What you said upset me, because I actually do care
October 24, 2016 11:08 AM   Subscribe

On the phone the other day, my mom, after complaining (perhaps justifiably) that I didn't call her enough, said, "Sometimes, I think you don't really care that you have a family." I can't stop thinking about this and I want to figure out a way to address it with her.

At the time, I was so taken aback that I hardly knew what to say. I said, "What do you mean?" and she said, perfectly calmly, "I just sometimes think it doesn't really matter to you if we're here or not, that you wouldn't notice if we weren't around." I said, "I mean, I might not always be good on the phone, but I visit--" and she interrupted, "You've visited once since you moved," and after that, I just said I was sorry I hadn't called as often, and got off the phone.

Some background: I'm 35, F. I've got a younger brother and sister; my parents are divorced. My mom's remarried. I've had a pretty difficult year - cross-country move, end of a 7 year relationship, significant financial instability as a result. That, plus the acquisition of a post-breakup rebound puppy means that traveling has been tough; I went home once for 2 weeks last summer, once for a weekend, and I'm going home for Christmas, but I won't make it home for Thanksgiving, and I had to miss a cousin's wedding that my mom and sister attended. I try to call both my parents once a week, but I let it slide occasionally. My dad's (second) marriage collapsed recently so I was trying to call him much more often, but I admit that in general, when it comes to staying in touch with my family, I've felt both overwhelmed and overextended; I know haven't been doing a great job.

But still. STILL. You don't care that you have a family. The more I think about this, the more it translates into something kind of astonishing: not just 'you don't love me,' but 'you don't love any of us.' Not said in, like, the heat of a fight, but just as a casual observation about how she sees me and my role in the family.

I wrote this question a while ago, so yeah, my mom definitely throws out the occasional offhand comment that fucks me up hard, but mostly I think we get along, or I did. I don't think she was actively trying to hurt me.

I don't know how to bring this up or process it. I feel like if I say, "That thing you said really hurt me," she'll just vaguely take it back ("Oh, you know I didn't mean it that way - I just wish you would call me once in a while") and if I push harder, she'll just end up feeling really guilty in a way that will make me feel worse. I want to defend myself against her negative interpretation of me (callous, self-involved) but I don't know how to do that in a way that doesn't end up being self-defeating.

I think this hit me really hard because I do worry, deep down, that I am a pretty selfish person, and the truth is that I do feel, often, that keeping in touch with my family is a burden. It's not that I don't think it's important, but it does take effort. It's hard. Honestly, the number one motivator for calling them or meeting up with them is that I'm afraid of feeling guilty about not seeing them as much when they're gone. That isn't exactly the same thing as enjoying their company. That doesn't mean I don't care about them, but...I don't know. Maybe in some fucked up way she's right? But I also feel like I do a ton to try and care for my family, and I feel like none of that has mattered to my mom; that she sees the entire relationship flowing undirectionally - I take, and she gives.

I'm angry, and I feel like garbage, and I would like some advice. What should I say when I call her? Should I email her instead? Do I wait til I'm home? Or let it go? What do I do?
posted by pretentious illiterate to Human Relations (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My mother and I had a conversation like this one time. I had to let her know that I spoke to her on the phone more than any other living person and while I was happy to interact more frequently over email/text/whatever, the phone wasn't great for me. I loved her and cared about her but that what she wanted from me didn't balance with what I was able to give.

So you have to determine if you think what she is saying is correct but hurtful or incorrect and hurtful. That is do you want to try to communicate with her more, or do you think you communicate with her enough?

Sounds like you've had a tough year and maybe your mom isn't that sympathetic. This may be because she's a narcissist or it may be because you legit don't call enough. Either way you can have a conversation with her. Focus on "me" language. "Hey mom what you said hurt my feelings. I've had a tough year and while I do care about you, I know I haven't been as available" and then you can just decide what you want the "resolution" should be

- you reinforce better boundaries and she can lump it
- you call/visit more or troubleshoot ways to see her more with her
- you work out something together

It may be that she says, as my Mom did, that you're being unreasonable and she's NOT sympathetic and making it all about her (you will likely know if this is happening) and then you have a choice to make about what you want to do about this. You can't make her different but you can interact with her differently.

It's worth remembering or knowing that children of narcissists and self-absorbed people are often groomed from a young age to feel guilty for not being totally at the beck and call of the narcissist. I don't know if this is what is up with your mom but sometimes that is why an offhanded bitchy comment like this can HURT so much.

I still have a relationship with my mom, but it's a lot more arm's length. I am okay with this and I am happier for it. Best of luck for resolving this.
posted by jessamyn at 11:22 AM on October 24, 2016 [17 favorites]

Another daughter of a narcissist here. I have a question...does she call you and offer to visit you? Or is this super-special family love flowing in one direction?

My mantra is 'the phone works both ways.'
posted by warriorqueen at 11:23 AM on October 24, 2016 [55 favorites]

Based on this, and your previous, question, your mom is kind of a narcissistic asshole, who also likes to dabble in gaslighting.

You should NOT feel like garbage, and I think anger is the emotionally correct response.

But, here's the bad news: you can't win this debate. Ever. At all. Your mom sounds like she's not really interested in accepting responsibility for things she finds uncomfortable, and would rather have folks around to blame. Bad marriage? Kids didn't dust the baseboards enough, obviously! I mean, on the face of it, it's totally irrational and absurd.

Accept the things you cannot change: your mom tends toward the jerkier end of the scale of humanity, so the best thing you can possibly do is limit your exposure to crappy treatment. Hang up the phone, visit briefly and infrequently, and disconnect when she starts up the Blame Train.

It's not you, OP, it's her.

It's not you, it's her.

Just because they're family doesn't mean they're not assholes. You don't owe any asshole anything, regardless of blood ties.
posted by gsh at 11:23 AM on October 24, 2016 [26 favorites]

Best answer: So since you linked to the other question: I note that your mother blames her fights with you over your ADHD-induced messiness for her divorce from your father, and she told you this like it was no big thing. You write about how miserable your adolescence was because of these fights and how large they loomed over the life of the household.

I think that if you do have ambivalence about contacting your family, you have at least one root cause, rather than a case of the selfishes. I'd be hella ambivalent too in that situation.

Two other thoughts:

I have experienced and observed in my friends the need to process a lot of stuff about our parents (especially our mothers) in our mid-thirties. I had to work through a lot of anger at my parents and a lot of getting-real about how I felt at that age. I did this partly just through thinking and partly through talk therapy. My feeling is that it was when I started to really get out of youth, I started to see my parents differently and also had a lot of unconscious feelings and fears about them. YOu might bring this up with the ol' therapist if you get the chance.

I come from a family where I've felt pretty emotionally distant and angry a lot of the time for reasons that would take too long to explain, and where I've often kept in touch more out of a sense of duty than anything else. As time has passed and I've gotten older, my relationship with my family has improved a lot and I've come to terms with some things that are never going to change. I've also been able to see my parents more truly as individuals with their own stories and challenges, and I've come more to terms with who I am and how my past has shaped me. I feel much warmer toward my parents (although I'm still terrible about phone calls) and I feel confident that I keep in touch with my parents because I want to do so.

My point being - it's quite possible to feel distant, ambivalent or reluctant now because of real things that really were bad, and then to have your feelings change. You are not a selfish monster because you feel ambivalence right now, nor do your current feelings mean that you'll never feel differently. I mean, you could feel ambivalence forever and still not be a selfish monster....I'm just trying to say that sometimes it is even more upsetting to have a scenario in your head that says "this can never change".
posted by Frowner at 11:27 AM on October 24, 2016 [8 favorites]

I try to call both my parents once a week
I was trying to call him much more often

I've come to say pretty much the same thing as warriorqueen.

Does your mom call you or visit you?

I'm pretty crappy at keeping up with my family, but the onus always seems to be on me to do the contacting. I don't get regular phone calls, but I'm expected to make regular phone calls. I don't get visits, but I'm expected to visit. Etc, etc. I get guilt tripped all the time about "oh we never hear from you" and "we never see you" but you know what? Nothing is stopping the rest of my family from picking up the phone and calling me. Or using their relatively flush bank accounts and years of accumulated vacation time to buy a flight to come visit me. Nope, it's all on me.

So, my basic response to this kind of passive aggressive shitting is two things: saying "you are welcome to call me any time--I might not be able to answer immediately but I'll always return your call" (or "I have a guest room, you are welcome to come visit me") and then turning it right back around: "I'm showing you I care the best way I know how. If calling and visiting is important to you, how do you think I feel, never getting calls or visits from my family?"

N'thing: It's not you, it's her.
posted by phunniemee at 11:34 AM on October 24, 2016 [21 favorites]

I know there is a lifetime of emotional pressure wrapped up in this type of situation, but it's insane that you're calling yourself selfish because you don't want to spend time with people you don't enjoy spending time with. Sharing blood doesn't obligate you to take shit from people. It just doesn't. I know there is a lot of societal stuff going on here in addition to the emotion. I know it seems like there is a complex set of rules you have to abide by in order to be a good daughter or sibling or whatever. But really: there isn't. My grandmother treated my mom like garbage for thirty years and still got upset when my mom started standing up for herself. What makes people think that guilting someone into spending time with you is acceptable? You aren't the one who should feel selfish and guilty. If your mom wants you to spend time with her, she should be fun and kind and interesting, not somebody who actively tries to make you feel like a bad person.

This is a thing I feel strongly about. It is very, very, very okay to choose who you want to share your life with. You don't owe someone something because you share a genetic background.

If I were you, I would not argue with her. I would not spend time trying to convince her she's wrong. She's already decided, and you can't win this argument. You can only make choices that make you feel good about yourself. And I don't think trying to think of good comebacks is the best way to get there.
posted by something something at 11:35 AM on October 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

To me, as someone with a critical, perpetually resentful and overbearing mother, your mother's comment reads as a giant martyr trip! I would bet that your mother gets a lot of mileage in the family from putting on a show as The One who cares the most, and sacrifices the most, and is, therefore, surrounded by ungrateful people who never quite measure up.

For your question - I wouldn't address this with her, and I also would work on distancing myself from any emotional reaction to shit she said to me.

Your mom wants to jerk people around using guilt and her supposed sacrifices, as does my mom. The best way I've found to deal with it is remember she is full of shit, it's actually impossible to ever make her happy because she is a deeply unhappy bitter person, and not take it personally.
posted by Squeak Attack at 11:35 AM on October 24, 2016 [8 favorites]

I call my parents like once every 3 months, tell her she's lucky to have you and move on.
posted by edbles at 11:49 AM on October 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm 35, F. ....I went home once for 2 weeks last summer, once for a weekend, and I'm going home for Christmas, but I won't make it home for Thanksgiving,

No you didn't. You are an adult. In order to visit your parents/family of origin, you *left* your home for 2 weeks and a weekend last summer. At 35 you get to spend your vacation time and holidays any damn way you choose.

...when it comes to staying in touch with my family, I've felt both overwhelmed and overextended; I know haven't been doing a great job.

Bullshit. Who is calling you? Who is visiting you? How often did your father call you when you were going through your breakup? How often does your mother call you to ask about the puppy? When you see your attempts to keep in contact as inadequate, you are buying into your mother's idea that you *owe* her. You don't.

I want to defend myself against her negative interpretation of me (callous, self-involved) but I don't know how to do that in a way that doesn't end up being self-defeating.

You have to start by not agreeing with it.

I do feel, often, that keeping in touch with my family is a burden.

Family *is* a burden sometimes. Some more than others. Don't let it make you feel bad. There's nothing wrong with you for not wanting to have the same damn conversation over and over and over again with the same people, where your role in the world as a self-sufficient adult takes a back seat to the ten-year-old kid-role you play in your family.

she sees the entire relationship flowing undirectionally - I take, and she gives.

She's wrong. You know that.

I'm angry, and I feel like garbage, and I would like some advice. What should I say when I call her? Should I email her instead? Do I wait til I'm home? Or let it go? What do I do?

I would let it go and talk it out with a therapist instead of with your mother. Until you convince yourself that your value isn't dependent on how often you call your mother, you won't convince her.
posted by headnsouth at 11:52 AM on October 24, 2016 [6 favorites]

My solution to a very similar statement by my mother- over text in her case- was to go very low contact, and to drastically limit the amount of information she has about me. It's an imperfect solution, but there's no perfect solution.

The crucial part is that mentally, I retain power. She doesn't get to hear more than the basics, she gets the sort of polite chit-chat I would normally reserve for work colleagues and casual acquaintances. I used to find conversations with my mother mentally draining but now I can focus because she doesn't get "me" in the same way that my loved ones do.

Getting her to discuss her statement will not work, it won't have any beneficial effect and it'll give her more opportunity to blame you for shit that isn't your fault.
posted by threetwentytwo at 11:53 AM on October 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

I should mention, in case it's useful, is that the time I had this conversation with my mother it was because she was visiting me nominally to help out after I'd split with my live-in partner of seven years. This visit was supposedly so she could be supportive but she basically spent a lot of it not so subtly nitpicking at me and expecting a level of attention that was completely inappropriate given the circumstances. At one point we had a disagreement about something, I called her out on her unhelpfulness and she literally started packing and threatening to leave early (she didn't). This was when I realized that there was something actually wrong with her and that it wasn't just that we were having a normal interpersonal disagreements. I started going low contact and have felt better since.
posted by jessamyn at 12:12 PM on October 24, 2016 [8 favorites]

I know that levels of parental involvement differ wildly from family to family, but... you've traveled a presumably long distance multiple times per year, have called once per week in the past, and this is not enough contact? If she needs more contact, she needs to be the one reaching out to you, in the way that is mutually agreeable. That could mean a quick text message ("thinking of you, hope the dog's settling in!") during the week or a lengthy email every couple weeks to spell out all the things you can't wrap your head around during a phone call.

My dad is a pretty verbose person but I've found he sends really wistful text messages. My mom and I can chat about all kinds of topical things on the phone, but if there are questions to be answered she tends to send an email. If she misses you, she can say that -- and follow it up with "so could you give me a call?"

My parents live close to be -- sometimes I wonder if I'm way too close -- but I have gone a month without exchanging more than a handful of words. It's a different situation because we know we can meet up for a meal or visit, but we're all busy.

If your mom wants a different level of involvement, it's up to her to make that happen, and to come to a shared level of comfort. You care that you have a family, but she doesn't seem to care about her family member's well-being.
posted by mikeh at 12:15 PM on October 24, 2016

Best answer: No you didn't. You are an adult. In order to visit your parents/family of origin, you *left* your home for 2 weeks and a weekend last summer. At 35 you get to spend your vacation time and holidays any damn way you choose.

This is another really, really good point.

Your home is the life that you've made for yourself, with your new place and your puppy. It took me a while to get over that mental hurdle myself, but even re-framing it in your own head will help put things in perspective. I have to interrupt my life to go visit my family. I know to them it seems like I'm coming "back home," but my actual home is where I live and where I've built my life, with my things and my dog and my responsibilities. It might be where I grew up, and yes it was once my home, but I haven't lived there for over a decade. My life is elsewhere now.

I think it was a couple years ago I had a conversation (read: exchanged a couple sentences) with my mom along these lines. It was yet another situation where I told her to come visit me instead, and she said something like "I can't travel all the way up there, it's such a disruption." And it's like, what the hell? Where do you think I am, summer camp? I have a life here.

Your time has value.
posted by phunniemee at 12:20 PM on October 24, 2016 [24 favorites]

I think there's a tendency of certain types of mothers to feel entitled to their children's time and attention, especially so if those children are daughters and are not married with children and a family of 'their own'. In my own life I've had to push back against that--just because I'm single (partnered now, but not married with kids) doesn't mean that my job, my friends, my volunteering, my pet, my desire to have an actual vacation instead of spending all my time off flying back across the country to spend time with my birth family, is invalid.

I'm mid-thirties and I've done a lot of the work that Frowner mentioned and it's really helped a lot--our relationship has improved a lot and it's because I did a lot of work to figure out why I was so angry at her (and my dad) and I've kind of come to a place where if she says things your mom did, I can kind of brush them off. Like, in her reality, I don't care about my family, because my life doesn't revolve around them the way she was taught a woman's life should (and the way her life did, giving up her career to raise us, etc.). But in my reality, where I work 50 hours a week and have a rich personal life, I care deeply about my family and make efforts to make sure they feel loved, including visits where I have the necessary financial and emotional resources to spend. Her perspective and mine can co-exist; it doesn't mean it's not hurtful, or that it didn't take a lot of work to get to where I'm okay with it, but it can be a statement of her experience without it feeling to me like a judgement of my worth as a daughter.
posted by stellaluna at 1:30 PM on October 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There is absolutely nothing scientific about this thought, but: Emotions are vectors. They have a source and they have a target; it is very very common that whatever/whoever is the cause of someone's emotional reaction is not going to be recipient of that emotional reaction.

Your mother's grousing may or may not have been about you (I'm going to lean on the side of "not," given all the context above) but it walloped you anyway. That's shitty, and there's no such thing as emotional justice, but if nothing else keep in mind that not everything that hits you is something you set in motion. It could be transference from someone else who upset her, or displacement of her own guilty feelings, or just straight-up brain chemistry issues.

You probably can't change her, and you may or may not be able to do away with your own reactions/feelings, but you can put her statements in context. That's a step.
posted by psoas at 3:09 PM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I can't recommend enough Karyl McBride's, "Will I Ever Be Good Enough".

How can you address this? You already how it will play out if you bring it up with your mom: it's self-defeating, you'll end up feeling guilty. Better yet, she will make you feel guilty. So don't bother.

Address it by allowing yourself to disagree with your mother. You are allowed to think she is wrong. You are allowed to shrug it off, because addressing it with her, or trying to convince her that she's wrong, will likely not be successful.

You know you care about your family. You know you love each of them. Her hurtful words don't change that.

If you are wondering why she said it, in a calm martyred way? Because it will move you to prove her wrong, to go out of your way to visit (regardless of cost to you), to prove that you love her. Win win for her. Huge loss for you. Not to mention you'll be reinforcing the tenet of "say hurtful thing to daughter, get lots of loving, self-sacrificing attention in return."

You are allowed to put yourself first.
posted by Neekee at 3:53 PM on October 24, 2016 [6 favorites]

Lots of great advice here. Your mom is definitely out of line,and that kind of off-the-cuff comment, stated as "fact" is a common manipulation tactic.

In your shoes, I'd be tempted to go no- or low-contact for a good while, just to give her some perspective.
posted by rpfields at 5:10 PM on October 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

If I were you, I would not argue with her. I would not spend time trying to convince her she's wrong. She's already decided, and you can't win this argument.

Your mom wants to jerk people around using guilt and her supposed sacrifices, as does my mom. The best way I've found to deal with it is remember she is full of shit, it's actually impossible to ever make her happy because she is a deeply unhappy bitter person, and not take it personally.

All of this. Your mom WANTS to see you through a prism of "My child doesn't love me," because somehow it makes her feel better about herself--in control, smug, a Mommy Martyr, whatever the hell it is. It doesn't matter what you do because it will never be enough, because she doesn't want it to be enough, she just wants you dancing to her tune. You're never going to be able to please her.

All you can really do is come to a place within yourself where you just realize this is how it's gonna be. If you can, try not to take it personally. Well, you always will in the moment. You just kinda have to say, "Yes, you're right, Mom, I just don't care about you." To her, you don't care. You know you care, but that's the best it's going to get. There's nothing you can do about someone who wants to see you through a prison of shit.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:57 PM on October 24, 2016

Best answer: I'm sorry I missed your earlier question. I am divorcing now and my kids are very stressful. The two things aren't related. If we had had very easy kids or no kids, our marriage would still have broken apart, and my ex in some ways has been an excellent parent at times and is growing into a better dad. One of our kids was very very difficult to parent (police, hospitals, way beyond messy rooms!), and now as a young adult we communicate by occasional emails and postcards and I am intensely grateful that she is alive, healthy and mostly happy. I would never blame the divorce on her or any of the children, it was far more complex and about us, as adults and partners. What your mom said was vicious and cruel. I'm so sorry.

To say something like that about not carrying was not thoughtless, it was deliberate and meant to hurt you. It's meant to make you focus on her and make her the victim.

Enjoy your puppy. Be happy. Let her call you when she's racked up enough spite to vent and then gently put the phone down afterwards and go be free knowing that you are the grown up kid who is doing what moms want: living a better life.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:16 PM on October 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I honestly don't know what you say to you mom, but I would suggest that in the future there are ways to "keep in touch" without calling her up and chatting for an hour. When I've cooked a new recipe, I'll take a picture of the finished product and email it to my mom with a link to the recipe if I liked it. I got my mom set up on a smart phone and we play Words With Friends. Sometimes I'll just text her if I saw that a stock she was interested change or my reaction to the latest episode of the Bachelor (since I know she watches it). On Facebook I'll comment on something she posts. My relationship with my mom might be a lot better than yours, but I think keeping in touch can be more casual if you make it that way. When I first moved out of the house in college, it was more of a "call once a week" type thing that was pretty awkward. But now there are so many ways to stay in touch with people that it doesn't need to feel like an obligation. It might let you feel like you're taking care of your relationship with your mom without it being "A Thing." And if she still can't feel appreciated, then yeah, you know the problem definitely isn't you.
posted by AppleTurnover at 6:16 PM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Your mom's expectations are ridiculous and I'm sorry her thoughtless cruel remark has made you feel so bad. You sound like a very caring and thoughtful daughter.

I live far away from my family and I haven't seen them in 2 years. I think the last time I talked to any of them on the phone was at least 6 months ago. I occasionally talk to my mom on Twitter but that's probably once every couple weeks at most, and it's just Twitter. She has never once complained.

Your mom is being unfair and unkind.
posted by a strong female character at 6:49 PM on October 24, 2016

Best answer: I read this comment and thought, "hmm" and then read your linked Ask and thought, "OH." I remembered that particular Ask very, very well. If I could, I'd hug you.

Here's what I got out of that Ask: your mom destroyed her own marriage and was the root cause of the dissolution of your original family unit by relentlessly emotionally abusing one of her kids and creating endless drama over trivial reasons ("messiness" whether real or not is not grounds for divorce). Your dad intervened in your mother's inappropriate raging/abuse and this caused strife between them that eventually led or contributed to a divorce. I'm looking at this question and your mother's fucked up comment in the context of that background, and think this is just some more hurtful bullshit in a lifelong pattern of your mom not knowing how to take responsibility for the relationships in which she's been a destructive force. She doesn't apparently want to see any kind of causality between telling her child that a divorce was their fault for being messy, and that kid not coming to see them as much in the next two years. Honestly it sounds like she doesn't even want to see any causality in YOUR having a rough two years, complete with a major move, in your not coming to see her as much. There seems to be a lot of her living in the world of her feelings and not reality, here.

All that being said, Frowner's comment about you having reason to be ambivalent about spending a lot of time around your family and your mom in particular rang true to me. I remember typing up a similar Ask about going into a huge anxiety spiral whenever it was time to contact a certain family member, being terrified that she thought I was a narcissist and that every contact lapse only solidified that opinion, and answering my own question about whether this made me a shitty person when it was time to give the backstory to the familial relationship. This is someone who, while being very loving and genuinely caring a great deal about her family members' wellbeing, had a history of instigating screaming blowout fights when she came to visit during which both participants regularly stormed/drove out of the house, dragging visiting family when we came to her city to surprise family therapy sessions when I was a kid which again turned into enormous screaming fights, diagnosing other family members with NPD, and, in general, creating or escalating huge amounts of discord in the context of an intense, volatile relationship that neither party really knew how to manage nondestructively. I do not think she is even remotely abusive or a bad person, I love her a lot, and I have never been the target of rage from her, but I had a lightbulb moment with that unasked Ask when I realized that this history of generating drama and family fights probably had a lot to do with my extreme anxiety around contacting her and terror that she would shift that "you're the narcissist in the family" dx to me.

I don't know if this is applicable to your situation, but it sounds like your mom is at minimum a volatile person with a history of rage issues (and raging at you in particular, over minor things you don't have much control over). That alone gives you plenty of reason to be ambivalent about being in close contact with her. I would honestly take her guilt tripping you here as a projection about her own role in her relationship with you. She basically told you a couple of years ago to your face that you were the reason the family broke up, and is now perceiving you are pulling away from that family. I bet she fears that she's finally driven you away, and is trying to dump her own guilt and responsibility onto you, by saying that instead of pulling away because she is abusive, that you are just a callous and selfish person who doesn't care if your family lived or died or whatever nonsense. I'm sorry this is going on. I do not think you're a selfish person who doesn't care about her family, for what it's worth.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 7:09 PM on October 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Just nthing that you seem to have been more than generous with your time. When I live a long ways from home (so +1 day of driving) go back home on average once per year (so some years twice, others none). If I'm within a days drive, I may up that to 2x per year...if it can be worked out. We talk maybe once per month. My dad texts more frequently just to check in and celebrate/commiserate on the Red Wings game.

My parents do visit, because that's only fair, barring something that would keep one from traveling. And if they can't make it, then everyone is sad, but thems the brakes.

Without the previous question, I'd wonder if your mom is just a bit thoughtless and a poor communicator. If that were the case, sometimes addressing the underlying motivation, she misses you, can redirect things. So say you miss her too, and then figure out low-level interactions that make her feel more connected without overwhelming you: getting her on Pinterest to share recipes, Snapchat, etc.

But that previous question...I think a lot of the previous commenters are right on the money re: it's not just simple thoughtlessness.

You could still take the same track, empathize and make a minimal adjustment, but in this case it probably wouldn't mollify her. If anything, it may just motivate her to keep pushing and needling, since she'll have gotten the message that she can manipulate you. I had a relative sort of like this (my parents sheltered us from a lot of direct interaction). My dad would respond to her built tripping by remaining relatively unengaged, addressing an issue once and then moving on. So if he had been told "You don't seem to care," he'd either completely ignore it or empathize with the supposed underlying emotion "I miss you too, wish we could make it this year. How's the weather?"

I say supposed, because the motivation for the guilt trip (in my relatives case) is to exert control. If the "missing" part was addressed, say by upping phone calls and visits, it wouldn't be good enough. Moving back would just mean she'd pick another issue to pick on.

If this is your mother, you could start enforcing boundaries by calling her out and ending conversations when she's rude: "That's not fair mom, you know that. Let's drop the subject," and then say goodbye if she won't drop it. It's not an easy thing to just do, for a lot of people, but with practice it can become easier. The key is to walk away if she starts to escalate and tries to argue.
posted by ghost phoneme at 8:00 PM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I hope that you're taking on board people's comments about the entrenched dynamics going on here, and the vast unfairness of what your mom is saying to you (both here and in the linked AskMe). Because I 100% agree with the main message that it doesn't sound like you're the problem here at all, that communication and reaching out is absolutely a two-way street, and that even if your mom was feeling hurt that was an awful way of communicating it.

That said, as an avenue moving forward -- assuming you don't want to stop or significantly curtail contact -- I highly recommend that you consider writing your mom a letter.

I suggest this for several reasons. First, I recognise your username because (even on this site of incredibly eloquent people) you have stuck out to me as an extraordinarily good writer and a wise, compassionate person. I have no doubt that you will be able to write a letter that says exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it. Second, a letter gives you the time to sculpt your words so that you are being as precise and accurate as you need. Third, a letter gives her the time to really hear what you're saying (if she has that ability) and get past her probably inevitable first reaction of dismissiveness and defensiveness before she replies; indeed, I might ask her in the letter to take a few days before answering for precisely this reason. Fourth, a letter sends a strong signal that this is something that really matters to you; if she has it at all in her to take it seriously, it will be a cue to do so. (If it's feasible logistically I'd actually advocate a physical letter through the mail for this reason, not an email - but email is better than phone or skype).

I haven't had nearly the same issue of family strife as you, and my mom sounds a bit more rational and reachable, but a few years ago I was in a similar situation. My parents had never visited me, ever, over many years and despite the existence of a grandkid and another on the way. It's true we lived around the world but they had the money and time (more money and time than we had) and yet never came. I was increasingly hurt by it, especially when paired with continual asking of when I would visit or call. I sent an email about it. I agonised over the wording of the email. I was really nervous. But it worked wonders -- my mom was horrified to hear exactly how hurt I was, they visited within a year, and are planning on coming again.

The thing that made it work was that I made the email all about my feelings. I laid out clearly what they had done that made me sad, and why it made me sad, and I also said clearly what would happen if it didn't change (in my case I said I'd still visit but I would feel increasingly upset, and would prioritise travel to people who reciprocated).

So, in your letter, I would suggest you sit down and pare down to yourself exactly what you want to focus on. Based on this question I would guess it might include: (a) all the things you do to try to communicate and prioritise; (b) the wish you have that she did the same, and the ways in which you wish she tried to do so; and most importantly (c) how you feel about this and similar comments. I'd emphasise the feelings. Then send it off.

It's possible it wouldn't change anything, in which case, that's valuable information about how she will treat you and behave -- and it's a strong indication that you are not the guilty party and not wrong here. But it's also possible that it will open a dialogue and things might improve. Win-win from that perspective, as long as you don't get your hopes up too much.

Good luck -- I am really pulling for you. This is hard but I am sure you're up to it.
posted by forza at 9:17 PM on October 24, 2016

Response by poster: I really appreciate every single one of these answers - they were so thoughtful and empathetic and thorough.

Yesterday, as the answers started coming in, I felt really panicky and guilty and sad - like, I'd betrayed my mom, I'd portrayed her so cruelly and unfairly, she loves me so much and how could I have said those things about her, without mentioning all the amazing things she does for me? It felt unbearable, and so I actually ended up calling her right away, in direct contradiction to the majority of people's advice -- and we had a reasonably decent conversation. She said, in the way I'd sort of expected, that she was sorry; she hadn't meant it that way, that she just thinks of me as "independent," and "self-sufficient," but that she knows I love her, etc.

Having gotten that temporary sort of relief, though, I could see a lot more clearly the dynamic that was playing out, both in her comment and my response, that you guys helped to show me: the ambivalence I feel about being in touch with my family, my guilt about the ambivalence, and the intense anxiety that came from having 'exposed' my mom to other people's judgment. That's a really deep-rooted dynamic in my family...the EVERYTHING IS FINE HERE NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT PLEASE MOVE ALONG attitude that is so, so hard to set aside.

I genuinely don't think my mom is a jerk or an asshole or even, exactly, a narcissist - though it was really validating to hear everyone say, so resoundingly, that what she said was fucked up. I do think, though, that she has a deeply distorted view of family, and interpersonal relations: I was thinking about what psoas said, about how emotions are vectors, and I'm realizing that the recent collapse of my dad's second marriage sent a lot of ripples through our family. My mom has been pretty deeply involved in that drama (long story) and it's been a real struggle for me to support my dad in a way that also feels healthy and boundary-maintaining. When my dad and my mom divorced, I did a shit-ton of inappropriate emotional work for him, and so maybe it's not surprising that my mom is interpreting my response to the current situation as 'uncaring' and 'cold.' That's her distorted view of the world, but I carry a ghost of it with me, even though my conscious mind tells me otherwise, so maybe it's not surprising that the guilt slammed me so hard.

To be honest, I'm not sure exactly how I'm going to take all this into account going forward - whether I'll start imposing lower-contact boundaries or whether I'll try to lean into explaining 'why' this behavior is hurtful. But I think just naming what's going on -- I'm ambivalent about having contact with my family; that ambivalence has legitimate causes, and I don't have to feel guilty about that ambivalence - is really, really useful to me.

Oh yeah, and more therapy.

Thank you guys, again.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 5:52 AM on October 25, 2016 [13 favorites]

I have a mom who would say things like this, and the truth is yes, I don't actually like her very much at all. If she was just a friend I would have dropped her long ago, because while she can be nice she can also be randomly and unexpectedly shitty to me. I keep most of my life private from her because of numerous past experiences where she's made clear that she doesn't want to know the real me, she wants to have some daughter that's who she thinks a daughter should be like. So if I had that phone call from my mom (and I have) I might not say it out loud to her, but I might shrug and say to myself, "you're right, I DON'T like you that much, and also you don't get to say how I feel about other people in the family because you don't know my thoughts and I do." Then I'd call her even less often.
posted by MsMolly at 4:53 PM on October 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

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