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Therapy for All…

This is a guest post by Lilly, a middle-aged stay at home mother who doesn’t know how to ask for this kind of help without pain, angst, crying, and a stressful Thanksgiving dinner.

“Well, I don’t want to horn in, but don’t you think Abby would be happier if you put her in pre-school?”

“I was talking to a friend the other day who told me that this type of fabric for pajamas is HIGHLY flammable. Aren’t you worried?”

“Can I borrow a washcloth? I just noticed your telephone keypad is in desperate need of washing.”

“You’re the mom, so you know best…but do you think letting them eat that is really a good idea?”

“Should the kids really be running off down the street like that? I don’t want to intrude, but there was an attempted kidnapping just one state over last week!”

“Oh, I just wanted to call to make sure you were alright. Your brothers all surprised me with a visit for my birthday and brought me presents, but I didn’t see you. I was worried you might be ill!”

“Oh, I’ll just vacuum and tidy up a bit. I know you’re busy and probably don’t find the time to clean the house much…”

Have I described anyone in your life? I’ll give you a hint. We’ve all got one.

I have enormous love and respect for my mother. She survived raising me, after all. She survived raising six of us! As I grew up and moved away from home, our relationship hit a few snags as we tried to transition from adult/child to adult/adult. I actually thought we had figured it out. 25 years ago, we were getting along like two BFF who could talk on the phone for two hours — me off at college, mom and home.

Then I got married. I had children. I’ve mimicked her life in many ways, some remarkable, some not. I also have six children of my own, I also have a small career on the side, I also don’t like rhubarb. I really thought that having my own family would bring my mother and I closer together. Honestly, I really thought that! I remember excitedly handing my first born daughter to my mother, expecting the rays of sunshine and love to pour down on us as she held my daughter, her very first grandchild. Instead, she burst into tears and exclaimed, “I’m so old and flabby! And now I’m a…a…a grandma! I may as well color my hair blue and go watch Pat Sajak.” No sunshine. No love. Just Pat Sajak.

I’ve covered my pillow in tears over this relationship. I’ve plastered on my smile to attend family functions. I’ve quietly endured lectures and back-handed comments about my deficiencies. I’ve gathered my children in close and cried over how to avoid doing the same thing to them.

Our relationship seems to revolve around a strange need for validation by someone who should have grown past that point a long time ago. She really just wants to still be in charge. I’ve tried to humor her, I’ve tried to please her. I’ve tried to ignore her.

But I love this woman. I love this woman who in her heart wants to be kind and gracious and non-imposing, but in her mind she just can’t find a way to do it. In her heart, she loves to come and play with the grandkids and make cookies and read stories, but in her mind, she just doesn’t like little children. In her heart, she’s coming to my house to visit and catch up and share love, but in her mind she can’t stop pointing out that the baseboards need to be washed and the doorknobs aren’t polished and I still haven’t figured out how to make that roast lamb like I’m supposed to. I see the conflict in her face sometimes. I know she’s struggling through it. I feel sad for her. It makes it easier to tolerate — sometimes.

But other times, I want to rage and holler, cry and thrash, throw a tantrum and slam my bedroom door. In my heart, I know I am an adult, but in my mind I can’t seem to stop feeling like a little kid. I’m trying my best to play grown up, but my mother keeps on reminding me that I’m just a little kid, not ready for the real world.

How do you navigate this complex relationship? Have you found success? Have you suffered failure? Have you found a happy, middle place? And am I the only one that worries about when my adult children will complain about me?

18 thoughts on “Therapy for All…”

  1. I think this is less of a parent/child issue than a mother/daughter one. Sons don't seem to have the same problems with their mothers. One of the most eye-opening books I've read is "You're Wearing That?" by Deborah Tannen. It's all about mother-daughter relationships. As both a daughter and a mother of daughters, it was good to read. I finally "get" some of what all the nit-picking means. That doesn't meant it's over, but I don't get as annoyed, because I understand it more. The book gave me some insight to being a mom to my girls.

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  2. Have you ever told her?

    My problems are with my FIL and at first glance it doesn't look like it has anything in common with what you are talking about here. But the reality is, he doesn't see things the way we see them. Each of his children (and spouses) have had to draw boundaries very loudly and very boldly in order to have any kind of a relationship with him. He doesn't take subtlety. But he does appreciate honesty.

    Is your mother LDS? Does she realize what she is doing goes against the whole idea of Charity? She probably has no idea that her actions are causing you so much pain and anguish.

    I'm a bold person. I always have to be careful about "overbearance", but if I were in your shoes, I would be bold. I would print off this post and hand it to my mother with tears in my eyes and a prayer in my heart. Because she needs to know that you love her, but you can't live like this anymore.

    I doubt that was what you were looking for, but it's all I have. Sorry! 🙂

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  3. Oh my gosh!! Are you a sister I don't know about? This is my mom!! Our big break came when she couldn't help me out AT ALL when I was dealing with my 4 year old's diagnosis with Non Hodgkin's Lymphoma. She took care of me for 6 months as a child, when I had chemo for a kidney cancer. Fiona was looking at 2 years of chemo and my mom couldn't be bothered to watch my 7 year old for a week while we were stuck in the hospital. My mom wants validation and also for me to apologize for her scared feelings. Fiona's diagnosis brought to the fore front the PTSD I am sure she developed as a result of dealing with my cancer. But she caught me at the wrong time and I could no longer help her through her feelings of inadequacy. I have to say, I feel liberated myself, no longer needing my parents approval. I feel sorry for them because being around Fiona while she was dealing with her cancer has been like walking around with a piece of heaven in your house and she missed that.

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  4. My mom is pretty hands off, as far as giving input or criticism goes . . . most of the time anyway. I think if she were excessive like so many mothers, I might say something. I've been curious about this subject in our relationship because I have wished for a more involved mom at times. Don't we all have some kind of relationship navigating to do with our moms, even if it's not that they are hyper critical? It has taken me a long time, some therapy, and some long talks with my mom (mostly asking her questions to understand where she's coming from) to feel more comfortable with my relationship with her. It's not the relationship I dreamed of when I was young, but it's better than it used to be, and it's still growing.

    And no, you're SO not the only one who worries about your children complaining about you. I've considered starting a therapy fund now. 🙂

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  5. This isn't meant to sound trite, but do you live close to your mom? If so, maybe some physical distance would help matters. I feel like my relationship with my mom is good, and I have wondered if it is helped by the fact that since being married, I haven't ever lived near family – so we can have nice long phone conversations, email all the time, and have lovely visits, but then go home by the time we start feeling a little worn out from it all. I fantasize about having all of my sisters and parents within a few hours, or even a day's drive – oh to have the cousins be best friends! But I also think some space can really help relationships that are otherwise too intense.

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  6. For a long time I tried to be perfect (not working to be perfect – BE perfect. now). Some of those issues did need therapy. And through that I gave myself permission to become perfected…..

    It took a little longer I think, but more of my feelings towards my mother were worked out when I did the same for her.

    My feelings can still get wrapped around the axle about one or two things though.

    And I hope I can remember all of this when my children are grown and on their own.

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  7. I don't mean to be off topic here, but here it goes anyway: I did a little rough calculating, and it appears to me that you're in your forties…and I noticed that you or someone else labeled you "middle-aged". What is THAT all about? I'm 42, and I would no sooner consider myself middle-aged than call a 12-year-old an adult.

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  8. Cari, HA! I guess I feel middle-aged, my kids sure would put me in old age!

    Mary, I don't live super close to my mom, but I think I understand your sentiment.

    I'm mostly interested in exploring this relationship. I know so many women who have issues with their mothers. There seem to be so many power struggles, so many biting comments and hurtful actions on both sides! I wish I understood it better.

    I know my mom is trying, and I really like what you said mommom. I know we're all just on this road to perfecting ourselves. I just wish this was an easier relationship. I wish it wasn't so painful. I wish I didn't feel like a 10 year old when my mom was around. I wish I could confront her more boldly.

    Cheryl, I tried to tell her once. She turned it all around and told me all the reasons it was my fault — all the things I was doing wrong in the relationship. I realized (or perhaps remembered) then that I could only control me and my reactions, but it's just SO HARD!

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  9. What you're describing is so common. Personally, I've found that it probably doesn't help to talk to her. For some reason–I've come to the conclusion that she is doing her best and all I can do is accept her, even if I don't always feel accepted–along with my dusty baseboards. I try and plan to not repeat the pattern wiht my own children, but it must be easier said then done–otherwise it wouldn't be so common. Carry on!

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  10. Lilly, thinking more about exploring your relationship with your mom, it really did help me to dig a little deeper into what made my Mom tick. We had a mom/daughter getaway (that was before marriage & kids) and I asked her a lot of hard questions, trying to understand what she thought about life, her marriage, etc. I didn't necessarily like all of the answers, but I felt I understood her better. I've tried to learn more about her since then, and it has been really good for our relationship.

    Of course, my mom isn't (generally) critical, so the dynamics are different. I think it takes a lot of inner work to get grounded enough that those things hurt less, as well as a lot of grieving that she will not be the Mom you want.

    The book Annette recommended sounds good. Tannen does good research and has a lot of good insights. Good luck–really!

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  11. Oh man. How much time do you have? How much space is on this blog? I could write a novel about my relationship with my mother. However, I know I'm not alone my brother also has serious issues with her, but unfortunately I'm her only daughter and there's an innate desire to want a close relationship with your daughter and therefore I think our relationship is under the spotlight a lot more. Unlike your relationship I have always had a strained one with my mom–pretty much since I was 12. Some people (friends, boyfriends) have not always understood the complexities, but once you get a little closer (my husband, my SIL) people definitely see it. Like you I feel sorry for my mom. I know her life is not what she wanted it to be, but instead of rising up to the occasion, she has wallowed. Except that she doesn't know she's wallowed/wallowing…she has little self awareness.

    I've contemplated for a long, long time just how to navigate this relationship moving forward. I feel the need to protect my family from her craziness. I know I won't be the perfect mom, but I think I can be a good mom. I've tried to take the lessons of my somewhat sad childhood and apply them to my life now. I've also started addressing some of my issues with my mom via email. I don't want to discuss over the phone since it would easily escalate into yelling…it's been very slow going and honestly a little disappointing, but at least I'm asserting myself and letting her know how I feel.

    Yeah, lets just say I can relate.

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  12. my mom is weird, too. She is definitely not the kind that will come and stay after you have a baby and take care of your family for you. She will just write a check. She thrives on turning the attention to herself, no matter what.
    I have stopped wishing for her to be the mother she never will be. It is pointless and takes up time in my life that I will never get back, so why bother?

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  13. Have you tried accepting her and loving her in spite of her faults? From the other side of the relationship It is possible that it isn't easy for her to navigate or negotiate this relationship either. Developing communications skills can't hurt. She can't know what you don't tell her. It is just possible she has no idea what your grievances are.

    You know you love someone unconditionally when you love them more than you hate the things they do. Do loving things and love will follow.

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  14. This is so tough. My heart goes out you and I hope you are supported in this trial. In my extended family, it's my MIL who is the source of pain and "drama"; this has been a challenge to everyone, daughter, sons, daughters in law. Even when you are able to get some insight and understanding into what is driving the behavior, and even when you are able to feel some compassion for the pain that has led to the behavior, it can still be a draining and difficult challenge to deal with it on a day-to-day basis. Best wishes to you.

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  15. Thank you thank you thank you for this moment of shared catharsis. I just went to visit my mom a few weeks ago and couldn't wait to get home to my family. I dread my children growing up and feeling similarly. My mom was so incredibly difficult and childish—more so as she ages. I have given up on that relationship I had hoped we'd have and wonder if some of the pain in this epiphany is realizing that I don't really need that relationship and perhaps someday my own children won't either. I try to accept that like most of us she's doing the best she can.

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  16. This post haunted me at 3 am. Since this is therapy I am going to suggest good answers to the questions above that will put an end to that conversation. These answers should administered calmly in a matter of fact tone.

    1.Well, I don’t want to horn in, but don’t you think Abby would be happier if you put her in pre-school?”

    Answer "No."

    “I was talking to a friend the other day who told me that this type of fabric for pajamas is HIGHLY flammable. Aren’t you worried?”

    Answer, "No."

    “Can I borrow a washcloth? I just noticed your telephone keypad is in desperate need of washing.”

    Answer, "Yes."

    “Should the kids really be running off down the street like that? I don’t want to intrude, but there was an attempted kidnapping just one state over last week!”

    Answer, "So you're saying your are afraid the kids are going to be kidnapped?"

    “Oh, I just wanted to call to make sure you were alright. Your brothers all surprised me with a visit for my birthday and brought me presents, but I didn’t see you. I was worried you might be ill!”

    Answer, "Thanks for worrying about me."

    “Oh, I’ll just vacuum and tidy up a bit. I know you’re busy and probably don’t find the time to clean the house much…”

    Now this a tough one. Sometimes I would like to grab the broom at my daughters house. But, I have given up. She doesn't see the dirt. And, I would never say something like this. But, an answer like "Thanks so much. I am busy" I'm not sure I would add "I know I can count on you to help out." It might work out all right.

    “You’re the mom, so you know best…but do you think letting them eat that is really a good idea?”

    Answer, "Yes."

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  17. I struggle with this issue now from both sides. My husband and I both grew up in families with a lot of struggles, and we've both been to therapy and can identify problem behavior from our parents. We struggle to love them and accept them as they are. It has been hard for me now as a parent to not worry about all the things I've learned and how much I'm affecting my kids. My oldest is only 5, and I do worry about our relationship long term. Our personalities are so different and we have a lot of conflict in our relationship already. I try so hard, and yet I also realize that there are things about me that she'll never like and never understand. I realized the other day that so much of my worry about our future relationship affects my parenting that I've made a conscious effort to not worry about it. As for my relationships with my mom and my MIL, they just go up and down and sometimes things are good/sometimes not.

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  18. I am right there with you sister! I manage the best I can. Sometimes I do great and ignore the comments and problems and love her completely despite her flaws… Other times I take a break from her until I feel better able to face her. Like other commentors mentioned my Mom isn't self-aware enough to discuss the relationship in-depth (I've tried!). I try not to want more validation from her but it is an ongoing process. Not giving up is the most important thing.

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