How would Mister Rogers go no contact?
February 11, 2020 6:38 PM   Subscribe

The last few years I've tried to live by the mantra, "What Would Mr. Rogers Do?" But I find I'd like to do something un-Rogers-like and end my relationship / go no contact with my mother. Land of, unfortunately, Not-Make-Believe inside.

Without recounting my entire life story, I've never had a Hallmark relationship with either of my parents. They split about 23 years ago after almost 30 years of an awful marriage.

My adult relationship with my father was amicable but distant, and mostly consisted of the occasional phone call or email (which tapered off a lot in the past 5-7 years) until he started suffering from vascular dementia and memory loss.

Likewise, after a few unsuccessful attempts in my 20s to bridge the gap and have a workable relationship with my mother, I've kept her at arms' length. A visit every few years and phone calls and cards for major holidays. And, for the last 10-15 years or so, some money from me to her. More on that in a moment.

It sounds cliche to say this these days, but I'm reasonably sure my mother is a narcissist, and if not she has some strong tendencies that way. She has always put herself first, and is quite happy to put her needs ahead of those of her kids. If I had to shorthand my mother's personality, I'd say "Livia Soprano, but without the mob connections."

When my parents divorced, she cajoled my youngest two brothers into saying they wanted her to have custody, primarily because she wanted the child support (and to punish my father). She had moved in with a boyfriend (who she's still with) who treated them poorly in favor of his biological child, and when my youngest brother started failing in school, she was more than happy to transfer custody to me so he could finish high school in another state -- so long as she received his child support payments.

She is disabled and has a number of medical issues. I realize she cannot work and government benefits only go so far. But I resent the way she angles and cajoles for money, and by now I've given her thousands.

I'll hear nothing from her, but then start getting texts and calls as we get closer to her birthday or Christmas or whatever. If I don't respond or go grey rock, she'll eventually just flat out start lobbying for money. Literally, she's sent me messages saying "if you sent me a check I haven't gotten it yet" with no mention of a check or suggestion that one would be coming.

She'll be sugar and sweetness to my brothers when talking to them, but them badmouth them when speaking to me. I don't doubt the reverse is true. It's something she's done all my life to everyone - her friends, my father, her parents, etc. The only person I've never heard her say an unkind word about is her father.

But I have felt that it would be cruel to just go no contact this late in her life when she's legitimately so unwell. And I've tried just going grey rock or setting boundaries. Like, "no, I'm not discussing my dad's health with you. You're divorced, it's none of your business, stop asking" or "if my brother wants to talk to you, or tell you what's going on his life, he is an adult and he'll tell you. It's not my business to share." And she'll back off, until the next contact.

In short, I take no joy from talking to my mother. I don't really want a relationship with her, at all, but I've felt obligated.

Until a few weeks ago. My father, after about two and a half years of descent into dementia, declined very suddenly and passed just a day or two after he stopped communicating or accepting food. At this point I had guardianship of him after his wife passed suddenly this past summer.

Not even a day later, my mother called trying to get a copy of his death certificate. She has been hounding another brother since, because she wants to try to collect social security benefits as his former wife. (From cursory research I've done since, she may well qualify as they were married more than 20 years. I've decided I will provide the certificate in any event, despite the fact it will gall me to do so. It won't be long before the GOP eradicates social security anyway, and she does legit need the money.)

I'm furious. I think this is the final straw, but I cannot reconcile ending the relationship with being a good person. I cannot imagine Fred Rogers giving up on someone, even a toxic person. I know that there's no good answer, either. If I go no contact, I'll feel guilty. If I remain in contact, I'll feel like a chump.

My fiancé is in the "no contact" camp. I realize the default response is often "talk to a therapist," but I'm not looking for that. I'm asking for your guidance and whether it's really possible to ask "WWMRD?" and extricate myself from this relationship. Or should I keep trying?
posted by jzb to Human Relations (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. [...] I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important." - Mr. Rogers, U.S. District Court testimony, 1979
posted by WCityMike at 6:59 PM on February 11, 2020 [49 favorites]

Grief is terrible and I am sorry for your loss. If you want to Mister Rogers this I think you can just "take a break" from your mom (feel free to say "It's not you it's me" to yourself if you need to feel better about it). There are a lot of factors concerning Social Security, but your mom may be able to collect. Just send her a death certificate, tell her you need some time, and then stop responding to her texts or calls. It can be for a while or it can be forever. Don't let her colonize your mind. She's unwell, you are taking some space after the loss of your father. That's a super okay thing to do.

When my father died, my (probably narcissistic) mom (his ex-wife) had her own sort of weird grief that was difficult if not impossible for me to deal with. Because of her terrible boundaries she did and said kind of awful things, positioning herself at the center of the event that was my father's death and it took a long while for me to make my peace with it, how inappropriate it was.

Mister Rogers wouldn't want you burning yourself up being furious at this situation. Try to put her down and see how you feel in a few months and see if you feel like picking her up again.
posted by jessamyn at 7:02 PM on February 11, 2020 [10 favorites]

So the social security is your mom’s money that the government owes her. This is especially important if she was a stay at home mom for some or all of that time, as she wouldn’t have social security on her own if she wasn’t employed. She seems to really need it, and the money won’t be coming from you.
(As a divorced former stay at home mom, I’m well aware that my seven years of marriage entitle me to exactly nothing because the arbitrary cut off for marriage benefits is ten years. This pisses me off no end as I near retirement, since my ex-husband gets money for those years because he was employed.)
I get that you’re grieving, and it feels like she didn’t respect that, but it’s not wrong to want the money you’re legally entitled to. I don’t think Mr. Rogers would begrudge someone that.
posted by FencingGal at 7:05 PM on February 11, 2020 [24 favorites]

Part of being kind is being kind to yourself.
posted by Automocar at 7:05 PM on February 11, 2020 [13 favorites]

Be as kind to yourself as Mr Rodgers would have been to you
posted by rue72 at 7:06 PM on February 11, 2020 [6 favorites]

I think it's entirely possible to cut someone out in Fred Rogers-like way.

On another message board I used to frequent, there was once a conversation about religion and estrangement that talked whether it was possible to be virtuous in this situation--basically, how do you reconcile "Honor thy father and mother" with cutting off contact? And someone pointed out that it's not "obey thy father and mother." Sometimes the best way to honor a person--the way you can reconcile living a life consistent with your ethics and beliefs with being respectful of that person--is to not interact with them and let them live their life elsewhere from you.

Mr. Rogers would give what he could give with a loving heart, and would distance himself from someone who treated him poorly and aggressively. He would send the death certificate, but he would not spend time interacting with someone who was actively hurting him.

He would probably devote some of her personal/emotional resources to trying to forgive her, though. Forgiveness doesn't mean reconciliation; it means, as jessamyn points out, putting down the burden of her.

I'm so sorry you're dealing with this, and I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by gideonfrog at 7:06 PM on February 11, 2020 [13 favorites]

This article from The Atlantic by someone who knew Mr. Rogers makes me think there is no Mr. Rogers way to cut off your mother, at least not for good. “It isn’t that he is revered but not followed so much as he is revered because he is not followed - because remembering him as a nice man is easier than thinking of him as a demanding one.”

That doesn’t mean that you can’t go no contact with your mother. But I think it takes a lot of mental gymnastics to say that’s what Mr. Rogers would do.
posted by FencingGal at 7:19 PM on February 11, 2020 [7 favorites]

First of all, I did cut off contact with a parent, so I am not anti-cutting-off. But I’m failing to see why your mom wanting the documentation required to get the money she needs and to which she is entitled is so infuriating. Getting that benefit will hurt no one and will help her. Why begrudge her that. I think you’ve got plenty of other reasons to want to distance yourself from her. I’m pretty sure Mr Rogers would have compassion for both of you.
posted by HotToddy at 7:22 PM on February 11, 2020 [6 favorites]

Social Security will know of your father's death. Your mother won't have to prove it with a death certificate. If they don't know about her marriage to your dad, they will need the marriage and divorce papers. It is likely they know about the marriage. She will suddenly get more money. Social Security will want the last months payment back, and will give a small $250 or so death benefit.

I am sorry about your pain with regard to your last living parent. I was nonplussed to realize my Mom was only getting about $275 per month from Social Security, things improved immediately when my dad passed. She will be much nicer to know, when she isn't completely strapped for cash, all the time.

But if you don't want to know her, you don't have to. Family can be the most painful situation.
posted by Oyéah at 7:22 PM on February 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

separate all these strands.

1. Mr Rogers preached kindness. He didn't preach masochism. If your mother makes you miserable and you want to not talk with her, you can stop talking with her.

2. Send the death certificate. If it makes it easier for her to do her paperwork - or even if she thinks it will (folks in her position are often confused about paperwork requirements) then just do it. Costs you nothing. And unlike being in touch with her, it will help her without hurting you.

3. Decide, on your own, if you want to give her money from now on. If you do, then do it; it doesn't require you being in touch otherwise. Maybe there is some monthly or quarterly amount that you are ok with sending, that would make you feel charitable, not resentful. Like, if you WANT to send it to her, send it, without phone calls, without drama, without waiting to be asked or "reminded." Of course if you don't want to send her any more money, that's your prerogative, too. In that case tell her that you won't be sending her any more, when you send the death certificate.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:40 PM on February 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: ’m failing to see why your mom wanting the documentation required to get the money she needs and to which she is entitled is so infuriating

Because her father wasn't even cold in the ground when her mom's eyes lit up with dollar signs like an old-timey slot machine.

Agreeing with the above about helping your mom get what she needs vis a vis finances, because when it comes to basic human needs it's hard to moralize about who deserves what. Your mom deserves basic life sustaining resource access.
I would be very upset with my mom, too, if she called right after the casket lid had clicked shut. I think it's ok to be angry given your mom's history of boundary crossing for self-centered purposes. Sure, your mom is entitled to that government money. But there are also basic social norms regarding death, grieving, funerals, loss, etc that most people are expected to adhere to.

Re Mr. Rogers: look into his episodes about feeling angry and sad and betrayed. He has a lot of episodes about these feelings. He taught the gospel of emotional intelligence, not emotional suppression.
posted by erattacorrige at 7:43 PM on February 11, 2020 [22 favorites]

Seconding Oyéah - your mom doesn’t need a copy of the death certificate from you. She can probably get one on her own, plus social security will already know that he passed.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:55 PM on February 11, 2020

I can’t speak for Mr. Rogers, but my role models are more patient than I, and wouldn’t make a big decision (like cutting out a parent) while grieving. Is there a way you can put the decision on hold and take care of yourself for now?

Can a perfect/saintly person cut out a parent is more a philosophical question, and I’m not comfortable telling you what beliefs to hold about that. It’s quite self-abnegating to remain in certain types of relationships. Is self-abnegation the standard you wish to hold yourself to?
posted by kapers at 8:25 PM on February 11, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: (I have no personal experience in this area but) I read the very good article linked by FencingGal but I came to a different conclusion. The writer talks about some of the beliefs Mr. Rogers tried to hold about everyone, things like: They are special. They deserve love. They were a child once, too. It seems possible to decide to cease contact while striving to hold those beliefs about your mother and yourself. Your mother deserves love but she isn't entitled to your presence. She was a child once and things you know and don't know about her childhood inform the way she behaves now. You were also a child once, and she was your mother, so you have many years of knowledge about how she can make you feel. You are special, and it would be a shame for you to spend your life continuing to feel that way.

Also, the article points out Mr. Rogers rarely talked about himself so who really knows how he would handle such personal things?
posted by doift at 8:44 PM on February 11, 2020 [13 favorites]

Now, while you're grieving, may not be a good time to make a decision to cut off contact with your mother; that sounds like something hard to undo if you change your mind about the wisdom of doing so. Maybe it would be easier for your brother to help her with Social Security? It sounds as if your mother is wanting your attention now, while you are mourning your father and don't have a lot of energy to spare for her.

My condolences on your loss.
posted by SereneStorm at 10:30 PM on February 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you're conflating the actual advice that Mister Rogers gave to children with the media portrayal that's given of him, then I hope you can untangle those notions. The recent (fictionalized and fictional) movie about him was a particularly sick twisting of his legacy, in my opinion, because Mister Rogers encouraged us to talk about our anger, and our hurt, in healthy ways, and in ways that didn't hurt others--while the story given there instead encourages us to downplay our hurt for the sake of some abstract idea of togetherness.

Watch some actual Mister Rogers starting, like, tonight. He has episodes about the death of loved ones. You need to mourn and you need someone to guide you through mourning. One of Mister Roger's functions is to be a surrogate parent. Let him parent you. You deserve a grown-up who is kind and considerate and caring and empathetic, right now.

I'm so sorry that your mother was so insensitive to you in the wake of your father's death. That was cruel, and you deserved better than that. You deserved space to mourn your father and think about the relationship you had with him, rather than fretting about her monetary situation and their relationship and the web of past hurt.

I wrote about my own process of going no contact recently here. Even though there was an actual assault involved, it was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. What I finally realized is that she wouldn't change. It's so fundamental, but I realized then that there was no more "trying" here. I would never convince her or train her or whatever her to treat me like a human being who deserved respect. I had to expect her at her worst, at any time, because she felt no obligation to be anything else, and lord knows, I tried. And I realized how much psychological and physical harm I was exposing myself to by hoping otherwise. It still took a great many months for me to realize I couldn't have her in my life anymore. Did I do it kindly? No, I was avoidant. I don't regret that. I knew nothing I could do would change her, so I just minimized harm to myself.

I love myself. I'm special. I deserve to be treated well. These are things that Mister Rogers taught me. And they're things that no one can take away. You are special, too. You do not deserve to be hurt. Mister Rogers would tell you to keep yourself safe, especially at a fragile time like this. When I was first in the process of going no-contact, the thought of never talking to my mother again felt scary. So instead I took it one day at a time: did it feel safe to talk to her today? If the answer was no, I would react accordingly.

It's sad that the answer has never been yes yet, over a year later. But it hurts less than it once did, and the psychological benefits of being mentally healthy and not living in the vortex of abuse makes it all worthwhile.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:42 PM on February 11, 2020 [29 favorites]

I can't claim insight into Mr. Rogers. But I can express solidarity in your struggles about how to deal with a narcissist-ish parent, and how to reconcile that with your own internal compass. I'm there.

It's helped me enormously to defer any kind of Final Decision on going no-contact. I don't want to make that decision .... so I don't. I do the arms' length thing with varying duration that corresponds to my own sanity in the moment, and that "may be some time". I leave open the (infinitely small) possibility that a miracle can happen where parent could have something else in the center of their vision and world filter besides themselves. I check in on that every now and then. I have standards for my own behavior but not theirs. If they are still the same and unable to treat me beyond being an accessory to their ego, well, that's what it is for now, and I put off the decision until next time. In kid terms, it's a time-out, and sometimes kids really are a different kid after a pause.

It feels reassuring to me to withhold a final judgment, to make myself leave the door open, even if I kind of want to slam it. I feel like I can live with myself taking that approach. Maybe Mr. Rogers would leave room for someone to be better after a nap too.
posted by Dashy at 11:11 PM on February 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Your father's death and its positive effect on her finances is a good excuse to end your contact and stop giving her money. You can send her the death certificate to get her off your back, along with a note saying that you need space to grieve, so she should not contact you for six months.

If she does, ignore her. After six months, you can decide whether you want to continue the no-contact. If you do, you can let her know that you have reevaluated your life and will not be able to maintain a relationship with her because it has negative effects on you. Try to make it "it's not you, it's me."
posted by metasarah at 4:01 AM on February 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

One way to mentally frame your mom's request for the death certificate: If your mom worked a job that was not dependable at sending her paychecks, would you understand her advocating for herself to receive the paychecks?

One subtle way that sexism occurs is to tell women that "being a mom is just as important as working a job" but treating their attempts at getting a fair share of money as "eyes lighting up with dollar signs" (as in erratacorrige's comment).
posted by cheesecake at 4:20 AM on February 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: One subtle way that sexism occurs is to tell women that "being a mom is just as important as working a job" but treating their attempts at getting a fair share of money as "eyes lighting up with dollar signs" (as in erratacorrige's comment).

This is a person who offloaded the care of a minor child to another of their children while refusing to provide money ear marked for their care. I imagine that comments like these would feel very gaslighting and invalidating to hear.

OP, I'm sorry your mother has stolen money from you and your brothers. In a normal family, parents send birthday cards and checks to their children, even into adulthood, for birthdays and holidays, not the other way around. I'm sorry that you were robbed of a real young adulthood and your brothers robbed of a childhood. You deserved better then, and you deserve better now. Feel free to memail me if you ever need to talk.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:41 AM on February 12, 2020 [32 favorites]

Best answer: I'm absolutely bewildered at the takes invalidating the OP's grief toward her mother completely neglecting her feelings about this recent loss vs. advancing her own interests, which is clearly part of a pattern that the OP has lived with all her life. Asking for the death certificate less than 24 hours after her father dies is ghastly. She has already indicated she will give the death certificate eventually either way and that her mother could use the money. Don't do her mother's manipulative work for her.

jessamyn's and gideonfrog's and doift's suggestions all sound really lovely.
posted by Keter at 4:51 AM on February 12, 2020 [22 favorites]

(*oops, I have no idea where I pulled the "her" pronoun from, my bad and apologies!)
posted by Keter at 5:05 AM on February 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My cousin, who has similar family issues with some being worse and some being better, has solved this very, very eloquently I think.

Issue 1: The money.

Solution: Make your next money transaction a "loan". Be very clear that you want to help but you cannot support this person forever but you want to help in these trying times so you will loan this person the money they need for the current crisis. Obviously it must be a crisis because, as you've already said, you can't support this person's basic needs on an ongoing basis and emphasize that any further loans will be contingent upon the repayment of this one. The next time they ask for funds, and they will, you simply reference the fact that the last loan remains unpaid, and it will be, and say that is that. You retain the high ground and you were also, to the best of your ability and I think Mr. Rogers would agree, a helper.

Issue 2: Not talking about anything except when something is needed [money] or to speak ill of others.

Solution: State clearly and firmly that you will no longer be accepting calls about those issues unless there has been a previous call that was genial and not about those things. This turns the tables a bit such that you don't feel poorly when the following happens -

*ring ring*
You: "Hello."
Them: "Hi, I wanted to call to say that I needed some money." or "Let me tell you about this shitty thing."
You: "Sorry, I'd love to talk to you but the last time we spoke you only about wanted to speak of that as well and you know I can't handle that sort of relationship. I hope things clear up, please give me a call when you aren't as focused on negative things."

Issue 3: The narcissism.

Solution: None. You should ignore my previous two suggestions and go no contact for your own sanity. Mr. Rogers told me it was cool and you're not a bad person.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:13 AM on February 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Reminder: Ask Metafilter is not for arguing with or debating other people's answers. If someone else's answer should be deleted for some reason, flag it and a moderator will have a look. Otherwise, just give your own differing advice, and let other people give theirs. OP will choose what is most helpful for them.
posted by taz (staff) at 6:28 AM on February 12, 2020

Best answer: Not even a day later, my mother called trying to get a copy of his death certificate. She has been hounding another brother since, because she wants to try to collect social security benefits as his former wife. (From cursory research I've done since, she may well qualify as they were married more than 20 years. I've decided I will provide the certificate in any event, despite the fact it will gall me to do so. It won't be long before the GOP eradicates social security anyway, and she does legit need the money.)

I'm furious. I think this is the final straw, but I cannot reconcile ending the relationship with being a good person. I cannot imagine Fred Rogers giving up on someone, even a toxic person. I know that there's no good answer, either. If I go no contact, I'll feel guilty. If I remain in contact, I'll feel like a chump.

I'm sorry you're in such a rough situation. Pushing back against family members who are taking advantage of you is... not fun.

I haven't seen this Mr. Rogers movie, but I can't imagine that Mr. Rogers got to be Mr. Rogers by continually letting himself be put into situations that drive him crazy and force him into making bad, cruel decisions. This is what the process of setting boundaries is all about: Talking about siblings and money over the phone puts me in a bad place and makes me do bad things, so I can't do that anymore. I say to them, "I am okay with talking on the phone as long as we are not talking about these things." It's about protecting myself so that Ican show up for the people in my life in a positive way.

Family members always respond to this as if you have personally insulted them and hate them. I have had exactly this conversation: "No, I will not talk about my siblings." In response, the relative said that I must dislike her, that I was hurting her; they enlisted my relatives to say things like, "Why are you being mean to [X]?" It's a whole thing, and every step of the way they tried to convince me that I was a bad person for taking a particular action, or saying that I wasn't going to argue about it. And soon enough the drama died down and everyone forgot about it.

Going no contact is a last resort boundary: the boundary you set when no other boundary will be respected.

If Mr. Rogers were in your situation, and he were profoundly upset by pushy calls at a time of grieving, I have no doubt that he would have no problem saying, "I will do what you need me to do, but I am very sad right now, and I can't talk about this with you on the phone." If there had been many previous conversations that had the same form, and similar boundaries violated, then I have no doubt he would be fine resorting to no contact. Otherwise, it might be a way of trying to punish their bad behavior, which won't be helpful to anyone.
posted by billjings at 9:45 AM on February 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Mr. Rogers would encourage you to express your feelings in an empathic setting (not to your mother), accept all of your feelings as valid, give voice to your rage in safe ways (again, not to your mother), be gentle with yourself... and he'd remind you that you are a good and worthwhile person who deserves to be loved just the way you are. And you do.

Mr. Rogers would also encourage you to examine your own story and your trauma deeply, gently, and thoroughly. You deserve to heal from all of the wounds. From everything you write, the past is still alive in your everyday reality. You deserve the opportunity to shed that specter and feel like the independent, safe, kick-ass grown up you are.

Mr. Rogers would probably discourage you from cutting off your relationship with your mother. That's just not what his ethos was about. I've never heard him speak about estrangement or cutting off family members, per se, but he has spoken many times about extending grace and empathic understanding towards abusive parents when we are adults (and thus no longer any actual danger from the parent). Above all, Mr. Rogers believed in the inherent value of every human being, and was overwhelmingly biased towards connecting with people no matter how flawed they are, no matter what they have done.

That was HIS creed. It does not have to be yours (yet... or ever). I strongly encourage you to get therapy to work through your childhood issues, your present grief, and your complicated feelings about the (non) relationship with your mother... so that you can be free of her. In this freedom lies your best chance of being like Mr. Rogers. Forgiveness and grace are only possible when we have shaken off our emotional turmoil associated with that person.
posted by MiraK at 9:56 AM on February 12, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I love Mister Rogers and his show helped me both as an abused kid and as a new parent. But I can't presume to speak for him, and I don't share his faith. That said, I totally get taking on someone or some other view as your moral compass after being raised by wolves/raising yourself/etc., and that moment you come to when you are struggling to reconcile that person's espoused views with your needs.

So what I hope to add to this conversation is that I think it is entirely possible to take Mister Rogers as your exemplar of a moral human to emulate, and to make a decision that you know to be different from perhaps the philosophies that he espoused (I don't think you can know exactly what he would do in this exact case.)

In this sense I think you can say "what would Mister Rogers want me to consider," rather than "what would he do."

It sounds to me like you have done a lot of thinking and feeling around this, and at this time you are feeling that you need more protection. You can honour that feeling. You don't have to make a break forever, today. You can say to your mum that you don't feel able to speak with her in the face of this loss and all the feelings it has brought up (or that her actions have brought up), and you will contact her again when you do, and then go no-contact. If the day never comes that you are ready, then you still have been a person of your word.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:02 PM on February 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

Do what you need to do for your own sanity. Think of it as, Mr. Rogers wouldn't want you to be miserable.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:32 PM on February 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

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