Why is my mom so different from other people's moms?
September 8, 2020 11:45 PM   Subscribe

I know you are not my (or my mom's) mental health professionals but there is zero chance of my mother ever visiting a mental health professional and I'm just hoping someone with similar experiences might be able to give some insight into the decades long mystery of why my mom is so different from everyone else I've ever met.

Ever since I was old enough to play at friend's houses I've been aware that my mother was not like other people's mothers. My mother married my dad young and they've been together ever since. She's always had a job and taken care of our needs and then some along with our father but she has also always been weirdly emotionally distant from my sibling and I, apart from intermittent and rather needy bursts of affection. She will, for instance, never say "I love you" nor have I ever seen her smile genuinely as if she were happy to see someone or proud or just enjoying herself, though she'll sometimes do a fake smile. "Spaced out" is almost always her default mode and there have been many times I've been embarrassed when when we're out in public and she doesn't respond to some nicety or kindness from someone the way a normal person would. The most you'll get from her is a detached "hmm". She's never had a friend apart from my father in her entire life that I'm aware of and she doesn't seem to form her own opinions but will parrot my father's. Despite her general emotional detachment from the world, I know she does feel emotion because she will cry at sad movies and I do feel that she does love us, even if she won't say so. She definitely gets frustrated sometimes and will lash out occasionally but she's never been a mean, cruel or manipulative person. She has very little awareness of her own body which is another thing that mortified me growing up. For instance, she'll do things like chew with her mouth open at a nice restaurant or pass gas in front of company. She has also always been a very, very low energy person and spends most of her time outside of work sleeping and has since shows in her 20s. If you've ever seen the movie, Muriel's Wedding, Muriel's mom reminds me so much of my mom.

A couple things to note, this is NOT any kind of substance abuse problem as my dad is a total square and would not be willing to deal with that or cover it up. When I talked to a therapist before about my mother, they assumed she was an alcoholic which is definitely not the case.

Also my mom does come from a pretty emotionally conservative family, which may be partially to blame but she also has three sisters who are all very normal functioning, loving people, especially toward their children. Her family of origin are very well-educated, tidy, "proper" people and my mother herself made it through college and managed to function in the healthcare field for decades (though not without issues).

I see some of my mother's odd characteristics in my brother and even catch myself acting in a manner reminiscent of her sometimes (I had a reputation in high school for being flighty, for instance), so I think there may be a genetic component.

Also, my father is a very nice man and I'm certain there's no abuse going on their relationship. He's tried to get her to see therapist in the past to no avail.

Is all of this just indicative of depression or something else? Could my mom possibly be somewhere on the autism spectrum or have an undetected disability? Another possibility that occurred to me over the years is that she had been the victim of abuse as a child. Again, I obviously don't expect anyone to diagnose my mother thirdhand on Metafilter but I guess it would be interesting to know in what direction the signs might point?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It might be helpful to read about autism, trauma, and intellectual disabilities, perhaps all together. A friend of mine had a mom in similar circumstances and was very shocked when, later in life, her mother was assessed and revealed to have intellectual delays. But there could be a number of explanations and obviously no one can diagnose.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 12:13 AM on September 9 [16 favorites]

The emotionally distant part I recognize, my mother also has that. She loves all three of her kids and we know that, but I can count on one hand the times she has said it out loud. She also doesn't cuddle, hates physical contact mostly. I can't really remember ever having been held or hugged by her, although I'm sure she must have done it when I was very young. She is extemely uncomfortable around people she does not know or does not know well and therefore mostly spends time with my dad, with us kids, and with one or two friends. My mother is autistic (diagnosed) and was also abused and neglected as a young child. So I think that there are aspects of your mother's behavior that could definitely point to autism but that might not be the whole story.
posted by piranna at 1:09 AM on September 9 [3 favorites]

Autism and depression are often comorbid, and living with undiagnosed autism can be a pretty miserable experience, especially if you don't happen to find community with similar or at least sympathetic folks to reassure you that you're not just a broken weirdo.
Autistic folks may well feel overwhelmed and seem "absent" in conditions that seem normal to neurotypical people, and dyspraxia and lack of bodily awareness can be a thing too, as well as finding it difficult to connect to neurotypical people or make friends.
Being easily overwhelmed by noisy unpredictable situations or by touch or by emotions, can make it astonishingly difficult to parent in the way society generally expects, especially from women. (Note that if someone says their father is "weirdly emotionally distant", that's way less shocking or unusual than it is to say the same thing about your mother!) And autism is a thing that can run in families. So, being oddly distant from one's own kids can also rattle down the generations in a self reinforcing manner, especially if nobody involved has a diagnosis or support. Kids get less noisy and unpredictable as they get older, but if the relationship has got on a distant footing by that time and there's no role models about of people with closer family relationships, it can be pretty difficult to rerail the whole thing.
Source: three generations of my own family.
posted by quacks like a duck at 3:54 AM on September 9 [15 favorites]

Nthing other posters. My first thoughts were high-functioning autism, childhood emotional trauma.
posted by gnutron at 3:58 AM on September 9 [6 favorites]

Perhaps this is just the way your mom is? Nothing you’ve written here screams out at me as being obviously maladaptive or a clear sign of some type of disability or disorder. Not to say there is definitely an absence of that, just that this seems mostly within the bounds or typicalness even if it is not the dominant way of being.
posted by scantee at 6:47 AM on September 9 [2 favorites]

If you have a reasonably friendly relationship with one of your aunts, at some point when you're both at a family obligation, a moment will present itself where the two of you are alone, there will be a brief lull in the conversation, and you'll have the perfect moment to ask her: "So... what's the deal with my Mom?"
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 7:43 AM on September 9 [14 favorites]

This sounds so much like my friend’s mom, I almost thought you were him, but his mom never worked outside the home. Anyway, he and his siblings are convinced she’s autistic and possibly has CPTSD, though like your mom, she will never get a diagnosis. For my friend, identifying that this is likely what’s going on with her has been very healing, helped him deal with the effects it had on him growing up, and helped him forge a better relationship with her.
posted by lunasol at 9:07 AM on September 9 [1 favorite]

I think it's relevant if your mother is an immigrant, because then some of the issues she faces might relate to cultural adjustment (or lack thereof) and the trauma of uprooting herself and trying to survive in a new environment and possibly (?) have to focus more of economic survival than emotions. Also cultural differences could play a role in some (but probably not all) of her behavior.

Compounded perhaps by autism/other issues others have mentioned. Throwing this out there in case it's relevant, ignore if it is not please.
posted by cacao at 9:15 AM on September 9 [2 favorites]

IMO this description reads more like trauma or (super outside guess!) Cluster C personality disorder, and not like autism. You don't describe any obsessional or obsessive traits, you don't describe emotion-blindness or face-blindness, you don't describe any verbal or motor tics or stimming or compulsive actions, you don't describe heightened sensitivities to light/sound/touch/taste/textures/etc., you don't mention any fixations or marked interests, and she apparently has no difficulty functioning steadily in her job. Her social faux pas seem to be the result of her being spaced out (dissociated) and basically failing to notice she's around people, rather than the result of trying but failing to read social cues accurately. She doesn't have an emotionally overwhelmed reaction if you try to touch her or hug her, right, her lack of affection towards you stems from her overall emotional withdrawal from the whole world.

The kind of dissociated, frozen behavior you describe is very common among people who have experienced long-lasting ongoing trauma. It is an extremely common defense to ongoing trauma to totally "space out" and dissociate, daydream all the time, just check out from life, numb your mind with TV or sleep, and refuse to emotionally engage with loved ones while doing the bare minimum to get by in life perfectly competently. Autism does not generally look like this.

There are many possible causes for this type of dissociation: traumatic loss of a parent-figure at a young age, separation from parents for significant durations at a young age, childhood neglect or parentification, "nonviolent" coercion and control during childhood or adulthood, emotional abuse or gaslighting during childhood or adulthood, invisible violent abuse during childhood or adulthood such as sexual assault by a loved one, or more overt physical abuse during childhood or adulthood. Emigrating can compound these traumas or it could even be traumatic in itself depending on the circumstances.

In any case, I hope you can start to address this issue by taking care of yourself. It is real trauma to grow up with a parent who is as severely emotionally challenged as your mom. You sound like a resilient, well-resourced and emotionally thriving person, but nevertheless, your questions are likely coming from somewhere deep inside you that really, really feels the hurt of never having had a normal, effusively loving, active, affectionate mother. I hope you can find a therapist you trust and start to safely explore who YOU are because of all this, what YOUR story is, what the voices in your head are, etc. I'm not saying you are damaged and therefore you need fixing! I'm saying, this is a big deal, it's a lot to grapple with, and it's worth trying to map out your inner world now that you are no longer avoiding thinking about the uncomfortable truths of your childhood. Your healing is a gift you can give yourself without waiting for your mother to change.
posted by MiraK at 9:16 AM on September 9 [23 favorites]

When my depressive episodes are at their worst this would describe me pretty well. I don't have quite the same body-awareness issues but I do tend to become very clumsy and my emotions don't make it to my face. You describe her as not smiling except for a fake smile -- when I know I ought to be smiling I sometimes have to actively make my face do it. It is a "fake" smile but the emotion is genuine, it's just...not making it through all the layers properly, if that makes sense.

I've only ever been diagnosed with clinical depression; that doesn't mean there might not be other things going on, but I haven't got a name for them. No abuse or trauma in my history beyond schoolyard bullying and the stress of being quite poor. Strains of depression and addiction appear all over the place in my family though I seem to be the only one with this particular flavor, so it would not surprise me if there was some genetic component.

I hope you are able to find a way through to a better relationship with and understanding of your mom.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:43 AM on September 9 [2 favorites]

If this IS a reaction to trauma (which it could be), I can recommend Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents and possibly Running on Empty, the later of which is more about dealing with the aftermath of having an emotionally distant parent.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 10:05 AM on September 9 [2 favorites]

As a general rule, I tend to bristle at attempting, especially as a layperson, to diagnose someone over the internet...but as someone on the autism spectrum myself, I don't get much of an autistic "vibe" from your description.

I could maybe see something like NLD (nonverbal learning disability), though; there's *some* apparent overlap with ASD, but with NLD you tend to get more of the unusual reading of/responding to social cues stuff, without the intense interests, repetitive tendencies, and sensory hyper/hyposensitivities of autism. Another possibility that stands out to me is ADHD - Primarily Inattentive type, or even undiagnosed narcolepsy (as much of what you're describing could literally be the result of being tired all the time).
posted by aecorwin at 11:40 AM on September 9 [2 favorites]

[This is an answer from an anonymous commenter.]
Your mom is exactly like my mom - functionally there but emotionally void, shallow, superficial. Not vain or vapid but just not fully there as a person to have any intimacy with. I always describe my mother as a little checked out and certainly out of sync with the emotional context of an interaction. Not in an autistic way as she doesn’t present like this at all but just not available for meaningful connection. In my moms case it is certainly disassociation due to childhood trauma (and it doesn’t have to be Trauma but can be traumatic to the person especially if they have a highly sensitive nervous system) and a very weak emotional muscle, she really can’t handle much if any emotional expression from others, as well as having a very hollow relationship with her own self. As an adult she’s shared mundane realizations that stunned me (“I learned when a dog wags its tail it’s happy“ ... uh... yeah? Everybody knows that?). I think it comes from having inadequate emotional mirroring and intimacy in her formative years, plus some kind of genetic mental component too. It could be some vague relationship to a personality disorder, she has borderline traits (easily wounded, needy AF, empty sense of self) but the volatility has certainly subsided considerably since I was a kid. But that hollowness of self is so obvious once you know where to look. In your moms case I wonder if your dad isn’t a dominant (but nice) personality and she can just fit herself in without much contraction on her part and he doesn’t expect much emotional component to their relationship just the functional stuff so it’s stable between them. It doesn’t have to be overt, this stuff is really subtle but glaring at the same time.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:51 PM on September 9 [8 favorites]

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