How can I honestly be there for my mother?
November 27, 2017 3:34 AM   Subscribe

Looking for suggestions and mid to long-term strategies for being there and caring for my mom despite several issues related to my childhood. Details inside.

I will try and be as concise as I possibly can and give some background to my question, about how can I "be there" for my mother, who is 64, and generally be a good daughter to her.

I am the only child of my parents' failed marriage. They divorced when I was 7, due to my father's inability to function as an alcoholic. I witnessed several fights, getting out of bed at 3am and ran out the house with her and our dog as she was shit scared about the possibility of him getting violent with us was pretty common etc.

Post-divorce I went to live with mother in her family home and felt like an outsider, but finally I started playing and having friends and generally having a sort of normal childhood. Apart from the fact that from the time they divorced until I was about 9 I was forced to see him every other weekend and it was horrible for me. I dreaded those weekends and never really wanted to see him as he was often drunk and my paternal grandmother was generally horrible to me also.

When I was 9, my mother started dating someone from France and started to make plans to move there and take me. To cut a long story short, she left me with my paternal grandmother for a year as she got ready to move to France (she would supposedly come back to get me later) and that was the most horrible year of my life. My grandmother was violent to me and put me through all sorts of terrible situations like going to fetch my father at bars late at night, finding him laying by gutters and so on. My mother's plan to go to France didn't work out (she found out her boyfriend actually had a family and was still married) and she realized the mess I was in and got me out of my grandmother's house. We went back to living with her (rather numerous) family.

I went into my pre-teens in a constant state of angst, of not knowing where I belonged and growing up in a fractured home (my aunts are all single mothers or divorced, same goes for my uncles). I was constantly fighting with my mom and ended up begging her to let me leave home and start working when I was 16. I hated the idea of depending on her for anything, since she worked impossible hours to support me and to pay for her university studies (she went back to uni after the France plan didn't work out).

My mother always encouraged me to be as independent as possible. I started going out, meeting guys, experimenting with drink and drugs and just being a rather crazy young woman that knew no boundaries but got extremely lucky to get out of dangerous situations alive. I went to live and study abroad out of my own means, traveled the world for years and came back home a few years ago.

When I came back home, she tried to be a huge part of my life after missing out on so many years of my life and trued to do so oppressively, but wanting to have long phone calls during my working day, wanting to hang out all the time etc and I had to tell her that she needed to give me some breathing space and that she was getting on my nerves. After that she totally withdrew and I told her that she didn't have to do that, we only needed balance in the communication and interaction. But she had some serious health problems (intestinal cancer) shortly after and I was there to care for her and provide everything she needed financially during her recovery. She is well and healthy today.

My nanna is 95 and my mother is her carer, and does that proudly. My grandmother became a widow really early (at 21) and so the whole family always went through lots of hardship. Today things are much better. My mother spent most of her childhood and teens away living with an aunt, got a better early life and basic education. She came back home when she was 20 to work and support the household. She then got married, divorced and today she has a very strong bond with grandmother and I feel she will be very very sad when her mother dies as they are super attached. I think she partly does that in the hope she will receive the same sort of care in her later years, with someone giving all up to care for her and I don't think I will ever be able to do that. It seems even that she devotes her life to others as a way of saying she is a real giver and with some hope that she will get that herself.

To make things more complicated, my mother remained friends with my father and now has his legal custody as he is considered legally unable to function in society. That creates all sorts of issues that I inevitably have to get involved with, and pay for. I know that she decided to look after him legally to ensure he received his pension and I didn't have to help him financially or in other practical issues. But he is a constant topic in the conversation with her and that makes me extremely angry. I try to bottle that up and she knows how that makes me feel, but can't avoid talking about him and his life all the same. It angers me that he is still a prominent part of our lives even after all he has done to us.

I broke up with my ex-husband nearly three years ago. That is a totally separate story, but in summary my marriage ended due to issues including my ex's addiction to alcohol and to cheating. I have always protected the privacy of our marriage though, and was never the type of person that runs to mom and confides about marital problems. That is partly because I wanted her to be happy about the fact that I was (apparently) happily married and had a good husband to look after me. And partly because I felt she couldn't do anything to help me. I moved to a place at the end of her street and she hardly ever suggested to come visit me, despite always inviting me to come over to her place.

When we broke up she questioned me about the reasons and in a way that makes me feel like I was the guilty part. After all she knew nothing. I got into therapy and improved my life a great deal since that, but went through some real hard times. When I told her I thought she could sort of understand but recently I heard that she thinks I am still madly in love with my ex but didn't realize that yet. (that couldn't be further from the truth). She is also still in touch with him and that really annoys me.

I am now in a stable relationship and am really happy with my current partner, but she never bothers asking about how things are between us, what we have been up to....same goes for my professional life, other things I do like hobbies and so on. I start talking and she just gets aloof and changes subject. That stuns me. When I have an issue she always says I should talk to my therapist about it (I think she is even jealous of my shrink and even angry as we started to unearth issues from my childhood) She often says she wants to go places and hang out go traveling, but when I suggest something she always says she can't (because of grandmother, some household chore, the cat, whatever.) When we occasionally go out though, she can be a pleasant company and we have fun sometimes when she is willing to have a two-way conversation. That is an occasional thing.

In summary, I try to get close to my mom and let her into my life. At the same time she is constantly demanding my attention and resources, she makes it clear I am not doing enough for her. On the other hand, she barely offers words of sympathy/comfort when I need it, which makes me feel alone and angry. I know I have an obligation to support her and provide what she needs but we are always having moments of friction that make me feel extremely angry, frustrated, exasperated and guilty because I am not being the daughter she probably hoped for.

I think she is getting very anxious at present (and is also eating compulsively) because she can see her mother won't be around for a lot longer and will lose the carer activity that helps her to keep going. She must also feel she will need a lot of support in all sorts of ways and I won't be able to do that. She has even said recently that she wanted to get into dating websites to try and find a partner. That's because she clearly feels she will be alone and I won't be able to give what she needs.

I support my mother financially today and try to make sure her practical needs are covered including doctors, exams, dentist, etc etc. I wanted to be closer to my mother but inevitably she will complain about her current life set-up and have attitudes that profoundly annoy me - for example, she will say she can't go out because of caring for my gran, she will talk constantly about my dad, she will belittle the depression and desperation I went through after divorcing. In summary, I try and share my life with her and get very little in return, and I don't want her to do things for me like clean my house, cook for me or mend my clothes...I just want her to listen to me and I don't have that despite trying to get her to listen. This creates a wall between us that gets higher and higher as conflicts escalate.

What can I do to reset this relationship and maybe "normalize" it? I love my mother and want to "be there"for her, have a good relationship with her, but it seems impossible right now as she mostly drains me at present. Can the hive mind give me examples of relationships with mothers can work without this dynamic of chasing/guilt tripping/anger? Thanks so much for reading all this.
posted by longjump to Human Relations (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I know I have an obligation to support her and provide what she needs

No, you don't. I know this differs culturally, but it can be a valid choice to walk away. Please at least expand the spectrum of "what's required" to include "nothing" as you struggle with what you're willing to provide her. And is she guilt-tripping you or are you guilt-tripping yourself?

I try and share my life with her and get very little in return, and I don't want her to do things for me like clean my house, cook for me or mend my clothes...I just want her to listen to me and I don't have that despite trying to get her to listen.

You may be wanting something from her that she cannot give. She should be able to give it, and you certainly deserve to have someone listen to you, but she does not sound like a very stable person and she may not have the skills necessary to be there for you in the way you need. What would happen if you took that expectation away? It may require (very likely will require) grieving the relationship you wish that you could have in order to get to a place where you can have the relationship you do have, if that makes sense.

I'm sorry you're going through all this, and I'm glad you have a therapist to support you, too.
posted by lazuli at 6:03 AM on November 27, 2017 [6 favorites]

50% of this is on you. You are participating.... Just for context, I haven't spoken to my mother or been in contact with her since the 90's (she's abusive and dysfunctional, but can function in society enough to own a home and keep a job.) I'm fine. She's fine. This is an extreme example on the spectrum from where you are. I'm letting you know this choice exists. It's a spectrum.

I'm going to give it to you straight: Let your mom be who she is, meet her where she's at. She can not fulfill your needs, instead you need a plan to implement boundaries and practice acceptance.

If your therapist won't help you create and maintain boundaries (including managing your mom's expectations of you) get a new therapist to work on these issues. Grieve your idealized relationship with your mom, start dealing with her realistically as the person she is.

One boundary is you can leave/walk away/ hang up the phone whenever she talks about your dad. Now it's not your problem, see how easy that is?

You're doing a lot of emotional labor for this relationship to work. I suggest you refocus that energy into a relationship with yourself. Outside of your mom, work on only investing in relationships that are mutually beneficial.

I know this might be a radical prospective for you, but it's just about the only sane way forward.
posted by jbenben at 7:36 AM on November 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have been in a similar situation with my mother and family, though not identical, and I can certainly recognize some of your thoughts from my younger self. Now it has all come to a head, because my mother has been seriously ill for a year, or maybe more. And it's OK, I'm dealing with it, in spite of going through some other issues which are quite tough to manage. I thought this would be terrible, but it really isn't.

One of the things I can recognize from myself is the way you describe your family: I went into my pre-teens in a constant state of angst, of not knowing where I belonged and growing up in a fractured home (my aunts are all single mothers or divorced, same goes for my uncles). I was constantly fighting with my mom and ended up begging her to let me leave home and start working when I was 16. (I was thrown out by my mum's then husband at 16, but the rest is almost identical).
You know a thing that has helped me: to embrace that family and that family history; instead of describing my family as fractured, I describe it as lively. And while I cannot take away my pre-teen and teen anxiety and insecurity, I can look back at myself with my adult eyes and realize that all of those aunts and uncles and the grans did their best to care for me and love me, with their limited means and personal shortcomings: I was an anxious and lonely child, surrounded by vulnerable but loving adults.
I even had the strict paternal grandmother, though mine never hit me. Much later someone told me that I was her greatest love and passion, and I understood how true that was. She was strict because that was how she thought she could protect me.
The point is not to sugarcoat it, but to realize it is the only childhood I have, and that there must have been some good, since I have survived and even have some competencies. Also, that maybe our families aren't that unusual, or wrong, or fractured, maybe they are just people doing the best they can with their limited abilities.
When I started that process of understanding and accepting my childhood and youth, I also had to come to terms with the fact that the one person in my colorful family who didn't love me was my mother. (Long story, and not your story). I'm telling you this because I want to explain by example that it hasn't been a painless voyage for me, and that the point isn't to avoid pain, but be your own adult. And that includes forgiving the adults who weren't able to care more for you when you felt you needed it.

Maybe the above seems like a long detour to you. But for me it was a necessary step to get where I am now, where I can have a balanced relationship with my mum, and set clear boundaries while I have given her the help she needs. That means that I have helped her get medical help and in home care, not that I provide the care. I take her to the doctor and therapist, because I want to make sure she is truthful, and gets the care she needs (instead of claiming I will provide it in order to blackmail me into doing it).

Where I am now, and have been for about a decade, I will be brutally honest with my mother. Not as in arguing with her about who had the worst childhood or marriage or anything at all, but as in: mum, you need therapy. I can't be your therapist. Or as in: you need to eat, and you cannot get me to cook for you by starving yourself. Confront her with the facts, and state exactly what I will or will not do. And you know what: she likes it. She really does.
If she comes up with some silly claim about me or my life, I tell her it's rubbish, and I don't want to discuss it. And she likes that too.

You can do this. Good luck!
posted by mumimor at 8:12 AM on November 27, 2017 [7 favorites]

You seem to have a hard time setting healthy boundaries with your mum, which makes sense, given your background. Maybe work on that in therapy - figuring out what you're willing to do for her or not, and then consider how to make that work for you. You also seem to have the contrary idea that you can get her to act or care in certain ways if you just unlock a code, and you can't.

All you can do is ask for what you need, and if she still can't give it to you, accept her as she is. So, for instance, you can say, "please don't complain about my dad more today, let's talk about something more fun...". If she shifts, great, if she doesn't, say, "well, I said I don't want to hear more about him today, so I'll talk to you tomorrow".
posted by ldthomps at 9:10 AM on November 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, your mother is living in Karpman's drama triangle. She's been your father's victim and is now his saviour, for example. You can't change her, but seeing her from this perspective might be helpful. Whatever you do, avoid jumping into the triangle with her and taking on any of those roles.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:13 AM on November 27, 2017 [7 favorites]

You might be supposed at what you can learn in an Al-anon meeting.
posted by SyraCarol at 12:37 PM on November 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

What can I do to reset this relationship and maybe "normalize" it?

There's always stuff you can be doing differently in how you relate to your mom, it's just that none of it is guaranteed, or even likely, to "reset" and "normalize" anything. Because your mom has to want to do the same, and sadly, you cannot control any of that for her. It might be time to start thinking about how to let go of this hope. Doing so wouldn't mean that you don't love her though--it would be exactly out of love that you'd be accepting her for who she's shown you she is.

Whether or not you should be involved in her care going forward--or to what extent--is not something I can really answer. But if you are going to get involved, it's going to be extra crucial to move towards some acceptance, as other posters have said. This, particularly:

I just want her to listen to me and I don't have that despite trying to get her to listen.

breaks my heart to read. Because it's not something you can continue to hold towards her if you want to have a better relationship with her. This really is almost like a death, in that it is the death of the hope for meeting a long-frustrated desire, and a powerful, nearly innate desire at that. This is a major loss. And like any major loss, it needs to be grieved, and mourned. It's not easy or pleasant, and I say this as someone who a few years ago started going through a similar process with my own mom, and my relationship to her. It's just never going to be. What shows up in its place is the possibility of a better relationship with the mom you do have rather than the one we all wish you'd had. I'm sorry, it's really hard. I wish you luck and peace in abundant measure as you go forward.
posted by obliterati at 5:51 PM on November 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is a very interesting post. I'm sorry for how frustrating this is. It makes me feel tired, powerless, and frustrated just reading it. I have two ideas, possibly neither very good. One is to maybe just spend some time practicing observation and acceptance. As a thought experiment, try thinking "[these things that drive you crazy] will never change." There is so much about her that won't change, and I can sense your wish that it would. A big part of knowing someone is just accepting them. The other idea is to figure out a few surgical inventions that are really worth it to you -- a thing or two that you would most like to not have to deal with (e.g., never having to talk about your ex- again) and then get ready to set and enforce that boundary (e.g., by leaving the conversation whenever his name comes up). That would be an interesting experiment to try, especially with your therapist's support.
posted by salvia at 8:15 PM on November 27, 2017

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