Mom's being uppity
April 13, 2008 6:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm 20 and more than halfway through undergrad. My mother is STILL having difficulty letting go of me, after three years. Help me help her.

To illustrate how difficult this is for my mother, she spent $300 on a whim to fly up and visit me unannounced. I'm studying for a test right now (she just visited today) and she admits she needs help. What can she do to let go of me?
posted by kldickson to Human Relations (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should probably clarify - yes, this means I'm a junior in college. I'm on the 5-year plan.
posted by kldickson at 6:17 PM on April 13, 2008

Having gone through something similar, you have to realize it's not your problem. Really.

Just because she visited you, that doesn't mean you have visit with her. You're busy, you have a test to study for, you have a life. Kindly show her the door, while setting up a time to visit with her in a week or two and then go about your day. It's not your problem and attempting to fix it for her really isn't helping her.

If she's not willing to cut the ties, then you have to cut them for, in a firm and consistent fashion.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:31 PM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Can you give a few more details: are you an only child? Is your mother married?
posted by PinkButterfly at 6:35 PM on April 13, 2008

if she admits she needs help, tell her gently to find a therapist, and offer to visit with the therapist when you're home on breaks.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:41 PM on April 13, 2008

As PinkButterfly suggest, I think this can only really be meaningfully understood in the wider context of the rest of your mom's life. The most obvious issues are her marital status and whether you have siblings. But beyond that, does she have hobbies/friends/community or church activities? Has she always seemed particularly needy of you, or is this new? Has she moved to a new town, or experienced some other big upheaval in her life (retirement, death in the family, etc.)?

Not that you have to figure out all the answers -- and certainly not that you should take on the role of being your mom's therapist in helping her figure out all the answers! -- but understanding what's driving her behavior will at least give you some ideas of the things you can suggest to her to help her in accepting your totally legitimate needs for a little more independence and space.
posted by scody at 6:59 PM on April 13, 2008

Response by poster: Visiting her in a week or two is not possible. I go to college halfway across the country from my mother.

I'm an only offspring; my mother is married. She doesn't have many hobbies and all her friends live in another state and work with her. She hasn't experienced a lot of upheaval with life. She has some anxiety issues. I told her she needs to see a therapist.
posted by kldickson at 7:47 PM on April 13, 2008

As PinkButterfly suggest, I think this can only really be meaningfully understood in the wider context of the rest of your mom's life.

No, really, you don't need to explain a lot of details and what not. This is not your problem. It's a perfect opportunity for you cut some ties and take responsibility for yourself instead of enabling mom. This doesn't mean you have to be cruel or not love your mom, but you do have to be firm and exert your right to live freely from your parents daily influence. The details don't really matter, just stop accepting responsibility for a problem that is not yours.

There will be plenty of time, later in your Mom's life, when you'll have to take care of her, but for now you need to learn how to take care of yourself and live your life, so that when she truly needs you, in her old age, you'll be better equipped to take care of her.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:49 PM on April 13, 2008

I was/am in a very similar position.
For me, the most helpful things were
1) Realizing that there was a problem, and that it was my mothers problem.
2) Letting it be her problem, and not mine.

It sounds like you've got #1 covered, so I'd recommend getting to #2.
Long story short, no one can fix your mother but your mother herself.
You sound like you love her and are worried about her.
Maybe you're worried about the effect this relationship will have on you, too.
You won't be able to resolve those two concerns simultaneously.

It sounds callous to say, but you need to focus on yourself. College is hard enough.
Your mom is a grown woman, and she's going to need to do this on her own.
Communicating that expectation to your mother is going to be vital.

If you'd like to talk about any of this, I'd be happy to continue in MeFi mail.
posted by Richard Daly at 7:56 PM on April 13, 2008

This doesn't mean you have to be cruel or not love your mom, but you do have to be firm and exert your right to live freely from your parents daily influence.

Agreed, this is the way I approached the situation and it's been working pretty well. My mom was like yours for my first 2.5 years in college, but around my junior year I stopped catering to her constant neediness. She may not like it (my mom hated it and got frustrated often), but eventually she will learn to let go. You can encourage her to take up a hobby to occupy her time, but ultimately it's up to her to change things.
posted by extramundane at 8:13 PM on April 13, 2008

I've been on the mom side of this one. It sounds like you have been a major focus of her life and she hasn't found any, at least enough, new priorities to fill the vacuum created by your becoming an adult.
1. You can suggest new interests or seeing a therapist but that part of it is really her problem - you shouldn't get into the details of trying to help her solve it.
2. Try working out a schedule of regular contact that works for both of you. Sometimes I just really need to hear my child's voice. You care about her so I assume that some contact is fine - the two of you should talk it over and find a balance. This will help your mother be patient if she knows for sure the next time she will see/hear/get an email from you. It also gives you the option of gently reminding her of the plan if she forgets.
3. Ask for her help or advice once in a while. Maybe she can figure out the cheapest plane tickets for vacation or she might be interested in hearing about your troubles with a history paper. Send her a funny photo of you - anything that is easy for you but lets her feel more connected.
4. She might find this book on Letting Go to be useful. I haven't read it myself but it has been recommended to me by several people when my first child went off to college.
5. Be sure to say things like "I love you" and "You will always be my mother" and "I know it is hard for you to have your baby turn into an adult but you should be proud of the good job that you did" especially when you need to tell her that you can't pay attention to her right now.

Good luck to both you and your mother.
posted by metahawk at 8:28 PM on April 13, 2008

No, really, you don't need to explain a lot of details and what not. This is not your problem.

Well, yes and no. Of course it's not necessary to explain it here to a bunch of strangers on the internet, but if the OP can see the source of her mom's neediness with some clarity and compassion alike, it will inform her choices in terms of dealing with it much better (and more constructively) than simply pushing her mom away under the heading of "Your Problem, Not Mine." Because while the OP's mom obviously does have some sort of problem letting go, it is the OP's problem in that she's now confronted with the issue of how to take the lead in generating a more healthy, adult relationship between the two of them.

It's certainly true that the OP can't "fix" her mom's problem(s) for her. But it's equally true that the OP isn't going to get a better relationship with her mom simply by shrugging it off.
posted by scody at 10:10 PM on April 13, 2008

Response by poster: I realize this is my mother's problem - however, how do I gently push her to not call me so much? What words do I say to her when she calls every other night? What can I say to her to make it explicitly clear that I don't want to talk to her every day and reinforce the boundaries between her and me? I've already talked to my father and he thinks pushing her gently to see a therapist, which should be easy because she intends to see a therapist, is a great idea. How can I help guide Mom a bit? She realizes this is her problem, but I think she's at a loss as to what to do about the fact that she needs to let go of me.
posted by kldickson at 10:28 PM on April 13, 2008

Just set boundaries.

What words do I say to her when she calls every other night?

If it's Sunday, say "I'll talk to you next Sunday". And if she calls mid-week, don't answer. (Get call display). My wife is the queen of not answering the phone. She hardly ever picks up the phone when it rings. But she will always call people back when she has the time. And guess what - my wife is in control of her own schedule. Very much so.

What can I say to her to make it explicitly clear that I don't want to talk to her every day and reinforce the boundaries between her and me?

Tell her when you will talk to her next. Make it very specific. If it's open-ended people tend to get anxious. So be specific and stick to your plan. Help her feel confident that everything is OK in your life. When she calls, talk about things that are going well - do not complain or ask for sympathy for any problems you're having. Be very judicious in what you tell her. Tell her stuff about how competent, successful or in charge you are. It's an anxiety disorder and yes, it is her problem, but you can do a few things to allay her anxiety.
posted by GuyZero at 10:55 PM on April 13, 2008

What can I say to her to...reinforce the boundaries between her and me?

Have those boundaries been clearly articulated between you already? And if so, how have you responded so far when she attempts to violate those boundaries? Hard to 'reinforce' until there's something being 'enforced' in the first place.

If you normally have good communication with each other, just say it: "These are my boundaries X, Y, and Z. I know we both want to stay close. Let's sit down and figure out how to do that." Then for every proposal she raises that isn't appropriate, you say so, and suggest an alternative that is within reason. e.g. "It won't be possible to visit you over spring break, because I have plans then. But how about doing something special together on your birthday weekend?"

Don't bother trying to persuade her that you're an adult, with changing needs and responsibilities. Just live it, and be firm about refusing to regress.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 11:06 PM on April 13, 2008

My mother was the same exact way. In fact, now that I'm 27, she still likes me to call her 2 times a week, however she no longer worries if she doesn't hear from me. In college, she wanted me to call her every day. In the beginning I did, but after a semester or so, I told her it was cutting into my study time. Instead, I would send her a quick email which took less time than calling her and could be done when I had time instead of when she had time to call me. She just wanted to know that I was all right, and this seemed to work. She also visited one time and met all of my friends which helped her know that I was fine and had a good support system. After that, I could call her 3 times a week.

My junior year, I went abroad to London. I could no longer call more than once a week (way too expensive), and she had to learn the hard way. My dad says it was really, really bad for her in the beginning. I would still email her once a week.

The good news is that therapy really helped her. She finally went about 3 years ago, and the improvement has been amazing. It turns out she wasn't just anxious about my sister and me, but about a bunch of other things that were causing her to have heart palpitations and trouble sleeping. She is soooo much better now. She doesn't worry as much, and she respects my privacy a lot more.

So try the email thing, and just be patient through the therapy part.
posted by bluefly at 4:10 AM on April 14, 2008

Adopt a dog from a shelter for her Mother's Day gift. She could focus her attention on her "new" baby.
posted by doorsfan at 7:02 AM on April 14, 2008

It sounds to me like you need to work on telling yourself "it's ok" to let the phone go to voicemail, to say that you're busy, to e-mail instead of calling, to tell her not to show up unannounced, etc. You can't control her reaction to your setting and enforcing boundaries, but you have total control over your own behavior. Maybe try thinking of this as changing your attitude toward the situation (focusing on "it's ok to say no") rather than thinking about how you can change your mom's behavior. She won't change until you do.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:25 AM on April 14, 2008

What can I say to her to make it explicitly clear that I don't want to talk to her every day and reinforce the boundaries between her and me?

Make this clear by not talking to her every day. If you have caller ID, don't pick up. If you can't get caller ID, get an answering machine that lets you hear the incoming message so you can pick up calls you want to take. Pick one day a week to talk to her, and stick with it. Ideally this would be at a specific time, and you would be the one to call her.
posted by yohko at 11:42 AM on April 14, 2008

Man, this sounds familiar.

After I got married and moved out of home, it took me 3 years to convince mum to stop visiting me and giving me stuff all the time. Now, Mum hasn't bought me clothing for at least a few months, which is some kind of record since I moved out.

Mum was feeling guilty, basically. Because I wasn't around to pay attention to, she felt guilty that I wasn't getting her attention, and overcompensated by bringing me stuff and visiting me twice a week. I broke her of the bringing me stuff by changing my taste in clothing every time I saw her for six months, and giving back anything she bought me on the basis that it didn't fit, or wasn't my style, or my husband didn't like it (with my husband's permission). I also became 'too busy' to see her for lunch or whatever for about three months.

I have been married and out of the family home for six years now. I talk to my mother on the phone about once a week, usually to organise to see her for lunch, which happens on average about once a fortnight, and is limited to about an hour. We live in similar parts of the same city, so it doesn't impinge on my schedule very much. I've had to reassure mum that I love her, and yes, I do enjoy her company, but I have my own life.

A lot of my friends think I'm pretty weird to socailise with my family as much as I do, but we're very close-knit. For more relaxed families, I think that the amount of time we spend with each other would be excessive.
posted by ysabet at 8:07 PM on April 14, 2008

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