New boundaries in my new apartment (for same old mom)
August 1, 2018 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Life circumstances conspired to make me move back in with my mother three years ago. Now I have my own apartment again and will be moving in the next few days. My new place is 20 minutes from hers, and I'm worried about the micromanaging and boundary crossing. She does not respect verbal boundaries at all, and I'm trying to figure out nonverbal ways to establish boundaries.

Here's an example of how things are with her right now re: my new apartment. She wanted me to take all this furniture from a deceased relative's house that I didn't want, need, or have room for. She kept pushing it, I said no three times, she brought it up again later and even emailed her friend and my sister to say she thought I was doing this because I'm bipolar. Later she brought it up still again--I said she wasn't hearing me, and she said she was hearing me but that I just didn't have the best judgment.

In the past when I've lived independently, even 1000 miles away, she's come to visit and done things like rearrange my kitchen drawers. Now that I'll be local but not living with her, I'm fully expecting her to drop in and start rearranging things and making judgmental comments about my living space. I can't always be conveniently not home, and I'm sure she'd push if I tried to always meet her in public. Both those strategies are worth a try.

I've learned a lot of approaches to try with her (medium chill! broken record! etc) but nothing sinks in. What are some nonverbal ways of setting boundaries with her? I don't expect her to learn to be any different at this point, and she refuses therapy. I just don't want her rearranging the life I'm building to get away from her.
posted by mermaidcafe to Human Relations (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do not let her in your house.
Ever. Not even once.

If she ever just “shows up”, do not answer the door.

Do not give an ”emergency” key to anyone who might let her make a copy.
posted by blueberry at 7:36 AM on August 1, 2018 [59 favorites]

Don't give her a key. That's the biggest and best thing you can do for starters. You can keep an extra one at work and eventually give one to a neighbor you trust, etc. but your mom never needs one for any reason.

Congrats on your new place, and good luck making it feel like home! You're already off to a good start because you were able to refuse the unwanted furniture. You can always hang up or block her, temporarily or permanently, if she continues to harass you as you mentioned. With time and practice, maintaining boundaries with her will get easier and easier.
posted by smorgasbord at 7:38 AM on August 1, 2018 [29 favorites]

I sympathize, and I understand that if verbal boundaries aren't working, you'll want to try other means. But I also need to caution you that boundaries need to be explicit, and to be explicit, we need to use our words.

You can choose not to let your mother into your apartment--that is a boundary you can set. But if she asks "how come we never meet at your apartment?" you'll need to say why.
posted by adamrice at 7:40 AM on August 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

As well as not letting her into your house, make your landlord aware that friends and relatives are not to have access (in this modern day it isn't usually an issue, but sometimes people want to be helpful and friendly, and, well, it's her mom and she just wants to drop off a little gift so why not let her in?) if you feel that's a risk. If you live in a modern building with impersonal landlords and indifferent neighbours who won't point out the spare key over the front door, that's different.

If she starts rearranging stuff, walk over and close the drawer and stand in front of it. Do it casually, if you want, like you're just absentmindedly hanging out, but don't move.

You're probably going to have to engage her and not care about her reporting. People who rearrange your drawers seldom get a subtle hint, in my experience.
posted by Nyx at 7:49 AM on August 1, 2018 [8 favorites]

"I am done discussing this with you. If you continue to bring this up I am going to walk away/hang up." and then follow through. These are non-verbal and should be effective in at least extricating you from a frustrating conversation that goes nowhere.

Your responses so far are clear and firm to normal considerate people but you need to bust out the nuclear option here.

I agree that the first defence is to never let her in. Would your budget allow you to get one of those video doorbells so you can see who is at the door before answering it? If it's her, don't answer and when she brings it up it turns out she has terrible timing and you were: "out", "in the shower", "taking a bath", "so exhausted had to take a nap", "cleaning the apartment with headphones on", etc...

If she somehow strong arms her way in, tell her upfront that you were on your way to meet a friend and you're already running late. Start gathering your things as if you're about to go out and escort her out. Get in your car, go to a cafe or drive around the block and come back home.
posted by like_neon at 8:21 AM on August 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

One other thing is to never invite your mother to a gathering at your apartment that is just one-on-one. By having a supportive friend or relative you can better enforce social norms in your home. Group norms can be powerful in behavior modification.

When your mother tries to change the topic and give you a ton of unsolicited advice, you can turn to your friend and start talking about something else.

When your mother starts to rearrange the drawers, you can say now is not a good time stay and talk with friends. With your friend sitting there continuing to talk with you it will be pretty rude/awkward for your mom not to participate in the group.
posted by brookeb at 8:36 AM on August 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

The door of your apartment makes for an excellent nonverbal boundary.
posted by corvine at 8:54 AM on August 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

Can you try to channel her into a regular meet up that is an activity? For example, inviting her over for a game of Scrabble once a month. You have tea and cookies ready to go and use the activity to keep her out of trouble.

Then you can redirect if she shows up at other times: "Now isn't a good time, sorry Mom! See you Thursday for Scrabble."
posted by Emmy Rae at 9:12 AM on August 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I suspect you will want to have your Mom visit. Choose where the 'line in the sand' is and enforce it. Read Stop Walking on Eggshells, a great book about dealing with someone who has Borderline Personality Disorder, also useful for dealing with anyone who has poor boundaries, is manipulative, highly dramatic, etc. If she is one of those people who may have a severe issue with control, and absolutely cannot stop screwing with you, keep her out your new place. I have someone in my family like that, and it's connected to actual mental illness. Trying to be tougher about boundaries doesn't work, they are willing to go to extremes every time; I'm too exhausted.

Otherwise, Mom, leave the furniture the way I had it.
Mom, I asked you to leave the furniture the way I had it. I like it where it was. It's time for you to go.

At some point, you may have to get drastic to get her to leave, but do that if you must. Big hugs and congratulations on the new place.
posted by theora55 at 9:19 AM on August 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm in the don't invite her in camp.

I don't know how this would fit into your larger dynamic but, very soon after you've fully moved out you might consider preempting any "she doesn't let me come over /she's so ungrateful" talk with a nice bouquet of flowers and a card or letter thanking your mom for letting you move in and telling her that you're grateful for the help. Call up relatives and family friends and say "yeah, the move went great, so glad to be settled, though I'm so grateful that mom was able to help me out when I needed it". (Hopefully) this will make you look good and your larger community will help squash any negativity that mom brings up, rather than calling you up and scolding you for making mom feel bad.

Then, don't let her in your house. Ever. You were in the restroom and didn't hear the door. You had headphones on and had no idea she was knocking. You're running out the door because you're late to pick up a take out order, but you can come along for the ride mom ("what? You don't have a record of my order?" Tip well). Oh I'll be out for a while but you can drop that box in my carport or better yet I'll swing by on my way home to pick it up, you can just leave it out on the porch for me.

You may well slip. I try to avoid this by simply not answering the phone when I'm tired or not on my guard. If you do slip and she gets in and starts on the drawers, well, you may or may not choose to fight about it. In the end, you can rearrange the drawers back when she's gone. She may not trust your judgment, but remind yourself that you trust your judgment (at the very least, when it comes to where your forks should reside). Forgive yourself if she gets past the threshold, and resolve how you can do better next time.

I'm happy for you that are getting your own place.
posted by vignettist at 9:20 AM on August 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

Do NOT let her help you move.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 9:54 AM on August 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

Excellent advice above. I agree with the "no entry" policy and being honest when she asks why. Also, if you haven't already, assign your Mom her own ring tone if you are able. That way you can choose when you feel you have the ability to best deal with her and don't get ambushed when you are tired/distracted.
posted by agatha_magatha at 9:57 AM on August 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

In your position I would 'Grey Rock' her, since she sounds like a textbook Narcissist and abuser. Have you taken a look at the subreddit Raisedbynarcissists? It can be really helpful.

But I would absolutely, strictly avoid letting her in if you can avoid it. I'm thousands of miles away from my Narcissist parent, and I won't even tell them what neighborhood I live in on the other side of the country.

Stay strong, her powerful 'needs' do not have to dictate your actions. Also, therapy can help you get a sense of reality outside the one she has built and reinforced, and help you make decisions that protect you without experiencing crushing guilt. Good luck to you!
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 10:09 AM on August 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

I have a boundary-pushing parent with whom I had to draw a firm line around things like keys and dropping in and pushing "help" that came with a guilt trip the parent version of negging is.

It was unpleasant to draw the line and there were fights (ohh, the "you can't have a key" fight!) but the only thing I regretted was not doing it earlier. This will continue your entire adult life if you don't make boundaries.

* You cannot accept any favors, help, money, or gifts, even when it would be really convenient to do so. It's all got strings, it all means that your personal life is still "hers."
* Ignore all that baiting she's doing by emailing your sister and the like. Just completely ignore it. Try not to think about it at all, and don't let it get under your skin. Don't discuss it with your sister, either, so that your sister has nothing to share with your mom when she asks.
* Don't answer the door.
* No key. Period. No. Not for emergencies. No.

With my parents, I am willing to see them as long as we were going to a thing together and then part ways. We can go to a restaurant, we can go to a museum/event/movie. I'll even drive and drop them off at home and "no sorry I can't come in, I need to be getting home, bye."

As much as possible, I steer discussion toward talking about a subject or common interests (this is why Going To A Thing is helpful) rather than every interaction digressing into yet more extended parenting and discussions on the subject of them being my parents and me being their kid. Yes, yes, yes, that's all given, but also we are all people with interests and we can talk about other things?
posted by desuetude at 1:06 PM on August 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

I answered the door naked the first time my mom dropped by unannounced. She didn't do it again. No words necessary.
posted by stoneweaver at 3:40 PM on August 1, 2018 [12 favorites]

stoneweaver wins the thread.
posted by adamrice at 5:50 PM on August 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm on team 'don't allow her in the apartment' I'd say. If verbal boundaries are easy for her to cross, then it's time to make physical boundaries that she will be forced to acknowledge.
posted by Aleyn at 7:28 PM on August 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Boundaries aren't things other people do- they are things you do. You can tell the other person what your boundaries are, but that's just a courtesy.

The only real boundary is that when they cross it, you remove yourself.

If you are not removing yourself, the boundary is nonexistent.


1. Tell her the boundary, and redirect her behaviour. "Mom, please don't rearrange my stuff. Let's go into the living room." For most people this is enough.

2. Tell her the consequence, and redirect: "Mom, if you keep touching my stuff you can't be in my space any more. Let's just talk."

3. Enforce the boundary: "Mom, I asked you twice not to touch my stuff. You have to leave now. We can try again next time."

Obviously kicking your mom out of the house is a Big Deal so I would start with doing this system for phone calls.

"Mom, please stop criticizing my choices. Let's talk about (other topic) instead."
"Mom, if you keep criticizing me I am going to end this call. Let's talk about (other topic) instead.
"Mom, I asked you twice to stop criticizing me. I'm ending this call now. We can try again next time. Have a great weekend. Bye." and HANG UP immediately.

Once you've done the phone hang up a few times, she'll start to believe you mean it.

I suggest using the same tone of voice and starting each sentence with her name, to make it clear that you're enacting a somewhat formal exchange.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:33 PM on August 1, 2018 [13 favorites]

Since folks here were so supportive, I wanted to share that I just kicked my mom out for the first time. Literally showed her the door and ushered her out. Felt great.
posted by mermaidcafe at 1:44 PM on January 3, 2019 [7 favorites]

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