How to deal with a suffocating mother?
September 5, 2018 5:39 PM   Subscribe

My mom is intense, and I have a hard time disentangling myself emotionally. Strategies on how to establish boundaries? Complication: I’m reliant on her financially to pay for school.

Basic outline: My 64-year-old mom wants me to be a brain surgeon (or anything else suitably fancy) and is worryingly effusive in praise and self-deprecation. She really, really wants to shape my life and has a history of being emotionally manipulative. It’s pretty hard for me not be overwhelmed by this given that she was the only significant person in my life for years (not voluntarily, but not her fault either).

I’m currently a third-year undergrad going to a prestigious private school. I’ve talked about our financial situation with my mom before, and it’s not dire, but when I suggested transferring to a less expensive school, my mom looked at me seriously and said she’d rather drop dead. She repeatedly says things like, “In our whole extended family/In the past fifty years of our lineage, you are the best individual,” and “For a living, I fix pants that people have shit in, but I have such a wonderful daughter!” She did not say this before I got into the aforementioned fancy school.

In my first year when I told her I was thinking of majoring in English, she’d call me saying that she had reoccurring nightmares in which I was an English major, and she’d wake up from these dreams in tears. She says it’s because she fears for my financial future, but that’s obviously not the case.

If she was making an ultimatum, I would have no trouble shutting her down. But she smiles at me with pride and acts as if I’m being coy about showing my unyielding love for neurosurgery. In the past two out of three days I’ve been home with her, I’ve been sleeping for ~17 hours each day because that’s how I deal with stress on medication.

A lot of this would be tolerable if I was a normal person with a normal childhood. I couldn’t develop significant, supportive relationships when I was younger because I had severe social anxiety and was frequently depressed. I wasn’t allowed to go outside by myself, and my parents weren’t around for most of the day. Mom’s an immigrant without family nearby, so she would open up a lot emotionally when I was young (about the death of her parents, my dad’s abuse, how difficult it was to be a de facto single parent, etc). She’d ask for a second opinion on important decisions. As a kid (starting from around seven-years-old), I felt like the only person on my mom’s side and grew very attached to her as she’d say things like “Show me a mother who’s more hardworking. There’s not one in the whole world,” and “I love you more than I love myself, did you know that?” and “My life is worth nothing, and I work hard so you can have a good life.” I don’t think this is a narcissistic ploy; I think she genuinely believes the things that she’s saying, which makes it harder to stop.

It’s not usually this unbearable, it’s just that I’m physically home for three weeks.

Things I have tried!: Firmly saying, “No, Mom, I’m not going to be a doctor”; tuning her out when she’s giving her spiel; limiting her to these discussions once per day; encouraging her to see a therapist (will probably take a few more years even though she’s somewhat interested—she doesn’t like tripping over herself in English, and she dislikes other Vietnamese people).

I have told her I will pay her back when I graduate (with that Silicon Valley money she’s pushing me to earn), but it does not seem to matter to her, since she has a premonition that she will pass away within six to eight years.
I would be contributing towards my tuition currently, but it's difficult with my medical expenses, and would be like trying to drain a river with a spoon. I'd rather transfer and take out a loan, but...

(Why a brain surgeon? When I was 16, I said I was interested in neuroscience and didn’t want to be in academia, so I was interested in exploring the medical side of things. Every time we discussed my future plans I made it explicit I was interested in exploring, not in actually diving in. Now I regret everything.)
(I’m also in therapy.)
posted by typify to Human Relations (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't an answer, but a recommendation of a community in which you can seek advice and support on a ongoing basis for those who deal with mothers and mother-in-laws in similar circumstances: JustNoMIL
posted by stormyteal at 7:07 PM on September 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

I have a very similar parent who sometimes can overwhelm me with their anxiety. What you can try is a shift toward optimism. I find that when I counter my parent's worries with the optimistic view (You'll never get a job with an English degree! I think I will Mom, the degree is very versatile in X Y Z ways) they in turn absorb some of my optimism. It's mental gymnastics 201, and it can work.

In the very immediate term college is temporary, and when you graduate, find a job and move out you will be much more independent.

On the financial side, it seems like your mother can technically afford it, even though you recognize the situation is not ideal. As it is her money, I would simply acknowledge that you cannot control what she does with it, and be grateful that she wants to pay for your college. Though of course you and I know it could be cheaper.

Medically, pursue every avenue to deal with these health difficulties, as they sound challenging on top of your mother's behavior. Take care of yourself. Eat well and get some air and exercise. Don't hold your 16-year-old enthusiasm against yourself.
posted by tooloudinhere at 7:14 PM on September 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

A lot of this would be tolerable if I was a normal person with a normal childhood. I couldn’t develop significant, supportive relationships when I was younger because I had severe social anxiety and was frequently depressed.

Just a side note that you aren’t nearly so abnormal as you think. Not that other people’s solutions have to be your solutions, but there are a lot of people out there who have dealt with what you are dealing with.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:16 PM on September 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

I know this sounds easier said than done, but stop engaging. Stop talking to her about your career and major aspirations. Stop talking to her about finance. Say a gentle "Thank you" when she tells you how special you are for going to a fancy school, and then do not engage further.

I hear you saying you can't disengage until you feel like you've literally paid your dues. That's the hardest thing, to get out of that feeling like something is owed. But it's an illusion.

Focus on getting out. Start now. Does she let you go outside by yourself now? Don't spend the time at home; find a nice coffee shop with WiFi and park yourself there during the day until your three weeks are up.
posted by capricorn at 7:21 PM on September 5, 2018 [6 favorites]

My mom is also ridiculous and lacks boundaries (though she also lacks praise). I figure that a lot of her micromanaging is to feel relevant and needed, so I try to give her tasks to redirect that energy. Like one time when I was moving and didn't have a bed, I asked her to research what the best air mattress was and get that for me. I still got tons of emails, but at least they were about air mattress comparison and not about my life.
posted by mermaidcafe at 7:24 PM on September 5, 2018 [17 favorites]

The most permanent solution is to get out from underneath her financial thumb. This may sound daunting, but you are an adult. How much longer do you have at your school before you graduate? What would it take for you to pay for that on your own through loans? I don't advocate loans lightly - they can be as onerous as your mother, but they at least will not guilt you into becoming a doctor.

Think about what your long term career goals. Not her plans for you, but what do YOU want to do? Can you do that if you transfer to a less expensive school and get some manageable loans? Do you need to stay at prestigious university if that means graduating and getting a job with a high rate of pay?

All of these questions lead towards the same solution: if you neuter her ability to manipulate your financially, she may lose a significant amount of her power to have a "say" in your future.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 8:23 PM on September 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Your mom sounds infuriating but also lovely in a way that is probably hard for you to see as her adult child home for 3 weeks because you want to strangle her a tiny bit. She clearly thinks you are the sun, moon and stars and you are not going to change her mind on that one. So I think it's ok for you to accept her praise and gifts without too much guilt as she enjoys showering them on you. She's inordinately proud of you and while she's pushy she's also supportive and encouraging. Remind yourself of that daily.

As for the neurosurgery thing, let it go. Even if you wanted to you wouldn't be a neurosurgeon for like 13 more years. You can gently remind her of this and maybe ask what more immediate goals you can set as a pair. Like going to a museum of restaurant she's always wanted to go to. My mother is also mad and there are always things she's wanted to do "forever" and that she won't do unless someone goes with her or helps her. I recently helped her accomplish her lifelong goal of growing a tomato plant (one) and she's nearly as pleased as if if gone to medical school. I mean, she has a garden and grows plants all the time but apparently needed me for the tomato. We've had similar adventures involving art galleries, movies that's she's waited YEARS to see with a family member because she also hates everyone else.

In short, look on the bright side, be grateful for what she's gifted you and deflect her more insane plans. She just wants you to be successful and people tend to see medicine as guaranteed success. If you are happy and excited about something else she will be proud of you for that too. And she has a damn good point about the money btw. Majoring in English is not the most financially responsible thing to do.

If she has a sense of humor you can joke with her gently about her conflicting goals for you and her superstition.
posted by fshgrl at 8:45 PM on September 5, 2018 [13 favorites]

In the end, she is going to be proud regardless of whether she's personally disappointed that you're not a famous surgeon -- she gets to brag that you graduated from fancy school and she gets to take credit for it. Hang in there.

Try a household PR campaign to bring her around to bursting with pride over whatever you DO want to major in. Check the alumni lists for famous people with your same major. Then find other famous people with the same major who graduated from similarly fancy schools. Point out ambitions that actually feel relevant to you, help her learn to brag about some other scenario.

As for majoring in English, I am super biased because I too was an English major, but it's really a super versatile degree that doesn't deserve the snark. I am fond of pointing out that it's a practical education in the best examples over 600 years of how we have used this language to argue, woo, and influence thought.
posted by desuetude at 11:44 PM on September 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

My rich father barely paid for my university and gave me zero encouragement, overall. My mom was barely involved, except as an obstacle...

I realize this isn’t a direct answer, but comparatively your situation is much more win/win in terms of outcomes. You are being gifted a great opportunity in life.

My advice is to look long term. Without a great education, your future is more limited. Maybe focus on your studies and your career goals? That will have the benefit of ultimately satisfying your mom.
posted by jbenben at 1:29 AM on September 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

I (south Asian) have a good relationship with my family but they all have different things they want me to do: my mother for e.g. is really, really emotionally invested in my getting married and having children, like, now. What I have found helpful is to just not engage when they talk about these things. Either steer the conversation to something less likely to get you both riled up but ideally something that your mother is likely to engage in - hot gossip about the neighbours she loves to hate, the latest episode of a TV show she loves, etc, or if she wants to stick to the annoying topic, get up and leave. No need to argue or make it hostile. "Oh, whoops, there's something I have to do now Mom, gotta go."

It is pointless trying to talk people around when they've got an obsession like this, and from their point of view they're correct and you're the stubborn one; but it's a shame to cut people off when the rest of your relationship is fine, and your mother, wrong-headed and annoying though she must be, clearly adores you. I lost my dad fairly recently so that might be colouring my answer, but I think it's worth focusing on the good stuff you can have together.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:47 AM on September 6, 2018 [6 favorites]

Hello! I too am financially dependent on overbearing opinionated stifling Asian parents (despite my best efforts - jobhunting on a visa is the WORST)!

At some point I just realised nothing I do would ever make them happy. I could do what my version of Top School Neurosurgeon is and they'd STILL find something to take issue with it. I was back at theirs for 9 months in between places and it was unbearable every damn day.

So I just went fuck it and did what I wanted. With their money, still, because they are also very adamant that their child will not beg (I've even gotten in trouble for crowdfunding) and their pride will not allow them to disown me and cut me off, as much as that would make things a little easier for me possibly.

They fought me over it a lot. Still do sometimes. But at some point they realised, even in the back of their mind, that I'm just going to do what's going to keep me sane. They can guilt me all they want but it's not gonna change much. And somehow, despite being an itinerant artist type, I'm not dead or homeless, so I'm OK somehow despite their worrying.

Live your life.
posted by divabat at 5:20 AM on September 6, 2018 [7 favorites]

At the end of the day, I think the only way to handle this is to make your decision and reject future attempts at interventions. Say that you've decided, that this is what you'll be happiest doing, etc. This may come at some risk, but it's your life and you have to live it for you. Set your boundaries now - it's easier to pull back from them later, when you're living life on your own terms.

I grew up in a middle-class family. Both of my parents were public servants who made enough to where we weren't struggling, but they both grew up in abject poverty. My dad grew up in a single parent home, with an unstable mother and sibling - he was working at age 14 so that he could keep the lights on in his house. He had to quit football during his senior year because his mother lost her job and their health insurance, and he was too vital to their finances by then to take the risk. It was a sad existence for him, and he always swore that his kids would have everything they wanted, and the best of everything that he could afford. This manifested in lots of ways while I was growing up - not all of them bad - but many of them complicate my feelings toward my dad. Sometimes it was silly things - I would need a new pair of goggles for swim team, and instead of purchasing the modestly-priced ones that I liked and wanted, he would buy a pair that was much more expensive, and not really what I wanted.

Other more dramatic examples: In high school, he wanted me to apply for military service academies. I didn't. He wanted me to be a fighter pilot. I didn't. I did go to medical school. During my whole undergraduate education, my father pushed me to enroll in ROTC, which I did not (no interest, no time). When applying to medical school, he wanted me to apply to the armed forces medical school (applied, but never completed the application). When I got into medical school, he wanted me to apply for the health professions scholarship. At this point, we got into a big fight because he just couldn't understand why I wasn't interested in being a military doctor (since I was so unwilling to become a pilot).

Once in medical school, after he finally gave up on the idea of me joining the military, he started fixating on specialty choice. He wanted me to be a surgeon. He could not understand why anyone wouldn't want to be a surgeon. And there are lots of reasons not to want to be a surgeon. I'm in a specialty and a job that I am very happy in, and that I find rewarding. I know that my dad will always be a little disappointed that I didn't live up to what he imagined my potential to be, but I have an obligation to myself first to be emotionally safe and happy.

You have an obligation to be true to yourself. If doing what makes you happy means that your mom stops paying for school, then you have an opportunity to transfer at that point. I would let her keep paying for school if she wishes to and is able to. But you decide what to study and what your career will ultimately be.
posted by honeybee413 at 6:56 AM on September 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

I had a similar father, except more abusive.

He wanted me to study astrophysics instead of English, which I did, until I had a breakdown in my junior year and nearly flunked out of all my classes. So I went to therapy and majored in English, since I'd kept up with my classes anyway through electives. He came to terms with it eventually.

Study what you want. I mean it.
posted by lydhre at 7:53 AM on September 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oooof, this sounds like a difficult situation and I sympathize.

What seems to be going on here, to me, is that your mother has justified the immense amount of trauma/poverty/stress she has been going through by pinning all of her hopes on you. This is understandable in a human way, but it's also very unfair to you. She also sounds like she's parentified you by asking you for age-inappropriate emotional support that you were categorically unable to give, due to your age and status as her child.

It sounds like you're doing the right things, going to therapy, saying things like, "Mom I love you and appreciate your sacrifices for me" (**which is a phrase, that had I used it when I was younger, regardless of whether I felt genuinely thankful or not, I still believe would have helped a lot**) "But I am NOT going to be a neurosurgeon."

From experience: she may let up on the pressure if you flunk horribly at their intended path. But it's not worth it, to you, to go to med school and fail just to prove you're not going to be a neurosurgeon. So nthing taking her money while she is willing to give it, and doing what you want.
posted by coffeeand at 11:22 AM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Your life story is literally my life story. Allow me to loan you my mantra:

YOUR MOM CAN BELIEVE WHATEVER THE FUCK SHE WANTS TO BELIEVE. You aren't her. You don't control her thoughts or her beliefs or her feelings. You are not responsible for correcting her ideas about you. She gets to be as wrong as she wishes to be.

My own mother thinks I am just about ready to call her any day now to tell her I'm ready for an arranged marriage. She's delusional, because get this: 15 years ago I eloped with guy, had two kids with him, and last year I got divorced. And yet she believes I am dying to get married to some guy from my own sub-sub-caste that she picks for me. Other than LOLing every time she mentions this notion, I don't bother to correct her.

You go on doing whatever it is you want to do. Make sympathetic noises about her nightmares, but continue to speak your mind about your English Major ambitions or interests. What she makes of it and how she feels about it is none of your concern.
posted by MiraK at 11:32 AM on September 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Can you try to acknowledge her concerns, but on your own terms?

"Mom, I hear you about your concerns about me finding a job after graduation. I will continue with the English major, but add a second major/ minor/ take a few classes in [practical subject]. I will also work with the career center to help me find an internship for next summer."

"OK Mom, I will set up a meeting with the pre-med adviser next week." //
"Mom, I met with the pre-med adviser today. The adviser, advised against me going to med school [for reasons]. Next week I have a meeting with career services to start planning my next steps."

For what it's worth, the ship has sailed about transferring. Most schools will only transfer up to two years worth of credits.

Have you considered calling your mom on the way to class (or similar) so that you have a built in reason to end the call in a reasonable amount of time?
posted by oceano at 12:17 PM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Well, not everyone gets into med school... And people major in all sorts of things before med school. And Neuroscience isn't strictly limited to brain surgery anyhow, far from it.

What if you just let her think you plan on applying, and down the road say you would have gone except you didn't get in and/or had another opportunity for (thing you actually want to do) drop onto your plate, and it was such a wonderful opportunity that you are now pursuing that?

Obviously this only works if you get your mail somewhere else. Get a PO box if you live at home, you need control over your own mail anyhow.
posted by yohko at 6:52 PM on September 6, 2018

I used to be you. Down to the extremely socially isolated childhood, resulting social anxiety, private liberal arts school degree, and emotionally manipulative Asian-immigrant mother.

You cannot change anything about your mom. You can express yourself, impart information, and set boundaries with her, but how your mom thinks, feels, and behaves is fundamentally not something within your control. (It's okay because now you can free up all that mental space this was taking up!)

Cultivating the ability to emotionally detach from your mom's behavior will be hard, but I highly recommend it. This book (chapter 8 especially) helped me figure it out. Fun tidbit from that chapter: trying to find the words to describe something helps to deactivate the emotionally reactive part of your brain. So doing something like silently describing your mom or your feelings during a stressful interaction can help you to stay grounded.

Things changed a lot for me once I stopped seeking parental approval and trying to influence my mom to be a certain way. It's energy better spent on being kind to yourself. You will feel lighter.

I agree with above posters re: studying what you want. Learn how to listen to yourself and trust your decisions, and your ability to course-correct as needed. Everything else will follow from that. Making a commitment to nurturing and basically re-parenting myself via years of therapy, self-care practices like meditation, and self-help books helped a lot with all of this.

Absolutely keep going with therapy and self-care and maintaining your support networks outside your mom. Especially that last one, as it will help the most with increasing your autonomy and decreasing your dependence on your mom (financial and otherwise) in the long term.

You're off to such a great start. You will get through this!
posted by jnrs at 12:45 AM on September 8, 2018

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