Reluctant empty nester
January 12, 2017 5:45 PM   Subscribe

My mother seems to be struggling with the idea of an empty nest and gets upset as I spend more time away from the family home? Details under the cut.

Hi there – lurker of many years here with my first question! Thanks in advance.

I currently travel between living with my boyfriend of two years and with my parents – this arrangement works for me as the two homes are not far apart (short driving distance) and allows me to see everyone frequently including my mother who I am supporting through chemotherapy. Her chance of full recovery after treatment is good. I take her to hospital appointments two full days a fortnight which I have luckily been able to arrange through work and run errands, sort out all her bills, insurance, paperwork as needed. I see also her on three weeknights.

Boyfriend and I are in our late twenties, have a stable, healthy relationship and are very happy together. He has said that he would be comfortable with me moving in full time into the house he owns but in my mind this is not an urgent step as we spend every weekend together, we have a long future ahead of us and I’m happy seeing my family more often in the circumstances.

As my mother is sick, my father does most of the cooking/some cleaning and my mother’s retired sister keeps her company and helps out on weekdays during the daytime. This support will soon be greatly reduced as my aunt’s daughter will be giving birth in a month’s time so aunt will be looking after her instead.

The issue is that my mother and I are arguing more and more, I think partially because she sees that her support from my aunt will be gone soon and taking out her unhappiness on me. This is making spending time with her unpleasant and overall reducing the quality of our relationship. Arguments usually involves her shaming me over living part-time with boyfriend when we are not married (which is ridiculous), telling me that I’m investing too much energy into my relationship when I may be dumped by boyfriend in the future, beating down my achievements, bringing up my past failures, telling me I’m a terrible ungrateful daughter, generally abusive conversation designed to hurt me, play on my insecurities and damage my self-esteem which she has no desire to understand is unacceptable. Although I understand the chemotherapy is difficult/makes her irritable and I try to be the bigger person when these conversations are initiated, I often fail and we argue fiercely because I feel her comments are so wrong, I deserve none of it as I have been trying my best to support her while still maintaining my own happiness, which she asserts I’m selfish to be seeking as it is at her expense.

The irony is that it appears to me that she actually craves more time together and is acting out because I don’t spend weekends keeping her company at home, time which she feels entitled to. I’ve tried to explain to her that her expectations are unreasonable and that we can work on improving the quality of the time we already have together by not having negative conversation all the time. More often than not when I am at the family home I’m in a separate living area trying to avoid a unpleasant conversation. Sometimes, she does make an effort to be pleasant but as she is so unhappy she often lapses into a mean mood and her critical ways. My father is not a lot of help as he is quite impatient with her snappy moods. She also does not agree that her expectations that I spend more time with her is unreasonable as my aunt who cares for her lives with her adult married daughter and their respective husbands – something that works for them however will not be how boyfriend and I will be living should we get married.

Mum also refuses compromises, e.g. to spend time together with my boyfriend on the weekend or let us take her out for a pleasant change of scene like a movie, a walk in a different park that we could drive out to or a nice meal. She refuses to visit boyfriend’s house as we have a dog which she does not like.

My only solution to the arguments is walking away, sometimes to my boyfriend’s place, but she usually sends me a string of angry messages after I leave. I do love her and don’t want to simply ignore that she is unhappy. What are some better ways I respond to mum’s outbursts and needs while setting boundaries so I don’t need to suffer her abuse? Her hospital offers support services including therapy which I know she’s taken up before and I would like to encourage her to take up more sessions. I do know that she spent her last session telling the therapist how little support she gets and painting a sad picture as she is experiencing it… I presume these sessions good for her regardless?
posted by wineglass_bay to Human Relations (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Feeling depressed and like a victim are all very normal reactions to being made sick because that's the treatment to get well, and feeling powerless in one's circumstances. I think you might want to try to be a little compassionate here, maybe even empathetic - even though you have every right to set boundaries. People are not always very dignified when faced with their own mortality, but cancer is not an excuse to mistreat people.

"Mom, I love you and I want us to have quality time together, but the time we have right now is not good quality. I cannot meet all of your emotional needs, and I think you are pushing everyone away with the way you're coping with this. What you are dealing with is hard, and I want to be sure you have the right support. Can I help you get signed up for more therapy at the hospital?"
posted by crunchy potato at 5:55 PM on January 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

Therapy, for you and mom both. I know it's like the standard Metafilter answer, but this question begs for it.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:06 PM on January 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm a father and a son. First of all, aside from you mother herself, your father is the person most responsible for your Mom's emotional health, not you.

While there are all sorts of ways to interact with parents as adult children (some people move far away, some live close by, some live with parents... there is no "right way"), the one constant is to give and demand respect.

So, the angry text messages are really crossing a boundary, and it's important for you to tell your mother it is inappropriate.

On the other hand, some patience is required. Your Mom is sick, it's a transition, and there is a lot of perceived instability in her life. Being patient means trying not to react emotionally, but to state what you want, and how you feel.

So you can use "I" statements (not "you" statements): "*I* feel etc etc etc when I received so many text messages."

It seems unlikely your Mom is going to go to therapy, and therapy isn't always the solution for everything when we are mature adults.

Figuring out what you want for yourself, and then just trying to communicate using neutral, yet using clear and heartfelt language, is a strategy.

I have to think your boyfriend's patience is going to wear thin, so you need to make sure you take care of your own life, especially at such a critical time in your life.
posted by My Dad at 6:23 PM on January 12, 2017 [11 favorites]

Oh, yeah, maybe ask your Dad for some help, once again using the neutral "I statement" technique, explaining what you want. It's his primary responsibility.
posted by My Dad at 6:23 PM on January 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have had multiple relatives who endured cancer. My observation is that just having cancer seems to make people super negative. I do not mean because they are sick and suffering and miserable and going through gruesome treatments. I mean it seems to have a specific side effect of just making their personalities abnormally negative (compared to their normal personalities).

I just stopped replying to some of the negativity after awhile. It seemed like the most effective thing. It isn't rational. Arguing with it doesn't really accomplish anything.

I think also that the combination of being really sick and facing how much the world has changed is hard. Your ideas about what is okay for how you relate to your boyfriend are likely vastly different from what she grew up with and the combination of seeing that while ill is likely causing her to judge it more strongly in terms of what was expected when she was growing up. Under other circumstances, she might be more likely to think it, but bite her tongue because she consciously recognizes that things have changed. But it can be incredibly hard to genuinely let go of expectations one grew up with. When in crisis, this can show through, kind of like how being drunk can reveal things that people normally cover up for the sake of propriety.

Can you possibly interpret it as her being worried about you/your future? She is scared she will die and you are making this "bad" choice to live part time with a guy instead of marry him, which was a big no-no at one time. She may feel she is running out of time to protect you from bad decisions. Can you possibly try to reassure her that the world is different and you will be fine and your big concern is just getting her through this crisis so she will be fine too?
posted by Michele in California at 6:24 PM on January 12, 2017 [11 favorites]

First off it really sounds like you've put together a great system for you mother's care. I know that a hole will be left when your Aunt is busy but it's very possible she may still be around (it's always nice to have someone to talk to when you're alone with an infant).

When I was my grandmothers caretaker (not the same emotional burden I know) she was often rude, sharp and judgemental. I found arguing the point, pointless. What worked super well was silence. I would walk in the door, within 5 minutes she was already cranky and belittling me. I said nothing, put on my shoes and walked out the door. Sometimes I'd come back in 30 minutes after taking a "positive time out" for myself and other times I'd go back the same day. I think the secret sauce to this success was that I NEVER talked about why I left, how she hurt me etc. As a parent I've learned I was basically doing the "1,2,3 Magic" technique to my grandmother. She clearly realized that she hurt me, I know that she loved me and was just taking her pain and loneliness out on me so this technique allowed us not to hash out what was likely irrational behaviour and instead just addressed the problem. Treat me like shit, I'm gone. Welcome me and we can have a lovely visit.
IIRC it took about a week for her to change her bahaviour towards me (she was still awful to much of the family).

The best part is that 15 years later she is still polite to me even when she's being unbearable everyone else.
posted by saradarlin at 6:54 PM on January 12, 2017 [13 favorites]

Yeah, I want to second that she may be worried she will die and you will have made a bad decision and won't be set up after she dies. Does she have concerns about your boyfriend? The refusing to spend any time with him seems weird otherwise.
posted by corb at 7:10 PM on January 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I suggest when your mom starts criticizing your relationship you say "Let's switch to a more pleasant topic." And if she won't, then tell her "I'm leaving now." (And I am a mom who recently became an empty-nester. I say keep trying to be nice, but don't let her be nasty to you.)
posted by puddledork at 7:26 PM on January 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

I really appreciate the suggestions so far. Won't threadsit but Michelle and corb have rightly picked up that she has reservations about my boyfriend. Background is complicated but in short she still resents that I rejected an arranged marriage in my early twenties with someone she liked (I was depressed and suicidal from the amount of pressure placed on me over 2-3 years to accept the match) and she thinks that I'm dating someone a 'step down' and less 'respectful towards elders' because the man she liked came from an extremely wealthy background and would sit with her for hours chatting about life. Her judgment is completely off the boyfriend is smart, a sucessful self made man, a wonderful life parter who meets all my emtional needs and absolutely not a shabby choice. He has offered to help with her care, he would buy gifts and food for her... Boyfriend does not visit as often as he should, mainly because he knows how she feels which she makes obvious e.g. she refused to have dinner with us at Christmas. It's a work in progress.
posted by wineglass_bay at 7:50 PM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

"Adulthood isn't an award they'll give you for being a good child. You can waste . . . years, trying to get someone to give that respect to you, as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough, if only you are good enough. No. You have to just . . . take it. Give it to yourself, I suppose. Say, I'm sorry you feel like that, and walk away. But that's hard.”
-Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign
posted by Wretch729 at 8:25 PM on January 12, 2017 [12 favorites]

Any chance you can plan some low-stress, low-energy activities to do with your mom that will give the two of you something to talk about? I 100% agree that therapy would be a great help, but I think it might also be a relief to you to have something pleasant for the two of you to focus on together. Does she like board games, old (or new) movies, drawing/coloring, scrapbooking, crosswords, logic puzzles, regular puzzles, card games, reading (or audio books)?
posted by epj at 8:30 PM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

There really isn't more you can do without compromising your own comfort. You're at an impasse. She'd be happier with more of your time on the weekends, but you wouldn't. She'd have preferred the other guy to your partner, you don't. These are things she will just be unhappy about, nothing you can do about it. (Though sure, therapy might help her reach acceptance, that does seem worth trying.)

All I can think of - I'm sure you've already thought of it, and it wouldn't affect the reasons you argue, would be more to alleviate any residual (but totally unjustified) guilt & *maybe* a small portion of your mom's loneliness, not that she'd necessarily admit it - is maybe arranging for visitors to come during the week, people from the hospital or community. Or look at something to help your dad out, either practical help or an outlet for some of his caregiver-related stress. Maybe that would help a bit with the tension at home, over time.

I think you're doing the best anyone could. (Really, the best. Impeccable daughtership. Sorry your mom's not in a position to see it.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:49 PM on January 12, 2017 [6 favorites]

we argue fiercely because I feel her comments are so wrong, I deserve none of it
Her comments are wrong, you don't deserve any of them, all of metafiles agrees.
Consider whether you could let go of trying to convince your mother to see your reality? I don't know if she will be more open later, when she is healthier, but right now, arguing the facts just isn't working. When she says these outrageous things, remind yourself that they are not objectively true, it is just her fear, her cancer and/or her cultural upbringing created this distortation.

There is nothing wrong with walking out. If you feel like you can stay, rather than arguing, a better option is to find some bland responses that let her comments roll over you without triggering any reaction at all in you. Izzy Kalman demonstrates how allowing the other person the freedom to say what they want can lead them to run out of steam much faster than if you argue.
"So, you think it is selfish when I do that?"
"OK, what you are saying is you want me to spend more time with you"
" I hear you. That's your opinion"

Try timing her - see if you can keep playing the game for a full two minutes. (making a game in your head will help you stay disconnected from her words)
When you get tired, tell her "thank you for letting me know you think. I'm actually pretty happy with my life but you know I love you so much, even when we disagree"
posted by metahawk at 9:32 PM on January 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

Is there a cultural disconnect going on between her vision of what aging within a family dynamic is and your 1st generation vision? Because I think that's both important and also common in say, Desi diaspora families. See also: previously.

Is this something you can discuss with your aunt? She could have valuable advice here.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:05 AM on January 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

With your follow up and time to think, I have two suggestions:

A) Start narratively rebutting all the underlying concerns driving this behavior without arguing with her.

Instead of waiting for her to have a cow about your bf again, start showing up with prepared patter about how much you appreciate the good things in your life, like living in a time and place where it is possible for a woman to work, choose when, if and whom to marry, etc.

Bring up articles you have recently read about child brides in undeveloped countries and how that denies them an education and traps them in poverty, especially after their husband or other important relatives die. Express how happy and grateful you are that you will be fine even if the worst comes to pass and she doesn't recover.

Try to do this in a sensitive way that doesn't step on toes or make her feel unneeded, etc. Try to frame it as much as possible in terms of you being grateful for how well she has prepared you for an independent existence, which is such a gift and many parents fail at it.

B) Engage her negativity with non sequiturs.

Mom: Ugly, ridiculous, negative statement.
You: Mom, are you warm enough? Would you like an extra blanket/would you like me to get you a sweater/would you like me to make some hot tea?
Mom: Don't change the subject you horrible child.
You: Mom, here is your blanket, sweater whatever.

Rinse and repeat until she is warm enough, her pain is under control, she is adequately hydrated, etc.

This second thing is what my kids do when my medical condition makes me nuts and I start leveling ridiculous accusations about what neglectful, rotten children they are. When I am warm enough, my pain is down, etc, I often just fall asleep. I do this when I am just at the end of my rope physically and I need someone else to pro-actively physically take care of me because I am not functional enough to take care of myself.

The narrative approach worked well with a relative of mine who had cancer and was engaging me in an incredibly negative fashion. So, both these suggestions are field tested.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 11:17 AM on January 13, 2017

There is no law requiring you to help her. There is no law requiring you to please her. There is no law requiring you to listen to her. There is no law requiring you to spend time with her.

This is not to say that you should cut all contact. But it might help you to change your thinking from what you have to do for her to what you want to do for her. That change of perspective has made it much easier for me to mentally disengage from a difficult parent.
posted by Cranialtorque at 1:13 PM on January 13, 2017

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