How Can I Manage This Stressful Dynamic with My Mom?
May 26, 2024 10:51 PM   Subscribe

I’m 41 y/o woman who lives in CA. I'm visiting family in NC for 3 weeks and am already struggling with a recurring issue in my relationship with my mom, and I’d appreciate some advice on how to handle it. Here’s what occurred today (more inside):

My Actions:

* I got frustrated when my mom sent my Uncle home with a good amount of the food I had planned to eat without asking. To be fair, I never explicitly said i was planning to eat it, which I should have.
* I expressed my frustration (again, I could have done so more gracefully) and suggested labeling food to avoid future misunderstandings.
* My mom reacted by saying labels would be disrespectful to her, and she threated to tear off any labels I put on the food and dismissing my feelings.

My Mom’s Actions:
* She gave away food without consulting me.
* Responded to my frustration with an all-or-nothing approach ("I'm NEVER going to touch ANY of your food EVER again. Just cook for yourself, I know never to touch your food again based on the way you're acting.") Which is NOT what I want.
* Threatened to tear off labels and dismissed my emotional needs.
* Often leans on me for emotional support but doesn’t reciprocate.

For more context, my mom is under a lot of stress due to full-time caregiving for her mother (my grandma) who has progressing dementia. Plus, she is dealing with teeth issues and knee pain. My grandma was being mean to her today, which could have impacted my mom’s actions. However, this has been a pattern between my mom and me all my life.

My mom says she feels dissociated from reality when I’m not physically present but feels like she has an ally when I am present because she believes I will stand up to my grandma (who my mom says isn’t nice to her). She feels like when I visit, I'm there to see HER and, not just my grandma, which is the case for almost everyone else who visits (this could be true but I haven't verified it). Despite this, my mom is often dismissive of my emotional needs, even if it’s unintentional.

Moments after the incident, she will act like everything is fine, smile and be cheerful, say we're not arguing, and then if I seem angry or off she'll say, "are you still mad at me or do you want to [inset whatever plans we had] whenever you're feeling happier again"? And leave it at that. She will go more heavily into how her [insert body part here] hurts. I tried to explain why I was feeling frustrated and her tone was quite dismissive and mostly trying to placate me ... "you do whatever you want, fine do the labels. Is that enough? Do you want me to call Uncle to bring back the food? I don't know what to say to you." Basically I'm made out to be the unreasonable one. It's hard to articulate what I want. I've tried to summarize it in the next paragraph:

What hurts is not that she gave away the food (although that's annoying) it's that when I got frustrated, her reaction was all or nothing, and she threatened to tear off any labels I put on the food to indicate which food i specifically planned to eat and which food I was OK with sharing. It's not really even about food, it's more about the deeper issues of her not recognizing or seeming to care about MY emotional needs, yet she leans on ME for her OWN emotional support.

With regards to leaning on me for her own emotional support -- before this incident, my mom said to me that she feels burdened by others saying they rely on her. E.g. she shared that two of her work colleagues in the past have said they'd quit if they couldn't work with her, and my grandma has said repeatedly that if it weren't for my mom she would be in a nursing home somewhere. She said that it feels like it's not a compliment b/c it puts the onus on her to support them. Yet she seems to be doing the same to me when she says that when I'm in CA, she feels dissociated from reality and is sad every day at lunch time because it feels like I should be there with her and my brother.

I don't want to throw my mom under the bus. I do love her very much, and I know she is going through a lot. She goes above and beyond, every day, for my grandma. She did put a lot of effort into making my room nice for me during my visit. I recently put my cat to sleep and she bought me a beautiful personalized necklace with my kitty's name, and a pet loss ebook. Every day she and my grandma say how happy they are that I'm here. But all I want from my mom is the same emotional support she says I provide for her. And I can't bring it up or else she might get angry or take it the wrong way.

How can I manage this dynamic better, set appropriate boundaries, and ensure my own emotional needs are respected while being supportive of my mom’s struggles? Right now, I will be expected to present a happy face tomorrow, just like it was when I was a child. My return to my own home in a few weeks can't come fast enough!
posted by starpoint to Human Relations (42 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Hey, this sounds stressful. Can I ask why you planned such a long visit? I know it’s a slog to travel across the country, but three weeks is a very long time!

Also, gently, it sounds like you had a big reaction, and then your mom had a big reaction, so I guess I am wondering if you are expecting her to regulate in a way you find challenging to do yourself? Is it possible for you both to give each other some grace?
posted by bluedaisy at 11:09 PM on May 26 [32 favorites]

Plane tickets can be rescheduled. Why not cut this visit shorter. Your mom went from 0-100 under stress, it’s just a sign that you should not be in close quarters.

If you don’t want to go home early, maybe schedule a long weekend in a hotel to take a break and get some you time.
posted by shock muppet at 12:38 AM on May 27 [3 favorites]

This sounds very stressful and complicated.

Some families don't do well with people expressing difficult emotions like anger and sadness, and have elaborate rituals to side step or manage one another's emotional needs.

For example, it seems that your mother feels more comfortable justifying herself by referring to her physical needs (she's tired, she's in pain) than by simply saying what she wants?

And maybe you do as well, I'm guessing there was a reason you didn't say clearly that you wanted that food? That kind of statement, of claiming your needs, is discouraged?

Are you both expecting the other person to hide their uncomfortable emotions, because both of you feel responsible for managing one another's emotions?

You can only change yourself. You can't control your mother. All you can do, apart from cutting the visit short, is identifying what is in your control (like clearly stating your needs) and what isn't (your mother's emotions and reactions).

Changing patterns like these is incredibly difficult, especially if you're living with family. Give yourself, and your mother, a lot of grace. You're dealing with deeply ingrained habits.
posted by Zumbador at 12:55 AM on May 27 [7 favorites]

This is going to be a long visit with someone who is difficult under easy circumstances, and who is currently living under very difficult circumstances.

What if you just...accepted it?

Like, what if you went into the situation acknowledging that it's going to be a shitshow that you have very limited control over?

What if you decided now, while you're in California, that you're going to accept that Mom is Mom, she's not going to change (and that you can't change her), but that you can only change your reactions to her?

Then you got on the plane, went to North Carolina, and simply didn't take her behavior personally?

She does something inconsiderate, and if you call her on it, and she pulls drama, you take a breath and think, "Mom is Mom and Mom isn't going to change" and then you see the behavior as the price of admission for the relationship with her?

Then, over time, you can decide how often you want to pay this price, or if you want to pay it at all.

The key is to *accept that Mom is not under your control and you can't change her.* Her behavior and coping mechanisms have been baked in over many decades, and she is the only person who can decide if she wants to adapt.

Instead, you slow down, you breathe, you choose a mantra (mine is "X is X and they're an adult") and you make your own choices.

There's power and peace in acceptance.
posted by champers at 1:05 AM on May 27 [39 favorites]

I realize this is mainly not about food but about how you're all very stressed and have poor decades old patterns.

But to the extent that food does come into it - unless this was food you bought or brought with you specifically for your own consumption...she can do whatever she wants with the food she has in the house. Just let that one go.

What is the purpose of this visit? It sounds as if your mother was hoping for some relief. Full time care is exhausting business as are her health conditions so try to take that at face value. It also sounds as if she is locked in a poor pattern with grandma.

What are/were you hoping for?

If you want to offer respite to your mother do that. Tell her to get out of the house, see friends, get her hair and nails done or a massage or go for a walk in the park or whatever it may be. She gets time off, you'll look after grandma.

If you wanted to have a break yourself/visit family - that is not going to happen in the circumstances. She can't look after you as well. So if that was the aim, stay with other family members or friends or shorten your visit.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:27 AM on May 27 [33 favorites]

Is there a way you could sleep in a hotel, youth hostel, a friend's house instead? I think it will be a lot easier to cope with your mum if you have a safe place you can retreat to when you need to.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 2:03 AM on May 27 [2 favorites]

What hurts is not that she gave away the food (although that's annoying) it's that when I got frustrated, her reaction was all or nothing, and she threatened to tear off any labels I put on the food to indicate which food i specifically planned to eat and which food I was OK with sharing.

She's saying (badly, and sideways) that she's filled to capacity and literally cannot manage one more thing.

Your grandma leans on her, she leans on you, you need to lean on someone else. Sorry.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:29 AM on May 27 [60 favorites]

What is the purpose of your visit?

Because this:
It's not really even about food, it's more about the deeper issues of her not recognizing or seeming to care about MY emotional needs, yet she leans on ME for her OWN emotional support.

Is what I’d expect if I were flying in to provide an overwhelmed caregiver with some help/respite care. Maybe that wasn’t your goal but it sounds like that’s what your mum expected.

And, although I’m about a decade older than you, with both my MIL (who lives with me) and my own parents, that’s where we are now. They are, year after year, overall increasingly in need of help and support and increasingly less able to give it, at least in any reliable in the moment way. (In the case of my mum there are a lot of other issues.) There comes a slow shift where the relationship simply isn’t reciprocal any more, if it ever was as adults.

I don’t think from the situation you describe there’s much hope of shifting your mum’s thinking on this trip (or possibly ever.) She’s in pain and under the kind of stress that makes it really hard to shift perspective even before all the aging stuff contributes to a kind of lack of cognitive and emotional give. (I don’t btw think this is inevitable, but I see it so much across my friends’ parents that I think it’s more the norm than not.)

So how do you cope?
If I were you, I’d plan a day or an afternoon away from your mum’s home to recharge a bit. Go for a day trip or a movie or a hike or whatever feeds your own well. Then go back and use the “Mom is Mom, being Mom” mantra.For future visits plan them with those built in breaks in mind.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:28 AM on May 27 [27 favorites]

This is going to sound harsh so skip it if you aren't interested.i had to go back and check your age as it sounded like someone home from college to visit. Why are you staying at your mom's if not to support her at what sounds like a really difficult time? She didn't read your mind that you had plans for food in her fridge (that who bought and cooked?). That's not a reasonable ask from you, and I'm guessing you already know from previous similar disappointments that she wouldn't have thought to ask. If you need your mom to mom you as well as her own mom then maybe it's better to stay with some other family member where you don't have the same expectations and patterns.
posted by Iteki at 4:01 AM on May 27 [26 favorites]

If you have never gotten loving emotional care from your mother, all of the above advice might sound really harsh to you. If this is the case, you might consider reading Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents. The book might help you recognize patterns and give you ideas of how to manage the relationship with your mother.
(NOTE: this book can be really emotionally taxing and perhaps might be best read when you are back home in California.)
posted by mcduff at 5:05 AM on May 27 [6 favorites]

You aren’t there to get emotional support from her, or at least you shouldn’t be. You are there to give it. Take a break when you need to, but fundamentally this chapter in your mother’s life is not about you, and it likely will not be again. This is what it is like when parents grow old.

Three weeks is a very long time to be expecting to be treated like a guest when it comes to food. Are you cooking for your family? You should be, or making other arrangements that do not involve your mother cooking extra for you.
posted by eirias at 5:12 AM on May 27 [17 favorites]

Agreed that your mom is all out of cope, which means than any kind of coping is going to have to come from you. Put your own needs and ego in a suitcase and put the suitcase in a closet and put your shoulder towards making your mom's life a bit better for the time you're there. Look around, see things that need to be done, do them, don't expect thanks, just do the next thing. You may be shocked how by much this couple weeks of selfless giving will mean to you in years to come.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:16 AM on May 27 [12 favorites]

I'm sorry this is so very stressful! But I do think there's not a ton you can do right now in this specific situation - she has a huge amount on her shoulders and this is not the time when you can change and fix lifelong patterns with her. She cannot prioritize your emotional needs right now.

You're probably going to need to just keep your head down and get through this visit as best you can. Or yes, if it's really unbearable, you might need to cut the visit short. (Or move to a hotel to give you both some space?)

When you're home again this would be a really good thing to work with a therapist on, and start setting some new patterns long distance with professional guidance and support that is on your side.
posted by Stacey at 5:17 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]

Listen... I say this gently and as someone who exactly the same age as you are and learning the same lesson right now - I say this in comradeship and sisterly sharing of lessons learned, not in judgment - you and I are the age at which to start taking on a more "imbalanced" role with our parents - taking on a greater share of emotional labor than them in our relationship with them. We aren't kids anymore. They aren't our all-powerful caregivers anymore and they haven't been for a long time. It's time to stop centering ourselves in our relationship with them and start asking how we can be kind and caring and solicitous toward them, centering them more and more.

When you were a baby and a small child, that labor was 100% hers. As you grew into a bigger child and a teenager, her share of the responsibility began to slowly decrease and your obligation to be thoughtful of her and her needs began to slowly increase from 0% to 10%, 20%, probably to something like 30% by the time you were officially an adult at 18 or 21.

Throughout your adult years, your share of responsibility in your relationship with your mom increases until you hit your "peak" years, when the balance tilts the other way.

I think you now hold a slightly-greater-than-50-percent share of the responsibility for emotional labor in your relationship with your mom. Whatever her past deficits may have been, whether you've felt that she never held up her side or the bargain or whether you've nursed long standing grudges against her due to her inadequate diligence as a mother when you were younger, it's time to work on letting that go. It's time to work on training yourself to be there for your mother and stop faulting her so much when you aren't the center of the relationship.

So... I'm kind of on your mother's side in all this. She is in the waning years of her life and she is IMMENSELY burdened by her caregiving responsibilities. She has told you she feels like she's invisible to you. She has told you she wants to have a good, deep, real relationship with you. None of that seems at all unreasonable.

What does seem unreasonable is your extreme overreaction to her giving away some food. Like jeez, why is it such a a big deal? Why is the food worth hurting your mom's feelings over?? Even if this wasn't your mom, even if this was just a roommate, I'd be saying it's really rather petty of you to be SO EXTREMELY frustrated over just a bit of food that was given away in honest error. Anyone would react defensively to your out-of-proportion anger. I don't think you can blame your mom for being petty and mean right back at you when you were petty and mean to her first. Remember: you're not a small child anymore. She's not responsible for centering you always and acting like your parent at this age, giving you space to be mean to her without retaliation. She's entitled to express her feelings to you now, and she's allowed the same grace and leeway to be petty at you that you have with her.

The way I see it .. you say you love your mother. And she is not abusing you in any way. It seems obvious that you're actually pissed about some other underlying issues, or perhaps you just don't know how to use your normal adult relationship & conflict management skills with her because she's your mom. I get it. It's hard to grow up. It's hard to step into your adult power and adult responsibilities in your relationship with your parent. But you have to do it.

I would urge you to deal with your stress and your underlying frustration - idk, talk to a therapist, get to the bottom of this and reach an internal call - so that you can start showing up FOR your mother. Your share of the responsibility in this relationship will only increase from here in out. I hope you can start showing her the care and kindness and GRACE that she deserves from you.

If nothing else, I'm confident about this: making *such* a big deal over an honest mistake if minor, minor proportion is unkind. Period. Whether it's your mother or your friend or your roommate or your spouse, taking them to task over such a small thing is not okay.
posted by MiraK at 5:20 AM on May 27 [26 favorites]

Response by poster: OP here. I know there’s not meant to be back and forth but I wanted to clarify a few things. The food my mom gave away is food I cooked with groceries I paid for. These days everyone provides for themselves when it comes to food. The house is technically my grandma’s house, not my mom’s. She’s been living there for as long as I can remember, that’s where my brother and I grew up.

The purpose of the visit is complicated. She and my grandma have been wanting me to come and I couldn’t come for over a year due to caregiving for my cat. Plus I didn’t want to go due to this dynamic between my mom and me. Once my cat passed, my primary excuse for not visiting went out the window. Two days after I put kitty to sleep in April, my mom suggested visiting whenever I was ready. My mom has especially wanted me to come because she feels psychologically safe if I’m there. But the opposite is true for me. She had never said she wants a deep relationship with me.

I was on the east coast for a work trip and decided to get the family visit “over with” after the trip. Until the holidays, at least. I’ve offered my mom the chance to catch the bus or an Uber to go out while I watch my grandma and my mom doesn’t want to do those things. Even though she complains that she can’t get out. She will only go somewhere if someone she knows drives her. That’s how it’s always been. There are limited options in this town. My brother technically lives at the house and is the only one with a car. But he’s in and out and got a busy job and his own life to live.

We have someone who comes over to help once a week and my mom is going to ask her about expanding her visits but everything has to be a slow process so as not to overwhelm my grandma.

I feel guilty about my mom’s current situation but the dynamic between us has been the same since childhood. Our relationship works as long as I am happy all the time and never stand up for myself or rock the boat. While she is free to be a full person.
posted by starpoint at 5:24 AM on May 27

It is okay to decide that this visit is hurting you, and either go home early,

or sleep somewhere that isn't your mothers house/grandmothers house.

It is okay to decide that you are going to leave the house every day for several hours and go for long walks, or read a book in a park, to help reset your emotional equilibrium.

Just because your mother wants you to do X doesn't make you obligated to do X. Your first responsibility is to your own mental health.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 5:31 AM on May 27 [3 favorites]

> the dynamic between us has been the same since childhood. Our relationship works as long as I am happy all the time and never stand up for myself or rock the boat. While she is free to be a full person.

Right, so this is where you need to begin. It's worth the work I promise you. Please see a therapist to dig through and resolve these feelings of having been let down by your mom all through your childhood. You deserve that healing and that resolution. You deserve to stop being triggered by her. You deserve that inner peace.

Gaining that peace is what will allow you to show up in your current relationship with your mom whole, without the baggage of past hurts and without any expectations that she will change (or even that she will apologize to you which will magically heal your hurt), and just be present as a kind and loving adult who takes her exactly for who she is. When she gives away your food next time (or does something else that is thoughtless) you might be able to say with a chuckle instead of bitterness: "Jesus mom wtf! SMH I just can't trust you can I!" It will make all the difference.

You won't be doing this "for her". I can tell you from having been there and done that: there is nothing quite as empowering and self affirming as forging a new relationship with parents who were problematic during our childhood. It has helped me own my own world and take up space in my own life in an unprecedented way. I genuinely think we are all meant to go through this transformation, we became more fully ourselves in the process.
posted by MiraK at 5:31 AM on May 27 [24 favorites]

Also: did you have to parent your mother/provide emotional support to your mother from a very young age?

One thing that a lot of people who had more functional mothers don't understand is that if you have been providing emotional support to your mother (and receiving zero emotional support back) from the age of 6 years old, is that you can reach the age of 30 or 40 and just be done - your emotional bank account is empty.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 5:33 AM on May 27 [16 favorites]

Response by poster: > If nothing else, I'm confident about this: making *such* a big deal over an honest mistake if minor, minor proportion is unkind. Period. Whether it's your mother or your friend or your roommate or your spouse, taking them to task over such a small thing is not okay.

I understand, but this isn’t about the food. It’s about how she has a life long habit of dismissing my emotional needs but I have to manage hers. I need to learn that she can’t provide that. I seem to never learn. If I try to suggest a basic idea such as labeling food that I cooked, she said she would tear the labels off. Anytime I shared practical solutions she would react like this.

Also, I don’t expect to be the center of her attention. I don’t even want to be here in the first place. I’m only visiting because she and my grandma have been asking me to.
posted by starpoint at 5:35 AM on May 27 [2 favorites]

Leaving aside your mom's current caregiving situation, what I get from what you've shared is a sense of you being objectified. That is, used as an Emotional Support Child rather than cared about or interacted with as starpoint the actual individual human. I wonder if parentification or enmeshment generally was part of this dynamic in your childhood. In my experience, this kind of dynamic is so suffocating to the authentic self that even if you can go along with it for a long time, your not-okay-with-this will eventually erupt in ways that seem out of proportion from the outside, because of course they are about so much more than the leftovers.

You deserve to be a full person. It makes total sense that your insides are rebelling against this dynamic. You do not have to just suck it up and resolve that you're your mom's emotional tampon from now on because she's older now. You have options, now and in the future. For now, if you can shorten your trip, I'd do that. For the future, a hard yes to therapy as a support for deciding how you want to be in this weather. Your emotional needs aren't going to be respected, and you can't change that. Start there and figure out what your umbrella and rain boots look like.
posted by wormtales at 5:47 AM on May 27 [15 favorites]

I don't think you're being 'cruel and petty', just for the record! One might even say that your mother is being cruel and petty in this case.

I'd focus on the advice above to distance yourself - either by cutting the visit short, finding more ways to get out of the house for short breaks, or something else - over the advice to become *more* sympathetic to someone that has evidently been hurting you for years.
posted by sagc at 5:56 AM on May 27 [3 favorites]

Your mom does not have the capacity right now--if she ever did--to change the dynamic of your relationship. It's not going to happen. Caregiving is unbelievably hard. She is exhausted and stressed and can't take one more thing and that's why she reacted the way she did. Frankly, proposing to label the food would have been hard to pull off without causing friction even on a fun vacation, and definitely would come across as petty and hostile in this situation. The better approach would have been to inwardly sigh, consider the loss of the food a contribution to family harmony, thank god you don't have to deal with it more often, and move on. Go in the bedroom and text a friend. Go in the bathroom and take some breaths. Be helpful if you can. Offer to make a run to the grocery store or walk the dog and relish the time out of the house. Count the hours until you leave. Keep it smooth. Accept that everyone is flawed and is not going to change. Try to make the situation better, not worse. It's hard! But it gets easier with practice, and it's a great skill to have.
posted by HotToddy at 7:17 AM on May 27 [4 favorites]

Do you know that part in the horror film when the lights go out and the one person says “No problem, I’ll just go down the creaky stairs into the pitch black basement to fix it”?

That is exactly how I felt when you said you would be staying in the house. Do NOT do that.

Sure, it will cause a fuss. But if you make it clear now, it will be a fuss when you are not present and all parties can have some time to adjust to it.

You are never going to last three weeks being on duty 24 x 7.

As for the emotional part, I will just share something I was told by a therapist that I’ve observed to be true: father–son, father-daughter, and mother–son relationships can be difficult, but they are all a piece of cake compared to mother–daughter.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:19 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]

hi - i recognize some dynamics with my mom from your brief description (not sure if this applies to you but she has many traits of covert narcissism, which could manifest in seeming generous and self sacrificing in many ways while still being damaging to people close to her) and understand how upsetting and stressful it might be (even with the context!) if this is the case some of these comments must be equally upsetting and invalidating and maddening!

i think the most helpful thing for you to focus on is not how to set boundaries or change things within the relationship right now but how you can focus on your own feelings and find moments of peace and escape - go on walks by yourself, go eat out at a restaurant by yourself, put on headphones in the house - just basically carve out more time to do basic self care things that make you feel good. nature really helps me - but that's really all you *can* do in the situation, and trying to "solve" it otherwise will be really really difficult and probably make you feel worse. think of it as a force of nature - like a thunderstorm or a hurricane - something that will just happen, and then you'll feel a certain way about it, and you can't make the hurricane go away but you can just do what you can to survive it. take care!!
posted by lightgray at 7:52 AM on May 27 [6 favorites]

It sounds like the main thing that would help here is better boundaries with your mom. This relationship dynamic has been “all of her needs are important and none of mine are.” It’s not going to swing in the opposite direction (i.e. she suddenly becomes capable of recognizing, respecting, and meeting your needs), but it can land somewhere in the middle (when she disrespects/disregards your needs, you enforce your own boundaries). It’s been said before on the green, but a boundary is NOT telling someone else how to treat you. It IS changing how you react when you don’t like the treatment you receive. One mistake people make when trying to set boundaries is to over-explain, reason with, or try to litigate the other person’s behavior (in your example, this looks like you thinking that you should be able to reason with your mom about the food labeling and she should be get it and be able to comply). She can’t, though, so all you can do is decide how you want to respond when she flies off the handle. Your options include:
1. Saying, “mom, I am upset that you gave my food away, and your response is not helpful. I’m gonna take a walk and maybe when I get back we can talk about the food situation more calmly.”
2. When she smiles and tries to act like nothing happened, saying “I am still hurt/upset with you and don’t feel like spending time together. When you’re ready to have a conversation about what happened then I can work on moving on so we can do something nice together.”

Be prepared for her to initially ramp up her reactions (i.e. telling you you’re over-reacting, trying even harder to laugh it off or make light of her behavior). When she sees that you are serious (by you remaining calm and consistent with boundaries - it is important that you do not let her get a rise out of you), she will start to adjust accordingly.
posted by sleepingwithcats at 7:56 AM on May 27 [4 favorites]

Editing to uplift lightgray’s comment as well - boundaries can help, but learning to set boundaries with a self-involved parent is really hard work, so make sure you are taking really good care of yourself and giving yourself a lot of grace.
posted by sleepingwithcats at 7:59 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]

I don’t even want to be here in the first place. I’m only visiting because she and my grandma have been asking me to.

It sounds as though this resentment is at the core of your visit and these battles you're fighting. I imagine she is well aware you don't want to be there, and she's hurt she's not getting the response she wanted. You're frustrated because you don't want to be there, and you're hurt because you're also not getting the response you wanted. You're stuck in this feeling of mutual hurt.

As other mefites have pointed out above, this is all part of an emotional knot you need to unpick with a professional, not with your mom. That's work that's ahead of you if you want to be part of your mom's life going forward.

For the right now, I strongly recommend you read up on some de-escalation tips (there's some more here) and start modelling them around your mom. In your Ask, you both escalated the situation until it was an argument. Once you start de-escalating things instead, you might start seeing these situations with a clearer head, and will be able to approach them with more compassion for both your mom and yourself.
posted by fight or flight at 8:26 AM on May 27 [5 favorites]

She clearly needs someone to address her emotional needs and help her feel safe. This is a normal human need, and it's really good that she recognizes it.

Figuring out how to make that available for your mom will help a lot. Find a way for her to get really good therapy.

I know that won't be easy, probably, but your Mom is crying out for this because it's very, very important. If you want a better version of your Mom, this won't guarantee it, but it's necessary.
posted by amtho at 8:31 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]

(a comment of mine was removed, I am not sure why - I'm reposting a shorter and reworded version of it because OP specifically asked about this and it's important to note. I'm happy to remove whatever is offensive about this, if anything. LMK.)

> I understand, but this isn’t about the food.

But you made it about food. That's what you got angry about, overtly and vocally.

Your mom can't read your mind, she didn't know you have a different, valid basis for the level of anger you expressed. She took you at your word that you were upset about the food. Which is a minor matter.

She sounds like she's unduly invalidating towards you, in general, but *in this instance* she was actually justified.
posted by MiraK at 8:39 AM on May 27 [6 favorites]

It was a comment about my eyebrows that led me to leave my mom's house and quit ever staying with her when we visit. I don't care if my reaction to the comment was unjustified. It was the final straw on a mountain of things she'd piled on me for decades, in which she gets to criticize and nitpick and I don't get to respond (let alone ever mildly correct something myself). That's not the same dynamic as yours but I'm just saying, I get it. Anyway, if you can afford it, I strongly second what others have said about staying somewhere else (and renting a car) when you visit if you can afford it. The freedom to say "I'm leaving now" completely changed things.

Good luck. (And yes to therapy. Not to make you get over or ignore your feelings, but to figure them out better and find the strategies for the way you do want to handle things.)
posted by wintersweet at 8:58 AM on May 27 [5 favorites]

Our relationship works as long as I am happy all the time and never stand up for myself or rock the boat. While she is free to be a full person.


For more context, my mom is under a lot of stress due to full-time caregiving for her mother (my grandma) who has progressing dementia. Plus, she is dealing with teeth issues and knee pain. My grandma was being mean to her today

It sounds like she and her mother have a similar dynamic as you and her, in that she feels consistently belittled by her mother. I'm pointing this out not to excuse her, but to encourage some empathy on your part - your mom might just be repeating patterns she learned as a girl. And she's under stress - it doesn't sound like she's exactly free to be her full self either right now.

Anyway, I agree with those suggesting you focus avoiding conflict - three weeks might feel long, but it's really short.

To that end, I'd do the usual advice of coming to conflict with curiosity. So your mom gave away some food to your Uncle. Instead of taking it personally, I'd try to find out why - i.e. don't react with anger, but ask calmly "Oh, does he normally pick up prepared food on [x] day?" And if it turns out that yes, this is a normal part of their relationship, then I'd make a note of it and just buy larger quantities of food to cook, and write it off as a contribution to the family.

At this point, I'd apologize to your mom - apologizing doesn't mean you are absorbing all of the blame, but you admit you "expressed my frustration (again, I could have done so more gracefully)." So I'd say "Hey mom, I'm sorry I reacted with frustration about the food - I feel bad about how I handled that situation. Clearly I'm out of sync with how things work at the house - I thought everyone was to fend for themselves, so I was caught off guard." And then I'd try to have a broader conversation over expectations, etc. You don't have to agree to everything your mom wants, but it might help clear the air.
posted by coffeecat at 9:22 AM on May 27 [3 favorites]

The appropriate response to "I accidentally gave your food to uncle" would have been if your mother had apologised and said "Sorry, it was a genuine mistake, I'll make sure to check your labels and not give away your food next time."

Your mother saying she would rip off labels in future was not okay - it is the behaviour of someone who does not care about your needs.

Your mother is behaving inappropriately, unkindly, and inconsiderately.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 10:07 AM on May 27 [2 favorites]

Stop expecting your mother to be anything but what you know she already is.

"She has a lifetime-"


There you go. That is who she is. She is acting like who she is. Is her behavior great? NO. But is it HER behavior? YES.

You chose to go there knowing this, and yet expecting something else. You walked in a 3-generation Difficult Situation and expected not just to find but to BE 3 different people.

Whatever is busted in your mother is not going to self-resolve while you're away for a year. It's likely never going to be resolved unless she wants to change and the two of you undergo extensive years-long repair and recalibration of your relationship, and that is simply not possible while she is the primary hospice caretaker for her mother, who probably installed a fair share of your mother's obstacles herself.

You decide what you're going to do about you. You can't control her, and I mean that both in the sense of "lay down your burden of trying to control her" and "you do not have the right to control another human being". Work with what you've got. Go to the thrift store and buy a minifridge if you're going to stay, and hide it from her: boom problem solved.

You actually CAN stand up to her, it's allowed. She can then retaliate by being ridiculous, that is also unfortunately allowed. You can think two steps ahead of her so her ridiculousness lands in the uncomfortably bright light of you not giving a shit about her little tantrums and therefore taking all the fun out of her little games. And you can do that that in the interest of your own needs and still love her, flaws and all, as a person you recognize as a fairly busted human being and not as a parental deity.

You never know, you might fix all this by being the one who volunteers to stop dancing this lifelong dance with her. It takes two, as they say. Stop choosing to walk into her traps and see what happens. Worst case you give up and go home early because you realize it's not doing anybody any good.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:25 AM on May 27 [9 favorites]

So there's what's right and just, and there's what is.

What's right and just is that your mother lives up to the image of a mother that you see in media, in other families, in your heart. She recognizes that she brought you into the world and you are younger and less experienced than her and understands, both in a logical way and on an emotional level, that your needs supersede hers. She loves you as a whole person, unselfishly. She makes you feel seen and safe.

I agree with you, that is what's right and just. I validate that for you. But that isn't what is.

Here are some truths:

You can't get blood from a stone.
You can't control anyone else long-term. You can try in the short-term, but it will always eventually fail.
You can't compel anyone to love you or do anything for you.
Children usually outlive their mothers.

What I'm getting at is that you need, emotionally, to believe your mother is disabled and cannot act as an ideal mother. Pretend she has dementia, or is otherwise cognitively impaired. She literally cannot meet your emotional needs due to physical, biological illness.

You will go through a grieving process and it will feel like death, because it is. It is the death of the "mother" you knew, who had some limited ability to meet your needs in a breadcrumbing way that kept you hopeful.

As part of the grieving process you will go through bargaining. This is where you try to negotiate with your mother to get your needs met. You will try to bribe her with incentives to earn her love, IE by offering money or services or help to her if she is nice to you first. Or by threatening to withdraw these things unless she is. You will continue to do this dance, hoping you just need to find the right steps, the perfect sequence, to unlock that loving mother. When you're ready to admit to yourself that is has diminishing returns, then you can move on in the grieving process.

What you need to do for yourself is find a way to meet your needs. Find a surrogate mother figure, a therapist, friends, other support. Turn towards this and away from family.
posted by stockpuppet at 11:21 AM on May 27 [4 favorites]

I say this gently and as someone who exactly the same age as you are and learning the same lesson right now - I say this in comradeship and sisterly sharing of lessons learned, not in judgment - you and I are the age at which to start taking on a more "imbalanced" role with our parents - taking on a greater share of emotional labor than them in our relationship with them. We aren't kids anymore. They aren't our all-powerful caregivers anymore and they haven't been for a long time. It's time to stop centering ourselves in our relationship with them and start asking how we can be kind and caring and solicitous toward them, centering them more and more.

I really think this is the advice to take to heart here. A lot of people are giving you the canned "abusive parent" responses, but that doesn't actually sound like this situation. Even if you were a semi-parentified child, it can still be very disorienting to find yourself in the position of needing not just to help out, but to take care of, your parent. Disorienting and difficult! (Ask me how I know.) But it is also a huge opportunity for personal growth. For cultivating the kindness and patience you deserved as a child (whether or not you always got it). For thinking about what you want to remember, looking back at this period with your mother, and deliberately working towards fostering that sort of experience, rather than just being reactive. In short, for finally being the adult in the room.

You really really don't seem to have gotten your mind around just how hard it is, physically and mentally, to care for someone with dementia, so maybe start there. Read some caregivers' accounts. Think about how that must be like for your mom, specifically and individually. No matter how stressed you are, I promise you your mom is experiencing three times that, on a good day, all so that her mom, your grandmom, doesn't have to go into some unpleasant care facility where's she barely looked after until she finally dies. Does that make it okay for her to snap at you? No. But, again, this is where you get to work on offering patience. As a great (fictional) man once said, "To forgive is an act of’s not done because people deserve it. It’s done because they need it."
posted by praemunire at 1:22 PM on May 27 [10 favorites]

It is okay for you to feel hurt by how your mother is behaving.

It is okay for you to feel angry about how your mother is behaving.

It is okay for you to decide that you like your mother less because of how she is behaving.

It is okay for you to decide that you love your mother less because of how she is behaving.

It is okay for you to decide that you like/love your mother the same amount you did before this trip, but that this visit is not working out for you, and go home early.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 1:33 PM on May 27 [7 favorites]

Yeah, your mom who was never emotionally supportive of you is definitely not going to learn this skill now while every single particle of emotional intelligence she has is being used up on HER mom. You can fight that but you will lose. You are not there so she can be nice to you, you are there so you can be nice to her because she needs help. She may not even understand how stressed out she is and how much she needs help. Is there any way you can redirect your legitimate grievance or change your understanding of or reaction to this? You are absolutely in the right to want the treatment you deserve but your mom is in a bad place now and can’t give it to you. I’m really sorry, it’s a bad situation.
posted by Vatnesine at 3:09 PM on May 27 [8 favorites]

One thing that sometimes works with my own cantankerous, big-feeling, exhausting mother is to ask right in the thick of one of these moments that is going unexpectedly sideways -- "Mom, what's going on for you right now?". We've both had enough therapy that this question sometimes gets us out of the present, personal-feeling, emotional situation and into a more observant, reflective state. She'll usually answer with information that surprises me -- like, she seems to be filled with rage, but then she'll say, "I'm really sad" or "I'm having a panic attack about XYZ" or "I'm stressed about ABC", and I'm just standing there like, wow, never in my life have I seen "deep sadness" expressed this way, but okay, if that's what she says is happening, I'll take it as face value. Her answers really don't read to me as excuses but honest replies that even she didn't realize were having such an influence on the moment. From there, I'm able to say, okay, here's an idea to handle that or ask how can we work on that, and then although the tension and discomfort is still in the room with us, we're moving past the surface issue that seemed to be the problem and actually addressing something meaningful.

This technique is not 100% but your specific question was about managing the dynamic, and this is something to try. I have a lot of empathy for your situation, and while I don't know that there's going to be a big significant improvement no matter what you do, trying to make it less uncomfortable is totally reasonable and possible. I will also echo other commenters who encourage you to lean on your support system outside of your Mom -- venting to friends, family, and therapists can be very cathartic.
posted by luzdeluna at 3:49 PM on May 27 [8 favorites]

I would be extremely pissed off if someone just gave away food I bought and cooked without consulting me, but this seems par for the course for your mom. She's obviously not in a good space- and there's nothing you can do about it while she's not in a good space. If you can afford to move to an Air BnB nearby where you can cook your food, bring over and take home what you want, and just generally get out of dodge when you need to, try and do that just to eliminate some pressure points. You can even have your mom over if there's someone else to take care of your grandma at that time. It will take away some of the frustration and some of the leverage your mom has if you can just go back to your own place when you feel like it.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:24 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Reminder to please leave a helpful answer to help OP and move on. It is not the place to go back-and-forth with users nor is it the place to comment multiple times. One well-written, detailed comment will do.
posted by travelingthyme (staff) at 5:31 PM on May 27

I don’t know how old your mother is (60s-70s?) or how long her mother is expected to hang on while steadily declining and maintained by a single old-ish caregiver. but whatever the timeframe, here is what your mother has to look forward to:

1. her mother will die. her mother’s memory of her and love for her may die first.
2. her own existing pains and health problems will get worse.
3. she may have a brief respite between her mother’s death and her own infirm old age, during which she may want to finally enjoy some unencumbered free and equal adult companionship with you, and you will probably not go for it.
4. she will end up in the position your grandmother is in right now, but with nobody to do for her what she’s now doing for your grandmother. she may hope or even expect that you will, but you will not have to, and you seem aware of that.

(as a former adult daughter, I think it is great that adult daughters are feeling freer than ever to say Nope to their mothers’ Please Helps, just as our brethren have so traditionally and so shamelessly done. but as a woman who may someday be old and ill, one develops mixed feelings.)

what these four points add up to is, you have to cultivate pity in your heart. pity is the most horrible of the virtues because it feels so bad to practice. generosity and the rest feel good, they make you feel good about yourself, but pity makes a person feel sick. but it is the correct attitude. it becomes shockingly easier to pity your mother once she’s dead—you would not believe how easy—but why not start now, avoid the rush.

sooner than you think your mother is going to be weaker than you, and then there is no way to fight her without being a bully. which is a feeling even worse than pity. I found that I kept fighting with my mother when she was old enough a lot of people would have found it unseemly, probably. this was an unspoken expression of faith in an false idea of her boundless strength and power, which she would probably have been flattered by if she had had any idea that was why I was constantly being a self-righteous moral accountant to her and about her: I thought she could take it. and in fact she was very tough for a good long time.

but by the time you can beat your mother in a fistfight, as all daughters semiconsciously long to do, it isn’t satisfying anymore and also isn’t right. you may feel some frantic pressure to just win once while it still feels like an accomplishment because she still has power in her own sphere. but by the time you feel that pressure it’s too late.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:10 PM on May 27 [16 favorites]

the dynamic between us has been the same since childhood

So you're not going to be able to change it in a few weeks, especially if you're the only person in the dynamic who wants it to change.

The longer-term answer here is therapy so that you can learn how to untangle from this stuff to whatever extent makes sense. The shorter-term answer of how to get through the trip is probably to stop expecting people who've never been able to meet your needs to suddenly meet your needs, or to respond positively when you try to change the dynamic. You can still try to change the dynamic if you want, but expect pushback. You get to decide if it's worth it at this point in time.
posted by lapis at 11:17 AM on May 28 [1 favorite]

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