Weren't we supposed to get along once I grew up?
April 11, 2011 10:54 AM   Subscribe

My mother and I have a difficult relationship. Looking for advice about how to get through a period during which my mother, my daughter, and I are spending a lot of time together. (And, yes, there's a lot more information inside.)

My mom is providing childcare for my infant daughter several days a week. To do this, she is staying in my home several nights a week (arriving the night before the first day of care each week, leaving the morning after the last day of care). Unfortunately, we are not getting along well. Additionally, I am concerned about the effects of our conflict on my daughter’s development.

Part of what is wearing on me is my mom’s need to make commentary constantly. The commentary may be about anything—my parenting choices, the food that we’re eating, objects in my home, what I’m wearing, my daughter’s reactions to stimuli. These comments come out in a steady stream, all day long. It can be difficult for me to think or to make conversation because she truly will talk nonstop for hours. Most of what she says is a string of opinions. Sometimes, the judgment calls are positive. Examples:
• “You’re the prettiest little baby in the world!”
• “You’re the most wonderful baby ever!”
• “This is nicest home!”
• “You make everything so nice!”
• “You’re such a good parent.”
Other times (more frequently recently), the judgment calls are not so positive. Examples:
• “That’s what you’re wearing?”
• (in response to a comment of mine) “That’s the strangest thing I’ve ever heard!”
• (gesturing to object in my home) “What is this supposed to be for?”
• (in response to my description of what we’ll be having for dinner) “Well, isn’t that fancy?”
• (in response to me caring for the baby—changing a diaper, feeding her, anything, really) “Baby, what is your mother doing to you?”
If this sounds a more than a little confusing, it is. All of the comments above—both positive and negative--could be things that she says in a single hour. Both kinds of judgment calls make me uncomfortable: I don’t trust the positive judgments because I know that the negative judgments could come out at any moment. Additionally, I don’t like my daughter being raised around someone who is constantly judging her, her parents, and her home, even if some of the judgments are favorable.

The other part of what is wearing on me is the incredibly insensitive things that my mom blurts out. Examples:
• (on the anniversary of my second baby’s death, without acknowledging the anniversary) “Do you think [living daughter] will ever have a brother or sister?”
• “We’d be happier during the day if you weren’t here.”
• “Baby, I love you more than I love your mom.”
• “I read that the only reason women breastfeed is because it makes them feel good—like they’re having sex.”
It would be bad enough if these weren’t limited to comments she makes to me. However, I sometimes hear her say things to the baby, such as:
• “I know you don’t like me. You only like your mom. I can’t make you stop crying. You’ll just have to make yourself feel better.”
• “You’re spoiled.”

I believe that my mom’s behavior is rooted in her own self-esteem issues. She is doing the best she can (believe it or not) with what she knows how to do. Her own mother was depressed, manipulative, and prone to dramatic outbursts. My mother isn’t always as bad as the description above. She’s at her worst now, and things get bad for her when she feels vulnerable. In the past, I have been able to help her feel better and to tackle difficult situations. Now, I need to put my daughter’s needs ahead of my mother’s needs. This means that I can’t spend time and energy reminding her that she’s good enough, she’s smart enough, and, gosh-darn-it, I like her. Additionally, I have had to explain to her how we take care of the baby. In many ways, this differs from what she remembers of how she took care of me as a baby, and she takes this as a personal criticism. As a result, I have become the person who she perceives as a critic (there is pretty much always one person in her life who she sees as the hated critic—in the past, bosses, relatives, and frenemies have filled this role).

I have tried talking with her directly about the issues I’ve described. Sometimes I can manage it calmly, sometimes not. No matter how I approach the issue, she becomes uncomfortable and defensive. When approach the discussion calmly, she cries and tells me that she’ll “do better.” This is, of course, not at all what I’m going for—I’m not trying to shame her. When I tell her this, she takes it as further proof that she is doing something wrong and becomes more upset. In situations when I am not so calm (this is, thankfully, pretty rare), she screams, cries, calls me names, tells me that I am a bad person, and slams doors. Neither approach has any lasting good effects, and both make her feel hurt.

I feel bad for my mom. She’s hurting, and this is painful for her. However, I feel that I have a greater responsibility for my daughter’s well-being than for my mom’s, especially because my mom and I have talked about above issues many times over the years, and she has steadfastly refused to get help (or, when badgered into going to a therapist, she has refused to be honest with the therapist). Fending off her constant criticisms is making me doubt myself and is hurtful. Finally, I am worried that her influence will affect my daughter’s sense of self-esteem.

So, I realize that I need to figure out another childcare situation. I really, really, really don’t want to do daycare, but I (obviously) may need to reevaluate that position. In the meantime, I would be grateful for any suggestions you might have for improving the current situation.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried family counseling? It looks like she has only gone to an individual counseling, where she has been able to lie without being called on it. Perhaps it would be better to have these conversations in front of a family counselor, with both of you present. Even if they're just there to mediate the discussion. It could be valuable for you beyond helping your daughter.

That said, please reconsider other care options.
posted by brainmouse at 11:00 AM on April 11, 2011

Get someone else to watch your kid. This is not something that's going to get resolved easily or quickly.
posted by empath at 11:03 AM on April 11, 2011 [11 favorites]

So, if I'm understanding this correctly, you understand that you need a new childcare scenario, and you're actively looking for one. You want advice on how to improve things right now.

First, you don't say your daughter's exact age, but I'm going to assume that by "infant," you mean under one year of age. At that age, your daughter probably doesn't understand what your mother is saying to her. Babies respond more to tone and to tangible/direct speech (I know I'm not phrasing this right, but what I mean is that older infants can pick up on things like "this is a cat"-point to a cat, etc.)--so the sort of abstract, passive-aggressive things that your mom is saying won't really register right now, provided she is saying them in a sing-song-y, baby-talk voice. It's actually good for your daughter to hear a lot of speech right now, and to be engaged in her environment--which your mother is doing by talking to her.

So, that said, the person that's really most affected by all this is you. And it seems to me that a lot of what your mother is doing is looking for validation and attention--you seem to recognize that. For now, I would say that you should try--and it'll be hard--to ignore the things she is saying unless they are said directly to you. Distract yourself with a task, go to a different room--anything to keep yourself from responding.

When she does make a comment like that directly to you--if positive, thank her, even if you don't think it's sincere. If negative, you can go any number of ways: "Why would you say something like that?"; "I'd rather not discuss this. Insert change of subject here."; "I'm sorry you feel that way. We're doing the best we can." And so on.

Ultimately, though, and I think you realize it: this is an unworkable situation unless your mother accepts counseling, either alone or as a family. And if she is as resistant as you say, then daycare (or a nanny-share) will probably be a less stressful option for all involved.
posted by catwoman429 at 11:17 AM on April 11, 2011

I think that she is definitely somewhat insensitive, but it also sounds to me like you have a really thin skin about a lot of this -- which of course, is common in family problems because of all the history and old emotions that each instance becomes saturated with.

Anyhow, what I propose (until you can make other arrangements, which you should do ASAP) is to stop yourself when you catch yourself becoming inflamed over something she's said -- for example, "That’s the strangest thing I’ve ever heard!" -- and think about how you'd feel if someone else had said it instead of her. There are lots of examples like that in your post which seem rather innocuous to me, and maybe you'll be able to interpret them a little more charitably if you try to remove the mother/daughter baggage from the equation.

There's a big difference between a little affectionate kidding here and there, and seriously pointed remarks couched in familial love. I you don't try harder to separate one kind of remark from the other, it all becomes one big undifferentiated mass of pollution -- perhaps avoidably so.

But in the moment, when she does say something that genuinely troubles you, that moment is when you need to address it -- that way it's not a laundry list of vague complaints you have about remarks she may not even really remember making. "I don't know if you meant to hurt me by saying that, but you have." And then you can explain why, or ask her not to mention that thing, or whatever you feel the need to say. Interrupting her on the spot is probably going to be more effective than swallowing your hurt and anger until you are truly fed up.
posted by hermitosis at 11:22 AM on April 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

Also if the constant chatter is a problem, there is nothing wrong with saying, "I'm so tired, I need to retreat to my room for a while," or "Here's some cash, would you mind going out to pick up some ice cream for after dinner? You can leave (daughter) with me if you want." Find ways to break up the time into chunks, so you get some peace here and there. Ask her to do things for you -- older caretakers appreciate feeling useful, so even if she complains sometimes she'll still probably be glad to feel needed.
posted by hermitosis at 11:29 AM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

My mother can be this way, although not to the extreme you are experiencing. Mostly, she makes little comments about my crappy housekeeping and brings up sad, old family history. I try my best to let it roll off me, but sometimes she just pushes my buttons.

Usually, my way of handling this to listen to podcasts and books on tape together. It leaves less room for conversations which can go sour and gives us something to talk about that isn't related to the people in the room.

This was great the last time we had a long car trip together, and I felt like I was doing something nice for her by curating stuff that I thought she would like. Plus, it was easier to switch to something else if things got tense. Instead of uncomfortable silence, I could just be like "Hey, let's listen to something else" and move on to the next podcast.
posted by Alison at 11:31 AM on April 11, 2011

Daycare. Many perfectly well adjusted children go to daycare.
posted by yarly at 11:31 AM on April 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

As someone who uses an in-home daycare, let me just say that I don't think it's possible for my son to feel anything but love and care from his providers in his setting. And at the end and beginning of each day, he is thrilled to see me after having a terrific day, and his "auntie" and "uncle" constantly tell me how wonderful he is, how sweet he is, how helpful he's been, and any other little funny tidbit about what he liked to do that day. The other kids are thrilled to see him, and he is so excited to run down his daycare's street every morning.

Daycare is probably one of the best things that has happened to Toddler Zizzle, so I would definitely urge you to reconsider it.

Alternatively, if it is the daycare setting you object to (whether a center or an in-home), what about looking into a nanny or a nanny-share option that can come to your home?

As for dealing with your mother, noncommital responses of, "I appreciate your perspective," or, "Huh. I never thought about that," or, "Interesting." If it is something that really gets on your nerves, "Hey, Mom. I know you parented differently. I know you did things differently than I am doing, but I am doing what I feel is best for my child, just like you did with me. I am sure you did what you felt was best, and this is what I feel is best."

Additionally, is your mom taking Baby Anonymous on outings? Is there a free playgroup she can take your daughter to? Do they go to the park? If she's at home all day with the baby as the only adult, it may be wearing on her, especially if she is older. My own mother is helping my sister with childcare one or two days/week, and it can really be wearing on my mom because it's been a long time since she's had an infant in her care for 8+ hours/day. So my sister breaks up the care between my mom, my sister, and her mother-in-law throughout the week. It may partly be that what your mom is doing is too much for her, even if she won't say it.
posted by zizzle at 11:46 AM on April 11, 2011

I think there is a degree to which you may be over-responsive to her comments because they come laden with the entire history of your shared past. Both the positive and "not so positive" judgement calls sound fine to me. I mean, they're not ideal but things you're categorising as "constant criticism" are not, in fact, criticisms IMHO. If you're responding to them as if they are, that's a bad dynamic and I'm not sure it's one where your mother is at fault.

The "incredibly insensitive" things, however, are incredibly insensitive. Based on your past history, I'd stop having conversations about them. That hasn't worked for you. Instead, I'd adopt a policy of saying, very lightly, "Goodness! That's not an okay thing to say!" or more seriously "It makes me sad to hear you say that."

This tactic will stand you in good stead because yes, it is exactly how you correct behaviour in a toddler. You can practice on your mom.

I'm sorry she talks all the time. Three things occur to me. One, that's just how some people are. You are not going to force her to be comfortable with silence. Two, the baby probably loves it. Three, if they are not getting out enough to organised activities or your mother doesn't have a local social life, she probably really needs adult conversation. Staying home with a baby is great in a lot of ways; conversation isn't one of them.

You might see if you can find your mum a local bridge, bingo, etc night so you at least get a break from being together during the week and perhaps she'll make some friends.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:04 PM on April 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

I feel terrible for you.

As a parent of a young one, I beg you to reconsider your childcare sitch. This is driving you nuts and that will have a worse effect on your child than any of this other stuff.
posted by k8t at 12:10 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

First off, I applaud your incredibly objective view of your mom and her feelings. It's hard to do, especially when she is the one stressing you out.

Second, as for her VERY insensitive comments: My grandmother is beyond tactless. I have taken to saying. "That's humiliating, please stop." or "We are not going to talk about that because it hurts when we do." Very clear messages.

Third, nthing the following

1. "I'm sorry you feel that way. We're doing the best we can."
2. "Hey, Mom. I know you parented differently. I know you did things differently than I am doing, but I am doing what I feel is best for my child, just like you did with me. I am sure you did what you felt was best, and this is what I feel is best."

Clear, honest communication. It will probably relieve some of your stress. How it affects your mother is her decision. She is also an adult and you have it exactly right when you say you have to put your child ahead of your mother.
posted by Sophie1 at 12:42 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you want to get into shitty territory, can you make it clear to your mom that while you appreciate her help in childcare, that the kind of comments that she is making (and make it clear, like you did in this post), make you feel less and less comfortable about her ability to care for and see your child.

It might be the carrot that snaps her out of this.
posted by k8t at 1:01 PM on April 11, 2011

Trust your instincts. You are right to be concerned about the impacts of this relationship upon your daughter's development. You know that your own daughter's needs must now come first. You know that you need to marshal all of the emotional strength, energy, and stability you can muster for the sake of your child. You know that your relationship with your mother is a recurring cycle of annoyance festering into grievance culminating in confrontations (handled calmly or otherwise), and that your mother shows no signs of comprehending, much less being able to rectify, the underlying dynamics of the relationship that give rise to the problems. These important arrows all seem to be pointing in the same direction . . .

I will tell you that I went through this with my mother for years. Minor annoyances and button-pushing culminating in blow-ups, failed attempts at rational hashing out of issues, hitting the "reset" button every time because gosh darn it, she's my mother and she's getting older and weaker and she should have a place my life and my children's lives, etc. It just got progressively worse. Once it got so bad that too many things were said that couldn't be unsaid, things that have kept us from being able to hit that "reset" button in our relationship, and I now haven't spoken with her in nearly four years.

From your post, it does not sound like you are anywhere near that point. But I suspect that the dynamics in your relationship with your mother (which sound to me so much like my own) are not going to change, and instead are going to get worse. They will fester in you and your frustrations will manifest themselves in ways that your daughter is someday going to be able to detect.

Best to give you and your immediate family a little space from your mother.
posted by chicxulub at 1:25 PM on April 11, 2011

You know, its maybe counter inituitive, but have you tried putting your arms around your mom, leaning your head against hers and saying "Baby and I are so glad you are here and that you are so loving and kind to us". Maybe she will let go of her passive aggressiveness with your love and reassurance.
posted by zia at 1:49 PM on April 11, 2011

Ok, I'm totally in the minority over here, but to me this sounds very much like baby-with-the-bathwater territory. Mother-daughter relationships are really complicated, and tend to be super charged with all this weird passive agressive or even plain old aggressive Lady-Crazy on the part of both mothers and daughters. Are you imagining it? absolutly not. You are right to want to keep this kind of stuff away from your daughter... but there is still a chance for improvement.

I'm sorry you've got to deal with the flipping out stuff, but you might want to try to reframe these things in your head a little. Try to stop thinking of them as critisims- mostly because they really kinda aren't. They're more like an annoying running commentary.

Your mom sounds like a stress-gabber. She's stressy so she just fills up the air with a steady flow of observances. It's easier not to think if you can notice and comment on every single thing in the room.

It may also be that this is so irrating to you because you see a little bit of it in yourself. The woman sees you as a critic and you see her as one. It's like a jumbo circle of frustraition.

So, obviously, family counciling- because what you guys are communicating to eachother is getting totally hairy. It might be worth stressing to her that you see that there is some stuff that you take the wrong way, and sometimes she doesn't realize that she's being insensitive. Basicly you don't want her to go to therapy to fix her, but so that you both will better understand eachother.
Second, the woman is driving you crazy by nonstop chatter, but i really doubt the baby is going to be anything but pleased if she just keeps trunkin. If you're going to replace her with other childcare options- it's because of that and not harm she's going to do to an infant's head space. if the kid was like 5, that might be a thing. Not that it's not a good reason- it totally is a good valid reason. BUT still.

ANYWAY, you might want to see with counceling before switching things. This is an incredible gift you are giving to your mother and your daughter. They are getting a chance to bond in ways that most modern families just don't. If you and her can find a way to improve the situation, it may be something that your mother (and to some extent your daughter) cherishes the memory of for years.
posted by Blisterlips at 2:14 PM on April 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

So, basically, you're trying to not lose your cool with your mom. I have a lot of experience with that, so I'll just share what I do...

I reflect, really hard, on the things my mother did for me/what I put her through when I was growing up. I remember that time she bought me roller skates and I threw a huge tantrum because they were not REALLY REAL roller skates. I chucked them across the room and they broke. I remember when I jumped out my window in the middle of the night to go see a boy and then, when I came home and she interrogated me the next morning, I told her the screen just fell out and I really had been in my bed all night. I remember the look on her face, because she REALLY wanted to believe me, but it was just too stupid. I remember the time I was begging her for a car, and I got resentful/nasty with her. About five years later, in her records, I found a note that she'd written to herself when deciding whether or not to buy me the car (which she did). It was so emotional, I felt incredible remorse for what I'd put her through.

That's just a small sampling, too. I know you have your own stories like this, at least a few. So think about them and be humbled by the sacrifices your mother has made for you, and it will be a lot easier not getting angry at her.
posted by amodelcitizen at 4:25 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think you're being thin-skinned. Then again, my mother says some of these same things (none of the good ones, though), and she's mentally ill.

You asked how you can improve your situation. The answer is that you can't change your mom's behavior. And you already know it: You've tried, to no avail. All you can do is change your own actions while you provide the environment you want for your child.

The way I see it, you've got three options:

A. Suddenly, magically tolerate that which you find intolerable.
B. Draw new boundaries and enforce them mercilessly while spending the same amount of time together.
C. Spend less time together, perhaps including new childcare.

I find that option B is often the most loving. It forces the person to live in the real world, where words have consequences, and where you don't have to accept family relationships as they are, just because the other person is older or gave birth to you/adopted you.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:37 PM on April 11, 2011

Does your daughter have separation anxiety/a clear preference for you? That can be hard for any caregiver, especially if mom is in and out throughout the day. I watch a baby and when mom is there he screams bloody murder if I pick him up or look at him wrong.

He does like her more than me, obviously (because she's mom!), but it feels like crap to have a child you care about a lot act like she hates being with you.

There's not a whole lot I can do about it except avoid her and go out a lot--it might be easier on all of you if you find somewhere else to work.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:00 PM on April 11, 2011

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