Mother is too reliant on me - how do I navigate this now?
January 30, 2015 5:53 AM   Subscribe

My mother is increasingly reliant on me for the fulfilment of her emotional needs. Can I do anything to remedy this?

My parents split up when I was very young and my mum was in her early 30s. My father never wanted the divorce and there was blame placed on both sides. These days, however, they actually have a close friendship.

While I was growing up my mother never had a long-term boyfriend after my father. She dated men for a while but nothing ever lead anywhere (she later said this was because she was putting all her focus on to bringing me up). I feel like she has been depressed more or less for the entirety of my childhood and this affected me. She never took any responsibility for the ways in which this did effect me and always became defensive when it was raised ("it's always my fault isn't it).

I moved abroad last year and due to the internet we have stayed in frequent communication. She contacts me more or less every day, but it's starting to feel a bit invasive. I know she's lonely but I feel like there is an increasing burden on me to fulfil her emotional needs. She had a lot of friends for most of my life growing up but slowly nearly all of them bar one disappeared completely.

She is coming to visit for a short break next month. I am going to make sure it is a really nice and memorable trip. However she is further pushing for a trip at Easter together and then in Summer. I have my own life and am already making my own plans! When I calmly told her this she said "so am I not included in your plans at all then." I feel that all the onus is on me because she doesn't have a partner to share these things with and it isn't fair. I feel like this is how it is going to be from now on, that for decades to come I will need to fulfil her needs whenever she needs a holiday.

Furthermore she constantly complains about my grandmother who she has become a carer for (dementia) and how "reliant" my grandmother is on her. Well, I have to say, that I see very similar traits in my own mother already. Sometimes, I feel like telling her to "get a life" which obviously I can't do. People have repeatedly told her in the past that if she continued in the same vein she would end up very lonely in old age. Is there anything I can do to nip this in the bud now?
posted by Kat_Dubs to Human Relations (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Furthermore she constantly complains about my grandmother who she has become a carer for (dementia) and how "reliant" my grandmother is on her.

I think this is the core of it here. The caregiving is taking out of her and she doesn't really have energy left to build other connections. And this is really a scary thing to deal with so she needs more support, so it's a vicious cycle.

Try addressing this directly by sympathizing with how demanding her caregiver's role is and how alone and isolated she probably feels. That is don't put words in her mouth but listen to her about what she is going through. The sympathize because, for obvious distance reasons, you are not there as part of her dailiness. And then try to establish a sustainable routine for keeping in touch to give as much of a sense as feasible that you are there for her. Maybe just an email a few times a week saying you thought of her. I do see and understand that your relationship is somewhat fraught and that you want to limit your exposure and that is fine.

But you could also ask if she is involved in any support groups for people in her position.
posted by BibiRose at 6:07 AM on January 30, 2015 [7 favorites]

Your mother gave up everything to raise you and now you are gone and she has nothing except her own mother to care for. Show her some compassion. Thank her for her sacrifices and tell her that you need for her to make another sacrifice, you need for her to put herself first for awhile and let you live your life. Assure her that you love her and that she will always be a part of your life but, for right now, you need to be young and free and do things that she probably shouldn't be interested in. Tell her that she is beautiful and any man would be happy to have her. Get her a makeover if need be. And then sign her up for a dating service. Boost her ego during this time so that she can find someone who completes her.
posted by myselfasme at 6:08 AM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

Absolutely set some boundaries now, and it's perfectly okay to be honest.

"No Mum, I can't see you at Easter, I'm making plans with my friends. Perhaps you can call Auntie Linda or someone and do something with your friends."

"This summer I'm doing a trek with a group of people. Maybe you can find a group of people who are doing a holiday you'd enjoy. You'd get to be with folks your own age and you can make some new friends."

"I was looking on the Internet and I found a support group for carers. They meet near Granny's house, check it out, I think it will help you a lot!"

I would say that helping put her in touch with counseling, a carer support group and other emotional support for you Mum that she'd be less likely to reach out to you for all emotional support.

I also recommend that you make short trips home just to visit. I know it's no fun at all, but a few smaller trips, for holiday weekends or mini-breaks, might make your mom less likely to want to glom onto you for longer actual holidays.

Give a little, set boundaries and tell your mom how much you love her.

I personally tell my mother, "Nice try with the guilt Mom, we'll see you in April."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:21 AM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Quick note Bibirose: I have no doubt that the caretaking is taking it out of her, and have told her how well she is doing, however she is have been caring for my grandmother for a year and these friendships deteriorated nearly 10 years ago...

I did suggest that she get involved in a caregiving group. Or yoga (which she used to love) etc...she never does. She seems to hate doing things alone, yet when she was young, she travelled even more than I am now!
posted by Kat_Dubs at 6:22 AM on January 30, 2015

Set boundaries, stick to them, stay absolutely calm, never feel guilty.
posted by Segundus at 6:39 AM on January 30, 2015 [7 favorites]

It sounds to me as if your mom is depressed, and that is something she can't cure by leaning on you all the time. How is she about mental health related issues - is she the type to not believe in depression or think that she needs to just bootstrap herself out of it?

You can say something like, "Hey, mom, you seem to be feeling down lately whenever we talk, and you don't seem interested in things you used to find fun - have you talked to your doctor about this?" (Another good reason for her to see a doctor - she could have a thyroid problem; underactive thyroids are SO VERY common in middle-aged and older women. SO COMMON. And so fixable with medication.)

Obviously, the initiative to see her doctor has to come from her. You can suggest, but you can't compel. You can, however, be firm in setting your boundaries - you can set up a time for the two of you to talk - "Mom, I can't talk to you every night, as I'm so busy; why don't we set up a time to Skype/chat on Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons." If your chats with her are a litany of complaints on her end, you can say, "I know caring for Grandma has to be hard on you; have you thought about ways you can make it easier? Have you sought out any support?" thus putting the onus for actually solving her problems back onto her. Be kind, be loving, but don't prop her up, get drawn into "fixer" mode, or be her reason for living.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:50 AM on January 30, 2015 [7 favorites]

Her: [i want to visit a million times, you have to answer my million phone calls, etc]
You: That won't be possible.
Her: Why?
You: It's just not possible.

Set your boundaries. You can tell her what they are, if you want, but also feel free to make these internal boundaries as well to protect yourself from the guilt-tripping. Want to talk to her only twice per week? Only answer your phone/skype twice per week. Whatever you do, don't give reasons beyond "[this] is what is possible; [the other thing] is not possible."

She was an adult and made her own life choices. Those choices are not your fault. You are an adult, make your own life choices. Your choices (including the amount of time you choose to spend emotionally supporting her) are not her fault.
posted by melissasaurus at 6:57 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

When I calmly told her this she said "so am I not included in your plans at all then."

This is a classic guilt trip, exaggerating her sense of hurt into such extreme words (always, never, nothing, everything, "not included at all", "all her focus on bringing you up", "always my fault", etc). Try to keep a clear head and rephrase what she's saying in more realistic terms. "Oh, I'm sorry it seems like that to you! But don't forget we have plans together next month and I'll see you [next Christmas] too!"
posted by aimedwander at 7:07 AM on January 30, 2015 [9 favorites]

I am in the process of losing my own mother to early-onset dementia. We were not close, and I know this hurt her. There are a variety of reasons for our lack of closeness and I don't feel especially guilty about this, but I do feel regret and would go back and do it differently if I could.

I look at my mother's life and I see such a lot of constraints on her, and how she was raised to give up a lot of what she wanted and not to speak up for herself except via the same kind of sad complaints that you mention. Those sad complaints that are so hard to hear and are so frustrating and seem so unjust (and they are! some of the things my mother said to me were...really, really not the best way to put things) are about being unable to state your wants directly and maybe about feeling like you can't get what you need and want so why even try.

Looking back, I wish I had (well, basically I wish I'd had a different, less messed-up childhood so I could have been emotionally present in young adulthood)....I wish I had been able to be compassionate to her, not because I "owed" her and was paying a debt but because she is a fellow human being with whom I have a close relationship and I wish I could have made her life happier. I don't think I was a terrible person, but I wish I'd had more understanding even though I can see life-history reasons why I didn't have it.

That's the very long version of saying that I think you should decide where you can accommodate her wishes and where you need to draw the line - like, can you talk on Monday-Wednesday-Friday (which is plenty) instead of daily? Can you share with her that you'd like to plan one really nice trip a year (and maybe make one visit home a year) and also want to do some of your own stuff?

I think it's good to do more than you are immediately inclined to, but not to the point where it's making you bonkers and preventing you from doing ordinary young adult stuff like exploring life abroad. She probably doesn't actually want that either; she's just in a tough spot.

Actually, I think that was one problem in my own relationship with my mother - I was never able to establish how to do enough; I always felt like I was being pulled into stuff that I could not handle and pulled away from being myself, and I reacted by withdrawing because I felt like I could not give in on anything or I would quickly be pushed to give in on everything. I wish I'd had the strength of character to figure out a middle way and stick to it - we would have had to fight some stuff out, but I know that my mother wouldn't actually have wanted me to be unhappy with stuff.

Your mother is also probably looking at you and seeing some of her own missed opportunities and having feelings about that. My mother's relationship to her mother was very different from my relationship to her and I feel like maybe she wanted me to "pay back" the pain and struggles of her own youth. (My grandmother was a wonderful grandmother and I miss her all the time, but she had her own sorrows and failings in her relationship with my mother.)

Basically, I think you should sit down and do some writing/thinking about how much would be "just a little more than your natural inclination" in terms of visits and contact, and then talk with your mother about how your schedule, etc, is such that you're most available at [X] and then really work on being fully present at X and feeling unconflicted at not-X.

Also, try thinking about how you want to feel in twenty years if your mother is then, for example, slipping away due to dementia. It would be a really, really bad idea to say "my mother is going to die someday, therefore I should do whatever she wants regardless of how I feel", but sometimes thinking about your actions now as a way of preparing for the future makes it easier to compromise rather than withdraw.

Another personal anecdote: I pushed myself to spend more time with an older relative because I read a novel that reminded me of her and made me realize that I needed to spend time with her. I loved her very much, but I was young and at a place in my life where I was anxious and miserable and having trouble being present. Looking back now, I'm glad that I spent the time and only wish I'd spent more.
posted by Frowner at 7:07 AM on January 30, 2015 [17 favorites]

Also, is there stuff you can do to make her feel loved that would be easier to schedule, etc? Like sending her silly postcards every few weeks? Or do something that you initiate - maybe both agree to watch a movie and talk about it? Send her a DVD of a movie you think she'd like, not for her birthday but just out of the blue? (My parents at least still do DVDs and CDs and so on.)

I think what my mother really wanted was to feel confident that I loved her, and looking back, I think I could have found ways to make that clear that would not have gotten into the whole control/withdrawal cycle. Some things really pushed my buttons and made me feel coerced and pulled us back into some childhood stuff, but there were other things I could have done.
posted by Frowner at 7:26 AM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

It sounds like your mum's behavior shows a worsening lifelong pattern, AND she is in a caretaking position that would further increase anyone's stress and isolation, AND your mum ruthlessly seeks to use emotional manipulation, e.g. "so am I not included in your plans at all then."

So yeah, good on you for setting firm boundaries, AND ALSO good on you for behaving compassionately by planning a nice visit for her, AND for trying to figure out how to help her find support networks that aren't you.

Suggestion: could you arrange to visit your mum, at some point far enough in the future that it's reasonable for your own schedule, and plan to introduce better routines while you are there? E.g. looking up yoga classes and caretaking support groups, and accompanying her to them?

That way, she can associate fixing her problems with becoming CLOSER to her daughter. Right now, she may be hearing 'Please do X so you feel better!' as if you were saying 'Please do X so I can feel free to ignore you'. (Which you kind of are, and that's totally reasonable.) It's really common for people to react badly when they want to complain and the other person wants to brainstorm solutions. But if these solutions are also a part of your shared experience, then that can flip the solutions themselves into a kind of emotional intimacy, e.g. "Yes mum I totally agree, it's really hard to do that bend, my hip flexors are super-tight, the only thing that helps is if I use a strap," or "How's Agatha doing? Is her father still bedridden after the surgery? Oh, that's terrible. Maybe we should send her some flowers? What's her favorite color?" etc. etc.

(But if she says she quit yoga or support group because blah blah her life is so hard (which of course it is, but still), well, I personally would be tempted to play her emotional manipulation right back. "What? But I thought you liked it! I put a lot of time into researching that stuff you know ... I was hoping for an update on Agatha, don't you care about her ... I was thinking of you while doing yoga the other day, but I guess you weren't thinking of me ... I'm so disappointed ... I'm going to get off the phone and go cry right now.")
posted by feral_goldfish at 7:38 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would favorite Frowner's remarks a hundred times if I could!

My family has been geographically scattered for some time, and I have found myself on both sides of this dynamic-- wanting more, and wanting less. We have actually found our various ways to some of the specific things Frowner mentioned-- sharing books and movies; sending little gifts just because. We message each other with photos snapped on our phones. It doesn't work perfectly and there have been some angsty conversations about "Where is our relationship going?" but it is so much better than doing nothing.
posted by BibiRose at 7:44 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

To the excellent advice given so far I would add the following thoughts.

It sounds like your mother is becoming a real burden to you, and yet you love her and want to do right by her.

First, decide what you need for yourself - your time and other resources. This is the "setting boundaries" part.

Next, look at your remaining time and resources, and set a standard for the care, attention and so forth that YOU - not her, not anyone else - believe you ought to devote to your mother. This is the "setting standards" part.

When setting that standard I would encourage you to err on the side of generosity towards her. Think of when she'll be dead and gone.

From your account it seems that in practice whatever you do will fall short of what she expects. Don't be fazed by that. As long as you're doing what YOU know is right, that's OK.
posted by Pechorin at 9:56 AM on January 30, 2015

Frowner said it better than I ever could. Listen to Frowner.

I can offer only a glimpse of your mother's perspective and my own. I was my mother's caregiver when she developed unexpected dementia two years ago. She was young (68), I am (relatively) young, so I could be equally you AND her.

I understand your feeling constrained and young and not wanting to shoulder the burden of being your mother's only friend, as well as the feelings around having a complicated relationship with a person who doesn't acknowledge agency in their own life. My mother could have been described as a mild/moderate narcissist. I was frustrated with her all the time. I encourage you to draw boundaries and tell your mother you can't be her only support.

But at the same time, as a person thrust all at once, calamitously, into caregiving and simultaneously removed from my social support network in order to do so, the amount of stress that builds up, the guilt, the lack of time and freedom to EVEN breathe when you're worrying 24/7 about the physical safety of your charge not to mention the psychic toll you're put through thinking about your own sorrow and loss- it leaves you so wracked, so exhausted, that you don't have the wherewithal to contemplate even finding and attending a support group.

I know you're young and building a life, and my heart goes out to you, but please, if you can, find more compassion for your mom, difficult though she and your relationship may be. What she's going through is possibly one of the most awful experiences a human can have. Honestly, truly. Being a caregiver for a person with dementia is a profoundly altering and depressing experience. Your mother can only do so much.

In caregiving for my mother, I learned a lot about her. It opened a door of deeper understanding and compassion for who she was and how she became herself. And what I also found was that she and I are more alike than I ever knew. She and I had similar dreams and aspirations and frustrations. I came to know her as I never would have if she hadn't gotten sick.

I think your mother is reaching out to you so much because she wants to be heard, for her efforts to be validated, to know she is supported and exists. It's easy to be forgotten when you're a caregiver. Being reminded that I was loved was what I needed when I was in the midst of it, and I was lucky to have a great (but geographically distant) support network and I STILL felt alone.

Please. Someone in your life is dealing with dementia. This isn't just oops, grandma is old and sick, this is a deeply traumatic experience for your mother. Your mother is drowning.
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 6:28 PM on January 30, 2015 [5 favorites]

In my experience in a similar situation: there's not much you can do if she really only has you as a friend any more, and doesn't really have time to maintain friendships because she's being a caregiver (which is a special hell). My mom is pretty clingy, but it only lessens when she's having her own life. It's improved since my father died--she has a job, a side job, a volunteer job, and plenty of friends--but during the caregiving years it was a rough go.

Do you know any of your mother's former friends? Have their contact information? Would you feel comfortable calling them up and asking if they're up to helping support her/being friends again with your mom? This might not be doable when you live in another country and it's been 10 years, but that's the one idea that comes to mind to me. I don't think there is much you can do remotely though. Can't force her to go to support group. Maybe encourage her to find some friends online?
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:14 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh my gosh, my best friend could have written this nearly word for word. Things were really strained for her and her mother for a while, but have gotten better over the last few years as her mom got more active in church, and reconnected with friends. If you mom is at all spiritual, I definitely suggest encouraging her to go to church, or a knitting or sewing group would be good.

I also think frowner's suggestion is a good one, structured activities you can engage with her are very helpful in setting boundaries and expectations.
posted by nerdcore at 11:05 AM on January 31, 2015

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