with her... are there particular times/places/settings where things seem to go more smoothly with her? Do you do better in smaller increments of time, or longer ones? Does the presence of anyone else help? Orchestrating your interactions so they are as non-painful as possible - rather than feeling your heart break as you wish to god that you could have "typical" mom/child interactions - may be all that you can do right now. It's not much, but it's somethin'.
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:25 AM on October 26, 2010

Response by poster: Yeah, I do my best to limit/mitigate the effects of our interactions already. I try not to go over to their house for any extended period of time, including meals (which also helps me avoid frostbite in the winter :P), and last year I even staged a Thanksgiving mutiny in which all of my cousins came to town with their respective families and then had dinner at our house. My fiance is also a godsend, as he doesn't have the crazy history with my family like I do and is a soothing, easygoing person with a proud history of therapy and dealing with substance-abusing family members. She feels like she can talk to him. He has literally stood between us and said, "[Madamina], hug your mother! Now you, [Mom]!"

I've just never actually talked to her about it. I realize that this mistaken hope and feeling like "I'm the only one who can save her... and I totally WILL!" is how you stay roped in.

I know, I know, I know.

God, this sucks so, so much. It's only going to get worse after my dad retires and my parents get sicker. How do I watch that happen?
posted by Madamina at 7:14 AM on October 26, 2010

Why do you want your child to have a relationship with someone who is capable of causing so much pain?

This is not asked in a "God you would be a horrible mother to expose the kid to their grandma" sense but for you to consider why this particular issue is so important. Is it because you want a child to have a family like other families? Did your own grandparents heavily influence your development and you feel the child won't grow properly without their grandparents' (your parents') influence? Or is it because you still long for your relationship with your parents and your parents themselves to be happier and healthier than they are, and the ability to "come together as a family" and provide a positive influence for your kid would represent a huge step in that direction?

You can't change people. If they won't choose to try to be happier or refuse to see problems with their behavior, you have to accept them as they are and protect yourself accordingly.
posted by Anonymous at 7:16 AM on October 26, 2010

"All I want is a chance to have some semblance of family a couple times a year."

Okay, first, your parents may be different AS GRANDPARENTS than they are as parents. Maybe not. But sometimes incredibly unhealthy PARENTS can make for decent grandparents. I don't think it's terribly LIKELY, but it's at least possible. Don't borrow trouble. Don't put the cart too far before the horse.

Second, and truly not being flip, if the grandparental relationship is important, are there other older people in your life who can fill that role for your kids? I am SURE there is a retirement home near you with many older people with grandkids living far away or without grandkids at all who would LOOOOOOOOOVE to spoil yours.

Side note, I have long thought that an excellent occupation for retired-but-robust women in their 60s and 70s would be daytime babysitter. Take a local "baby boot camp" to learn all the "new" rules, get an Infant/Child CPR certification, and earn some money while grandmothering kids whose parents need a daytime sitter now-and-then. Do you know how hard it is to find daytime sitters??? Maybe you could start a little business of such ladies. Then you could have like 20 grandmas for your kids. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:23 AM on October 26, 2010

Book recommendation, if you haven't already read it: The Dance of Intimacy, by Harriet Lerner.

The thing that strikes me about your post and past comments is ... that I'm having so much trouble figuring out even what the question and issue is exactly. This isn't a criticism, just a clue as to where the situation is at right now. In reading this, I'm bouncing around in a space like [Her Action] [You: "Gah! This drives me crazy!"]. It sounds really hard, and I'm sure that given her depression there is a lot more pain and sadness there too, but the prevailing emotion I'm getting is something like ... confused hostility. That is what I sometimes feel about my mom, and my relationship there is a mess that is next on my list of what to figure out in therapy. When I feel like "she did X! Can you believe it?" and someone is like "ummm... so I take it that bothered you?" I realize that I'm still totally inarticulate about what she's doing, and what my emotional reaction is that makes it bother me so much, and taking one step back further, is there a pattern of these actions and emotions that I can predict or even shift? It sounds like you're trying to figure this out but still at the early stages. So, I guess that's my suggestion, that part of what might give you relief is a lot more processing on your end.

For instance, this free will statement? I can come up with a lot of reasons for why that would probably feel bad, but it's not there in your words. To you, it's self evident that this is a terrible thing. And I'm not disagreeing. It obviously was terrible for you. But say you end up being able to put it into words, for example, if you realized it was like this: "my mom needs complete enmeshment to feel loved, or else she feels rejected and rejects the person back. As a kid, that REALLY hurt, and even as an adult it hurts and makes me feel terribly guilty. I have never quite figured out how to balance in some happy middle ground. I'm either enmeshed and taking on her problems or I'm feeling free-er, but terribly guilty." Then, when you feel guilty, you recognize it, and when you feel enmeshed, you recognize it, and you don't blame yourself because you know what your two bad options were, but you also recognize that your mom is how she is and you get to make a choice between those options or continue to search for some zen third way, and that your mom isn't entirely responsible for how crappy you feel because you did get a choice however bad the options were. And you'll kinda feel more familiar with it from this detached perspective that is maybe a bit more comfortable than the current situation. Anyway, I'm not saying that's what the situation is, just the level of detached understanding you might seek, and I don't know if this is helpful at all, because you already know that you want to keep processing things, and that's what this advice amounts to, but good luck. It sounds hard.
posted by salvia at 8:20 AM on October 26, 2010

God, this sucks so, so much. It's only going to get worse after my dad retires and my parents get sicker. How do I watch that happen?

I've dealt with it by accepting the loss of the family that I wished I had and mourning that loss. That doesn't mean that you stop feeling badly about watching your parents decline, but I find that it helps knowing that they are totally uninterested in any kind of help that I could possibly provide. They are the way they are and that's it. It is not my job to try to make them be something they don't want to be because it would be better for me, even though it would be better for them as well.
posted by crankylex at 9:03 AM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

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