How to deal with a difficult mother.
March 17, 2012 8:04 AM   Subscribe

I have a very difficult relationship with my mother. I now have a baby. Things are getting worse and I don't know what to do. Very long background inside.

I'm sorry this is so long, but I want to include as many details as possible since this is an anonymous question.

My mother and I have a complicated relationship. She is mentally ill, and has been throughout my childhood. She has severe depression, anxiety, and a dissociative disorder. She also is in poor physical health. She is in her mid-60s and lives in a retirement community. She does not need to worry about money because of the alimony she receives from my father (from whom I am estranged).

I had an unhappy childhood. My father has always been distant and angry. I have several half siblings from my father's first marriage, who were raised believing that my mother was also their mother until they were teenagers. My mother’s problems stem from her own childhood, which was horribly abusive. She was sexually and emotionally abused by her family, and repressed a lot of her pain until her brother committed suicide as an adult (which occurred the summer I turned 9 years old). I feel very bad that most of my issues with my mother were ultimately caused by her awful childhood of abuse.

When I was a baby and small child, my mom was a “good” mother in the sense of being affectionate and encouraging my development. She constantly told me how much she loved me. However, at the same time she was also physically and emotionally abusive towards my half siblings. She prevented me from having normal relationships with them. She was paranoid that I would be sexually abused by one brother, so she wouldn’t leave me in the same room with him. She locked two of them in their bedroom whenever she and my father would leave the house. She forced one of them to eat her cigarette ashes and made him run around the neighbourhood to exhaustion. I didn’t understand this and I was also afraid that she would turn on me one day. However, during this time my mother maintained an appearance that we were a normal family to outsiders. She volunteered at my school, and had many friendships.

When I was 9 and my uncle (who I had never met) committed suicide, everything changed. My mom became severely depressed and attended therapy three times a week. She began drinking, and she was prescribed many different drugs that made her zoned out a lot of the time. She began attempting suicide. I saw her in many horrible states – after taking 100 sleeping pills and having her stomach pumped, covered in blood from slitting her neck, etc. She spent a lot of time in mental hospitals. My father was very distant so he never really told me anything about this. I sort of just learned to go numb when these things happened.

My father divorced her when I was about 13, while my mother was hospitalized in another state. She eventually was released, and I went to live with her for most of my high school years. These were the worst years of all. She was depressed and spent all her days and nights in her bedroom. She stole money from me to buy more and more clothes, which she never wore because she spent all her time in her room. We were barely on speaking terms. I felt nothing but hatred and contempt for her and couldn’t wait to get out on my own.

I moved far away for university and have barely seen my mom since then. I am in my mid-30s and have been married for more than a decade. I’ve built a life of my own and I consider my husband’s family to be my family now. I spent some time only speaking to my mother sporadically, but for the last 10 years or so I speak to her on the phone once a week for 30 minutes. My husband and I visited her several times more than a decade ago, but we stopped because she made him so uncomfortable – she does not have boundaries, so would ask him about our sex life, etc. I went to visit my mom in 2010 by myself, and the visit was okay for the first day. After that we got on each other’s nerves but were cordial. My plan at that time was to visit her on my own once per year, due to my feelings of guilt. I did not visit in 2011 due to my pregnancy.

I feel nothing for my mother but numbness and frustration. The only reason I still am in contact with her is because of guilt. She has no one else. She has no family besides me. She became a conservative Christian somewhere along the line, so she has a church, but she often isolates herself from them due to her depression. She has a few friends in the retirement community where she lives, but she seems to hate them since she is always insulting them to me.

We speak once a week on the phone, but basically just discuss her physical complaints (she is in poor health). For the last decade, the pattern is: we have these boring conversations for several months, then she calls me out of the blue and screams at me for being a “terrible daughter” since I never visit her or discuss anything substantial about my own life. She is right that I don’t let her in emotionally – this is mainly because she has hurt me so much in the past, and I have built a life away from her. Oftentimes she claims to have no memory of these conversations after they occur, and she sometimes apologizes profusely afterwards. During the “good” times, she tells me how much she loves me and seems to have an idealized view of the first 9 years of my life. She thinks she was a great mother until her mental health issues got in the way.

I now have a 5 month old baby. I told my mom we would visit her so she could meet the baby in the spring (it is a 10 hour drive away). This makes me uneasy but I felt like I owed it to her. Recently, my husband’s mother has had a sudden serious health issue and may die. I spoke to my mom this week and told her about it, and again it became all about her. She phoned me a few days ago and again told me what a terrible daughter I am, since I haven’t visited with the baby yet and since I am closer to my husband’s family. (Her immediate response to my mother in law’s health issue was to ask me what I would do if this happened to her.) Then, last night, she phoned again and claimed she didn’t remember what was said in our previous conversation. After a strained 5 minutes of conversation, she informed me that her friend in the retirement community was listening on the other line! She said that she “needs” to do this since her memory is so bad. However, during the call she kept disputing everything I said about our earlier conversation.

I don’t know what to do now. I hate my mother and feel nothing but anger and numbness when we speak. However, she has no one else. I feel guilty. I feel like I should care about her. I don’t know whether I should visit with the baby. My husband hates her too but tries to support me. To outsiders I think I appear uncaring and cold towards her. But they don’t know the details of our past. My mother has this fantasy in her head that we had this great life until she got sick, and that I’m still punishing her for it.

I know this question is long and rambling, and I’m sorry. I just feel so lost about this issue and don’t know where to go from here. Any advice is appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Therapy. Therapy. Therapy.

You have all the power. Use it. Grandma doesn't get to see baby until she promises to play nice. Make this clear to her in no uncertain terms.

Also, therapy.
posted by quincunx at 8:09 AM on March 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

You are not responsible for your mother. You are responsible for yourself, and you are responsible for your child, but you are not responsible for your mother.

Take care of yourself, and take care of your child.
posted by headnsouth at 8:20 AM on March 17, 2012 [16 favorites]

She doesn't need your financial support. You don't owe her emotional support.

Exactly what headnsouth said: Take care of yourself, and take care of your child.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:35 AM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can choose what kind of relationship to have with your mother. Choosing to have no relationship with her is okay too. Don't worry how it looks to outsiders -- as has been noted many times here, people with happy families often assume that others are the same way, and they have no idea what your history has been like. If you're only talking to her out of guilt, because you feel like you should even though you really don't want to, you can choose to cut her off. And if it's important to you to maintain the relationship, just to you, regardless of what others think, then keep going. But you don't owe her anything.
posted by chickenmagazine at 8:36 AM on March 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is very simplistic advice for a very complex problem, but:

Your family is caught up in a hellish abuse spiral and it has ruined your mother's life. You are dragging yourself out of that cycle. Why introduce your child to it?

Yes, we are conditioned by society and our families and every hallmark greeting card ad to assume that we absolutely must love our parents, that there's something wrong with us if we don't. But the wrong here is with your mother, and not loving someone who was and is abusive is not abnormal, and it's not wrong.

Work on letting go of the guilt so you can let go of the relationship. You will eventually be healthier for it.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:36 AM on March 17, 2012 [13 favorites]

I don’t know what to do now. I hate my mother and feel nothing but anger and numbness when we speak. However, she has no one else. I feel guilty. I feel like I should care about her. I don’t know whether I should visit with the baby.

That's okay, you know. What you feel is what any normal person would feel after going through what you went through.

As for whether you let her see the baby, I think you may want to do that at some point. It's perfectly legit to wait until you're husband's mother is better, though.

But I think that you probably do need to think about talking with someone outside your family about all this, perhaps a counsellor or therapist. You seem like you're not certain what you should hope for, out of your relationship with your mother, nor what you owe her. I think it'll take some time for you to think that out, and that it will be helpful to you to have a neutral person to talk to about that stuff, who can give you some reassurance about what's normal and what's not.

But in general --- it's hard for people to change, and they only will if they want to. Sometimes being a good person means we are bound to act and to care even if the feelings that ought to spur such actions aren't there. It's a terrible thing, but terrible things happen in the world sometimes and we can only bear them.
posted by Diablevert at 8:37 AM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is no reason for you to feel guilty about any of this. She is not your responsibility. YOU OWE HER NOTHING. Your responsibility is to yourself and your child. If I were in your situation I would protect my child by keeping her far away from this woman.
posted by blurker at 8:38 AM on March 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

To outsiders I think I appear uncaring and cold towards her. But they don’t know the details of our past.

LOTS of people have terrible families of origin. Tons of my friends don't speak to their parents anymore. I don't think many people will judge you if you don't talk to your mom.

Think about the stress this is introducing into your life, and think about whether you want your child to see you in the state that your mom puts you in.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:43 AM on March 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Don't worry about how you appear to outsiders, or how your mother perceives your behavior/remembers how things were. You (and your husband) know that those opinions are not based in fact. I'm sure that it bothers you when people judge your familial relations - it bothers me when people do it - but frankly... eff them. You owe no one an explanation of your feelings or actions except yourself, your child, the family you created - in short, the people who are directly affected. You are allowed to choose to have her in your life, or not.

I don't think, even in "happy families," that members owe each other. It's a choice. I think you are coming to realise that you have to make some sort of choice, because this holding pattern doesn't fulfill you or make you happy.

Anecdotally, I've been where you are, and so have a few others here. Feel free to memail about it; I have grown a bit weary of posting my situation over and over. But your feelings are totally normal.

Also, I would wait to visit her with the baby. You're in an emotional state as it is, with a new baby and an ailing mother in law who you consider to be family. I don't think this visit would go well. If you do decide to visit, keep it as brief as possible. Maybe make plans to do other things in that area o the drive seems more palatable.
posted by sm1tten at 8:43 AM on March 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

I cannot stress this enough, but you really need therapy. Not because there's something wrong with you, but because what happened to you and your half-siblings is so incredibly wrong.

Based on what you have stated, there is nothing wrong with feeling anger and numbness towards your mother. There is a lot of negative history and memories.

You weren't treated the way that you deserved to be treated. But now, the power is all in your court. You call the shots, seriously. And, you need to continue to take care of yourself, your husband, and your child before anyone else. For that reason, I'd recommend not visiting your mother at this point.

For what it's worth, you don't owe ANYONE anything. You don't owe anyone any explanations to outsiders. You don't owe your mother a relationship. And, you certainly don't owe yourself a relationship based out of hate and guilt.
posted by livinglearning at 8:50 AM on March 17, 2012 [10 favorites]

What is your 100%? Allow yourself to give voice to what you want to do in this situation. If it's: I want to focus on my health and my MIL's health right now. Then do that. Having a newborn is a roller coaster of emotions and hormones and I think it's best to focus on yourself and on absolutes in the near term. Focusing on your needs and health enables you to make healthy decisions about responding to your baby's needs. Of course your mother wants to meet the baby. She is within her rights to want that but you do not have to shoulder that burden.

You also do not have to shoulder the burden of her relationship with your husband. I understand you are embarrassed by her behavior but I urge you to let it go. It is her responsibility to form appropriate relationships. She has not done so with your husband. They are responsible for their own relationship.

I think, when you are able, you should go visit your mom. Babies have the power to be great levelers in relationships. But it doesn't always work out that way - and that's not your problem to fix.
posted by amanda at 8:50 AM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a difficult relationship with my mother also, sometimes it helps to discuss with a community, guilt is a big issue is this forum. I'm not saying your mother fits the bill for this condition but sometimes visiting this forum alleviates the guilt of not having a relationship with my mother.
posted by ibakecake at 9:08 AM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why would any outsiders know about your mother? It isn't anyone's business. I would just say something like, " we don't talk." no details required.

I would consider just cutting her off for a year or two. This would give you some time to cope with your mother in law and your new baby. Maybe you might be able to deal with your mother if you have a new perspective. Or maybe you won't.

It sucks that she has this illness. But that doesn't mean you have to dragged into it. when you have a child, you have to make yourself the priority so you can take care of your family. Your family doesn't include your mother.
posted by Monday at 9:12 AM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I want to second amanda's comment about taking some time to figure out what an ideal situation or outcome would look like *for you.* That has always been the first step for me when I feel trapped in a web of guilty obligations. I'm guessing that part of your paralysis and anguish here is that you're unable to differentiate between your own desires and your mom's desires--she's been very effective at using guilt to make you feel like what she wants is also what you want, if only to relieve the guilt.

I think it would be really helpful to say OUT LOUD--to your husband, or even just to yourself--what you would like to happen if you didn't have to take anyone else's feelings into account. (Sounds like this might actually be no contact with your mother, but you are the only one who really knows what you want in an ideal world.) Then you can figure out exactly how much you're willing to compromise in taking her desires into account, and feel okay with having it be that much and no more. I suspect that re-shifting your view away from one that gives your (unstated, maybe unrecognized) desires and your mom's desires equal billing, and towards a view that makes your desires central and you in control of how much you're willing to sacrifice to meet your mom's desires, will relieve some of this pressure you feel. Therapy can be really, really helpful with this, but the first step is going to be recognizing and articulating your desires free from what your mom wants--and there's no reason you can't start doing that right now.
posted by iminurmefi at 9:17 AM on March 17, 2012 [8 favorites]

You can absolutely disconnect with her. Outsiders really aren't even thinking of your relationship with your mother, much less being judgmental about it. so you can cross that off your list.

But it does sound like your mother never was successfully treated for her depression, issues. Maybe a happy medium would be to not interact with her directly, but to stay in contact with her doctor for updates, etc. Also, even if you do disconnect from her, I would put in a call to her doctor and let them know that the help she is getting is not successful, as who knows what she is telling them.

Whatever you do, now is the time to put your MIL first for the time being.
posted by Vaike at 9:23 AM on March 17, 2012

I banned my mother from coming anywhere near my children and now pretty much hang up on her if she calls. My husband sends her photographs of the new baby and the older kids sometimes email her, but I don't cover up for her awfulness any longer. When other family or friends ask, I say that because she's been so abusive and I don't trust her to behave well around my kids, she's not allowed contact.

Your mother has good reasons for being damaged. But she's in no state to fix them and has shown no signs of wanting to fix them to have a healthy relationship with you or your family. Protect yourself and your child by letting go of the responsibility to make her happy. It is an impossible task while she's damaged. You can send money or nominate your husband to send photographs of the baby if that helps, but you don't have to hurt yourself for her benefit.

Therapy is a great idea because becoming a mother after all that childhood is already a monumental task.

But trust your gut about how you feel at the thought of her touching your baby or being around her growing up. There's a lot of shame - you said she kept up a facade of normality at the beginning about the abuse of your siblings, and later your father kept his distance and left you to negotiate living with a mentally ill parent - so you probably feel desperately guilty and as if you are betraying and humiliating your mother by voicing any of your doubts and fears to anyone else.

The first time I said plainly to someone outside my husband and trusted friends, to someone just as an acquaintance, I felt like I would be struck down by lightening and then incredibly light and free.

You're being a great mom by tackling this and trying to work through something so difficult and hard while she's still a little baby. Memail me if you want to talk about growing up with a crazy mother and becoming a mom.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:30 AM on March 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

Dealing with a family member who suffers from metal health problems is difficult. My first years dealing with my son's Schizophrenia were terrible, full of anxiety, yelling, stress. After I learned more about his illness from NAMI, the situation has improved considerably, mostly due to me establishing limits to the behavior I would tolerate. Hence, no yelling, no abusive language, no talking about paranoic ideas, etc.

You have to establish your limits beforehand: when she is having a good day, tell your mother how her behavior is affecting you and tell her that you no longer will tolerate that. Mean it, and do it: at the first yelling, walk away and refuse any further conversation for a period of time you have established before with her.

In my hearth I wish I could follow some of the advice given, to distance myself, but I also learned from NAMI that mentally ill people who have family support have a much better quality of life. One is not born with a compassionate soul, one develops it. Ask your husband to come with you during your yearly visits, to support you, to be your rock. Establish behavior before your visit, stick with your limits and walk away at the first sign of willful behavior.

In the long run you will be glad to have been there for your mother: remember that mental illness is an illness.
posted by francesca too at 9:35 AM on March 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm going to disagree a little with some of the people above: you absolutely do owe your mother something. The question is what.

Right now, you are allowing her to behave very poorly without consequences. She is hurting you, and she's not learning anything. No one wins - her least of all.

I recommend contacting NAMI, as well as individual therapy.

(Note: you might fulfill your obligation to her via complete disconnection.)
posted by SMPA at 9:57 AM on March 17, 2012

Your mother is not entitled to have you play along with her fantasy of being a good parent at your expense.

You are entitled to enjoy your husband and newborn without feeling guilt about your mother and what she thinks you should be doing instead. Be there for your husband who is going through the trauma of having a sick parent and take some time and create room to enjoy your child (congratulations!). If that means not speaking with your mother for a number of months or more, that's OK. You are allowed to make room in your life to accommodate your own needs and eliminate having to take a weekly plunge into your mother's sickness and all of the pain and damage she has caused you.

Your mother has a roof over her head, a church she attends, and friends at her retirement community. She'll be fine. Don't prioritize her need to continue playing out her sick fantasy drama at your expense.

Give yourself 6 months or a year with no contact to get some therapy and reprioritize who is entitled to your time and mental energy. You have a husband and a child and a life that deserves your attention and wellbeing. Cutting out toxic relationships that distract from that is OK.
posted by quince at 11:04 AM on March 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

My father told me this once when I really needed to hear it:

it is a parent's responsibility to help and support their child. It is NOT a child's responsibility to shoulder the burdens of a parent.

It's so simple. You owe your resources - your love, your energy, your money, your time - to yourself and your baby. That includes creating a safe, loving family for her with your husband. You do not owe your mother anything, even if you could provide what she needs, which you obviously can't.

I nth all the suggestions for therapy, specifically to help you grok that it is not ok for her to drain you and hurt you. It never was; it isn't now. It's just not how a decent parent-child relationship works. Her illness is a red herring. The point is that you are not answerable to her.

My heart goes out to the poster above that talked about their schizophrenic son; but it's totally different. The OP does not have the same responsibility towards her poisonous mother as a parent would have towards an ill son.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:53 PM on March 17, 2012 [13 favorites]

The only reason I still am in contact with her is because of guilt.

Walk away. She is not your problem. You didn't ask for her and her state of life isn't your fault. If she is screwing up something important to you, like your child's future, you do not owe her anything. Walk away. If walking away seems unimaginable, RUN.

Even if your mother was your problem, which she isn't, you can't fix her. She is far too deep in the quicksand for you to pull her out; all you can do is let her pull you and your child in. I walked away from my emotionally abusive parents when I was 17, and it was both the hardest and most important thing I ever did. Before you can do anything else, before any other advice can be sensibly followed, you must understand that now that you are an adult you do not owe your parents anything. You are not their property. You didn't ask to be created and you're not responsible for the mess they made of their lives. If you have trouble accepting this, that is the signal clue that you must disconnect. You will never have your own life as long as you think your life belongs to them.
posted by localroger at 4:24 PM on March 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

I wanted to add another thought. My relationship and feelings toward my parents is complicated. My dad was abusive and an alcoholic but he also had this other side to him - the good man. From time to time, my mother would try to explain why he (and another abuser) had so many demons. It just made me pissed off. It still pisses me off. I think also because I feel she's trying to absolve herself of some guilt for not protecting me. But, anyway, my point is, that you can know the background and the history of the person and sympathize that they had a tough life and endured. And maybe they even did better by you than their parents did by them. You can hold that in your heart while also acknowledging that their behavior to your kid self was far from okay, even reprehensible. The bottom line is that she made choices as an adult and during those times you were a defenseless kid. That's why you aren't responsible. And now you are an adult and you need to focus on making the best decisions for your family and your child. It's how we do better.
posted by amanda at 6:06 PM on March 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Lose the mother. Therapy. Lose the guilt. In that order. I wish the best for you, Anon.
posted by deborah at 6:39 PM on March 17, 2012

My son will never be anywhere near my mother. Ever.

My life is much much better since I moved on entirely from the people that abused me when I was young.

Works for me.
posted by jbenben at 7:40 PM on March 17, 2012

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