How can I be nicer to mom?
August 1, 2005 6:17 PM   Subscribe

Help me be nicer to my mother.

I love her dearly, but my mother drives me crazy. As she gets older, she gets more and more fussy, more negative about everything, more cheap and more flustered by normal every day life. I know perfectly well this is about getting old, and that I should be as sweet and tolerant and soothing as I can, but no matter what oaths I swear that this time I'll be a good daughter, whenever I see her, I'm appalled to find myself snapping at her and rolling my eyes and acting like a complete douchebag. I know it's probably rooted in fear at the thought of her aging and changing, but even that knowledge doesn't save me. Have any of you come up with strategies or mantras or anydamnthing to deal with this kind of thing?
posted by CunningLinguist to Human Relations (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It might be easier to not be around her quite so much. That worked for me. Are there siblings that trade off with or something?
posted by angry modem at 6:26 PM on August 1, 2005

Thank you! CunningLinguist, for posting this. You have described exactly the dynamic between my Mom and me. Hopefully people will have good answers.

For me, one thing I am working on, is to just keep telling myself "she isn't doing it on purpose". Funnily enough, that does kind of work.
posted by gaspode at 6:38 PM on August 1, 2005

Hey, this is me and my Mom, and this is the question I was going to post after spending this past weekend with her. My Mom is, in addition to being negative, seemingly a bit out to get me, or at least she plays devil's advocate with everything I say. So if I say we get 40 channels with our cable service she'll argue with me. Being a big dork, I'll argue back even though I know [in this obvious case anyways] I'm right and what am I trying to prove, anyhow? So, some of this is learning to not get frustrated and some of it is "being that I get frustrated, how can we both have a good time and enjoy each other's company" ideas.

I live about three hours away from my Mom. I'm doing worse at this than I'd like, but I'm doing better than I was a few years ago, here's what helped.

1. Limited phone time. I feel that with parents especially communication that lacks a lot of personal feeling and nuance can go wrong fast. My Mom is on AOL so I've taught her to use IM to ask quick questions when she's worried email will be too slow and that's been working. I send her email more than I regularly would so she doesn't feel out of touch. I realize things that bore me abotu my day may not bore her so I try to follow her lead and talk about things she likes as well as what's important to me.

2. Mail. Unilateral comunication sometimes is good for more incidental contact. I send postcards, notes, clippings in magazines.

3. Managing unscheduled time. My Mom likes to sit around and shoot the shit even more than she did. I like talking to her but not for the same lengths of time. I'll sit, chat, have a cup of coffee and then I'll get up and noodle around while she's having a second cup or whatever. I can get my laundry folded, kitchen cleaned, whatever and the secondary project makes it a bit easier to not navel gaze or feel trapped.

4. Less time, more often. If I can get into the city more, it's more fun having a meal with my Mom every month, than having her come up for three days. She also fits into my life a little more awkwardly than I fit into hers, so I try to come down more often and invite her up when I think there's a particular thing she'll like.

5. Road trips. For some reason one thing we both really like are car trips places. We'll pack some snacks, bring some music we both like and talk, while heading someplace [I drive, she gets to check out where I live without having to walk everyplace]. Often we're driving way more than we're at our destination but the travelling mode works well for both of us.

6. Projects. My Mom really likes to be useful and she's good at a ton of things that she gets less and less opportunity to do. This may not be your Mom, but I find that when I have a household project that plays to her strengths [painting, spackling, cleaning out boxes] she likes pitching in and I'm always happy to have company while I work [and my boyfriend is happy to get out of some onerous task]. Alternately, I'll have her bring projects to me, or come to her house to do something [lately it's doing computer stuff, sometimes it's organizing her office, or bringing stuff to Goodwill]. Any goal that isn't just talking about politics is good for us.

And last, I feel more comfortable saying "Mom, we've gone down this road before..." when she says stuff about how her property taxes are going up [they always are, have for a decade] or how my sister still has stuff at her house, general haranguing. Since I have a sister, we've sort of set up a split where she's the more sympathetic one and I'm the get-things-done one. I feel a little bad for not being all-around there for her, but I think it's better for me to be a little less emotionally unavailable, but also not resentful and pissed off all the time.
posted by jessamyn at 6:58 PM on August 1, 2005

I'm right there with you. And an only child.

Limited chatting (so that when we do spend some time on the phone, we have something to say) and limited visits (so that it's a bit more of an event) have helped immensely.

Also, I repeat "take the high road. the high road, dammit, you can have a drink when she leaves" when spending longer periods of time together. Because the only thing less fun than her driving me crazy is when she's unhappy with me on top of it.

(Sometimes, though, I have to make an excuse to leave the room for some childish gratutitious eye-rolling.)
posted by desuetude at 7:10 PM on August 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

I have a similar dynamic with my father, and as he gets older he just gets less and less rational (he's pretty sure he's going to die soon even though the doctor says he's in perfect health -- and that the world will come to an end soon afterward). Compounding the problem, my tolerance for time-wasting closed-minded bullshit is getting lower as I get older.

My solution was to move across the country five years ago and only see him in person once or twice a year.
posted by kindall at 7:54 PM on August 1, 2005

Yeah - last week I *unloaded* on my parents. I never see them because they're in a different country, so I call every week, and those calls alone are infuriating. I had learnt to deal with them by getting a headset and noodling around online whilst they did their extensive weekly report of how absolutely nothing happens, but last week I couldn't take it any more and I said things, not quite that I regret, but were perhaps a little close to the bone.

But: where does the line lie? Because your parents are your parents is it so hard to believe that their children will crack if put under repeated pressure? And I don't think reacting to that makes you a dork or a bad daughter - I think it's important to stand up to your biggest role models who, no matter how hallowed and venerable the may be as your parents, don't have the right to essentially abuse you because no one else will put up with their inane rambling garbage.

Come on oldies - give the kids a break! (Boy, would I love to read an answer here from an elderly parent).
posted by forallmankind at 8:24 PM on August 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

This isn't exactly an answer to your question, but I'm going to share any way in hopes that you can benefit.

As my mother aged she grew more and more scattered and frustrating in a number of ways. I lived with her for years to make things easier on her, or so I told myself. Really? I was scared for her. I saw the changes happening and could do nothing about it. She was becoming someone else.

After I met someone I moved out "for good" and things seemed to get worse. She would call me up and accuse me of stealing her flatware. She would call me up and complain about parking. There were times when she'd just call me up for no reason whatsoever and we'd wind up arguing over nothing.

When I'd see her in person I was apt to be rolling my eyes and biting my tongue more often than not.

At some point in the late summer of 1997 I had enough and I told her that she shouldn't call me any more and that I was through taking her crap.

In December of that year my mother died, she was 59. I hadn't spoken to her in months. She'd taken some pills and nearly an entire bottle of Jack Daniels. She left no note, only questions.

It's been a long time and I am still haunted by my decision to cut ties with her in the way that I did, for the reasons that I did. Her dementia wasn't her fault and I was the only link to her real world. My selfishness robbed her of her ability to stay rooted in reality.

Find a way to make peace with her. Even if you have to tell her "Mom, you make me crazy and it pains me that I get so short with you. Please help me to find a way to be a better daughter." Don't be accusatory, but explain the things you find difficult to deal with. Find new things to do together, new subjects to discuss. Good luck to you.
posted by FlamingBore at 9:07 PM on August 1, 2005 [3 favorites]

My mother and I have little in-jokes that are signals to each other that we're falling into old patterns. There's a stuffed animal (a vulture named Hildegard) that signals nagging, a catchphrase we use when the other person is being bossy, etc. We still find them funny, so it both makes the point and blunts the criticism to suddenly see Hildegard perched on the corner of the couch. I also find that telling her she sounds just like her mother will shut her right up when all else fails.
posted by cali at 11:33 PM on August 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

It is difficult but completely possible to break out of the stimulus-response rut we all get into with parents or other relatives. The first step is to not react. To treat comments with the same benign indifference as if you heard them on TV or perhaps in a casual conversaton with a stranger.

The "benign" part is important. Making a studied point of being indifferent is not benign. In fact, I think the word I'm looking for is disinterest, in the sense of impartiality. Yes, benevolent disinterest, that's the trick.

If you can fake that, you've got it made.
posted by mono blanco at 11:55 PM on August 1, 2005

I don't know if this applies to you, but my greatest moments of frustration with my parents come when I secretly suspect that I'm just like them. I start arguing with them just to prove to myself that I'm not going to end up the same as my family. When I'm completely clear on how my life is different from theirs, it's a lot easier for me to stay uninvolved in their craziness.
posted by fuzz at 1:31 AM on August 2, 2005

My mother sometimes annoys me, too. I think this is a normal thing. I feel like she's being too loud, or her hands are waving around or why is she standing up or... Whatever. Then I remember she's my mum and I love and her and I just shut my stupid fat fucking mouth.
posted by The Monkey at 1:50 AM on August 2, 2005

Contemplate your relationship with your mother and figure out whether:

to speak to her directly about this (is she having problems, does she need help, you miss how fun she used to be),

or to manage your time with her to minimize your negative responses (limiting length of visits, changing the subject, suggesting non-talking activities).

Several book recs:

Judith Martin, Miss Manners' Guide to Domestic Tranquillity

Jack Kornfield, "The Inner Art of Meditation"

Thich Nhat Hanh, "The Sun My Heart"
posted by overanxious ducksqueezer at 3:41 AM on August 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

Only child of a single mom speaking. (OK I have a half sister but she literally was only in the house for a year when I was a baby so... only child)

My mother has always been a bit off. Accusing neighbors of stealing scissors etc. So, for years and years I felt trapped in a house with a slightly crazy, invasive person, and left as soon as possible for me, to across the country as Kindall suggested.

Six years later, I am so much better at spending time with my mom without seeing her as attacking me. For me, it came to having occasional, focused pity. If she starts falling into "out there" patterns, instead of feeling trapped or attacked or like I need to fix her, I focus the pity and at the same time change the subject.

Also, accomplishing something when I come over helps. It gives us something to talk about and I feel useful, which helps prevent me from falling into my own pattern of feeling helpless to help and, as I said, trapped with this person who is attacking or demanding. I'm *offering* to help, so there's no feeling of demand. She's thankful, so doesn't attack as much, and I'm not helpless since I am actually accomplishing something she needs done.
posted by lorrer at 5:36 AM on August 2, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers - it's nice to know I'm not alone.

I think fuzz has a great point - maybe part of my reaction is that I see my own nutty tendencies in her and fear becoming like her. And damnit, watching her get old just plain scares me.
When she repeats something she just told me ten minutes ago, and I snap at her that "you just TOLD me that, jeez" instead of just nodding and listening to it again, I'm aware that it's my own fears even as I'm rolling my eyes and getting huffy. I'll try reminding myself that it's not her fault - that sounds like a fairly good mantra.

One of the ways I've tried to make myself be more understanding is knowing that one day, likely not terribly far off, I'll feel the same way about my mom as I do about my dad, who died a few years ago: willing to give just about *anything* just for a five minute conversation with him. But even that sobering thought doesn't seem to stop me from being a bitch. Maybe I'm just irredeemable.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:42 AM on August 2, 2005

Response by poster: Also, thanks Jess for the idea of staying in contact more through non-phone, non-facetime ways. I'm going to start sending her more emails and more clippings and such. I forget that she sits around doing not so much these days while I'm running around like a dervish.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:45 AM on August 2, 2005

Limited contact is good. Always trying to have an activity planned is great--easy to do in DC (and in NYC, I'd imagine).

What helps me the most, though, is the realization that, in her eyes, I'll always, always be a child. Having my own child has helped me come to grips with that and not resent it (as much as I used to). My god, my mom still thinks I hate peas, because I did when I last lived with her, 20 years ago. Sure, it bugs me that she still thinks of me, and in many ways treats me, as that dorky teenager, but I do (usually) remember that her nagging and controlling ways are caused by her belief that I need her to do it.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:12 AM on August 2, 2005

Michael Bernard's book, "Staying rational in an irrational world: Albert Ellis and rational emotive therapy" contains much that's relevant here, and is a good read besides.
posted by flabdablet at 7:22 AM on August 2, 2005

The answer is largely in these comments:
  • my greatest moments of frustration with my parents come when I secretly suspect that I'm just like them.
  • I also find that telling her she sounds just like her mother will shut her right up when all else fails.
  • maybe part of my reaction is that I see my own nutty tendencies in her and fear becoming like her.
You probably are just like them. Most people are like one or both of their parents, only you are two or three or four decades behind in your relentless drive toward battiness. Maybe adult you is frustrated with the old you that you don't want to be. And maybe old you is frustrated with the adult you that didn't turn out as had been hoped.

The answer is to get happy with yourself. When you are sure about who you are and you're unshakably happy with that, you aren't going to be rattled by mom when she swears you have 50 cable channels instead of 40. If you aren't happy with yourself, you'll always be shaken by mom and dad telling you off for not cleaning your plate.

You will achieve this happy state, if ever, just about the time you are old enough to drive your adult children crazy.
posted by pracowity at 7:49 AM on August 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

I have a Mom who's very difficult, potentially bipolar, often depressed, mean, manipulative, etc. When she's on her game, she can be smart, funny, generous and fun. I stayed with her while she started cancer treatment last year, and every day she ripped me a new one.

Depression is common for seniors. Irritability, confusion, negative affect are all symptoms. And no wonder, since it's all about loss. Loss of capability, loved ones die, children leave. My mom is depressed and medication helps but only in part.

FlamingBore, I'm so sorry for your loss. This could easily have been me. There have been times when I really distanced myself from my mom, and it's no accident that I live 1000 miles away.

I make a conscious effort to connect with her. I call her weekly, just to check in. Some days it's a short call, other times, we rattle on. I deal with certain annoying questions be remembering that she means well.

It helps to use the headset, so I can do boring household tasks if we talk for a while. I keep a list of questions in mind, so I can derail an old rant by asking about her garden or something. I try to ask her about old times, family history, etc. Old people often love to reminisce, and the stories are sometimes pretty good. The nicest time was when I visited her hometown, and called her from there. I went to the house she grew up in, and got lots of great stories from her. She was so pleased that I did that.

It helps to keep in mind that her time is limited. She old and in poor health. She may not have been the best Mom ever, but she did her best with the resources she had. And. my son's now 18, and I'm realizing that he will feel the same way about me. Probably already does...
posted by theora55 at 8:59 AM on August 2, 2005

Yes, just wanted to say sorry to FlamingBore, what an awful thing to happen.

The 1:30am rebroadcast of Oprah this morning was, freakily, a show about daughters who don't get along with their moms b/c their moms are so negative. I wasn't listening to the whole show, but it suggested that sometimes moms were competing with their daughters, were jealous of the things their daughters could do that they couldn't, and were paying the consequences of having had kids and given over a whole part of their own identity and lives to their kids. One of the things that was suggested (besides for the moms to stop being so negative, duh) was for the daughters to ask their moms questions about their lives, i.e., to discover who their mothers were without the whole facet of motherhood involved. It seems perhaps a rather tangential way of getting at the problem you're talking about, CunningLinguist (and I've got this problem, too), but the idea behind it was that a daughter would be less critical and snappish at her mom once she was able to really empathize with her more, and most mother/daughter relationships don't automatically create empathy because the focus of the relationship is always mother/daughter, parent/child, rather than person/person or woman/woman, if that makes sense.

I've generalized broadly here. Anyway, good luck, and please post a follow up in MeTa if you find a workable solution!
posted by onlyconnect at 10:16 AM on August 2, 2005

I have a little trick that I play on myself when I find myself becoming very annoyed with someone:

Pretend that your actions are being recorded.

What if your worst enemy happened to be spying on you and was videotaping your every move, just waiting for a piece of evidence to use against you? (Feel free to insert delusions of grandeur as though you are a powerful politician or an intriguing celebrity.) And we all know that being mean to one's mother is the pinnacle of damning evidence.

So just imagine that your visits, phone conversations, e-mails, etc. are all being recorded as evidence. How would you feel if you were later presented with this evidence? Personally, I would be mortified to witness myself regressing into the 15-year-old bitch that I once was. This method has curbed many a groan and an eye roll. Instant nice!

I never had very good relationships with any of my family members until recently. Seeing people who actually wanted to hang out with their parents was completely and utterly foreign to me. Spending time with people who do have good parent-child relationships can help immensely. To a certain degree, you may have forgotten how two normal adults should interact. Observe them or even quiz them and ask what they enjoy about each other's company. This approach may not do much for your mom's side of things, but it might refresh your perspective a bit. Or you could share your observations with your mother and give her some insight as to how you would like you relationship to be, as opposed to the way it is currently.
posted by crapulent at 10:29 AM on August 2, 2005

Your parents know how to push your buttons - heck, they *put* the buttons there!

Get to know that feeling that you're talking about - that snarling adolescent rage, how that feels in your body. When you start to feel it swell up, take a break. Leave the room, count to 10, take a walk around the block, whatever it takes to interrupt the cycle. Do what you need to do to calm yourself - deep breathing, whatever. Then, when you've got yourself back together, ask yourself why you are arguing with her? If you're having a really good day, ask your mother, "why are we arguing?" Reward yourself (Hershey's kisses have always worked for me!) everytime you are able to break the chain and not get into an argument.

The point is to break the cycle of behavior, and ideally, replace the arguing interaction with a different interaction, like a conversation. This is not easy, it starts out very much focusing on your behavior, but if you keep practicing, it really works.

BTW, another thing that works is to have kids, so your mom will have grandchildren to fuss with. That changes EVERYTHING.
posted by jasper411 at 11:15 AM on August 2, 2005

My crazy mother booked herself a ticket to the city I live in and just announced that she's coming, despite the fact that I repeatedly have told her I'm busy and stressed with work and she cannot bother me right now.
posted by onepapertiger at 12:07 PM on July 21, 2006

I have similar issues with my mom. I wish I could say that I'm always patient, kind, and understanding with her, but I'm not a saint. Moms just seem to have a way of pushing our buttons! That said, there are a few things that have helped me.

--As others have mentioned, it can be great to do an activity with your mom when you're together because less talking = less negativity.

--My mom loves to do things for me. For example, I don't know how to cook but she is a wonderful cook. Allowing her to cook or do other things for me makes her feel needed. Plus, I'm so appreciative of these things that it puts our relationship on a positive note.

--I have become a "master distractor." As soon as she gets on a negative, repetitive topic, I interrupt with a change of topic or distracting question.

--Boundaries are key! If your mom is like mine she loves to meddle with your life (with good intentions, of course). It helps to set clear boundaries with what is appropriate and acceptable in your relationship, but it's criticically important to do this calmly. If you take the emotion out of it it will be harder for her to turn it into an argument. However, be prepared to reassert the boundaries because chances are she will keep testing them.

--Sometimes I find that I need to "check out" emotionally to stay sane. Just don't make a habit of it.

--I remind myself that I won't have my mom forever. It makes me remember the things I love about her and helps me to forgive her flaws.

Good luck :)
posted by mintchip at 12:59 PM on July 27, 2006

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