Suspected borderline mother crossed a boundary. What to do
October 2, 2023 9:35 AM   Subscribe

I am working for my parents' company while I get into a new career. I am dependent on this income for the next six months. In a few short months, my mother has pushed me far further than I ever thought possible. There is an absolute mess of words inside. I am sorry, I needed to vent. Main questions: a) what she did was bad, right? It's not just me? and b) how do I draw healthy boundaries?

Background: I am a 36 year old man and the youngest of four children. A while ago, I quit a well paid job to do something less soul destroying. I have struggled to find my way in the past couple of years and while I am not too anxious (I think I will work it out eventually), I am now exhausting the last of my cash.

To make ends meet, I have been helping at a property company belonging to my mother and father (late-60s and mid-70s respectively) while I try to find my next job. It is keeping me comfortably afloat.

For the past few years, I have also been living at a flat that belonged to my sister and her husband, who now live in a different country. Sister has been preparing the flat for sale but had to go back abroad. She asked my mother to take care of some final tasks with her workers.

While my mother was at this property, I called to speak to her about her business. Two flash points in this conversation:

1. She said the mattress I left behind in the property was stained with "urine, semen, and other substances." She asked what I had been doing to it and what those mysterious bodily fluids were. When I said that was not an appropriate question, she said she needed to know. Because if it was my sister's husband who did it while he lived there, then that's fine, but if it was me, then she needs to clean up my mess. I thought this was a totally insane question and refused to answer.

[I later spoke to my sister to say, "Why is our mother going around the flat I just moved out of with a blacklight and asking me intimate questions about my sex life and my body?" My sister apologised and confirmed that there was nothing wrong with the mattress as far as she was concerned, and she had not asked our mother to do anything to it.]

2. I picked my jaw up off the floor and moved the conversation along. I asked my mother my question about the business. She had missed a meeting with some creditors and we were looking at a problem that would cost some money. I had picked up the ball and tried to resolve it (with agreement from both parents), but once I had sent some emails my mother went in over the top of me and had a conversation without me, changed our negotiating position, etc. I was annoyed but it's a standard situation that happens in any workplace. My question to her was: are you managing this problem or am I? Because if you're managing it then go ahead, but if I am then it's best if you let me tackle it my own way. This led to a full on wailing and crying meltdown that lasted ten minutes. I have seen and heard it many times but it is always shocking. All the old classics came out, including: "I am doing my best! I try and I try and I try! And it is never good enough for any of you! I'll be dead soon and you'll have all my money and you can do whatever you want! And it won't matter to me because I'll be buried in the ground and you'll have forgotten me!" Literally howling this through tears.

I kicked into conciliatory mode and tried to smooth things over. She eventually cheered up and we ended the call on ok terms.

When I hung the phone up I realised: nope, I can't do this anymore.

1) That was way beyond the pale, right? I am not imagining things? That was out of order? Somebody help me here.

2) I keep reading articles about setting boundaries with borderline parents. I cannot imagine having this kind of conversation and it leading to anything except another thermonuclear emotional detonation. I guess what I am asking is, does this sort of script actually help anyone? Because as far as I can see, I would have an absolutely agonising conversation, face more crazy blow ups, maybe a bunch of angry calls in the middle of the night, and find myself pushed to another emotional limit. I would rather block her now and skip the steps in the middle.

You can probably stop reading there but I have vented further context below.

- For the past five years, I have had a real flourishing in my sexual and romantic relationships. One that my Catholic mother would not approve of. (Polyamory, sex with men, etc). I am very defensive of my boundaries around sex and relationships. I don't want to discuss any of this with her and her pointed questions about "is that your semen" and "what have you been doing to the mattress?" really fucking triggered me, excuse my language.

- This is driving me fully, fully up the wall. I am not myself for several days after these things happen, and it is happening again right now. My cup of stress is overflowing before I have done literally anything else. I have less brain space for friends, partners, my future career, literally anything else. I do not want this to be my life.

- I am sliding down the stereotypical path of a polyamorous, bi-flexible man. Dyeing my hair, painting my nails, wearing eyeliner on nights out, etc. I haven't taken up climbing or D&D but it's probably coming. I like exploring this version of myself. I don't mind being more noticeably alternative, but she makes undermining comments about my personal appearance and my health a lot (despite me being in excellent physical shape), and I know these things are only going to get more pointed and more undermining. The only person who makes me anxious about any of it is her. "I do not want to talk about it" will not stop her.

- I want to stop working with them, but I need the income for the next few months. Tbh there is no real work to be done except by going through her, and by limiting the damage she does to the company and their personal finances (e.g. multiple building projects tying up millions in capital and operational expenditure which have produced nothing for 10+ years and which we think represent massive losses, but we can't say how much because there are no budgets or tracking of expenses. That kind of thing). Doing anything useful means engaging with her and riding out a day-long tantrum for every basic request (such as "Can you forward the invoice for that".) I cannot do this anymore. I don't think I can speak to her for a long time.

- If I straight up asked to work less or not at all, while I finally transition into finding my next job, then my Dad would 99% say yes. I am sad that I can't help him in return. I could try to pick up project work in my old career area but I hate it, the hours tend to be very intense, and it will greatly extend the time it takes for me to break into my next career.

- I feel pathetic for being a grown ass man who is overly caught up with his parents. I reread the bit about dyeing my hair and being scared my mother would notice. I sound like an anxious teenager. I am repeating all of the terrible behaviour patterns that have followed me since childhood (trying to placate my mother; trying to rescue my father from her; minimising my feelings to make space for hers; allowing her to trample my physical and emotional boundaries). I am pretty certain there is a trope of an enmeshed youngest child who has failed to flourish because the borderline mother smothered him, and I am playing right into it.
posted by Probabilitics to Human Relations (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Short answer: until you get a new job, you may think you can't do this anymore but your bank will think otherwise. Once your finances are no longer dependent on employment by your parents, I suspect the other problems, while disturbing, will be less fraught.
posted by kingdead at 9:48 AM on October 2 [10 favorites]

the problem here is that you have regressed into a situation where you actually ARE both dependent on them financially and have to obey them because they are your bosses now.

This entanglement cannot help but be distressing and confusing to both of you. Understand that for your mom, this isn't working out great either, as evidenced by the weird behavior and the tantrum.

If you stay in this situation it will not get better. You need to find a way to get your income and your housing outside of their area of authority. Then you can hopefully get back to the developmentally appropriate relationship where you're a self sufficient adult, and they don't need to look after you, pay you or discipline you.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:56 AM on October 2 [36 favorites]

You are going to want healthy boundaries. They sound like a person who takes healthy boundaries as a challenge, due to borderline or w/e - similar cases I know if it was bipolar, and will want crash through them continuously. There’s not really any great fixes for that which don’t involve not being around for them to do that, so getting a new job, disentangling your life from them, in extremes leaving the country etc are the way to go.

(Getting a new partner that absolutely does not put up with that shit, from experience, extremely helpful)

You’re probably going to feel weird and awkward about it once you’ve put enough distance between you and then but it’s better than them being able to constantly pull this shit.

Congrats on everything else BTW, sounds like things are going great and I hope you find a good D&D group.
posted by Artw at 9:56 AM on October 2 [3 favorites]

As a fellow child of a borderline mother: please, please stop beating yourself up over this situation. You are not pathetic and if you're "overly caught up with your parents" it's because that is exactly your mother's goal and it's almost impossible to do extricate yourself from a borderline person (as you and I both well know).

I keep reading articles about setting boundaries with borderline parents. I cannot imagine having this kind of conversation and it leading to anything except another thermonuclear emotional detonation.

Can confirm, it will. The thing with setting boundaries with borderline people is that it's not a one-and-done thing. They will try over and over and over again to run right through your boundaries, and you have to calmly but firmly enforce them. There will be many tantrums. You will feel terrible. But eventually, in spite of themselves, they will realize that they are not getting what they want and they will start to at least acknowledge the boundary. That said...

Because as far as I can see, I would have an absolutely agonising conversation, face more crazy blow ups, maybe a bunch of angry calls in the middle of the night, and find myself pushed to another emotional limit. I would rather block her now and skip the steps in the middle.

If you don't think you can handle that, then yes, the obvious answer is to go cold turkey at least temporarily.
posted by anotheraccount at 10:01 AM on October 2 [2 favorites]

Just to confirm since people haven't addressed this specifically yet, yes, it is wildly violating to have your mother asking you those questions about the mattress. That is really really really not normal. It would not be a normal response to a child's sexual activity if that child were a young teen possibly engaged in risky behaviors. It's not normal at all, it's extremely freaky and disturbing and it is not weird that you spun out after dealing with it.

What does delaying your new career look like? Can you pay rent to stay in a friend's spare room for a few months while working some other non-ideal but less bad job? Trying to gray rock things for six months would be your other option, but that seems tough, man. That script seem geared for people who are not living on family property and working for their parents - it seems like it's for someone who really can just cut things off when they get too awful.
posted by Frowner at 10:20 AM on October 2 [15 favorites]

As far as I am concerned, you are a grown ass adult and can do as you please as long as you live with the consequences, good or bad. It turns out that your mother's money comes with strings. Lots of them. As long as you take her money/job, she will think she controls you. You are not going to change that in a 60+ yo woman (or man).

So, regardless of her inappropriate intrusions, you have to decide whether to suck it up for the next six months and take her financial cushion or find another source of temporary income. Does not appear you can have it both ways, take her money but eliminate her bullshit.

All of the talk and issues around your mother's personality disorder(s) is probably true, but it is a red herring in what you can do. Being right means nothing if you are dependent on her money.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:32 AM on October 2 [8 favorites]

My mother is difficult but not that bad, but difficult in a way where all the scripts on the page you linked looked familiar. And scripts like that, or the gray rock concept, help more than anything else, but they certainly don’t fix anything.

But overall, you sound like you’re kind of stuck dealing with her until you get a new job. At that point I think gray rocking, giving her minimal responses when she’s being strange at you, is the best you can do. It’ll suck, but there’s nothing else to be done until you’re financially able to go low or no contact.

And I concur with everyone else that questioning you about your mattress is completely bizarre, with the caveat that it wouldn’t be strange if the mattress were absolutely destroyed in a rock-star-wrecking-a-hotel-room kind of way, which could reasonably lead to questions. But if it looked normal from 10 feet away, she’s being really weird asking you about it.
posted by LizardBreath at 10:41 AM on October 2 [1 favorite]

That was way beyond the pale, right? I am not imagining things? That was out of order? Somebody help me here.

Way beyond the pale, you'd be in your rights to never speak to her again. This is easier said than done, but in your position I'd probably map out my social and professional networks and try to see if someone could help me out of the professional entanglement with your folks more quickly -- in short, I'd look for another job. You don't say whether or not this is an option, but if it is at all, I'd spend all my free time on that effort. Your mother is an abusive person.
posted by kensington314 at 10:43 AM on October 2 [1 favorite]

- If I straight up asked to work less or not at all, while I finally transition into finding my next job, then my Dad would 99% say yes.

Do that then, assuming you could afford to do so. As others have said, you have little ground to enforce a boundary you set with an employer. All you can do is say "If you continue to engage in [x behavior], I will quit." It's up to you to enforce that boundary if your employer [i.e. mom] refuse to respect it. You can't force her to comply though. Likewise, you can make her getting to spend time with you contingent on her being respectful/kind to you - but again, you can't force your mom (or anyone) to be respectful. Ideally, overtime she'll choose to be respectful because she realizes that if she behaves badly, she won't have a relationship with her son.
posted by coffeecat at 11:16 AM on October 2 [2 favorites]

That was beyond the pale. You are not imagining things. That was out of order. You’re not pathetic.

It seems like most of your negative interactions with her are over the phone. Is there any reason you can’t just ignore her late night calls? You have a dad and three siblings plus at least one brother in law. If Something happens, you can be reached - just not by her.

Similarly, can you just politely (or not) bail when she starts a rant? Just say “I’m sorry but I gotta go” and hang up? You could follow up with a text if necessary (“sorry, someone was at the door/my dentist was calling/my phone battery died/etc.”). Then a few hours later or the next day, revisit whatever topic you needed to discuss (“I was about to call Jerb about the thing, do you want me to handle that?”). If she starts ranting again, you can bail again as needed. Loop your dad in as necessary (“I can’t get a straight answer from Mom re: the thing with Jerb, let me know how I can help!”).

I don’t have to deal with people like this so apologies if those ideas won’t work. Good luck!
posted by kat518 at 11:54 AM on October 2 [2 favorites]

I think your mother handled it badly AND it triggered you because you have a lot of guilt and shame, but as someone who has a horror of other people's mattresses (and apparently the superb sight and smell to identify issues other people think don't exist), I might have felt in the moment like either you or your sister had left me something icky to deal with that I would prefer not to think about or ask movers/junk haulers to pick up and hold in their faces, until someone more intimately acquainted with it had wrestled a plastic cover onto it. I have HAD this conversation, and I probably was not behaving at my most diplomatic, but I was also not dealing with a parent or child which I realize changes the dynamic.

(I would suggest in the future you abide by the kink code of honor that you protect the mattress and pillows at all costs if the rightful owner-user is not there participating and able to consent to them being in the splash zone. Then you'll always have plausible deniability if accused.)

What you do about all this is entirely your choice. Some people walk the path of keeping the job long enough to get out, some people choose to make their own way and have more control over their day-to-day at the cost of delaying those bigger plans. If it helps, neither of those is the right or wrong choice, and they both suck, but there's probably not any other magic solution. So if it's going to be Option 2, you might as well get going and at least get that freedom to be more yourself without interference, rather than dragging it out any longer. Sooner started, sooner finished, and you may well discover additional paths along the way that do let you escalate your career change.

I would encourage you, on the side, to do some informed work - reading, workbooks, eventually therapy - around boundaries, as you're trying to use them to control people instead of using them to control your response. Boundaries aren't to make someone who doesn't respect you respect you. Boundaries are consequences deployed to protect you in the moment, and that generally means a) defining specific limitations (like access to grandkids, various forms of assistance, or limiting interactions to when someone is sober or not around certain other people) to reduce certain kinds of especially harmful situations b) lack of engagement (which you've said doesn't work, and that's the case with some people who know the game and just escalate until they can't be ignored) c) removal of self from circumstances.

It's hard to leave strategically when you work there, and when she still has power over you getting paid. So you may have to choose leaving because you recognize there's no other way to protect yourself from her attacks or remove yourself for safety - which is the case you've made here, that these things just aren't possible. So maybe you've answered your own question.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:20 PM on October 2 [7 favorites]

What would you be doing now if you didn’t have parents that you could work for?

Do that. No excuses, just do it.
posted by MexicanYenta at 1:27 PM on October 2 [17 favorites]

Dear fellow child of a BPD parent: I hear you. The situation is not sustainable, but the good news is that it's relatively short-term, so I would focus my efforts on just surviving relatively unscathed and getting out as soon as possible.

Re the bed issue: even though your mom asked what you've been doing on the mattress, is there a possibility that that was more of a rhetorical question? In other words, it looked like a mess and what she really wanted to know is who should be replacing it? I mean, I'm guessing she'd love for you to give her a detailed answer about your sex life, but that doesn't mean that's really what she was asking, and it's certainly not what you need to tell her. A simple 'if you think the mattress needs to be replaced, let's just get it done' could take care of it.

Re dealing with your mom's histrionics, unfortunately, that's just going to be par for the course with a BPD person. There is little you can do about it except try to stay grounded and neutral and try not to let her get to you. While you are working for her in the short term, she has all the power - so do not use this time to try to set actual, healthy boundaries with her; you will just lose because she will play the $ trump card, and then all that work will be for naught.

All the important work of setting healthy boundaries needs to wait until she no longer has financial control over you. If it were me, I would minimize the external markers you mentioned (eyeliner, hair dye, nail polish) until I no longer worked for her. And then put all my efforts into getting out of the situation as soon as I can. Think of her as your manager and treat her as such until you can re-enter the relationship as a non-dependent.

It sucks, but you can do it. Good luck!
posted by widdershins at 2:49 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]

Mattress—Mom was out of line, but you could probably turn this into a pretty funny story, in a while. How does your mother know what naughty, semen-stained mattresses look like, anyway? Hmmm…
Work situations—she’s been doing this for a while, so going forward, you might ask her how she thinks you should deal with whatever the issue is. She’s the boss and if she tells you to do something and it goes awry—you did what she told you to do.
Other work—anything else that could tide you over would probably be a lot easier on you.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:06 PM on October 2

I don't know if this book is any good, but I imagine it'd help a little.
posted by kschang at 3:42 PM on October 2

My Mom was an alcoholic, probably self-medicating bipolar disorder. That tantrum you posted is extremely familiar.

My Mom was emotionally enmeshed with 1 of my sisters, who was able to manage her. Sister would be caring sometimes, gently teasing, and sometimes just tell her to knock it off. When I tried those techniques, all hell broke loose. But I started setting boundaries. I moved away, spent a year (in the late 70s) with no phone. If my Mom manipulated, played games, was abusive, I'd get off the phone, leave the room, house, town. My Mom was often confrontational, siblings confronted Mom, but it just generated drama. I learned to act like a normal person when she acted out, and it worked, over time.

Distraction is effective. Mom moved, and in the new place was tired, cranky, probably started drinking. She was obviously getting ready to explode. I asked her a decorating question about drapes, siblings looked at me as if I was nuts, Mom entered a lively discussing of fabric. Always have some topics ready to distract from a bout of the crazy. Flattery and listening work.

Read Stop Walking on Eggshells. Detach. It's not you. You're living your life, trying new things, you're fine. You're not imagining that your family's dysfunctional, Mom's not really okay, etc. If she drinks or uses drugs, including prescriptions, that can really unleash some weirdness.

I'd consider getting "what have you been doing to the mattress?" and even "is that your semen" needlepointed on pillows, because, really, what else can you do?
posted by theora55 at 7:33 PM on October 2 [5 favorites]

Mom: "I'll be dead soon and you'll have all my money and you can do whatever you want! And it won't matter to me because I'll be buried in the ground and you'll have forgotten me!"

Me (if it were me, and sometimes it was): Yup and yup... (and then hang up or walk out or whatever)
posted by AJaffe at 7:50 AM on October 3

I recommend you read "Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship"

This book not only described my family in a way that helped me finally believe myself about my experiences, but gave strategies on how to deal with the mother (and father, to a lesser degree. The book goes into the sorts of men that marry and stay with different types of borderline mothers). I've now had more than 20 years free of her, thanks to this book.

I'm on day three of a migraine, so I don't trust myself to give good advice otherwise, but seriously - buy this book. Read it. Then read again the bits that are relevant.

It's pricey but the audiobook is free if you can't afford it
posted by Vigilant at 8:34 PM on October 3 [1 favorite]

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