Help me feel closer to my mother
May 19, 2015 2:47 AM   Subscribe

I have an intense, complex relationship with my mother, and it's stressing me out. Snowflakes inside.

I'm in my late 20s, female, straight-ish. My mother is extremely overprotective, essentially dedicated herself to raising me and my brother, and tries to control everything in our lives (even though I live in a different country now). I'm a headstrong, independent person, so that's always been a source of conflict. I very much love and respect her regardless. But I have a more specific concern --

Around the time I hit puberty, she would come into my room when I was asleep and pull down my pajamas and start examining my vaginal area. I would wake up sometimes, but pretend to be asleep out of shame, and try to block her, but she'd persist. It didn't happen too many times (that I know of)... perhaps for a month or so. I don't want to think of this as abusive; I suspect that she was merely curious, scientifically, about the changes that were happening to my body then. But it left me paranoid about her touch, and I still feel profoundly uncomfortable hugging and kissing her.

A little later, she discovered that I had unearthed a smutty novel and was reading it, and was pretty mad (justifiably enough, I guess, since I was 11). She was upset that my breasts had begun to develop, and began accusing me of causing them to develop faster than they should have by thinking adult thoughts. When I began menstruating, she literally started crying and once again told me that my thoughts were to blame. She told me not to tell anyone that I had got my periods, and started buying me unflattering, baggy clothes to conceal my body. I had to stop riding my bike around the neighborhood because she thought men would sexually harass me (a fair point given where I grew up, but a lot of young girls rode their bikes anyway, and street harassment was nowhere near as bad as she imagined). I didn't get a bra or even a sports bra till I was 16, and instead wore tight vests under my shirt. I think she didn't want to acknowledge that I needed one.

Point of context: I'm from a fairly conservative Asian country where premarital sex is pretty much non-existent. Still, I feel she was overreacting -- my classmates' mothers who were more conservative than mine didn't seem to have these hangups about periods and bras.

Even now, when I wear shirts with a scoop neck when she's around -- though not showing actual cleavage, which is taboo in this culture -- she will either insist I change, or even worse, reach out and start "adjusting" my shirt, in front of people. It's mortifying.

Then there's her habit of insisting on sleeping in my bed whenever I visit home. All this above history aside, I tend to prefer to sleep alone. When I'm visiting home, I spend a ton of time with her during the day, and like to have my space to recoup at night. She also snores and tosses around, and it results in both me and her sleeping poorly. When I try to tell her this, she throws a fit and says she's sacrificing her sleep to keep me company because she feels bad about me sleeping by myself. Then she launches into how much she misses me because I live far away, and can't I accommodate her once in a while, and I give up.

I genuinely care about my mother, but this sort of behavior, combined with her overall controlling behavior, makes it really hard for me to have a long conversation with her that doesn't result in an argument. I also really want to show normal mother-daughter physical affection, but the thought of giving her any more than a brief hug or kiss makes me feel sick. At the same time, I crave her approval, and affects my day to day life and my marriage -- she dislikes my husband intensely, mostly for silly reasons, but I find myself wondering if she is right. I don't want to blame her for anything -- after all, she was young when I was a kid, I was the first, and parenting is tough.

Other than the usual suggestions of therapy, which I will consider, it would be great to hear viewpoints from others who have had similar experiences and overcame them.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
From a commenter who would like to remain anonymous:
If you are considering having kids, please PLEASE get therapy well before that. My mother's mother was a lot like yours, abusive in strikingly similar ways. So my mother grew up carrying a lot of damage from this, some of which I don't think she ever really identified or understood. She passed some of these behaviours and anxieties on to me, which I don't blame her for, but I wish she'd had a lot more support when she was younger and not carried them with her all this time. Also, I got CBT therapy when I was younger which helped to identify this and I have made a ton of progress since then.

Therapy will help you put up the right boundaries to stop your mother from doing damage to your marriage, your relationship with your future kids, your self-belief and your happiness. There's still a lot of taboo around going to therapy, ignore it. It will give you many and valuable tools to help you in life, as well as this complicated relationship with your mother.
posted by taz at 3:12 AM on May 19, 2015 [10 favorites]

Oh, honey, you need to talk to a therapist immediately. Today. Not because you are crazy, but because you have been suffering in ways I don't think you quite understand yet, and you need somebody to help you figure out what happens next.

Now, saying you don't seem to understand it is NOT saying you're dumb. But you've grown up with a situation that is deeply dysfunctional, and because you've grown up with it this probably seems almost-normal to you, or like you're making too big a deal out of it. I'm not going to try to analyze the situation any more than that. You need somebody to help you with this. You need a therapist.

I'd advise commenters to be careful here. There could be a strong instinct for people to attack her mom and play amateur shrink, but I'm worried that may just upset the OP in ways that would be counter-productive. We're not therapists. I think what the OP really needs is a bunch of people begging her to go talk to a therapist, stat.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:12 AM on May 19, 2015 [25 favorites]

Your mother appears to have anxiety issues about you when it comes to puberty and sexuality. Clearly she wanted you to stay a pre-pubescent child to the extent that it made her do inappropriate things during your transition and makes her do inappropriate things to this day.

I would hazard that something in her past has made your mother inappropriately anxious. Something traumatized her. Now, this doesn't have to be something lurid like that she was abused and preyed upon. But as a sort of mental place holder you might want to hold up the Something Bad That Happened to Her as your filter for viewing her behaviour. I wouldn't discuss this with her. She has apparently never tried to confide in you why she panics, only to justify her behaviour. Chances are she doesn't have a lot of insight because the subject is too scary for her to think about.

If mum is being over-controlling and annoying when she reaches out and adjusts your neckline it makes a certain ineffectual sense to get annoyed and squawk at her and point out that she has crossed a boundary. But squabbling about this is merely making your relationship with her additionally painful. If you instead fill in the explanation that your mum is having a traumatic flashback when she reaches out to tug your neckline, and that she is operating out of panic, not merely selfishness, it might be easier to let go of your frustration and reassure her as opposed to arguing with her.

One useful response to her incestuous need for closeness would be to remember you are dealing with her inner two year old. She desperately wants to sleep with you. Maybe she doesn't feel safe sleeping alone and feels that if she sleeps with you neither of you will be preyed upon. Maybe she doesn't verbalize this thought in her head so she can't argue it with her when you tell her you want to sleep alone and she is suffocating you. But trying to communicate this is as effective as telling a sick two year old that she's a big girl and can sleep in her own bed tonight - just saying it will put the two year old into panic mode.

If your mum has inappropriate boundaries then it falls unalaterally upon you to set the boundaries. You might, for example announce to her that tonight you are not sleeping in the same bed with her, but that you will sleep in the same room and if she gets frightened she can come to bed with you and wake you up. That might not work, but you already know that protesting to her that you don't want to sleep with her doesn't work either, so reassuring her that in the same room is close enough and that if anything happens you will both be able to protect each other, might potentially work out better.

My take on the midnight molestations is that she was probably checking to make sure that you were not being molested or raped and was trying to see if you had any kind of a discharge or signs of trauma. If you reframe her dreadful behaviour in that way you may be able to forgive her for it. On the other hand, keep in mind that her behaviour was intrusive and incestuous and that she has been abusing you. Forgiving her is a whole other issue. But at the moment reframing her behaviour as that of a child who was raped may make it easier for you to take a different perspective and change your own behaviour to something that protects you from her better than feeling helpless to chose how close to her you have to be.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:24 AM on May 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

Perhaps you don't want to think of any of your mother's behaviors as abusive, but much of what you've described certainly sounds lIke abuse. A behavior can be abusive regardless of the intent behind it. If you feel something preventing you from feeling closer to your mother, that something may be your instinct for self defense. For one thing, it's hard to feel closer to someone who is smothering you already.

I think it may help you to give this book a read-through: Healing Your Emotional Self. It talks about emotionally separating yourself from an overbearing parent, which may be what you need to do before you can feel closer to mom.

Therapy is also a good idea if you have access to it.
posted by zennie at 4:25 AM on May 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

I was getting ready to tell you something about how my mother and I are until I got to the part about her undressing you and examining you when you were asleep - then I went straight to "this is something you need a therapist to help you with."

Actually, therapy was helpful to me when I was figuring out my own relationship with my parents (among other things), so its helpful anyway, but in your case I would absolutely recommend it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:28 AM on May 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

I hit "post" too soon -

You said that you want to "feel closer" to your mother. But I think that in order to do that, you may need to finally deal with some unexamined feelings you may have about how she is, and has been, treating you. You may decide to forgive her ultimately, but you have to actually confront how you have been feeling deep down first.

You say that when your mother examined you in the night that you were ashamed, but you dealt with it by "pretending to be asleep" - if you think about it, if you woke up and found that a stranger had come into your room and was doing the same, you wouldn't do that, you'd be sitting up and shouting "what the HELL are you doing?" Maybe the discomfort you feel is that part of you that had always wanted to shout "what the hell were you doing, mom?" all those years, and it needs a chance to shout that about that, and all the other things your mother did that you may be uneasy about. Therapy can help you identify those things and express them in a healthy way - whether you choose to actually say them to your mother, or whether you never do. (Both options are totally valid.) But you may need to express them right now.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:33 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yep, therapy, this instant. Don't just consider it; actually make it a priority. And I get that you don't want to label your mother's behavior as abusive, but, well, if the shoe fits....but that's something you can unpack more thoroughly with a therapist.
posted by holborne at 5:29 AM on May 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Therapy 1000000x yes. To put it inelegantly, there are many ways that parents can be (even unwittingly!) abusive outside of what we tend to think of as black-and-white emotional or physical harm, but they can be hard to recognize and even harder to process. This makes it especially difficult to figure out what kind of relationship you'd like to have or it's possible to have with your parents as an adult. Therapy will help.

You said "it would be great to hear viewpoints from others who have had similar experiences and overcame them"; my parents were and are troubled, and their anxiety and actions that followed from it affected me profoundly. I consider myself a fairly self aware person, but I did not feel that I was able to fully come into my own as an adult until I went to therapy. I didn't realize how much my life and my intimate relationship with my partner were being impacted by the particulars of my upbringing. It's an ongoing process still, but I am stronger. Therapy is the greatest gift I have given myself as an adult.

As an anecdote, I have not had to cut off my parents to improve my life in this way - I've been able to experience enormous relief just by reshaping and enforcing boundaries. Your situation may be entirely different, but I mention it just in case you're worried that the sum of a therapist's conclusions will automatically be "Cut your mother off."
posted by superfluousm at 5:49 AM on May 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

I may be out of kilter with the rest of society but ....examining little kids bums when they're asleep is totally normal and prescribed for worms. Nobody bats an eye lid at that. Taken to a stupid next level I could sort of imagine an inexperienced woman worried about her daughter's imminent puberty and how to protect her virtue, checking for signs of pubic hair. A terrified and naive woman who didn't know much about her own body and didn't have the language to discuss it with her daughter. So she did it in the night as she was embarrassed.

Your mum completely crossed boundaries, but I don't necessarily see it with the same evil hue that others might. The terrible effect upon you is my greatest concern and why I would agree that you should see a culturally sensitive counsellor. But I don't see it as clearly as others here. As a data point, when I was in high school girls had their underwear inspected by teachers to make sure it was the right colour. Nobody thought anything of it. Well, I did, but it was school policy.

I think your mum is quite damaged and has inadvertently caused some damage to you, but I don't necessarily see her as creepy and predatory. And I reckon a few sessions with a clever counsellor and you'll feel much better about all of it. It's totally not you, it's her.
posted by taff at 5:54 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Labeling your mothers behavior isn't really important right now.

I just want you to know that the way you feel and the things you're struggling with are absolutely normal and it's really good that you are able to articulate so clearly what's making you uncomfortable here. That's a big thing and it shows a lot of inner strength and courage that you've asked this question.

My mom in particular has serious boundary issues. I didn't really realize this until I was older. It has been really hard to learn to set and enforce boundaries with her. Parents are harder to do this with because sometimes they expect there to be no boundaries at all. Like you're still literally a baby - babies don't really have "boundaries." I think people who have trouble with boundaries have trouble with being parents because that relationship is made out of boundaries that change profoundly over time.

The collection of voices here is right: therapy. Therapy is excellent for learning about boundaries. Try to find a therapist that you like that deals with interpersonal stuff. Keep working through this.

And one other thing: it is ok to mourn the fact that you may never have the relationship you want with your mom. Relationships are two way. This is NOT all on you to take care of. Take care of yourself. That is the most important thing.
posted by sockermom at 6:00 AM on May 19, 2015 [12 favorites]

examining little kids bums when they're asleep is totally normal and prescribed for worms. Nobody bats an eye lid at that

Sorry, but there's a big (as in, BIG) difference between checking for worms (infectious, not a normal condition, and must be treated because they can pose a danger to a child's health) and checking a child's genitals for pubic hair (normal, inevitable, and hardly poses a danger to a child's health). I don't think anyone is doing the OP any service by trying to normalize her mother's behavior, especially since the OP was made to feel ashamed by that behavior.
posted by holborne at 8:19 AM on May 19, 2015 [12 favorites]

You're going to be able to feel deep compassion for your mother. I suspect terrible things she was unable to process maturely happened to her. Poor woman.

Here's the hard news to take in -- you will never ever ever feel "close" to her in a mature way until she grows up and apologizes for the ways she has violated you, until she becomes the kind of person who does not violate you in the present.

Do you know who else needs therapy? Your mother.

Since that is not likely to happen, you need skills to (a) process your abusive experiences so you don't repeat them, and (b) skills to deal with your mom compassionately going forward.

When/if you eventually have a relationship and children of your own, you want healthy success. Get therapy so you can learn the self-work patterns to keep things good in your own life.

We (including you) can not fix what your mom does and has done. That's on her. Allowing her to continue to violate you and your future family is NOT compassionate towards her - she needs to do her own self-work.

Ending the cycle of family abuse starts with you. It's hard, but worth it.
posted by jbenben at 8:29 AM on May 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

Yes, your mother was abusing you. It is called "invasive caretaking".
posted by mlis at 4:50 PM on May 19, 2015

I agree with others who say that something has happened in your mother's past, maybe around her time of puberty, which is why she was checking your own development (or signs of trauma) and clearly wanting to deny that you'd hit puberty yourself, as a way of protecting you from what she thought would follow, based on her own experiences.

I don't think she is a predator, I think in her own way she was doing everything you could to look after you. Obviously it was unbelievably inappropriate and I think you both need therapy. Here is also another potential theory (and I could be way off the mark) however I also think there is a good chance that the reason she hates your husband is because he is direct acknowledgment that you're a sexual being now, and who knows, maybe she views him as 'violating' you that she has been attempting to protect you from.

But really, our theories all count for nothing when the way to directly deal with this is through therapy. It's great that despite your experiences, you know enough to know this is not normal parental behaviour which will stop you continuing it with your own potential children and also mean that you can get help for it. Big hugs for you and your mother and well done for being able to deal with this in such a compassionate way.
posted by Jubey at 5:50 PM on May 19, 2015

She was upset that my breasts had begun to develop, and began accusing me of causing them to develop faster than they should have by thinking adult thoughts. When I began menstruating, she literally started crying and once again told me that my thoughts were to blame.

Yeah, this is literally not at all factual. Human development is controlled by DNA, environment, maybe nutrition. Not by thoughts or desires or masturbation or the Internet or pick a bogeyman.

A qualified therapist can help you sort through your feelings. You don't have to hate your mom or turn her in to the police or write her a letter. Therapy is there for you,to help you process this stuff, so you can act instead of react, and so you can say to your mom, "Here's what I need to tell you,and here's what you need to do if you want to have a relationship with me."

I know that cultural mores may be at play here, and maybe her actions are really defensible. But it sounds like you need some help coming to grips with your feelings. Personally, I've found that setting and maintaining boundaries with my own family has made my life so much more liveable, and I encourage you to investigate that option.
posted by disconnect at 7:10 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't think you'll ever get an apology or acknowledgement that she made any mistakes or did anything wrong. In my experience, a mother's M.O. is to plead that everything she did, she did for your own good/protection, and that she sacrificed oh-so-much for YOUR good and yours alone. She gains nothing with any of this (a blatant lie. Like sleeping with you).
Major bonus points for mother If she can make you feel rotten, guilty, and ungrateful for daring to question any of her actions.

What you can do is show mom that her current hurtful actions push you away. If her sleeping with you makes you tired and miserable the next day, then her throwing a hissy fit or guilt trip isn't going to make you happy the next day. You have the right to be tired and your mom can't guilt that away from you.
Your mom cannot control your emotions, although she's conditioned you into thinking she has the right to do so. How you feel about how you get treated is, well, how you feel (sad, angry, delighted, loved, etc). Mom doesn't get to decide that for you.

You need to learn to have an adult relationship with your mother and that requires boundaries and standing up for yourself. It's NOT easy and not an overnight process. Hence why everyone is suggesting therapy. And outside of therapy, you'll have to practice mindfulness, and remember certain things about the past that are quite painful. don't be surprised if you find yourself very angry at your mother at some point. It doesn't mean you love her any less. It just means you are trying to pinpoint which parts of your personal history have lead to a, b, and c perceptions and reactions on your part.
I have to say: bravo to you! You see that there is a problem with your relationship with your mom and you are trying to fix it in a constructive manner.
Good luck to you!

PS: the line about your mom's disapproval of your spouse and your acceptance of it is a little vague. kinda looks like a red flag from here.
posted by Neekee at 10:41 AM on May 20, 2015

One more thing: it may seem daunting, but it is entirely possible to stand up for yourself & set boundaries with an Asian mother. They may want you believe otherwise. Every woman I know who has learned to do so has a much closer, stronger relationship with their mothers.
posted by Neekee at 10:46 AM on May 20, 2015

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