A mother's love = a worrywart lacking perspective?
May 7, 2016 10:36 PM   Subscribe

I get it, mothers worry, but I feel like my overprotective mother never stopped being overprotective. Are her reactions simply motherly love or is she verging on being manipulative?

I'm in my 30s, but my mother often acts as though I can't take care of myself, or seems to have an odd read on what most people find as sufficient or necessary to stay safe. I can't have a conversation with her during the winter where she doesn't freak out over my choice of outerwear; certainly I must not be keeping myself warm enough, despite having spent my entire life in a place with rough winters. I get it, she wants me to be careful, but the tenor of these warnings always verges on actual worry.

The real kicker is that she acts really stressed out if I say I'm off to do something active, especially going for a swim or a bike ride, or she panics if I say I'm driving out of town somewhere. She acts as though I'm doing something extremely unsafe, the time I mentioned casually that I started a strength training routine and she freaked out about me using anything heavier than a 5lb dumbell or panicked when I was training for a 5k and she was worried about me "exerting myself". I'm close with my mom, but I have to be very careful what I mention in casual conversation with her because I don't want to have to deal with what feels like alarmism. She has a lot of anxieties that she didn't take care to not transmit to me as a child and I've had to put a lot of work into pushing past them.

For a bunch of complicated reasons, she never learned to do these things (and is generally fearful of exercise despite being healthy) and prevented me from learning as a child; when I became more independent and active as a teenager she would act really uncomfortable. I even remember her giving me the silent treatment when I planned to go to an amusement park for middle school graduation, because, of course, roller coasters are dangerous and you're only going on them to prove a point. Discussing travel is tricky - if it's not within North America or to stay with/visit relatives in the old country, it's necessarily strange and dangerous.

I've called her out on how excessive her reactions are, and she's always like "but that's what a mother does out of love!" or something like that. I'm not so sure. It feels dismissive of the fact that I know how to take care of myself independently and have been doing so for years.

Question time:
Is her behaviour unreasonable?
If so, are there effective ways for me to shut it down?
Do mothers who are a bit more...worldly talk to their adult children this way? The older I get, the more I'm beginning to suspect that her relatively narrow frame of reference is what's making our relationship tricky, but that sometimes feels like a gross and classist assumption.
posted by blerghamot to Human Relations (36 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Has your mom ever sought help for her anxiety? Because yes, those are over the top concerns, especially about a child your age. This is not really about you but about her own fears which she really needs to discuss with someone professional. You can treat her with compassion in the meantime without letting her fears dictate your behavior, but it will probably be tricky depending on how much you talk.
posted by emjaybee at 10:47 PM on May 7, 2016 [15 favorites]


I understand where you are coming from, and these types of concerns would seem strange to someone who comes from a more individualistic culture, say modern American society. But it is very typical of mothers from a more communal culture to worry about their child this way.

Perhaps it would help if you chose to reframe her concern (which btw, do not sound over the top, or overbearing, just standard anxious mother concerns). Think of it as her showing love for you. Remember that as you grow older, you "need" her less, and so creating imaginary monsters in her head is her feeling useful as she can give you "motherly" advice.

It only is really a problem if she actively stops you from doing something or pursuing an opportunity.
posted by moiraine at 11:01 PM on May 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


P.s My mother does this to me too. Sometimes I get annoyed, mostly I deflect the question onto a more neutral topic.
posted by moiraine at 11:04 PM on May 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


Yes this is over the top..
You cannot change her behavior-- but you can continue to label it to her face.
"mom, why do you work yourself into such an emotional state?"
"Mom, Should I stop talking to you about my travel plans if it upsets you this much?"
Be clear that the behavior you are willing to end for your Mom's sake is the discussion of your plans, not the plans themselves.
posted by calgirl at 11:04 PM on May 7, 2016 [13 favorites]


You could be describing my mother, down to the lack of wordliness (when I got my first cell phone, we had a long conversation where she kept asking "But how will you call your neighbors?" and it took a good 15 minutes to realize that she'd seen the ads for free long distance - this is when this was still a thing - and thought you could ONLY call long distance on cell phones. True story.)

In my mother's case, it was mental health and cognitive issues - she had bipolar disorder and extreme anxiety and the signs of early onset dementia, and even highly medicated and in counseling, she would see a news story about a child being kidnapped by a parent from a bus stop, and that turned into, you can't take the train to Orlando, people are being kidnapped and raped and killed from train stations (true story).

I never really did figure out how to deal with it or "shut it down". I figured out how to make her feel better ("No mom, I'm not going to lose my home tomorrow because I'm going on vacation this week - want to see my bank statements?") I set up an Instagram account and put a link to it on her desktop so she could see vacation pictures so she'd know I was still alive. Sometimes I'd get really annoyed when she'd tell me to put on a coat when it was 60 out. Sometimes I managed to smile and say "Okay, mom, sounds good." She had a lot of anxiety around my job - I'm a professor, and she never understood that I didn't have to punch a clock and was constantly scared I was going to lose my job, so when I had a chance to show her I was doing a good job - good evals or when I got a promotion this year or whatever - I did. I tried to help her logic through things as much as I could, to try to keep her cognitive processes running. My own annoyance became less as she became less capable and we switched roles (and then I was the one who wanted to wrap her in bubble wrap, but that's another post for another day).

I wish I had some magic formula to help you along, but I don't. It is really frustrating when our families, especially our parents, don't recognize us as the capable adults we are. I know it's a Mefi trope to suggest counseling, but if you're not already seeing someone, it can't hurt - if nothing else, y'all can talk about deflection and other devices for trying not to feel so frustrated by all this. As emjaybee said, this is not about you, this is about her - but it's still tiring to deal with, even when it comes from a place of love, and you have my sympathies.
posted by joycehealy at 11:08 PM on May 7, 2016 [17 favorites]


I don't know that it's manipulative so much as an obvious anxiety disorder (which I could tell before I got to the part about her passing her anxieties on to you).

Is her behaviour unreasonable?
Yes, but the way you're asking implies you think you can reason her out of it. You can't. This is straight-up anxiety talking and no amount of reasonableness will make her start behaving reasonably. Therapy might help, but if she's gotten this far in life with the anxiety and without therapy, she's probably used to it and unlikely to seek help.

If so, are there effective ways for me to shut it down?
I have yet to find one in dealing with my own anxiety-driven worrywart relative. There's a WHOLE BIG CHUNK of things we just don't talk about with this relative -- up to and including "mailing things" -- because so many things send her into a spiral of anxiety.

Do mothers who are a bit more...worldly talk to their adult children this way?
Yes. The specific fixations may be different, but the behavior is a manifestation of anxiety, not upbringing or sophistication. My relative, who's plenty educated and sophisticated and has plenty of money and taste, falls into a multi-day panic whenever she mails something because she's perpetually convinced it won't arrive and this will be the end of the world. We can't tell her when we're traveling even a short distance because even though she's been all over the world, she FREAKS OUT at the idea we're driving 20 miles. She runs a relatively complicated business, and falls apart when she has to deal with contracts. (Not like, "oh this is stressful and I hate it" but like, completely apart, like avoids dealing with them for six months, crying about it every day, until something goes horribly wrong and we have to rescue her and deal with it for her.) If one of us doesn't answer the phone because we're in a meeting or we ran out of battery or something, she'll call 100 times in an hour, convinced we're dead, with increasingly panicked, crying messages, and then start calling and texting our other relatives or even employers.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:09 PM on May 7, 2016 [14 favorites]


After being away for many years, I've been spending more time the past couple of years with my mother and other relatives from my small hometown and I'm also dealing with this (albeit, not nearly as extreme as your mother). I've had some success with asking people to recognize that I'm at least as interested in my own personal safety as anybody else and, therefore, take appropriate precautions. And, since I have an almost 62* year track record of making it to the end of the day unharmed, I think people should respect my judgement.

I try to keep my voice light while explaining this, but I'm not going to apologize for the times I sound a bit annoyed.

Re "this is what mother's do": I'm the mother of two adult children—one of whom has spent about 5 months of each of the past 3 years living a rather nomadic life, spending months at a time traveling to music festivals, camping and living out of her car. Sure, I worry, but that doesn't mean I get to nag her about my concerns.

(*This isn't going to go away simply because you get older.)
posted by she's not there at 11:23 PM on May 7, 2016 [7 favorites]


You could be describing my mother! She has bipolar and severe Anxiety, and she was badly abused as a child, and as result... she's like this.

It's not normal. And it's absolutely exhausting to listen to.

The only things I've found that help are

- severely censor what you tell her (don't tell her anything that will set off her Anxiety)

- limit your exposure to her as much as you can. Shorter phone calls, shorter lunches.

- if you don't have the emotional energy to deal with it, let her calls go to voicemail and ring her back when you do have the emotional energy.
posted by Sockpuppets 'R' Us at 11:37 PM on May 7, 2016 [7 favorites]


My mom is like this. Limit what you tell her about your activities and try to brush it off when she gets annoying. She does mean well but you can try not to feed into the worrying dynamic where possible.
posted by emd3737 at 12:10 AM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


I have one of these too. She hung up the phone and then didn't speak to me for over a month when she found out I bought a bike in my first year of college because it was so dangerous. When I'm staying with her as an adult and I go out somewhere on my own, she expects texts to know I've arrived (even though I go out plenty when I'm at my own home 300 miles away - if she doesn't know, she can't freak out about it). My sister (younger but still an adult) agreed to turn on one of those 'track your friends by GPS' apps on her phone whenever she goes on long drives so that our mother would stop freaking out and texting her every few minutes - I think this is horribly invasive and would flat-out refuse myself (but she's never asked and we both have slightly different boundaries with her), but I can understand giving into that just to get her off your back.

The not shielding her kids from her anxiety thing really resonates too - growing up, I feel like she taught us to behave in ways that reduced her anxiety, rather than actually learning about relative danger and how to keep ourselves safe. And most of her anxiety wasn't based on a good understanding of risk - e.g. she wouldn't let us get rides with other adults until we were in our mid teens because in her mind she and my dad were the only safe drivers in the world (not true; definitely not true in my dad's case).

I also have severe anxiety myself about an wide range of things (go figure) - most of how I've dealt with this has been 1) by getting perspective from other people and therapy that yes, this was unreasonable behaviour that has significantly contributed towards fucking me up and 2) by understanding that she's very unlikely to change at this point and doesn't really have the capacity for understanding or remorse about it herself. I think she would still argue that her priority was keeping us safe and she did that - her methods produced the end result desired and the collateral damage (both my sister and I have struggled with mood issues and suicidal feelings since adolescence, along with anxiety) was just the cost of keeping us safe. Or something.

I've talked to her in the past about therapy but she's always pushed back pretty hard, again because of anxiety - she said she didn't want to see someone because she was afraid they'd laugh at her, and no amount of me explaining that that's not how it should ever work could get through her block on this.

So yeah, my strategies have been therapy time spent on this and the more general lack of emotional competence/willingness for self-reflection on the part of both parents to help me understand all the bits of myself that are broken or malfunctioning as a result, and relatively limited contact otherwise. We talk some but it's quite superficial (she also doesn't show a lot of interest in me or my life and overshares my personal stuff with people I'm not comfortable knowing that information without asking me first, so this is a protection mechanism on several levels) and rarely in the level of detail where she'd get concerned about what I was doing. Understanding that most of her anxiety and most of my own is not proportionate to the risk or danger involved has also been important.

Finally, I've been trying to make my peace with it - she's been so resistant to change and to examining her own behaviour that I just don't think it's going to happen at her age (late 50s). I'm never going to get an apology or an acknowledgement, and I should stop hoping for one and instead focus on defining some kind of relationship with her that doesn't feel smothering.
posted by terretu at 12:34 AM on May 8, 2016 [11 favorites]


This book really helped my mom and I at a time when we were at our wits' end with each other. The author's conclusions basically come down to: when a mom tells her daughter what to wear, the mom sees it as a an expression of love--and it is. The daughter sees it as an expression of control--and it is. The books talks about ways in which both sides can be more understanding of one another. It's been a while since I read it but it encapsulated my own problems pretty perfectly.

That said, the book only helped my mom and me because we both read it and both accepted its conclusions. I don't know how effective it would be without buy-in from both sides. Good luck!
posted by orrnyereg at 12:51 AM on May 8, 2016 [6 favorites]


It's not normal, but it isn't rare, either. Your mother is manifesting clinical anxiety, and she is projecting her anxieties on to you. She simply sees other anxious people and believes they are the normal ones and sees people who don't manifest this anxiety and feels they are neglectful. If your mother were more "worldly," she would just be anxious about other things that were not in whatever her own frame of reference was.

Honestly, the fact that clinical anxiety is so common makes me really want to reevaluate whether it's not people like your mother who are the problem but rather that we have created a world that isn't compatible with people who have anxiety. Clearly your mother is demonstrating behaviors that interfere with normal functioning in society because she is acting irrationally. At the same time, SO many people are like your mother that clearly the modern world is depriving people like your mother of some need that causes them to react this way.
posted by deanc at 1:29 AM on May 8, 2016 [6 favorites]


Yeah, this is anxiety. Before I was treated I would full on snap at and start arguments with people I cared about who were doing things I perceived as dangerous. I 100% didn't intend to be manipulative; I was genuinely terrified for them. But I can see how it would sound that way!

I feel sad for your mum. I didn't know this was anxiety but I did know enough to know I'd fuck up any kids I had (so I didn't). It's just awful to be so anxious about people and of course they don't appreciate it (and now I get why! But I truly didn't before!). I thought anxiety was a personality failure, it was less than 5 years ago I understood it could be treated with medication. I lost 30 something years to it first.

I'd gently direct to towards medical options. There are some diagnostic quizzes online - how about a 'hey mom, fun quiz!' time? I did one on either the black dog website or beyond blue (both Australian organisations) and it was the, 'hey, you know, you should talk to your GP' response that got me help.
posted by kitten magic at 1:58 AM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


Oh and yeah, people censored what they told me. I guess it helped all round but it made me sad to be such a special snowflake it was a known thing I couldn't deal with stuff.
posted by kitten magic at 2:00 AM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


My mom's anxiety is like a constant drumbeat that echoes through our house. The only thing that works, if she refuses to go to a doctor and work on it, is to live your own life, treat her with compassion, and set some boundaries that you then hold onto for dear life.

In my family at least, trying to appease my mom's anxiety doesn't work, because there is always something else for her to be anxious about. So you barely even get a reprieve before the drum starts beating again. And trying to protect yourself through avoidance doesn't work either, because she can tell you're avoiding telling her things, which just ramps up her anxiety even more. As a teenager, I just put my head down like I was trying to run through a hailstorm and did things on my own schedule with her anxiety constantly beating down on me, but it wasn't pleasant.

I haven't perfected it yet (it's hard to build new ways of interacting with your parents!), but the only really successful strategy I've found is 100% honesty couched as kindly as possible. For example, "Mom, I know you're worried about me biking through town. Here is how I've evaluated the risks and here are the things I'm doing to keep myself safe. If you still think what I'm doing is horribly dangerous, then I need you to not tell me about it, because your anxiety makes me anxious and upset."
posted by colfax at 4:02 AM on May 8, 2016 [9 favorites]


My mom is a big worrywart, but her behavior doesn't cross into "over-the-top" in my opinion. I think it's unlikely that your mom will ever completely stop worrying, even with therapy/medical interventions, so I wanted to offer you some examples of how my worry-prone mother deals with her anxiety in health(ier) ways.

* Talking to my dad. I only know about this because, after I returned home from my first solo international trip as an adult, my dad admitted that my mom had been super worried, but hadn't allowed herself to check in because she didn't want to mar my big independent adventure by treating me like a child. I think it's important for worriers to be able to talk through their worry without foisting it on the object of their concern.

* Setting reasonable expectations for when I will check in. This means not harassing me about safety every time I drive, but gently asking me to let her know when I get home from their house. (For context, it's a three-hour drive, my car is ridiculous, and I regularly describe my driving skills as "approaching the mean," so asking me to text her when I get home doesn't seem crazy to me.)

* Expressing her worry to me in a non-patronizing way. On very rare occasions, my mom will say something like, "I can't help but worry about [thing you're going to do], but I know you've got a good head on your shoulders and will be responsible about it. I can't wait to see the pictures afterward!" Knowing that she's worried but isn't suggesting I'm incapable of being an adult is nice. As an added bonus, I'm more likely to voluntarily check in after doing [new activity] - Both to tell my mom all about it, and to assuage her worry. I probably wouldn't be so keen on this if she were more meddlesome. So this is a win-win for us both.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:42 AM on May 8, 2016 [6 favorites]


Yes likewise I have the same mother, and in very willfully independent and always have been, so our relationship has been pretty fraught. I have tried to talk to her about it along the lines of 'mom, this isn't my problem, this is about your anxiety' and similarly was brushed off with 'well mothers just worry, that's what they are supposed to do'. So I limit nearly everything I talk to her about. I don't tak to her about anything personal at all, and stick to boring pleasantries. It's sad and I wish I could be closer to my mom, but that's just the way it is I guess.
posted by greta simone at 4:53 AM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


Your mom sounds a lot like me, to be honest, and I consider myself reasonably worldly, thank you very much. When people I love leave my line of sight, in my mind they're falling down flights of stairs and getting hit by cars and running out of gas in the desert and all sorts of other ridiculous things. It's better than it used to be, and nowhere near to the degree of your mother, but it still flares up from time to time. (And I am trying my darnedest not to let it affect my kid as he grows up.)

It's anxiety. It's "unreasonable" the same way depression is unreasonable: it's just on a different axis from reason altogether, so reason doesn't do much to fix it. You can be an expert in aviation safety and still have trouble fighting off mental images of your plane going down in flames. Anxiety constantly asks "but what if?" and there is always a potential what-if situation for anything more dangerous than Duplos.

Your mother's anxiety won't be treated without professional help, and it will likely stick around to some degree no matter what. In the meantime, what helps me is when I express "oh god you're gonna die" anxiety is when people reassure me without overindulging my anxiety. "You'd think it was dangerous, but it's really very safe and here's why" is more helpful than either "it's not dangerous and you're overreacting" or "you're right and I won't go on this trip."

It also helps when I learn about anxiety-inducing things after the fact. I don't worry about trips people have already taken or marathons they've already run. In fact, it adds to my mental bank of "see, this person is great at adventurous things and doesn't need my worry." Is that a thing you can do?
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:57 AM on May 8, 2016 [5 favorites]


I have a lot of experience with parental uber-anxiety, but believe it or not, it's really my Dad who acts out in this manner.

My Mom can verge on this level of WTF? anxiety at times (it's much more rare), but I think it's mostly by proxy of my Dad. For the most part, she's pretty rational and has 'let go' of most things that my Dad still freaks out over: everything from the idea of one of their children riding a roller coaster, flying on a plane, going edible mushroom foraging ("You'll be arrested by a park ranger!" -- even after showing him that the state park I'm going to allows foraging -- plus you'd think he'd be more freaked out by me eating wild mushrooms?), driving a car in a major city or knowing one of us is out at night in a major city.

Same thing with the bike riding: "You're riding bikes on the road next to cars?! Why can't you just find a place that has a separate bike path and only bike there?!"

These things were worse during my childhood, and included keylogging/screenshotting all of our computer activity through freshman year of college. Yep. And having surveillance cameras all over the outside of the house, including one or two inside, even while they were out of town for the summer and I'd stay home to work (this was during college, also). It didn't stop until I finally flipped my shit enough that my Mom told my Dad if he didn't start treating me like an adult, she was going to have a heart attack.

It's taken me quite a while to unravel all of the anxiety that he unloaded on me throughout my childhood and teenage years.

What works? A few things. When it's not that invasive and doesn't actually prevent you from doing what you want to do, just humor them. Don't be sarcastic or sigh. Just acknowledge and redirect the conversation. "Okay, [Mom or Dad], I appreciate your input. What do you think about making pecan pie for dessert?" "Thank you for the information. Oh! I found a funny video online I thought you'd like. Let's watch it."

Another method is to just not share. If they don't truly need to know, don't tell them. So, while it's sad to not be able to share all nice things about your life with Mom, it may be better for all parties involved to just stick to the non-controversial, fluffy kitty topics. Yes, maybe it's patronizing, but it keeps everyone happy.
posted by nightrecordings at 6:42 AM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yes, this is anxiety, and no, you can't fix it. It's not cultural either; my Asian family has its quirks, but this is not one of them.

It doesn't sound like this does much but make your conversations with her exhausting, and that she's not toxic in other ways. Assuming this is the case, I'd be gentle and not engage. Don't try to change her mind. Just say "I appreciate your concern" and change the subject.

How often are you talking to her now? Make sure it's not more often than you can handle.
posted by snickerdoodle at 6:50 AM on May 8, 2016


My mil is like that and my husband doesn't tell her anything and only calls her at set times (every Monday) and if she starts on it during a phone call he stops her and hangs up.

She's a very shallow narcissistic person though, so these limits on the relationship don't really trouble him.
posted by catspajammies at 7:09 AM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


In my family it's anxiety and genetics.

My Nonna would think we'd die from pneumonia if we rode a bike in the cold. (now that she's passed away, it's kinda quaint).

My Dad is constantly worried about whether his kids are "okay" and checks in daily with each kid. If he can't make contact, it's DEFCON.

My Mother has pills and medicines to "help" everything and will be PERSONALLY hurt if you don't accept her giving your baby orajel, aspirin and gripe water. Let her take care of everything. Don't question it.

My husband rides his bike to work every day, and every day I HAVE to tell him to "Ride careful". Or if he's driving "drive careful" or if he's climbing "climb careful!!! BE CAREFUL". I worry about him, and yes, my worry is unreasonable but from a place of love.

We're all on varying levels of "coping" with whatever disorder(s) we have and/or struggle against: anxiety, depression, OCD (that's me!), personality disorders, and so forth... it's our life and we try to approach it compassionately even though it's difficult. And when we're out of control (i.e. pill-pushing), we depend on one another to guide us back to non-anxiety in a gentle way.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 7:11 AM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


Under other circumstances, your mother would find another outlet for anxiety, either in career or something else. In other economic/cultural circumstances, her anxiety would be reasonable, eg: when getting killed by a bear for going into the forest was actually something that might happen and worth worrying about. Or having sex with the wrong person could give you syphillis, condemning you to a slow and terrible death. The anxious and those who heeded their warnings survived. The thing is that the modern world has a lot more things to worry about while having less actual danger, making this kind of anxiety maladaptive.

In addition to medication/treatment, people with anxiety need a framework through which to engage with their feelings. Unfortunately your mom never found a good outlet, and her anxiety got focused on you.
posted by deanc at 7:56 AM on May 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


It feels dismissive of the fact that I know how to take care of myself independently and have been doing so for years.

I have an anxious mom and this is all pretty familiar to me. She's not really open to working on it so I basically work on my reactions to it. The good news is she has a sense of humor so when she's giving me advice for managing stuff in an airport for example (I fly multiple times a year my mom has been in an airport three or four times in the past decade) I'll say "MOM I KNOW THE CUSTOMS OF YOUR COUNTRY" (we are both Americans, born and raised) and usually she'll laugh because she can see that she's doing that thing again.

But a lot of this for me was boundary-setting and not engaging with her anxious mind. She wants to freeze me out for doing something she thinks isn't safe? That's on her. If it helps, she's really not saying much at all about your competence (I felt that way and was frequently very hurt by what I perceived to be her digs at my abilities) because she's barely even paying attention to you, it's a lot more about her own anxious thoughts and her need to express them to you.

Reward appropriate expressions of concern ("Safe trip!" or whatever) and refuse to engage with over the top doomsaying. Work on your own anxiety, if you have any, so her anxiety doesn't make you anxious. I literally meditate every single day and exercise like it was medicine because otherwise I can't deal with her or other anxious or annoying people in my life. It helps a lot.
posted by jessamyn at 8:15 AM on May 8, 2016 [6 favorites]


This is unchecked anxiety, and not it's not normal per se, although it is REALLY common.

You can suggest to your mom that what you're doing is perfectly safe as untold millions do it every day and that if she's so worried that she's stressed out about it, that she might want to discuss with her GP because they now have therapies for anxiety. But....good luck with that.

I have an anxiety disorder, which IMHO my mother also has, and every time I tell her how great my life is now that it's controlled, she always says to me, "What are you anxious about?" Mind, she's married to a mental health professional. My dad and I roll our eyes, and I mutter under my breath, 'shoemaker's children."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:48 AM on May 8, 2016


I have a mother like this, and she doesn't even have an "Old World" upbringing influencing it . . . she's just really anxious.

Mind, I don't think the culture clash is HELPING exactly, but it's not the only reason. Other explanations for her behavior include, if you are her daughter, a fear and non-acceptance of performing your gender differently than she has chosen for herself, or if you are her son, just a general fear of you turning out differently to her.

Any of these reasons could be the "why" behind this, but I think it's better to just accept that it IS, that it isn't abnormal, per se, and to go on with your life as best you can. I still edit what I tell my mother sometimes, just because I don't always feel like listening to the worry. Other times, when I'm more patient, I tell her my plans and sit through the lecture, and then say, "Ok, Mom! I'll think about that," and then move on with my life.
posted by chainsofreedom at 8:49 AM on May 8, 2016


My dad deals with his anxiety by planning everything he worries about down to he tiniest detail (this is a man with a thorough, multi-page binder for taking care of his dog for a few days if he's away). I've struggled myself with not needing every last thing researched with contingency options ready, because yeah, kids absorb that. One of the things that makes him feel a lot better is full itineraries of where I'll be traveling/staying and when (with contact info) on vacation, and one of the things that makes me feel a lot better is if he'd just quit worrying about that to me because a) I basically always have email if not cell phone access and b) if I die in a fiery plane crash I'm dead so I don't care at that point.

Anyway, last time I had a longer trip I didn't send him detailed info, just gave him a sketch of which cities we'd be where and that we had a tight layover on our way out of the country in JFK. So he called me during that layover, and I missed the phone call in the bathroom, then called him back and very uncharacteristically flipped the tables on him. "Dad, what's WRONG?" I said, as soon as he answered the phone. "Is everything okay? I only have 5 minutes before this plane starts boarding, but I saw your message and I was worried it might be something serious!" I felt guilty about it, because it clearly made him uncomfortable, but it seems to have made him reconsider a little.

Unfortunately the other way I've gotten more tolerant of this behavior is because my MIL is much worse, in some areas as bad as your mom sounds. My husband dealt with it through his childhood by avoiding interaction and by saying "yeah sure I'll definitely do that" and then promptly forgetting he'd ever had that conversation; he's also got a lot of anxiety himself, and all of these adaptive behaviors have been shit he's had to work on as an adult. He's not comfortable addressing the issue head on, but he and I do push back lightly on specific instances, especially in person, such as constant pill-pushing and telling us we're going to fall off a scenic cliff when we are fifteen feet away from the edge. (I also cut her off when she tried to get me to engage in worry-fueled speculating about the viability of a family member's pregnancy with her at Christmas, because eff that.

MetroidBaby's comment about it being helpful to hear about things after the fact definitely seems to be true for MIL, and I think in the past few years she's been able to start thinking of me and her son as Super Adventurous Outdoorsy People Who Go On Adventures, which is... not actually that true, but if it helps her not freak out about us doing basic Colorado things like camping and skiing and hiking, I'm all for it. Plus, I think my husband secretly enjoys playing up the danger he's successfully endured on the phone, even if that danger is like "and then it RAINED A LOT OVERNIGHT!" or "we walked 10 miles and had to double back two because we missed our trail turnoff but the scenery was so worth it!" or whatever.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:06 AM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


old country

Major factor here, imo (am a daughter of an immigrant lady; know many daughters of immigrant ladies.) Not speaking for all daughters of all immigrant ladies, but you wouldn't be the first to have to fight to do things that are considered normal in your own culture while growing up, or defend them as an adult (or just not talk about them ever in the interests of sparing your ears/their nerves).

Not only because of those beliefs that come straight from the old country (e.g., maybe, "women shouldn't lift weights", though lots of people in North America believe that too), but because of the anxieties particular to a mother raising a child in a culture not her own. If you talk to many 1st generation moms about parenting in the new country - particularly those of a certain generation, and particularly if they don't work or have another way of finding their place and increasing their own comfort with the dominant culture - "fear" will often come up sooner or later. It's anxiety like any other - gets attached to things that can't be controlled and aren't fully understood, but in this case it's because they haven't been lived through experience X, first-hand (either anywhere, or just here) - which can cover more or less ground, depending. Bike riding and leaving town = leaving the comfort zone, for your mom. (I think that sometimes that fear and need for control or security gets expressed in other ways, like pushing for certain kinds of achievement. Speculating.)

(And, I've seen this kind of what I'm going to say is immigration-related anxiety applied to the kinds of activities people would support or even engage in themselves, no problem, in the old country. I have a friend whose mom grew up on a farm and used to tame wild horses Back Home, but [also] had issues with her daughter riding a bike over here :/)

FWIW my mom is "worldly" I guess (works, is engaged in her community, travels, etc.) but very communal-culture oriented, so has no compunction around making her opinions known, and I don't think that'll ever stop (and I am a fair bit older than you, I think). I tease her about it, pick and choose what I tell her, and just ignore some things.

As far as fitness/sport - my mom has no issue with things she has personal experience of & understands in terms of risk. (Walking, dancing, volleyball, archery, and shooting [she got training in the latter two at some point].) Very nervous about skiing, for some reason (this has nothing to do with culture and probably more to do with the sad fate of Natasha Richardson).

I just don't ever talk about lifting "heavy" (>20 lbs) weights, forget that - that is "hard exercise" that's Bad For You and Your Joints. (This one does seem to be cultural and widespread, ime; almost no mom of that vintage that I know supports women lifting, immigrant or not. Lack of knowledge about it + gender stuff ftw there. Again though, needing to talk about it - probably cultural and maybe personal. I still hear about it when I bring it up, so I definitely don't.)

Q1: Reasonable, nope. Understandable and common, yes, I think so.

Q2: I don't think so; nth that the key is to never bring it up. If you're very close (and nothing wrong with that imo), this might be hard to do. But, it might not be a bad idea for you to broaden your support base. And on the flip side, maybe encouraging your mom to pick up an activity (closer to her comfort zone - not necessarily sport- or fitness-related, just any social activity) would help her broaden hers.

Q3: I think your mom's experiences matter quite a lot, and there are probably a few ways of looking at them. Communal culture of origin (if applicable); immigration itself (if applicable); personal tendencies toward anxiety; all combined... If it's really clinical-level anxiety, even if it's related to culture or immigration, maybe some help for her wouldn't be a bad thing.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:11 AM on May 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


Her behavior is about her anxiety, but it doesn't sound narcissistic or unkind. So I wouldn't be so worried about her being manipulative. I would work on better boundaries. I would be as honest as you can be, and reassure her as much as you can, and let her learn that her worries will not kill her.

Mom, I know you worry about me. I promise I will dress warmly/ exercise safely/ travel safely but I really get tired of discussing it to death, so I'm going to get off the phone now. I love you and I'll call/text you later so you know I'm safe.

Does she have a phone you can text to? Daily cheerful texts will assure her you're safe without taking over your life.
posted by theora55 at 10:04 AM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


Your mother's behavior is entirely unreasonable and she is doing her best to inculcate her fears into you. I say this as a worry-wort mom who has successfully fought this tendency all my life and am now fighting it with my grandkids. I can envision every bad thing happening whenever my kids step out the door, travel, engage in extreme sports...and I bite my tongue and shut up about it and am proud of the brave and active lives my grown sons lead.

As kids I worried when they were late coming home, but did not carry on about it. They grew up in the era when kids went out after school and did not come home until dinner and I had no idea where they went other than in general "out". I have never tried to discourage them from moving very far away for college or work, or doing any of the many sports they engage in. I still worry that one rides his bike all over and to work at night, that they have hiked in the desert, that my new grandson is flying on a plane for the first time with his parents this weekend, but I do not ever express these fears to my kids, instead cheer them on.

I realize that the fears are my problem, that they are mostly irrational, that expressing them would be indeed manipulative and ruin my kids' joy in what they do. Part of the fear for me comes from having been coerced to give my firstborn up for adoption as an unwed mother, and fearing losing subsequent children. But that is only a small piece. My own mother was a chronic worrier and did her best to make me as fearful as herself, and I have always resented this. This is not a legacy I ever wanted to pass on to my children.
posted by mermayd at 12:28 PM on May 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


I am guessing you are female.

Older women got hugely inculcated in a very brain washing and your life depends upon it way with a lot of ideas about how exercise would make a woman look like a man, exercise was genuinely bad for women and women going out in the world were just asking to be raped. And if she believes those things but you do not, she probably did a few things right so that you could have a better life than her. That may have been all the freedom fighting she could muster -- to give her child more freedom than she can dream of -- and trying to escape her own mental prison is too frightening to contemplate.

My mother grew up in Germany during WW2. She knew real privation of a sort I have never experienced. Starvation was a real fear for her and her big thing is worrying if people are eating enough. Every German woman of a certain age that I have ever met seems to have some variation of this. Some manage to express it in a more socially acceptable manner than others, but they all arrange their lives to protect themselves from a deep seated terror of both personal and widespread starvation.

It helped to give my mom some factual push back in the vein of "This is modern America, not war torn Germany. People rarely literally starve to death in this place and time." I also told my oldest son at some point "Grandma is a little cracked because she grew up in a war zone. You cannot take her concerns about food and your weight too seriously."

So, you might look up info about attitudes towards exercise, etc, from her era and then start quietly feeding her studies about the positives of exercise. Try to not be confrontational. If at all possible, be chatty and sharey and just go "Yup, adding another mile to my routine. Just saw this study on heart health. I am so jazzed to be able to take control of my health this way."

The other thing is that older women often had no real hope of a career. You supported yourself by marrying well. So fears that muscle on a woman will make her look like a man are essentially fears that she will wind up doomed to extreme poverty. So, it might also help to talk about how your independence and fitness support your career success and earning capacity. It may not work to explicitly spell out that "oh, I see. You think me exercising means I will starve." She may not be consciously aware of the assumption. It may work better to give pushback against those assumptions more obliquely.
posted by Michele in California at 1:18 PM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thanks for all the responses so far; you've given me a lot of strategies to handle this.

Yes, I know she has an anxiety issue (I could give more examples but they might be personally identifying) but she's from a culture where people don't typically get help for mood disorders unless they're of the psychosis/mania-causing variety. We've discussed the possibility of her having an anxiety issue before, but she doesn't see it as relevant because she manages to keep a roof over her head and if I'd been through what she has I would have just crumpled because I'm weak, etc.; she attributes her inability to participate in things to money and logistics, rather than anxiety.

This is all more than a little bit frustrating because the manifestations of her anxiety have often negatively impacted her ability to parent or be a good head-of-household, but she refuses to get help or take ownership over how her anxiety-driven decisions negatively affect other people. I love my mom, but it's hard not to be resentful of how she's dealing with this stuff, especially knowing that so many other people choose to take stock of their anxiety and seek out tools to work through it. I know I need to approach this with some more compassion, but, yeah.
posted by blerghamot at 2:13 PM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


Your update kind of worries me. It sounds like there's more toxicity here than initially presented. Can you elaborate more on this?
posted by snickerdoodle at 3:29 PM on May 8, 2016


Another daughter of an over-anxious mother here. Mine absolutely did and does try to use it to manipulate me. When I was in high school I couldn't drive anywhere after dark because of "how terrible all the other drivers on the road were." When I moved to college she was completely serious when she told me that I was supposed to call her every time I set foot off campus. "When I go half a mile to McDonald's mom?" "YES." The day she came for her first visit after I'd moved to New York City for my first job she grabbed me on the steps of my apartment and wailed, "oh my BABY I want to take you away from this horrible place."

Not to put to fine a point on it, it's killed my relationship with her. Before I had to move back in with my parents after my cancer diagnosis we would talk on the phone maybe once every two weeks. I trusted her with almost no information about my life. It's really sad, and it breaks my heart that I don't have a mom I can share things with, but years of experience have shown she's never going to change.
posted by MsMolly at 4:51 PM on May 8, 2016


My mom was similarly anxious for my whole life and I completely internalized it and learned to avoid taking risks because she would always talk me out of them. It finally came to a head last September when I took a short road trip by myself and she asked me to call her every night, which I did resentfully.

When I got back I told her that I needed to think some things through and that I wasn't going to talk to her for awhile. (We usually talked on the phone every Sunday.)

I visited her at Thanksgiving and we had a long, tearful discussion where I told her that I lived my life according to her voice of fear in my head and that I wasn't going to do it anymore. I didn't blame or accuse, I just set a boundary - she could dial back the negative talk or we would talk a lot less.

Since then, she's cut down the negative talk by 90-95% and I'm finding my own voice and setting out on a new career that I've always dreamed of, that she's always talked me out of because of her fear of my failure. Now she's being supportive and our relationship has improved drastically. In fact we just spent an hour on the phone brainstorming ways my new career can be successful.
posted by bendy at 7:17 PM on May 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


Kind of different suggestion here - can you sort of passively/lovingly "push back" and make it about her. I dont know quite what the tone/wording should be but something along the lines of, "mom, it really concerns me that an ordinary drive is so alarming to you. That isn't a normal thing to be so upset about. It seems like your anxiety is hurting you a lot. Have you considered seeing a doctor?" And then future mentions - "gosh, mom, it sounds like your anxiety is really bad right now. You should really see a doctor about that." Something like the suggestion above of, "oh, sorry, I know you get upset when I talk about travel plans, we should talk about something else. How is your garden?" Just, something that makes clear it's not on the world to accommodate her feelings, it's on her to live in the world.

And if you pressuring her to see a therapist is weird/embarrassing to her, maybe she will back off on the behavior that starts those conversations too.
posted by Lady Li at 9:13 PM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


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