Building a bridge
September 7, 2020 1:59 PM   Subscribe

How do I reconnect with my neurodivergent mother?

A little over 10 years ago, I intentionally fell out of touch with my mother after I asked her to go to therapy, mediation, or something with me, because I felt I needed a neutral third party in the room. She said she didn't think it was necessary and wouldn't participate. I still have her contact information, but we are effectively not in touch.

Over the course of the past decade, I have come to terms with the idea that she is probably autistic (me too). It's not my job to diagnose her, but it was a helpful structure for me to understand the environment in which I was raised. She definitely had poor theory of mind*, and we didn't know it. I did too. As a child, our poor theories of mind meant that I couldn't always predict what would get her furious with me. As an adult, before I understood that, I was able to decide that I didn't want to be around that.

I used to think that she wanted a relationship with me but just didn't know how. As of 5 or so years ago, I am now under the impression is that her takeaway was that I don't value our relationship.

I think I am ready to try to be in touch with my mom, but I am afraid, because I expect it to be an intense, emotionally painful process and I don't know what skills I will need to get through it. I am afraid of going through this process when I'm not sure if in the end it will even be worth it. I am also afraid of my mom dying (at some point) without us having tried to resolve this. I also don't think it's fair that she did most of the emotional labor when I was growing up and my dad is the one I have a good relationship with.

I know therapy is the obvious answer but I'm looking here for other answers. Especially interested in people who have experienced being a child with a parent with poor theory of mind. Books on de-estranging, articles, anecdotes, skills that would help get me through this.

* I understand "theory of mind" to mean how well you can 'read' someone's mind. See the Sally-Anne test
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (3 answers total)
We have estrangement within our extended family, and not much resolution. Family mediation was tried and was completely misunderstood by the parent, who, despite multiple explanations, thought it was about the requestor maybe getting a divorce, because isn’t that what mediators are for? Adult children said their piece but there was no clear reception. This is a long way to say, even if the parent or party is willing to show up, desired outcomes, even of being understood, may not happen.

Some books about family that might help with thinking this through: Po Bronson’s Why Do I Love These People, Dani Shapiro has written a lot about family and her relationship with her mother, though it’s not an autism lens. Have you explored adult women-with-autism forums? Given the history of underdiagnosis that has gone on for decades, there are likely many people who have had similar experiences.
posted by childofTethys at 7:47 PM on September 7

I don't have specific advice for this situation, but from what you wrote it does not sound like there will necessarily be a lot of pent up drama or resentment on her side when you contact her again. Unless something happened with lots of explosive drama, it's possible she just decided the relationship was not worth the effort to maintain it when you decided to break it off. So it is possible that this process will actually be easier than you assume it to be, as far as actually interacting with your mother. If you do feel that some of the prior problems with your relationship had to do with failure to mind-read on both sides, you should make your intentions clear and obvious. Personally I think an email would make sense as the initial overture here, as you can be more detailed without any worry about messing up the initial communication.

It sounds like you have a lot of anxiety about this, which is completely understandable as anyone would in your situation. One thing I find that helps in situations like this is to write out an email very literally saying what you want out of the relationship with your mother, but don't send it yet. After you go through the hard effort of writing everything out, rewrite it the next day to be a bit more diplomatic and concise. I usually have to cut down my emotional emails a LOT as I tend to ramble when I'm anxious so this step can be hard. But when you feel like the email represents your intentions and you've gotten over some of the anxiety, you can then actually send it (or change it to a physical letter or something else if you prefer).

Personally a lot of my difficulties (I am somewhere on the spectrum) in situations like this is that I try to over-analyze how the other person would react, which is even worse when you haven't communicated with them in years. But by writing the letter over a few days you may be able to deal with some of these issues before you actually send it, which can prepare you for whatever your mom does next. Good luck, sounds like you're thinking this through carefully and it has a good chance of working out well!
posted by JZig at 12:25 AM on September 8

I have one of these too. So much about her, me and our relationship overall suddenly made a lot more sense when it clicked for me that we're both autistic, even though neither of us is formally diagnosed largely due to being born the wrong gender (in my case "wrong for me" as well as "wrong for standing any chance of an autism diagnosis in the early 90s") at the wrong time.

I also have a bunch of pent-up resentment about some aspects of this. Both parents were abusive in their own ways, my dad more emotionally and physically violent while my mother was more emotionally/socially neglectful, in retrospect due to her own social deficits, but in ways which manifested as baffling and hurtful at the time. I'm also still frustrated that she expected a higher-standard performance of neurotypicality from me than she was capable of herself; there was no mutual recognition or understanding of the ways in which we were different when I was growing up, and I got very aggressively socialised to approximate neurotypicality in ways that have an ongoing impact on my life/energy/happiness/sense of self. Both parents were primarily preoccupied with reassuring themselves that they weren't bad parents, which meant never seeking outside help or assessment in case there turned out to be something "wrong" with us which would have reflected badly on them as parents, rather than identifying and meeting the needs of their actual children.

The relationship I have with my mother now is very surface-level and broadly non-contentious (mainly through significant effort on my part to disengage and de-escalate when things do get contentious). We will always disagree on the extent to which it was her responsibility to understand and meet my specific needs as a child (me: it was a significant responsibility that she totally failed to engage with; her: it was the early 90s, how could she have possibly known about neurodivergence/depression/whatever else was wrong with me as a kid), and I now side-step this by never talking about it if I can possibly help it.

The relationship is very much on her terms, as I don't think she's capable of recognising that I might also have terms (or interests or things I want to talk about or a sense of personal wellbeing that I'd like her to take an interest in), but the limits to its scope are very much on my terms, and I think that helps the balance overall. I have learned (painfully and at great length) that she is just not very interested in me as a person, or if she is, she's not capable of interacting with me in ways that show it. This was typical of our relationship when I was younger, too, where on some level it was clear that she did love me but she was totally incapable of behaving in ways that made it possible for me to feel loved. If I visit her, it takes between a day and a half and two days into the visit for her to stop monologuing about her own life and interests before remember to ask me how I am or ask questions about my life.

Another classic example of these interactions was when I had a minor car accident last year and called her while waiting for the tow truck. I said, "I just drove my car into a ditch." She said, "Oh, okay. I'm going to see my friend's new puppy later." Minimal acknowledgement of me and my experiences, immediate subject change back to her own life and experiences. I used to find this painfully frustrating until I realised it was just the way she was, she wasn't being malicious about it, she just couldn't meaningfully conceive of me as a whole person with a separate life and different interests.

I thought seriously about ending contact with both parents while my dad was still alive, but then he died and I felt sorry for her and decided I'd attempt to maintain the relationship. We mostly make it work by sticking to topics we have in common when we talk (shared sense of humour to some degree, shared interest in the family dog and general family gossip). We speak on the phone very rarely, text semi-regularly in a family group chat that also includes my sister, and visit two or three times a year in the non-plague times. Deep down I'm not certain that I love her or have any particularly meaningful feelings towards her, certainly no intense maternal bond, but I am able to maintain a surface-level cordial relationship with her as long as I watch out for a couple of obvious pitfalls that always turn into fights. "It's broadly fine" is my overall review and I suspect the best relationship the two of us are going to get.
posted by terretu at 1:17 AM on September 8 [2 favorites]

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