How to manage the relationship with Mom
October 18, 2012 11:47 AM   Subscribe

How do you enforce boundaries with a needy parent?

I've mentioned my alcoholic mom before. Her health and financial problems are mounting and appear to be quite serious, all stemming from her alcoholism (though I don't know if she's currently drinking).

She doesn't have much of a support network. I'm an only child, and the only family member that lives locally, the rest are about 1.5 hours away. She has one close local friend, and two that live out of state. That's it.

As she becomes less capable of independence, eyes are turning to me to support her. I am neither financially nor emotionally capable of doing this.

After a lifetime of chaos with her, I have learned from her mistakes. I try to make decisions that benefit of my future, and avoid things that will make my life difficult. She has never done so. It angers me that I am expected to clean up her mess and make her life easier and mine more problematic... which in turn makes me feel guilty.

I want to maintain a relationship with her but I don't know how, under the circumstances. I am in therapy to deal with the emotional component, but I'm looking for concrete, practical ways to deal with the immediate circumstances - ways I can help without getting dragged under, and ways to enforce the boundaries with her and everyone else involved. I don't want to move out of my town, I like it here! Any other suggestions would be welcome.
posted by thrasher to Human Relations (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Learn to say "no" and then feel guilty, rather than feeling guilty first and saying "well, I guess." It's a lot easier to get over guilt than it is to keep up a standard of living while financially and emotionally supporting a person who does not have their shit together in their least. The fact that she is your mother is incidental to the fact that you, as a Grown Adult, are not required to care for any other Grown Adult.
posted by griphus at 11:58 AM on October 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh, and no one can force you to do this. They can tut-tut and make noises all they want, but they're not the ones that would actually have to do anything. You are the agent of action in this, they are background noise.
posted by griphus at 12:00 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

1.5 hours is for some their daily commute. You absolutely can ask those relatives to step up.
posted by zippy at 12:01 PM on October 18, 2012 [9 favorites]

Have you gone to Al-Anon? It sounds like you are doing the right things already and just need support for your decisions more than anything else. People in Al-Anon will really, really get it.

(My dad was an alcoholic and I cut off contact completely for the last 2 years of his life. It was the best thing I could have done, and I am positive there were people in my family looking sideways at me for it. The only thing you can really do, in the end, is take care of yourself. You are doing a good job by being true to yourself and protecting your own sanity. When people try to tell you you need to be doing more? Fuck those people. You are doing a good job. Keep trusting yourself.)
posted by something something at 12:08 PM on October 18, 2012 [6 favorites]

ways I can help without getting dragged under

You could research what government/nonprofit resources might be available to help her. That's somewhat location specific...when I volunteered at a crisis hotline we had a notebook full of all sorts of local resources and organizations.

Decide for yourself how much you're willing to devote in various categories: time spent empathizing/brainstorming solutions (e.g. 1 hour/week), time spent actively assisting her (e.g. driving her to an appointment 1/2 day per month), MAYBE some minimal financial support for a well-defined purpose (e.g. home health or maid service). That gives you something positive to say when you are informing her and others that no, she cannot live with you; no, you will not be fully financially supporting her, etc.

But that's all if you want to help. You absolutely have to protect your own interests first. Cutting off contact with a parent is sometimes necessary to protect oneself (I've done it with one) -- and from that perspective anything you choose to do for her is gravy.
posted by ecsh at 12:13 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was going to suggest Al-Anon too.

Alcoholism aside, you should get together with all other family members and find out how much other people can pitch in if it gets to the point where your mother needs caretaking. It shouldn't all land on you, just because you are geographically the closest.
posted by BibiRose at 12:15 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Has someone told you directly that you have to support her? Or are you inferring this? If people around you are getting closed off and uncomfortable about the topic of your mother, it doesn't necessarily mean they are asking you to deal with it. If that's your first conclusion it could be coming from a voice inside you, and not from them.
posted by Dynex at 12:19 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

As she becomes less capable of independence, eyes are turning to me to support her.

Whose eyes? Because it's unfair of others to expect that of you and it's unfair to expect if of you, too.

You're not responsible for your mother and you're ultimately not helping her by bailing her out every time. I'm not saying you won't feel guilt- you will- but cutting her off may be the best thing you can do for yourself.

As for the best thing for her, she has to make those decisons for herself. If she wants to seek treatment for her alcoholism, then by all means help her. Anything less than're a crutch and not a help.
posted by inturnaround at 12:24 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

you, as a Grown Adult, are not required to care for any other Grown Adult.

It's not that simple though, is it? Families never are. We are not, despite what anyone may tell us, atomistic, independent, autonomous individuals. We depend and are depended upon. Self-sacrifice is a big part of what families are about, and we don't get to choose who our parents are. Or who are children are, for that matter. They're just there, and it's up to us to love them as best we can.

I'm explicitly operating from the perspective that we have obligations to other people that we don't get to choose. But even given that, we still have to use wisdom and discernment, and that means sometimes saying "No."

First thing: you need to work out for yourself what you can actually do here. There are certain things that may be asked or expected of you that you simply will not, under any circumstances, be able to make happen. Money is the most obvious example. If your mom needs $1,000 and you don't have it, that's it. End of story. Similarly, if she asks for $1,000, and you do technically have it, but you need it to pay rent this month, the answer is still "No." You should really be able to say "No" in those circumstances without feeling guilty about it.

But there are other circumstances which, while not so obviously black and white, are basically the same. If you're at work, and your mom calls and needs you to come over/bail her out of jail/pick her up from somewhere/whatever, you should feel free to say "Mom, I'm at work now. I can't do anything until I get off." Maybe you can help later, maybe you can't, but the request for immediate physical presence is simply not practical. You may have obligations to your mother, but they aren't your only obligations, and she can't ask you to abandon your other responsibilities to take care of her. So think hard about what your other responsibilities are, and if your mom asks you to do something which would require you to compromise those, steel yourself and say "No, I can't do that. I have [x] going on right now." This should be a sort of "first checkpoint," if you will.

Second, start thinking about a kind of "second checkpoint," of things which you can theoretically make happen but which you probably shouldn't make happen, because it'd be bad for her. The most obvious one would be your mom asking you to meet her at the liquor store and give her some cash. Umm, no. You need to get your head around the fact that the goal here is to love your mom, but that is not the same thing as given her what she wants all the time. She's an individual with free agency and is free to make her own choices. But if she's asking for help, she's arguably conceding some of that agency to you. So you get to use your own judgment as to whether or not something would be a good idea. Short version: she can spend her money however she wants, but she can't spend your money however she wants. Same goes with time, or whatever other form of support we happen to be talking about. Helping without being an enabler is hard, but it's something you'll have to think about.

Third, you need to think about whether something would be bad for you. I don't mean "mildly inconvenient" here. She's your mother. Sometimes we just gotta do things we'd rather not. But that doesn't mean that there's no end here. If she's asking for every waking hour of your week that you aren't at work, that's not going to happen. You simply haven't the resources. Almost no one does. You have your own life to live, and saying so isn't necessarily selfish. If you get too far behind on your own life, you'll be of no use to her either. You gotta eat. You gotta sleep. You gotta do laundry. Etc. You also need to relax from time to time, even if that's just 30 minutes with a book or working out or whatever. So something like "Okay, mom, I can come over Monday and Tuesday after work, and every other Saturday morning, but I really need to take the rest of the time to keep my own life going" might not be unreasonable. That way, you've made a clear but limited commitment which she can plan around and you can hold her to. So if she calls on Wednesday and says "I need you to come over and do X," where X is some non-life-threatening thing, you can say "I came over yesterday, it'll have to wait until Saturday." That commitment may be far less or different than what I've described here, but some concrete, fixed plan might work out well for everyone.

Lastly, you need to make peace with the fact that while you may feel some obligation to your mother as your mother, that obligation probably shouldn't extend to mitigating all the consequences of her bad choices. She made her bed--or others made it for her-- and now she's got to sleep in it. As her daughter, you might want to try to make that slightly more comfortable for her, but you aren't going to be able to fundamentally change what's now an almost sixty-year history, nor should you feel guilty that you can't. I'm not saying that everything is her fault. Doesn't matter whether or not it is. But it is what it is, and you're not going to be able to change that. So let go of the fact that you can't.

All of that being said: definitely try to get yourself some support here. Try Al-Anon. Try local NGOs or social services. She's probably a little young for senior services, but she'd probably qualify for things like Medicaid, etc. Turns out that drinking isn't as "bad" as drug use as far as many programs are concerned. You might also consider insisting that she do her part here. If she's active enough to get herself into jail, she's active enough to take some responsibility for her own well-being. So you might say "Okay mom, I can help you with X, but you've got to start going to Al-Anon. Otherwise I'm just helping you destroy yourself, and I'm not going to be part of that." You can substitute going to meetings for whatever other concrete things seem appropriate at the time, but that kind of thing can be pretty effective.
posted by valkyryn at 12:31 PM on October 18, 2012 [20 favorites]

Response by poster: Dynex and inturnaround, it's the people in her life a little, and me and my guilt a little. My grandmother suggested she move in with me. I said no. After Mom's jail time I told her (Mom) that I was not going to lend her any more money (at that point she owed me about $2500), wasn't going to do anything for her she should be doing for herself, wasn't going to lie for her, wasn't going to enable her, etc. I also told her friends and family about those boundaries and other things I'd read about not enabling (ie, don't pay their bail if they go to jail, which one of her friends did). I also asked them to stop asking me where she is, what she's doing, how she is, etc, because she lies to me so I don't know. Mom's take on it is that I told everyone she knows not to speak to HER anymore. Most of them now avoid contact with me unless absolutely necessary, which is probably a good thing. She emptied her retirement account to pay me back in full and pay off some other bills - and buy an iPad. So now she has an iPad, a clean slate with me, and no retirement money. I certainly didn't ask for this and it isn't what I would've wanted, but that was her decision.

She has worsening and apparently permanent muscle degeneration from the coma two years ago that makes it so she can't drive herself to work everyday, thus isn't making enough money to cover her bills, etc - it's a downward spiral and I'm not really sure whether helping cover her rent or other necessities at this point would be enabling her alcoholic behavior, or supporting someone with a serious health condition. I think it's some combination of the two.
posted by thrasher at 12:57 PM on October 18, 2012

She emptied her retirement account to pay me back in full and pay off some other bills - and buy an iPad

Unless "some other bills" means "hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical debts," then the spending of her retirement savings isn't actually all that big of a deal in the long term. Buying an iPad was probably not an awesome move, but it's not like she was going to be able to retire comfortably and now she can't. I'd have been really surprised if she had much more than $20k in there.

The biggest problem with that move is that she probably incurred a tax penalty for taking the money out early. Having $20k in your retirement account in your late fifties isn't all that much better as having no retirement savings at all, because it's not actually going to help you retire. $200k? Maybe. Supplemented with Social Security, you can eke that out over a decade if you live pretty close to the poverty line. But $20k? She'd need to go back to work inside a year.
posted by valkyryn at 1:09 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hi. I am you. My mother has borderline personality disorder. I am one of two children, but mom and I live in the same city and my sister lives hundreds of miles away. Mom has always relied on me emotionally, but as we both get older, she has started relying on me just to survive. She's been chronically unemployed or underemployed since she moved to my city six years ago. Instead of moving back to our hometown where the cost of living is far lower, she has stayed here.

More than once, she has told me that she might need to move in with me, because she can't afford to pay her rent. She has borrowed small amonts of money from me, but the amounts are getting larger, and they rarely get repaid. I know that if she does move in with me, she will never leave, because I'll just be enabling her to continue her bad behavior.

Setting boundaries with someone who feels that you are responsible for their well-being is damn near impossible. Your mother is going to think that you are selfish and a terrible child for not taking care of her the way that she thinks you should, and she's going to tell everyone. You are going to feel guilty. You are going to feel sad. You are going to feel angry that your mother is not "normal" like "everyone else's."

The boundaries I've set with my mom:
- I've told her that she cannot move in. I've told her that while I love her, I am not capable emotionally or monetarily of allowing her to live with me in my one-bedroom apartment. I've told her I will help her however I can, but that does not include moving in.
- She's not allowed to call me before I leave the house for work. For awhile she was doing this most mornings, just to chat or because she had something to tell me. That's my alone time to prepare for the day (and get out the door to work).
- If she screams at me on the phone, I tell her that I'm happy to speak with her once she calms down, and I hang up.

This is so, so tough. I'm still figuring out how to deal with it after 26 years. Good luck.
posted by anotheraccount at 1:23 PM on October 18, 2012 [6 favorites]

As she becomes less capable of independence, eyes are turning to me to support her. I am neither financially nor emotionally capable of doing this.

Part of setting boundaries is being able to set them with other people also. I'm sorry you are going through this. My father drank himself to death, for the most part, a few years ago and I was surprised that I wasn't more bent out of shape about it. I mean, I miss him every day and I miss having a dad, but realistically I hadn't had a dad for a long time so much as a needy person who wasn't taking care of himself and worked me like a dog whenever I'd come to visit and then wondered why I wouldn't visit more. Part of having someone in your life who is disabled in this way is that you spend a lot of time grieving for what you didn't have even while they are still there with you. It's okay to feel that way.

It's tough and everyone needs to make their peace with these sorts of shitty situations in their own way but it's totally okay for you to not only draw strong boundaries with other people (who may have bad boundaries or just different ideas of what family responsibility is, both of those are fine) but to forgive yourself in advance for the things that you can't and won't take on. It's okay to live your own life and not be held hostage by someone else's bad decisions even if they are the result of a disease and/or addiction.

What I would try to do is a few things

- therapy and/or Al-Anon for yourself
- some supportive friends who are just on your side. They can listen to your woes about your mom and just be like "wow that is tough" but also listen to you when you say you miss her or wish you could do more
- stuff to do in the town that you like that has nothing to do with her or your family so you are continuing to live your life and not just feeling trapped by either helping or not-helping your mom
- maybe see if you can get your mom hooked up with a social worker or someone else, get on disability, whatever. There is still a bit of a social safety net in the US and at least trying to make sure someone knows about her and could potentially help her is useful but after that Not Your Job

I didn't go back to move in with my alcoholic parent [I lived four hours away and, like you, liked it where I was] and he died and, really, he was going to die anyhow. Over time, it's become a lot more clear to me and the people around me that this was not all as much my fault as it felt like maybe it was at the time. One of the ACOA things is that you try to control freak your way into making things work because no one else is helping you. It's terribly lonely. Best of luck finding people to help you help yourself.
posted by jessamyn at 1:47 PM on October 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

My mom is bipolar/recovering alcoholic. Jessamyn pretty much nailed it. The only thing I would add is this. When you find yourself in a calm and quiet mood, sit down and just decide how much time/support/money you are willing to give. Make sure it's something that will work with your life. can you visit once a week or call once a week or once a month. Whatever you pick is fine. Then that's your commitment. And don't let anybody guilt you in to more. My brother has lunch once a month with our mother. I call her during lunch and give her a few bucks now and then. Without ever talking about it much, we both kind of decided how much we could handle. The trick is once you decide how much to give, try and feel good that you are giving as much as you are able. Don't let anyone make you feel bad. Being ACOA isn't for wimps. You gotta be tough and love yourself and ignore everyone else.
posted by bananafish at 3:29 PM on October 18, 2012

My mother's attitude is that my personal success is her reward, not never-ending attention to all her needs. She wants me to live my own life and be happy.

I think any mother that disagrees with that is overly selfish.

So my recommendation: Use the above to assuage your guilt. Then, if anybody asks you to do something for her, only say yes if it's something you actually want to do. Maybe after some time apart you'll actually miss her and want to spend some time with her. If not, well, you only get one life; don't waste it being miserable like she did.
posted by flimflam at 3:39 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is it possible for you to move away from your mother? Say, three hours away? In my experience, it's always the female relative living closest to the ill relative who gets stuck with the guilt and the care. Right now, it's you. But if you move farther out of the line of fire, you'll probably have less of this work to deal with, and it might have to shift onto someone else (though it sounds like your relatives are pretty avoidant, so maybe not).
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:35 PM on October 18, 2012

The eyes who are turning to you to support your mom ought to be doing their part to help, or they have no right to guilt trip you. 1.5 hours is really not all that far for someone to drive to help pitch in. Be assertive about getting the guilt-trippers to put up or shut up.

Nthing social services - google [your area] Department of Aging and Adult Services and go from there.

Don't be pressured into giving your mom more than you can realistically or healthily give her. Don't give up your own life for her.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:53 PM on October 18, 2012

I came here to say exactly what Rosie M. Banks said: it's easy for someone else to point a finger at someone and say they out to be doing more, but really, if they're not willing to step up, they have absolutely no say in the matter.

Not having a parent in this situation, I don't feel qualified to say anything else besides I am so sorry that you in this position and you absolutely should not feel obligated to support anyone's, even a parent's, self-destructive behavior, despite what others might lead you to believe.
posted by smirkette at 9:07 PM on October 18, 2012

Social services.

It's a tough deal, and it will never be easy. You have to put on your oxygen mask first, and save yourself. Decide what you want to do, what you realistically can do financially, emotionally, and timewise, and write that down. Post it prominently. Don't let others guilt you into doing more. Don't let yourself guilt you into doing more. Other family members need to step up to the plate.

Alcoholism is a disease, but it's not a get-out-of-jail-free card. She put herself in this bind. You are working (and not drinking) to keep yourself from being in the position she's now in.

Be strong.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:51 PM on October 18, 2012

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