Dear Captain Awkward,
So, I’m having trouble with my mom and I’m not sure if it’s a me-problem or a her-problem or a “no one did anything wrong but it’s just uncomfortable” problem.
When I started college (and became an adult-ish) my mom has opened up to me about a lot of things that she didn’t want to talk to me about when I was younger. In general, this is fine. However, it’s changed the way we talk about my dad and it’s starting to make me very uncomfortable.
My parents are happily married but they’re in a tough situation–they have five kids (I’m the oldest) and my dad works about 5 hours away from where we live. He commutes Monday and comes back Friday, which leaves my mom shouldering a lot of the day to day burden of running the family. I totally understand that my dad isn’t perfect and that she might want to vent about him sometimes. However, I’m really uncomfortable with her venting about it to me. I can’t commiserate, as I’m not around to experience things the way she does, and I really don’t like hearing negative things about my dad.
Some of the stuff she says is true (he can’t do as much with a lot of problems because he’s just not accessible) but I feel really defensive whenever the conversation turns that way.
Basically, is there a script or something that can help me deal with this? Should I deal with this?
Growing Up is Hard
Dear Growing Up:
I like to think that “no one did anything wrong but it’s just uncomfortable” problems are a specialty here.
On an ongoing basis, you can give your mom some basic validation, like, “That sounds like a lot to handle,” or “That must be really hard” + “I know I really appreciated it when you (did x unglamorous but necessary parenting thing).” Part of her trying to form an adult relationship with you is being honest about how things that she made look easy when you were a kid were not so easy, and by giving her some gratitude and validation for those things you are being a mensch. It also sounds like she is lonely for adult company and conversation, so, depending on your schedule and how close you live, could you:
- Take her to lunch or to the movies? Schedule occasional fun stuff and seek her company as a fellow adult who you like spending time with.
- Stay with your siblings for a weekend so she and your dad can go out or go away together?
- Come help out with siblings one night a week? Maybe if you made dinner, helped out with homework, etc. she could get a little break. If you float the suggestion, and she pounces on it like a hungry kitten, this might be what she’s asking you for without wanting to ask when she vents about how hard things are.
And when stuff becomes about your dad, you can add a question: “Do you think you’ll talk to Dad about that?” or “You seem really angry at Dad. Does he know you feel this way?”
You don’t have to manage everything she feels about your dad, or everything she’ll do about those feelings, but but asking the question like that can sometimes gently encourage people away from you and toward the person who has some power to actually fix or renegotiate the problem. The next time this comes up, try asking those questions and see what happens. If she says “You know, I really should” and changes the subject, she’s probably gotten the message and a gentle redirect like this will work in the future.
If you ask the question and she doubles down on complaining, or explains in great detail why talking to him is pointless and will never, ever work, and anyway she can’t because: Reasons, you have an opening to have the conversation you need to have. Here is a possible script for taking it there:
“Mom, now that I’m older, I definitely have a greater appreciation for what you go through running a household from week to week and I’m glad we can talk about that stuff like adults. But when you complain about Dad, it’s very uncomfortable for me to hear. It sounds like you really need to talk to someone about how you are feeling, but I don’t think that I am the right audience for these conversations.”
She’ll have some stuff to say. Hear her out.
Then say: “Have you and Dad thought about going to counseling together, or could you go alone? Just having a safe place to talk through feelings like that might help everything feel more manageable.”
Brace yourself for:
- The 10,000 reasons, time-wise and money-wise (valid concerns to be sure!), that counseling is impossible and absolutely will not work.
- An extra helping Mom-guilt. “Can’t I talk to my own daughter?“
You can’t solve the reasons that counseling might not be possible, but the guilt is kind of what we’re getting at with this whole answer. You’re setting a boundary by saying “Mom, I am uncomfortable when you complain about Dad to me. I really want you to be able to talk about that stuff, it sounds really rough and really important. But I am telling you how *I* feel, and I need to set a boundary about listening to stuff about your marriage.”
I mean, if you’re going to have an adult relationship based on honesty, how you feel gets to also be important. I’d suggest ending the conversation pretty soon after this and giving you both some time to think.
Final Note: Having direct boundary-stetting conversations like this can be really, really hard. Especially the first time you do it, especially if you’re not in the habit, especially if you weren’t raised to be in the habit or that’s not the dynamic in your family (it certainly isn’t in mine, or, there is, but the criticism all flows one way, if you get my drift). There is a fallacy (neatly outlined in the classic Five Geek Social Fallacies piece) that any criticism or disagreement with someone you care about means “I hate you!” so if you love someone you stay quiet about things that bother you because to speak up is an aggressive act.
When people love each other, as you and your mom do, or as your mom and dad do, bringing up problems feels incredibly risky because the relationships are important and there is something actually at stake. It sounds to me like your mom needs to have a conversation with your dad about a timeframe for finding a job closer to home, or moving home closer to work, or on how to support each other better if neither is possible. She needs to say words like “I feel lonely and overburdened and this is not working for me. How are you feeling about it? Can we maybe change something up here? Because you are the world to me and I want very badly to make this work so we both can be happy.” Once that can of worms is opened, it can’t be closed again and the messy contents have to be dealt with. So the temptation is to put it off as long as possible and try to make the status quo work for as long as possible.
Setting a boundary with your mom feels like opening its own can of worms, but you are very smart to know your own limits for listening to complaints about your dad and knowing that fixing the problems in their marriage is not your job. You and your mom love each other and trust each other, so trust that gently asking her to edit how she talks about your dad around you is the right thing to do. Setting boundaries isn’t mean or selfish. Think of it, rather, as helping the people who love us know how to be good to us.