Setting boundaries with mom over Christmas
December 7, 2020 7:23 PM   Subscribe

Covid numbers and public health orders in my region mean I’ve decided that I’m just not comfortable seeing my 60-something parents for Christmas. My mom is not going to take this well and I have terrible boundaries. How do I navigate this?

In the past few weeks I tried to tell my mom over the phone that we weren’t sure if we would visit for Christmas dinner. She just kept changing the subject and insisting that it would be fine because she trusts me to be careful. For a time I was planning to do a 2 week period of more isolation before Christmas so I could feel safe going. But the public health order today said no gatherings until January, and I can’t really quarantine because I live with my partner who still has to go to work. It’s just too stressful for me and I can’t see myself enjoying myself at all.

I’m not really looking for covid advice here because I know what I need to do. I’m just all torn up at the idea of telling my mom we aren’t coming. My mom has always been intensely attached to her children with a fear of abandonment. She has a way of making me feel responsible for her negative emotions so I’ve always been terrified of upsetting her. And I know it will break her heart if we don’t go. She hasn’t been able to see her friends or do any of her usual activities in months so Christmas has been the only thing she’s been looking forward to. She seems to have bought a ton of gifts for me and my partner. I thought about suggesting a gift exchange in my parents backyard but I worry she will be offended by that.

My mom is not stupid or a denialist, she is a smart former nurse who understands the risk of Covid and lives carefully. I think she just has a blind spot when it comes to how much she wants to see her children. It really just breaks my heart to upset her like this.

So yeah. Just need help setting boundaries and navigating a super difficult conversation.
posted by vanitas to Human Relations (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I recently navigated a similar (but less difficult) conversation with my mom. The two things that worked for me were

(1) Make the decision in my own head, then spend a week accepting it and coming to terms with it before communicating it to my parents -- so that I could feel absolutely confident in my decision and not wring hands during the conversation.

(2) Communicate my decision to my dad rather than my mom.

posted by mekily at 7:32 PM on December 7, 2020 [5 favorites]

"Mom, I love you, and I would totally be down for a Zoom gathering for Christmas dinner. I know it's not the same as in person, but please know this has nothing to do with you. It's about me and my need to be careful and mindful of others."

Use that script, deviate as necessary. It seems like you'd be okay with at least a backyard gathering of some sort, so maybe suggest that as a compromise, and perhaps even a drive-by. She may feel a bit offended, but at least she should reasonably see that you're trying to meet her halfway.

Definitely keep emphasizing that you love her, and this is more of about you, not about her. I have a fear of abandonment myself, and what usually helps is when people communicate clearly that it's them, not me, and offer compromises or other options. My two cents; hope this helps and good luck!
posted by dubious_dude at 7:41 PM on December 7, 2020 [4 favorites]

I have this bookmarked and have been sharing it with friends left and right, maybe there will be something in it for you: How to Tell Your Family You’re Not Coming Home* for the Holidays. (If that one’s not doing it for you, there’s also this one, although it’s much more blunt!)

My mom sounds a lot like your mom. The first Christmas I had to tell her we weren’t going back to where she lived/I grew up was so difficult. She did not react well, in fact had a total extinction burst of arguing/threatening/bargaining. But she eventually accepted it and luckily it was the start of many more healthy boundaries to follow. I hope your mom can hear you and I wish you fortitude!

*maybe it still is “home” for you, but I had to retrain myself to call the place I grew up and where my parents still live something other than “home”. My actual home is where I currently live, with my partner and my house and my friends and my job and my pets, not the place I last lived twenty years ago. Calling that place “home” or allowing my mother to kept us stuck in a difficult dynamic and made it easier for her to ignore my boundaries. YMMV!
posted by stellaluna at 8:07 PM on December 7, 2020 [10 favorites]

I recently had a similar conversation with someone and I had some success with focusing on the holidays for 2021. So along the lines of "Mom, I really, really want to celebrate Xmas 2021 and 2022 and decades of Christmases with you. So that's why this year, it's not possible for me to come over. I feel the risk is too great, and there's also a public health order, and it would be so awful if any of us got Covid in the short time before vaccinations start to roll out. So no in-person dinner this year. What I was thinking we could do instead is..." (FaceTime etc.)
posted by warriorqueen at 8:07 PM on December 7, 2020 [6 favorites]

I feel you. My mom is ill with a progressive neurological disease, is homebound, and this may be her last Christmas. And we're still staying home. But: You are not abandoning her. You are keeping her safe because you love her. Focus on whatever you *can* say yes to. I bought my mom an incredibly luxe advent calendar, arranged a virtual cookie swap (because baking is something she can still do), and have a zoom craft night planned. We'll probably carol in her front yard, with fancy cocoa left on her doorstep. Offer what you can say yes to, and feel good about that.
posted by shadygrove at 8:10 PM on December 7, 2020 [14 favorites]

Try listening to or reading Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist: How to End the Drama and Get On With Life. Seriously amazing at addressing this kind of issue and incredibly helpful advice about setting boundaries. Your mom doesn't have to be a Borderline/Narcissist for this book to work -- this is enough for it to be relevant and useful:

My mom has always been intensely attached to her children with a fear of abandonment. She has a way of making me feel responsible for her negative emotions so I’ve always been terrified of upsetting her.

Good luck!
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 8:12 PM on December 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

My only advice is to role-play the conversation with someone before you have it, preferably with someone who knows your mom well enough to know things she might say. It’s easier to have boundary-setting conversations if you’ve anticipated emotional hazards and practiced dealing with them.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:14 PM on December 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

My mom was a smart nurse too, and from that I can aver: smart nurses are not always the most careful of their own health.

Good advice already. I think you'd do well to steel yourself to listen -- just listen -- to whatever your mom throws at you when you tell her, and when she's done, restate your boundary. "I hear you, Mom, and I'm sorry, but..."

Also avoid the JADE dance -- do not Justify, Argue, Defend, or Explain. You're not going. That's all there is to it.
posted by humbug at 8:17 PM on December 7, 2020 [12 favorites]

Sometimes when I have a hard time setting a boundary, it’s because I worry I may actually be wrong, and I worry that even if I’m not, someone may convince me I am, or wear me down. But in this case, you are right, 100%, and there’s nothing your mom could say that could make the science and ethics of staying home wrong, and no amount of guilt tripping that will make visiting sound like a good idea.

It’s not like you’re saying “I just have more fun in my own house” (which would be absolutely valid!) This isn’t even your choice, really. I find it’s easier to not get sucked into the argument if I remember there’s no risk I’ll change my mind.

Remember, your job isn’t to get her to agree with you, the or to be happy about things, or even to accept reality—you can’t control those things. All you can do is tell her the deal.

“I’m bummed about this too” can go a long way, and yes to having suggestions for other ways to bond.
posted by kapers at 8:20 PM on December 7, 2020 [4 favorites]

Nurse? Sounds like she can handle some uncomfortable truths.

How about "I can't stand to violate public health guidelines for the sake of personal comfort" or

"I won't be able to come to your funeral if you die" or

"The pile of bodies dead from COVID just in the USA would fill Wrigley field—not just the seats, the entire fucking bowl" so:
How can you expect people to travel and mix households and spread the disease in these circumstances?
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:51 PM on December 7, 2020

Could you frame it not as NOT doing Christmas this year but instead as moving Christmas to a later date, sometime next year?
posted by M. at 8:52 PM on December 7, 2020 [8 favorites]

Yes, be direct. Yes, be blunt. Yes, be firm.

But also, why not consider offering an alternative that would make up for the lack of in-person togetherness. What about Twelve Days of Christmas gathering over Zoom. Have cocktails one day, play games another day, open Christmas presents, just schmooze.

There are other ways to make the holidays special says this person who has spent Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and next Hannukah without gathering with family, friends, or community.
posted by brookeb at 8:58 PM on December 7, 2020 [6 favorites]

Also, if you think you'd enjoy a backyard gift exchange but worry she might be offended, maybe still ask her? Maybe you can bring a hot dish (wrapped) and then take home a pie?
I'm assuming she lives close otherwise that would be unsafe obviously.
posted by M. at 9:00 PM on December 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

Something I read about this very problem was to phrase it as a postponement of a family Christmas get together rather than a cancellation.

(Or what M. said)
posted by piyushnz at 9:35 PM on December 7, 2020

If it helps to hear, you have my total permission to do the bad news over text or email. People with boundary issues might often feel like it's too cruel to not have a phone conversation but... You know best whether the phone in your case is an opportunity to drag out and stall the convo. If this is your experience, you are not obligated to participate in that cycle. Easier to text your decision and then stick to "I know you're sad but this is our decision" when you do talk later.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:45 PM on December 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

Only you can tell if humor will help this situation. But this is a conversation millions of people are having with their parents right now. SNL even did a skit about it.
posted by seasparrow at 9:45 PM on December 7, 2020 [7 favorites]

SNL even did a skit about it.

Ah seasparrow I just came here to post that. :)

It was really sweet, and another reminder to hold on tight to your boundaries.
posted by bendy at 10:04 PM on December 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

There are two people (3 with your father) that need to make a decision here. First, you. You seem to have made your decision. Not going. Reasonable decision. However, if you had said you were going to go but take some precautions, then your parents would have a decision to either say great, glad to have you or uhm, not this year or not this week.

You mom who you describe as a smart safe person, understands the risks and is ok with them. I am not sure if your reluctance is based on the risk to you, the risk to your parents, the government suggestions or a combination of all of them. If your decision is primarily based on not wanting to get them sick because your partner goes to work, I submit that your mother is adult enough to determine her own risk levels and understands the consequences of her decisions.

If you still do not think it appropriate to go, I would tell her, "This hurts me too, but we need to look at the longer term picture here. We want to celebrate decades more holidays together. I want to postpone our holiday gathering this year to Easter. We can celebrate Easter and spring. We can get together and pretend it is Christmas. Even have a tree. This year though, we can have a backyard present exchange, a cup of hot chocolate and a later zoom call with one camera on the yule log. I love you mom. 2020 and covid sucks."
posted by AugustWest at 10:05 PM on December 7, 2020

Shift responsibility away from you. Tell them your epidemiologist friend (me) commands it. If you have to, lie. Say your partner's employer is requiring it.

I'm in the same position with my parents and siblings, who are all driving to a 10 room house for Christmas. We rented this before covid, and I'm stunned they're all going through with it. I've just gotten off a three hour phone call with my nurse sister. At the end of the day, we can only control our own actions. We also can't beat ourselves up for the emotions we feel about making complicated decisions. Hang in there.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:26 PM on December 7, 2020 [11 favorites]

After locking down hard for all of November so that I could spend some time with my parent, I began a similar negotiation tonight and I expect it will be Part One of many many many.

My approach, for what it's worth, has been to lay the groundwork early and speak of Christmas as big IFs. IF we want to see each other, here is how we will have to quarantine (we are local to each other so it's not a matter of Travel), and IF we can't see each other, here is what I was thinking for a backup plan.

And then I present a real, and feasible, and fairly satisfying backup plan.

I'll confess that it's easier because 1) thanksgiving worked out okay and 2) I am pretty sure she will not be capital-A ALONE, since my sibling is able to isolate for two weeks before and after. If my sibling ends up having to bail it will be a lot harder to hold that line.

Hang in there; it's hard to see them hurt but (is this too grim?) as parents age unfortunately we have to be present with them during lots and lots of excruciatingly hard stuff. This one? This one's actually pretty easy by comparison.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:48 PM on December 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

I tried to tell my mom over the phone that we weren’t sure if we would visit for Christmas dinner.

Don't tell her you aren't sure, tell her that you won't be.

Sample: "Mom, we won't be able to come for Christmas Dinner. Let's plan for a Skype call. I have a Christmas song I've been practicing I want to sing for you, and I'd love to show you the decorations partner and I have put up."

"I want to make sure you have Skype/Zoom/Google meet set up on your computer so we can have a chat at 2pm on Christmas Day, can you turn on your computer so we can see if the chat software is working ok?"

"I'm looking forward to showing you interesting holiday thing I made, I'm so glad I have our Zoom Chat to look forward to"

Note that many of these are actually things you can say in response to "oh that's so awful you aren't coming here". I'd avoid getting into any discussion of why other than "It just won't be possible this year", it only leads to arguing.

Note that Google Meet has built in automatic captioning, this can be very helpful for relatives with hearing loss.
posted by yohko at 10:50 PM on December 7, 2020 [4 favorites]

I'm following this discussion because I'm dealing with a similar situation here. We did our own thing for Thanksgiving because my parents hosted my sister and her husband from out of state overnight. They're planning to do the same for Christmas. They're adults and we can only control what we're going to do ourselves.

Before things started to really trend downward around Thanksgiving, the plan was to invite my parents, my sister and her husband over for a socially-distanced outdoor get-together on Christmas Eve as a compromise. We've hosted dinner on Christmas Eve for several years, but this year we'd just AT MOST have drinks and encourage BYOB. That's all weather-permitting, too. Now, obviously, it's likely not a good idea to have that much interaction. Right?

I'm already on duty for driving my dad to and from the hospital when he has some upcoming outpatient surgery next week because my mom doesn't drive anymore. So quarantining prior to Christmas is tricky.

I feel for everyone in the same situation. I can't shake the idea that I'm running out of opportunities to spend time with my parents.
posted by emelenjr at 6:49 AM on December 8, 2020

Personally, I hate it when people say "I hear you." it seems like a rote phrase learned from therapy, and I never believe the person is really listening to me, probably at least because it's always followed with a nicer version of "but what you're saying will have no effect on my thoughts or behavior."

If you really hear her, rephrasing what she says will show her that. "I also really hate that we can't have a normal Christmas. I really wish it could be like last year, but as soon as things with COVID are better, we can get together."

(I'm envious that a backyard meeting is an option for you. My own kids are hundreds of miles away, so we're stuck with Zoom.)
posted by FencingGal at 7:33 AM on December 8, 2020 [6 favorites]

It's hard to overstate the ingrained terror of conflict with someone like this, and the guilt/shame around not managing their feelings or displeasing them. There's nothing you could do or say to control how another person feels, and how they act towards you is a choice they're making. It's never going to feel safe to decide this and tell her this, but you can still decide this and tell her this anyway, and still not have to actually go, regardless of how she reacts. And each time you survive a boundary like this, it makes the next one feel more safe/possible. Would highly recommend lining up as much support around yourself as possible - asking for your team you to text with you afterward, exercise, hugs, treats, therapy check in, journaling, permission to let calls go to voicemail while you take a walk, whatever you need, w/e - this is a Hard thing. And you always have a choice, even if it doesn't feel like it. Take care!
posted by Geameade at 10:20 AM on December 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

I agree with the poster above. It’s going to be uncomfortable to say no but it’s totally OK, if you can manage it, to be open to her feelings of disappointment, sorrow, or whatever. That’s different than being responsible for them. You are absolutely not responsible for anybody else’s feelings and certainly not the feelings your mother has about your Christmas plans to stay safe by being sane. But if you can tolerate listening to her express those feelings and not take them personally, even if it sounds personal, that can be helpful.

My dad used to complain about how briefly (these were not brief visits) I visited him even though I was the only one of his kids willing to see him, and I thought I should get extra credit for that. Once I complained to my Al-Anon sponsor about it. She wisely said that my dad really didn’t have the language to say that he loved me and wished we could spend more time together. She suggested that when he said something like, “why can’t you stay longer” that I try to respond to the meaning behind the words rather than the words themselves.

This is hard for me to do because I am so damn literal. But after that, when my dad said things that felt like he wanted me to feel guilty, instead of getting angry or frantic or changing my mind I would say, “dad, I love you too and I really wish we had more time together but I will be leaving as planned on X day.”

The last time I used my sponsor’s advice was early this year. I was saying goodbye to my dad for the last time because he was dying and getting hospice care in a nursing home. He didn’t die of Covid but I would have been trapped away from home for months if I had agreed to postpone my departure. I didn’t know that at the time but I had planned to be there for just over four weeks and I was unwilling to stay longer when my dad had been dying, pretty much, for years. (That sounds callous and I truly loved the man, who was in hospice the first time for three years.) It’s impossible not to weep as I write this. But it is important for us to choose ourselves when we are forced to make that choice.

I traded nations so I could be close to my grandchildren. My son-in-law recently visited his mother’s household, his father’s household, and a friend, all of whom live in the Covid hotspot In Sweden and who do not appear to take Covid as seriously as I do. I spent 48 hours with the grandkids and my kid and then left the minute my son-in-law got back and plan to avoid them for at least 10 days. I’m not going anywhere near them until I know that my son-in-law is no longer potentially infectious.

Here is the good news: if you start now, you most likely can develop better boundaries with your mother and, as a result, a much better relationship. That was my experience with my dad. He asked me twice, at different times, if I could stay longer. I understood why he was asking. No one wants to die alone. The second time he asked and I responded as I needed to, he immediately said he understood and that I needed to take care of myself. As luck would have it, one of his nurses noticed when he was dying and sat at his bedside to hold his hand until he drew his last breath.

While I am truly sorry I was not there to hold my dad’s hand, I am grateful that Al-Anon helped me learn to say no to my dad consistently and that, in his 80s, he learned to accept my boundaries and respect my autonomy as an adult. You aren’t being mean by saying no to your mother. You’re taking care of yourself and also, with luck and a bit of grace, taking care of your relationship with her. She may not appreciate this change initially but I promise you, learning to set boundaries was the very best thing that could have possibly happened to me and my dad. It meant that when my dad said it was terrible that I live so far away, I could agree with him. I could say, “it is terrible dad. I wish I didn’t live so far away.” He got to feel heard and validated at least to some degree, and I could stop feeling guilty.

This stuff is not easy. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 12:01 PM on December 8, 2020 [9 favorites]

My mom has always been intensely attached to her children with a fear of abandonment. She has a way of making me feel responsible for her negative emotions so I’ve always been terrified of upsetting her. And I know it will break her heart if we don’t go. She hasn’t been able to see her friends or do any of her usual activities in months so Christmas has been the only thing she’s been looking forward to. She seems to have bought a ton of gifts for me and my partner. I thought about suggesting a gift exchange in my parents backyard but I worry she will be offended by that

I could have written most of what Bella Donna wrote above and just wanted to say that I am sorry you are going through this, but that reframing some of how you think about your responsibility for the way your mother is feeling will help now and will help in the future. That is, she has her concerns and maybe for reasons (generational, other mental health challenges, maybe it's a bad cycle the two of you are both in) she isn't able to be appropriate with you about it.

Because you should be clear: it is absolutely not appropriate for a person in a global pandemic to say to another person trying to keep them safe in a global pandemic "BUT MY FEELINGS." Her heart breaking will not kill her, you visiting might. I know you've got resolve about not going (good for you! these things are hard!) but it may also be worth it to hear from other people who have had to wrestle with boundaries with their inappropriate parents who couldn't do any better. Many people also have consumed too much media that somehow says that people who really love each other make it work when it seems like it's not going to work. And that's a false consciousness, but people feel that way anyhow.

My personal story is that my (alcoholic) dad made a bit of a shambles of his life that was mostly working right up until it wasn't working (his enabling wife left him and things started to unravel) and he just... couldn't do certain things and kind of expected me or my sister to do them and neither of us lived closer than a few hours to him and were grown ups with our own lives. Basic stuff like laundry and cleaning the cat box. Which... when you look at kind of situation, he's clearly got something going on. But a dad who can't/won't do his own laundry isn't that different from a mom who can't/won't accept that her kids aren't coming home. There's some sort of malfunction in their empathy gene and it may have been a horrible thing when you were a kid (just guessing) but you're a grown up and no one can tell you what to do. Just saying this because it's been helpful to me. People can not FORCE you to do the thing you don't want to do. People who try to use emotional blackmail to make these things happen (either consciously or unconsciously) can make you feel like you don't have choices, but you do. So I might interrogate that feeling a bit... what are you terrified of? And how can you make that go better for yourself as well as trying to just get through the next few months?
posted by jessamyn at 3:26 PM on December 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

What are the details of the public health order? Personally, as a rules following nerd, I'd lean on that. In Australia, there are fairly significant fines for violating these orders.

I'd say something like "At the moment, it looks like we might not be able to visit you at Christmas because of the public health order. The rules may change by Christmas, but just in case they don't and we have to postpone our get together, what should our plan B be?"
posted by kjs4 at 4:14 PM on December 8, 2020

This is hard, and I Nth the advice to prep and recover like this is a hard thing. One thing that's helped me in similar things is to imagine the situation all the way through. "And then what" not in the sense of what you will be 'causing' (you're not) but the sequence of events that could unfold including possible negative feelings you and others may have.

You might find looking into "distress tolerance" from DBT therapy. It felt sort of value laden to me the first time I encountered it , but the reality is that you, me, your mom, and everyone else has a level of distress they can tolerate (without x serious consequence, like say passing out), and a level of distress they think/expect they can tolerate, which may not be aligned.

This conversation sounds like it will be distressing for you and your mom, maybe very distressing. That is ok, and both you and your mom have the capacity to survive the negative emotions involved. I don't know if this is officially how I'm supposed to interpret this mindset, but basically, it's ok if this is going to suck and be hard. You already have done hard things in this situation, you can do more hard things in this upcoming conversation, it may suck and hurt, and you might want a drink, comfort food, whatever else afterward. I personally find it freeing to have this kind of permission to dread and resent the upcoming emotions, whole also seeing those emotions as part of the consequence I can and will trade for something that's important to me.
posted by heyforfour at 7:26 PM on December 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

You say you thought about suggesting a backyard gift exchange but that you worry she'd be offended. I can't tell whether you thought about it as a sort of concession or if you'd actually like (to some degree) to do it. If the latter, an option would be to suggest it and just not frame it as a gift exchange. Suggest it in terms of you'd really like to come home (assuming you actually would really like to) but that indoor gatherings seem clearly to be unsafe, if not illegal where you are. So a visit in the yard seems like the best you guys can do under the circumstances. I'm not saying she'll be thrilled, but you can feel less guilty, if that's a problem for you, knowing that you were willing to do what it was possible to do right now. Then go and stay until it's too cold to stay any longer, or until you want to leave -- whatever suits you. If she rejects the idea, it might help you to feel more certain that you did what you could.
posted by troywestfield at 9:55 AM on December 11, 2020

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