You Never Cleaned Your Room And That's Why Mom and Dad Got a Divorce
December 10, 2014 12:35 PM   Subscribe

I think my mom blames me for the collapse of her marriage, I'm not quite sure how to process that.

When I was home for a visit this weekend, I was talking to my mom about her marriage to my dad, which ended when I was 19. Right before I was about to get on my train home, the conversation took a weird turn: I asked my mom if she didn't think that she would have been happier in her marriage if she'd had more self-fulfillment, instead of feeling like she needed to sacrifice herself for my dad. She gave up her career to have kids and then went back to work when I was eleven, and I always thought this was a big reason for my parents' split--that my mom wanted to work and my dad resented it. "Actually," my mom said, in her perfectly cheerful way. "I always thought the marriage could have worked out fine if I'd been able to get more support from you guys around the house."

It was like a light went off in my head, then, because it wasn't *you guys* - it was me. My entire adolescence was a battle between me and my mom about household stuff; the fact that I was too messy was this insanely contentious and stressful fact of life in my family that determined a huge chunk of my day-to-day existence growing up. It was so bad that in a lot of ways I blocked it out, or when I revisit it, I attribute my memories of being desperately unhappy and anxious all the time to the fact that my parents were fighting leading up to their divorce.

But that wasn't quite it, I realize now: they rarely fought outright. It was always my mom who was angry at me - first because of my messiness, and then because my dad would step in and defend me and my mom would get mad about that, so it was an endless cycle that repeated itself for nearly a decade, from when I was 11 until the marriage ended. (FWIW, I am messy, and I'm finally *this year* getting treated for ADHD, but I was also an A student and I never got into trouble otherwise).

But today I feel like for the first time in my life I finally get it: it wasn't all in my head; I wasn't imagining how angry she was, or how bad and guilty I felt during that time - for whatever reason, my mom actually did blame the failure of her relationship on me. And some part of her still does - it's not like she was all, "That's what I used to think, because I was unhappy and your father wasn't supporting me, but then I realized that putting the weight of the success or failure of a marriage on an eleven year old's ability to do her chores was a ridiculous way of looking at the world."

I am having a weirdly hard time coping with this. I don't usually feel like my parents' decisions shape my day-to-day life all that much, but I feel like I've just looked directly at something big and ugly that's been sitting in the middle of my life, and I don't know how to process it. I'm in therapy, and we'll certainly talk about this, but we're not meeting again for a while. In the meantime, I was wondering if anyone has a similar experience and has come to terms with it and has an understanding of how it might have affected them. I guess what I'd really like is to hear is other people's stories about similar childhoods, especially if messiness or household labor was involved.

Growing up, did the weight of your parents' unhappiness land on you? How did affect you growing up? How are your relationships with your parents now? Does it affect your current relationships? How do you cope with it?

Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (54 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I know this isn't really the answer to any of your questions, but wow what a terrible thing for her to say to you. For what it's worth, it's a parents job to provide a healthy environment for their children and to protect their children from bad things, not the other way around. I mean, they (she) decided to have you, they raised you and largely helped formed who you are/were, especially at age 11. Don't get me wrong, I accept that children can bring stress on a marriage, especially if there is major disagreements on how to raise children. However, the idea that your mom would hold you responsible for the demise of her marriage, and then tell you of that feeling makes me think that your mom has never quite quit being a child herself. I'm sorry that all of this has happened to you.
posted by ill3 at 12:53 PM on December 10, 2014 [71 favorites]

My parents levelled this kind of thing at me. Not so much the mess but that I was a difficult child and yadda yadda stress, yadda yadda unhappiness, yadda yadda affair divorce remarriage.

It's bullshit. I know that now. I'm married, I've got a somewhat difficult child and a messy house. If my husband and I weren't adults capable of working as a team and expressing our needs and wants with each other and supporting each other, our marriage would fail in the face of all of this. That we can continue after 17 years is because we are adults and own our behaviours and responsibility for our children. We are a united front and if it went wrong, it's because we fucked up.

Your mother has the emotional maturity of Ronald McDonald and you should not accept any of this. If she stepped back and spent an hour in reflection, she may realise this. But it's easier to blame her child than herself for her inability to communicate and work with your dad.

Call her on this shit, it's damaging, untrue and bloody unjust.

Kids can't break up marriages, mess can't break up marriages, bad communication breaks up marriages, and your mum has just proven that she has exactly that: bad communication.

I forgave my parents, but only because it was easier for me than living with the anger.

But yeah, it's utter utter utter bullshit and no rational human being would ever see it any other way. As the wise magi here say...flag it and move on. You've done nothing wrong. Her job was to love you unconditionally and help you become the best you you could be. Well, she fucked up her part of the contract, didn't she?

You're good. She's in a bad place. I send you hugs and understanding. (And I only have this perspective now I've got was a long road of crippling self blame and doubt.)
posted by taff at 12:55 PM on December 10, 2014 [104 favorites]

I dont have any advice, but I just want to say how sorry I am that your mother treated your child self that way and continues to blame that child for her own adult decisions. That is so awful to have to know that she thinks this way seriously and I'm not surprised it's brought up a lot of buried trauma. What your mum thinks and has said is wrong, and her divorce was not your fault. Take care of yourself and permit this to be a difficult thing. It's not weird to find this hard to deal with, at all.
posted by mymbleth at 12:56 PM on December 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

My parents got divorced when I was at camp one summer, after never having fought (or even disagreed) openly prior to that point. No particular reason was given at the time, and it was, more or less, never discussed again. The first time it was ever mentioned again was when I brought it up when I got divorced some 20 years later--I got one dinner conversation out of each parent, and that will be it for the rest of our lives. Meh, we're not big talkers, I guess. Of course, the experience of coming home to a surprise divorce colored my relationships for a long time (and surely led to my own divorce). So, therapy that's good. Oh Philip Larkin, you are so wise.

However, I never really thought it was about me, and I can tell you in all earnestness that a parent who foists the blame for their divorce on their children's adolescent housekeeping is, to a metaphysical certainty, mistaken. Without any particular heat to this comment, I'd observe that the kind of person who would do that would not the kind of person you'd want to be married to; if you're the kind of person to blame your children for the implosion of your marriage, you lack the emotional maturity and perspective to be a good spouse or (again, without heat) a good parent.

Good luck to you.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:56 PM on December 10, 2014 [14 favorites]

None of this is your fault.

What it is is her finding it easier to blame you than to face up to any part she may have had to play in the divorce. Lets face it the sort of person that would blame an 11 year old kid for breaking up their marriage you have some serious issues, and those issues might be scary/hard to face. Not justifying but in her mind it is probably easier to blame you than work on those problems.
posted by wwax at 1:01 PM on December 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

Just what others have said and that I too can relate. In my case, my mother almost certainly has NPD...never to blame and emotionally a child. You are not to blame and this was a very shitty and untrue thing to say. Please take care of yourself and hugs if you want them.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 1:01 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Rather than reading between the lines, give your mother a call and ask her outright: "Mom, what you said to me before I left the other day has hurt me greatly. Did you really mean to suggest that I am the reason your marriage to Dad disintegrated, and if so, how do you justify that seeing as it's not a kid's fault if her parents divorce?"

You're (understandably) turning this into a catastrophe that's all on your shoulders. When you get a ball that's too big to bounce in your court like this, throw it back to the person who sent it to you in the first place.

This is 100% on your mom. Shame on her for suggesting such a horrid thing. Oh, and if she has the gall and guts to reiterate what she suggested previously, you have my encouragement and permission to tell her to eff off.
posted by Hermione Granger at 1:04 PM on December 10, 2014 [37 favorites]

Kids CAN be difficult and the CAN contribute to disharmony which CAN lead to divorce. I know this because I have a psychotic son (not saying you're psychotic) and the strife he caused was often unbearable. I would not, however, tell him this (he is still sick and he's completely incoherent so it wouldn't help anyway and I would never do that to him regardless). Which brings me to my point: SHE should never have told you this. Forgive her. A marital breakup is a terrible thing. That being were a child and cannot be held responsible for what she says you did. Even if you really did it. When you have kids you get what you get.
posted by brownrd at 1:08 PM on December 10, 2014 [11 favorites]

Well, two things:

1) Sometimes parents aren't great people, or, you know--they aren't bad people, but they aren't fully cooked. There's nothing stopping people with horrible coping skills from birthing kids. My mom has occasionally copped to some serious bad parenting, and, well, she hasn't so much apologized as said, "so, you're older now than I was then, how much of YOUR shit do you have together?" Point taken. It's really hard to hear, though, and I am sorry you've been left reeling with the gap between her view of things and what you know to be reasonable.

2) Your mom really did say "you guys", and frankly, it's your interpretation that she means literally just you, and just for this reason. I know you guys fought bitterly over the cleanliness thing but seriously, it is entirely possible that your dad defending you was just one of many ways in which she felt your dad never had her back at home. Consider that she really might not be blaming an 11 year old for undiagnosed ADHD. She might be blaming her adult ex-spouse for leaving all of this stuff in her lap, plus who knows what else.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:08 PM on December 10, 2014 [38 favorites]

I suspect your mother is saying something that is true for a lot of people. There is this burden that often falls on the female partner, and it is an institutionalized sexism that everyone else gets a choice in how much they help because if nobody else does it, Mom will.

But it's not really so much about you as about your father, and that he didn't have her back. Parenting splits up a lot of people, because of inabilities to negotiate, compromise, support each other, and deal with this incredibly high-stakes responsibility together without freaking out.

Is it possible your mother wouldn't have felt so unsupported if the children and the management of the children had been less difficult? Sure, there just wouldn't have been as much to disagree about. Maybe she just wouldn't have noticed or reached a breaking point. If he wouldn't work with/help her on that, there's a hundred other things he wouldn't support her on either.

But the thing is, it could have been anything, and it was most assuredly lots of things - YOU are the one who's taking it to mean they got divorced because you wouldn't clean up your room, she didn't say that.

She was speaking to you as one adult to another, not to a child, and you weren't ready for that. It may not be the last time, especially as she gets older and you may be involved in health and lifestyle discussions with her that may conflict with how you're prepared to think about her.

I think if your takeaway was that it was your fault, you should have a followup discussion with her.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:08 PM on December 10, 2014 [19 favorites]

3) [hit enter too soon] Your mom still never should have told you this, it's ridiculous, but people blurt out ridiculous stuff all the time and once you've processed this in therapy, and maybe more with her too, you'll be able to get to a good place with it.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:09 PM on December 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Their divorce is NOT your fault.
posted by Flood at 1:09 PM on December 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Man, that is MESSED UP.

I'm gonna be not at all specific about this, but I had an emotionally similar experience and honestly my jam so far has been to tell EVERYONE. Like I repeated the conversation to all my friends, talked about it till I was done talking about it, and like, wore myself out on the WTF OH COME ON WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU part of it. I'm pretty much done now. It worked! I needed to hear about 40 different people go "SAY WHAT? OH HELL NO." Really improved my outlook.

Your (our!) choices are to engage about this and have a dialogue with her, or to literally never discuss it. Both have their advantages. I prefer to deal with things outside of those kind of relationships and then go back to being friendly and loving if I can. There's just no satisfaction in that conversation. It's horrible that she said it, it's terrible that she believes it, but any kind of healing or emotional work around it really won't happen with her. She's "on her own path" (a path that sucks).
posted by RJ Reynolds at 1:10 PM on December 10, 2014 [15 favorites]

If my husband and I weren't adults capable of working as a team and expressing our needs and wants with each other and supporting each other, our marriage would fail in the face of all of this. That we can continue after 17 years is because we are adults and own our behaviours and responsibility for our children. We are a united front and if it went wrong, it's because we fucked up.

Taff is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT about this.

If your cleanliness really were such a problem that your mother was bothered by it, it STILL is not your fault that your parents were not able to mutually discuss their differences of opinion ABOUT your cleanliness. I mean, my own parents also had things about parenting that they definitely didn't see eye-to-eye about, but they didn't deal with it by getting divorced - they dealt with it by talking out a compromise BETWEEN THEMSELVES, rather than allowing it to be a wedge that drove them apart.

Your mother is using you as a scapegoat and that isn't a fair thing of her to do.

I do also wonder, though, whether you asking her whether she would have been happier with more self-fulfillment may have sounded like you ACCUSING her of something, in her mind, and that maybe she was feeling defensive. It may help to maybe calm the waters to mention that "hey, if it sounded like I was lecturing you, then I apologize for that..." before saying "but it also sounds kind of like you turned around and blamed your divorce on the fact that I didn't clean my room and that didn't feel good either".

But reiterating that this was NOT your fault and it wasn't fair for your mother to suggest that and you have every right to call her on that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:13 PM on December 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

Picking up on what Lyn says above about speaking 'one adult to another' , I've found that my mum has opened up a lot to me as I've got older, and when I was still in my early twenties, I found that she could be quite brutally honest about how awful my teenage years were. She seemed quite happy to compare my little sister's lovely friendship group to my horribly dysfunctional one and not realise how how hurtful it was for her to be making light of a difficult adolesence that I was still processing.

The way your mum said this (in a cheerful way) sounds like she just thought she was sharing an interesting, analytical insight with you, without realising she was being so hurtful. Is she quite happily over the divorce and has maybe assumed you are too and can talk about it lightheartedly? It wasn't a kind thing to say, but mums are human too.
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 1:13 PM on December 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

What the hell?

My mom took us all to a family therapist, where everything was blamed on me for being so difficult. It has taken me YEARS to get out of that mindset -- that, indeed, I not only was not difficult but was asking for things which everyone else in the world considered normal.

She has said on occasion that she considered herself a single parent because of my dad's lack of support: well, occasionally he took overnight business trips, but he was present and loving to us and appears to have done the best he could.

Then she told me (as I just mentioned in the "good mother" thread) that she felt like a failure because I had free will. (This was said in a sort of one-off way, fitting into the "we're adults now; let me be frank with you" mode.)

What in the ever-loving fuck are you supposed to do with that information?

Eventually, I've been able to recognize that these kinds of things were a product of her own distorted thinking and not my fault. Then I made peace with the fact that she can only make an impact with this kind of behavior if I play along. So if I pussyfoot around and let her say stuff like this without calling her out -- or at least without acknowledging that she's said something cockamamie -- THAT is something I can control. Nothing else.

Family dynamics are really a sick system because you're dealing with a power differential the moment you emerge from the womb. It shocks me to think about the things I thought were normal until I started getting shocked looks from friends.

It's not your fault. ALL of you were doing the best you could. But her relationship with your dad had way more ins and outs than you could have affected.
posted by Madamina at 1:21 PM on December 10, 2014 [13 favorites]

This is crap. Don't even believe this for one second. This is a person not taking responsibility.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:23 PM on December 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

My mother often (even when I was still a child) said something similar, yet opposite to me: "If it wasn't for you and your brother [who never got to hear that, btw], I would have left your father ages ago!" I think that my mother - and possibly yours, too - is very immature when it comes to emotional things. Someone above mentioned Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and she definitely has some of the traits (as does my brother.) Does your mother show any of the traits on this list?

It was definitely not okay for your mother to say that to you. As others have pointed out, it is the parents job to raise their children, they decided to had you and they need to work out their problems concerning how to deal with you. If they can't do that - NOT YOUR FAULT. That said, parents as people as well and while I find what your mother said horrible, I guess she may have been looking for a way to stop blaming herself for her failed marriage.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 1:25 PM on December 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wow - that must have been so hard to hear, and so hurtful.

Teenagers are going to teenage, and if that is causing conflict in a marriage, that's on the marriage - it's not on the kids. It's unfair to place that kind of burden on the child. If your messiness was causing your parents to fight, then your parents should have figured something out.

Maybe she's just using it as a convenient excuse, I don't know. But I'd be extremely hurt, if it were me hearing that from my mom.
posted by sutel at 1:27 PM on December 10, 2014

This ain't your fault. You're all right by me.

Kids can destroy a marriage. Christ knows I've seen it happen often enough. But that's not the fault of the kids, or of one specific kid in particular. It's the fault of the grown-ass men and women who aren't properly able to cope with the changes kids bring to a relationship. Children are never responsible for the actions and decisions of their parents. It just ain't the case.
posted by Sternmeyer at 1:29 PM on December 10, 2014 [18 favorites]

Kids can destroy a marriage. Christ knows I've seen it happen often enough. But that's not the fault of the kids, or of one specific kid in particular. It's the fault of the grown-ass men and women who aren't properly able to cope with the changes kids bring to a relationship.

THIS. I hope that with some time and work, you can fully realize that your mom did tell you a truth, but not the truth you think. What she admitted to you was that she couldn't really cope with life, and your dad was no damn help.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:33 PM on December 10, 2014 [14 favorites]

Even if she does think that you broke up her marriage (and she is absolutely 100% wrong if she does), it's still a horribly inappropriate thing to say to you. Being related by blood to someone doesn't make it OK to say nasty, hurtful things to them.
posted by Anne Neville at 1:44 PM on December 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Can I recast your story as another story that I've read about a million times? I don't know if it's really the same story, but it sounds pretty familiar.

Your parents had a kid with special needs. Society lumped your mum with the problem of dealing with this all on her own, because looking after the kids was her job, and so was tidying the house, even when she was also working. When your mum said for the Nth time "oh hell the house is a mess", she really meant "I can't manage all this on my own", and when your dad said "That's not anonymous's fault", he was also saying something like "I don't acknowledge that this is a problem". So she was left unsupported dealing with a situation she couldn't handle, and your dad wasn't able or willing to help.

This is a story that plays out a million times in a million homes with a million kids with their own needs, from regular teenage stuff through ADD through much worse, where one parent gets stuck with all the difficulties and the other parent isn't around enough and doesn't get it. And it's not the kids' fault. It's society's fault, for not having any clue how to support families that are in this kind of situation. Not. Your. Fault.
posted by emilyw at 1:47 PM on December 10, 2014 [27 favorites]

The messiness becoming a huge issue is definitely about her!

I had similar issues growing up and I think it's down to a number of things about my mother and I. As an adult I see the same tendencies. I'm naturally very messy, but still want to live a clean and tidy environment. I have the same fits of intense cleaning upon arriving from work - this can be good to get it down, but also can quickly turn into a hungry anxious panic about how the house is NEVER clean and EVERYONE ELSE is SO messy and doesn't help out. Pile on top of that whatever fucked up patriarchal BS that expects working women to be responsible for every speck of dirt in their house.

I'm sorry for how your mothers words hurt you. It isn't fair for you or her to blame you. No matter how much that stress contributed to your parents relationship. But the stress around cleaning isn't an inevitable result of your messiness. (Case in point - I work hard at being comfortable in my mess - If I want it clean, I would clean more or pay someone to do it)

I'm not sure if your up to an attempt to lighten your mood but ... your mother's confession made me think of a recent Toast post. The light bulb moment - "a secret that explains your entire life" - I hope that you too, like a character from an Alice Munro short story, can "carry on, more or less as you always have."
posted by Gor-ella at 1:56 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

What she admitted to you was that she couldn't really cope with life, and your dad was no damn help

Uh, we don't know that the dad was no damn help. The OP stated that the father would step in to defend them when the mother would get angry at the OP. Maybe the mother was a raging weirdo control freak about cleanliness and needed to lighten up and the father was defending the child from a constant onslaught of verbal abuse. The OP says there was a decade of upheaval around household issues.

The mother is responsible for what came out of her mouth and I can't believe some of the apologists here making excuses for such a horrible statement.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 1:58 PM on December 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

There is so much to unpack in this: I asked my mom if she didn't think that she would have been happier in her marriage if she'd had more self-fulfillment, instead of feeling like she needed to sacrifice herself for my dad.

I don't know your family, I don't the situation, but that just comes across having no empathy for the situation your mother was in. Hey you fighting against external forces, gendered expectations who gets shot down by your partner when asking for help, didn't you just bring this all upon yourself?
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 1:59 PM on December 10, 2014 [9 favorites]

Well, she could have hired a housekeeper.

I took her comment to mean that your dad wouldn't pitch in around the house himself, that he did not support her in requiring you to do your share of the chores, and/or that he would not allow her to hire any domestic help.

If you were messy like that, plus showed other symptoms, I guess she could have gotten you treatment for ADHD when you were a child? Right??

Hope you see that as the adults, this was ALL on your dad and mom, not you.
posted by jbenben at 2:05 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

That's loony, anyway. There are lots of messy teenagers. At a guess, most teenagers. Not all of their parents get divorced. Here is an article about the top 10 reasons people get divorced. Messy teenagers is not on that list, nor is it on any similar list that I have ever seen.

It is, however, fairly common in family dynamics for someone to become a scapegoat. That may be what's going on here.

And just because someone says something that may be insensitive to you, doesn't give you the right to retaliate in kind. That goes for family and others.
posted by Anne Neville at 2:18 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Call your mom right now, be kind to her, ask her to be kind to you. Decisions were made, you mother confided what may be her darkest fear to you, life goes on.
posted by bdc34 at 2:22 PM on December 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

One thing that has been a bit tricky for me to learn as an adult is that while it feels somewhat natural or okay to make casual conversation with my parents about their choices and actions while I was growing up, it can be a really fraught topic and it's easy for me to unintentionally cause a lot of pain to them--maybe especially if it's something insightful yet not very kind. It's easy to say something to your parents that you would never casually say to a friend about her life, because they're your parents and if they did a halfway-decent job raising you, they probably didn't show you how badly you could hurt their feelings when you were still a child or teenager. A good thing when you're young, but maybe not as helpful when you're trying to establish an adult relationship with them after you've left home.

I am wondering if your question to your mom about whether she wouldn't have been happier in her marriage (which she could easily read as "maybe your marriage would not have failed") if she had been more self-fulfilled (read: made different choices) might fall into that type of category. To me, that comes across as something I can imagine myself saying as kind of idle speculation to my mother (who is also divorced) in my early 20s and having it bring up some very conflicted, very painful unresolved feelings about her divorce--which she has more recently shared is probably the most painful, wrenching thing she ever went through--and her popping out in response with something equally hurtful towards me, like that she thinks she probably wouldn't have gotten divorced if she hadn't had kids. It wouldn't make it okay for her to say that, but I think once you're an adult you and your parents have equal (or almost equal) responsibility to not casually hurt each other with what you say and it's a bit different to get that sort of thing in response to something hurtful you've said, versus out of the blue.

All of which is a long of saying that it might be helpful to take the sting out of your memory of this conversation to re-frame it as both of you blundering into a tender topic and saying hurtful things to each other, versus your mom finally admitting a dark secret she's harbored about blaming you for her divorce.
posted by iminurmefi at 2:29 PM on December 10, 2014 [20 favorites]

Here's what I wonder: Does your Mom want to keep having the fight with you that she had with you as a teenager, or does she want some affirmation that things were stressful and tough for her?

And do you want to keep having the fight with her that you had as a teenager, or can you give her some affirmation that things were stressful and tough for her?

She's clearly wrong to say what she said, and you're completely justified to feel angry... but is she someone you think that you could build a better relationship with if you both softened a bit? It sounds like you were trying to start heading in that direction. Given how much closer my sister and mother have gotten after the intense conflict during her teenage years, I know it's possible if both people are willing. It takes time, though, and there will be some anger and confusion and hurt along the way - as you're discovering now. It's doable, though.

Remember that you're an adult now, too, and you can make choices about the kind of adult relationship you want to have with your mother.
posted by clawsoon at 2:39 PM on December 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sucks that you heard what you heard, but how you respond to it depends more on what your present-day relationship with your mother is like and what you would like it to be like and what it realistically can be like. Parents screw up. I wish you weren't anon because I would be MeMailing you a couple of choice stories! I think for a lot of people, as we get to be around 30 or so we start to see the cracks in our parents' facades and realize that they are just as flawed everybody else: they have no idea what they're doing, they have trouble taking responsibility for their actions, they rely on narratives about themselves and their lives that don't necessarily correspond with other people's truths.

If my mom said something like this to me (and I can almost see her doing it) I would go for an "ignore, ignore, ignore!" response. So what if that's the way she perceived it: she's wrong, she's unlikely to be convinced that she was wrong, and even if she were convinced that she was wrong I would gain nothing, because I already know she's wrong!

That said, given that you and your mom are not me and my mom, you might want to try and talk it out more and clarify a bit.
posted by mskyle at 2:49 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

the fact that I was too messy was this insanely contentious and stressful fact of life in my family that determined a huge chunk of my day-to-day existence growing up.

Sounds like the contention and stress came not from your level of messiness but from your parents' reaction to it. If they hadn't been able to find fault with that one issue, they would just have transferred the same fight to some other battleground.

The fights were waiting to happen. You weren't the reason; they only made you the excuse.
posted by Pallas Athena at 2:51 PM on December 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

It was like a light went off in my head, then, because it wasn't *you guys* - it was me.

Not exactly; that is, she lumped you and your father together. It sounds like in her mind, it was her against you all. That's not a fair position to put a kid in but sadly, it happens all the time. I am a little surprised that she still apparently sees it that way.

By all means follow up with her but I'd allow for the possibility that your question was hard for her to handle in some way; it was a challenging question. Not that you didn't have a right to ask, it just may have confused her and what she said may not be what she really thinks upon reflection.
posted by BibiRose at 3:06 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am having a weirdly hard time coping with this.

No you aren't. You just got hit by a fucking truck. You are dealing with this appropriately. It was a shitty, shitty, bullshit thing to do.

I hope you are able to meet with your therapist sooner rather than later. Failing that, I would suggest talking to your friends about this. Like RJ Reynolds says, I think you will find their perspective refreshing. If I were you, I would suggest seeking out friends that are parents, although I warn you that they will be incredulous and probably laugh until they cry out of surprise and disbelief.

Your mother basically took you aside and said btw, I'M FUCKING NUTS. You can't trust her and you shouldn't give her opinion any weight. Be kind to yourself and be well.
posted by kate blank at 3:17 PM on December 10, 2014 [7 favorites]

Your mum is a nutcase.

I have big cleaning and control freak issues because I was raised by a similar parent...who blamed me for the mess and now lives with a hoarded mess.

I have messy kids.

It triggers me sometimes and I get overwhelmed. That sometimes leads to arguing. And that last step is 100% My husband and mostly my responsibility. It is not my kids' job to be perfect little tidy creatures!!!

Being messy is just being messy! Especially as a young person! It's my job to help my kids learn things, not blame them for not achieving house nirvana.

I'm sorry she said that.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:27 PM on December 10, 2014 [10 favorites]

... especially if messiness or household labor was involved. ... Growing up, did the weight of your parents' unhappiness land on you?
I don't want to go into details here (you can memail me if you like) but yes, this is exactly what happened to me. Fair and unfair expectations were imposed on me regarding housework (and much more) before, and especially after, tragedy struck our home. My mother wasn't coping. I, a young teen, wasn't coping, but I became the scapegoat for much of my remaining family's unprocessed trauma. It was my mother's responsibility to find ways for her and us to cope that didn't involve increasing my own trauma and she failed, badly.

How did affect you growing up?
Substantially. It influenced (through both assimilation and resistance) much of my self-esteem, relationships and behaviours for many years, until I was able to unpack and re-view many of my issues with a good therapist.

How are your relationships with your parents now?
She always had a cruel and violent streak and it became amplified after our tragedy. The more she resisted taking responsibility for her actions, the more she wanted to blame them on me. She has mellowed a lot, she is an elderly woman now, but she still resists taking responsibility. I have raised some issues with her and her response has been devastatingly cruel and blame-filled. Confronting her was so traumatic that I will never do it again. She knows what she did. She knows that I know it was inexcusable. But I know that I will forgive her a micro-second after she asks for forgiveness, if she ever does.

How do you cope with it?
I live far away and only see her once or twice a year. I still haven't learned how to totally inoculate myself against her but I am much bigger and stronger physically and emotionally than her, so my natural compassion for the elderly takes over when I am actually in her presence.

Does it affect your current relationships?
Yes. Partners who come from strong close families sometimes make me feel like damaged goods - there must be something wrong with me if my mother thought so little of me that she would come close to killing me for not cleaning a room. I am also much more serious than I bloody well should be given my sense of humour and natural pollyannaishness. But being the teenage scapegoat for an adult's emotional immaturity, particularly the adult who is meant to care most, is something that wounds very deeply and has delayed my own emotional growth in some areas.

Most insidiously, it effected my relationship with myself for many years, and still does in various ways.

I really feel for your experience. Your mother unfairly and immaturely placed the blame on you. She either did it because that's what she really believes, or she said what she said to wound you in an effort to make herself feel better. Either way, it's awful to see that raw lack of self-awareness and compassion up close in someone we think loves us. It's devastating to be the brunt of cruelty from someone you thought you could trust.

I have no advice. Just talk with your therapist. And journal. Write, write, write it all out. The only way out is through. Hugs and best wishes.
posted by Kerasia at 3:30 PM on December 10, 2014 [9 favorites]

I am having a weirdly hard time coping with this.

Okay, first, that would be an INCREDIBLY hard statement to hear, so if you are having a hard time coping with it, it is not weird at all.

I feel like I've just looked directly at something big and ugly that's been sitting in the middle of my life, and I don't know how to process it.

Yes! Well said. And it reminds me of that three-blind-people-describing-an-elephant story. You are / were / are so close to the situation that maybe you're just seeing the ears or something. Figuring out what this means is going to take some time.

I'm in therapy, and we'll certainly talk about this, but we're not meeting again for a while.

Is it possible to meet sooner? This probably qualifies as a situation worth adding a therapy session for.

Finally, I don't know what the actual situation is with your mom, but I do want to say that she was an adult. She made her own decisions and was responsible for her own self: her emotional resiliency, her resources to cope, her choice of your father as a partner, her relationship with him. (This is not to let your dad, or entrenched sexism in society off the hook.) If she had said something that showed her taking responsibility for some pieces of it, I'd give her statement more value and credibility. Here are examples of things she could have said:
- "It was stressful for me, being a parent, and dealing with stressors like your natural disorganization. And as you saw, I hadn't developed my ability to organize the help I needed -- I just expected help, and when it didn't come, I got angry. I wasn't ready to challenge the assumption that I had to do it all, and I thought my only option was to get you to be neater. I see now that I could have just phoned the cleaning service myself and taken the pressure off of us all, but at the time, I needed validation that it was okay to need help and to prioritize my own needs, and when that didn't come, I grew very resentful."
- "You know, back then people thought that cleaning the house was the woman's job, and even though I knew that your father had some slightly traditional values, I didn't realize what a burden that would be on me. So, although he is a good person, I didn't make a good choice in choosing him for my husband, because I had a lot of ambition outside of traditional roles."

That what she said doesn't show her taking a modicum of responsibility for how things went makes me think that either she was surprised and spoke recklessly, or she's not ready to talk about this in a way that's responsible and emotionally safe for you. Either way, I would not try to discuss this with her further.
posted by salvia at 3:34 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wow. That is just an outrageous thing to say. I'm actually furious at your mother on her behalf. That's someone trying to abdicate responsibility for her own life and her own actions. Which is bad enough, but trying to put that burden on her own child for stuff the child did as an eleven-year-old? Completely, 100 percent fucked up.

Without getting into the details here, I can say I was a very difficult child and my parents had a terrible marriage. I highly doubt that those two things were related; if anything, the terrible marriage probably caused my problems, not the other way around. I was a child, and so were you. My own reaction to that sort of statement from my own mother would be white-hot rage and I probably wouldn't speak to her again for a good long time, if ever. So if you're beating yourself up for feeling bowled over by what she said, don't.
posted by holborne at 3:52 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

A marriage is not a group project. It is a relationship between two adults (sometimes more!) and those two people are responsible for nurturing it and caring for it. A marriage, while it may be the foundation of a family, is not a unit that includes children. Period. And, it is more than inappropriate to inject children into a marriage and act as though they're members of the partnership. They're not. Children do not posses the emotional and mental maturity to be married. They also didn't consent to be in a marriage between adults and don't really understand the construct in a complete way.

Therefore, it's *completely* preposterous for your mother to evade her own responsibility for her part of the failed marriage and foist it onto you. It may very well be that her inability to identify problems and take responsibility for herself and her commitments are reasons why the marriage failed. But, really, the why doesn't matter to you. It was absolutely not your fault at all and it's really not OK for your mother to directly or indirectly hold you responsible for the fate of a marriage that you were not party to. Your mother was the adult. She was responsible for managing both her relationship as well as her response to stress. Same goes for your father. Managing a marriage between adults is not the job of the child.

Don't underestimate the effects of growing up in a house where there was fighting and tremendous tension. Children depend on parents to shield them and create a safe and structured environment. If the very people who were responsible for doing this for you instead chose to openly fight and fill the house with anger, sadness, and stress, the children are traumatized. Early childhood stress and trauma can wire you up differently. There can be lasting effects in your mental and emotional life. Continue with therapy and take care of yourself. It's totally unacceptable for your mother to be undermining you like this.
posted by quince at 3:56 PM on December 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

One of the reasons why I want nothing more to do with my mother is because she took out her frustrations about her marriage on me.

We had a weekly housekeeper and my uncle's gf gave her a subscription to Ms. in its first year.
posted by brujita at 4:12 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's not your fault.

A lot of people come together with the expectation that life will be perfect, and when things aren't, they don't know how to compromise or they don't know how to put in hard work or they're just not compatible.

It's like, if a couple had an infinite amount of money, they would never fight over money. But that doesn't make them a good couple. And people break up over money all the time. If they had enough money, maybe they would've stayed together. But more probably, they would've just broken up over something else, because they have the fundamental inability to live together, communicate, and compromise.

Life is not perfect. It never will be. A successful relationship is one where you make each other happier as everything else is going on. It's one where you help each other through difficulties.

If a couple broke up because something was difficult or stressful, then that couple was going to break up anyway. If it wasn't one thing, it would've been another, all equally unrelated to the root problem.

It sounds like your mother was upset your father defended you. That was a problem between the two of them. And it also sounds like she doesn't know how to take responsibility for her own actions, and needed to blame it on an ELEVEN year old.

(You don't even go to prison for life for mass murder when you are eleven. Society and culture assumes that eleven year olds don't really know what they are doing, for good reason.)

It's not your fault.
posted by ethidda at 4:26 PM on December 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Uh, that's horseshit. You know that, right? It would have been just as easy for her to dial down the tension if she'd just shut the fuck up about it, ya know? But instead, she chose to get into a power struggle with a child. Your mom is selling her version of the failures of her life and apparently it was all good except for the fact that you wouldn't take out the garbage. You don't have to buy that you know.

There's something pathological about your mother's need to tell you this, it's mean and petty and on the outer edge of good mental health.

My Mom is a narcissist. Everything in the world is filtered through how it impacts her, affects her or makes her look. When I was an adolescent she was a nightmare. She had a hormone imbalance and she spent my teen years yelling at me for pretty much everything I did. I'm not kidding. Once, I cleaned the entire house while my parents were out, and she came home, looked inside the oven and accused me of making it dirty. And the tirade went on for minutes. I looked at my Dad, he looked at me, as she shrieked and shrieked about it. One of the most WTF moments of my life.

I am completely used to nothing being her fault, but instead, everything always happens to her. I can imagine my mom saying something like that. Not that I'm giving her an armchair diagnosis, but check out some articles about narcissistic parents and see if it resonates.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:40 PM on December 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

That your mother was so casual and cheery with her statement, in response to a rather heavy question from you, is what strikes me about this question. She doesn't seem particularly self-aware or empathetic. My own mother frequently drops bombshells like this, and I have to remind myself that even if she said it sincerely in the moment, that doesn't necessarily make it true. It'll just be some random, stinky turd of a just-so story that she spun in the moment to highlight how she's the victim in every single situation. And then there are stories we tell ourselves that become truths. It sounds to me like your mom did channel her anger into this High Conflict about your messiness. And your dad, while good for him to defend you, maybe fed into the story by making a point of defending you and not working with his wife to help her cope with the very average problem of messy children. It sounds to me like you understand the problem was theirs, not yours, and you are in no way responsible for the demise of their marriage.

So, coping. For me, I did have to pick up apart all those narratives, unpack them in therapy, and share them with friends, too. Since it's a pattern with my mom, it's become easier to identify when she drops one of those turds and emotionally step aside from it.

I'm sorry she said that to you. What a terrible thing to say.
posted by stowaway at 4:40 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Surprisingly, a number of marriages with messy children do survive.
posted by amtho at 5:32 PM on December 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

Everyone is piling on the mom. Let me ask, why did you YOU bring up the issue of the divorce and question her about her self-fulfillment? " I asked my mom if she didn't think that she would have been happier in her marriage if she'd had more self-fulfillment, instead of feeling like she needed to sacrifice herself for my dad." When you bring up a topic like this and in that fashion then things will GO OFF THE RAILS. Instead of stewing about this, just call her and get clarification. I think a heart to heart conversation has to happen. Be warned, it could get VERY revelatory and messy.

Marriages are complicated things. The only people who know what is happening are the direct participants and quite frankly, can be unreliable witnesses. Even adult children are still children to their parents and that requires very careful curation of what one says to those children. We are all young and vulnerable when it comes to our parents. Words have great impact and feelings are raw. Should you feel that you were the sole reason for the divorce? No, but you might want to hear a more nuanced answer from your mother on the issue, so you stop feeling bad.
posted by jadepearl at 6:47 PM on December 10, 2014 [10 favorites]

To answer your questions, op:
Growing up, did the weight of your parents' unhappiness land on you?

I don't know if the weight did, but as a child and teen, yes I felt the burden of their transferred feelings of frustration, anger and sadness. I think everyone receives a greater or lesser dose of this at times. It's not fair, and is not easy.

How did affect you growing up?

Difficult to sort out the nature from the nurture, but I believe it negatively impacted my self esteem, increased my anxiety levels and feelings of guilt and discomfort with negative emotions. Honestly I feel that it changed me from an extrovert to an introvert. I don't know how much of this would have occurred any way, but it played a role.

How are your relationships with your parents now? they are and we're very good, better than any of my siblings. I genuinely love my parents, recognise their flaws, but also recognise their deep and abiding - immoveable - love for me. That love was a constant, even when they dropped the ball, lashed out, got angry. And they still loved me when I did those things, too. I guess an acknowledgement of mutual humanity and concomitant respect underpins our relationship. And a recognition of the flaws and the limited perspective we all have.

Does it affect your current relationships?

No. I'm a thirty three year old man. I cannot proceed through life blaming my parents, I have lived apart from them nearly as long as with them, now. My flaws are my own, as are theirs. I made a conscious decision many years ago to acknowledge their flaws, to myself if no one else, but not to hang them by those flaws. I feel like my understanding of this humanity, and this compassion and sympathy for their own struggles has contributed to our good relationships today.

How do you cope with it? I forgive them, and I forgive myself. I have kids of my own now ; I know you can be innocent and still a totally infuriating little asshole. It's no one's fault. I chose to take the many wonderful gifts my parents gave me, and leave the junk back in my childhood. It peeks through sometimes, to no one's credit, but it won't define me, or them.

Hope this helps, best of luck. It doesn't sound like your mum is carrying a lot of baggage around this, however distorted her view, don't let yourself be weighed down by that either.
posted by smoke at 6:58 PM on December 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think your mother's statement might not be as accusatory as it's being perceived.

Is it your fault her marriage ended? No. But could the stress of feeling like she had to be everyone's maid have contributed to conflict between her and your father? Yes. Should they have dealt with that conflict better? Surely.

If that source of stress hadn't been there to cause the conflict, would their marriage have been more successful? Maaaybe. Chances are that something else would have come along to test their relationship, but in your mother's mind she may think "If that had been different, things would have been better/easier." That might not be placing blame on you as much as it's just thinking about the conditions that would have led to a different outcome--the same kind of thing you were doing when you asked if she thought the marriage would have been more successful if she'd pursued her own self-fulfillment more actively.

I definitely think it's worth talking more with your mother about this to try to understand better where she's coming from. One sentence probably doesn't adequately convey her feelings.
posted by Colonel_Chappy at 7:26 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't actually think this is that bad of a thing for a mom to say--yeah it sounds like it slipped out and it's pretty insensitive, but we're all human. The lightbulb thing you're talking about? That isn't what she said, and I would guess, is not what she meant. All she actually said is that if she had more support from "you guys" (IE, the rest of the household in general) the marriage may have worked out fine. Perhaps she is not explaining "but then, putting the weight of the world on an 11 year old's shoulder is crazy!" because that isn't how she's looking at the situation.

I can see getting divorced if you realize your husband is a) unwilling to help out with household tasks or b) unwilling to help encourage others to do so as well or c) unable to take her side (even if she is being immature/wrong/bad). Fighting a lot isn't the only reason for a divorce--there are lots of ways to be deeply unhappy.
posted by shownomercy at 7:34 PM on December 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I just want to key in on one thing. all of those times your mom lit into you and your dad stepped in to defend you, that was 100% about your parents relationship and nothing to do with you being messy.
posted by at 7:42 PM on December 10, 2014

Ok, well, I can see I'm going to be in a tiny minority here but I'm going to suggest something I haven't seen yet in the thread: next time you talk with her, apologize. Say "mom, I've been thinking about what you said, and it's made me so sad. I didn't understand the ramifications of my behavior when I was a kid. I realize now that it must have been so hard and lonely to be working all the time on creating a nice household for us to live in, and have us not appreciate it and not support the effort."

I think getting this off your chest will make you feel much better than stewing on how she's wronged you by acknowledging how much that dynamic sucked for her.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:40 PM on December 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

lol. Darlin' just by what she said to you it is very clear that the reason for her divorce had way more to do with the type of person she is and had nothing to do with you.

Be happy that you at least had a dad who would stick up for you, because a lot of us didn't even have that.

My mom also blamed us for her not finishing her college degree etc. as if we were supposed to feel guilty because she didn't abort us or something. It just showed how incredibly weak she was to actually blame children for her own choices in life.

It takes a hell of a lot more than a messy house to make a divorce happen, and the fact that she doesn't see herself as the problem is almost certainly the reason why the divorce happened. That guy who blames his ex for "making" him cheat on her is the same as that woman who blames her children for "making" her start stupid fights over household things with her husband. They are both the cause for their distress, but there is no hope for them because in their mind it's everyone else's fault except their own.
posted by rancher at 10:22 PM on December 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

Yowza, that was quite a thing for your mom to say. This might help you process what she said to you:

I used to work with teenagers in the mental health system with 'problems' that would cause them to have to be taken out of the home - so pretty extreme. Their families would always come to family therapy and say how 'normal' and 'great' they were, and 'what was wrong with our dysfunctional kid'? In 99.9% of the cases, the child was responding to an extreme dysfunctional family who fought and had issues behind closed doors, but kept it together in public. Kids are not as good at hiding when they have issues and often demonstrate a families problems.

My assessment based on what you described - you were messy and fought with your mom on it. Your dad never backed your mom up. Your mom was resentful. The division between your parents on this and other issues caused the divorce. If you had been neat, there would have been another issue that would have divided them. They just weren't compatible. She needs to leave you out of it.
posted by Toddles at 4:20 AM on December 11, 2014 [8 favorites]

It actually sounds like it's your dad's fault for being a lousy husband. You were a kid.
posted by discopolo at 10:25 AM on December 12, 2014

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