So I guess this is growing up
January 17, 2022 8:11 PM   Subscribe

My adult child is pulling away from me. Maybe that's good, as he grows closer to his fiancee and grows up and all that. Maybe that's less good, because he is perhaps depressed as he has been in the past. But even if he is depressed, maybe I no longer can expect my support would be helpful or desired, because his fiancee would naturally take the primary role there. In any case, worrying doesn't help him or me and I definitely should not feel personally rejected/hurt. But yes, I am crying again.

My son is 30. I am 51, and have been a single mother to him and his sister since they were babies. They have no relationship with their biofather or his family. My own family -- father, mother, sister -- are all dead. So it's just the three of us, as far as blood-family goes. My son has lived with his now fiancee a two-hour flight away for a year and a half. She's great, and we're friendly. We text.

My son and I have always been close, just very simpatico: we like the same music, same art, same books, generally feel the same way about stuff with just enough difference to make conversation fun. His running joke is that we are the same person. We've always enjoyed just sitting around and talking for hours, and he always would want me to meet and hang out with his friends and girlfriends. He also has a history of suicidal depression, multiple instances, as well as binge-drinking-related drama, and I would get middle of the night calls to go see him and help him sort it out. I feel like he pretty much told me everything about his life, except when he was in a bad way and didn't want me to know, and then I knew I'd get a call when he was ready.

So now he lives in another city with his awesome fiancee, who I really like and she seems to really like me too. My son and I still texted every few days and talked once a week or so, and I went to visit them for a week twice, and they visited me for a week. Basically every three months or so we saw each other, and it was great. Both my son and his fiancee told me over and over how much they were each looking forward to seeing me at Christmas.

Then I got there, and neither of them seemed to want me there at all.

I was hurt and baffled, and thought I was probably doing the kindest thing by them in leaving early. I let a week go by, and called my son and asked him what was going on with him. He apologized profusely for making me feel unwelcome, but refused to answer any questions about why he had behaved as he did. Just like that, "I'm not going to answer that." And eventually, "C'mon, you've asked me the same thing in different words five times now, and I'm trying not to get mad, but I really just have nothing to say." Well, ok. Then a week later (yesterday) he calls me and tells me about his puppy and his project at work, and once those subjects were up he got off the phone. But it had the air of checking a box. It was not a conversation he wanted to have, it was seemingly just to avoid reproach, or self-reproach.

I do not want another visit, another phone conversation like that. No, if he wants space from me, of course he gets to have it. If he doesn't want to tell me what's wrong, of course he doesn't have to. His fiancee should really be his primary confidant now anyway.

But here's the thing: I'm not sure she is. I have observed that she doesn't really call him on his bullshit, for one thing, and when my dad died (who my son was really close to, and he was at his bedside when it happened) my son told me he didn't want to talk to her about it and was mad she kept trying to make him. But that was more than a year ago, maybe they're closer now, I don't know. She does love him, I'm sure of it.

So is this what happens when kids grow up? You just aren't going to know what's going on with them necessarily, and the people they have in their chosen family may or may not be up to the task, but there's nothing you can do about that, so you just... exchange Christmas cards every year and vaya con dios? Is that healthy and natural and right, and I'm codependent for being worried, and I admit it, hurt?

I see two issues here: (1) My son may not be ok, but there doesn't appear to be anything I can do about that, and (2) I think of my son as a friend too, someone whose company I really enjoy, and maybe I need to stop thinking of him like that.

What do you think? Please be nice to me, I already feel like I'm in the wrong here.
posted by pH Indicating Socks to Human Relations (37 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know all the details here, so I could be speaking out of turn, but I get a strong sense that your relationship has elements of codependency in it. There is a good book on this subject that you might be interested in taking a look at. I wish you well.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 8:20 PM on January 17, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I remember your previous post, though I didn't respond. Whatever is going on, it's not about you. There's something going on with them, and they don't wish to bring you into it, for whatever reason.

My immediate thought is relationship issues of some sort, but really, it could be work stress, or health stuff, or any number of things. Perhaps they don't want to worry you, or to have you feel like you must take sides, or they're not ready to share until they have a better idea what's going on... or perhaps it's something (like work, or a friendship of theirs, or something) that really doesn't have any relevance to you, and it's preoccupying them, but not necessarily something that makes any sense to share. Let them share what they wish when they're ready, and give them the space to grow and adult. The usual path is somewhere between the extremes you describe.

On preview, I see the comment about codependency. And yes, I could see that, too. It's possible that it's just the stress and uncertainty of this moment makes it come across in that way... but then, it's possible, too, that the need is felt to build their relationship as a couple, and not as a couple-plus-mom. In this case, too - give them time. Don't push, but don't punish by retreating, either. Just allow them their space to resolve it. If they need to speak with you about it, they will choose to, in their own time.
posted by stormyteal at 8:26 PM on January 17, 2022 [20 favorites]

Best answer: This sounds really hard.

I don't know what is going on with your son -- I agree that it sounds like something not about you, but about him -- but regardless I might suggest that you find a therapist to talk to about this. Not because anything is "wrong" with you (or him) but because it sounds like you could use the support, and if you don't have someone to talk to about it you'll be a lot more miserable than you need to be, and might end up pressuring him in a way you don't want to just because you're lonely and sad.

I suspect that if you make it clear that you're still there for him but willing to let it be on his terms, he will eventually come around and include you more. Like stormyteal suggests: don't push, but don't punish by retreating. It will be a lot easier for you to strike this balance if you have this other source of support to work through your feelings with.
posted by contrapositive at 8:32 PM on January 17, 2022 [9 favorites]

Can you tell us more about your relationship with your daughter? You only mention her briefly. That would be useful information in many ways, both to get a sense of your social life in general and as a sort of control against your relationship with your son.

Do you have many friends? How’s your work situation? Do you do any group hobbies?
posted by stockpuppet at 8:49 PM on January 17, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I can't speak to (1), but regarding (2), I am in a similar place with my mother. I realized she doesn't have a lot of other support beyond me. I love her dearly and truly enjoy her company, but we live far away from one another. I'd love if she could expand her social circle and had others whose company she could enjoy.

I have no doubt that the unconditional love and support you've shown your son throughout his life will yield more than a Christmas card each year. I can only imagine how hurtful it must feel, but trust in yourself that you've done all you possibly can and give yourself the gift of grace and space.
posted by nathaole at 8:49 PM on January 17, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I don’t know if this is what is going on but I do know that some of the most bonkers fights I ever had with my partner were when family was visiting. I mostly attributed it to the fact that we tend to act differently around our parents/family of origin. Whether that is acting more remote or petulant or dismissive. It’s like the balance is off and the person on the outside (the fiancée in this case) doesn’t like it. Maybe he doesn’t act “like himself” or takes a side he doesn’t usually have or acts distant, even mean. And this is hard to notice within yourself. “Of course I’m not acting like a teenager! Why would you say that?!” It took some more maturing on our parts to see the pattern and then an effort to work through it, including being extra accommodating to weirdness that will likely resolve a day or two after the visit.

So, I agree this likely doesn’t have anything to do with you. If you were staying in their space, consider doing all or part of the stay in a hotel. Do some “together” things and some one-on-one things. And just continue to be open to your son. When I call my mom, she gives me the download on everything in her life and has not as much patience for hearing about my life. I get the frustration. But maybe one call, he monopolizes and the next you do. Don’t be afraid to just invite him in to your world and share.
posted by amanda at 8:51 PM on January 17, 2022 [13 favorites]

I peeked into your post history and I’ll be honest, I definitely get a sense that you don’t really like your son’s girlfriend/fiancé as much as you say you do. You asked a question earlier about being annoyed by her PDA in your presence and it sounded like she was really, really bothering you at that time. I’m sure you want to like her and know it’s the correct thing to say, but I’m a believer that it’s better to be honest and embrace your feelings than deny them, as long as you do the right thing. So just let it out:

You don’t like her. You want your son back. You’re jealous. You’re lonely. It’s okay to be human. It’s okay to have those feelings. It doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad mother. What would make you a bad person, IMHO, is to deny and displace those feelings and look for an external source to blame. It is possible for you to have these feelings, graciously acknowledge them, and be a very good human being at the same time.
posted by stockpuppet at 9:02 PM on January 17, 2022 [44 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sorry this is hard and will probably continue to be. I don't have kids, but am the adult only child of a very close single mom, now in my early forties. Relationships with my mom, and especially shared interactions with my spouse, are really hard. It takes effort to remain engaged.

If you can, assume the best. "I just can't bear to deal with this right now" is very different from "I don't love you or care about your concern and kindness." It's often a mistake to assume the things people tell you about their relationships with others are complete. I edit what I tell my mother about my spouse. I edit what I tell my spouse about my mother. I think that's okay. I expect your friendship will return, even if it's temporarily been hard to find.

For what it's worth, this stranger on the internet doesn't see any reason to believe your son is not okay from what you've said. Telling him you're there for him wouldn't seem strange to me. Going further would. Sympathy and best wishes.
posted by eotvos at 9:09 PM on January 17, 2022 [9 favorites]

Best answer: "A son is a son until he takes a wife. A daughter is daughter all of her life" has unfortunately shown itself to be substantially true, in my experience (not as a mom). If he has for real marrying intentions, for better or worse, he will be investing more into that relationship, as you’re thinking.

Every mom of married sons that I’m close to has had to step *way* back, unfortunately. Every such mom has cried :/ and more than once.

There’s a lot going on with him though. Depression, alcohol addiction…

>I have observed that she doesn't really call him on his bullshit, for one thing, and when my dad died (who my son was really close to, and he was at his bedside when it happened) my son told me he didn't want to talk to her about it and was mad she kept trying to make him.

Uh oh… is he “wearing the pants” (as it were)? Combined with the other two issues, I don’t know, things over there might be more intense than anyone wants to say.

Even so… really all you can do is be theoretically available, while (sadly) stepping way back. You really have to operate on their terms and sort of be on standby.

I would even go further, because your son is vulnerable - even if his fiancée isn’t the kind of person you naturally enjoy, try to stay open to her (if you can be sincere, faking things will be sniffed out). She’s with and near him and you’re not, so it’s vital that she feels she can talk to you.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:36 PM on January 17, 2022 [6 favorites]

(I also want to say as a mere sister, I have had to bite my tongue so hard, so many times. Haven’t always been successful. Much much harder for moms, I know and I’m sorry.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:42 PM on January 17, 2022 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all of you! Your kindness is very moving.

Just to clarify, stockpuppet, I really do appreciate you taking the time to try and help me, but you have it wrong. I do like my son's fiancee. My discomfort with PDA when I was the only other person there seems not unreasonable, at least to me, and I was frustrated then but it doesn't mean I hate her. She's great, and she doesn't feel a need to do that anymore. Of course I'm lonely. Of course I want my son back: I want him when he was eight months old, when he was 3, when he was 5, when he was 10... I want all the beautiful times he and his sister and I had together, playing on repeat, and none of us to ever die. But jealous I am not (ew), and just as I wanted him to experience walking, and Forever Changes, and pad see ew, and all the other good things in life, I definitely want him to experience enduring romantic love, and I think they have a very good shot. I just worry is all.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 9:50 PM on January 17, 2022 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I do not want another visit, another phone conversation like that.

To avoid another visit like that, ask him what suggestions he has and make some suggestions yourself, like amanda's suggestion to stay in a hotel. He won't tell you what caused the issue last time, most likely because it is private between him and his fiance, but he can still work with you to plan a visit that can go better. You both have a shared goal of having a comfortable, loving visit, and you can work together on that. Don't blame (him, his fiance, or yourself), and don't push, but brainstorm and collaborate.

To avoid another phone call like that, well, you should work to accept his boundaries. They are changing from before, like you acknowledge. Pushing against them will just make things worse. It's really hard, but you have to work on accepting that there are things he just won't tell you now. Some parts of his life are closed to you. But they're just parts -- the rest is still there for you.

One possible explanation for the visit and his refusal to discuss the underlying issue is that he and his fiance may have been having some conflict then. [I see you mentioned this in the other thread: "Or maybe there's trouble between the two of them they're trying to hide/deal with."] Some (many?) couples will not share that outside of the relationship, even with a parent. It may have been difficult for them to be around you without letting on to the conflict (acting like everything is fine when it isn't takes a ton of energy), which could explain their limited interaction with you. And it would explain why he wouldn't answer you about it. That may be a strong, important boundary for him and his fiance.

Of course, that's just a guess, but it's a very reasonable, likely explanation that isn't really about you and isn't caused by any deep distress. It's important to recognize the those relatively benign explanations are as likely if not moreso than the catastrophic ones we may be drawn to. When we don't have all the details of a situation, it's too easy to fill them in with worst cases and anxiety.

I'm not sure I'm telling you much that's new to you. You've identified these themes and pieces yourself. But you're also going further down the negative interpretations and assumptions than is healthy. The result here is not christmas-cards-and-bupkis. The result is a relationship with your son that is somewhat reduced in some aspects but still close and loving overall. Let him keep the pieces he needs to keep to himself, and there will still be so much there for you.

As an example, I have a good relationship with my parents. I don't tell them anything about conflicts with my spouse, though, because that's private between my spouse and I. But I still talk to my parents often, we still enjoy each other's company when we visit, and I still share challenges and triumphs and joy and fear and many parts of my life with them. And you know, if my mother had pressed me for an explanation I didn't want to give or that wasn't mine to give, I don't know, I would probably either lie or share something I shouldn't -- both of which would seriously hurt me. Good on your son for his response! It's a healthy, positive answer, and I think it speaks well of him (and you who raised him!) that he was able to give it.
posted by whatnotever at 10:18 PM on January 17, 2022 [12 favorites]

I think, honestly, that this level of discomfort about a fairly basic thing (they didn't hang out with you as much as you'd like, which you took as them not wanting you there, rather than a dozen benign explanations) and your son wanting some privacy is ringing some pretty big alarm bells for you maybe being depressed. That's okay! It's okay to be extra sensitive and feel bad about having kind of a shitty christmas!

But I want to warn you that your behavior here and the stories you're telling yourself are really things that you should try hard not to put on your son. He shouldn't have to be a major emotional support for you, barring a real catastrophe (e.g. a sick relative). Him not hanging out with you as much as you'd like shouldn't lead to you asking him the same question over and over and basically interrogating him because you're feeling anxious. I feel really bad for him in that conversation. If he doesn't want to tell you, it's okay for him to not tell you, and it was not okay for you to ask repeatedly. Especially given the element of blame and criticism that he was hearing from you (he apologized, meaning he felt bad, and then you asked him why he acted that way repeatedly, this is really aggressive behavior.) Honestly, I know people said it was okay to leave without really discussing it, last minute, in your last question, but that's because you said "relatives" and concealed the fact that it was your kid. It's not cool to ditch your kid and leave because you assume that they don't want you there. It's harsh behavior for a kid who feels like their mom left out of the blue and they don't know why. Frankly, from the tone of the question I had assumed you were hanging out with an older relative who had some kind of caretaking responsibility towards you, and not the other way around.

Your feelings are okay, but your behavior has not been appropriate, and you need help to keep from inadvertently damaging your relationship with your son by continuing to behave inappropriately, lash out, and act as though your feelings represent his feelings and therefore reality.

He is owed an apology for your behavior on the trip (leaving early without talking to him) and for your behavior on the phone (interrogating him). That would be my first step here in repairing the relationship. If you want a christmas-cards-and-thats-it relationship, you're going to get it by putting this shit on him and making it his problem instead of being the parent.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:51 PM on January 17, 2022 [58 favorites]

He apologized profusely for making me feel unwelcome, but refused to answer any questions about why he had behaved as he did. Just like that, "I'm not going to answer that." And eventually, "C'mon, you've asked me the same thing in different words five times now, and I'm trying not to get mad, but I really just have nothing to say." Well, ok. Then a week later (yesterday) he calls me and tells me about his puppy and his project at work, and once those subjects were up he got off the phone. But it had the air of checking a box. It was not a conversation he wanted to have, it was seemingly just to avoid reproach, or self-reproach.

You may not realize it, but you're coming across as super entitled and blaming towards him here. Of course he wants to have a nice conversation with you. But you acting like he can't say "I'm not going to answer that" is fucked up. There's no nice way to say it. He gets to have secrets and privacy, or you're eventually not going to get to have a relationship. It's not his fault that he's feeling distant, honestly, it's yours.

I am not being blunt to hurt your feelings, but to try to keep you from estranging yourself from your son. Your insecurity here is going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy if you keep taking it out on your kid. I don't want that for you and I hope that this helps wake you up to your role here.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:56 PM on January 17, 2022 [57 favorites]

My adult child is pulling away from me. Maybe that's good

Of course that is good! You have done your job and raised offspring to functional adulthood. Twice! Now step back, let go, and turn in another direction. You have more life to live. Your son should no longer be a main focus for you nor should he feel compelled to give you attention or companionship. He needs some mom-free life experience. Be proud of your accomplishment and move on. Wait for the circle to come around when grandma is needed.
posted by Thella at 12:04 AM on January 18, 2022 [9 favorites]

I’m the same age as your son and am really close with my mum. If I felt like I needed more space to invest more of myself in something (spouse, career, whatever) beyond her and my family of origin, and she responded by feeling that I didn’t like her or love her anymore and that thenceforth our relationship would be reduced to christmas-card level, I would be very confused and upset and worried about HER mental health. Ideally I would want our relationship to mature and develop as I enter a new stage of life, and hopefully she would also be living her own life and be able to be present with me as an individual as well as my mother. I expect she would probably have her own worries about me but I would not expect her to feel like it was her responsibility to be “on top of” things like my mental health like she was when I was still younger and more dependent on her like in my early 20s. If I felt like she was resisting the natural change and growth of myself (especially if she was constantly pulling me back to when I was at my worst/most vulnerable/least able to cope, putting me back in a childlike position, and denying my potential to heal and grow) and our relationship that comes with time, then yes, I might feel the need to pull away more abruptly or definitively, because I have to live my own life. I can’t rely on mum forever. She won’t be here forever!

I think most of all in your question I see you resisting change. You are wise enough to know rationally that it is inevitable, but you’re still resisting it emotionally with all your might. You want your son to be a little boy again. You want him, in some way, to still be unstable mentally and so still need you and depend on you. You want to be his primary friend and confidante the way you were before his fiancee came along. Again, you’re wise enough to know these things are not possible, or even actually what you want. You want him to be grown and independent and married and secure. Because you’re a good mother. But your feelings are really in conflict and you are sabotaging yourself and your relationship with your son by turning the hurt inwards and taking it all so personally. I really think when there is a big gap like this between the facts and truth and your logical mind vs your actual feelings and your behaviour, therapy can help you sort out what’s going on for you. This might be about a lot of other things that you are currently sublimating into your relationship with your son. If you can untangle all the different feelings intertwined here, you may be able to feel less hurt and more able to adapt healthily to this change in your life.
posted by Balthamos at 12:25 AM on January 18, 2022 [13 favorites]

Also I saw in your previous question that you said you were thinking of moving to the same city as your son and his fiancee. Considering all your big feelings about him, how much of this move is REALLY about wanting to wind your son back in closer, keep tabs on him, and “strengthen” the relationship with him? Because I could easily interpret the slightly weird behaviour as your son being torn between not wanting to hurt you vs having his fiancee on his other shoulder going “David, please, I do not want my future mother in law any closer than she already is, will you stand up to her and not go in for her moving here?”. I can think of couples I know where the (future) daughter in law is overwhelmed by the closeness of her spouse and his mother and the idea of the MIL becoming MORE entangled in their lives is... frankly ghastly to her. Again not to say there is anything wrong with the mother or that the DIL is right to feel that way or whatever- or even that this dynamic is necessarily what’s happening in your family- just to point out again that there will undeniably be other factors in your son’s actions and decisions that are not about you personally, even though they may be hurtful to you. And he can’t make all his grown up life decisions based on not hurting his mom’s feelings.
posted by Balthamos at 12:40 AM on January 18, 2022 [12 favorites]

RIght now, my youngest would like to spend 90% of her time with me. I am absolutely her favourite person in the world and I know almost all of her likes, dislikes, secrets etc. My oldest chats briefly to me in the mornings and that's it, although she does rely on my heavily during a crisis (and so do I to them as adults).

I know all of my adult children have significant private concerns and issues, friends I've not met, decisions I'm not consulted on - and that's the space we give each other. They don't know that much about my day to day either, even though because of culture and finances, we all live together in the same damn house. The level of closeness you're asking for is A LOT.

You sound very loving and also controlling and demanding. Now is the time to put work into finding new relationships to replace the intensity of young child parenting.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 1:04 AM on January 18, 2022 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: OK, well, I am reminded why they do call it JudgeMe, and why askers will often tremulously ask people to be gentle, as I did. Many of you were kind and helpful, and I thank you.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 1:32 AM on January 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

I would like it if you were as unjudgemental of your son as you wish fellow posters were of you, because yeah, I'm feeling sorry for your son here.

Your actions seem very disproportionate for your son and his partner... going to their room at 7-8pm?? And because of that you made it clear you felt he'd 'ruined' your trip, you left early, he 'apologized profusely' which already seems excessive, you interrogated him about it more than half a dozen times about it or in what sounds like each subsequent conversation? I mean, that sounds really unpleasant, and like you've been turning each interaction into a *major drama*.
He called you and chatted about his puppy and work, and it sounds like he was calling, cautiously, and hoping it wouldn't turn into another interrogation, and managed to have a short pleasant conversation with you, and after that happens a few times he probably won't feel as anxious that it's going to turn into another horrible conversation, but... you're really upset at him for that?

I mean, were you *really* doing the kindest thing by leaving early, or were you feeling hurt and wanting to show him just how abandoned you felt by him spending time with you but apparently *not enough*, and daring to *be in his own room at his own house* by ACTUALLY leaving, and making a big deal about it so in your own account it feels retalitory?
*"C'mon, you've asked me the same thing in different words five times now, and I'm trying not to get mad, but I really just have nothing to say." Well, ok*
I... You understand he's allowed to say no, right? He's allowed to have boundaries? Just, consent in general? I mean. You really don't seem to think that this was really inappropriate, and just really toxic and nagging for the other party?!

After all of that, and worst of all, the 'two issues' you highlighted don't seem to have anything to do with the big problems most of us are seeing and that I talk about above, at all?

I mean, Issue no 2. you're wondering why he might not be enjoying your company when... from everything in the story you've been telling, you've been making each interaction with you really unpleasant, and turning anything less than 100% attention on you into a major abandonment crisis??
Look, maybe that's worked in the past - like, it very much comes across like guilt tripping him and going you haven't given me enough attention! You're abandoning me! Has maybe somehow turned into positive interactions for you or more attention in the past, or hasn't caused problems for *you* in the past, but that's... never a pleasant way to interact with people. Of course your son loves you, you're his mother, and if you've acted like this before, then he's clearly just been having to deal with with emotional blackmail to keep your presence in his life.
Turn to friends, turn to therapists about this, but if you want a good relationship with him, recognise that this... isn't good.

Solution to your Issue 2:
If you want to have a good relationship with your son, have *good interactions with him*, where you aren't interrogating or guilt tripping him. It's just that simple.
Have simple, pleasant conversations.
If you don't think you can be pleasant, then... give him a random compliment and then say sorry you've had something come up and you have to go!
Seriously, cut *yourself* off. Go have a nice interaction with someone else, so you're not needing him to meet all your social needs with that conversation, and you'll find it's easier to have relaxed, chatty convo's with him, instead of anxious conversations.

This feeds into issue one, because if you are truly worried about him, then you need to be a *safe space* for him to talk to, not an emotional drama he is trying to manage. If you're truly worried about him, you'd be wanting to support him, right?

So, what's most important to you? If it's having a good relationship with your son, then you'll actually try to have good interactions with him, and when you're tempted to spin your feelings of abandonment into... blowing up your relationship with him, find a calm adult to talk through this with.
I believe you can continue having a good relationship with your son, because from reading your account, and it looks more like self-sabotage than your son turning away from you. Which should be a good thing to hear, because it means that the solution is in *your* hands!

If you don't want to take any of this on board, then please go ahead with your current passive aggressive, emotional blackmail plan of "No, if he wants space from me, of course he gets to have it."
Because he needs family, he needs you, but if you're toxic enough, he will build his own chosen family instead.
posted by Elysum at 3:37 AM on January 18, 2022 [31 favorites]

Best answer: You don't mention anything here about the rest of your life, whether it's full and happy. But if the thought of decreasing closeness with your son makes you feel lonely, I think one thing you can do, that has no downside, is to really work on building a full life of friends and activities other than your son. It won't happen right away, but it would mean that perhaps in years to come, you'll have plenty of good friends who can provide some of the emotional closeness that you're currently getting from him. It's great for you because - who doesn't need more friends?! And it's great for him because it means that if, when, he feels he wants to be more independent of you (which is a perfectly healthy thing for him to want), he won't feel like he's abandoning you.

I've been pretty close with my mum at times, there was mental health stuff in there on both sides, she gave me a lot of support and love, that I was grateful for. But also - when I found out she'd become good friends with a neighbour and would go round there for a glass of wine and to let off steam about the things that annoyed her in life, I was so happy, it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders that I didn't even know I was carrying, that we didn't always have to be one another's support system. It would be a great gift to give your son, to show him that you don't need him to be super-close with you, that he can choose whether he wants to or not.

You might find the concept of enmeshment useful - not saying that you'll necessarily check all the items on that list, but it might be a useful framework to help you think about the continuum from 'very close and emotionally connected' to 'very independent', and how it's a healthy, happy thing for a son reaching maturity to start to move along that continuum towards being more independent.

Also - black and white thinking: There's a whole world of wonderful possibilities for your relationship between "I feel like he pretty much told me everything about his life" and "exchange Christmas cards every year and vaya con dios". If you're always been at one end of that spectrum, it can be uncomfortable to find yourself being pushed along it. But telling yourself that if he takes some steps towards independence, that means you're permanently relegated to distant acquaintance, is very black and white thinking, which is causing yourself unnecessary pain.

Be gentle with yourself - try and see that there are shades of grey here, that him being more independent than he was does not have to equal complete abandonment. And throw yourself into some other things so that his decreasing dependence on you doesn't feel like the end of the world. Wishing you the best - it's all so hard and complicated sometimes, but you can come through this to a happier place through your own work on yourself, regardless of what path he chooses.
posted by penguin pie at 4:35 AM on January 18, 2022 [53 favorites]

Best answer: I’m sorry you got some harsh answers and that probably hurt, especially when you specifically asked people to be gentle. I think you should still think of your son as a friend, BUT friendships tend to wax and wane and I think penguin pie’s answer is really good. If you are very kind to yourself and kind to your son, I’m sure this will come right.
posted by pairofshades at 4:37 AM on January 18, 2022 [8 favorites]

Of course I'm lonely. Of course I want my son back: I want him when he was eight months old, when he was 3, when he was 5, when he was 10... I want all the beautiful times he and his sister and I had together, playing on repeat

This seems to be the crux of it. You want your baby, and he's not a baby anymore. I agree wholeheartedly with the suggestion to get therapy - and I want to underline how important it is for you to seek therapy NOW, before your son loses his desire to connect with you in response to the intensity of your feelings of loss.

When someone is an adult and newly committed to a serious partner, what they need from their parent is a celebration of their successful separation from the parent. Your son has "graduated" from you. Can you imagine if his high school or his college marked his graduation not with a joyful ceremony honoring his achievement, but rather with intense sadness? (I know you think you haven't expressed verbally or explicitly to your son, but I promise you that you have communicated to him exactly how you're feeling. ABUNDANTLY. You know how you can just feel the shift in the air when his moods change? Your son is ten times more sensitized to you than you are to him. Children are much more subliminally attuned to parents' feelings than we are to them.)

Your son deserves a mother who celebrates his adulthood instead of lamenting it. You deserve to have a relationship with your son which is free and joyful, not one that's pervaded by a sense of loss. In fact, the sense of loss you're feeling is probably not even about him but rather about all the losses you've suffered in the rest of your life. It's time for you to direct those feelings of loss where they actually belong instead of at your children. It's absolutely possible for you to feel nothing but genuine joy and free-hearted gratitude that your son is all grown up and no longer a baby. You deserve that celebratory "graduation" from being a full-time parent into this new chapter of your life, too, just as your son deserves his celebratory graduation into adulthood.

I will repeat again that it's very important for you to start therapy NOW, before your son loses his desire to connect with you in response to the intensity of the feelings of loss and mourning that you're directing towards him. I'd recommend a psychodynamic therapist, or better yet, a family therapist who can offer you individual therapy. Seek out a therapist who emphasizes the necessity of building and maintaining relaxed connections (not just with your son but others too), and helps you learn healthy interdependence. Avoid CBT or DBT oriented professionals who often tend to push a disconnected, individualistic, independent mode of life as the ideal one as an overcorrective response to folks like you who struggle with enmeshment.

I'll also add this caveat: avoid seeking advice from the internet for this problem. On the internet there's a very strong tendency towards viscerally hating parents who feel the way you do towards an adult child. So many of us have lived through the trauma that your son is living through right now. (Yes, trauma. That's what it is from your son's perspective to have to carry the burden of your life's other losses which you've placed on him.) When someone who is like our own traumatizing parent shows up on the internet, we lash out. We hurl at you all the anger and hurt we've been carrying towards our own parents, which we have never been able to resolve. For many of us, it's impossible to be kind to you. That's why there are harsh responses here. But that's not helpful to you. What will help is therapy.
posted by MiraK at 5:11 AM on January 18, 2022 [41 favorites]

I just re-read your question, and one thing I'd add is...

Your specific question is about whether you should just stand by when you think your son's chosen partner isn't providing him with the emotional support he needs. And the answer is yes, unless he asks you for help. Him making his own choices about what emotional help he needs, and from whom, is part of him becoming a healthy independent adult. You not swooping in unbidden every time you think it's necessary (rather than when he specifically asks you for help) is part of you becoming a healthy mom of a healthy independent adult.

You mention that previously, he'd sometimes withdraw from you when he was having a hard time but you knew he'd come to you when he was ready... so you have that trust there already, that knowledge that he will come to you when he needs you. He's doing the same thing now, and you can rely on that same trust now. Maybe what's new is that he often doesn't need you now, and that's a hard adjustment. But it's for him to decide, not you.

/segue to my answer above...
posted by penguin pie at 5:29 AM on January 18, 2022 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sorry this is so difficult.

In case this is a useful perspective: I'm a grown child of a family I love deeply, and also require a great deal of physical and emotional distance from. I was the only child of a single mother for years before she eventually remarried and had another child. I love her more than anyone in this world. I also grew up very codependent with her and with mental health problems I struggle with to this day that stem partly from how hard I tried, for many many years, to be my mother's everything, to never cause her a moment's doubt or pain or difficulty, and to never have needs of my own that might be inconvenient for her in any way.

It was hard to find my own way to be an adult and to take care of myself and to be a good partner to another person, with this background. It was hard to admit to having needs or feelings. It was hard to experiment with having parts of my life that were just mine and not shared. Here in my forties, when I do not share difficult things with my mother, I'm still not always certain whether I'm doing it because I simply want and deserve privacy to work through my feelings, or because I am trying to protect her from hurt now just as much as I was when I was ten.

What I can say is that none of this is any reflection on her or how much I love her or what a good mother she has always been to me. It is simply me, learning how to be an adult in general and also how to be the specific adult I want to be, which includes having a variety of support systems ranging from family to friends to partner to therapists, such that my mother is a much smaller percentage of my overall emotional landscape than she once was. That's what's healthy for me. I love her just as much and would take a bullet for her just as much, but she is a friend and just like you might have different friends you go to for different things, she's not my one-stop shop to fulfill all my emotional needs anymore. Nor should she be.

What she is, that no one else is, is my emotional bedrock. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I were in deep, serious trouble, if everyone else in the world abandoned me and I lost everything, my mother would be there and I could go to her. Because I know that in my bones, I don't actually need to rely on it much; it's just the great truth, luck, and gift of my life that has allowed me the security to go out and build other emotional connections that can support me through less dire things.

I know that she has my sister (who has gone the other direction and is overly enmeshed with her parents, she's got a therapist, they're working on it), and my stepfather, and hobbies, and her cats. I still feel some guilt over the amount of distance I need, and wish my mom would also go to therapy, or make more friends, or otherwise fill up her own emotional landscape with a wider array of objects. But that's her own thing to work through and not a journey I can take for or with her. I hope she takes it for herself. I hope you find a way to take your own version of that journey.

tl;dr: This is growing up, yes. You gave your son enough love and support that he can now go out and build loving and supportive ties with others. You parented him well, and now your role as his parent and friend is shifting and he needs you not less, but differently. He's finding his own way. You need to find yours.
posted by Stacey at 5:44 AM on January 18, 2022 [26 favorites]

My mother, while not really abusive, could lose her rag at me quite memorably on occasion... and unpredictably. I was (naturally enough, I think) afraid of that -- I couldn't predict it, couldn't be good enough to reliably turn it aside -- and avoidant toward her as a result.

I mention this not so much because I think you are like her -- if you ever had a good relationship with your son, you're not -- but because she tried to mend fences when I grew up, and it kind of didn't work. When I visited my parents, I went along with her to mother-daughter lunch as she requested (it wasn't... quite... an invitation), and I was polite, but something in me was still ultra-guarded and I didn't know how to talk it down. These occasions were stunningly awkward, I think for both of us.

I'm asking myself what might have worked, and the answer in my head is "a series of short, cordial, and above all predictable interactions, to build a baseline of safety." If I were your son or DIL, I wouldn't feel mentally or emotionally safe with you right now, not after what you did during your visit.

I agree with the suggestions above that you apologize, but after that, consider how to set up that series of safety-building phone calls (I'm thinking phone calls would have been better for my mom and me than lunches out) or whatever?
posted by humbug at 5:56 AM on January 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I think you have gotten a lot of really good and constructive feedback about enmeshment, etc, but I wanted to note something that really stood out to me about your question. You wonder and worry a lot about your son and his well-being, and whether his partner is supporting him adequately, but it doesn’t come up at all that one of many possible explanations for their actions during your visit is that she is going through something, he is supporting her, and she may have asked your son to protect her privacy.

I don’t bring this up to speculate, or even to suggest that “what happened at Christmas” is the crux of the issue, but just to say that it doesn’t seem to have occurred to you. And I think that is instructive about the roles you may subconsciously believe that you all have in each other’s lives: who supports who, and how, and what kinds of care are appropriate or reasonable for anyone to witness from the outside. This may be a good place to focus your reflection.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 8:56 AM on January 18, 2022 [20 favorites]

Two notes coming from the perspective of someone a little older than your son:

1. I went through a rough patch with my mom in my 20s when she would not stop giving me life advice or being vocal about her concerns related to my choices. There were numerous times when I hung up the phone on her, not because I don't love her (I do, dearly), but because she was unable to hear me and at a certain point it crossed my frustration threshold. Your son is an adult, if he needs your help or advice he no doubt knows he can ask you. Don't force it.

2. My parents and I eventually figured out that visits work far better if we don't have the expectation of hanging out 24/7. I mean, when I lived with them we didn't spend all our time together either. Of course, some visits we do end up spending almost all our time together, but there is always a discussion pre-visit, which allows me the ability to say "Hey, currently dealing with work stress so I'll only be able to hang out in the evenings." Basically, next time you visit or your son visits you, I'd invite your son to set boundaries or expectations for that visit.
posted by coffeecat at 10:34 AM on January 18, 2022 [4 favorites]

I have observed that she doesn't really call him on his bullshit, for one thing,

My husband and I don't call each other out in front of anyone else, either. We would find it undermining. There is probably a lot they discuss in private.

my son told me he didn't want to talk to her about it and was mad she kept trying to make him.
And now there is something he doesn't want to talk about with you and is mad because you are trying to make him. I would be irritated, too.
posted by uans at 11:34 AM on January 18, 2022 [18 favorites]

Best answer: I have a couple thoughts for you to noodle over:

-It sounds like your relationship was closer than a lot of parent-adult child ones, possibly enmeshed, and sometimes a natural response to the child feeling this out is for them to pull way back while they figure out what they want it to look like. So I would not despair that this is just the way it is, it may just be a phase in your relationship on the way to a better medium.

-You can be friendLY with a child, but no, I think friends and children occupy different roles and expectations. Ask yourself if you would have asked a friend what was wrong until they got exasperated. There are usually clearer ideas in friendship that some things are private that even well-meaning parents can feel like they should know.

-if you have been unpartnered for most or all of your kids' lives, the concept of "emotional spouse" might be good for you to read about. This is a really common dynamic that happens to single parents and their children. I say this kindly so you can read and reflect if you think this may explain why you're feeling so upset.
posted by nakedmolerats at 1:51 PM on January 18, 2022 [11 favorites]

Someone above mentioned the broad pattern of moms-of-sons having to detach, and I also wanted to point out if you are American, this pattern IMO comes from a very broad cultural expectation that emotional support is provided by women. Cishet men will turn to their female partners for this primarily, but cishet women might often turn to a mother, sister, or friend because they were socialized that men can't or won't provide that support.
posted by nakedmolerats at 2:18 PM on January 18, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: My parents divorced when I was a kid, and I lived mostly with my mom from sixth grade (a few years her boyfriend also lived with us, and my older, post-college sister was there for a year or two at some point). We were close. I started to draw some boundaries in high school where I shared less with her, but we stayed close all through my 20s. After high school, we lived several states away but would travel together. She had a really hard time when I got married. I was 29 or 30. In retrospect, I think it represented a big change to her, a loss of me, even though I had already been living with my future (now ex) husband for a few years, and even though she liked him and they got along well. This change manifested in really weird ways: I had a small, informal wedding and picnic-like post-wedding party that didn't require a ton of work or organization but she got overly stressed about tiny little details about the wedding and party and got really upset about a bunch of stuff. She'd call my sister really upset about how I was glad my future sister-in-law had offered to help, etc. It's like she was looking to be displaced, and she found ways to feel that was happening. She was super dramatic about it all and withdrew her offers to help. That was twenty years ago, and I'm not sure we ever really healed our that disruption, and it sucked because it was supposed to be a happy time for me, and she made it about her. And what's extra sad about it is that I don't think our relationship needed to change all that much, not from my perspective.

What I wish my mom had done: go to therapy or talk to friends about her emotions and sadness and feelings of loss of me, and work hard not to be hurt by me taking another completely normal and reasonable step into adulthood. I think the best thing you can do to have a good relationship with your son and future daughter-in-law is to cultivate a positive relationship with her and give him space to set boundaries with you. It may be that he's been pulling back for a while, but you haven't really seen this or wanted to see it.

I'd also suggest trying hard not to behave in dramatically different ways right now, because it's not great for your son and future DIL to be taking this happy step forward and have that be associated with negativity in their relationship with you.

I also want to reiterate that another good thing you can do for yourself, and for your relationship with both kids, is to cultivate your own independent life separate from kids. Have you been dating or had other emotionally intimate relationships? How are your friendships? 51 is pretty young (I say from just a few years behind you). Do you have a partner or lover? Do you have a person? Do you travel or take vacations with friends? Do you have hobbies, especially ones you share with other people?

Some of this may mean coming to terms with having had an overly-enmeshed relationship with your son over the years, where you've perhaps been too dependent emotionally on him. That's not any fun to hear, but he needs space to be an independent adult, and, in order to do this, he needs this to be something not just that you tolerate, but you joyfully celebrate. The goal isn't to raise our kids to be our friends, but to be fully functioning adults (because, in the normal scheme of things, they'll be on this earth longer than we will be).

It's okay to be sad and distressed about all this, but it would be great if you processed all that separately from him.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:20 PM on January 18, 2022 [18 favorites]

Best answer: You don't mention anything here about the rest of your life, whether it's full and happy. But if the thought of decreasing closeness with your son makes you feel lonely, I think one thing you can do, that has no downside, is to really work on building a full life of friends and activities other than your son.

I came here to say more or less this. North American society is very hard on women, especially mothers, as they age. We get all kinds of messages saying that we are supposed to devote ourselves to children, and then we are expected to just be able to detach when those children want their independence. And just as that happens, we're told that we no longer have any value.

It sucks. And it's a lie.

At 51, you still have many vibrant years ahead of you. Your son is going through a natural process of building his primary relationship with his partner, but this is not a comment on you or what you have to offer. You are now free to forge ahead and explore things for yourself, and figure out who you want to be when being your son's mother no longer needs to be your primary role in life.

Doing that will not only be tremendously rewarding for you personally, it will also take a lot of pressure off your relationship with your son, and free both of you up to engage with each other as people--as well as parent/child, because that will never go away--when the dust settles.

On preview, what bluedaisy said much better than I did.
posted by rpfields at 4:25 PM on January 18, 2022 [8 favorites]

I have observed that she doesn't really call him on his bullshit,

I would hope not. that is a parental role, and wise girlfriends do not take on parental attitudes towards their boyfriends even -- especially -- when those boyfriends seem to expect it from them. I would say it is specifically the role and attitude that parents of toddlers and teens take towards their difficult children whom they are actively educating in the ways of life; as children become more and more adult there ought to be less and less call for it except as a kind of nostalgic recreation of the past (but as such, I think it is mostly harmless).

I would also hope he is not dishing out "bullshit" to his girlfriend, or to anyone else, on some kind of routine basis.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:45 PM on January 18, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I think something people might be skimming past in your post is that you’re likely still grieving the loss of your entire immediate family (fairly recently, according to your history, sorry, I looked). As well, you were a single mom, I think that’s often a particular family dynamic that you have already anticipated will have to change. It’s ok and totally understandable to want to grieve and talk about it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:46 PM on January 18, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: We don't talk enough about how uncomfortable it can be to be on the receiving end of another person's boundary-setting. Especially, and I'm talking from my own personal experience here, if you don't have a lot of experience with healthy boundary-setting yourself. It can make you feel abandoned or ashamed or rejected. (And yes, therapy can help with this feeling.)

It seems like your son is setting some healthy boundaries in his relationship with you. If he hasn't done this before, it can feel really bad. But that doesn't mean it IS bad. It may be a really important step for him in becoming an adult, and it may pave the way for a different but still really meaningful relationship between the two of you.

I have a pretty different relationship with my parents (more traditional parent-child) but I went through something similar right around the same age. I had always been pretty close with them, even moving back in for short periods of time in my twenties. In my case, what sparked the change in our relationship was moving thousands of miles away and starting therapy. I started to question some of the ideas I had about myself and my life that came from how I was raised, and I went through a period of withdrawing emotionally from my parents. To be honest, I was pretty mad at them at this time. They gave me this emotional space, and it took a while, but we came back together. Our relationship is not what it was before this change, and no, we are not as close, but it's a good relationship. I love them a lot, they love me, we have a good time together and we support each other. I share some things I'm going through but not everything, and I think it's probably the same for them.

One other thing I want to say about the "perfunctory" phone call with your son - I have calls like that with my parents sometimes. We had quite a few calls like that when I was distanced from them. Sometimes it was just checking off a box for me but it was a really important box to check off. Even when I was angry at my parents and ranting about them in therapy every week, I still wanted a relationship with them. Me making those calls regularly was how I committed to that relationship, how I showed them I cared even when I was struggling with our relationship.

I do think eventually most or all kids need to individuate somehow. It doesn't necessarily always have to be the Western model of living a completely separate life with their own nuclear family, but it happens in some form. I have noticed that kids who didn't do it as teenagers (like me and maybe like your son) do it in their late twenties or early thirties. But it doesn't have to be a bad thing and it usually, unless there's been abuse or something on that level left unaddressed, leads to an evolution in the relationship, not a permanent break.
posted by the sockening at 12:13 PM on January 19, 2022 [12 favorites]

My dad did to me what you are doing to your son when I started college. He was a single parent, we had been very close (my mother passed away when I was 12) and at the time had no social life or hobbies or meaningful connections of his own. I was a film major and had required evening film screenings for class weekly or twice weekly where I would have to quickly grab dinner to go and run to the department screening room, and he would call me RIGHT at those times, thinking it was the end of my day, and got petulant and resentful when I said I couldn't talk right then - if I missed a screening it was counted as a class absence. He wanted to talk with my on the phone every day. I didn't have much to say every day (I went to class, I did some laundry, I had a meeting with a student group I'm part of, I have a screening) and so would keep these conversations short, which pissed him off. After I while I started to ignore his calls.

His response to this was to tell his sisters and the few friends he had that I was a crappy daughter who didn't give a shit about him and abandoned him. I was born in America but my family is from a country where children often live at home until they get married and enmeshment is a given. These relatives of mine thus agreed with him that I was awful and a "typical American brat" and I got lots of nasty emails. I was trying to set boundaries, have a social life, and not fail school. He acted like I was stabbing him with a knife.

Our relationship has never recovered from this.

You aren't as extreme as my dad but I see warning signs here and my enmeshment-dar is flaring. Please do not take his behavior personally. He loves you. You have done a great job raising an independent son who has found a (as far as you know) lovely partner. It's normal for your relationship to evolve, and he is not doing anything AT you, but that seems to be how you are taking it.

Nip this in the bud as fast as you can. I was in college 20 years ago. Two decades, and I still do not feel emotionally safe around my father. I dread his visits. I hate talking to him on the phone because he berates me about everything. I have hung up on him more than once. My partner gets along with him to go along but privately he feels my father is a giant jerk and hates the way he treats me. He hears my half of the phone conversations I do have with him and gets so angry because he can see how distressed I am trying to have a polite conversation with someone who feels entitled to information about my life, mental health, finances, and relationship that are frankly none of his business. I am pushing 40 and he still doesn't see how much damage he has caused and continues to cause.

Again, I am NOT saying you are identical to my dad. But I hear some alarm bells. I don't want your relationship with your son to turn into something like my relationship with my dad. I know it's complicated as a single parent with not much family nearby - trust me, I get it. But you have to let him have some privacy and some boundaries. Boundaries will strengthen your relationship in the long run. They won't kill it. Please keep that in mind.
posted by nayantara at 9:37 AM on January 23, 2022 [4 favorites]

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