Ground rules for dealing with enabling in a Mother/Child relationship?
June 10, 2019 11:19 PM   Subscribe

My Mom and I (who I’m currently living with, and also writing this question with) have had issues with enabling and codependency for as long as I can remember; we’re now finally trying to build an equal relationship in which both of us are (more or less) pulling our weight around the house and in general. The problem is that we’re starting to overanalyze every situation, and so would like to come up with some hard and fast rules to follow so we don’t have to discuss whether or not something is enabling a dozen times a day. We’re having a hard time coming up with the rules ourselves, and could use MetaFilter’s help. For those who have gone through a similar situation either via a parent, child, spouse or some other loved one - what constitutes enabling in your eyes, and what ground rules worked for you to address this issue?

Just a foreword - my Mom is a single parent, and my Dad is not in the picture. I’m the enabled party in this relationship.

I’m an adult child who is currently living with my Mom due to an illness; I’ll be here until the end of the summer. We are falling back into the enabling/enabled trap I remember so well from my childhood, and we both recognize it’s again getting out of hand. She’s always had a hard time showing “tough love,” and - as shameful as it is for me to say - I guess I grew up learning how to take advantage of that. I do do some chores - mostly yardwork - but she does the brunt of the indoor stuff (outside of doing my laundry).

I have a lot of guilt about not pulling my weight but cannot seem to stop asking her to do things for me, especially since I can get her to say “yes” the vast majority of the time. It’s almost like it’s compulsive for me at this point (and maybe for her as well?). She has told me that it’s on me to not ask in the first place - and I agree the buck stops with me especially now that I am an adult - but I can’t also help but feel that it would really help if she would show some tough love from time to time, shoot me down and say “no” - thus forcing me to do things for myself or else suffer the consequences of my actions.

Just to give some context, some examples of the enabling from my childhood include: letting me skip school due to anxiety, and helping me lie to my teachers when I didn’t finish a school project in time or missed a class. There are plenty of other relevant examples, but just to give an idea of how bad things got: My Mom literally did all of my college applications for me… I didn’t even know when the deadlines were. Every time she bailed me out I would feel instant relief from my anxiety. As a result, I think I tend to take the “path of least resistance” in life even as an adult - I often drop things too early and quit when the going gets tough.

Now back in the present - here are some example situations we've discussed where we end up having issues:

- My Mom is at the store, and usually asks me if there’s anything I need while she’s there. My initial thought is that this could be fine so long as she’s not going out especially for me and I’m not the one asking her to go in the first place. The problem is that she goes grocery shopping pretty much every day and does not want to alternate days with me, since shopping after work is a stress outlet for her; we both don’t see the point in me going if she’s already going to be there, but then I’m basically not going shopping at all which feels like enabling to me.

- My Mom is cooking for herself, and I haven’t eaten yet - she asks me whether I would like some of the food.

- My Mom is in the kitchen and I’m in the living room; we've discussed whether it's okay for her to bring me a glass of milk if I ask for one in this situation. (She says this is not enabling since it’s just “doing a kind thing for my child and I’m in the kitchen anyway,” whereas I’m pretty sure stuff like this is enabling - especially since it happens so often - but I can’t seem to stop asking…)

Anyway, here are our questions (the one of primary significance being helping us come up a concrete definition for enabling along with some ground rules for preventing enabling):

- What constitutes “enabling” for you?
- How can my Mom show tough love, keeping in mind that this is something she has issues with?
- What are some ground rules for enabling we can both follow? We both really want some simple rules - hopefully relatively few in number - that we can employ for what we consider to be “edge cases” since we are seriously spending a lot of time debating these from day to day.
- Where and how do we draw the line between “doing kind things for each other” and “enabling?”
- What kind of self-talk can I employ in order to keep me from asking her to do things for me which I am perfectly capable of doing? What kind of self-talk can she employ in order to be able to say “no” to me for situations in which I drop the ball?

Again - I am writing this question with her input, and we will both be reading the answers, so please keep this in mind when responding. We both really appreciate the help!)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (34 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Whose illness? Are you there to care for her, or have you moved home for her to care for you?
posted by crazy with stars at 1:02 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


You use the word 'enabling' a lot. It's unclear to me what is the exact action or concept that is being enabled here (or not). I find it hard to answer without that information.
Enabling of what? Can you put a name on it? That might make things clearer, also to yourself.

Generally speaking: I believe that it's fine if adults do things for each other, as long as they both feel good about that. There is nothing inherently wrong with your mother always doing the shopping. She gets enjoyment out of it. If you feel that it makes for an unbalanced situation, maybe that can be resolved by you doing something in return, something that she doesn't enjoy doing? Can you ask her about that?

And yes, you can stop asking her to do stuff. Don't depend on her to say no, even though that would make things easier for you. You can choose to do this. Saying you can't seem to stop is taking the easy way out; you're better than that.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:01 AM on June 11 [16 favorites]


So I think the first key here is actually anxiety.

You feel anxious in percieved tough situations and seek out your mom to handle that stuff. Be it whatever. So really, it isn't about the action it is about your internal state.

The action itself isn't enabling, it is your emotional response to the need prior and your solution (mom).

To me it reads you have the disability, but it's not clear to me. You may have an underlying mental health condition contributing to this dynamic, you may not. Either way therapy would be good for you to analyze your behavior and focus
on that emotional response .

But you must also remeber to be kind to yourself and accept some support. Tackling anxiety is really hard work. Finding motivation if your depressed is really really hard. So take it a moment at a time and challenge yourself some but you don't have to do everything alone either.

I don't know that specific examples will do much good, because really if you give yourself only activities your fine with doing, then you'll never actually challenge the dependency . I don't know what causes you to be anxious. For me, phone calls are one of those things, but it's actually fairly simple to do.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:26 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]


I think this is something you have to work on yourself - changing your own behaviour. Putting the blame back on your mom is again re-inforcing an enabling dynamic. The constant conversations sound exhausting for your mother and seem more a manifestation of your anxiety rather than any enabling behaviour on her part. That being said, from your examples I don’t see enabling as much as you just being selfish and thoughtless. Sinc she is working and shopping after work, and you are home during the day, it is in you to motivate yourself to get the housework done. Why not plan out the week’s meals and commit to cooking every other day. . Are you in active therapy? It sounds like you need someone other than your mother to vent to. I’m not sure what self-talk will work for you, but perhaps writing a list of everything you need to do each day and crossing them off as you accomplish them will focus your energy. Good luck, it is hard to break childhood patterns.
posted by saucysault at 2:30 AM on June 11 [20 favorites]


Hmm, I know you are not my daughter, since I'm away this week. But let's say I know this situation well. And the other day my daughter called me after I'd fallen asleep to ask me to bring her something (we were going to meet at a family gathering the next day). It seems I answered the phone in my sleep, I don't remember a word. But she asked me to bring a skirt, I asked her what color, she said it doesn't matter, and I said "F*** YOU" and hung up on her. This made the whole family laugh, because it is probably the first time ever I said no, and I did so loud and clear. In my sleep. It does seem I have some issues with her still living at home, acting like a teenager when she is clearly not.

In my opinion, what you are asking is "how do I adult when I'm with my parent". A lot of us fall back into childhood roles when we are with our family, and sometimes the family enables it, or even pushes it.

The phone incident has made me think that when I get home, I'll need to discuss this with my daughter, like the two of you are having a discussion. But first, I will need to figure out what my issues are, and she will have to figure out hers. It's all good that you are posting this question together, and want to work this out together, but at the very heart of this is the fact that you are not respecting each other as individuals, with individual needs. And maybe part of this could be that you are not respecting yourselves. Each of you needs some you time.

I realized that was my issue, at least, because last week, I spent a lot of time and hard work at carving out a physical private space for myself in our home. A place where I can entirely be myself, and which is clean and cosy. When I finally finished (and went to bed early, which is when she called), I felt it like a heavy weight had come off my shoulders. Maybe that was why I found the energy to swear at her.
Till now, I've regularly escaped from home to go here to our second home to find some peace of mind, and usually, I literally collapse for days when I arrive here. It's not productive.

You say you will stay till the end of summer. It's good to know you have a deadline. My daughter is staying till she finishes school and finds a job -- probably it's a similar timeframe. So what about making some clear and fair house rules for that period? I'm going to suggest that I clean the kitchen and she cleans the bathroom, every day. I get the kitchen because I love cooking, and she loves it when I cook. She gets the bathroom because in true teen style, she spends hours there. Every day because the dirt stresses me out and makes me miserable. We share the rest, depending on what else is going on. Have meals together because that's civilized, and I cook and she does the dishes (puts them in the dishwasher).

House rules aren't going to stop you from bossing your mum around. You should stop yourself, because it will be better for your self respect, and your mum should start saying no for her own sake, not for yours. You can't put that burden on her, that's just another thing she has to housekeep. Most of all, you should both look at how to take care of yourself. Like in the airplanes, when they say you must put on your own oxygen mask before you put on your baby's.

(I'm giving this advice to myself, too)
posted by mumimor at 2:33 AM on June 11 [18 favorites]


It does read as though you are putting a lot of the emotional responsibility for avoiding co-dependency onto your mother with this question, so really not pulling your weight, as you put it, in the project of avoiding co-dependency. Plus, what you have described her doing is stuff that mothers usually do anyway? People becoming adult mostly just...grow out of letting their mum do everything for them, without thinking it's the parents job to stop? (Although many parents do stop on their own account, because they've had enough or because they are no longer capable of looking after another adult.) Like the shopping: whether or not your mother goes shopping every day, you can still do some shopping without referring to her?

There's maybe not enough background information posted to let people answer it helpfully. Are either of you ill, or somehow limited in what they can do? Are either of you in counseling or other therapy? Are you working? Do you have financial independence from your mother?

It does read as though you are avoiding taking responsibility for yourself even in the way you're asking the question about taking more responsibility. Maybe if you can post more info about your situation it will be easier for posters to see a way to respond to the Ask.
posted by glasseyes at 2:43 AM on June 11 [11 favorites]


What you call “enabling” sounds like mom being hospitable and nice to me. It’s not clear what is being “enabled” here as that term usually applies to negative behaviors like addictions or abuse being “enabled.” If you are worried your dependency on her is being “enabled” then move out. Her offering to bring you a glass of milk while she’s in the kitchen seems like a minor issue, and in my experience you aren’t going to change the basic personal style of an elder parent. If she’s solicitous of you as a guest in her home and you find it stifling, the solution is obvious if not easy — get cracking on finding another living situation.

I’m going to assume you’re the one with the illness being cared for by mom. If it’s the other way around none of this applies.

So here’s a concrete idea: Why don’t you set yourself a list of chores and shopping tasks to help her out? You’re the adult child and thus a guest here. Flip the script. Enable her to take less concern and practice being the independent person you want to be. Surprise her by going to the store, buying dinner ingredients, and cooking for her, say? Vacuum the whole house while she’s out? You’ll feel much better about yourself.

It really seems like the guilt you mention — over being in a position of dependency that requires you to live with your mom as an adult — is being shifted off on your mom here, although you say otherwise and that you get that the buck stops with you, the essential point about all adult relationships. If your mom wasn’t the tough love type when you were a kid, it’s not likely she will change now. Expecting her to is a kind of deflection, indeed its own kind of enabling. You take the initiative an don’t let yourself be waited on. Wait on her. You may find flipping the power script very healing. And good practice for later life.
posted by spitbull at 2:57 AM on June 11 [16 favorites]


Well, I mean the only answer is stop asking your mom to do everything for you and better, start volunteering to do things for her. You're not actually powerless, you can do your own laundry, and you can get your own milk from the kitchen.

I can't help but notice that even the way you phrase the question--how to get your mom to stop helping you--puts all of the work back on her and none on you. You need to take responsibility for this dynamic also and stop letting her do things for you.

I'd say the first thing to do is to stop asking your mom to do anything that you're perfectly capable of doing yourself. That should shut down a majority of this, and if you slip up and accidentally ask her to do something, immediately say oops and tell her it's okay, you'll do it yourself. When she offers to do something for you, tell her no thanks.

Don't get caught up in codependency roles and what's typical and what isn't. This is a dynamic you're uncomfortable with. You're an adult and you can manage your own things. So manage your own things.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:02 AM on June 11 [42 favorites]


Maybe try thinking of it this way:
She can't enable you if you don't let her.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:28 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]


A quick and dirty guideline I’d use: “Am I asking/expecting this person to go out of their way for me?” And “Would I be doing this myself if they were not here?” If the answer is yes to either question, you don’t ask.

Working though the examples — if mom’s at the store, her asking you if you need anything is fine. You’re not asking her to go to the store for you to pick up something, she’s there anyway. But asking her to go to the store for you because you need milk? Nope, that’s a fail on both questions — you’re asking her to do something for you, and if she wasn’t there you’d do it yourself.

If your mom is already cooking and she asks you if you’d like something? That’s fine. Asking her to make something specific for you? Nope. Both questions fail again.

Asking her to get you a glass of milk? Nope. That fails both questions. You’re asking her to do something for you and if she wasn’t there’s you’d get it yourself. If she brings you the milk without you asking, or asks you if you’d like a glass of milk? That’s her doing kind things for you. (and leveling up for you here is next time you’re in the kitchen, you bring her a glass of milk as a nice gesture!)

If your mom wasn’t around, how would you solve the problem? That’s your new default.

A simpler easier to follow version: don’t ask for stuff. Do it yourself. And then do it for her as well since you are already doing it for yourself. Your mom is already doing this. Now it’s your turn.
posted by cgg at 3:36 AM on June 11 [13 favorites]


I just wanted to reiterate what a number of people have said, that you're putting the responsibility on your mom here. As far as the chores go, maybe it would be good to do a chore chart so you feel that you're pulling your own weight. I think that in any cohabiting relationship chores get divided up - for example, my husband shops while I do laundry. As long as you're doing a fair share of the chores, it doesn't matter if your mom consistently shops or does dishes or whatever.
posted by christinetheslp at 4:16 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]


None of your examples seem enabling/codependent to me - just normal things 2 adults do for each other when they live together. Unless you're intentionally not eating before your mum cooks so that she'll feel obligated to offer you the food she cooked? Or not getting yourself a drink while you were in the kitchen then waiting til your mum goes and then asking?

I wouldn't think twice about asking someone to bring me something from the room that they're in to the room that they're coming to or going past

From the tone of your question I was expecting much worse, like your mum is running herself ragged while you just watch tv or play video games.

Being an independent adult and pulling your weight does not mean doing everything for yourself all the time. There are 2 of you in the house and you both need groceries, you both need to eat, you both need clean dishes etc If buying groceries is your mum's chore then you put them away (unless that's also part of her stress release), if she cooks, do the dishes. You says she does most of the indoor chores - well change that. Clean up after yourself, while she's buying groceries, wipe down the kitchen counters or some other household chore that needs doing.

You don't need to never ask for a glass of milk, just do your fair share around the house and do it without being asked.

If you don't want your mum to do things for you, its 100% on you to stop asking. You want her to give you tough love - well if she's enabling you, then you're further expecting her to enable you in not being enabled. You're putting the emotional labor on her because you're not willing to do the work yourself.
posted by missmagenta at 4:16 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]


Rather than trying to not do something (which I, for one, find nearly impossible), instead could you try to do more things? Preferably the things she doesn't like to do?

So she likes to grocery shop and cook and deliver glasses of milk. Fine: if she doesn't feel she's being exploited for her shopping and cooking and milk-delivery services, it's not a problem and you can stop worrying about the codependency, there. It's only until you move out. It's not like it's going to ruin your relationship with your mother for all time or reduce you to permanent toddlership if you call to your mother in the kitchen and ask for a glass of milk.

I'll bet she's not delighted with every minute of her life that she's spending washing dishes or mopping or doing the laundry or cleaning the bathroom. What if you take some or all of that on and just do it without talking about it? Choose some aspect or many aspects of the daily slog and take it on. Do it, and do it well, like a grown person. As you get good at doing the things, add more things. Then you may feel more deserving of the glasses of milk she's bringing.
posted by Don Pepino at 4:20 AM on June 11 [11 favorites]


None of your adult examples are enabling. They are things that I would expect in any close* co-living situation. One rule of thumb: anything she's already doing for herself, she is allowed to include you and it's not enabling. (Honestly, I'd be annoyed if my housemate* went shopping and WASN'T willing to grab the whole list.)

Another way for you to take this on is to take every time you see your mom doing something that means you never have to do it, you can deliberately and purposefully take on something to counteract that, so you're doing the same amount for each other. So if she does all the shopping, maybe you could do all her laundry, if that would be helpful to her. Or you can vacuum, or do the dishes.

But at that point, it's on you to DO the thing. You can't make it her problem to remind you to do it or let it go for days past when she needs it done so you can do it instead of her. I agree with other people that you're putting too much on her; pick some things you believe you can do and make them your problem. And if you can't, you need outside help (therapy, medication), not your mom's.

Basically, the boundaries you're describing in childhood sound problematic, but the boundaries you're describing in adulthood sound very reasonable. If you want to be more proactive, it's all on you.

*I've had roommates who lived separately in the house and the expectations would be different. But living with my sister, my boyfriend, and my best friend are the situations I'm basing this on.
posted by gideonfrog at 4:24 AM on June 11 [7 favorites]


These are all things my husband happily does for me. In fact, he has run to the store at night just for me when we're out of something. I've asked him to cook me specific things for dinner when I'm craving eggs but too tired to cook. The thing is, he would never ask for any of these things himself, so it started to feel unbalanced. So now I make a point to offer the same options to him - I offer him a cup of tea when he comes home. I always ask him what he wants for dinner, cook and do dishes when he's had a long day. I do more day-to-day chores. Basically, I don't think you have to stop receiving kindness, I think you should focus on giving more kindness, even if she would never ask for it. Whilst she is at the shops picking up the food every day, you clean something. Offer to make dinner for you both sometimes. Pick a specific chore and make that your responsibility.

I think focusing on doing something positive is much easier than avoiding doing a specific thing, and avoids putting pressure on your mother to make the decisions for you (which I think is also enabling!). It also naturally leads to more independence - if you're the one in the kitchen sometimes, she won't be bringing you milk then.
posted by stillnocturnal at 5:00 AM on June 11 [18 favorites]


What are the house responsibilities your mom dislikes the most or enjoys the least? Could you take it upon yourself to do those chores, regardless of how you feel about them?

Also I agree you need to quit asking and not blame your mom for not showing tough love. Don’t keep putting this on her when you keep asking/pushing.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:28 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]


I'm really interested in this question and the answers - it feels a lot like the dynamic that sets in when I - a fully fledged, functioning adult - come home to visit. I can't count the number of times I've asked myself why it feels impossible to feel as though I'm actually an adult when I'm around my mom - and truly, as tempting as it might be to offer "willpower" as the answer to this question (Just don't ask for the milk! Just cook dinner!) it's obvious to me it's not that simple.

Feeling like a child when I'm at home makes me actively unhappy; it's in no way offset by the fleeting joy that I might get from having my mom bring me a glass of milk on the couch, or whatever. The mother/child dynamic is a raw, messy, complicated thing, and just wanting to change it almost certainly won't be enough - you have to understand it first.

From my own experience, there may be a couple of things going on. One, a lot of these domestic issues tend to come down to control. What happens if you do, say, make lunch for you and your mom? Is she happy about it? Or does she tell you you're doing it wrong? It was a very illuminating moment for me when I tried to make myself a cup of coffee in my mom's kitchen, and she jumped up to "help" me like three times in a ten minute period. I wasn't asking her to do it, or doing it wrong; I was just going about the task, and she was jumping up and opening drawers and making "suggestions" about how many scoops should go in the coffee maker. This is not to attack my mom, only to say that it took an active effort to remind myself that I am capable of making coffee and I have done it successfully in my own home literally thousands of times. Just because I don't do it exactly like my mom does it doesn't mean I'm fucking it up.

This is not something you have to point out to your mom, or ask her to change; it's something you should remind yourself: you know how to take care of yourself. Your mom might comment or criticize; it will be easier in that moment to take the path of least resistance and just let her do it. The self-talk you employ in that moment is to remind yourself that you're a capable human who has done these things before on your own, and your mom's opinions are just that - her opinions.

I would say, rather than talking this out with your mom, avoid conversations for a little while. You can acknowledge, inwardly, that it feels bad to have someone do something for you that you're capable of doing for yourself; to feel like your mom doesn't trust you to do something as basic as the grocery shopping. My mom would definitely say that she trusts me to, say, make dinner - but the ten million comments that would accompany my doing so in front of her would suggest otherwise. That's her problem. I'm not going to fix her, and you're not going to fix your mom. What you can do, hopefully, is practice disengaging from your mom: just going about your business, doing things for yourself, first, and reminding yourself every time you feel helpless that you're not. You're doing a perfectly good job taking care of yourself - making lunch, shopping, etc. - and every time you do it, you'll get a little better. Your mom may or may not reflect this back to you. It doesn't matter. It feels good to take care of yourself, and you're doing it for yourself, not to take a burden off of her.

I hope that helps! Good luck.
posted by Merricat Blackwood at 6:18 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]


but I can’t also help but feel that it would really help if she would show some tough love from time to time, shoot me down and say “no” - thus forcing me to do things for myself or else suffer the consequences of my actions.

You are no longer a kid and can’t expect parenting from your mom.

Here is some tough love:

1. If you feel guilt, do something. Are you at home during the day? What’s happening during the day when your mother is working?

2. I wouldn’t expect my mom to employ tough behavior when history has shown that’s not her personality. You have to parent yourself.

3. You know what needs to be done, but maybe you don’t want to do the things? So you put it on your mom to inspire you. And yet you know she can’t inspire you, so you get to stay inert, lazy, a kid? Inspire yourself.

4. It’s not wise to put so much in the hands of others. Again, ask yourself what needs to be done. Do it, regardless of what your mom is doing.
posted by loveandhappiness at 6:24 AM on June 11 [6 favorites]


Hey! Congrats on trying to change a dynamic that isn't working for you anymore.

Consider that your mom has told you "no." She's done it as a blanket statement by saying "don't ask me for things anymore." That IS a "no." And right now it may be beyond her to assert it at individual instances and she may send mixed messages. You can do her a kindness by remembering that she has said no to you.

Do you have a plan to do these types of jobs for yourself? For instance, when your mom offers to pick things up for you at the store, did you have any kind of plan to go grocery shopping for yourself at any point? At the beginning of each week make a plan for when you are going to do the things you need to do to keep yourself fed, clothed, and clean (and in a clean environment). Be specific on dates and time. When your mom offers to do something for you, remember your plan. You can say, "no thanks, I have a plan to go to the store this evening."

You mention needing to help around the house more. Decide on your "Big Three." For example, my big three are "dishes, laundry, and trash." Everyday, I need to do the dishes, do some laundry, and pick up/take out the trash. Do it every day. I have found that for each of the three, I can set a timer for 15 minutes and get it done (so it's 45 minutes a day, which may seem like a lot, but it goes by quickly!).

Say thank you and I love you to your mom a lot (if you mean it). As you do more for yourself she might feel like she is losing something. This part is extra but I think it would be a kindness and help her.
posted by CMcG at 6:56 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]


- My Mom is at the store, and usually asks me if there’s anything I need while she’s there. My initial thought is that this could be fine so long as she’s not going out especially for me and I’m not the one asking her to go in the first place. The problem is that she goes grocery shopping pretty much every day and does not want to alternate days with me, since shopping after work is a stress outlet for her; we both don’t see the point in me going if she’s already going to be there, but then I’m basically not going shopping at all which feels like enabling to me.

That's not enabling, if you, in turn, do something for her or the household. Here's the thing about being housemates, related or not: Certain chores need to get done and sometimes people have preferences. It's not unfair for your mom to do all the shopping if she enjoys doing all the shopping. What's unfair is if she is doing all the shopping, all the cooking, all the cleaning, and her own laundry (why don't you do hers, too, if she does all the shopping?).

You need three lists: What must be done, what she enjoys, and what you enjoy. Then you can sit down and and decide who does what, when. Negotiate an agreement where you both get to do the things you prefer, whenever possible, and take turns doing the things you both dislike.

If your mom is easy going, then you need to basically insist on doing a fair share of the work. So maybe that is her shopping and cooking for both of you and you cleaning up after and vacuuming. It doesn't matter who does what; what matters is that you can come to some kind of an agreement and stick to it. Try it out for two weeks with a checklist so each chore gets checked off and dated when it is done. At the end of two weeks or perhaps even one, it will be clear if one of you is not pulling your weight.

Are you ill or is your mom ill? Illness is a thing. Presumably the ill person has some kind of limitations because of the illness and that should be factored in as well.

As others have noted, you cannot change your mom. If she wants to change, she can. If there is alcoholism or addiction in your family, your mom may have grown up in chaos as I did and may not understand how to set and would boundaries to take care of herself. In that case she might consider attending Al-Anon meetings. She can also explore Codependents Anonymous or read Codependent No More if this issue is important to her.

If this issue is important to you because you don't really know how to take care of yourself because you have been so dependent on your mom and you want to change, you can also explore the resources above. Or ask the awesome Captain Awkward this question. You can find a therapist. You can look for other resources. But you cannot make your mom set limits and boundaries with you. You cannot make her do anything, really, and she can't make you do anything, either. Y'all can make your requests and then see what happens.

Pretending she is a housemate and not your mom might help motivate you to change. I applaud your desire to change. I will say that I catered to my own daughter far too long at my own expense. Al-Anon taught me that it is a mistake to do for others what they can do for themselves (unless there is an agreement as mentioned above). So at some point when my kid asked me for a glass of water, I would smile and tell her the glasses were in the kitchen.

As a parent, for too long my impulse was to do too much for my kid and that impulse did not serve either of us. It was good that I eventually found Al-Anon and great that I was able to start saying no. The problem with saying yes all the time is that it teaches your kid that they are incapable of doing anything. That's not true but doing too much for them essentially undermines their ability to develop adult skills and responsibilities.

It pains me that my misguided efforts to protect my kid went so awry. We had a similar dynamic to you and your mom for many years. But we don't now. We both help each other, we can say no to one another, and we have a strong and loving relationship. I wish the same for you. Thanks for the question, OP.
posted by Bella Donna at 7:27 AM on June 11 [6 favorites]


You can get ahead of these situations to prevent this dynamic, where she's in a position to do something for you. They don't materialize from thin air; you do have control of them if you so choose. You'll have to be 1- aware and 2-proactive. You're already aware, so now you can get proactive.

She's cooking and you haven't eaten yet: that doesn't "just happen," even though it may seem that way. If you really think about it, you'll probably discover that actually, you're passively waiting for her to offer, because that's been the comfortable dynamic for so long.

This can change if you truly want it to. Meals are not a surprise. They happen at roughly the same time every day. You, yourself, need to be cooking well ahead of your meal time, and offer to make enough for both of you. Just one example.

It may be uncomfortable, but you can change little by little.
posted by kapers at 7:40 AM on June 11 [4 favorites]


Also, your mom cannot make these changes FOR you. Even collaborating on this question and getting into endless fruitless discussions with you is her taking on yet more work you should be doing.

You have to do this yourself. If you're cooking the meal, for example, then there's no need for her to change any of her behavior.

Of course, if she doesn't LET you cook the meal, objects when you try, etc., then she will need to make changes as well. But it sounds like she's willing to let you, if you only would. Mom, if you're reading, let your kid take the wheel. Let them fail! It's the only way they'll learn how to succeed.

I strongly disagree with others who say this seems to be a normal dynamic. Moms doing their kids' college applications is cheating. Adults living with parents pitch in.
posted by kapers at 7:50 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]


Oops! Apologies for a typo above. Part of my answer should have read, "...may not understand how to set and hold boundaries to take care of herself."
posted by Bella Donna at 8:00 AM on June 11


One way of thinking about this: Your mom loves you and is doing things to be kind to you. You love you mom. What are you doing to be kind to her?

Find this balance.
posted by MountainDaisy at 8:21 AM on June 11 [8 favorites]


I have a lot of guilt about not pulling my weight but cannot seem to stop asking her to do things for me, especially since I can get her to say “yes” the vast majority of the time. It’s almost like it’s compulsive for me at this point (and maybe for her as well?). She has told me that it’s on me to not ask in the first place - and I agree the buck stops with me especially now that I am an adult - but I can’t also help but feel that it would really help if she would show some tough love from time to time, shoot me down and say “no” - thus forcing me to do things for myself or else suffer the consequences of my actions.

There is no one that's going to sit you down and give you a card that says you're a member of adulthood. You are what you do.

In fact: maybe frame your requests to your mother that way: when you feel the "compulsion" to ask her to do something for you, say "huh, well I am what I do... and I'm the type of person that will burden my mother when I don't have to..." if that makes you feel uncomfortable, change your action to something you're proud of. Eventually you may get to a point where you say "I'm the type of person that lightens the load of my mother's burdens" and figure out a way to do this.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 9:01 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]


This question puts the burden on your mother to stop "letting" you ask her to do things for you by abiding your requests. The requests are what need to stop and the burden to do that is completely 100% on you.
posted by juliplease at 9:24 AM on June 11 [4 favorites]


I wonder if there's a rough rule of thumb you could build around time and inconvenience:
1. Guesstimate marginal time cost for her. How much additional time would it take her to do the task for you along with whatever related task she is already doing?
2. Guesstimate independent time cost for you. How much time would it take for you to do the task yourself?
3. Compare. If her doing the task for you doesn't save at least 5(? or whatever number you think is appropriate) times as much as her marginal time cost, she doesn't do it.

So applying that to your examples. Grocery shopping 'do you need anything?'
1. 5 extra minutes to go down a couple of aisles and find the things you need.
2. An hour -- travel time to and from the grocery store, plus time to find the things you need and pay.
3. That's saving you 12 times as much time as it is costing her. Probably worth having her do -- make sure you pay her back, though, for your share or contribute to the household grocery budget.

Mom cooking:
1. 10 extra minutes to prep more vegetables and increased cooking time.
2. An hour -- your own time to decide what to eat, prep, cook and clean up.
3. That's saving you 6 times as much time as it is costing her. Borderline. But you're going to do the dishes, right?

Milk from fridge:
1. 2 minutes -- get milk out of fridge, pour it, bring it into living room, go back to kitchen. (Maybe only 1:45 if she was planning on returning to the living room anyway.)
2. 2 minutes -- go to kitchen, get milk out of fridge, pour it, bring it into living room.
3. Even odds. Get it yourself.

I am suggesting this metric as a sideline to you actively taking a greater role in managing the household you share. You should choose to make dinner for both of you often. You should choose be responsible for keeping the bathrooms clean at all times. Etc. Etc. This isn't an excuse to get out of doing stuff because your mom was doing it anyway. It just means if she is already doing something anyway, you have a way to decide if she can also do that thing for you.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:46 AM on June 11


Yes, I also think a lot of what your mom is offering is just polite and kind. What was missing is what YOU offer to do. Maybe start giving her a ring if you’re at the shop. Do you offer her a cup of tea when you make yours? Do you ask if she has any laundry that needs to go in when you do yours? Grab something you think she likes when you’re at the shop. You’ll feel much better, I expect, when you do reciprocal things.
posted by catspajammies at 10:25 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


I want to affirm that it's OK for you to think this is an unhealthy dynamic that you want to change, even if she's doing it to be kind, even if the tasks themselves don't add a ton of extra effort to her day, even if she actively likes doing it. That doesn't mean it's a net positive in the long run, for lots of different reasons. I've been there.

I agree that it's probably not reasonable to ask her to say no when you make requests. I do think it's reasonable to ask her not to actively offer certain tasks (whatever is causing you the most grief--for me it was saying yes to someone else grabbing takeout when what I really wanted in the long run was to get in the habit of cooking fresh food for myself), and to ask of yourself then not to request that task unless you really need it. This might give you the space to replace a bad habit with a good one (doing it yourself, in your own way).
posted by lampoil at 11:23 AM on June 11


I think are two specific areas that you can focus on here:
1. is what can YOU do to help balance the relationship. For many of these things, the problem is not that she offers to do small acts of service but whether it is balanced by you doing things for her/ for both of you. In a parent/child relationship, the adult does not expect the child to do very much for the parent or for the good of the household. In an adult/adult relationship this should be more balanced. It might not be equal, especially if you are sick) but you should figure out what you can do to contribute appropriately. Once you have some ideas, talk about it with your mother. If you are taking on a task, it is OK to ask her to step back and give you time to get it done although you need to be mindful that if you procrastinate too long, she might get tired of waiting.

2. what are you avoiding, when are you using your mother to make your life easy in way that don't serve you? For example, she does things that you want to work on mastering for yourself (like making doctor's appointments). Have a talk with her and ask for her help on those specific items, not a general "don't enable" conversation.
posted by metahawk at 12:30 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


What are some ground rules for enabling we can both follow? We both really want some simple rules - hopefully relatively few in number - that we can employ for what we consider to be “edge cases” since we are seriously spending a lot of time debating these from day to day.

A couple rule suggestions:

1) If you're going to be there till the end of the summer, try enforcing a 4-week rule for yourself like "Don't ask your mom to do anything for you that you can do yourself just as easily, and don't say "yes" to your mom if she asks to do something for you that you can easily do yourself." So like, it sounds like it doesn't make logical sense for you to start doing half the grocery shopping just to make things more balanced (so it makes sense that she would be the one who goes all the time), but it does like you could get your own glass of milk easily.

1A) It sounds like part of your anxiety is related to the fact that you feel that your mom does more than you around the house- one way to break that cycle is to identify like maybe 2 chores where you would completely be the one who does that chore for the household. Like it sounds like your mom does all the shopping, so you need to find chores where you are the one who does that chore entirely. Once you have a couple things that you know you do exclusively, see if you need to add more chores to the list.

2) Figure out some sort of pre-question that you can ask so that you can slow your roll when you *do* feel inclined to ask for something that you could easily do yourself. Something like "Mom, can I ask you a favor?" And then she has to say "Sure, what is it?" before you answer, which miiiiight be just enough time for your brain to go "waitwaitwait, don't just instinctively ask her to bring you a pencil, just get the pencil yourself." Of course, if this works for you, you'll end up saying "Y'know what, nevermind" a bunch, but it could be a way to help break your inclinations.
posted by 23skidoo at 3:03 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


4-week rule

Like, the 4 week rule suggestion is because I think lots of what you're describing is very normal behavior, but you're clearly looking it as a problem because you're (imo) analyzing every single interaction. After doing this for a 4 weeks, you may find it easier to self-gauge whether your requests are reasonable or not more instinctively and you might not need to use the rule anymore, or you might want to just keep on trucking with it.
posted by 23skidoo at 3:09 PM on June 11


Lots of good advice here already. I'm not sure there's much to be gained by refusing to let your mom shop or cook if those are things she's already doing and enjoys--and which may be important ways for her to express care/love, not just for you but in general. I think one aspect of a good adult parent/child relationship is being able to accept and offer that kind of care in a healthy and reciprocal way (and asking her not to offer those kinds of care, or always refusing to accept them, puts a lot of the emotional burden/labor of fixing this dynamic on her).

One rule of thumb that might be helpful for self-talk is to consider whether particular acts of service/care would feel unbalanced or unfair in a relationship between two cohabiting adults (roommates, partners) versus between a parent and a minor child. For me that would make picking something up from the store fine (but maybe you offer to pay her back for anything you request) and offering to share already-prepared food (though not every meal) fine, but not, for example, doing all the cleaning/laundry/paperwork/etc. Occasionally asking for a glass of milk is fine, letting someone wait on you regularly is not. And so on.

I'd definitely suggest taking on full responsibility for a few specific household chores, and making sure you're doing them to her standards/satisfaction--since one way housework gets skewed is that the person who cares more about it tends to pick up the slack (that assumes she's able to turn over the work without wanting to micro-manage you, which may be something you need to discuss). You could also find out if there are some bigger projects she hasn't been able to get around to doing that you could take on while you're there--are there boxes of your childhood stuff taking up space that you could sort through for donation/disposal? Old photos that need to be organized into albums? Tech setup that she needs a hand with? If the yard work you do is regular maintenance, maybe there's a larger project related to that you can spearhead? Bonus points if it's something you have the time/skills/physical capacity to deal with and she doesn't.

Another tactic you might try is to practice noticing when she's doing something that you benefit from, and proactively offer to help (she's cooking? ask if you can help with the food prep, and take responsibility for doing the cleanup and dishes after the meal). I think what you want to aim for here is not perfect parity or scorekeeping, but a sense that there's a reciprocal balance where each of you is regularly doing things to make the other's life easier/better.
posted by karayel at 6:06 PM on June 11


Something I find powerful is, when thinking about trying to fix the Entire System of a habit or relationship gets too overwhelming, to stop and ask myself "what can I do right now?" Maybe that means getting up and heading in to the kitchen and asking what she would like or if she would like some water or a tea. Maybe the thought occurs to you right when your mom calls on her way home, and so you can get dinner started or set the table. Maybe the dishwasher needs to be emptied. Or if nothing needs to be done at that moment, what could you do later to show your love? Maybe you could set a calendar reminder for right before she's going to get home, to go start dinner. Maybe you could tell her "hey, I'm doing laundry tomorrow, can I throw yours in too?" I bet you could think of something if you look around and brainstorm on it a bit.

For me, this is part of what it feels like to approach the world as an equal or a strong person: to be able to stop and think "What could I *choose* to do here?"
posted by Lady Li at 11:12 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]


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