Dear Captain and friends,
I am terrified of talking to my mother. If I, or my partner, do something she doesn’t like, even if it has no impact on her life, she will worry and blame me for that worry. Sometimes this is because she finds a way in which it will affect her later (she thinks that if anything ever goes wrong for me financially she’ll have to bail me out despite my assurances to the contrary). She often implies or says outright that I’m childish and should always do what she says (I’m 27). When I was 18 my psychiatrist used a garden metaphor for my life so sometimes when I am trying to communicate with her I use that. At the moment I think she is trying to walk into my garden and rearrange everything, and keeping her out is stressful, but she says she has the garden next door and I am letting weeds from my garden get into hers. I have no idea how to deal with this massive conflict in how we see the situation.
At the moment I am hiding something big from her and I don’t know what to do. My partner left his job a few months ago because the commute was exhausting. We didn’t tell my mum he’d left, just that he was looking for something closer to home. He was offered a job with a reasonable commute and great pay, but he quit after two days because he couldn’t stand the corporate culture (which wasn’t apparent at interview stage). We made the decision together, because although I’d love the security, I didn’t want to risk my partner’s well-being and looking for a new job while working there would be basically impossible. We have enough money for him to be unemployed and job-seeking for a few months, although I don’t know what happens if he doesn’t get a job before the money runs out. Some of this money was a wedding present from my parents, and while legally they can’t impose conditions, I expect criticism if they realise that the money is supporting us while my partner is unemployed. We told my parents when he accepted the job, a week before he actually started (and quit). My partner wants us to tell my mum that the job fell through because they no longer needed him. I am anticipating a world of pain as my mum has sleepless nights about his unemployment and passes the blame to me for being with him when she thinks he’s lazy and makes my life harder. I want to be honest but I am terrified of her reaction. What should I do?
Thanks so much,
Nobody likes disappointing their parents, and almost nobody looks forward to telling their parents uncomfortable news. It can be hard, even with supportive, loving parents because they want so badly for us to do well and be happy, and we don’t want to disappoint their hopes for us. This is one reason why coming out to parents around sexuality and gender identity is so fraught. The image that they have of who we are and who they want us to be is so incredibly vivid that we start to believe that picture can be ruined by us revealing our authentic selves to them, and in many cases they actually grieve the loss of that idealized person and expect us to comfort them and comport ourselves in an “acceptable” way while they come to terms with the “loss.” I’ll wager that a lot of us feel forced to live in the gap between image and reality when we deal with our parents, so powerful is its manifestation and so avidly is it presented as the way we really are or should be. I’ve never had to come out, but as someone whose mom wanted this:
and got this:
…please allow me say: It can be a long and difficult struggle to resolve the ideal picture and the actual human into “Hello, I am an adult who is separate from you. I love you a lot, but you have to be nice to the actual me that is here and not sigh all the time about the potential me who is not actually here or try to sculpt me into her. Because if you keep doing that, I will have to stay away from you so that Actual Me can survive.”
I’d like to recommend that you read Dr. Karyl McBride’s Will I Ever Be Good Enough? We can’t say, of course whether your mom fits the profile of a narcissistic mother (or if her anxiety is of the clinical sort), but I’ve personally found that book to very useful in teaching boundary setting within difficult family relationships no matter what’s going on. There is a long way from “this will be awkward and hard for me to talk about with my parents” and “I am terrified.” As adults, if we’re terrified of how our parents will react to something, something has gone very, very wrong in the relationship. At very least, we need to ride the borderlands of our personal garden (nice image, past therapist!) and check that all the fences are intact.
Worrying about your kids is normal, you say. Being reluctant to financially support adult children is normal, you say. Sure. And yet? I can tell that this situation is really not normal. I can tell because something bad that *might* happen to you (financial insecurity if your partner doesn’t get a job in a few months) is translated, through your mom’s toxic worry and disappointment cloud, into blaming you for something that you are doing to her by being “childish” or “irresponsible,” and her solution is that she gets to control your decisions. If we had a department of Diagramming Abusive Grammar here at Captain Awkward Dot Com Enterprises, your descriptions of your mom’s behavior would fit almost perfectly. Making everything about her? Check. Ascribing it to some inherently bad quality in you? Check. Throwing a lot of insults and blame masked as “worry?” Check. Using all of the above as an argument for more control? We’ve got a full set here, roll it out!
Only-slightly-less-ripped-from-Emotional-Terrorists-Quarterly, your mom’s behavior sets up a dynamic where it’s very hard to tell her anything about potential mistakes, failure, risk, or any of your own worries, lest you feed the Worry Wyvern and awaken the Dragons of Disappointment from their slumber. Fear of her overwhelming worry means that it’s often easier to just not tell her stuff.
Because if I am right, over time your mom’s extreme worry has led you to try to edit a picture of your life to show her only a happy, financially successful, cheerful (whatever qualities she values) daughter at the expense of her real daughter – who may be all of those things, but who also has bad days and flaws, secrets and needs. For example, by worrying so much and so vocally about your finances, she pre-empts and absorbs your own worry about your finances. Anything you tell her will just make her worry/confirm that her worries were justified, so it’s easier in the moment to just keep your head down and hope that you never have to tell her any bad news. Perhaps she thinks it’s motivating. “Aha! If my daughter is afraid that I will be very disappointed indeed if I end up supporting her, she will toil always to make sure she is financially secure!” I’m sure it is horrifically motivating, in its way, but it also makes it emotionally unsafe for you to tell her when things might not be so great or ask her for help if things do go wrong. Whether or not she meant to, she has set it up so you have to constantly perform and reassure her, and telling her that you are struggling in some way means you have to deal with the burden of horribly disappointing your mom and “causing” her to worry on top of whatever actual serious stuff you have going on in your life. And it’s a double-bind, because if you don’t tell her and she finds out anyway, she can now get on you for lying. But she’s creating the conditions that make lying feel like the sanest option sometimes! But somehow it’s still all your fault and her point, that she should call all the shots from now on is still made. Conveeeeeenient.
Whatever her reasons, however self-aware she is of the behavior, it stresses you the hell out, and it also cuts you off from having an authentic relationship with her.
You can’t control her feelings, and shouldn’t try, but in a perfect world you should be able to ask for a break from the behavior where she tells you all of her worries. “Mom, I get that you worry about me a lot, but when you express it so constantly it really hurts my feelings. It makes me feel like I can’t talk honestly with you about stuff that actually worries me. It also makes me feel like you have no confidence in me to make good decisions and take care of myself – like you are second-guessing everything before you even know what is actually happening. Would you be willing to write down all your worry in a journal somewhere, or talk to a professional about it, so that you and I could relate without me having to hear all the ways I might possibly screw up my life?”
You know your mom best. Do you live in a world where that feels like something you could possibly say? Could you rehearse something with your therapist and try it out? Could you try setting a two-subject-changes-then-end-the-conversation boundary with her when she starts the worry cycle going?
If not, I have something to tell you. It’s not comforting, exactly, but it is a way of reclaiming some power: If she refuses to listen to you and keeps behaving this way even after you ask her to stop, even after you try to set a boundary, she will do it no matter what you do. We’re deep in Worry Thermodynamics territory – “Mom-worry is neither created nor destroyed; it can only be transferred from child to child” – where it stops being about you at all. When someone shows you that they cannot be pleased, cannot be appeased, cannot be redirected, and cannot respect your reasonable boundaries, we enter a territory called “The Fuck Its”, as in, Fuck it, there’s no making you happy, so, I might as well please myself. It is lonely and barren sometimes here in the Fuck Its, but it can be a very liberating place. For one thing, you can invoke the “I’m sorry that you feel that way” apology freely and without shame. You can also become practiced at interrupting people, which is normally very rude to do, but (again, from my own experience) when the conversation turns to “I am very worried about how fat you are-” or “Is that really what you are wearing-” I don’t feel bad at all about saying “-let me stop you right there. Howabout, for the rest of the visit, you pretend that I am a fellow adult – say a coworker, or a friend of a friend – whom you like. And then, don’t say anything to me about my appearance that you wouldn’t say to that person.”
This is a thing I have actually said, btw.
Having the conversation, saying the script, enforcing the boundary rarely works automagically. It’s just meant to be a place to start, so we don’t all have to just take whatever people say to us and squirm in silence. It has taken, literally, years of enforcing this particular boundary, which I do because I love my mom and want to have a relationship with her, to get her to stop concern-trolling and body-shaming me, at least to my face. Most recently she tried to do it behind my back to my boyfriend, who was like “SHUT. IT. DOWN. FOREVER.” so hopefully that’s all done for a bit.
Before the Years of Therapy™, before reading that book, before coming to dwell here in the Fuck Its, a conversation like that with my mom would have had me in tears and shaking before, during, and after. What unknown terrors would I invoke? Would the yawp of the Worry Wyvern wake the Dragons of Disappointment? Would I have to go live under the Concern Bridge where the Concern Trolls dwell?
Now? It’s an unpleasant moment or three and then back to an uneasy peace. No one apologizes to anyone, it never gets “worked out,” she undoubtedly has a lot of worries and feelings and things she wants to say and articles she’d like to send. But she does STFU about my body for the rest of the visit and we do our best to be pleasant and kind to each other and enjoy what is there to be enjoyed. And that’s a victory. That’s what passes for a victory, here in the Fuck Its.
The Fuck Its are not a perfect escape. It always feels very risky to write about my own family stuff here. My parents can easily find the blog, but I don’t think they read it and I’ve never told them about the site. I could say it’s because they aren’t my audience, and that I don’t feel like I or the site would benefit from their scrutiny, but it’s really because it feels scary. I don’t think they would like it, or be proud of me for creating it. I think they would be very hurt to find themselves described in anything but glowing terms. Even though they totally rock feminist housework division of labor, reading about themselves here might break open the uneasy peace we’ve established over the years. I don’t think the various “stuff” we have will be or even can be “worked out”, ever. Where would we even START? What greeting card says “I’m sorry I made you stand for hours and apologize to me for the time you got raped in college, Daughter” or “I’m sorry that every time you expressed a feeling, I ‘corrected’ it, but I thought it was for your own good!” “I’m sorry I put you on a starvation diet when you were an athletic teenager because you’ve always had the wrong body and I wanted someone to keep me company in hating mine.” Even scarier, what if there were those cards, but they refused to even remember or acknowledge any of it? (The most likely scenario, by far). There are doubtless pockets of infection below the scar tissue that should be drained for real healing to occur, but I don’t want to cut myself to shreds on these particular people any more. I don’t want to figure out what makes them tick or why it happened. I just want to sit down to dinner or a game of rummy a few times a year and have the feeling of having parents.
But when there are questions like this question, and days like this day, where I need to tell you, Letter Writer, and you, loyal and wonderful and supportive readers, that there are Reasons that I know some of the stuff that I know. I’m not on some superior plane of enlightenment and courage. I don’t actually know how to solve other people’s lives, or even my own life. But I can tell you how I survived. And I am a person who used to be afraid to speak up about anything, to anyone, and now I am not anymore.
One I way I survived used to be to edit information, like you do now, Letter Writer. Then I went the other direction, into full on The Filter Is Coming The Fuck Off, Take Me As I Am Or I Will Shun You. After some periods of shunning, we now hover between “I will tell you uncomfortable stuff the same way I would tell anyone close to me and hope that you will have a halfway normal reaction but be unsurprised if you don’t” and “I will not lie but I will not volunteer things, either,” depending on what it is and how vulnerable vs. safe I am feeling. When I am vulnerable and raw and still in the middle of the struggle, my parents aren’t the people that I call. And that hurts them, sometimes, when they find out about something after the fact. “When were you going to tell us? Why don’t you trust us? Why didn’t you tell us?”
Because I can’t trust you to be actually supportive or helpful in any way, and when I’m in a fragile state, running the gauntlet of your disappointment and worry in addition to trying to deal with my problems actually makes everything worse, is the answer.
I can tell you the exact day that everything started to change for the better. When I moved out here in 2000, I had a hard time finding a permanent job so I ended up temping for a while. My parents hated this, thought it was beneath me, were deeply ashamed and worried about me. They came to see me the next summer, and as soon as I walked into their hotel room my mom started in with her list of disappointing things about me. Basically, hi, how was the drive, where are we eating, then right into full You Are A Fuck-Up theater, we are so worried, what’s wrong with you, we are so angry at you for “wasting” your education this way, etc.
So I said, “Hey, howabout asking me how I’m doing (in love with a good dude, surrounded by loving friends, working on a movie, excited about the possibility of something for the first time in a long time, finally treating and healing from the depression that had almost killed me back in D.C., happier than I’ve been in years) instead of telling me? Howabout not telling me that I should be ashamed of the honest work that is putting food on my table and a roof over my head and paying my bills? Howabout, if this is what you came here to tell me, you can turn around and drive back, because I’m not staying to listen to it.” I was crying, I wasn’t eloquent or cool or triumphant or even coherent. But I said it. And then I walked out.
My dad came after me, and found me in the lobby, and asked me to come back to the room and promised they would behave themselves. And I said, I’ll wait here, you come down. And for the rest of the visit, they mostly did behave (for them), though my neighborhood, restaurants, apartment, clothes, handling of various personal affairs, taste in movies were all found wanting and I made sure we were always in public or accompanied by my then-boyfriend.
After that day, I knew that if I said “eff off, I can’t do this anymore, you can’t talk to me like that” they would stop, and if I left, they would come after me and try at least to make things work. That knowledge was a power I hadn’t ever known before. A sad power – how bad do things have to be before that feels like power – but power, nonetheless. So after that day, I more or less instituted my policy of “the first time you say something mean, I will change the subject, and the second time, I will leave the room/hang up the phone and then not call you for a while.” Dan Savage writes about this with regard to gay kids and homophobic parents, where the bargaining chip is “be nice to me or you don’t get access to me.” It’s a sad bet at seriously the saddest poker table, but sometimes it’s the hand you have to play. And if your parents want to stay connected to you, they will take the bet. They will try to get around it all the time, make side bets, threaten, bluff, etc. – it will never be a comfortable thing, you can never fully relax – but they more often than not will stop doing and saying overtly mean/worrying/boundary-crossing stuff to the best of their ability. It can get better.
Letter Writer, I do want to discuss your specific situation with your partner, your finances, and your mom.
Because one of the things that gave me the strength to walk out of that hotel room was that I was financially independent from my folks. I know from many, many letters in my inbox that a lot of you in this economy live in toxic situations and don’t have the means to support yourselves, and that makes it a million times harder. For me, cheap apartments with questionable roommates and furniture scavenged from alleys and selling plasma and cleaning houses was better than ever, ever, EVER moving home to a comfortable cage. I don’t judge anyone for making a different choice – you are the expert on your own situation, you do what you have to do to survive, you make the tradeoffs that you are prepared to make, you don’t ever deserve to be homeless or hungry or broke because of principle, or be mistreated because you can’t move out of a place – but I will tell you from the bottom of my heart that if you are unhappily living with toxic family, the energy you spend on getting the fuck out is probably worth way more than the energy you expend arguing or trying to get them to respect you or to improve the situation. In my experience, nothing will reframe the balance of power like getting that small, quiet room with a door you can shut. When you finally have the freedom to disengage completely, it allows you to engage selectively and perhaps, with time, productively. I have been hungry, I have been cold, I have been sick, and I have been scared but I have never, ever been as unhappy as when I lived under my folks’ roof as a kid and had to just sit there and take whatever it was. Never.
Which is to say, I hope the job search goes well, but if it doesn’t it might be worth your partner working a less-than-ideal job for a while, as a starting point to hopefully lead to bigger and better things, if it means never having to ask your folks for money. And this is a conversation you need to have with him, using actual numbers, like dates and accounts and amounts of money and goals. How active is he about sending out resumes & cover letters? What’s his Plan B, re: freelancing or consulting? Is what he wants possible/abundant where you live? What would happen if he did get a new job and didn’t like that one? Is he prepared to stick it out for say, six months to a year, while looking for a new position? Can he pick up part-time work that isn’t as highly skilled or paid for the sake of having money coming in, while he looks for something better? Is he with you on a “we never, ever, ever ask my mom for money” rule, or does he see the wedding gift as the first stage of an ongoing relationship where your parents support you? If he does get a job, will he replace the wedding gift in your joint savings? Are you working? Are you looking for jobs or additional freelance work that could help you improve your financial situation and pick up the slack in case it takes him a while to find something?
Right now, my boyfriend’s job is the source of my affordable health insurance, so while I wouldn’t want him to stay somewhere that made him miserable, I would be upset if he quit without talking to me first and without a plan, because it does affect me. Our household expenses are low, but not easily carried by just one person, so I also should not quit my job without telling him or having another plan lined up. That, in my opinion, is a reasonable worry or issue between interdependent adults. You and partner have some planning and talking to do, without your mom’s worry getting all over everything.
You don’t have to invite your mom to this discussion. I hate lies, even lies of omission, but I do believe in “you are not a safe person to share certain information with.”
Are we playing into your mom’s hands too much? What’s the worst thing that could happen if you told her the truth?
She’d worry. (She does that anyway).
She’d say a bunch of critical stuff about you and your ability to make choices. (She does that anyway).
She might tell you outright that she won’t support you financially if things go wrong, and try to threaten you with the prospect of poverty/ruin. (She isn’t obligated to support you, and surely the nature of her worries isn’t new information).
She’ll alternately tell you you are being a childish and will never grow up while yelling at you for not growing up exactly as she wants you to (She already does that, too).
She’ll refuse help you ask for but give you unsolicited, expensive, or overly-generous gifts and then try to use them to control you. Or she will insist on financially supporting you and that is the only way to go, so you actually have to fight her to take care of yourself. (Hey, this is an assumption on my part, because it’s not actually in your letter, but it fits the pattern of both deploring and cultivating dependency and I’m pretty sure she does it in some fashion).
Ooh, bonus round, does she do the thing where you are simultaneously the smartest and most naive, gullible, hapless person alive, as in “You’re so smart, you should be able to easily ______” when you genuinely struggle to do something, and “You’re handling x thing all wrong, do I have to do everything, when will you grow up” when you are actually handling something quite well. Too smart to ever be allowed to fail or make a mistake, too stupid to be allowed to risk a success! I could be projecting here, but let me know if it sounds familiar.
In the worst case scenarios, could you handle the conversation? And when she reverts to type, could you say “Wow, that’s a lot of concern, and I can’t promise I can clear up all of it for you, but partner and I have a pretty solid plan and agreement for how we’ll handle things“?
Could you say “I’m not telling you to ask for financial help, I’m telling you because I want your emotional support, as your daughter“?
Could you say, “Actually, I wasn’t asking for advice. I don’t actually want your input on my financial decisions”?
You don’t have power over your mom’s worry, or how she expresses it, but you can develop some power over how willing you are to listen to it and how you respond. Over time, little by little, boundary by boundary, you can show her that her worry doesn’t have power over you. That you love her and want her approval and support, but you won’t abase yourself for it. You can fence in your garden, and you can defend it. Reader Cait laid this out so beautifully in her comment, here, that I am going to quote it at length:
Part of emotional abuse and manipulation is instilling fear, self-doubt, and uncertainty in the manipulated person. Moreso if they are a child. …Our brains do us a favor by minimizing what we’re going through to help us survive. But that survival trick is a double edged sword later when we don’t have the words to explain how bad it really was, just knots in our stomachs. And somehow the words that do come out aren’t able to convey the full force of the truth. Because we’re so habituated to minimizing for survival. It’s like the language isn’t there. That’s why naming things is so powerful. Like “mansplaining” or #YesAllWomen. Putting names to something provides an Ah-ha moment where so many of us are like *yes this.* You’re working towards your Naming the Thing place, and while you get there, you deserve not to have to put up with any misinformed misdirection from the people closest to your heart.
The only thing that works for me is to push through that self-doubt and fear and instinctive minimizing and say what I have to say. I have a hard ass time doing that. I was emotionally terrorized, and when I decide to take a stand on something, my heart starts pounding and I start shaking, and my reptile brain starts telling me I’m going to get screamed at, made fun of, or derided. I’m not. The barista at starbucks is not going to scream at me for asking to have my coffee remade. Nor is my boyfriend for saying I need alone time tonight rather than together time. But it pops up there in my minds eye like a bogeyman, and I have to stare it down each time, and act anyway, in clear non-minimizing, non-apologietic languague. Or the closest approximation. This is one of those times that any action is better than inaction. If I don’t, if I let the bogeyman of yesterday’s fears rule today’s life, *they’re still winning.*
Or to put it another way, I’m the adult in my own life now, not the child in theirs. Not anymore. Which is powerful, and amazing. I get to be the adult today that I didn’t see around me then. I get to kind of rewrite history by being the grownup it’s right for me to be. I didn’t have that agency as a child, but I do now.
Someone in your life as a child didn’t stand up to your dad and protect you from him. But you get a do-over. Because now you get to do for yourself what that person owed you and should have done for you then. In my case, I can take that statement, and feel self-pitying about it. Or I can take it and feel empowered by it. Which way of taking it is more empowering for me.
Take that amazing stand and feel awesome about it.”
Might you stammer or cry? Might you feel judged? Might it take a few times before you really get the words out? Might it be awkward? Well, it’s already super-awkward, and you’ve already survived it. You’re surviving it now. You’ll keep surviving it, no matter what she throws at you. And now you have the map to The Fuck Its. You may not want to live there, but it’s a good place to vacation from people who stomp all over your garden. Welcome! You can actually feel your feelings. You can eat what you want, wear what you want, live your life how you want, and leave any time you like.