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December 15, 2011 6:55 AM   Subscribe

FamilyGuiltFilter: Please help me navigate my mother and her tendancies to pile on guilt.

My parents and I have a weird relationship. I come from a very tight-knit, loving family. There's no divorces, even in my extended family which is rather large and also tight-knit. Everyone (extended family included) got married very young. My mother is extremely dominant and my father is rather passive. As a result, I constantly struggle with passive-aggressive jabs from my mother, spiced with anger when she doesn't like something I do or do something she doesn't understand or agree with. Any advice on how to manage this would be helpful.

Honestly, my take on it all is that because I'm a grown, independent adult, they have zero control and that their angry responses to me is because they don't know what else they can do to have me fit some mold of who they want me to be. I've tried to no avail to talk to them about this, and it never works because they glaze over the situation with "Stop being silly", yet go right back to their disapproving ways.

Here's some examples:

1.) Steaming piles of guilt on when I'm going to get married and settle down (I'm approaching 32 years old, am a single woman in the city). This is crazy to me, because I am by no means old, have a great career, make great money, am an avid marathon runner, own my own home, etc. But because I'm not married, I'm seen almost as an inferior and she's even implied that once I get married, I should give up my career and hobbies to have kids. (which is ridiculous and I don't even want kids).

2.) My Great Aunt is currently in a nursing home after having broken her back and has limited time because she's 92. She's apparently in really bad shape. The nursing home visiting hours are 9-5 every day and with my work schedule, I am absolutely unable to make a visit. I work in Senior Management in a very high-stress, high-visibility corporate job. I manage a Department and have a tyrant of a boss who reports directly to the CEO. I'm at work every day by 8 and am usually home by 7, have a limited window of time to take care of my own personal life, and am then right back online/emailing for work by 9 and go to bed at 11. I also travel quite frequently (several times a month). I have explained all of this to my mom over and over again, even prior to my Great Aunt going to the nursing home and my mom just doesn't understand. She is a nurse who works 24 hours a week and does two 12-hour shifts. That's it. The rest of the time she has free being that they are empty nesters now. I wish I had that luxuary.

I called them last night to talk about holiday plans and was met with a steaming pile of guilt and passive aggressive anger from my mom. She keeps asking why I haven't been to visit my Great Aunt yet. I told her that I just cannot accommodate the hours due to my job (and I really can't - I'm actually in the midst of an extremely stressful work situation with major negative pressure from my boss who will not understand any of this to let me escape for a few hours, plus I have a long commute and the nursing home is located about 15 mins from my house) but I'll try. My parents live 2.5 hours away. They are constantly in the area where I live either passing through to visit my brother or whatever else, yet never tell me when they are in the area so I can even mention that they should stop by or have lunch or something.

In all honesty, with all job stress aside, I really don't want to go to the nursing home. I know that different people deal with end of life stuff in different ways, but I really don't want to go. I'd rather not have this image of my Great Aunt in my mind where she's laden in this awful place. I know this is probably really selfish. I'm one of those people who hates goodbyes and such. I'm concerned because if I go, it won't be good for me. If I don't go, I'll be met with anger and guilt from my family. I don't know how to communicate this to my Mom to have her understand because she won't.

3.) I'm going up to my parent's house for Christmas Eve/Christmas Day with my new boyfriend who they very briefly met once in passing. Where they should be excited, they're already giving me guilt about church. They are heavily Roman Catholic and I came out to them two years ago that I'm an Athiest. BF is agnostic. Neither one of us want to go to Christmas Eve church and even though I've skipped it in the past in life before BF, it's a major source of contention. I already told them that we will be up to their house for Christmas Eve dinner at 6, which means after they get home from church. I think this seems like a good compromise - we will be at dinner which is what they want, but skip church which is what we want, and I won't be imposing their religion on the new BF. I'm worried about being met with passive-aggressive tense anger all night which could negatively affect first impressions of any surmountable time spent getting to know the BF. They tend to make all sorts of comments that completely bash what I stand for (religiously, morally and politically) and I'm already cringing at the thought of all of this because I don't want BF to get offended. He's ridiculously understanding and I know will be fine/let it all go, but still.


Tactics I've tried in the past were to disengage by not feeding into the passive-aggressive behavior, compromising such as above, talking directly about problems, and reminding them that I'm an adult and make my own choices. None of this seems to work because I'm either met with anger, or completely fake "You know we love you and would never think XYZ about you" even though their actions are the total opposite.
posted by floweredfish to Human Relations (45 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I wish I could help you figure out to deal with Catholic parents as an atheist, because that would mean I've figured out how to deal with mine.

that said:

I know that different people deal with end of life stuff in different ways, but I really don't want to go. I'd rather not have this image of my Great Aunt in my mind where she's laden in this awful place. I know this is probably really selfish. I'm one of those people who hates goodbyes and such. I'm concerned because if I go, it won't be good for me.

"Me, me, me, me, me".

Your Great Aunt is the one that's stuck in a nursing home with relatives that don't want to visit her. Stop being so selfish and go see her. She probably doesn't have a whole lot of years left, and you still have the rest of your life before you're old enough for your relatives to not want to visit you.
posted by empath at 7:00 AM on December 15, 2011 [49 favorites]

As to the guilt about not being married, let your Mom talk, nod or don't, and ignore it.

About church? It's not your religion anymore, so ignore what your parents say.

About your aunt? I don't care how busy you are at work, if you can't carve out an hour to visit someone you care about who is dying, that probably is pretty guilt-worthy.
posted by xingcat at 7:03 AM on December 15, 2011 [17 favorites]

@empath - thank you for the selfish-check. I think you're right, and I appreciate you pointing this out.

The rest of it all though? I'll be interested to hear what others say.
posted by floweredfish at 7:04 AM on December 15, 2011

Your family sounds similar to mine in many ways. I think this is a case of choosing your battles carefully. Between the marriage, great aunt, and boyfriend, the simplest one to tackle is visiting your great aunt in the nursing home. Visiting isn't the same as taking care of her. You could make a brief visit to her to say hello. It seems like the right thing to do and would at least alleviate one of these three stressors.
posted by seppyk at 7:05 AM on December 15, 2011

Wrote out basically what seppyk did above.
posted by gaspode at 7:07 AM on December 15, 2011

In your third sentance, I decided your parents are of a minority race (in the USA) and almost certinaly of a more, erm, hardcore religion. To genralize in broad, sweeping strokes, this behavior is not terribly uncommon. Your specifics, of course, may vary. Your parents will probably never really understand how different you are and why you like being different. Some key points: You are not responsoble for their behavior. You cannot change their behavior. You can only play theior game, or not.

Boundaries is the first step. Come up with them, and state them clearly. The second step, which people find much harder, is enforcing them. A possible example, if mom picks on BF too much for bring not RomCath, gently and without anger point out that she is, that shes crossing a boundary you mentioned calmly and rationally before, and that her continuing to cross said boundary will result in consequenses... like you and BF leaving, politely, calmly, but firmly.

As for you: I'm sorry. Your family is unlikely to change. You can only change how you react to them. They will probably never love you in quite the way you want. I do think they love you, but your life confuses them a little/lot. Your version of happyness looks nothing like theirs. A lot of their behavior (possibly) comes from love and hurt and confusion. (Also possibly, unhappyness/selfishness/insanity/cruelty) I would reccomend accepting that things will never be ideal, and that they may often be unsdafe people for you. You can continue to leave yourself open to being hurt and pray they change, or you can set it up so you are in controll of minimizing the hurt.
posted by Jacen at 7:10 AM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think it would be a kindness on your part to go visit your aunt. That's the only part of the story where your mother's guilt has any kind of basis in reality. As for the rest of the passive aggression and the guilt, ignore it. Don't engage. Don't feel like you need to defend yourself. Say "I'm sorry you feel that way" and move the conversation along.
posted by crankylex at 7:13 AM on December 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Maybe you could look at the first as your mom's way of trying to look out for you. I mean, it sounds like she loves you, and maybe what she is worried about is that after she dies you'll be all alone. Having a husband and kids means, to her, that she doesn't have to worry about you being alone. So when she talks about it, maybe say "mom, you know, I really enjoy the life I have; it's filled with things and people I love. If I end up married someday, that's great, but i don't have to be married to feel loved and happy."

With respect to your aunt: take a vacation day and go see your dying aunt. In your statements, I hear YOU feeling guilty, and I think you know YOU will feel guilty if she dies and you haven't seen her. Extra brownie points if you take your mom with you.

Christmas: I don't know. I would say suck it up and go to the service as a christmas present to your mom, but don't make the bf go. It's an hour of your life. It's bound to have pretty music. If you don't want to do that, I guess you have to come to grips with the fact that you're not doing something your mom would like you to do, and you have to explain to her in no uncertain terms why. She'll get over it, I bet.
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:14 AM on December 15, 2011

With regard to the mom thing, sounds like you need a FLOWCHART/DECISION TREE.

1. "I feel like we've already covered that ground."

2. 'As you know I don't agree. Please stop hounding me, this is asked and answered."

3. "I would ask that you not talk to me like that."

4. "You're being cruel and hostile and I don't understand why."

5. "Mom, drop it."

6. "If you continue to talk to me like that, I'm going to hang up/leave."

7. Hang up/leave.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:14 AM on December 15, 2011 [20 favorites]

As people have mentioned: visit your aunt. If visiting hours are 9-5 daily, what's wrong with going on the weekend? Or, if you must, lie about having a 9 am doctor's appointment one day. The reason you feel guilty about this when your mother piles on is because she's right about this.

Also, it will really make things easier on you if you do this before Christmas, so you can avoid that particular fight.

About Christmas dinner -- your boyfriend knows they're going to be obnoxious about it, so he's been warned. You can ignore her, ask her to stop bringing it up so you can enjoy spending time together, or decide to leave if she keeps making jabs at you.
posted by jeather at 7:15 AM on December 15, 2011

You can't control your mom's habits; you can only control how you respond to them. Keep in mind that universally resisting what she's pushing for gives her just as much control over you as would universally capitulating. Reduce your exposure to her behavior as much as you can and thereafter learn to shrug off the guilt-tripping and make your decisions independently.

That aside, you should probably go see your great aunt. Unless your job is more important to you than are people you care about, the job-related excuses don't wash. Death is a hard thing to deal with. I have avoidant tendencies myself, but I see more and more that it's worth dealing with the discomfort and facing painful reality rather than truncating the relationship by being absent during the hard parts.
posted by jon1270 at 7:17 AM on December 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

This doesn't answer your central question about the guilt and the family, but recently while visiting my grandmother in a nursing home, the nurse in charge mentioned to me that there are official visiting hours - something I had not known for the several years I'd been visiting her. No one ever told me that showing up early or late was a problem and I had gone on doing it for years and when she told me about the hours and I expressed dismay for possibly having caused trouble, she said it was fine and not to worry about it.

My brief suggestion on visiting your great aunt: call the nursing home and find out if they mind an occasional visit outside of their official visiting hours. Let them know that your mom is a nurse so you understand to get out of the way if they're working.

In terms of handling the end of your great aunt's life: yes, end of life is not fun, but if you can go and hold her hand for a half hour,and tell her that you love her, it is an important thing to do.

What I've done on the "when are you getting married (or other life event important to family members)" is turn it on them and ask their personal slightly uncomfortable question. I know that this isn't a nice thing, but I usually make it into a joke, letting them know that I'd rather not talk about what they've asked me.

Ok, non-advice:
It sounds like things are sucky and stressful in your life and I wanted to send my wishes for things to get better for you. I've been there and I know the feeling of the clouds of work and family and just general crap that swarm like bees around your head. If you're a hugs person, I'm sending you a hug and if you're not, no hugs just good wishes and a thwack upside the head to anyone adding to your stress. Good luck on getting through the holidays.
posted by sciencegeek at 7:18 AM on December 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

Could you call your Grant Aunt over lunch?

My Aunt/Godmother went from being healthy to sick very very quickly. I spent a lot of my childhood over her house.. but seen her very rarely as I grew older. We weren't super close, but I still loved her.

I didn't go visit her in the hospital for the exact same reason you don't want to go visit your Great Aunt. My Godmother was always a very strong and stubborn woman and I didn't think I could handle seeing her anything but that. It didn't help that my mother agreed that I shouldn't go see her. We were worried she'd be embarrassed.

She passed away this past spring.

Do I regret not seeing her before she died? No. I do regret not talking to her on the phone though and telling her I love her. I like to believe that wherever she is, she knows that I do and forgives me for not visiting her.

People above are saying that the choice I made was selfish and wrong. That I was a bad person. Maybe I am, but for me: It was the right choice. I visited my Grandmother when she was in the hospital and her illness at the end of her life are the front most memories I have of her. I'm glad I don't have those kinds of memories for my Godmother.

So if you can, I encourage you to call your Great Aunt. Tell her you love her and tell her that your job makes it difficult for you to go visit her. This is something between you and your Grant Aunt.. but at the very least you can tell you mother you called and talked to her.
posted by royalsong at 7:27 AM on December 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thinking about the catholic thing. I go to church with my parents all the time. I even get the Eucharist. Which is probably technically wrong, but I'm technically a confirmed Catholic, and it's just easier for everyone involved than trying to explain why I'm in mass but not getting the eucharist. Christmas/Easter Catholics are a very real thing and nobody would really blink if you just showed up once a year for it.

But I left the church not because I had major issues with it, but because I just stopped believing in God, so it's not a big ethical problem for me to show up to mass every once in a while. My mom knows I'm an atheist. I've told her more than once, but she likes to not have to think about it, so she's generally happy when I show up to mass and doesn't bother me about it unless I bring it up or ('rub it in her face', as she likes to put it).
posted by empath at 7:28 AM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

All I can add to the folks above is that you spend the night in a hotel, not your parents' home. It'll give you a nice little breather between the Christmas Eve dinner heaping serving 'o' guilt and the Christmas Day guilt-fest.

Other than that, yeah, carve out a couple minutes for your Great Aunt, your mom's right about that one. They probably allow visits on weekends, as well as weekdays.
posted by easily confused at 7:36 AM on December 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

the problem with passive-aggressive parents isn't that they guilt you into doing things you don't want to do, it's that they ruin things you actually want to do by giving you shitty reasons for doing them (guilt/shame etc.). don't give them the power to ruin shit you want to do! you have to free yourself, because in their world you will always be in chains.

if you love your great aunt, go see her. if you don't, then don't. if you actually want to see her, then it will make both of you feel great when you do it, and you'll remember it forever.
posted by facetious at 7:39 AM on December 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

I found that like your parents, mine were also very surprised that they ended up with someone, who, despite all their input, became a person very different from what they expected. And on my part, it's like this: In the school where I work, I have two little boys who fight a lot. One said about the other, "It's like my heart has a hard side and a soft side, and when I see him, it flips around inside me and the hard side faces him." With my folks, I try to spin my heart so that it's part hard and part soft, lest I either be too mean-spirited or too hurt.

There's a lot going on with my family too, but in short, I have pretty much one rule in dealing with my mom (and her rather horrible relatives): Be Polite. Much like the "Robot Nanny" suggestion that's cropped up in reference to dealing with kids, think: "This is what a polite person would do in this situation." Have a few prepared responses. Change subjects. Walk away. Redirect. Disconnect. Don't engage. And don't take it personally, which sounds flip - but what your mom says is more about her than it is about you. What you've been doing, but budget it so it lasts forever. Pace yourself for the long haul.

Some people just don't get to have open, casual, relaxing and enjoyable parents, and that's just it, I guess. And you will always be their child to them, so they may never treat you like the capable, successful, highly-functioning adult you are. And it's hard not to respond like a child when you're put in that place. So again: respond like the adult you are, which means politely. Take the warmth and nice stuff from them where you can get it, but when the schtick hits the fan, just don't let them affect your being the person you want to be in all this. Which, hopefully, is at least polite. And if you can compartmentalize your mom's negativity and tell yourself while she's saying the critical stuff "This is the part of her that says these things talking." And sometimes, little power struggles open the door to more.

You know, long-term marriages without divorce, and close-knit families don't mean they're happy relationships. She behaves this way because she's in a place where it's okay for her to do so, much like little kids get away with stuff because they know they're loved. I feel sorry for my mom when she does this to me (and others), because she has no idea what it's like to be accepting, generous in spirit and admired by all (like my MIL) - but this is the way she is and at this point in her life, nothing's going to change. I'm not sure my mom loves her life, and I try to think of that when I think of her.

That said, when adults in your life are people that you have to struggle against, it sometimes makes you draw lines and boundaries because you feel you need to protect yourself. Choosing the life you have now insulates you from your family situation, but it may be hardening your heart unnecessarily against people like your aunt. You'd be visiting your aunt, not just doing what your mother wants. You don't visit the dying only for your sake - you do it for theirs. To go out with comfort and closure and knowing you're loved is huge - isn't it part of what we live for? And, treasure the living. We missed (Canadian) Thanksgiving this year, and it turns out that would have been the last time we saw my MIL healthy and lucid. She had a sudden illness, surgery and infection and passed away about a month ago. I am so grateful that we were good to each other - please don't let the frustration and resentment with your parents keep you from being kind to the other people you love (and it's easy to blame it only on your mom for her behaviour, but you are probably holding a grudge over your dad for being passive and also feeling protective toward him - and this I know from my own situation). It may feel like your mother is standing between you and the rest of your family, but she's not. She may want to be, but she's not really. As an official grown-up, creating your own relationships with your family outside of being your mother's child is important, and it gives you more control.

Attending church on Christmas Eve, though I'm not at all religious any more, is something I do for the peace and spectacle and beauty and community - not for the religion. And because, if it matters to the people I care about and it's not much skin off my back, and so it's polite. It sounds like, and I do empathize, that your two examples of attending Church and visiting your aunt are being refused like you're a grown-up who no longer has to eat broccoli any more because, well, you don't have to, and don't want to, and no one can make you. This is indeed where you do have some control in a relationship where there isn't much - but just like being a grown-up is hard, sometimes you choke down the broccoli at forty-two (oh-that's me) because it's polite. I do wish you the best, and offer my empathies!
posted by peagood at 7:41 AM on December 15, 2011 [17 favorites]

I had a great-aunt who died several years ago at 99 and lived far from me. I still feel guilty that I didn't manage to see her more in the last few years of her life. Go see her, call the nursing home and insist that you're going to come after work, after hours, put up a fuss if they say no. Ask if they give her sleep meds, find out what time and go before that. Or make time to go this weekend.
posted by mareli at 7:45 AM on December 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

This sounds very similar to me and my mother, except I live 1000s of miles away from her (definitely related). I think my mother thinks that with every choice I'm making about how to live my life, I'm judging her and finding her choices wanting. She's actually started opening up a little bit and has said that when she was younger she made a conscious decision to get married, be a mother, and be a strong Catholic. I have not chosen to get married (yet and maybe ever), and I'm ambivalent about kids and religion. My mother has never been able to understand having the same information and making a different decision and this is just one more time. This idea has given me a lot more sympathy with her and I try to make comments that value her choices so she knows I'm not just rejecting her and her life.

I'm glad that you're thinking of visiting your great aunt. One major drawback of living so far away is that I just get to hear about people getting sick and I don't get to do anything, even it's just a little thing like visiting. I would also lean towards going to Christmas Eve mass, as empath said above, as a gift to your mother.

One other thing though - you're bringing your boyfriend who your parents have only met briefly to Christmas dinnner?! Oh man. You are braver than me. Maybe that's how it is in your family but I can see your mother maybe thinking that you're making a big fuss about going to church like you always did and now you want her to make a fuss about this guy she doesn't even know and doesn't know if he's going to last? Can you introduce them at a more low key time? Talk about him a lot more? Get him to suck up to your mom by going to church (very successful in my experience)? Have him join you later in the evening (that would probably be mean to him)?
posted by hydrobatidae at 7:47 AM on December 15, 2011

You should be able to call and talk to the caregivers at your great-aunt's nursing home. Find out how awake and aware she is, what her good times of day are, and whether there's ever a chance to visit on evenings/weekends. You can't be the only family member out there who works 9-5 and finds it difficult to visit during those hours. And go - go before Christmas, go again after. It's not as bad as you're afraid it will be.

Keep being a grown-up with your parents. Evade/distract when you can, laugh it off when possible, and if that doesn't work stick with the "I'm working, I have a home, I love my life" refrain. Probably a good part of the nagging comes from concern because they truly believe you're missing out on the things that make life worthwhile (marriage, kids, church). You can acknowledge those sorts of feelings without agreeing. I'm sure they also worry that your choices reflect on their own performance as parents. If they'd "raised you right" you'd be a church-going married woman with 3 kids. In other words - it's not just you who's under the microscope. I think I'm pretty mainstream, but also got pressured about having kids, about living far away from family, and made choices that are different from the family norm. This sort of behavior is pretty normal, I think, not that it helps us deal with it.

My atheist in-laws have been to both my kids' baptisms, which were at Easter. They came because they know it's important to us, and I loved them even more for it. Can you look at Christmas the same way? Maybe you can appreciate the social and historical aspects of worship while ignoring the religious part? I agree that arriving just in time for dinner should be a good compromise, but if it will only cause more angst, might cause more stress than just going to church.

In all cases, kudos to you for continuing to relate to your family and working to improve relationships. It'll be worth it in the long run, even though it's adding a lot of stress right now.
posted by hms71 at 7:48 AM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think this is a case of choosing your battles carefully.

QFT. There's some in your question that is a big issue (dealing with the guilt, the passive aggressive sniping, etc.) and some of it that's basically a situation where you're passive-aggressively drawing a line with your parents (not visiting your Great Aunt, turning the Christmas mass issue into a "thing", etc.).

You need to draw lines for yourself over issues that are important (who you are, what you do with your life, how you've chosen to live) rather than picking fights where you inevitably come across as the bad guy (not visiting your Great Aunt, avoiding coming to church with your parents for an hour on a Saturday afternoon).

Your battle-choosing priorities are out-of-whack: and this isn't a surprise in a family like yours-- you're taught never to think about your own needs and wants, so when it comes down to making wise decisions over when to assert yourself and when you have to nut-up because "it's not about you," you can't always see the difference clearly.
posted by deanc at 7:51 AM on December 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

I made a few wee tweaks to RJ Reynolds flow tree.

1. We've already covered that ground."

2. "Stop hounding me."

3. "Don't talk to me like that."

4. "You're cruel and hostile."

5. "Mom, drop it."

6. "If you continue to talk to me like that, I'm going to hang up/leave."

7. Hang up/leave.

Why are you going to your parents' house for Christmas Day/dinner? It's (past) time to start new traditions. New boyfriend, new holiday. Yes, I know, it's easy to glibly type that from many miles away and not knowing the dramatis personae involved.
About your great aunt....I wouldn't visit her, but that's me and my stony heart.

I think your mom resents your hard-won independence. The haranguing about marriage and children...what year are we in, again?
posted by BostonTerrier at 8:02 AM on December 15, 2011

It is hilarious that people think that going to visit the Great Aunt will simply wipe that topic off the board as a point of contention. Go see her or don't, as you see fit. You know full well that even if you do, the guilt and the stress will continue. "Why don't you visit her more? Why did it take you so long to visit her? Why didn't you bring her some ice cream? Why the heck did you bring her ice cream? You only stayed for an hour?" And even if it is no longer about the Great Aunt, there will be something else to take her place.

You need to find a way to either deal with the guilt (RJ Reynolds script is right on) or minimize your interaction with her. She has made her mode of interaction with you clear over the years, and it is irrational to expect her to change, no matter what your behavior is.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:02 AM on December 15, 2011 [7 favorites]

If the nursing home's visiting hours are 9-5 everyday, why don't you go on the weekend?

And I agree with deanc.
posted by shoesietart at 8:06 AM on December 15, 2011

It is hilarious that people think that going to visit the Great Aunt will simply wipe that topic off the board as a point of contention.

I don't think it will. I think she should visit her Great Aunt because it's the right thing to do.

It's really hard as a lapsed Catholic to negotiate your relationship with the church when your family is still involved with it. It's tempting to just go from being Catholic to being 'anti-Catholic'. I was that way for years. But eventually I grew to accept my Catholic upbringing as part of my cultural inheritance that I didn't want to throw entirely overboard and started to re-appreciate things I enjoyed about it like hymns, etc. Going to mass as an atheist is not an entirely value-less experience, and if the priest is any good, often the homilies will give you things to think about, and just the experience of sitting in church for an hour silently and indulging in the ritual of it while thinking about life, or whatever has value.

That said, I only go to mass when I'm at my parents' house for the holiday and going with them. I don't go out of my way to go with them, but I don't go out of my way to not go with them, either.

Also, there are things worth fighting about with your guilt-tripping catholic mother, and things that aren't. It's a lot easier to take a stand on the things that are really important to you, when you give in on things that aren't that important for you but are really important for her.
posted by empath at 8:11 AM on December 15, 2011 [8 favorites]

The only way out of this is to genuinely refuse to feel guilty. This is not the same as saying "I refuse to feel guilty about.....!" You have to really not feel guilty, and you have to be one hundred percent comfortable pulling the reins on conversations you don't wish to have. The only thing that most people respond to in these situations is genuine strength and self-assuredness, and very clear boundaries. It's clear to me from how you've written your post that you still, on some level, want your parents to approve of your choices and recognize that you're awesome. Well, they're likely never really going to do that to your satisfaction. That's just part of being raised in religious families; the whole point of religion within some families is to pull the reins on individual freedom and make people toe a line through guilt. When you genuinely refuse to do that is when you will start winning with your family without needing to feel in opposition to or in conflict with them.

How do I do that? Well, you have to really start meaning what you say. That means not going to your parents to ameliorate guilt feelings you have about saying no, but rather gently talking yourself off the guilt ledge internally while standing firm with your parents. You don't want to go to church? Well, you have to say just that, dispassionately, succinctly and firmly, without leaving the door open for discussion. "Mom, Tom and I are going to stay here while you go to mass on Christmas Eve." is what to say. Not, "I know you're going to give me all kinds of hell, Mom, but, well, Tom and I, well, I know you're going to hate this and disapprove, but, but....." Say what you're going to do then do it. If she gives you push back, do NOT rise to the bait. Just listen, make eye contact, nod slightly, and then repeat what you've already said. "Okay, Mom. Yeah, I hear you. Tom and I will not be going to mass. Thanks for understanding." And then drop it and keep your distance without expecting her to approve of your choice. You're an adult; you don't need her to approve of it.

Now, the hard part will be navigating the fetid black cloud of passive aggressive disapproval that your mother will emit, Pig Pen-esque, for the next day or so. RESIST RISING TO THE BAIT. You can do it. Be cordial, polite, and detached without being smug and just stick to your guns. Get out of the house with your boyfriend or get into the kitchen and bake cookies or play family photographer, anything to keep yourself busy and push away from the middle of the game-playing ocean toward the dry land of adult behavior.

As for visiting your aunt.....the most surefire way to avoid feeling guilty about not visiting your aunt is to go visit your aunt. Don't fall into the trap of using your parents' guilt trips as an excuse. You're scared and probably feel like you don't know what to do or say, and you just don't want to face the ugliness of death. Well, let me tell you, as someone who's just lost a 36 year-old friend to cancer, it means so much to your aunt that you visit her and honor her life. Her death is NOT the sum total of her life; do not make the mistake of lumping their whole life's worth of memories and experiences into the one brief moment, relatively speaking, of a person's death. Not only will you make her happy, it will be very helpful to you in becoming truly independent of your parents if you are strong in the face of something that scares the crap out of you.

Lastly, because it needs to be said, therapy speeds up the process of becoming independent of toxic family dynamics.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 8:15 AM on December 15, 2011 [15 favorites]

Accept that your parents will never see you as successful.

Everyone has a different view of success vs failure. For some people success means "just like them" and failure means "everyone who is not just like them. To your mother success may mean "Find roman catholic husband and produce a mountain of babies".

If that is her definition of success, then anyone who is not marries to a catholic and producing babies is a "failure", and no parent wants their children to fail.

One thing I would begin doing is express to her that you are achieving your goals and feel that you are a success. If she whines about children, say that you don't ever want children and have been very successful at not having them. Explain that it is your goal to not have children, etc.

She will probably never accept your life goals but she may be able to understand that you see yourself as a success as opposed to a child who is running around blindly failing at life.

Take the "This is what I want. This is what makes me happy. Your life would make me unhappy, I don't want that life" stance. If that seems harsh, remember that she is taking that stance with you, and you have a right to stand up for yourself.
posted by Shouraku at 8:16 AM on December 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

One of the steps of walking away from our parents' crazy is learning to own our own desires and values and making life decisions based on our own desires and values, proactively, rather than making decisions about our parents' desires and values, reactively.

Your question is full of making decisions reactively, and then rationalizing such decisions based on your actual desires and values. This is a backwards protocol.

I think you'll be surprised that when you are able to stand firmly and confidently in your proactive decision making, sometimes certain acts that were distasteful as a reaction to parents can become affirmations of your own values.

For example, going to Mass for an hour can be an affirmation of your love for your parents, despite their differing beliefs, rather than a reaction to being "guilted" into becoming Catholic. You know, for sure, that you are definitely not Catholic. So does your boyfriend. And so do your parents.

However, that is just an example, and you might find that you have excellent proactive reasons not to do anything with your parents this holiday. I have no idea.

The point is, I think you need to take a deep breath, a step back, and figure out who floweredfish is, and what floweredfish believes and values, and then step into your family and make decisions confident in those things. Such confidence is akin to teflon when it comes to guilt. I swear.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 8:18 AM on December 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

Here's the thing about guilt-trippers like this: they take a shotgun approach and eventually land on something that yes, you are probably wrong about, but that's not the overall problem, which is in the title of the question.

Your parents love you no matter what. They may be angry at you, afraid for you, or generally frustrated that they can't control you, but they love you. If you are able to mentally reframe the nagging into "I love you and want what's best for you but I suck at communicating that" you'll have an easier time of it.

The passive-aggression is obnoxious because you can't call it out--BUT WAIT! You can call it out! I have actually just been like "hey, mother-in-law, I can tell you're angry about something, why don't you go ahead and just tell me?" Sometimes she does, usually she doesn't, but she at least gets her anger acknowledged and it defuses her seething martyrdom act.* The script might be different for you, but getting it out in the open instead of leaving it encased in bullshit is very healthy and satisfying.

*She was raised to never express anger directly due to being female and traditional. I try to be mindful and compassionate about this when dealing with her because it really isn't her fault.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:05 AM on December 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

- Christmas Mass is fun! Just go!!

(I grew up Roman Catholic, strongly dislike organized religion, but I've been to a gazillion xmas services to join my hosts. It's what you do to be polite.)

- Call the nursing home and see if they can accommodate you during off hours. Just suck it up. Bigger picture stuff here for you.


Overall, I think at this stage in your life, what your mom says would completely bounce off of you if you didn't know deep down she's right about some stuff, even if the delivery of the message stinks. The delivery and the message are two different things. Learn to discern one from the other to help you maintain composure and equilibrium.

And about having children....

You can NOT predict what you'll want should you be lucky enough to fall deeply and truly in love with a fantastic partner. (Go ahead! Ask me how I know this!!) Right now, you sound a little bit like you are not wanting children to rebel against your mom or family. Could there be some truth in that?

Overall, when you grow up a bit more, navigating these issues will be easy. I think you're overwhelmed by some old programming, that's all.

Oh. You didn't indicate this was the case, but I should hope your new BF is game to go to Christmas mass. If he balks, red flag. There is no good reason for him not to participate in a relatively benign one-off activity that means so much to his hosts on the holidays, who also happen to be his new GF's parents. Know what I mean here?

Happy Holidays and good luck to you!

(BTW, if you mom's domineering ways cross over into verbal abuse category, then maybe speak to that in new question? You didn't speak that, so I didn't either. If you had mentioned verbal abuse, my answer would have been way way different.)
posted by jbenben at 9:14 AM on December 15, 2011

floweredfish, I don't have any advice for dealing with your mother (wish I did!), but I just wanted to say a bit about nursing homes. Believe me, the nursing home is probably not an "awful place." It's probably like the one my father is in; sure, it can be depressing, but they do their best to make it homey. They decorate for the holidays, they have music in the dining room, people bring pets in to visit, etc.

I used to wonder how people could work there and deal with the stuff they have to deal with, but then I started to see something beautiful there: everybody there is having a hard time and not at their best, but the human warmth and connection is still there, and everybody accepts everybody else's level of functioning. My father, who has dementia, sits at the dinner table with three other guys; none of them can hear well, so their conversation tends to include a lot of non sequiturs, but they sit there and chat and laugh anyway. It doesn't matter that it doesn't make a lot of sense, what matters is that I bring coloring books and pencils to Maxine and I hold Pat's hand, he tells me how happy he is to see me, and I show him the pictures on my phone.

It's hard to go there, but it's not as hard as you think, and it will make you feel so much better. Hugs to you.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 9:54 AM on December 15, 2011

Re: your aunt, I would urge you to go for your own peace of mind, because it will give you the opportunity to put into words those things that need to be said and I can promise you that after she's died you will be so very glad you did so - it will be a comfort to you, and will also have been so to your aunt. Please consider doing this.

Re: families - I want to agree heartily with this comment:

"And you will always be their child to them, so they may never treat you like the capable, successful, highly-functioning adult you are. And it's hard not to respond like a child when you're put in that place."

This was me and my much-loved mom during a lot of my adult life. She grew up with four sisters and sometimes I think she forgot I wasn't one of them - it was sometimes very painful to be confronted with someone's very clear and uncompromising view of what I should be doing and why what I was actually doing just Wasn't Right. Having to deal with that (and to be honest, at times behaving like an overgrown baby in doing so) was not easy.

I think the only thing to do would be to pick a moment when you are relaxed and things are convivial and ask her if she could perhaps reflect on the fact that while you know your life choices to date are not necessarily agreeable to her, they are to you and you're living as a contented and fulfilled member of society. I know she gets your back up, but I'm sure she also loves you and wants you to be happy and there's no harm in reminding her that you are happy. And remind her every time she tries to guilt you that you're happy and she should be, too.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 10:02 AM on December 15, 2011

Why not go visit great aunt on Christmas Eve before dinner while your family is in church? Then when they give you dita for not being at church, you ask why they were not at the nursing home.

Everything else, ignore. The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:15 AM on December 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

I have to agree with empath on, well, everything.

First, see your great aunt because it's right, and for no other reason. When you go, go for the unselfish reason of meeting her needs, and not your own. (Or for that matter, your family's.) I know you don't want to be there. I've spent more than my share of time in such places, and I totally get that you don't want to visit. Now imagine having to live there... With any luck, you'll be able to help your great aunt forget that she's there, even if only for a few moments. While you're there, talk to the nurses or other people with the actual authority to see whether there's anything they can do to accommodate your schedule, and if not, be sure to let your mother know you've tried.

Plan any visit in advance and make room for it at work by delegating tasks where you can. If you can't visit more often, especially around holidays, consider sending gifts or keeping in touch by telephone occasionally.

Empath is also right as to the value to be derived from attending Christmas Eve Mass with your family. Obviously, it's not ideal for you to have to go, but you're going to have to decide whether Mass is more painful than hearing about it from your parents. Like your boyfriend, I'm an agnostic and before that, a strident atheist. But in my current life as a recovering-Catholica, I can honestly tell you that every Catholic priest I've met in the United States now takes their scripture to be mostly metaphor containing useful life lessons. Most of the skillful homilies still manage to reference essential truths about us, as human beings, and our relationship to one another. If nothing else, at least you can admire the pageantry.
posted by Hylas at 11:27 AM on December 15, 2011

A small point: at one point in my thirties I realized that for my grandfather, no achievements or experiences really meant much as long as I was unmarried and not a father. Until I did that, I was still immature and wrongheaded in his eyes.
posted by lathrop at 12:49 PM on December 15, 2011

About the Church thing:
I've been there. I'm an atheist. I go to Church on Christmas Eve with my Mom because it makes her just so happy. I'm comfortable with theism and spirituality, if that's what floats someone's boat...but organized religion leaves me VERY conflicted. I have to admit that it is some seriously powerful social glue, creating communal ties that sustain people through difficult times, and amplify celebration during joyful times. That can be done without organized religion, to be sure, but organized religion is especially good at doing it. The other side of that coin, though, is that on a macro/societal scale, I believe it discourages critical thinking and marginalizes people who are "different". So yeah, conflicted.

Try to separate "going to church with parents on Christmas" from "supporting an organization whose message I disagree with." You're not giving their Church any money, they don't make you swear publicly that you believe in God in order to get in, and there's not amount of sacramental wine guzzling that could suddenly "turn" you Catholic. You're just participating in an activity you don't like, but that means a lot to your parents. You're doing something unpleasant to make them happy.
posted by JuliaIglesias at 1:09 PM on December 15, 2011

I can't answer for the church thing (I just suck it up and go), but I feel the same way as you do about visiting in hospitals and nursing homes. I feel physically ill in the places and I got dragged and forced to go regularly in my family. I completely understand not wanting to see and remember your aunt in the nursing home as the last and clearest way that you remember her. (I'm grateful that my remaining dying relative lives in another state and I don't have to be dragged to visit her every Sunday, because I hear she's extremely bad off.)

But here's the thing: you're going to feel bad and guilty if you go, and you're going to feel bad and guilty if you don't go. You are inevitably going to lose either way. The only plus in the situation is that if you go, it shuts up your mom and makes your aunt happier. And some people do have that retroactive "I wish I had visited more" guilt thing kick in after someone dies. I know you're making excuses because you don't want to go and I sure as hell never did either, but "visiting hours" are a load of crap and nobody ever chased me and my mother out of a home at 5 p.m. or told us to leave when we showed up AT 5 p.m. or later. Visitors are rare and they'll be more inclined to kiss your ass for showing up at all there.

I don't like advising you to see her in the home. It is awful. I wish I didn't have those memories either. But...going and tainting your memories is the only way to lessen the guilt of not going, and shuts up the parents. Sorry. It's just the truth. It's kind of a "do it for your aunt, if not yourself" situation there.

As for being in your 30's and single, I managed to shut up my nagging relatives by telling them that whether or not I got married was not 100% under my control here, so nagging wasn't going to fix the situation.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:19 PM on December 15, 2011

I was in a nursing home for two months because of a superbug infection that got in my bones. It was an awful place. Part of the reason it was awful was because there were a whole lot of suffering people there.

Not going because work prevents you is, from my perspective, a-okay. Not going because it is icky -well, unless you plan on avoiding every end-of-life scenario with everybody, you are going to have to face the ick at some point. Understanding death, I think, is an important part of becoming a mature person.

But your mom's guilt party is nonsense. Be your own person, make your own decisions, follow the script that others have laid out re: dealing with the guilt on the phone.
posted by angrycat at 1:25 PM on December 15, 2011

Thank you so much everyone, for your advice. I LOVE the solution to visit my Great Aunt on Christmas Eve while they're in church. This kills about four birds with one stone: Visiting my Great Aunt, skipping church, making them happy that I saw my Great Aunt and making myself happy.

As for the other stuff, I truly wish I could mark all of these answers as best answers. You are so helpful in how to manage the passive aggressiveness. You guys are great! Have a happy and (guilt free!) holiday! :)
posted by floweredfish at 1:35 PM on December 15, 2011

In addition to dealing with your family by being true to yourself, and not accepting guilt/bullying, start doing that with your boss. Call in late, and go visit your Aunt. If Boss gives you hell, you use trythetilapia's approach: look at him calmly and without guilt and say "I visited my elderly aunt in her nursing home. It was the right thing to do." Your job probably requires lots of extra effort, long hours, travel, always being available. But you can throttle it back a bit. You know what? They'll respect you more because of it.

Your honest response to the suggestion to just visit your Aunt is really a good thing.
posted by theora55 at 3:44 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know how helpful I can be about the parent-guilt thing but I have some suggestions about the great aunt situation. I had a job like yours once (70 hours a week and travelling) and I tried these methods to make sure my loved ones still knew they were loved:

-Send flowers regularly, like every other week. You can find two minutes to go on-line to do a quick FTD order. The have small and cute arrangements that will brighten her room and plants as well. Put a reminder on your calendar as a recurring item. If she doesn't like flowers, you could do an Edible Arrangement or cookie bouquet big enough to share with other residents.

-Keep a box of notecards or postcards in your desk and regularly send her mail. Even if it just to send photos of your recent activities, a memory of a nice moment with her, etc. If you live in the US, buy a bunch of flat rate priority mail stamps for the small flat rate boxes that you can just pop in the mailbox and keep those in your desk. When you see something nice she might like, such as warm socks or a curio, pop it in the mail to her. You could even print out a sheet of labels that have her address so it is super easy for you.

-If you're travelling a lot, send a postcard from the places you visit! Buy a book of postage and keep it in your wallet.

-Does she have any hobby that she can still do, like crochet? My grandmother loves to knit but can't get to the yarn store by herself, so I collect fancy and fun yarns. If I can't bring them in person, it is easy to pop them in the mail.

-Use your calendar to schedule in things like 5 minutes to write a postcard, monthly reminder to send a gift/flowers, 5 minutes to make a phone call. Stock up your desk with all you'll need to make it easy on yourself and try to do the best you can.

She will appreciate these things and it will remind her that you haven't forgotten about her.
posted by dottiechang at 11:53 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've used "I try to be tolerant of other people's beliefs, and hope they are tolerant of mine" on Grandma Llama. It was surprisingly effective.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:23 AM on December 16, 2011

I don't know how well your aunt is, but can you take along a game of Scrabble or something? A few of us in my family hate visiting my grandma because she has the TV on so loud and does nothing but complain about what's on TV. Then my cousin got started playing Scrabble with her and she will turn the TV off for that, and she doesn't complain. In your case it could help avoid any awkward conversations you might have. Your Great Aunt: "So when are you getting married?" You: "huh, what? I was just concentrating so hard on my letters..." and don't answer the question. Repeat as necessary.

With my cousin who pressures me about church, I just let what she says go in one ear and out the other. "Mmhmm, mmhmm." She almost constantly has some kind of drama going on with a pastor being reprimanded or another churchgoer in trouble and I just let her ramble on.

While you can often try the Miss Manners approach, "Whyever would you ask such a personal question?" or "How kind of you to take an interest," I was recently able to avoid a discussion on marriage in this way - Elderly relative: "So IndigoRain, when are you going to get married and have kids?" Me: "When I find a man who I think is worthy of me and raising my children." It miraculously worked and the discussion became how hard it is to find a good man, and I escaped. FWIW I have absolutely no interest in marriage (most of the married people I know are very unhappy in their marriages) and while I love kids, I probably can't have any without some help. In other words, fibbing is okay.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:41 PM on December 16, 2011

You could even kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, and go & visit your great Aunt on Christmas Eve, before going to your parents' for dinner. Then the reason that you weren't in church is that you were visiting the great Aunt!
posted by cantthinkofagoodname at 9:50 PM on December 18, 2011

Oops, I posted before reading the whole thread and now someone already said this. Anyway my grandmother, who dies recently, was in a nursing home for a while before she died, and while visiting her was not on my list of top 10 fun things to do, it wasn't nearly as bad as you might think.

One thing I would recommend doing is to ask her to tell you about people and events in your family history. The last time I saw my grandmother she told me fascinating stories about what my grandfather & her brother had done in their youth. The very old tend to still remember the distant past quite well, even if their recent memory isn't working too well, and all this family history is about to be lost if you don't hear it now. You could even ask her to tell you about your mother when she was young, which might give you more insight and understanding into her.
posted by cantthinkofagoodname at 10:13 PM on December 18, 2011

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