How to manage email barrage from my mom?
September 6, 2017 4:56 AM   Subscribe

By the standards of MetaFilter and the rest of the world, my mini drama with my mother may not amount to much. That said, my mom drives me a little nuts and has a LOT of questions. So many questions. Constantly.

I'm a 40-year-old male. She's 60-something. We live about 3000 miles apart. She visits two or three times a year. When she does, we mostly get along. She asks a lot of questions then, too, but it's somehow easier to just either gamely answer them or explain to her why it's difficult or annoying to talk about a particular subject ("Oh, Mom. I spend all day emailing about XYZ, I don't want to talk about that right now and, really, it's not that interesting.")

We mostly communicate by email and sometimes text message.

I have a somewhat interesting-sounding, public-facing job that means that I have a social media presence that is sometimes the source of question material. (e.g., "What did you mean when you tweeted XYZ? Why did you go to such-and-such a place? What's there? Was it interesting?") I've tried to explain that my social media may or may not have anything to do with my real life and she shouldn't take it too seriously. This has sort of worked, mostly.

Generally, she'll send me two or three emails per day with questions and sometimes a text message or two, as well. I'll usually take a day and respond to one of her emails and maybe her text message -- or maybe not. None of this stuff is critical. When I don't address a question, there are no consequences (i.e., we're not talking "how do I defuse this bomb?") and she doesn't usually ask the very same question again right away or follow up. She just keeps going with the stream of questions.

The other day I emailed to tell her that my partner and I would be going to Paris. She had a LOT of questions about that. OK, fair enough. Later that day she also texted to ask when the trip was because she wanted to go with us! Um. What? I just ignored this text message. She's sent me an email or two since then and it didn't come up again. So, problem solved? Ish. Except some version of this will undoubtedly repeat itself, so not really.

I sound so cold-hearted writing this out. She is very supportive of me and very interested in my life -- sometimes even more interested/invested in my life than I am! Things that don't seem that important to me or that are just part of my work seem to be the source of endless fascination to her and endless questions.

As a bonus, I have some not-great health news (but not immediate life or death, either) that I feel like I should probably tell her. But ... I just can't bring myself to do it. Because in the first place I think it would devastate her and in the second place, I want to just continue with my life as normally as possible (which fortunately is quite possible for now). The LAST thing I want is a barrage of emails asking questions about my illness or well-being day after day. (As it is, frequently one of the daily emails is some variation of "How's my son doing?" -- and this is WITHOUT knowing about the medical news.)

I know she just wants to talk to me. It feels like she read some listicle somewhere that told her the best way to communicate with your geographically distant adult son is to ask 10,000 questions because — hey! — something might stick! I want to write a counter-listicle because, no, nothing is sticking and it's driving me nuts.

I don't want to hurt her feelings — she's very sensitive — and I don't want to, like, ghost my own mother. But I also need to stem the tide of texts and emails somehow. I don't like talking on the phone at all, so that doesn't feel like the solution. Also, I do know that she won't be around forever and someday I will miss the emails and text messages. But it's like, meanwhile I gotta live.

Has anyone had a similar situation with their mom and managed to successfully navigate it?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"Hey, mom - I'm really busy right now, and while I appreciate your interest in what's going on in my world, I probably won't be able to respond to all your questions right away. I'll probably let them pile up and then respond to them all when I have a few minutes on the weekend. I just wanted to let you know so you didn't feel hurt if I don't respond right away."

Then, send her emails to a folder, and only open it once a day (to make sure nothing is urgent), and set aside an hour or so a week to just respond to the questions you want to respond to. Let the rest ("can I go to Paris with you?") just ... slide by.
posted by jferg at 5:24 AM on September 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

If her questions are through email and text, the stress you have to answer immediately or promptly is on you. Can you not answer her stuff once a week and leave it at that? If she notices, you can say you're busy and will catch up with her once a week, when you can manage.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:25 AM on September 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oof. I can see how this would be a source of stress. I generally talk to my parents once a week over Skype and I find even that intense enough.

Could you arrange some kind of weekly email bulletin with her? In which you collate and answer all of her questions? I know it sounds like 'work' and also somewhat brutal, but I agree that responding to the barrage on a day-to-day basis would be maddening. Explain to her what you're doing in the first place, so that she won't be discombobulated by your silence.

A second idea, a more personal one and I think perhaps a better one, would be to schedule a weekly check in via IM, where she can bombard you as much as she wishes. No talking on the phone necessary.

As for your health news, don't feel that you need to share that information with anyone beyond your closest of closest, most supportive inner circle. If sharing this info with your mother makes your life more difficult then feel free to skip it until you feel the need to loop her in.
posted by doornoise at 5:29 AM on September 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've tried to explain that my social media may or may not have anything to do with my real life and she shouldn't take it too seriously. This has sort of worked, mostly.

I think she might be trying to mimic fast moving social media (like twitter) because she's observed that's the way you communicate with the rest of the world online. I've made this mistake with friends who used their social media as a platform for exposure for work-- assumed that when they get active on twitter, they're available to talk and in a chatty mood-- and had to be told that, no, can't talk right now, this isn't me being bored and seeking conversation online, this is work. That might be something you might want to bring up again. The questions might be actual things she wants answers to, in which case a digest email is a good idea to kindly set boundaries (and will make her feel heard and communicated with), but they might just be attempts to start up conversation. It might be worthwhile to reiterate that you being active on social media doesn't mean you are socially available in that moment.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 5:46 AM on September 6, 2017 [9 favorites]

a weekly check in via IM

Yeah, do you talk to her on the telephone at all? I would think that a regular weekly IM, telephone call, or video call, perhaps accompanied by a gentle explanation of what you've told us above, might do the trick to get her to save up her questions and get it all out in one go. (Pro tip—have another regularly scheduled event in your life set to happen every week immediately after the call to serve as a pretext to end the call so it doesn't run on and on open-ended.)
posted by XMLicious at 5:53 AM on September 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

You have a social media presence? Answer your mom's questions publicly. Either she'll recoil and stop immediately, OR you'll have a neat new angle with your social media presence.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:50 AM on September 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your mom just misses you and is desperate to have a closer connection with you. Both of you have my sympathy.

Your best bet is to do something like Skype her while you're preparing dinner. You're standing there anyway with your brain unoccupied while you cook (or do whatever mindless thing, fold laundry maybe.) She can chatter and get her fill of communication with you without you really having to allocated extra time or brain energy.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:05 AM on September 6, 2017 [19 favorites]

Seconding fingersandtoes. I'm guessing that as a sixty-something, her preferred form of communication is talking on the phone, and that doesn't match your preferences. So she e-mails, and probably has no clue how distracting all those e-mails are to you, or how cumbersome it would be to answer them. The weekly Skype or FaceTime idea is efficient, and although it might be a little out of your comfort zone, it's a lot more personal. You could get a better sense of how she's doing, too. Ask her lots of questions!
posted by MelissaSimon at 7:26 AM on September 6, 2017 [11 favorites]

My theory is that she's trying to feel connected to you and is adapting to what communication methods seem to get a response. If you don't like answering questions, have you tried asking some? "Hi, Ma, how are the cats?" Or just dropping something on her like "i just finished a book I think you might like?" (You could even pre-write a few and set them to go out over the course of the week with time delays, if remembering is hard.) In general, you could think about what kind of communication you are open to and sorta try to steer the relationship in that direction -- that's just one idea for mixing things up.
posted by salvia at 7:29 AM on September 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

I agree that your mom wants to connect with you and using the format and method that seems to work best. You can take initiative in your relationship and make it so that you are also reaching out to her, regularly, in ways that work better for you. Even if this doesn't stop the flow of email - it should at least slow it down - it will make it easier to have them automatically sent to a separate folder and to tell yourself - and her - I'll just follow up when we have our usual Sunday hat / call / whatever.
posted by bunderful at 7:36 AM on September 6, 2017

My mom does this too! She doesn't do it with that frequency, but ALL of them are questions that she'd know the answer to if she read what I wrote closely or did a quick Google, so it bothers the crap out of me because she's basically making me do work instead of doing it herself.

I think moms maybe just don't understand the amount of work they're asking you to do when they ask questions. Maybe next time she visits, have a talk about expectations around this stuff and come up with a plan that works for both of you. Maybe she can write them all down and ask them during her weekly Skype session.... or maybe she will decide that they're really not that important and that the main thing is staying connected to what you're up to, and you can some up with an alternative way to do that.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:40 AM on September 6, 2017

Regarding your health, as someone who kept health related issues from my mother for years, I give you permission to only tell her about a day before she would figure it out on her own. Your mother sounds much like mine, although modes of communication differ, etc. But I decided that, as an adult and as someone who shared responsibility for my mother's emotional welfare, I could determine what and how much to tell her for her peace of mind and my own. Worked out just fine.
posted by janey47 at 7:55 AM on September 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your mom is pretty attached to you and just wants to connect with you. I imagine in her mind she is being a good mom by expressing positive interest in your life; it doesn't sound like there are consequences to not answering or to delaying your response, so it doesn't sound like there's a big dramatic emotional investment on her side.

You could ask her to refrain from texting unless it is something critical or urgent. And then ignore all texts from her that do not fall in those parameters.

You could set aside her emails until one day a week and then answer all questions letter-style, or as sort of a weekly round-up.

I wouldn't mention the health issues until you see her in person. Explain the facts and how you are dealing with it, and then tell her that for your own sanity you would appreciate if she would not bring it up again, but promise that you will update her if anything critical changes.

It's nice of you to be concerned about how your boundaries will affect your relationship and interactions with her. From the way you've written the question it sounds like she will roll along with whatever new boundaries you put in place.
posted by vignettist at 8:06 AM on September 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

I am a Mom. Your Mom is trying to be connected. You feel kind of invaded and the connection isn't working the way either of you would like. Try asking about her life and strongly encouraging her to have one. Ask her what meetups are available, and encourage her to make some friends. If she says she's going walking, ask her how the walk was; how did the book group go, how did the baking turn out. Maybe get her to play Pokemon Go and ask her about the critters she's caught; this also encourages getting out. Or watch the same Netflix series or tv show as a topic for discussion. Send her links to cool websites or youtube videos, that are funny or interesting, like a genuine friendship where you share experiences and stuff. Basically try to make it more like an actual friendship. It's not the same, but it can be more like it. If at all possible, ask her advice. Parents love that (mostly). It can be asking her how she makes that pot roast, or how to get better gas mileage, whatever.

She visits 3x/year? You are a sweet son. Get her involved in a project or something where you live. Maybe she could start a garden. The health issue? Tell her sooner rather than later, and be specific that you know she'll be concerned, but you don't want to talk it to death, you'll keep her up to date about any actual developments. My son and I have learned silence if one of us stubs a toe or bangs a shin because Are you okay? when someone is obviously in pain is a total annoyance.

If you want to truly up your game, can you occasionally put secret messages to her in pr tweets? Or treat her like Dave Letterman treated him Mom, as a quasi-celebrity.
posted by theora55 at 9:39 AM on September 6, 2017 [9 favorites]

It sounds like your mom is pretty attached to you and just wants to connect with you.

This is my take too. Or it's possible she is managing a mental illness, as my mom was, and this is a low level manifestation of anxiety or something else. It's pretty easy to work that one out though. First step, for me, would be letting her know the frequency of this stuff isn't working for you and to try to work out another way to manage it for you. Think about what would work for you: a weekly phone call? a daily (short!) email. a running text convo only when it's convenient for you? And then suggest something part way and see if she's able to work with you on it. If yes, great, you guys maintain a solid relationship with minor adjustments along the way.

If no, you have to move to step two which is BOUNDARIES. That is, you decide more unilaterally what you can and can't deal with and you just respond to her within these. If that means no texts or no questions answered over texts, great. If that means Loving Broken Records ("Mom, I love you and look forward to our chats, but I can't respond to all these questions") great. If that means a little bit of ignoring her, okay. If she has issues with these boundaries, you can try step one again. If it's clear she's not really able to work within them, again, stay at step two.

My SO used to sometimes do the pepper me with questions thing and often it was just him really wanting to connect but not having anything new to "report" from his end. He wasn't as big into that sort of observational chitchat some people do "Oh I saw something amusing on my walk home today..." and so he'd default to that. We worked it out, with love and humor--"hey there, I don't have time to do your homework for you, but look it up on wikipedia and ask if you still have questions" or "Hey this is sort of what I do for a JOB, so I am happy to help if you need/want help but family/friend time is not work time for me"--and it's mostly not how we interact now which is great for both of us.

With my mom, who did have a mental illne4ss of some sort, I would send her an email in the morning most mornings just with chatty updates but not "leading questions" sorts of things but not really engage in a ton of "What do you think about this or that library thing" every few hours. She did not text, which was good news/bad news.

Also re: health stuff, it's fine to want to keep health stuff private, no matter what it is. At the point at which it may affect your life in ways where you'd have to actively lie to not tell her, I'd tell her. it's okay to draw boundaries and tell her you don't want to talk about it with her, suggest she go to a support group about it (if appropriate) etc. I find the "comfort in, dump out" mantra useful and if she has a ton of questions, that is sort of on her and dumping it on you (once you've told her it's not a type of interaction you enjoy) it's okay to make yourself and your partner the center of your health issue.

I do know that she won't be around forever and someday I will miss the emails and text messages.

YMMV on this. My mother died this summer. I miss some things but her pressured desire to contact me I do not miss.
posted by jessamyn at 9:44 AM on September 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Things that don't seem that important to me or that are just part of my work seem to be the source of endless fascination to her and endless questions.... frequently one of the daily emails is some variation of "How's my son doing?"... I don't like talking on the phone at all, so that doesn't feel like the solution.

Are you seeing the issue here? Your mother is trying to have a relationship with you. She wants to talk to you, but you don't do phone calls, so she's made the generous leap from her generation of communication to yours. She's trying to get her needs met in the way that is most palatable to you. That's a positive thing and there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with how it is working; you ignore the stuff you don't have time or capacity for, and there are no consequences for that.

I also need to stem the tide of texts and emails somehow.

Set Gmail to filter them all to a folder called Mom and ignore it until the end of the day when you have a few minutes. Problem solved.

More broadly, is she lonely? Could you deal with that instead of the email symptom?
posted by DarlingBri at 10:07 AM on September 6, 2017 [15 favorites]

OK, I get why you're feeling overwhelmed. Also, from my perspective, 40 still seems young, and you're a dude. And you don't like talking on the phone? Well, I'm sure she didn't like changing your diapers. (And seriously, people who don't like the phone? Get over it.) But bear with me.

Do you ask your mother questions? She's showing interest in your life and whether she recognizes it or not, she'd probably love it if you showed genuine interest in hers. Maybe I'm more sensitive to this because I've just spent the last two+ weeks in ICU with my 81yo mom after her heart surgery (and complications), and we already have an amazing relationship and ask each other lots of questions (from "what did that tweet mean?" on her end to "how many holes must I poke in this potato to keep it from exploding?" on my end.") In my family, we call it "opening the mom encyclopedia" and I ask her questions about her life, but also random bits of advice (that I could Google) because it makes her feel valued.

So, I get you're annoyed because you're busy and you have a life and she's not the most important person or thing in yours, which is healthy and normal for a 40yo guy. But you likely ARE the most important thing in her existence, and she's starving for attention and closeness. She CREATED you and (from what you describe) she doesn't seem to have any evil attributes. So don't feel guilt, but do stop to think how you'd feel if the situations are reversed. And maybe focus on the relationship as you would with a mentor or professional contact and think of it as investing/adding value to your life rather than just distracting you.

Possible solutions:

1) Ask her to open a blank email and keep a running list of all of her questions and send them on Mondays and Thursdays (or whatever) and tell her that you'll have way more time to answer stuff like that.

2) Stop emailing important things and talk to her on the phone. I'm shocked when I hear about people with good relationships with their families who don't talk. Email is not talking. (I talk to my mom 40+ times a day, at every commercial break in Prime Time because we watch shows "together," so I'm not advising that.) But if you're not talking to your mom at least 2-3 times a week, and you genuinely like her, I guarantee that you will be crestfallen in a dozen or two dozen years when you will want to talk to her and can't.

3) Do more Skyping or Facetiming if you don't like the phone to the point that you avoid it. Yes, guys and you "young" people are notorious for not liking phones. Get over it. She has lived more than half a century with that being the primary mode of communication; suck it up, buttercup! Call her. Facetime her. Schedule it and keep to the schedule so she has some comforting expectations. Make her feel like she's an important person in your life. Ask her questions so she knows that you're not just checking her off a list like "get oil changed, pay taxes, talk to mom."

4) Pick a preferred style of question-making and tell her that unless something is urgent, to please email (or jot down on a list to look at before phone calls) and to save texting for time-urgent things. If she forgets, just gently remind her.

5) I like the idea of replying via social media. My mom is on Twitter & FB, and when she doesn't understand something, she tweets or comments her questions.

As for your health concern, I get wanting to avoid conversing about it with her, but this comes down to the fact that if she's a *good* mom (and it sounds like she is) and this is something she could find out later, she's going to be far more hurt by not knowing. Again, all families are different. I hid the fact that I thought I had diabetes for three weeks because my mother was undergoing cancer treatment, and to this day, the pain of withholding that information is palpable. She understands why I did it, but now she's terrified that there's something about my health she doesn't know.

Some people have crappy parents. (I have one. The other one.) But if you have a good parent, I guarantee that you will hit this point in the next 10 years or so where you realize that you have been ridiculously, terribly inattentive (because even though I talk to my mom 40+ times a day, now that she's got health issues, I feel this way) and you will regret not prioritizing her more.

So, try to bend her style to yours, but be willing to bend your style to hers. If she's a good mom, it's worth the inconvenience to you. Treat her with all the attention you would treat your own child (and if you're avoiding having children because you don't want to have to lavish that attention on someone else, then just do it because she did it for you). Treat her like she's as important as you are. Because she is. (And I'm not harshing on you, aside from the "I hate phones" thing; I'm giving you the benefit of my decrepitude.)

posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 12:06 PM on September 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

A couple of things - it appears she doesn't require a response to all her messages/emails so don't feel you have to respond all the time. If she really never mentions Paris again she also appears to understand the general concept of boundaries. So she seems to have a disposition that should allow you to resolve this over time.

All she wants is occasional signs you're thinking about her and a general understanding of what's going on in your life. So if her attempts at relating don't work for you what would work for you?

Can you give her a short call during your commute? One of my colleagues gets the daily check in with her Italian mother out of the way during her evening commute and yes, she has to confirm she's eaten something every single day. If your mother is ok with less frequent contact absolutely schedule a weekly chat. One of my friends facetimes her parents and grandmother every Sunday morning. That's the most likely time she'll catch up with me as well. Find the least disruptive time slot and schedule that call. Having other things to do after helps to contain it.

And yes, if you can find things to 'share' be it a book, a program or music it will make it much easier to feel connected.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:09 PM on September 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

Ask her questions about herself. Her day. Her neighbors. Her opinions. Her hobbies. Her memories. Her beliefs.

She has been interested in your life for 40 years. She's not going to stop being interested in it now. But she may not think you are interested in hers. "How are you doing, mom?" is not going to shake things up. But a consistent effort to draw her out might slow the barrage of questions over time, and it will certainly make your conversarions more interesting.

You might even learn something. We contain multitudes, us moms.

Ask her questions. Send her articles you think she will like and ask her opinion. Ask her what she thinks should be done about DACA. Ask her to tell your partner the story of when you did [X] as a kid. Ask her to remind you know to tie a slipknot [or whatever she taught you]. Etc.
posted by headnsouth at 4:06 PM on September 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

following up - the paradoxical thing about Skype/Facetime that makes it great for this sort of thing, is that if you use a laptop, your hands are free, so you can get a lot more done while you're talking than if you are sitting holding the phone, and it doesn't have the irritation/hard to hear value of speakerphone. Throw your laptop up near where you're working and fold your laundry while you videochat for 20 minutes. It is a richer experience for her because she gets to see her son and set herself at ease that he looks fine, etc, while you're doing something you'd be doing anyway, and aren't chained there impatiently being interrogated and chafing to be done.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:28 PM on September 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

My mom is like this (or at least she used to be more so) and it drives me fucking batshit. Yes, yes, I know she just wants to connect with me and I'm sympathetic to that. It is also a huge source of stress and a mental burden to be constantly spammed with inane questions, especially when I'm at work. Honestly, gamely answering them got me nowhere at all. It used to be that when she texted, if I didn't answer right away, she'd escalate by texting "?" and then "??" and so on at ten-minute intervals or so in order to get a response. (She had, or still has, the same view of texting as this person.)

In your situation, I'd probably filter all her emails to a folder and deal with them in one shot (once or twice a week, answering only the ones I felt like answering or that actually needed answering). My mom's MO was to text me constantly, as mentioned above, so I found a way to mute and turn off all notifications for her texts, then I'd address them at my leisure (again, only if necessary or I felt like chatting). It took awhile, but I definitely saw a decrease in volume once I put more time in between my responses and she got less used to getting a response, immediate or otherwise.

Also, ain't nothing wrong with putting her on an information diet, even with regard to your health. I had to do this with my mom—she largely drove me off most social media (among other reasons), and for awhile I just flat-out stopped texting her chatty updates on my life because it felt like she was abusing the information. Writing this out, it does sound incredibly cold, like you say, but it was actively harming our relationship and making me feel very resentful. I simply had to put boundaries in place. We still talk plenty, so it's not like I cut her off completely, but it had to be more on my terms.

Older women electronic communication/social media just do not seem to mix well; they just lack so many of the nuances for as much as they try. I've taken some comfort from seeing so many of my friends and peers also getting bogged down in trivial questions from their own moms on Facebook and such (why do they need to comment on EVERYTHING?).
posted by anderjen at 1:52 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

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