Do I Call My Mother Back?
September 3, 2017 5:38 AM   Subscribe

My parents attempt to control me through guilt and threats (Mother) and financial power (Father.) This has affected my entire life. Recently I took several steps to distance myself from them. These include not letting my mother blackmail me emotionally, and refusing any further financial assistance from my father. The last time I talked to them on the phone was in April. We have communicated via e-mail ever since . Two days ago, my father left on a ten-day trip, and asked that I "have a heart"and call my elderly and depressed (depressed in my opinion, since she refuses to see a therapist) mother, who is alone while he is away. I am working hard to build and maintain boundaries with them. Do I call her back?

I have not spoken to my mother since April, after she hung up on me, after she didn't like who I was planning on taking to a family wedding. Hanging up on me was her way of telling me so. Spring passed, summer passed. I spoke to my father a single time on the phone since then, not at all to her. Now my father went on this trip. The day he left she called (the first time since she hung up) and left a heart-wrenching message about how they miss me and they need me and I need them and they love me so much and would I just come and visit. (I have not been to their home since last winter.) I feel terrible not calling back knowing she is alone, and probably crying and sad, but at the same time I know what to expect if I do call back. Button pushing, invalidation of my feelings, attempts to get me to "see reason." I feel like I should call her back, out of kindness if nothing else, but I am not sure if I can do that and not get upset and emotional (and react the way she wants) when she pushes my buttons. I feel terrible not calling her back at all though. She does not email or receive texts.

Last March there was also a showdown in which she informed me that if I did not do what she wanted regarding a specific matter, she would have "nothing further to do with me" and would refuse "all financial and emotional support" moving forward. Financial, well, I don't want it, I'm an adult. The part about refusing emotional support, though, that stung. After I didn't do what she wanted, refusing to be intimidated by that threat, and after she hung up on me, I was relieved. I thought, maybe now they'll finally leave me alone. Nope.

It is crucial for me to know what to do if I call her back, and whether I should at all. I want to move forward in a new pattern, not the old toxic one. I have a lot of work to do regarding my relationship with them (therapy, reading books like Toxic Parents, etc) but feel the hivemind could provide some helpful insight on what to do in this specific instance. I know I am not the only one with a situation like this, and I find it helpful to hear others' strategies and coping mechanisms. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I vote no. She is an adult and can find support elsewhere.

Pray for her, send positive thoughts, go visit an isolated and lonely elder in your community, if it makes you feel better. Send your love and care in a healing and non-toxic direction.
posted by ramenopres at 5:51 AM on September 3, 2017 [23 favorites]

Talking on the phone is privilege, not a right. Has Mom earned that privilege by proving she has improved?

The "doesn't email or text" is kinda baloney. If she really wanted to speak with you, she'd find a way. There are handwritten letters. My parents are in their 70s and 80s and we text each other. I assure you elderly people can learn this stuff (perhaps barring some disability like serious dementia). Facebook is a thing (and a great tool for communicating with people with which you need strict boundaries).

Does Mom want to talk, or does she just think she should because she thinks she is supposed to want to talk?
Or is Dad guilty for leaving her for 10 days and transferring his guilt onto you so he doesn't have to feel responsible?

Not saying you definitely shouldn't call her but some things to think about. With emotionally manipulative people we need to be extra careful with our boundaries, more careful than we would with "typical" people. They tend to take and take if we give them an inch. You have worked hard for your freedom and might want to consider if Mom and Dad have worked hard for the privilege to re-connect.
posted by shalom at 5:53 AM on September 3, 2017 [17 favorites]

Ignore what your mother may be feeling, concentrate on what you actually are feeling.

Basically, both your parents are trying to manipulate and intimidate you back into line, 'line' being their good little robot who does exactly what you are told to do, never living for yourself. You'll probably be better off going totally no-contact (that's absolutely no contact, no phone calls no nothing!) with both of them.

No, do not call your mother; also do not accept or make calls to your father.
posted by easily confused at 5:53 AM on September 3, 2017 [8 favorites]

Nope. This is the "guilt" you mention she uses as a weapon. Stand your ground. You can do it.
posted by tristeza at 6:03 AM on September 3, 2017 [12 favorites]

First of all let me say, you don't have to contact her if you don't want to. Full stop. (I didn't talk to my own mother for 17 years for reasons.)

However, if you do think you might like to maintain a relationship with them if their behavior improves, consider that these months of no contact may have taught them a bit of a lesson, showing them that you are willing to cut them off if they mistreat you. You would have to set firm and clear boundaries going back in, though. Tell your mother exactly what treatment you want her to refrain from, and let her know if she does any of these things on any occasion going forward, the call/visit is over.

I'm not saying this will work, but it may. Back when my daughter was a baby my dad tried some controlling shit with me, got nasty when he didn't get his way, and I hung up on him and didn't talk to him for four months. When we finally did get back on speaking terms he didn't try the controlling bullshit with me again.

I think partly it comes down to whether your parents possess any degree of self-control. Have you seen them behave decently to others, if they want or need to? Or are they constantly on the outs with people because they can't control their most dickish impulses?
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:09 AM on September 3, 2017 [9 favorites]

Agreed, don't do it, it's a trap. Your Dad can and should call or email your Mom if he's choosing to go on a trip without her. It's ridiculous to try and put it on you.
posted by machinecraig at 6:11 AM on September 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

Don't call. And don't feel any guilt about not calling.

Leaving her alone for ten days is your father's problem, not yours. I don't know what you mean by "elderly", is she 50 or 90? If she's in the latter end of that range then your father leaving her alone could be construed as elder neglect or abuse.
posted by mareli at 6:21 AM on September 3, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oh, please. What a guilt trip. Perhaps your father should "have a heart" and not leave his elderly depressed partner alone for ten days with no support if she's truly incapable of being alone (spoiler: she'll be fine.)

The choice to reconnect should be yours and should be made when and if you're ready-- not in response to threats and guilt trips.
posted by kapers at 7:28 AM on September 3, 2017 [17 favorites]

I was thinking maaaaaybe she finally got it and is actually hoping to reconnect until I got to where you said her message said they need you AND YOU NEED THEM. Uhhh no thanks, that's a ticket straight back to no boundaries-ville. There is nowhere good this can lead. It also makes me roll my eyes a bit that she didn't feel the need to reach out until she was at loose ends without your dad around. That certainly doesn't seem like a genuine desire to reconnect and rebuild.
posted by brilliantine at 7:52 AM on September 3, 2017 [7 favorites]

Perhaps you could write her a letter and send it through the mail telling her what you've said here. Perhaps she would be open to changing the type of relationship you have and putting the necessary work in as an alternative to not having any relationship with you from now on. Some people say people can't change but I've seen it happen - if someone really desperately wants to change it is possible.
posted by hazyjane at 7:54 AM on September 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Unpopular opinion: I think you should call her. I understand, to a lesser degree, having a controlling, guilt-tripping parent. As much as I'd like us to have a different relationship, it's not happening. Your mom isn't going to change. But she's alone, and misses you. (I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt that it's not just that she misses playing mind games with you - she perhaps just thinks of it as missing you as a person.) It doesn't sound like you want to completely cut ties with your parents, which is why I vote give her a call.

You said you want to move forward with a different pattern, but that isn't going to happen. The best thing to do is what you're already doing by maintaining distance and boundaries. Maybe this phone call can be practice for holding firm to those boundaries while still maintaining a (distant, lesser) relationship. If she hangs up on you or tries to emotionally blackmail you, well that's her problem, not yours. She's acting like a child.

Possible scripts when she (definitely) returns to old habits:
"I understand you're upset about my choices, but I'm still going to X."
"I know you're unhappy because we haven't seen each other, but I'm not going to come visit you right now."
"We'll just have to agree to disagree about that."
"I can tell you're upset about X. Let's talk about something else. How's the weather/your hobby/your friend/etc?"
posted by violetish at 8:35 AM on September 3, 2017 [4 favorites]

But she's alone, and misses you.

This is, to me, exactly the wrong way to look at it. Many people in the world might like to have your time and attention. More important question: What are they going to do with your time and attention once they have it? Do you have any reason at all to believe that you're going to come out of this phone call feeling better than you did going in? Her loneliness is a thing she should address with her husband, with a therapist, with taking up hobbies or joining church groups or doing volunteer work or a thousand other things.

If you don't see evidence that she's making concrete steps to solve these problems herself, then stepping in on your part falls firmly under the umbrella of "setting fire to yourself to keep others warm". There is no amount of unhappy that another person can be that makes that a sensible course of action.
posted by Sequence at 9:13 AM on September 3, 2017 [8 favorites]

This is a tough one. I've read and re-read your Ask and am still unsure-do YOU want to call her? Cause it reads that you don't want to talk to her. I think if you do call, she's going to be so happy at first then quickly revert back to trying to scold you and control you. If you're ready to react to each string she tries pulling, and if you want to try to salvage the relationship, call her.

This is graduate level Guilt Tripping they're both doing. My mother had poor boundaries and after my father died suddenly, her controlling behavior got so much worse I was forced to cut ties with her. I used to feel so bad about it. Until the thought of talking to her again made me literally sick. Now many years later I look back and realize, she has estranged herself from many formerly close friends and relatives. I wasn't the first and wasn't the last either. Can you guess what our little club of outcasts has in common? We all spoke our minds when she did awful things. She did many awful things too. We defended ourselves against her total lack of boundaries and persistent need to control us hell not just us, everybody and everything in her realm. I waited until it was just too painful having her in my life to cut her off, because she's my mother, family matters, maybe I was the one who was shitty. She used my love and self-doubt to her advantage. Your mother is doing the same thing here. You know she complained to your father about being left all alone, no one to see her or talk to her, for such a long time? And Anon! Here I am all alone, if only Anon would just call me while you're gone! God I'm beginning to pity her now! Give me her number, I'll call her myself! Maybe we can have tea and she can tell me how all she wants is to loooove you.

So. That's an internet stranger's take. Call or don't, either way you can't win. Call and try to maintain boundaries, and you're still the problem and it's all stirred up again. Don't call and you're cruel, to Your Own Mother. Which way do you think is preferable? Do you think your parents will ever accept you if you set and enforce boundaries? If so, use the excellent advice in others answers to write your script and call. Then visit if they're close enough to drive to. But you'll need to be ready to hang up or leave if they won't respect your boundaries. It's possible to do but will be painful while you retrain them. It's also possible she won't ever accept your boundaries and you'd just be wasting time and upsetting yourself and them.

Isn't it funny how parents try to control single adult daughters through money? And how it all falls apart when she refuses. Good luck sister and good on you for not taking the bait/$$$.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 9:44 AM on September 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

Beyond a certain point, focusing on your parents' flaws and mistakes is like eating the same poisonous mushroom again and again and thinking sooner or later it will be nutritious.

Instead of focusing on their "bad" behavior, focus on setting aside your anger, bitterness, and hurt.
Lighten up and let things go.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 9:47 AM on September 3, 2017

I would say the ball is really in your court. If you wish to confront your mother I could see letting her know you're available to call at any time if she wishes to make amends for being disrespectful. This is ballsy on the face of it but letting her know you're really not interested in pursuing the relationship because her behavior sucks. You could even suggest that she could call anytime that she likes without specifically explaining why you haven't called, if you wanted to. You can do anything that you like in this situation, because you have every right to be free of this kind of stuff in your life.
posted by ottergrrl at 10:42 AM on September 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I feel like I should call her back, out of kindness if nothing else, but I am not sure if I can do that and not get upset and emotional (and react the way she wants) when she pushes my buttons. I feel terrible not calling her back at all though.

Don't call.

They're hammering on about the calling because it's the one thing you've been wonderfully firm about. In your shoes (which I know I am not, but I would also feel bad/guilty), at around Day 6 of my father's trip my mother would receive some Harry & David/Zingerman's/etc. type food gift with a signed 'wishing you well' note. It's polite contact, on my terms, while he's away. (Also signals I'm fine financially, fine emotionally, and gives mom a few days to stew about it -- food, not flowers? do I not think she can take care of herself?? -- until Dad returns. She can be calling him, instead.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:03 PM on September 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

Send her a note telling her how you felt when she said she wanted nothing more to do with you and would withdraw emotional support because she did not like your decisions. Say that you think the two of you can have a nice relationship if each treats the other respectfully and without criticizing. Suggest that she call you if she wants that type of relationship.

Then if she crosses the line you've drawn, tell her, "I will end this conversation if you complain and criticize." If she continues, say goodbye and hang up. It's very hard to do and it probably take time for you to be firm about it.

Your father is also at fault. Your mother is unhappy in general, and he wants you to change so she'll feel better. Even if you obeyed your mother's every wish, she'd still feel miserable. Do what is right for you.
posted by wryly at 12:30 PM on September 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

Two days ago, my father left on a ten-day trip, and asked that I "have a heart"and call my elderly and depressed (depressed in my opinion, since she refuses to see a therapist) mother, who is alone while he is away. I am working hard to build and maintain boundaries with them. Do I call her back?

So your dad is fine with leaving her alone and thinks this is a perfect time to try to use your feelings against you to get you to erase the boundaries you've drawn? Why didn't he "have a heart" and not go on the trip, or make other provisions so she wouldn't be lonely?

Don't call her. This is a perfect time to maintain the boundaries you've built. Remind yourself that you don't owe this to them. Make a list of all the reasons you've built these boundaries and then go do something nice for yourself. This is not about you "having a heart". This is about your parents setting up a situation where they can manipulate you more easily and expecting you to fall for it. Do not call, and do not answer if she calls.
posted by bile and syntax at 12:54 PM on September 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

It is possible to continue to have a relationship with parents like this, if that's what you want. You just stop talking to them about anything meaningful or personal, don't ask for or offer advice, and don't expect emotional support where there's previously been none. I wouldn't reopen contact now specifically, because it would reward their attempted manipulation. But in the future it's possible, if you're capable of letting go of past hurts and disappointments.
posted by wreckofthehesperus at 1:27 PM on September 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

I dunno, I don't think dad asking for a call to mom is, in and of itself, manipulation. It's a request, and you can accept it or not but a simple ask doesn't make them jerks, even if they do have a history of jerkish selfish manipulative behavior. Could even be they have learnt some lessons but don't want to come out and say it.

You know the line 'nobody wishes at their death bed that they spent more time at the office and less with their family'?

I think a corollary is, lots of people have problematic parents, but when their parents die, few of them think "I regret trying for a peaceable relationship and keeping some contact, I wish I had cut them out more completely and earlier".

YMMV, just wanted to throw out a contrasting thought.
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:33 PM on September 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

You need to make your wishes clear to them, about how they try to manipulate and control you....have a heart to heart. Our parents are gone way too fast, it doesn't mean we have to worship them but you may end up with guilt some day if you don't make an effort. If they do fail your wishes be civil and tell them you can't continue the'll find peace within yourself in the long run.
posted by irish01 at 4:12 PM on September 3, 2017

I temporarily cut off my mom a year or two ago and emailed her saying that I wouldn't talk to her unless she did x, y and z. I gave her some time to think about it and in a face-to-face emotional conversation explained exactly what I objected to. She listened to my feelings and acknowledged them and even though she still does some of her old behaviors I know that I've done my part to set boundaries. When she does x, y or z I'm free to roll my eyes and know that I'm free of her influence.

It may not be the best solution for you but it made a huge difference in my relationship with my mom to say out loud what bothered me. I tell her way more about my life and my feelings now but I don't feel like her response means that much to me.

It was a life-changing turn for me and something I really needed to move past her voice in my head.

All the best to you anon in whatever you choose to do.
posted by bendy at 5:30 PM on September 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Look, the ball is in your mother's court. She's been very clear, she wants nothing to do with you and hung up on you. If she wanted to have contact, she could pick up the phone. But she hasn't. So all you're really doing is respecting her wishes and not calling. If she's prepared to be a decent human being and treat you respectfully, you can be in touch again. But she clearly isn't. There is no way in heck I would call her.

And this is coming from someone who had to set a boundary like that for a year, during which time I had my first child as well which they missed out on. My parents don't pull crap like that on me anymore, but it's a shame it had to come to that to get them to stop. Boundaries, boundaries boundaries. It's hard at first (actually all I felt was relief) but you'll be glad later that you did when they learn that everyone has limits. Otherwise you're just teaching them that manipulation works and eventually you'll give in, which is the opposite of what you're trying to achieve.
posted by Jubey at 6:58 PM on September 3, 2017 [4 favorites]

So now your father is attempting to control you through guilt too, not just through financial power.

And your mother made a point of refusing emotional support to you, but now she wants you to provide emotional support to her. Because she's sad and lonely. But with no regard for inquiring as to maybe how you've been feeling these last months. And without a sincere apology for her terrible behavior towards you.

Don't call her unless it was your very own idea to call her in the first place. Which it doesn't sound like it was. It sounds like you are making some healthy choices for your life. Stay on that path for your own emotional stability.
posted by vignettist at 8:24 PM on September 3, 2017 [4 favorites]

I lean toward the don't call camp, but probably this is best figured out with a therapist. If you do call, in addition to much good advice to help maintain boundaries that others have written above, one option is to make sure there is a hard time limit to the call. That is, call when you only have 10 or 20 minutes before something else that you have to do. Setting and maintaining new boundaries to change long-standing behavior patterns is hard and takes practice. So be kind to yourself and set up some structural assistance.
posted by eviemath at 5:45 AM on September 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Can you email her back and be like, "I got your message, how are you hanging in there while Dad is gone?" Split the difference -- you're acknowledging her and checking in, but not going through calling her? (Personally, I would call -- you can have a short conversation and check in with her, then "have to run" when/if she starts in with something that irks you. This message from her may be a way of her reaching out to you because she regrets the last few things she said to you on the phone and is just bad at expressing that.)
posted by Countess Sandwich at 9:48 AM on September 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

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