What can I do to make myself be a better person around my parents?
July 13, 2017 3:36 PM   Subscribe

Especially my immigrant mother, who I butt heads with.

I am now an "adult." As in I'm in my mid-twenties. I do love my parents. But I have come to the depressing realization that I don't really get along with them as much as I would like to. This all seemed way more pleasant as a child, and my parents voice that things would be better if I were still a child. In fact, I think they still treat me as one in hopes that I will revert to that relationship.

Context: My mother is an immigrant from an East Asian country. My father is a southerner POC. They're both very conservative and religious. In my mom's culture, respecting your elders is huge. So is it in my dad's culture. My dad is a little more modern in that he will chide my mother that she doesn't treat me as an adult or will cultivate an adult parent-child relationship. My mom argues that that's not how parents and children are to be (which is pretty true in her culture.)

She is a bit influenced by American culture, because she will mention that she would like to be friends with me like my American friends are with their mothers. But we seem to have trouble with this.

I have moved a few states from home. I miss my parents, so I come home to visit. It's like I become a big, ol grey cloud for no good reason when I do and I just don't want to be around them. If I tell them about how my life is going, I get berated for not doing X enough or doing X too much. (For instance, not going to church enough or hanging out with my friends from college too much when I visit home.) When I have attempted to hang out with my mom, we can get into conversation that's pleasant enough--until I disagree with her. Then the yelling starts, and I'm the daughter that is ungrateful, that never is on her mother's side, that always takes her mother for granted. Never and always are my mom's favorite words, and my sister and I begrudgingly laugh about this when we vent to each other. As children, my mom would use us as mediators between her and dad's fights (AKA screaming matches) because "that's what children are for." I still do that for my parents to this day, and now without asking, because it's my job. If mom is angry, we are all expected to apologize to her, even if we didn't do anything wrong. I walk on little eggshells with my mom.

I love my mom and dad. They've provided for me, protected me, will go to war with anyone who hurts our little family unit. They're kind and accepting for the most part. Mom and Dad have been through some shit, both with their marriage, their own families shunning them for being married interracially, and just growing up in a different generation and country.

But hot damn is it hard to navigate a pleasant adult relationship.

I have tried to discuss this with my mom. I have looked up scripts. But it's really geared towards "American" families it seems. My mom and I have a generational gap, a cultural gap, and a language barrier. Things definitely get lost in translation. Friends who have immigrant parents sympathize but either have resigned to distant relationships with their parents, or just are darn lucky that they all get along so well. After a few years of trying to talk to my mom about why I feel so uncomfortable with becoming close to her, it just ends up in a fight. ("So I haven't been a good mother? Why is my daughter like this? I have worked so hard to make life good for you and your sister.")

So this is on my part. SO in conclusion, what are some tips and tricks on making my relationship with my parents better, when I am working with someone who doesn't see my viewpoint? How can I better the relationship from my end? At the very least, how can I get out of my grey-cloud head and in-a-protective-shell mood for my visits back home (which can last up to a week)?

I feel quite selfish in my attitude. My parents won't be here forever, so why can't I get it together and just suck it up and try to be better with them? They're not changing their ways anytime soon I suspect, so it's up to me, and I'm ok with that. I just want them to be happy. I want a closer relationship with them, and I know they do too.
posted by socky bottoms to Human Relations (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Ask her to teach you to cook something maybe? A project can be fun and provide subject matter that isn't about either of you.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:31 PM on July 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Maybe focus on the fact that it's okay to let her be wrong? Instead of fighting about whether you live your life right, just say agreeably, " Yes, maybe I should spend less time with my friends when I visit here." But then do whatever you were going to do in the first place. You don't need to convince her to endorse your choices.
posted by lakeroon at 4:42 PM on July 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

My parents are also immigrants and have different ways of communicating affection and concern that, as you've also found, don't match white American scripts. I don't think my parents harbor any expectation of being emotionally "close" with me. They will defend and sacrifice until kingdom come, but they're they're not going to go shopping with me and talk about my love life or try to be my friend. I think they do wish communication came a bit easier, but... my mom's not trying to be a Cool Mom.

For many parents (I think regardless of culture), their child is always going to be their baby. In addition to that, though, Asian cultures don't see age 18 or 21 as this dividing line where the clock strikes midnight, and then suddenly you're an Adult worthy of Adult-level treatment. If anything, you're an adult only when you get married and/or have children of your own... If that hasn't happened for you, it's possible that your parents (or at least your mom) doesn't view you as a fellow adult yet. And even if it has, the hierarchy still stands because no matter what, your parents will have 20 or 30 years on you.

... so, in short, I think part of it does involve readjusting expectations.

Some other thoughts:
One thing I've tried to emphasize with my parents is the importance of open-ended conversation. My parents frequently think they know what is best for me and because of that, there isn't as much of an open discussion on certain topics as I'd like. So sometimes I'll tell them, "I see that you think that x is best, but right now I want to figure out how to make a decision for myself. I don't think that x or y or z is necessarily RIGHT or WRONG. I care about your opinions, but I don't think there is necessarily a right or wrong! I would appreciate it if you listened to my thoughts on the pros and cons of x, y, and z without immediately telling me what you think is the answer. It is hard for a conversation to take place when it feels like the only acceptable outcome for you is x straight off the bat."

When I visit I try to care about them (... I dunno, in their "love language" so to speak?) by bringing the family foods they might want to try together or by patiently listening to their concerns about their health. I encourage healthy habits in my parents and accompany them to the store. I try to think about how they've expressed affection towards me and I try to mirror that, even if it isn't necessarily my own preferred way of expressing affection.

I'm sure there are other ways of approaching this, and I've posted previous AskMes about walking on eggshells around my own parents during home visits... I wish I had more to add here! Have you tried the AsianParents subreddit? Many threads involve a lot of commiseration, but on the plus side there are a lot more Asians there and maybe some people have figured out a thing or two.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 4:42 PM on July 13, 2017 [7 favorites]

Here are some previous questions: My parents drive me crazy and Cross-cultural family problems with elderly parents.

Dealing with generational, cultural, and linguistic gaps simultaneously is difficult, and you're right in that most scripts for non-immigrant American families are usually like "Communicate to your parents! Use loving language!". Personally these don't often work, at least for me.

One realization I had was that communication that involves sitting face-to-face and exchanging words is more likely be easier for myself, not my family. It doesn't matter how nice the words are ("I love you, mom"), if the cultural context involves different types of phrases ("you look tired, what's wrong with you, are you eating well"), I've found that verbal communication makes miscommunication really easy.

Non-verbal communication is really helpful; working together on a shared project (such as cooking), shared activities, shared questions, watching a movie together (perhaps in their own language/culture, with english subtitles?), going for a walk together, etc.
posted by suedehead at 4:43 PM on July 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

If there is a language barrier, get her to teach you how to speak it - you will be sharing something intimate and learning something useful. As part of this, when your skills increase, get her talking about her childhood - people like talking about themselves and I know I always loved to hear about my parent's early lives, and maybe it will help her connect with some part of her own history that was less painful.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 4:44 PM on July 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'd suggest that you try to find something you can do together, in which she is genuinely more of an expert or you can learn together. Gardening, cooking, sewing, crocheting, landscaping, scrapbooking - whatever suits your fancy. You get to spend quality time together and enjoy each other's company, without engaging in touchy emotional issues.

It's also great if you can find something you are a genuine expert in that allows you to demonstrate adult competence and that you can do without resentment. For example, I am my mother's researcher on esoteric facts and her reality check when she wants to send out weird e-mails. I don't mind, it gives us something to talk about, and she feels that I am interested in her and making sure she has things she needs. My sister is her tech support. That has the added advantage of showing, not telling, your mother that you're good at something.

One caveat is that if she's massively critical of how you do things, this may become another vehicle for annoyance.
posted by dancing_angel at 6:11 PM on July 13, 2017

My mid-twenties/thirties was a time when I distanced myself from my family to go out into the world and do my own things. After that, I gradually returned to become more involved with my family over time, but on my own terms, and my parents grudgingly accepted it. The yelling is annoying, but it is a context for openly speaking your mind if you choose to.
posted by ovvl at 6:53 PM on July 13, 2017

I want a closer relationship with them, and I know they do too.
If they want a closer relationship with you, what are they doing to bridge the divide? It's unfair that you should be the only one to change the relationship. And yet you can't change anyone, you can't make anyone do anything.

I relate to a lot of this. My own SE Asian mom is crazy. She's been through a lot. Immigration (willingly, and on her own in her 20s), abusive marriage, raising a kid with a physical disability (my older sister). As a result, she's really blocked off. Denial, avoidance, not able to listen, big victim/martyr complex. Growing up I wanted so hard for things to be different, for her to be kinder to me (she was big on scolding, nothing on affection, like when I'd ask for hugs, she wouldn't really give them to me - it was a painful childhood). So my situation is not quite like yours. I think the commonality is there is only so much you can do. So no, I can not pour my heart out to my mom, and have her hug me and comfort me and stroke my hair and be my best friend, like you see in American media. The less I tell her, the better. Then I'm not up for criticism or negativity, etc. This is similar to what you said about telling her about your life and then you get berated for this and that. I find that I have to speak a different language with her (even though it's still English). I have to say things differently, I have to use different words. I still don't really know how to do it.

I like the idea of doing something together when you visit. For me it's helping her with computer stuff. She gives me food, which is typical. She's never liked me to help her cook. My 5-year old daughter and I help her garden and water the plants - my mom is really into gardening.

I think the most that you can hope for is light chit-chat with your mom. Nothing controversial, no disagreeing with her, no discussing the relationship with her because that's going to get nowhere. So yes, this means that you can't really be yourself with her or be honest (I've tried with mine. It's not happening. She's not capable of "seeing" me in the way that I want to be seen - I wonder if this is true for you too?). It's not ok that she keeps yelling at you and calling you ungrateful, making you apologize for things you didn't do wrong - that's ridiculous and untrue. She wants you to be a certain way and she's not capable of seeing who you are. Again, why is it all on you to change the relationship? You're doing nothing wrong. And it's TOTALLY NOT OK that your mom would use you as mediators between her and your dad's fights. Her saying "that's what kids are for" pretty much tells you everything you need to know about her and how she sees you. But that is something that you have to realize on your own - my 40-something older sister only told me recently that she was an emotional dumping ground for my mom since her teens, which is totally not ok. I think it's taken her this long to realize that it's not ok as well and that she has to have boundaries around this, as difficult as that is.

It's totally understandable that you have a grey cloud head and are in self-protection mode when you go home because your mom is giving you a lot of shit for no reason, for just being yourself. It's not about being better with them. This is really the "one weird trick:" It's realizing for yourself what they are and are not capable of and accepting them, which is hard. You can only go so far with them. Trying to go beyond that will just result in pain and misery for you. Like you said, they're not going to change. You need to find the safe zone with them, which may be very small and narrow - the one where they won't berate you and get mad. And if they do say, "Ok, thanks for your opinion." Less is more. Honestly, it's enough that you show up and have simple conversations. That's what will make them happy, I think.

This is all probably not what you want to hear. I am just trying to save you the energy and pain of you not having to go through what I went through. So this is in between the distant and getting along models that your friends have with their parents.
posted by foxjacket at 6:56 PM on July 13, 2017 [14 favorites]

A thing that I found really helped me was truly internalizing that how they are now is as good as they're doing to get, however difficult they are today, it will likely only get worse tomorrow, and it's up to me whether and how to get and give the most I can out of what they have to offer in a relationship. This was in the context of a degenerative illness that affected cognition, impulse, and communication. Part of it for me was accepting that this was not something they were doing 'to' me, it was just what was. The fact is this is the case without illness too. Your parents are who they are, it's not remotely in your control, and for all practical intents and purposes (for you) it's not really in their control either, any more than an illness would be.

This approach gave me a lot more patience. It's kind of tragic to internalize, but ultimately it has helped me build as much positive as I can from the circumstances we were dealt, and all of our lives, I think, were enriched.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:27 AM on July 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

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