(s)Mothering and coaching.
July 23, 2012 7:01 PM   Subscribe

I just told my mom that I'm moving to a developing country for 6 months and she didn't take it well. What should I do?

I found out today that I got a 6-month technical placement with an NGO in a country in the global South (keeping it a little vague here), starting in a month. Woo-hoo! I'm really excited; I think this will be a challenging but rewarding job, and I have wanted to do this for a long time.

Now, I just got off the phone with my mother. She didn't handle the news well. She hung up crying, telling me she would call me back tomorrow and needed some time. Which I understand, but she didn't handle it well even when I just told her I was applying; she started e-mailing me stories about the crime in the country and sent me a guilt-laden message asking me why I felt compelled to go so far away from the people that love me (that's verbatim).

After that e-mail, I called her and we had what I thought was a pretty constructive phone conversation. My mom clearly suffers from anxiety, as I do too. I told her that we don't need to feel so panicky all the time, that I've been addressing this in therapy, and maybe it would be a good idea for her to explore this too.

More on mom - she's quite overprotective and has been ever since I was a child. I never spent more than a week away from my parents until I went to university. I lived abroad for a year in a European country, and while she wasn't too outwardly mopey during communication at the time, she frequently told me when I returned that me being gone was "the worst feeling in the world" and "so depressing she could hardly function".

I'm trying not to get too frustrated with her, because I imagine it's hard to know your child is going to a new, "scary" place. And because I've struggled with anxiety myself, I feel for her. But it's not like it isn't hard for me to leave my family, and hearing these kind of things makes me feel worse. Also, knowing what kind of toll this will have on her psychologically is incredibly guilt-inducing. And, I don't want her to suffer, but frankly she worries all the time, even when we're in the same country (I live in a big city, and she still lives in our rural hometown around 2 hours away).

So, what can I do here? Should I reassure her? Or just be firm but loving? I'm at a bit of a loss. Does anyone know of any resources for parents that might address some of these things? If anyone else has advice or previous experience with similar things, I would love to hear it.
posted by Paper rabies to Human Relations (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
How did she handle your suggestion that she consider therapy? Does she sound open to it?
posted by imalaowai at 7:05 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

As someone who travels to developing countries...

- tell her that you'll be in contact via Skype/social media/email as often as you can (although you're not sure yet if you'll have Internet at home/how good the connection will be.)
- look up the information about the Embassy and send it to your mom. Register with the Embassy now and forward her the email.
- tell her about all the other Americans/Canadians/whatever that work at the organization and how you'll have them to rely upon.
- start prepping for whatever you'll need - Cipro, vaccinations...
posted by k8t at 7:08 PM on July 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

...she frequently told me when I returned that me being gone was "the worst feeling in the world" and "so depressing she could hardly function".

When I told my grandmother that I'd be moving out, she told me that I stuck a knife through her heart, and that the devil should take her. That's not hyperbole (although she is Jewish.)

You're not going to reassure her out of the way she is, which is "poorly adjusted." Sons and daughters don't fix that, therapists do. Be firm and try not take it personally. You're not doing this to her, she is. If she doesn't want to get therapy, she's inflicting this upon herself and you, and your behavior needs to reflect the fact that your mother is putting herself ahead of you. It's a shitty feeling to realize that, and it sucks as a situation generally, but outside of trying to get her the help she needs, you get to pick whether you're going to spend your life feeling guilty or spend your life doing the best you hand with the cards you've been dealt. From personal experience, I suggest the latter.
posted by griphus at 7:24 PM on July 23, 2012 [27 favorites]

1. Keep reminding her that it's only for six months. That's not very long, at all.

2. I know you're keeping things deliberately vague, but "global south" covers a lot of ground. Are we talking about somewhere like Brazil or India, which are relatively developed, peaceful, and where people go on vacation all the time? Or is this country actually dangerous to visit? Is your mom overreacting, or being rational, if inconvenient? I would be pissed and worried as hell to find out my kid was going to Syria for six months. Is this something you can ease her into with a few colorful travel guides and a movie or two, or is she fundamentally right to worry about you?
posted by Sara C. at 7:29 PM on July 23, 2012

She'll probably be surprised how well you can stay in touch, even if the place you're going doesn't even have electricity, I have found that mobile phones are ubiquitous. The power of texting has swept the planet..... and luckily for mom it means she can reach you anytime (not sure if that's something you're psyched about but...)

I regularly Skype with people in Africa and it can be clunky at times (dropped calls fairly often, delays in voice sometimes), but it works pretty awesome and even video Skype works.

I think you are already on the right track with realizing that she will worry about you no matter where you are, even if you are right around the corner - and honestly, that's only fair, because in my opinion, New York City's dangerous in ways that Africa is not, and vice versa, as long as you're not headed for a war zone or a place with a truly unstable government I think most parents who have not been to Africa and don't know what it's like WAY overplay the risks of the unknown in Africa and downplay the risks they do know in the USA, sort of like how people generally don't worry about getting in the car to go to the grocery store, even though statistics show that most accidents happen close to home, or worry about terrorists instead of car accidents when the odds of terrorism are negligible compared to motor vehicle collisions... (I'm using Africa here but you can substitute any Global South locale)
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:29 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Mom, this is a great opportunity for me, I have wanted to do this my whole life, and I need you to support me. If you can't do that, you need to stop arguing with me about it and trying to make me feel guilty."

...and you are done. Any longer conversation will be interpreted as negotiating about whether you are going to go or not, and how guilty you are if you do go. Don't play that game.
posted by LarryC at 7:45 PM on July 23, 2012 [12 favorites]

Popping in briefly, then will stop thread-sitting:

imalaowai - she initially dismissed it as being "too expensive". But when I mentioned to her that psychologists are covered by our insurance and other doctors work on a sliding scale, she seemed more receptive.

Sara C. - that's a good point in #2. To (slightly) clarify: Canadian foreign affairs describes this country's overall safety with "Exercise a high degree of caution". This is one step above normal precautions. However, more dangerous parts of this country are listed as "Avoid all travel", the highest rating (above "avoid non-essential travel"). I wouldn't be working in these regions, although I might have to fly into one of these cities. To compare, Kenya has similar ratings for most of the country vs. near the Somalian border. There's no war, but the government is pretty corrupt and most people would likely not travel there (but nearby countries have a lot of tourism).
posted by Paper rabies at 7:51 PM on July 23, 2012

All moms worry about their kids going off to far away places, especially to unfamiliar 'scary' places. You can give her the kind of info that people are recommending, but it sounds like your mom has issues that you can't solve with information and promises of frequent phone calls.

You can't fix her problems. Just give her lots of information and do your best, and don't let it disrupt your plans. Just do your best to remove the mystery. The mystery is scary.

Some things that helped my (non-overprotective non-anxiety-suffering) mom when i moved from Toronto to Uganda:
- Expat blogs! Find a couple of blogs written by other people that your mom will see as similar to you or similar to her, and have her read about how happy they are to be there, what an adventure it is, etc
- If the organization that's sending you abroad has put you in touch with the person they sent last year, ask that person (or that person's mom) if they'll talk to your mother and answer her questions. (Assuming that person had a good experience.)
- Try and find as much info as you can about the organization you'll be placed with. If they have a decent website, show her the site - look it's a proper modern building! Here's a photo of the executive director! (Or, if that's not feasible: show her the website of the nearest modern medical clinic that you will go to immediately if you need to.)
- Give her photocopies of all your documents: travel insurance, flight itineraries, organization contact people - local and international, passport. Make sure she knows that she's equipped to help you if you need it. Moms don't like to feel like they can't help.
- Travel guide for the country you're going to. Travel guides showcase the great stuff about the place you're going, and will help your mom visualize positive stuff.
posted by Kololo at 7:54 PM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Also: if you're being sent abroad on a CIDA internship (or some other CIDA or DFAIT funded program), try digging up info on their websites about how they choose the 'focus countries'. They usually have pretty good reasons - safe, stable, opportunities to make a difference.
posted by Kololo at 7:59 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

What LarryC said, with an addition on the front: "Mom, you have raised me to be a strong, successful independent person. Other people have recognized the excellent job that you did and believe that I am capable of handling myself for six months in this country."
posted by Etrigan at 8:04 PM on July 23, 2012 [7 favorites]

My mother in law behaved the same when my wife and I told her we'd be moving 6,000 km from home. She behaved the same way a month later when we told them not to get us anything physical for Christmas as we'd soon be moving. Three months later when we had put everything in storage and were days from leaving she still didn't believe we were doing it and would cry at the end of any conversation. We kept in close touch with her and she quickly became the biggest fan of our adventure, everything is fine now.
posted by furtive at 8:52 PM on July 23, 2012

Let me tell you a magic thing I didn't learn until I was 40. When someone you love, a parent in both of our cases, expresses a strong negative emotional reaction to something you're doing that doesn't involve them, it's not your job to fix their unhappiness or fear or anxiety or hurt.

It's kind and generous to be reassuring with stuff like planning frequent Skype calls, setting up email check-in schedules, going out of your way to set up clear emergency contact methods, and so on. That's showing love and caring for your mum. But you're not in charge of managing her anxiety or sadness; she is. You can't do it for her.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:12 PM on July 23, 2012 [30 favorites]

I'm with Kololo on this one. Put together a package of things about the country -- electronic or paper (notebook or report) format will do -- answering all her questions and concerns.

In the back, place all your travel documents.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 12:09 AM on July 24, 2012

This is going to sound way, way out there, and you're only going for 6 months, so its probably not an ideal idea. That said...the thing that has helped my parents best deal with my living in developing countries, has been visiting me and seeing that I'm not actually living in a mud hut. I have friends and good restaurants and a decent car and a fairly normal life. For here, at least.

Your mother seems to have some issues that are probably best addressed via therapy, as advised above. But, like mine, she probably also has a complete misconception about the place you're going to be, what living there will be like, how relatively safe it is, etc.. Perhaps try to devise some clever ways to expose her to the culture and day to day life in the place where you are headed. Maybe a good photographer based there has some work on line you guys could look at. Maybe there's some good posts already on the blue about said place that you guys could spend some time reading through. Etc. Food for thought.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:32 AM on July 24, 2012

Eh, I'm going to weigh in here as a the mother of 2 adventurous young people in their 20s. When my kids were little and I was preparing to send them to sleepaway camp for the first time, my mother said to me, "Camp? What do you mean, camp? Like in the woods? With strangers?!"

So, let's just say I get where she is coming from, totally. Having said that, I've been the child of a mother like yours and you must invoke the 80/20 rule which is whatever level of guilt she is throwing your way, dial back by 20% because she is only 80% as upset as she's dishing out to impress you. Focus on you, not her. Put all the practical communications/comfort stuff in place as recommended above and be very very careful but Go. This is your moment and you need to take it. She will be absolutely fine. And six months is a blink (which, if she has an adult child, she knows!)

My best advice: Forget therapy until you come back. Just go.
posted by thinkpiece at 4:15 AM on July 24, 2012

Give her time and space to cope.
posted by discopolo at 7:31 AM on July 24, 2012

Also, Moms all over the world aren't really encouraged to treat their children like independent and separate adults. She just needs time and space to unwind her emotional well-being from you. By treating it as abnormal and expecting instant results, you aren't letting her figure it out.

You're a grown up. You don't need her to be okay about this thing you want to do.
posted by discopolo at 7:37 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've put my poor parents through the paces. 5 months in the Amazon, but with very frequent internet contact, was actually very easy for us. I spoke to them on gchat on a very regular basis. When I was in the Cote d'Ivoire (3 months, planning for a full year), I had a sketchy satellite phone connection maybe every two weeks, where we'd chat for 5 minutes before the satellite died. My mom, in particular, was freaked out about me going. In a strange place, not being totally comfortable in the language, a country coming out of civil war and still unstable, etc. etc., and also being in a rainforest with giant snakes and leopards

I was able to allay some fears (though they were still concerned, and probably rightly so) by talking through my basic plans for what I would be doing, and my contingency plans. So I knew that if, for example, there was a cross-border raid, I'd drive to the closest town and hang out with the UN until I was able to either get a car to drive me to the capital or it was safe to return to the forest. And I was also able to convince them that I was well trained for what I was doing, I would not be taking any untoward risks, and this was something I was excited about and I needed to do.

Incidentally, CIV is also "exercise high degree of caution." In order to prepare and be safe there, I knew I needed a satellite phone and also an in-country phone to contact people in the capital (though it didn't work in the forest, it was helpful when ). Make sure you have a clear picture of what the communication system will be like when you get there - if you don't know now, make sure you know if you're leaving a major city to be in a more rural area. Make sure you understand at least the basic political and religious situation. Are there going to be elections soon? Register with the Canadian embassy, bring all your medicines, etc. Figure out the easiest way from wherever you are to an international airport. I expect, since you're on a work placement with an NGO, they'll be taking care of a lot of these sort of details for you, but if you can report all these details to your folks, it'll make them feel better, and it'll probably be beneficial for you, too.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:02 PM on July 24, 2012

Also: Mom, thanks for being here to worry about me. I'm sorry this upsets you, because I love you. Recognize her fear, which is not entirely unreasonable. Give her recognition that she worries because she loves you. Reassure her that you love her. You're going to keep doing things that scare her, or take you far away from her. You can be kind, as long as you don't let her fears manipulate you. She's going to have to learn how to cope, and practicing is a good way to develop any skill. She may never get used to your adventurous spirit, but she can learn to be proud of you, and that her fears can be withstood.
posted by theora55 at 8:53 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

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