#583: The Worry Wyvern and The Dragon of Disappointment

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,

Terrified Gardener

Dear Terrified:

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:

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood from House of Cards, rocking some severe "D.C. Important People" style.
Robin Wright as Claire Underwood from House of Cards, rocking “D.C. Important People” style

and got this:

Me singing karaoke, 2012
Me, rocking people’s faces off at karaoke, 2012

…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.

Book cover for The Hero and the Crown, with Aerin and a dragon.
If you’ve read this, you know: Maur’s dragonfire was very scary, but his real evil was undermining people and stirring up worry and doubt.

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?

An old timey-sampler that says "Behold the field in which I grow my fuck. Lay thine eyes upon it and see that it is barren."
Literally any excuse to use this image from now on.

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 knowI’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.”

Mother Gothel from Tangled
Mother Gothel invites your mom to join her Overprotective Underminers Anonymous meeting.

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.



230 thoughts on “#583: The Worry Wyvern and The Dragon of Disappointment

  1. This letter and answer both speak to me – thank you Jennifer for sharing these terrible stories, it really does help to hear someone else’s similar experience.

    LW, your garden metaphor made me laugh, because my mother once started rearranging and pruning my actual garden over my explicit, strenuous objections because boundaries are things no one but her is allowed to have. She actually got pissed with me for trying to tell her what to do and control her behaviour when she had literally taken to *my garden that is mine* with seccateurs while I stood there and asked her to stop.

    I am in my mid 30s and have lived independently since I was 19 and I still struggle to get my mother to treat me as an adult who knows how to do basic stuff.

    Read the book the Captain recomends above, it really helped me. Also read about gasslighting – the Gasslight Effect by Dr Robin Stern is one I found helpful – because the constant insistence that you’re incompetent is gasslighting and it can creep into your brain when you’re not paying attention.

    This stuff can be so hard to deal with, just because parents have the cheat codes and back doors to our brains. We’ve grown up with them, think what they do is more normal and OK than it sometimes is, and take what they say to heart. We want to please them and we want their approval. We are inclined to believe what they say, because we always did as children. Untangling this and realising that maybe one of our parents is *completely unreasonable* is really really hard. Talking to a therapist can help, and reading relevant books can help, because you won’t be able to see or name the problems all on your own. There’s nothing quite like telling a therapist some off hand story about how your family is a “bit difficult” and having them look kind of shocked and say that it isn’t normal or right for a parent to act that way.

    And here’s the terrible thing. You can’t make your mother approve of your choices and be proud of you and pleased with you. For me this was the hardest thing, to accept that and give up on trying to change it. I now focus on setting boundaries around the specific things she says and does. This has the consequence of her constantly needling with weird little comments about how fussy I am and how there are “rules” I insist on and how she isn’t *allowed* to say and do what she thinks in a great big festival of trying to make me feel unreasonable. But it’s reduced the problematic behaviour.

    And I don’t tell her personal stuff at all if I can avoid it. Living far away helps. And when I do have to impart information I do it as concisely as possible – just facts and nothing about how I feel. I can’t really tell my father stuff either, because he passes it all on. This is sad and hurtful and sometimes I want desperately to reach out to them, but it’s never worth it. I’m firmly in the tell them nothing I don’t have to stage.

    LW, feel free to stand your ground with your partner on not telling them about his job situation. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to just dodge the judgement entirely. Also try not to respond angrily to the insulting stuff and get engaged in a debate about your worth/life/decisions – part of the emotional train wreck is where you argue with her and try to convince her she’s wrong and then fail and then secretly wonder if she’s right. Skip this. Seriously. You can just say “that’s not true” and then refuse to talk about it further. You can’t convince her anyway, and it will just hurt to try. Don’t reward the bad behaviour by engaging with it.

    1. All of this is so true and I can relate. My father cannot understand that I am an adult nearing 40 so therefore I know how to do basic stuff and can survive in this wild jungle called life. He just can’t seem to understand that it’s not his job to “coach me” through life because I simply don’t need that from him. We’re estranged now and it’s been one of the most peaceful times of my life. That speaks for itself.

      I’d also like to say RIGHT ON to the not engaging and arguing about your life choices. It’s not your mother’s business what your sig. other has decided to do in regards to his job or his life or your life or whatever. You do not owe information to anyone, even your parents and it is often easier to omit information about your life so you can sidestep the criticism circus that ensues.

      1. On the whole I go for omitting info, but on this one there was a direct question about how the new job was going and I didn’t feel able to dodge it forever. Ultimately I’d like to get to a place where I can tell her the truth (if I want to) and be able to deal with her so I don’t have the stress of remembering what she knows and what she doesn’t (and therefore what I should say to other family members, etc). But that’s a way off I think!

        1. Yes alas some things you have to tell them because they’ll become obvious or be too difficult to hide. I’ve found it’s best to present those in a minimal and factual way, with no emotional content – like the idea your partner had about the job just “falling through” – instead of presenting a choice they can criticise it’s just a thing that happened that’s beyond your control. I don’t think a web of lies is a great idea (besides it’s exhausting and confusing) but just not mentioning stuff is fairly easy, especially stuff that won’t come up unless I go out of my way to mention it. Also keeping how I *feel* and my hopes and dreams and plans out of the conversation helps immeasurably. I guess this is easier for me because I don’t talk to anyone in my extended family really, have no mutual acquaintances with my parents and live 900km away, so there’s no worrying about letting things slip to someone who’ll pass it along.

          When it comes to direct questions, a brief answer and refusal to discuss it further seems to be the optimal choice – they get facts, and no opportunity to debate it. Although I also advise literally refusing to answer some questions if you think they’re inappropriate. For example, my mother badgered me with endless questions about what was going on when I broke up with a partner of a decade, and in the end I refused point blank to discuss ongoing details of whether he’d moved in with the woman he left me for, or got this or that specific possession when we divided up our things etc. etc. Or she went through this phase when I was about 20 of badgering me to get medical tests and badgering me to prove I’d followed up on the results, and in the end I discovered I could just tell her my papsmear status was none of her business and refused to answer further questions point blank even though she spent about two hours trying to get me to admit my silence meant I hadn’t followed up (I had, I was just 1000% done with the inappropriate questions). If you do this expect an absolute explosion of “I mean well” and “I’m trying to help” and “we’re faaaamily and we share things with each other”, but also know that if you just blank refuse over and over again like a broken record they eventually give up and stop asking. And if you stick with it, the next time you say you won’t discuss it it’s a little easier to make it stick, until finally you can say “I really don’t want to talk about that” and they’ll actually respect it almost like a normal human, albeit with some sullen pouting and muttering about how you won’t discuss things and they can’t ask questions. :-/

          1. This all makes a lot of sense. I hope that if she responds well to strict boundaries we might gradually get to a point when we can discuss things in more detail, but that will only work if she starts to respect me as an adult, or in fact a human being separate to her! I accept this may never happen though.

    2. “And here’s the terrible thing. You can’t make your mother approve of your choices and be proud of you and pleased with you. For me this was the hardest thing, to accept that and give up on trying to change it. I now focus on setting boundaries around the specific things she says and does. This has the consequence of her constantly needling with weird little comments about how fussy I am and how there are “rules” I insist on and how she isn’t *allowed* to say and do what she thinks in a great big festival of trying to make me feel unreasonable. But it’s reduced the problematic behaviour.”

      This is pretty much exactly what happened in my family too. Feeling less crazy knowing that someone else has experienced the same hurt pushback, but it’s still a hard thing to deal with.

      1. I wouldn’t call it hurt pushback so much as a manipulation tactic designed to doubt my reasonableness in setting boundaries. But it’s sometimes framed as hurt yes, like if I loved her I wouldn’t try to stop her from doing what she wants (to me and my things). I wish she would *understand* what I want and get it and be reasonable voluntarily, but that’s a futile wish, so resentful compliance is the best I can hope for. 😦

    3. Oh my god your poor garden. I got light-headed just reading that little piece of it. And I don’t even garden! It’s just…there are some things one Does Not Do.

      Sorry, I know that was just a minor piece of your post, but, wow.

      1. Thankfully she didn’t do anything bad or irreversible to it. Just didn’t care at all that I didn’t want her to do it. So I guess there were no long term consequences for my garden at least…yay… o_0

        1. Longtime gardener here, and I agree so much with Drew–reading that made me feel sick. Gardens are just so intensely personal, I just…jeez. I’m glad your garden was okay.

          1. I’m glad people understand! I care about my garden quite a bit, so having someone mess with it without even consulting me about what needed to be done was very infuriating. Also infuriating was the part where my father urged me to just “let her do what she wants” because there was no point in arguing and I would just upset her (she escalates to major upset rapidly and extremely so a debate about my garden could easily have ended with “You’ll miss me when I’m dead”). >:-(

          2. @Anisoptera- When a one parent suggests to an offspring that they should let the boundary-pushing parents push boundaries because “it will just upset her/him” my response is RAGE. RAGE FOREVER. In a way, it almost feels worse than the boundary pushing, because it’s like “I see your distress and I am going to collude with the person distressing you even though I know they are in the wrong. Because I am a coward.”

          3. M Dubz – yep. I gather it’s a pretty common dynamic in these situations though. That’s why the other parent is sill married to the boundary swamping one – because they are happy to just let them do whatever they want to keep the peace.

            It’s a pretty shitty betrayal. 😦

      2. Right? OMG. (My mom & I are both reasonably serious gardeners — me more than her — and unsolicited gardening is just NOT DONE.)

    4. My mother has been known to go in my garden and pull up plants that are just starting to look good. Like ones that are flourishing and about to bloom, or vegetables that are almost ready to be harvested. She’s done it more than once. She’ll leave everything else alone (and complain that things need weeding) but go for those things because there is something shiny about them, or they somehow represent power that is mine and she can’t stand to see it. She also has a habit of throwing things of mine away that represent experimentation, or something new on my part, or something that I put a lot of work into, like the wreath I hung on the door that she ripped off the day after Christmas, when she’ll usually leave a wreath up till June. I live with her, and the situation is a little complicated legally–I own the house and so am entitled to live here rent-free, which is good because I can’t afford to pay rent right now somewhere else, but I can’t legally kick her out either. She’s 87, too, and does probably need someone keeping an eye on her.

      I’ve actually gotten to the point where I will outright lie to my mother and feel absolutely no remorse. Her past behavior means she is no longer entitled to or deserving of the truth from me. And I don’t care.

      1. Oh god, your poor plants! I’m so sorry. I…argh, people interfering in other people’s gardens just…gets to me. (Do you need seeds?)

        1. Oh my god you are such a sweetie. I’m probably fine as far as seeds go, though as a gardener I can’t help but ask, well… what have you got? 😉

          1. Welp, it’s getting a smidge late in the season, but I’ve got an array of heirloom melons and beans…depends on your zone, really. I’m in North Carolina, so I go for heat-tolerant stuff mostly. Been experimenting with Asian melons this year. I have Yugoslavians finger squash?

      2. Yikes!! Gah! Argh!

        At least my mother is a competent gardener and when she invades it’s more just the intrusion and unwillingness to hear my no that’s the problem. She will actually do useful things, only, they’re useful things I don’t consent to and which sort of imply my garden isn’t well maintained enough and clearly she needs to fix it. And also I owe her for all the effort. Oh, and the rearranging of my pots…which I can put back but WTF? Anyway – I’m so sorry you have to live with someone who feels free to just wreck/dispose of your stuff. Blergh. 😦

      3. “I’ve actually gotten to the point where I will outright lie to my mother and feel absolutely no remorse. Her past behavior means she is no longer entitled to or deserving of the truth from me. And I don’t care.”

        This. It sucks that it has to get to this, but when it’s necessary, it’s an important place to get to.

        I’m sorry that it had to get there though.

    5. Wow, that story about your mother in your garden takes the biscuit! Thanks for sharing, it made me laugh and send sympathy jedi hugs.

      “We are inclined to believe what they say, because we always did as children. Untangling this and realising that maybe one of our parents is *completely unreasonable* is really really hard. Talking to a therapist can help, and reading relevant books can help, because you won’t be able to see or name the problems all on your own. There’s nothing quite like telling a therapist some off hand story about how your family is a “bit difficult” and having them look kind of shocked and say that it isn’t normal or right for a parent to act that way.”

      Thank you so much! I think this is what makes it so hard to deal with this particular issue.

      “part of the emotional train wreck is where you argue with her and try to convince her she’s wrong and then fail and then secretly wonder if she’s right”

      Yup, I think I’ve wasted a lot of energy thinking that if I can’t prove her wrong then she is probably right, even though the thought of living how she tells me to makes me miserable!

      1. Gaslighting is a neat trick that way. We all know about the side where it’s used to just convince you of something untrue and make you feel like you’re going mad, or to get you to doubt yourself, but it also works even when you argue back vigorously and feel like you’re defending yourself. As you say – if you can’t win the argument you wonder if maybe they’re right, and here’s a thing – *you can’t win the argument*, at least if you define winning as them accepting that you’re right and they’re wrong. Because if they are a completely unreasonable person they will not be moved by evidence or logic, and they’ll have plenty of “evidence” for their own point of view, which even though it turns out to be totally irrelevant or untrue when examined closely will let them keep the debate going forever. Plus if you get into the debate you’re just exposing yourself to further elaboration on why you suck (with footnotes and references) which is just more opportunities for the manipulation to sink into your brain.

        I think we all feel like if we ourselves are reasonable we’ll be open to criticism from loved ones, but if you’ve got someone vigorously gaslighting you they become a terrible source for valid criticism and you need to write them off completely as a safe source of insight into your faults.

        The other trick with getting you to defend yourself is that it can make you change your behaviour to prove them wrong. Simple example – there was a guy I worked with briefly who I was senior to on my team yet who constantly tried to tell me what to do and refused to follow my instructions that he was meant to follow as part of his job. I was calmly and politely assertive about it. He called me “scary” and “bossy” and a “hardarse”, with (I presume) the goal of making me be less assertive lest I be seen as a scary bossy hardarse. I largely ignored it completely, as if he hadn’t even said it, or if that was impossible would sometimes raise an eyebrow and say “really.” or “wow.” in the flattest tone possible before moving on (thanks Captain for this trick! It is magic!). This is easy to do with a jerk sexist coworker who I was absolutely certain was wrong and also an idiot. In my brain I was like “oh rly you manipulative turd BRING IT ON”. But when my mother does stuff like it it’s a punch to the gut, my emotions go crazy and I want *desperately* to prove her wrong and for her to approve of me and think I’m awesome. Yet the solution is the same, just harder to implement.

        No matter how hard it is to ignore, trying to prove a gaslighter wrong just plays into their hands. Suddenly, for example, you feel like you must be 100% independent at all times and that asking your mother for money would just prove that you are useless and can’t adult. But, actually, it wouldn’t. It’s not that unusual for sufficiently well off parents to help out their adult children occasionally.

        So yes. Do not engage. Change subject. Walk away. Hang up. Ignore those lines of the email in your reply. Pretend she isn’t even saying it. Just do not engage.

    6. “Boundaries are things no one but her is allowed to have” exactly describes my partner’s mother. And…I wish I had a magic solution but boy do I not. I will say though that as the partner of someone with a mother like that, I feel like part of supporting him is looking ahead to ways the boundary issues are going to be a problem in our lives and plan for it, so I really want to highlight the Captain’s points about how LW’s partner could be thinking about these things, doing the parts of supporting the LW that aren’t just saying “your mother is being unreasonable and you are great and things are fine” but also actively planning to avoid the big predictable fights.

  2. I am dealing with this too, although my parent likes to save up the zingers for right when they are leaving, which makes it hard to say “treat me with respect or leave”. I can’t offer any solutions, just the fistbump of solidarity.

    1. That’s terrible of them, and I feel like the perfect response to that situation is, “…and that comment just bought you [X amount of time] without my company. Bye!” And then don’t engage for that time period. Weeks, months, whatever.

      1. Because I am currently parenting a toddler, I am reading books about how to train people to do what you want! And one of the things my books suggest is to explicitly draw the connections between actions and their natural consequences. As in, “What you just said made me feel upset. I’m not going to feel like talking to you for a while, if talking to you makes me upset. Maybe I will feel better in [X amount of time]. If I do, I’ll call you then.”

        But also because I am currently parenting a toddler, a wise friend of mine told me that I should seriously consider how much I am willing to continue parenting my mother. Because my time and energy are not unlimited. And there have to be priorities.

  3. Oh also – there’s a scene in Erik the Viking that’s always stuck in my head when my mother treats me like a child. All the Viking warriors are getting ready to sail off and just before they leave one of their mothers runs up to her big burly son carrying a pillow. “Don’t forget your pillow! You know how you get when you don’t have your pillow!” and he’s all “Muuuum!” and dying of embarrassment.

    And that’s what goes through my head when my mother is insisting on telling me something obvious and that I’ve been doing for two decades without her help. “Don’t forget your pillow!” in the silly Monty Python-esque voice.

    Sometimes it helps to laugh. You can do it our loud too, if she’s saying something ridiculous. Laugh at the silliness and don’t dignify it with a serious response. Treat it like she’s joking.

    It’s not a universally applicable tactic, but it’s a handy one to have in your repertoire.

    1. I love that film! And I will remember laughter as a tactic, thanks! 🙂

  4. Oh wow. Moment of massive ephiphany for me with this:

    “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).”

    My father did this to me and I didn’t realize that’s what was happening until I read this paragraph. WOW. So eye-opening. Thank you so much. I’m estranged from my father right now (possibly forever) and it’s been so peaceful not to have to live with this kind of crap. The paragraph I quoted is so right on in describing some of what was happening. I was obviously meant to come across this today. THANKS CAPTAIN!

    1. Yeah, that was an eye-opener for me too. I recall how when I was a teenager, my mother refused to ever give me money “just because” – as in, “I want to go to the movies with my friends, can I have twenty dollars?” “No, if you don’t have enough saved up from your allowance, you can’t go.” Which, okay, fair enough – teach your kids that money doesn’t fall from the sky, whatever. But once I moved away from home, things changed. I never complained about being short of cash once I started supporting myself, yet my mother would insist on periodically giving me money that I didn’t need and even sometimes vigourously rejected. Take a cab home, I’ll pay for it. Get a haircut, I’ll pay for it. Go backpacking with your friends, I’ll pay for it. (I admit I accepted that one. Complicated feels on the subject.) In fairness, she doesn’t generally withhold help if I need it – she has financed some of my theatre projects, which I’ve always paid her back for, for example. But it feels really squicky how if I say something like, “I don’t want new clothes, I know you hate them but I like the ones I have”, she’ll immediately offer me some cash as a bribe to go shopping.

      1. For me, it was more of an issue (I think) of my father fostering my dependence on him and also him feeling needed. He was not there when I was a kid (parents divorced, he was out of country in military). I can literally count on one hand the times I saw him between the ages of 4 and 14. I think there was some guilt on his part about that. But when I read what the Captain said about fostering dependence, I thought “YES! That is exactly what was going on with my dad.” And in some cases, I was dependent because I needed the financial help, which made things even more murky and difficult vis a vis treating me like an adult. I was trying hard to be independent financially, but a lay off during the recession wasn’t helping that cause at all and finding work was a big old nightmare. Still, I felt that I deserved to be treated as an adult, that is respected for the fact that I’m not a moron who needs to be coached through life and that when I am able to fend for myself, I don’t need offers of cash.

        I guess this issue can get pretty complicated, but the fostering dependence thing just struck me like lightning. It’s just so right on.

      2. If she insists on giving you money, take it. Nothing says you have to buy new clothes with it — once it’s in your pocket, she has no control over it anymore. “Oh, Mother, I know you wanted me to buy clothes with it, but I told you, I like the clothes I have. Now I have less debt/new placemats/that relaxation CD I wanted.”

        1. I’m at the point where I’ll totally take my mother’s money or gifts (not that she offers a whole lot), because I know there are strings attached but I’ve learned to ignore and pretty much cut said strings. Which means her gifts are now useless as far as manipulation tactics go, and it rather tickles me to see her not get what she wants while being out some money! I don’t know if that’s revenge, but somehow I can’t seem to feel bad about it.

          On a less cynical note, really I’m just ensuring that her gifts are really gifts, like they should be.

      3. Ugh, aggressive generosity. I know it comes from a place of caring but it drives me fricking insane. My mum mostly communicates with me through the format of “do you need [insert thing I have never asked for or indicated I needed]?” Then she will get pissed off when I suggest having a conversation that doesn’t involve her insisting on buying me random things that she has suddenly decided I “need”.

        1. “Ugh, aggressive generosity. I know it comes from a place of caring …”

          But it doesn’t. It comes from a place of controlling.

    2. My friend’s parents do this in a super toxic way. He is trying to be estranged from them and they are not respecting the boundary. One of the ways they do it is by showing up and giving him money. I asked him if he can just refuse the cash and he says it’s impossible and that their likely motive is to guilt him into supporting them in their old age later. He is otherwise financially independent.

      1. He should put all the money in a savings account and if they ever come to him later, he can say “Here is your money back. Good luck.” 😀 \not entirely serious

      2. If he doesn’t need it, he could donate it to a charity they don’t like in their names, especially one that will send them a thank-you note.


        1. This is brilliant, especially if he makes it clear that this is what he’s doing! (P.S. is your nickname from PJ and the Olympians? Because, badass.)

    3. My parents agreed to give me money each month to support myself and live off campus after on-campus drama drove me off because they did not want me to take on any more student loans. The terms of their agreement were that I would maintain my good grades. Not even a couple of months later, after several very heated disagreements (politics, religion, etc. – conversations I tried to avoid that my mom would pick fights with me about), my mom threatened to stop giving me the money. Because my mother was completely unreasonable, I ended up talking to my dad about it. I told him that my grades were good, and that was the agreement, so it was not ok for her to keep threatening me this way. He agreed and said that she had no right to do that. After she threatened again, I told him in no uncertain terms that if she ever did it again, I would never talk to her again. He hemmed and hawwed, but I stood my ground and informed him that I would take out additional loans if I had to and cut her off completely. I don’t know what he said to her, but she never pulled that stunt again, and once I finished college and went to graduate school, I made sure that my loans were sufficient to support myself without them.

      Also, my mother used to be able to see my accounts (she could put money in, but not take anything out) and every time my account got too low for her, she would put a couple hundred dollars in “because you were too low!” She would constantly hound me about my financial situation (student aka not a whole lot of income between loan disbursements) and ask, “well, where did that $X go??” and if I didn’t give the right answer, it would spawn an argument. I didn’t realize until about a year ago that I could have them both removed from my accounts (I thought I would have to shut down my account and get a brand new one), which is the only reason I let it go on so long.

      I started my own business, and now they constantly ask about my business financials on top of the personal. I just tell them, “good/great” and move on. I don’t dare share any of my doubts or worries because they blow it out of proportion and try to offer me money that I “don’t have to pay back” but always comes with strings.

      My mom also pulls this manipulative financial crap on my sister. My mom was so desperate for her to break up with her boyfriend at the time (he was not a good fit and ended up being a jerk too) that she offered to pay for all of my sister’s moving expenses and to help her get set up in a new apartment. Then came the move and I went up with my father to help her move. My father passed along EVERYTHING about how messy it was, how my stuff she had, etc. and how my sister was spending one last night with the ex before moving out. My mom got pissed and started ranting about how “dangerous” he was and “omg, I didn’t pay all that money for her to stay with him!” and on and on it went culminating to “she better not dare ask me to help her move EVER AGAIN!! I AM THROUGH!!!” [First, dad is the one who makes the money; two, she didn’t actually come up to help her move or help coordinate in any way.] I heard everything from the other room and immediately went over when he was done with mom and told him in no uncertain terms, “Dad, mom agreed to help [sister] move. If she didn’t want to help, she shouldn’t have agreed to. Also, she has no say over [sister’s] actions. [Ex-boyfriend] has shown no signs of violence, he is just a bad fit and a lazy partner, so [sister] is not in danger, therefore that is not a valid argument.” He reluctantly agreed with me and there was no more drama (that I was privy to) with the move. I also informed my sister about the gist of the conversation and reminded her that if she really needed someone to support her, I would be there for her without strings and judgment. [She still confides in my parents, whereas I have the limited contact – I have no drama and she has a ton.]

      Although I only found this blog more recently (and through my sister, I might add), I have been following the Captain’s advice since college. I change the subject once or twice then I walk away/hang up. I never hang out with them by myself, I always make sure my partner is with me or other family members are about. I have explicitly stated my boundaries (i.e. “this [topic] is off limits from now on”) and have enforced them consistently and have made it clear that I can and will cut my mother off completely if she does not respect my boundaries. It took three years of therapy and a life coach for me to really feel confident setting and enforcing healthy boundaries, but my life is so much better now. I am working for myself, doing what I love with an awesome partner in our own space AND I still hang out with my parents in small, controlled doses. Although it makes me very sad when I think about it, I am always on my guard around my mother and I have finally realized that SHE WILL NEVER CHANGE. It was the hardest thing for me to finally accept, but I am much happier now that I do.

  5. I used to be in LW’s shoes for a while and it took me several years to shake away my mother’s worries.
    During years I used the technique of “sparing” my mother: while I was doing my masters, she was going through a rough time, my siblings were giving trouble (I’m the eldest, responsible girl), and I thought that telling her that my master project was a bloody mess would not improve her depressive state, because then she would begin to worry about me not finishing it. So, during some time I only told her things that were making me happy. And, guess what? It didn’t work. It even got worse. My mother began putting together the story that I was going to leave my science masters to turn into a Bohemian writer, and suddenly her very best friend wanted to have “private talks” with me to make me reconsider my life decisions (“stop writing, only study, don’t go out with those new friends, keep your mother happy”).
    Shortly after I moved away to another country. Not far away enough, though, to avoid regular phone calls that were used to scrutinize my line of action and being lectured about how I should handle or have handled things. I used the distance to give a try to the strategy of “tell her the details she wants to hear even if it might momentarily upset her”. It didn’t work either. For example, I told her that I wasn’t going to be able to finish my Phd within the three years, but that I had enough money to survive one extra year and was happy that I could spend so much time working on it. I found out later that she didn’t believe me about my savings, that I was too naive and optimistic, and I found it out because, again, her best friend called me to discuss how I was spending money.
    My mother’s friend is a sensible person, and after this charade, she gave me the advice to tell absolutely nothing about my daily decisions to my mother, unless those decisions have already been taken and there is no return. “I have done this. Not open to discussion, it is in the past. Change of subject.” My mother will rant about it, but what’s the point of worrying for something in the past? The conflicting point is when my mother discovers something (because of my brother or FB) before a decision is taken. In these cases, my strategy is to use the “oh, didn’t I tell you? I thought I did. I must have forgotten to mention it when that was actual, I have too many things in my head…”, but never the “I didn’t tell you because I knew we would have THIS conversation, and frankly I would rather spare myself of being forced to listen about how you would have handled things and I am dumb and…”, because then my mother would rant about The Issue, about me not trusting her and having to get to know things about me from other people AND me being cheeky.
    The point now is that I have achieve the point that I am conscious about the fact that she will worry about everything, and that because of my attitude she has to worry additionally about me not telling her everything. But at least I have been digested that I cannot say anything without her worrying because any direct or obscure implication, and I have been able to dissociate worrying my mother with me feeling responsible for it.

    1. The fait accompli is extremely useful, as in, I have moved to Chicago, here is my new address. I have started graduate school. I have moved in with my boyfriend. Etc. Etc.

      1. That’s how my husband and I announced our engagement to all the parents: we are getting married on this day in this place. Hope you can join us. It didn’t completely eliminate the unsolicited advice, but it did reduce it.

        1. Yes, this is how I’ve decided I will handle any announcements if/when my husband and I decide to have an actual wedding ceremony (we did a courthouse marriage; we’re considering throwing a party too so we can invite friends and family and, well, have a party!). People are such assholes about weddings, so we talked and agreed that if we do have a traditional-style wedding, the approach for 95% of the invitees will be “We are having a wedding! It will be at Place X at Time Y on Day Z, hope you can join us!”

          There are about a half-dozen people I would go to for planning advice or to talk through problems with, everyone else can mind their own business and either attend or not as it suits them, but they get zero input on the event.

          This is also how I have handled my decision to return to graduate school for a second master’s degree this fall. “I am starting a master’s program in Sept.” It’s a fait accompli, it’s done. So if whoever I’m telling thinks I’m wasting money/time/making a bad choice, they can think that, but it’s not changing what’s happening.

    2. I could have written this comment a few years ago. My parents were very controlling people and deliberately played my sisters and me against each other. I was the favorite child on rare occasions, but usually I was the one getting screwed in favor of one of my sisters (since I was also the oldest child and the responsible one). I developed the habit quite early (to avoid being told how badly I was ruining my life) to tell my mother only the most trivial things that were happening in my life, both the good and the bad so she wouldn’t think I was holding out on her. So every week, I would have a conversation, about half an hour long, about what I’d had for dinner or whose birthday was coming up or that the neighbor’s dogs had knocked over my garbage can again. I felt I could handle her criticism on those things because it was just everyday stuff, not really personal (even though she did her best to make me take it personally).

      In my case, though, my father developed a debilitating disease that took most of my mother’s time and attention, and suddenly our conversations became more adult. She tells me stuff. She asks me questions. When I visit (and provide respite care), we sometimes stay up talking about all kinds of things until the wee hours of the morning. I think we are slowly developing a better relationship. I don’t forget the past, though. Ever.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is, LW, your mom is unlikely ever to change. But sometimes a miracle occurs and change does happen. Set your boundaries and be vigilant with them, and if someday your mom does have a personality transplant, you will be in a position to use the opportunity wisely.

      1. Thanks, I’ll bear this in mind. I try to keep conversation to the weather (hey we’re British!), my parents’ gardening, food, things like that. But every so often she’ll try to interrogate me about my PhD (and tell me how to do it). The thing is she only really takes an interest if she thinks things are going badly. When I’m excited about what is going on in my life (academic or other) she will often change the subject to something about her (often the garden) or just plain won’t listen.

  6. “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.”

    This is exactly how I feel, even at my absolute most destitute (not that we weren’t on poverty’s doorstep with my parents, so I was used to the hungry and the cold).

    I mostly lurk here, but I wanted to say thank you, Captain, for telling your story today, and validating everything I’ve been trying to do in my life for the past decade. Thank you.

  7. LW – firstly, I think you’re awesome for putting your partner’s wellbeing first, and I hope that he finds a new job soon.

    You didn’t mention if you have siblings, because I find mine are invaluable in support when telling my mum things she won’t like and over the years we’ve found a few ways that help:

    – Tell her stuff when at least one other sibling is there who will be ready to talk up the positives of the situation
    – Tell her stuff along with the plan, so in this situation along the lines of ‘partner’s new job was awful so he’s left. He’s got various job applications in at the moment that he’s feeling really positive about, and we’ve looked at our budget so we know we’ll be fine for 3 months, and he’s looking at temporary jobs too’
    – Only tell her what she needs to know, which if you guys are watching your spending you may need to mention it.
    – Anything particularly contentious, I invite my mum out for coffee – that way it’s a public place to avoid any fireworks, plus it’s time limited and in a neutral venue, so it’s easy to leave at any time.
    – I’m single now, but previously when in a serious relationship I made sure I was clear about when I used ‘I’ and when ‘We’ to explain decisions or situations – so if you think she’ll come down harder on your partner, tell her that you we the first to suggest he leave the horrible job, or if it’s evenly distributed between the both of you that emphasis that it was a joint decision.

    Good luck!

    1. Thanks for the great ideas. As far as having my siblings around, it isn’t often feasible as most of our contact is by phone or email (they spend six months each year in another country and when they are in the same country my siblings live a bit too far away to have them at every meeting) but that does help. My sister was amazing the first time my mum told me that if I married my then-boyfriend we’d end up divorced (I could barely get a word out through the sobs!). For the second one, generally I am keen on this but I think I would find it hard to do this without sounding defensive and in my experience that has only made things worse. 😦

      1. It sounds really like it’s your mum having an issue with your husband (as well as generally being judgmental), but remember that although you no doubt want to protect him from the negativity, you guys are a team, so perhaps you need to have a conversation around ‘my mum is not going to like this’ and decide what you’re going to say/do together. With siblings away, if you wanted to invoke the ‘have someone else there’ tactic, you could always send a group email – ‘just wanted to update you guys on news… if you hear of any jobs in X sector, please let husband know’ etc – and pre-warn a sibling so they can send a quick reply-all saying how important it is to not stay in a toxic environment, perhaps even linking to an article – this one talks about the physical health impact, which depending on your mum’s view of mental health may be more relevant: http://www.webmd.com/men/features/work-stress

        In your situation I would probably avoid telling her what’s going on until I absolutely had to (though risking the ‘why didn’t you tell me before?’ angle), but only you and your husband can make this decision. If he’s likely to get something fairly quickly, ie there’s quite a few jobs he can apply for, he’s getting interviews etc, then it’s less of a risk. On a practical note, I don’t know where you’re based, but make sure you’re claiming any out-of-work benefits he’s entitled to, and if you can find any areas of spending you can reduce then your savings will last that bit longer.

        1. My partner and I make almost all decisions together already, including a lot of how I respond to my mum. Some of it is a case of “two heads are better than one” and some of it is knowing that I’ll have his support if there’s any fallout. Just generally our relationship functions better if we’re keeping each other in the loop at a minimum, and actively finding a consensus most of the time. However in this case I was just so frozen by fear that I needed outside advice (or at least to ask for advice) before I could really participate in making the decision. I actually told my mum a version of what was happening before my letter was published here because she’d asked a direct question about how the new job was going and I knew that putting off responding wasn’t going to help my stress levels.

          I might try the group email approach in future though, although all that is likely to happen is that I’ll get a phone call from my parents. To be honest my siblings have enough on their own plates so I don’t want to drag them into things too much, but I will bear it in mind in case it seems useful.

          We’ll look into benefits, but at the moment we’re not eligible for much because of my income and our savings.

  8. This hits very close to where I am with my mom and the demons of her expectations for me. Her need to have me be a brilliant awesome justification that everything she gave up in her life when she realized she was pregnant was worth it.

    I really needed to hear this right now.

    1. That is really difficult and I sympathize. I have a pretty good relationship (boundaries are good) with my mother, but I know she sees me as perfect too and I’ve had to gently explain that I am not perfect, please do not treat or expect me to be that way. I am human and I need room to be a bloody mess once in awhile.

      1. My mom used to see me as perfect. When I wildly deviated from her script of my life, things got pretty awful for a while. After many years she is mostly resigned to my not being the person she thinks I ought to be.
        When things go wrong she does love to point out how I wouldn’t have those problems if…

        Which is true. I would have different problems, but I’m content with the problems I’ve chosen.


    A year ago when Mr Neddy and I got fed up with landlords messing us about we moved back in with my lovely dad and utterly toxic and emotionally abusive mum while we sorted out buying a place. Like the naive idiots we were we thought we’d be there for a couple of months and it’d be easier than finding a short-term lease (particularly as we were so fed up with landlords) and we could save some money and. . . it was the stupidest thing I have EVER done. I realised almost immediately but we were always going to move house within a couple of months so we could put up with it. Except that stuff kept not going to plan, things got put off again and again and a year on my mental health has been completely shredded. I am a shadow of who I was before I moved back.

    And the really awful thing about this is I feel 100% responsible because it was my idea. I feel responsible for my misery, everything that Mr Neddy has had to do in looking after me and absorbing his share of the evil bees and the impact on everyone else in my life. I’ve absorbed way too much of my mum’s way of thinking (which is to blame her children for absolutely everything that ever happens).

    The good news is that my new house, my new lovely perfect wonderful house which is the best house in the world and utterly perfect for us, is becoming a reality – paperwork’s all done and we can move in in a couple of weeks. It floats in front of me at all times and I can’t even express the longing for the space, freedom and quiet. I want to say it was worth it because we have saved some money allowing us to have a bigger housing budget but the reality is that it wasn’t. I don’t know how to forgive myself for this mistake and I don’t know if I ever will.

    1. Wow, I’m sorry. That’s an awful situation, and I’m glad it has an end in sight.

      I don’t know if this will help you at all, but one of the things I’m trying to do to be kinder to myself is trying really hard not to judge yesterday’s decisions with what I know today. That’s not fair to “past-Kelly” because she didn’t have the information that “present-Kelly” has now. In hindsight, it would be easy for me to say, “Going to school planning to teach English was a horrible mistake because I taught and I hated it, and I should’ve picked up a fun and useful minor instead of those ed classes that I will probably never use again.” But college-Kelly didn’t have a crystal ball to look and see how miserable 7th-grade-teacher-Kelly was. I know it was a bad thing for me only because I did it and it turned out that way. It’s not like I had the information in front of me when I made the decision that I did two years later when I changed careers.

      The same way, the decision you made turned out to be worse than you had any way to know or reason to expect that it would be. Maybe it was a mistake at the time, even with only the info you had at the time, or maybe it only looks that way because you know how badly things ended up going. Either way, you made what seemed to you like the best decision you could at the time, which is all anybody can ever do.

        1. Neddy, have you talked to Mr Neddy about that feeling of responsibility? Because unless you are a really terrible partner who ignores any concerns he has and frightens him into not speaking, you both made that decision to move in, even it was your initial idea, and you both made the decisions about what the priorities were that meant you stayed there longer than you originally planned. If you guys are a team, you share responsibility for those decisions. I doubt he is blaming you (and if he is, he is being unfair!) and I don’t think you should blame yourself either.

          If you are a team, talk to him about this. I bet he doesn’t want you to silently blame yourself.

          1. I have spoken to him about this and he absolutely doesn’t blame me. In fact he thinks it was his idea (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, but memories can work like that). He’s always trying to persuade me that this isn’t my fault and he looks after me when I’m struggling with zero complaints. He is a very good husband. Trouble is that so many of my jerkbrain hot button issues are around not wanting to be a burden, not wanting to be too much work, and fear that I’ll ruin everyone’s lives by daring to be miserable. Since the jerkbrain stuff comes directly from my mum that voice is very loud right now and Mr. Neddy with his patient, gentle and soothing tones, can struggle to be heard over it.

      1. This is an excellent way of looking at things. I did exactly the same: thought I wanted to be an English teacher, went through my post-graduate teaching degree (tough but manageable, often enjoyable), qualified as a teacher… and hated it. It did a number on my mental health and it took me years to claw my life back. I stuck it out for far, far longer than I should have done because “I put in all this work, I can’t quit now!” The realisation that Past!Sparkly had made a decision in good faith that hadn’t worked out, and Present!Sparkly could make a *different* decision now seems a no-brainer, but it was HUGE.

        All we can do is make the best decisions we can with the information we have. People and situations change, and it’s okay that things don’t always work out.

        Neddy – I hope your new house is just as fabulous as it sounds, and that one day soon you’ll look back at Past!Neddy and know you did the best you could in a difficult situation.

        1. Neddy, I’m sorry it’s so tough for you, but this may just be a situation where you need a *really* long view to see what benefits may come from this terrible year you’ve spent living with your parents. Hang in there, and know that at least “next time,” you’ll have much better information to make a decision with.

          And Sparkly and Kelly are talking about common, irrational biases we human beings have about making choices, evaluating our choices and sticking to them. Some of the popular books out there about psychology and behavioral economics, of all things, often highlight these very well. And while, the actual feeling and living through the consequences of our choices is really tough, I sometimes find that once I have a “logical” explanation for why something has happened or why I did something, then it’s easier for me to begin to let go of the angst about it. (It takes a lot more than just that awareness, but the awareness helps.)

          And LW, I’m not sure if this applies to your situation, but it helps me think about my parents and how I’m an actual grown up now too. I think back to where my parents were in their lives when they were the age I am now. I’m am a middle-aged, single female, and when my mom was my age, I think I was almost ready to graduate college. She may not have had her life figured out then, but I don’t have any memories of her nor can I picture my mom asking her mom for advice about “grown up” things then. That means that I don’t have to go to my mom either, although I actually have a pretty great mom, so I might do it just because I want to hear her opinion. But I don’t do it because she’s the mom and I’m the kid and that’s the role we’re still playing.

      2. What KellyK said. Also, when I underestimate my parents’ crazy I console myself by saying, “well that was a mistake but I’ve learned from it and now at least I know I’ll never let it happen again”. My dad lives overseas and visiting him has been one long string of well-I-misjudged-that-royally-but-I’ll-put-it-in-the-“will never do again”-file. I always find a tiny bit of empowerment in that file. 🙂

    2. You can’t make yesterday’s decisions with today’s knowledge. At the time, it seemed like the best option and it probably would have been had it really been for only two months. But things happen and you couldn’t possibly have seen that coming when you first made this decision. Please do not be so hard on yourself and also get therapy if possible so you can talk through some of this. It sounds like a really hard year. Jedi Hugs!

    3. Major, huge Jedi hugs for you, Neddy.

      I hope you and the Mr. open your house, walk in, close the door behind you, and have a wonderful dance/cheer/laugh/cry/cheer again/dance again session for the sheer joy of being in Your Own Space. You deserve it!

      To the current unpleasantness: you are not responsible for your mother’s behavior. She thinks otherwise, but she is a grown-ass adult (just as you are!) and she can own her awfulness. You made what seemed like the least bad choice — and it may actually have been, you’ll never know — and you have survived and persevered and you and Mr. Neddy are soldiering on and NEW ROCKING HOUSE!! WOOO!

      Please don’t beat yourself up, is what I’m saying. This is a success story, not a failure story, and you and Mr. Neddy are the architects of that success. Good on you!

      1. We will. I have a week booked off work and the plan is to get everything unpacked and all the flatpack furniture set up, but at this rate I’m probably going to spend the whole week lying face down in the hall crying tears of sweet, sweet relief into the carpet. I’m getting more excited about the House Of Awesome every day. And you guys over here are also being very lovely. Thanks and jedi hugs to all 🙂

        1. Neddy, it is not your fault that your mother was a terror. You were strong in getting out of there whilst fighting off EVIL BEES rather than letting them sting you. And now you are going to enjoy your lovely new place, and heal, and you and your partner are going to go along being awesome sauce.

    4. oh, ack, how horrible!

      (At one point, my mother was traipsing merrily over some boundaries that I felt bad about enforcing because after all, free child care. Mr Hypotenuse looked at me and said “the cheapest way to pay is money”. It’s stuck with me ever since, and it’s a really useful mantra for whenever my mom just haaaaaaaas to do something for freeeeeeee that I could pay someone else to do. I open my mouth to say “yes” and my brain goes “the cheapest way to pay is money” and my mouth says “no, that’s cool, I got it”. I don’t know if that phrase might help you in the future, if for some reason the “it would save money to let Mom–” beast raises its head again, but in case it might…here it is for you.)

  10. This whole “you only have to have them in your life if you chose to”-thing is what made it possible for me to have any contact with my dad again. (Also that he got a lot easier to deal with after a near-fatal car accident helped a lot)

    I think it’s also quite telling when “my parent refrained from doing [something completely over the line]” is seen as a victory.

    1. Exactly! My mother went through this with her own mother when I was a child. My grandmother wasn’t happy unless she was griping about something, usually picking on something about my mom.

      We lived a 2-3 hour drive away, after living halfway across the country for several years, so we had gotten in the habit of visiting her for the weekend about once a month. My mom tried to talk to her for months about how her actions were making it hard to visit. Mom finally snapped, and mid way through a visit told granny that we were leaving because she was being so nasty. Mom further told her that this would happen at every visit in the future, and that if she kept having to cut visits short because she couldn’t refrain from being nasty, that we would stop visiting all together.

      I’m not sure, how they got on the topic of love, but my granny said, “I’m your mother, you have to love me.” My mom didn’t skip a beat and said, “No, I don’t.” and walked out. Granny shapped up pretty fast after that.

      1. My mother went through this one too, after she left my father (who was perfectly lovely and a wonderful father, and she was perfectly lovely and a wonderful mother, and they were SPECTACULARLY unsuited to each other) and was treated to a series of phone calls from her mother about ‘how can you leave that wonderful man’ (who she’d hated the day before) – catholic guilt, what will people say, it doesn’t matter if you’re miserable, don’t you think I’m miserable with your father, that’s life – repeat in an endless loop. My grandmother… loved her children with the fire of a thousand suns, but like the fire of a thousand suns, burned everything she touched. I think she genuinely believed that she had my mother’s best interests at heart, that she was trying to help. But the help she wanted to give was not the help my mother wanted or needed. Mom took it for a while, hoping to get her to understand and support her decision, but finally said fuck it: “It’s done, it’s not going to change, and if you keep talking like this you won’t see me or your grandchild again.” *click*. She only had to hang up on her twice. It wasn’t easy between them after that, but it hadn’t really been easy before either, and now Mom was holding the trump card, which helped a lot.

        I’m proud of my mom for a lot of reasons, but probably that most of all, because now as an adult I understand exactly how scared she was and how hard that was to do. But she never regretted it. And if that really was the end of their relationship, she would have been sad, but she wouldn’t have regretted that either.

    2. I know I don’t have to keep in touch with them, and I seriously considered stopping talking to them a few times in the last year or so, but I would at least try to build some sort of positive relationship. And I think that I will learn a lot from trying to enforce boundaries. But it is nice knowing that if it all goes totally pear-shaped I can drop the relationship, so I definitely get what you say.

  11. Hard time reading all that without crying. All the FEELS.

    Just jedi hugs to LW and to the Cap. Can I just say that Jennifer I hope you are enormously proud of yourself for what you do here. My mind boggles at the time and energy you put into creating and maintaining this space. It’s a feat these days to find any place on the internet where the comment section is positive, engaging and kind, which can only have resulted in a lot of work on your part, quite aside from your wonderful advice.

    If I ever had any influence on anyone who would spend this sort of time and energy helping others in such a disinterested way, I would be proud beyond words. What’s actually there is far better than the imagined ideal!

    If a potential fairy godmother said “One day your daughter will grow up to create a space where people can talk about their problems, be heard, and be given solutions that encourage better mental health and well-being. A community will grow around this and people will use this to find great help through their worst times. This, she will do in her spare time, while holding down a job and doing a shit tonne of other awesome stuff.”, most potential parents would say “dream a little smaller!”

    I’m also glad that you are as far away from being Claire Underwood as humanly possible!

    1. AMEN. I have learned SO much from this site about how to interact with others in a healthy way, and I’m sure many others have too. ASD runs heavily in my family and we all struggle a bit to relate to others, but the positive side of not knowing this stuff instinctively is that you can choose where you want to learn it from, and this site has helped with pretty much every element of my social skills. That’s something the Captain should be immensely proud of (although I’m sure there’s plenty of other stuff too).

    2. Hi Captain, I just wanted to say thanks as well, and say “Hear! Hear!” on this comment. Your contribution to the art of advice has helped me trememdously through some very rough patches in my life over the past year. I would be gleaming and glowing with pride if my (theoretical, non-existent) children grew up to contribute to the lives of others in the way you have here.

    3. Wanted to second and third the appreciation I feel for Jennifer. Long-time lurker, here, but I’ve still applied some things I’ve learned. At other times, I ask myself, “What would Jennifer say/do?”

      THANK YOU for all your hard work and spelling out your thinking and feelings and putting YOURSELF in your advice. It’s priceless and lovely!

      1. Yes! I’m the type people come to for advice sometimes, and I often find myself thinking WWCAS (What would Captain Awkward say?)

    4. I’m a lurker here, and I’d like to third or fourth or whatever-th this comment. This place is so incredibly helpful even as a reader/non-participant. Thanks so much, CA.

    5. Ditto what everyone else said – Jennifer, have been reading the site for about two-odd years, and ever since I discovered it my life has improved immeasurably, and in most ways directly as a result of hearing you over and over hammer in that I get to be treated with kindness and respect if that’s what I want from other people, and that I *can* actually be at peace with my life. You’ve done a truly amazing thing here. =)

    6. I’d also like to chime in. Ever since I found this site it has been an invaluable resource for me and I have learned so much. I often spend an hour or two just going through the archives and soaking everything in. If one of my children was helping people the way that you do I would be immensely proud of them. I think you’re amazing, Captain!

    7. Also just wanted to say thank you so much for doing this blog, Captain. I don’t comment here very often, but I love the community here too. It’s one of the few places either in meat- or cyberspace where I can say I feel safe to be myself. People get it here, and in no small part to your efforts. Thank you, thank you, thank you 🙂

    8. I believe I’ve said this several times on recent posts, but I am also so grateful for this place. By the time I found my way here I had already figured out some things about boundaries and healthy relationships through therapy and reading elsewhere, but it was all still new and scary. This community and the Captain’s wisdom helped me so much to put these new, scary ideas into practice in my life, and I am so much better for it.

    9. Yeah, absolutely. It sucks that your family might not be proud of what you’ve done with this site, but I think it’s marvelous. You put so much of yourself into what you write here, the comment section ISN’T a shitfield, and reading columns here has really helped me get my shit together in a lot of ways, and recontextualize a lot of what I’ve struggled with in the past.

      I’m not in a position to be proud, but I’m in a position to be grateful and want to give you a huge high-five.

    10. I second all of this. The Awkward Army is an amazing community and I frequently lurk here for inspiration and courage. Thank you for leading and hosting, Captain.

    11. Very true, especially the part where we applaud Captain Awkward for the enormous amount of what-I-assume-is-mostly-behind-the-scenes work she puts into maintaining a civil and engaging comment-space.

    12. I also want to say thank you. I’ve been reading for a couple of years and this blog has had a huge impact on how I think about the people around me and the relationships I have. I love your work, and I love the community here. I’ve said this before somewhere, but I find reading CA really soothing especially when I’m very anxious, because it feels so safe. Thank you so much.

    13. “This one time, at Captain Awkward…” is my constant refrain when hearing about the troubles of my friends–I direct them here. Or send them links. Sometimes unsolicited because I worry for them so much. (Oh no! I am becoming one of THOSE people!) So I am trying now to be better about their boundaries and asking if they’re interested. But this is such a great space with such good information and insights and sharing of stories…I want to share the love at every opportunity.

      Thanks Captain!

      1. Yes, same! I send so many people here. My friends, even my mom! This space is so great, I’ve learned so much. Captain, it breaks my heart that your parents wouldn’t be proud of you for creating it, but considering the bits you’ve told us here (and on other posts), I can sadly see why that would be.

        Thanks Captain, and the Awkward Army, for being the wonderful, courageous, supportive group that you are. ❤

    14. Yes! All of this! I recommend CA.com to others all.the.time, especially to people I love who are struggling with boundaries with toxic people/parents. I’m like, “The Captain is your people. Go over there and get some advice and courage and love.”

      Recently an issue came up with my fiance that really troubled me and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I thought, maybe the Captain has covered this. So I did a search through the archives and lo and behold, I got some GREAT advice that set my head on straight and helped me tackle this issue (which turned out to be My Stuff to Get The Fuck Over, and not His Responsiblity To Fix My Feelings like I’d previously thought). So, thank you heaps for that. And all that you do, all the time, to help complete strangers make their lives immeasurably better.

    15. Seconding this and what everyone else said. Everything I learned about How To Do Emotions and Healthy Relationships, seriously, I learned here. Thanks so, so much.

      1. I learned all that stuff really late in life, at the same time I was learning to be a teacher, so my metacognition was high.

    16. The Captain and the Awkward Army have helped me in so many tangible and intangible ways.
      I honestly cannot imagine my life without this site…or rather, I don’t want to.

    17. Cap, you have built an amazing and supportive community and helped so many people. LW, you are dealing with a difficult situation and handling it well and thoughtfully (not least by asking for appropriate help!) To both of you, I so sincerely hope you have someone in your lives who can say to you, “Your parents should be proud of you. I am proud of you in their place.” You deserve it. ❤

    18. I just want to, er, 23rd (?) this. This is one of the nicest places on the internet, and I think you’re amazing for what you do.

    19. Word.

      Yesterday, my ex literally asked me, “Would it be awkward if [I did a foreseeably awkward and hurtful thing]?” And I stood up for myself and l said “Yes, it would be awkward.” I expressed myself, my preferences, and my experiences. I stated consequences, but I did not forbid things that are not mine to control. I didn’t say the really hurtful and cutting things that I totally could have.

      I earned my adulthood cookie (made from self-respect, with cinnamon sprinkles on top), and I credit you and the community you’ve fostered for the fact that I had so many good tools to do it.

      ❤ to you all.

  12. “It’s a sad bet at seriously the saddest poker table, but sometimes it’s the hand you have to play.”

    <3, Cap'n.

  13. This is… uncomfortably familiar. I know for myself, my mother has a story in her head, and will flat-out ignore any information that doesn’t match up with it. This is how I’ve ended up surprised by some “facts” about my family’s life.
    Like “Brother will never be able to drive, because of an eye condition.” (News to him, and as far as I can tell, never backed up by any doctor. The condition is real, but several uncles in the family have the same condition, and can drive just fine).
    Or like “You’re only friends with Good Male Friend (who happened to be Best Friend’s Boyfriend) because you want him for yourself.” (News to me!)
    Or “You don’t love your boyfriend. You have affection and sex. I can see you mistaking that for love, but he should know better!” (I still haven’t figured out how she came to that conclusion)
    I’ve been told to drop my extra-curricular activities, because as a grown-ass adult, I was clearly going to drop out of school, because having friends takes up too much time.
    I’ve been in the position of not being able to tell her anything that goes wrong, because she’d take it upon herself to Worry. Ultimately, I decided that she doesn’t need to know anything that I was planning. And, though I love her dearly, I don’t think she’ll ever be the one I’m going to for advice. I can’t count on her to trust me, and I can’t count on her to say anything useful. I can, however, count on her to try to control what I do.
    LW, you really don’t need that. I’m firmly in favor of not telling her anything she doesn’t absolutely need to know.

    1. Oh

      Are we related?

      As in, no matter that you can state, and prove beyond doubt, that the color black is indeed black, Mom thinks that it’s actually white, and nothing, NO-THING will dissuade her otherwise?

      Also, the worry thing.

      ALSO also, Mom is apparently ‘very sensitive’ and yet, and yet, and yet…when it comes to anyone else’s needs, wishes or opinions, she has the sensitivity of a brick?

      Must stop now before this turns into a moan-y rant.

      1. Wait, wait, wait…is there a branch of my boyfriend’s family that isn’t thoroughly rotten and toxic? Because damned if this isn’t his grandmother, particularly the “very sensitive” bit which is not at all true, because genuinely sensitive people don’t favor-shark, lie about others, or spend 90% of their conversational time tearing others down. And God forbid anyone talk about or do anything she doesn’t want (in her mind; actually telling anyone anything ever would be wrong, because WE SHOULD ALL JUST KNOW MAGICALLY OF COURSE), because then we are literally killing her and she will go to the hospital and it will be because someone fixed a light snack or talked about something stressful in their life at the moment. The toughest part is, weirdly, the way everyone knows she’s this way but still insists on being on the “she’s a sensitive little saintly snowflake” bandwagon. Sooooo glad we’ve decided to part ways, forever, with his whole family in the coming month.

    2. Well this sounds familiar.

      I have a brother who has never moved out of home (he’s in his 30s) and has never really worked. My mother is worried about this, but won’t do anything constructive about it because she gets to keep him permanently in her clutches. The excuse is fascinating though – when discussing asking him to pay board as a prompt to get him to get an income she mentioned that once as a small child he stole something from a shop and as a teenager he had drugs one time and now if she cuts him off in any way he’ll turn to a life of crime.

      This is absolutely hilariously bizarre if you know my brother at all.

      The extremely bizarre reasons she comes up with to think bad things about her own children that mean we’re not able to be responsible adults are mind boggling.

  14. “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”

    I both hope for and fear this response. It’s like … if she does respect the boundaries, then is she going to be fun to be around? I honestly can’t picture it anymore. I’m not sure I know who my mother is without all the negativity and the “the things you like are dumb and only dumb people would waste their time like that.”

    On the other hand, if she did violate the boundary again, it’d be like I’m FINALLY justified in saying she doesn’t listen to me. She hasn’t respected the first few “I am not discussing this OH LOOK BEAN DIP” so why would she suddenly start even if she knows the consequences are me just refusing to talk to her anymore? Because allllll those other times aren’t quite enough for me to say “this is the final straw” and feel like I deserved to be able to say it.

    “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).”


    1. Oh brother.

      So I read all the advice and the comments and was like “Yeah, these are good strategies that maybe I shall try.” And then I click over to Facebook and see a nasty passive-aggressive comment from my mother … on my daughter’s status.

      ARGH. GAH.

    2. I have found, and this is going to sound horrible, and I know it’s not for everyone, that actually admitting I hate my mother has fixed my desire/need? to give her chance after chance after chance, only to be disappointed again and again. That’s what it took to get me to it being ‘enough’. Hating my mother. That sounds really sort of malicious, or overly passionate? but it really is a case of not giving a fuck. Yet it’s still hate. She is an evil person. And on some level I think it’s right and correct and good to hate evil. I am not (particularly) rude to her, but I don’t trust her even a tiny bit, not to have any kind of regard or caring or love for me, but also not to tell me the truth at any given moment (she is a liar many times over). I think I had to get it through my head that I hated her before I could stop sliding back into ‘well maybe she didn’t mean it that way’ or ‘maybe I’m not remembering that correctly like she says’ (helloooo gaslighting!) or ‘she’s not really THAT bad is she?’ It’s kind of the end of the road, really, but I have to say I am immensely grateful I got to this place. It’s a little sad, but more for the *idea* of having a decent mother rather than feeling I’ve lost a decent mother, because she has never really been decent.

      1. I think I’m getting there. At least, a couple weeks ago I had a conversation with my therapist and she said “What do you get out of a relationship with your mother?” And … I couldn’t answer it. Nothing good? Not support? The occasional partner to go wine-tasting with?

        The contrast is all the more pronounced because Mr. Bells’ parents basically poop rainbows. EVERYTHING I do, or any of their kids or kid-spouses do is just amazing and wonderful and they couldn’t be more proud. The difference is astonishing.

        1. Isn’t it awful to just be baffled by questions like that? My own therapist asked me to tell her about one good memory I had about my father. And I couldn’t do it, either. I did eventually think of one, but it was more than a year after I quit therapy.

          On another note, I’ve always loved your username here. That’s one of my favorite poems. It’s so graceful.

    3. “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).”

      So much this. Apparently I have totally invented memories of traumatic, ugly, awful fights with my parents, and especially the nasty things they have said to me… because I’m a bad daughter and just want to hurt them? To the extent that they do acknowledge some unpleasantness between us, they prefer to remember it as all the fault of my evil ex-boyfriend (who they disliked because they felt he controlled too much of my life and had too much influence on my opinions/decisions. OH THE IRONY.).

  15. I moved to the Fuck Its when I was about ten years old. It’s a wintry, cold, high, lonesome place AND IT IS MINE and I love it fiercely even as it breaks my heart.

    Captain, “the Fuck Its” gives me a name for where I live, like Cait describes. Thank you.

    CA is the other place where I live my life and thank you for that too.

  16. It seems like there are a lot of us in this boat. No good advice from this quarter, alas. I haven’t seen my mother in five years–for me, scrambling across the bridge she set on fire when I was little and then letting it collapse behind me was the only way to survive. Every time I’ve shouted across the gap since, the response has been pathologically abusive, so I just stopped. Hopefully your situation is more remediable than mine.

    Lots and lots of sympathy and support though, LW. I hope you are able to come to some kind of resolution that allows you the peace of mind you deserve.

  17. (My system crashed halfway through leaving this, so hopefully it didn’t already go through and is just paused somewhere; I left it for a while to see, but it looks like it got completely taken out. Glad I copied it.)

    “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.”

    This is almost precisely the relationship I have with my parents–specifically my mother, but I’ve had to generalize to both of them–and it makes me sad but I feel like I have no choice, because a person who doubts my choice of partner actively and audibly four years into the relationship, who questions my choice of leisure activities, who refuses to equally weigh my needs with theirs, who doesn’t think my chronic heel issues are a real thing, who clearly doesn’t much like that I’m queer and my friends are queer, who comments on my weight or hair or diet EVERY TIME I SEEM THEM, well. That is not a person I am going to tell when I am questioning gender or thinking about moving or dealing with a death. I just can’t. It’s lonely but I just can’t, and I don’t understand how my partner can talk about these things to his parents, because how can you trust them not to throw it back in your face?

    It’s taken a long time to be willing to walk out of conversations and rooms but I’m there right now; I haven’t had to do it yet but I’m ready. I’ve also got “Can whatever issue you have with my clothes or hair be fixed in five minutes or less with the materials at hand? No? Then we’re not going to discuss it.” which I know will work in my specific situations, and may be useful for some of you. It really only works if you’re away from your house, but we generally are; I cannot make my hair grow longer or change clothes (subtext: look more feminine!) or lose weight in the middle of an outing. But I can like, snip a loose thread.

    ALSO so pleased to see Hero and the Crown and Maur as an example; I suspect some people are not going to take the caption seriously but it is 100% accurate to the book in a Very Important way, you should read it. Aerin is like the archetypal conflict between Ideal Heir and Actual Person, and how it affects her and her entire country is amazing.

    1. This sounds so much like my situation. I *love* your tactic of saying “can it be fixed in five minutes?”! And I will try to track down that book. 🙂

  18. “I don’t feel bad at all about saying “-let me stop you right there. How about, 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.”

    This is the high five I am giving you right now: http://drmcninja.com/archives/comic/8p39/

    “And this is a conversation you need to have with him, using actual numbers, like dates and accounts and amounts of money and goals”

    YES. Make a plan. You will feel so much better if you have a plan in place. It may sound odd but using a business project plan may be useful. Part of a business plan is writing down things like your values (things you won’t compromise on), resources, restrictions, risks, etc. so even if you don’t know what you should do, writing down what you have and know is a good starting point. Knowing what you can’t, can, and won’t do will help you figure out what you should do.

  19. The following answer is not necessarily the right answer for the LW, or even anyone other than me, but —

    you don’t have to speak to your parents. You don’t have to like them. All or parts of your family can become “somebody that you used to know” or whatever level of separation you’re comfortable with, like “visit once per year” or “talk every month” or whatever.

    This was revelatory to me. (Shut up spellcheck, that is so a word.) I was stuck in the “they’re FAAAAAMILY” loop, but honestly it’s no good if they make you feel terrible. You deserve to feel good.

    She doesn’t like your “weeds” in her garden, that’s cool. Just remember that one person’s weeds are another person’s roses. She’s allowed to have a rose-free herb garden or dahlia garden or tomato garden or whatever if that’s what she wants; or she could choose to enjoy the roses in her herb garden and get on with life. If she doesn’t, well, then she’ll have to adjust to the new garden wall that is throwing her some shade.

    1. I see what you did with that garden metaphor there, and I love it. LOVE.

    2. Seconding this. You aren’t obligated to have any relationship with your mother at all, period.

  20. Also, LW, if you feel any need to art yourself into feeling better may I recommend a couple things?
    -Brave (okay, I understand a lot of people thought it wasn’t radical enough and had too much motherly psychodrama, but I really liked it)
    -Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
    -Divine Secrets of the Yaya Sisterhood (book, not movie)

    I have set up my garden close to the River of Imperfect Reconciliation. but firmly in the Fuck Its. Thank you for this explanation of the history and culture of the Fuck Its, Captain. This was very good timing. I’m in a major cycle of boundary setting with my Mom while she fires rockets of “But why can’t we just get along?” over the river. And I need to inform her that i’m going to be living with my partner, which she’s not against for religious reasons but I’m sure will come with a heaping side of “what about your future and are you being responsible?”

    1. CN: economic privilege

      LW, another thought to make the Fuck Its less barren and lonely. Is there anyone who could provide support, stability, and a safety net who aren’t your parents? For a long time my primary safety net was my Mom, who is emotionally abusive. Now my main safety net is my Dad, and my secondary one is my maternal grandparents. These are the people who its safe to ask for a place to live and financial help when I need it. it makes the Fuck Its feel a lot less dangerous.

    2. Brave made me sad, wishing that my mum would come around and get over her need to direct everyone’s life (she does it to so many people but it’s worst with her children). Tangled did hit a little close to home! I haven’t seen/read the other two so will give them a look sometime. 🙂

      Weirdly my mum was surprisingly supportive about my partner moving in with me a while ago (pre marriage) despite my parents’ religious beliefs, but I think she was secretly thinking that if we lived together we’d be more likely to break up – well that didn’t happen! Either that or she knew it was something she couldn’t stop.

  21. “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).”

    That sounds like an amazing story, maybe for AskaManager!

  22. Sometimes, otherwise well-meaning people will hear you talk about moving to the Fuck Its and say, “But! But! But! You’ll never have a chance to repair your relationship with your (whoever) if you stop talking to them/stop seeing them/move and don’t give them your address/etc.”

    Here’s the thing. I never had that chance in the first place. My stepmom never showed any long-term interest in fixing things. I wasn’t choosing between a healthy relationship and none at all, I was choosing between an emotionally-abusive relationship and none at all. There was a time after I’d established my own life as an independent adult when my stepmom seemed to be trying to fix things, although that could simply have been a reflection of the lack of power she had over me. But time and time again, she slipped back into her old ways, so I bought a plot of land in the Fuck Its and built a house there.

    And it has been wonderful. Not a small part of it has been that I benefit from a seriously-rigged game – as a straight white male with well-to-do grandparents, society (and not-abusive family) helped me through my stupid periods trying to figure out how to be a responsible adult much more than it would have helped others – but I can’t really explain how great it was to not have to put up with constant crap from my stepmom. Ever. Again. Another benefit of the Fuck Its is that they gave me time and space to build my life to a point where I felt better about myself and what I was capable of doing, so that the next time I was in a place where I would cross paths with my stepmom, I had a bigger shield: a better job, a nicer place to live, a solid circle of friends, wonderful cat(s), etc. Each thing that was good about my life gave me power to care less about what she said and took away some of her ability to make herself feel better by making me feel worse.

    It doesn’t always work out that well. But for a lot of us, keeping things the way they are doesn’t work out AT ALL. You don’t have to pack up and move to the Fuck Its immediately, and you don’t even have to visit for a weekend … sometimes, it’s enough just to drive through them for a few hours, just long enough to put up a small fence at the edge of your garden and see how your mom reacts when she comes over to “weed”.

    1. This–“I wasn’t choosing between a healthy relationship and none at all, I was choosing between an emotionally-abusive relationship and none at all.” is SUCH a good way to frame it. Thank you!

  23. “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.”
    This is lovely. I mean, it’s horrible, but it’s lovely to me right now. My mom is currently trying to “heal/mend the schism between us” (her words) and I just don’t want to. I mean, how many decades worth of shit does she want to uncover? She has a veeeeery unique memory of our relationship and history (in defiance of all reality) so it’s not even possible to deal with our shit. As far as she is concerned there is no shit there. Well, no, there’s the “shit” of me dealing with severe depression that she never acknowledged, the “shit” of me not being perfect and obeying everything she said.
    So no, I’m not up for that.

    I love this post. I’m going to read it again tomorrow.

    1. How can your mum expect you to heal from something she’s still denying happened? Sounds like she lacks an understanding of what “healing” actually involves. (Specifically, acknowledgment of the f*cked-up shit she did.) I second your “nup!” response.

      1. From what she’s said I think she thinks she has offended me somehow recently and I’ve been unfairly holding it against her. So the healing she wants is for me to “forgive her” of that insignificant slight and stop being unreasonable.

  24. I love this letter and your response, Captain. I have had successful boundary-setting with my own mother and it´s taken me YEARS to get to the place where the fucks I give are none.
    The pivotal moment for me was when my mother was going to flake on an hour-long outing with my youngest daughter, long planned in advanced and looked-forward-to by child to go drive for six hours to MAYBE get to see my little brother play football. When she told me this I broke down and told her (shaking and sobbing and voice quivering, very messily told her) that I had had enough of this. When you do this, I said, it hurts me, it makes me feel like you don´t love me or value my presence in your life and I am your child too and I deserve that you love me. I deserve that my mother loves me.
    My mom´s reactions were quiet, she apologised and behaved for a period of time but that´s not what´s important.

    It was just sooooo great to SAY HOW I FELT. I told her she was out of line and I told her and myself that I mattered, that I would take a stand for myself and that I deserved better.

    I don´t know if it helps you at all, LW. My mothers behaviour has not changed that much in the long term, but I cut way back on contact, stopped expecting things from her and started shutting her down whenever she started. It hurts, but it hurts a little less each time, I find. And the world does not explode and she doesn´t disown me if I speak up for myself and my children. It works for me, what I do, and helps to create a little world where I can feel safe in my communication with my mom.

    Also: I heartily second (or fourteenth) the recommendation for the “Will I ever be good enough” book. It changed my life. It was super-hard to read but it is good.

    And therapy helps me a lot too 🙂

    Take good care of yourself LW and the best of all the lucks to you.

    1. “It hurts, but it hurts a little less each time, I find. And the world does not explode and she doesn´t disown me if I speak up for myself and my children.”

      This is so important. So many people fail to realize that a hole will not be ripped in the fabric of the universe if they stand up for themselves. Mom will be mad…SO WHAT? She will deal. She may say some nasty things, she may be awful, but it will not kill her or anyone for you to stand up for yourself. So often there is this fear of dealing with the person’s crap that you just let your pain simmer until it erupts into a giant pus filled boil because God forbid, mom should be upset.

      Good for you for saying enough is enough Hildur Ýr and for continuing to make your very worthwhile presence known to your mother. ROCK ON!

  25. I first of all have a question to people who have read Will I ever be good enough?: Is it very gendered – because it specifically says “mothers” and “daughters” – or would you say it works just as well regarding fathers and sons?

    I can only look at this topic from the outside (I come from a really good family although I’m somewhat estranged from my father, but that is more of a general “We don’t really have anything to say to each other” thing, not an abuse or even only dislike situation) but I feel this is still very valuable to me because I’m nevertheless tangentially involved in a Bad Parent situation:

    I don’t know my little sister’s boyfriend’s father personally, but from everything she and bf have told me, he’s horribly emotionally abusive towards him and enjoys making his life a living hell.

    They (sister and bf) graduated last week. Contrary to my sister, bf already knows exactly what university he’ll go to and what he’ll study, so there’s really no need for him to stress himself out for the next three months, he could just lean back and relax. But apparently, yesterday his father told bf that he “needs to get a job by tomorrow” (so, today; wth?). That in itself, well, pushy for the father of an 18 year old (who already has a sidejob), but not horrible per se. However, the “reason” for his needing to find a job RIGHT NOW absolutely blew my mind: “So that you know that the way you treat me won’t get you anywhere in real life.”

    This man constantly manages to rock my world, and not in a positive sense. Poor bf basically spent 18 years defending himself from a father who thinks belittling and being nasty towards him is the best thing ever and now he is the one with the attitude problem? Yeah, no.

    Bf has a surprisingly “normal” worldview, like, thankfully he doesn’t believe something’s wrong with him or that his father’s behaviour is normal or in any way okay, but he was so relieved when he got with my sister because apparently her and my family are the first people to ever really side with him? And he’s so afraid and often cries because it’s too much and it breaks my heart even though I’m not actually super close to him.

    I seriously feel so much rage towards that guy, I can’t even comprehend how someone who actually is in this kind of situation must feel. My jedi hugs go out to all of you brave souls. Additionally, I love the captain’s advice, as always, and will continue to talk to my sister about the stuff I learn here (I’m kind of the go-to person in my family for these sort of crises because I read a lot about it and try to absorb and learn everything I hear from survivors to pass it on to others in my life). I’m pretty sure bf already is in The Land of Fucks already but good advice surely won’t be wasted.

    1. The book is very targeted toward Daughters/Mothers, for sure. Daughters often carry a more “you will be the good one/caretaker of everyone’s emotions” than sons, and a lot more of the “You will be the reflection of me” from Mothers, specifically, so the book digs into overall dynamic and the gendered aspects. An alternate rec is The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists.

      1. I found “Toxic Parents” by Dr Susan Forward to also be helpful. It’s not gender specific, and is broader than the books that focus on narcissim (though those are also super helpful).

      2. I liked “Children of the Self-Absorbed” by Nina W. Brown.

        And if you have a whole-family, multi-generational “web” of difficult persons to entangle and want a therapist’s textbook on it: “The narcissistic family: Diagnosis and treatment” by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman.

        The single, most important thing for me was reading the case reports in these books and realizing the manipulative tactics as such – because we all are so used to being e.g. gaslighted, we don’t recognize it for the horrible thing it is.

    2. Oh jeez, fathers and sons like that are awful, partly because there’s so much societal crap behind masculinity that says this is “normal”. If there’s a good resource out there for this, I’d love to know it. (I wonder if “Why Does He Do That” is worth reading from a child perspective rather than a partner?)

      1. As far as I can tell, the stunts this guy pulls (surprisingly!) aren’t really something that have a lot to do with “masculinity” per se, but I do wonder if there’s probably a more overarching feeling of “I’m a man and this is my son so naturally I know what is best for him” at play (although a lot of what he says and does he openly admits isn’t because he has a twisted idea of his son’s wellbeing in mind but because he want’s to punish him [for existing!] and “show him his place”).

        I read WDHDT with my sister’s bf in mind and found that – from the limited perspective I have as an outsider – it does seem to fit a lot of situations bf is involved in really well.

        1. IMO the stuff described is about masculinity the same way weight-and-look policing is about femininity. It’s not explicitly about being male, but it IS about having to earn lots/be independent/play dominance games/not show emotion or weakness.

  26. “Fuck it, there’s no making you happy, so, I might as well please myself.”

    I got there but it took many years and a lot of self-doubt to be ok with it and not think I was some kind of terrible person for “not caring what my mother thinks”.

    Mom kicked me out of the house after reading my journal (something she “hated” and would “never do” b/c her mom did it to her) because she “just didn’t know who I was anymore”.
    There was so much bs around it – she hadn’t “known” who I was for a long time and it was not safe to be different than what she wanted me to be.

    In some of the talk around all of it, I said that I had known she would be disappointed if she found out some of the things I had done (and written about) and she said “and that wasn’t enough to keep you from doing it?” completely seriously and betrayed that I would entertain the idea of doing things that she would pick for me not to do.
    And I said “no”.
    I didn’t have any other words to put around it at the time, but I had the concept that in my twenties (and WAY before then), that doing things on the basis of “would this disappoint my mother” was not a logical, healthy way to lead my own life.

  27. I was going to quote something from the Captain, but the whole thing was so wonderful that I couldn’t decide what to quote. Thank you. It really means a lot to those of us who have gone through something similar, to hear you being so honest. And eloquent.

    I don’t have much that’s helpful to say, because I live so deep in the FuckIts that my mother cannot reach me at all (this has been surprisingly good, actually). But I know not everyone wants to move here; there is the rumor that dragons live in these spaces.

    1. I thought I would add a tiny recommendation for the classic, “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” which is not aimed at “gifted” in the school sense, but at how children are made to carry the emotional burdens of their parents. I never thought this would be helpful but Alison Bechdel (curse her cleverness!) got me to read it and it was very eye-opening.

      1. The “gifted” in the title is so viciously ironic–it’s “gifted” in the sense of “really good at being exactly who the parent tells them to be”.

        1. In the clergy, a lot of us are recovering “gifted” children with parents who put too much emotional burden on us too early. It can be a genuine gift in terms of our work, but also a really nasty and undermining one, depending on how we are trained to wield it.

  28. Sorry for any duplicate sentiments here, but boundary setting slash just straight up not telling your mother is probably the best bet.

    Long story short, my parents got divorced roughly 14 years ago (separated about 2 years prior to that), and my mother has still not quite gotten over it. Two of my three sisters have had a falling out with her, and I’m not the call-my-mother-every-day daughter she wishes she had. She’s been an alcoholic, in an on-again, off-again abusive relationship, bipolar, suicidal, suffering from victim-syndrome and for all intents and purposes I’ve come to realize likely has arrested development.

    There was a time about 5-7 years ago where I couldn’t have a conversation with my mother without it somewhere devolving into A) what a rotten a-hole my dad is (love him, BTW) or B) how Sister X and Sister Y abandoned her. My mom is a textbook case of “how not to interact with your children after divorce” and I was her subject. I quite literally had to do several times what the Captain has already advocated which is saying “If you’re going to talk about Dad/Sisters, I’m going to walk away. I want to talk about what’s happening in my life and in yours, and that’s it.” There were several occasions where I quite literally had to walk away crying or hang up the phone because it wasn’t worth the emotional energy.

    LW, if you do this, it may take some time like housetraining a pet, but you CAN get there. You CAN tell your mother, or anyone in your life, how to treat you by setting these boundaries. I think it’s much easier to deal with the “why didn’t you tell me?” questions on the back-end with our kind(s) of mother than it is to deal with the emotional drama and drainage that is updating them in real time.

    It might also be hokey, but something here reminded me too of a way I’ve learned to cope with my mom:

    “”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.”

    I’ve learned as I’ve grown and matured that these are my mother’s limitations. This is her/her personality, for better or worse. The zebra cannot change it’s stripes, to some degree, and the better that I can empathize with her, and forgive her for these shortcomings, the better, more workable (for me) our relationship will be. Much like the Captain’s description of parents having to grieve the loss of their idealized children, so too have I had to grieve the loss of what I had hoped my mother would or could be. She’ll never be the mom I go get mani/pedi with or take a vacation with or want to call weekly, let alone daily, because of her toxicity. I’ve learned to appreciate her for what she CAN give me, what she HAS done for me, and move on from there. I hope LW can navigate a similar path so as not to live in fear of mom.

    1. So very true about grieving for the parents that might have been (or the parents I need) and trying to appreciate the parents that are actually there for what they can do and have done. (Note that my parents are not toxic as such, and there are things to appreciate; it seems that is not always the case.) I think recognizing that there are things my dad is incapable of giving me is going to make it easier to keep a relationship with him going forward.

  29. This might be one of those times when it’s good to add ”in your opinion” in your head after every non-helpful, saddening comment said by your mom. Throwing the worry-ball back to her can help, The point is to put the fireball-of-disappointment back where it should be, right back at the person giving unsolicited ”advice” and refuse to buy into their idea of yourself. I like the ”Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man” from The Big Lebowski. If I can picture The Dude saying it, the better.

    It IS just their opinion. They don’t know what goes around in your head. They don’t know you as well as you do.

    1. Oh, man, this makes me think of the “In My Opinion” Judge on The Good Wife. For those of you who don’t watch it: she’s a judge who idiosyncratically makes the lawyers in her courtroom add “In my opinion” to every sentence that’s not an actual proven fact. Maybe people in these situations can imagine that they’ve got an imaginary In My Opinion Judge in their heads, banging her gavel and demanding that the lawyers acknowledge that it’s just their opinion.

  30. Oh, man, this post is what I needed to read today. LW, I really hope the Captain’s response to your letter gives you some support. I’m real familiar with the gross ball of conflicting emotions that comes with trying to figure out healthy boundaries with a parent, and how much of your true self you can safely share. It’s pretty clear that a lot of us here are, and we are in your corner. I wish you luck in building a nice fence around that garden of yours, with a beautiful, sturdy gate that only lets in people who are nice to you, and on your terms.
    I know a lot of people have already said this but: I am really really thankful the Captain has built this space. This was where I put a name to some of the things I’ve experienced, and the discussions about boundaries, and the art of no, and how to be nice to yourself, and to stop hanging out with crappy people gave me a map to get out of a really, really hard time and build a good life for myself.
    And for the LW– like the Captain, I finally reached a breaking point with my mom where I had to draw a bright, firm line around all the treatment I was not going to put up with any more. I had to say that I wasn’t willing to call anger and controlling behavior and undermining and name-calling love, and if she was going to keep doing that then I wasn’t going to stick around. I wish my mom was willing to hear that and reconsider, and be kinder, but it wasn’t. That was a hard lesson to learn. But I’m no longer afraid of making her angry. I am surrounded by love and people who are nice to me, and I know that The Worst Thing in the World can happen and I will be okay. That was a really good lesson to learn. It is so, so much better over here, LW.

    1. I am trying to learn that I can handle whatever comes my way. I’ve ended up in a weird tangle where I feel like I can’t handle things because I feel so undermined by my mother, which also means I’m not sure if I can handle trying to stop that undermining by setting and enforcing boundaries! But I know that staring at the tangle trying to find the end isn’t going to help and I just have to go in and find any bit of string where I can make some progress!

      Thanks so much for contributing and saying such nice things! I have to admit I’ve been a little overwhelmed by the kindness of the Captain and the lovely comments. 🙂

      1. Hi Terrified Gardener,
        many jedi hugs to you if you want them as you deal with setting and enforcing those boundaries!
        On the tangle you mention, I will say: set the boundary, even if you do feel undermined and not able to. It will be hard to say those words and it’s possible to be a mess while saying them and still say them.
        The magic for me was: only after I had said the words and set the boundary did I start feeling worthy of it. It wasn’t a case of “wait til I am confident enough to do it”, it was doing it that gave me that confidence! So I am rooting for you to take that plunge.

        1. Thank you! I have been reading “Feel the fear and do it anyway” which says similar things about confidence and I am trying to really absorb that message. And jedi hugs are very much appreciated. 🙂

  31. You know what – you don’t have to tell your mom. You are an adult now. You make your own decisions and live with your own consequences. Details of your life are none of her business any more. You tell her what you feel you want to tell her, and that’s it.

    Whenever my mother disappointed me with her reaction to things I told her, I stopped telling her. Things going tough at the job, relationships going bad, things I do and she thinks are “dangerous”… all of those fell off the list at one point or another. It’s sad but it’s her loss that she won’t have an insight into the better part of my life any more. I recommend the same. You don’t have to prove her that you are good as you are. You are!

    1. Did you get many direct questions? I am fine in principle with not telling her but I don’t know how to deal with direct questions without lying (which I hate because then I have to remember exactly what I said).

      1. With my estranged father, I spent a lot of time saying “That’s not any of your business, actually” to intrusive questions, sometimes alternating with the politer form, “Why do you want to know?” “Why do you want to know” is great because if you repeat it like a broken record instead of answering, eventually they have to break down and give you a reason, and then you can address the reason:

        “Just curious”
        “Oh, I never satisfy curiosity.”

        “I’m your mother and you should tell me.”
        “Well, no, actually, I shouldn’t; it’s really my business and partner’s business, not anyone else’s.”

        “I deserve to know!”
        “Oh, if we’re on to things we deserve, I deserve a mother who respects my choices! But if I can’t have that, I’ll have cake instead.”

        I mean, you can go as snarky as you want — I was pretty snarky with my dad before I stopped talking to him — but either bluntly refusing or diverting with a question worked really well for me.

        I had to train myself to do it, and practice a lot, though! Because when asked, my natural response was to answer truthfully, and to try to defend myself/Mr Hypotenuse/whatever was under attack at the time. I rehearsed things in my head for ages before I was able to actually do them out loud, in the moment. One thing that helped with that was making sure I took a deep breath and a pause for thought before starting to answer the direct questions, because it gave me a second to remember “oh yeah, I have a plan for this”.

        good luck!

        1. Thank you! Remembering to pause and practising saying responses out loud are now on my To Do list. 🙂

  32. I’ve been dealing with a lot of things that are kind of similar, though different. I’m disabled and it leaves me barely able to leave my home and unable to work. I still depend on my parents financially in order to live, though I am in my late 20s. We’ve worked out some things that help, like giving me a flat amount of money to use for my own finances and letting me manage those. That is really good because before that my mother used to argue with me over every charge of mine on the credit card and I started starving myself because I was so stressed out even spending money on food. So now things are improved some, but I still get really depressed thinking about my probable future. My mom has said on multiple occasions that she would never “actually” cut me off financially, but that doesn’t stop her from using it as a threat or implied threat all the time, whenever she wants me to do a certain thing. I really empathized with the part where the Captain wrote about trying to hash out stuff in conversations with parents, only to have them forget what was worked out and go back to doing things the same way a while later. In the past, sometimes after months or years I’ve managed to build up enough courage to confront my mom about something, and after all the stress and exhaustion and crying, we’ll seemingly work things out, and then a few weeks later she’s right back to the status quo. Anyway, I don’t know that I have any advice to contribute, LW. But, I offer jedi hugs of empathy.

    1. Maybe you could try treating it more like a freelancer/client relationship? The best way to handle a client that changes their mind constantly after agreeing to something is to take thorough notes about the agreement, then email them a list of what was agreed on afterward. “Just to make sure we’re on the same page [insert stuff agreed upon].”

      That way you both have a record of what was agreed on and if you’re not on the same page, she has a chance to say so. Then whenever mom goes back to her old ways, you have documentation on what you worked out. If nothing else, it will give you a springboard to another agreement that is closer to what she can stick to.

  33. I want to nth the thanks to the Captain for this blog and the community around it.

    This post really resonated with me, as I moved to the Fuck Its probably as an adolescent. However, I want to add one caveat to moving there – don’t move to the, “Fuck It, They’re Right, I Will Never Be Good Enough” zip code.

    Like I said, I was really young when I made it there, so I didn’t have the adult experience of proving I could take care of myself or be successful or anything but the reality around me. But trying to meet their expectations was killing me, and so I used the messed up logic of the reality around me and “accepted” that I was probably a fuckup like they said.

    And this meant, any time something went wrong, I got rejected or an opportunity fell through, their voices, which have taken up some lodging in my jerkbrain, it meant AGAIN that they were right. I still have this tendency, even now, years and miles away, but I’m working on it.

    I am now a successful adult, I work a job that I enjoy, I’m becoming a recognized expert in my (somewhat esoteric) field, I have a loving partner and a community of amazing friends.

    LW, even if things fall through with your partner’s job and you have some hard financial choices to make (the Captain’s suggestions are great here), it does not mean that your mom is right. I feel like part of you is framing it right now as the Worst Thing in the World, but many people have financial struggles. I feel like there is a cultural narrative around financial struggles is that they should have known, or had more savings, or planned better, or something, basically, that they only happen to irresponsible people and you should be able to predict the future. (If you can – can you teach me how?).

    But if the Worst Thing happens, it still doesn’t mean you mom is right. It means you got into a difficult situation, and you had to make some difficult choices. It means, basically, you are an adult, not childish, not lazy or incompetent or anything. You are someone figuring out how best to live your life and take care of yourself when you’ve received faulty advice.

    I am currently working on accepting that I am Good Enough. I live in the Fuck Its, but I’m trying to stay out of the “They’re Right” region. LW, you are Good Enough – even if you aren’t perfect, even if you make mistakes. You are Good Enough.

    1. “But if the Worst Thing happens, it still doesn’t mean you mom is right. It means you got into a difficult situation, and you had to make some difficult choices. It means, basically, you are an adult, not childish, not lazy or incompetent or anything. You are someone figuring out how best to live your life and take care of yourself when you’ve received faulty advice.”

      Thank you!

  34. Much love, LW. And I’m generally not a shill, but I would love to shill for a best friend of mine who DOES make those kinds of cards, which I bet Awkwardeers would be hella into:


    One of my favorites is “You may be scared and a little crazy because of all the fucked up shit that happened when you were a kid, but you’re still lovable. Hell, I love you AND I like you.”

    Or the only apology that really works: “I’m really, really sorry I hurt your feelings. I’m a dick.”

    LW, I hope your mom gives you that one.

      1. Well, on reading through a few more I’ve found enough ableism and mean-spiritedness with regards to human anatomical and sexual variation that I don’t think I’ll be giving her any money after all. Some of the cards themselves are worth a chuckle, though..

  35. Dear LW:

    Oh my goodness! I so feel the “I can’t tell her, it’ll terrify her, worry her” and there’s that awful side of Then I Have To Talk Her Off The Ledge.

    But I have some slight good news to add to the Captain’s extraordinarily moving and helpful comments The good news is that it becomes easier over time to tell her that actually things are fine. And to truthfully and authentically say that things are fine and not what she expected. Sometimes it’s even possible to say that things are awful and it’s about you and not her.

    I also have a thought I hadn’t seen mentioned.

    Do you and your SO fear that she’ll call him unreliable? Because if you do, know that she might. Talk about it with SO, and have a plan for how you two will handle that kind of attack. But also, she might not. And that would be so relaxing.

    Please LW, don’t worry if you have to live in the Fuck Its. It’s not so bad here.

    1. She’s said a lot of bad things about my partner over the last few years, but she’s good at keeping things vague enough so they’re not totally ridiculous. I think my personal favourite was when she made it sound like a bad thing that he finds me attractive just as I am – no make-up, spots, chub, hairy legs and all. But the most common thing is he’s lazy and lacks ambition for his career. These are true but I don’t see them as damning in the way she does. And of course she never says anything to him or in front of him.

      I think my plan for if she says anything bad about my partner is to try the Captain’s “two subject changes then leave the conversation” tactic. Engaging with her on this topic doesn’t make any progress, in my past experience.

      1. Two subject changes and leave is a good plan. I have preceeded the subject change with “I don’t want to talk about this, let’s talk about something else” to good effect. I suspect that’s because it’s difficult even for gaslighters to ignore a clear statement. It puts people so obviously in the wrong. Even in their own heads.

        But I do mean it about if she says rotten stuff about your SO. Maybe write down all the horrible things you think she might say. That way you can examine them and defuse some of their power.

        To her you might try directly saying something like this:

        “Yes Partner is not particularly ambitious in career terms. So what? Now let’s talk about you. How did that doctor visit go?”

        I’ve found “so what?” is a very useful phrase.

        Meanwhile, Jedi hugs.

  36. Oh my God! I have a narcissistic mother!! Mymind.is.blown. I am not an ungrateful daughter who hurts her mother by … being me?

    Thanks, Captain. You are amazing!

    **long time lurker, just had to delurk as I had this revelation**

    1. True story: I bought that book and filled out the checklist and brought it to my therapist. He handed it back to me. “You missed a couple. Go ahead and check those, too.”

    2. While I don’t actually know for certain that my father has a narcissistic personality disorder (because I’m neither his [non-existing] therapist nor all-knowing), I deeply believe he does, and this revelation has pulled away the poison-soaked carpet from under my feet and made me see the lovely, wooden floor on which I can stand steadily from now on.

      I don’t even hate him, I just accept that he’s broken beyond repair and nothing I do or don’t will make any difference, ever.

      My mother has her own problems, but I know that she loves me and is/was crushed under his shit herself.
      To think, that all those years as a teen, I adored my father for all the sophisticated hobbies he had, while I despised my mother for not having enough time for me, while she worked full time and took care of my disabled brother… It’s so nice to see things for what they really are in hindsight.

      1. “I don’t even hate him, I just accept that he’s broken beyond repair and nothing I do or don’t will make any difference, ever.”

        Yes. This.

        I found out that my dad has an NPD diagnosis — long story about how I found out, but anyway, he does, and in a way it was…a relief? Like, I wasn’t some kind of fuckup for not managing to have a good relationship with him? In fact, a good relationship was probably NOT POSSIBLE and I should let go of any hope there and save all my energy for relationships where it WAS possible.

        It was so relaxing.

        When I cut off contact with him a few years later, I mostly felt…distantly sad for him. But not sad for myself or Mr Hypotenuse or our children. There wasn’t a real relationship there anyway, only drama and hassle that we’re all better off without.

    3. So, I knew that I had a narcissistic mother, but I had not seen this checklist yet. My mind is blown, nevertheless; it is like Dr. McBride was observing our household. There is only one item on the checklist that is even debatable. I have painful examples for all of them.

      I also have to echo all the thanks to the Captain for creating this safe healing space. It’s amazing to know I have so many virtual siblings who have done through such similar experiences, since I always felt like I was on the outside looking in to everyone else’s nurtured lives. Unfortunate that so many of us have had to live through these things, but I’m learning from all of your examples and scripts as I continue to set/enforce boundaries and heal and grow.

  37. LW, I feel you. I’ve been there myself (and still am there in a fashion). My parents aren’t as bad about it but it still affects my life a lot. When I was still living at home, it pretty much ran my life. I played sports because they wanted me to. I did extracurricular activities because they wanted me to. Hell, I went to university pretty much because they wanted me to. I just went along with it all because I avoided conflict to the extreme and I didn’t feel as though I had any better ideas. So as a result, I’m 28 now and I feel like I only really started becoming myself a few years ago.

    I was told that I needed to go on a diet and lose weight to get a boyfriend, that I needed to have perfect grades and be the smartest kid in my class, that I needed to be more social and more feminine, that my parents’ religion was the right religion, ad nauseum. My mother was slightly worse than my father. It was as though she wanted me to be a carbon copy of her, only younger. It’s really no big surprise that I was very depressed for several years.

    As a result, I started to live in the land of Fuck Its very early on. My parents don’t know much about me beyond the surface details. I imagine if I ever told them about my politics, religious beliefs, hobbies, and other things, they’d be very surprised by what they heard. And while there are times when I wish I could tell them more, I’ve realized that it is what it is. I can’t change them more than they can change me. So we just stick to surface topics and for the most part, it keeps the peace. An imperfect solution, I know. But it’s what keeps me sane.

    CA has some very good advice about just not telling your mother, LW. That’s what I would do. Let them worry about it after the fact, if they ever do know about it. It’s like when I was looking to buy a house and it seemed as though no location in my city was “safe enough” or “good enough” for my mother (except for the houses I couldn’t afford). I like constructive input as much as the next person but the fact was, she wasn’t going to be the person living there. So after months of looking at houses and them getting vetoed, I was tired and stressed by it all so I just picked out a house myself. You know what? She complained at first but then she came to terms with it. Maybe your mother never will learn to deal with it. But that’s her problem, not yours.

    1. Huge jedi hugs for you. It sounds like our experiences have quite a bit in common.Thanks so much for commenting.

  38. I know all mothers are different (because all people are different) and I think my mother’s ownership of my life was slightly different from yours(pl) but I did a thing which helped both of us this one time and maybe it will work for other people too.

    See, my mum would do this thing when whenever I had problems she would (sometimes in a joking but not joking way, sometimes in a totes serious way) turn it around into what a terrible mother she must have been in order to produce such a fucked up child. On the less joking occasions she would cry. She would justify herself because she was depressed and she was abused and it got to the point that I was scared of telling her when I was having problems because she would make it ALL ABOUT HER.

    So I told her off. She’d called me when I was in a therapy appointment and when I called her back she said “oh isn’t that funny! I called you when you were probably talking about me!” I asked her why she would assume I was talking about me and she joked that all of my problems are because she was terrible (this is her way of coping with the fact that things were really shitty for her when I was growing up and she took it out on us kids in terrible and inappropriate ways).

    And I said


    “I’m not going to pretend that everything you ever did was fine and we both know that you did a lot of things to hurt me when I was younger and some of those things still hurt.

    But I am THIRTY years old. And my problems? Are MINE. And whatever ways you may or may not have contributed to them in the past are completely irrelevant right now because I am a grown up person and and at some point in the past these problems became 100% entirely MY problems.

    “And I would like us to have a relationship where when I have problems I can ask you for support and because you are my mum and you love me of course you will support me. But when I talk to you about MY problems they are still MINE and I feel like whenever I bring up my problems you try and turn them into YOUR problems and you make it all about YOU and how it’s all your fault… and it’s really annoying and inappropriate and I don’t want you to do it anymore.

    My problems are MINE they are *NOT* your problems. THEY ARE MINE.”

    And my mother was stunned, she didn’t speak for a few moments; And then she thanked me.

    And I’m not going to say she never did it again but whenever she started to do it I would say “Mum, you’re doing that thing again where you make my problems about you.” and she would apologise and then she would stop.

    And I can’t actually remember the last time she did it and our relationship has been WAY better. And I am no longer scared to tell my mum when I am scared or sad or depressed and now that she has stopped feeling like my problems are a reflection on her she has been able to tell me more about her experiences with depression and been someone who *gets it* and doesn’t judge and tells me that I’m allowed to have problems and I’m allowed to ask for help. And now that she lets my problems be MINE she can actually help me with them iff I ask her to or just listen and let me know she understands.

    1. I am so impressed by what you said. I am definitely trying to take ownership in a way which makes me feel like I have the power to change things, rather than just attributing all my unhelpful thought patterns to things my mum has said and done. She doesn’t tend to talk about being a “bad mother” very often but I’m sure I can apply this to her worrying about me somehow. Thanks!

  39. I gave my dad the “behave appropriate or stop talking to me” ultimatum a year and a half ago, and he chose the latter (after a few half-hearted attempts to pretend that I never told him that something was wrong which clearly read as him expecting me to give up, stop complaining and come back). I’m not going to lie, it HURTS to know that my dad has decided that not being a parent at all is preferable to trying to be a decent parent. It’s not surprising given his long and proud tradition of total self-absorption and narcissism, but it hurts. Rejection, abandonment, feelings of worthlessness, all that good stuff.

    But I’d take no parent over a bad parent any day. I don’t regret asserting myself at all because that relationship in that state was destroying me, piece by piece. The last year and a half have been stressful, but full of growth and change as well. I’m very, very, very lucky that I am financially independent, that my relationships with my mother and sister and his side of the extended family are strong and totally independent of him. (And that the family in general has supported me in this.) It would be so much harder if I didn’t have that going for me.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it would take for me to accept him back in my life, but I’m starting to feel that the answer is… nothing. There are some things he might do that I might accept as an apology, but our relationship has been so toxic for so long that while the hole he left is deep and painful, it’s not terribly vast. He contributed so little to my life relative to all these other significant and wonderful influences that I’ve had, that now I’m starting to heal and move on I’m already feeling like there’s no space left for him here. Whatever we might have had, that time is past. I don’t know if he’ll regret that someday, but I don’t think I will, not really. Not in terms of my own actions.

    This is just my situation (and we’re talking about a parent who managed to be an absent father even during the years we actually lived together) so I’m not saying this as a prescription, just… for those of us whose parents choose to give up and walk away when confronted with a child’s boundaries… there can be life after that as well.

    1. “There are some things he might do that I might accept as an apology, but our relationship has been so toxic for so long that while the hole he left is deep and painful, it’s not terribly vast. He contributed so little to my life relative to all these other significant and wonderful influences that I’ve had, that now I’m starting to heal and move on I’m already feeling like there’s no space left for him here. Whatever we might have had, that time is past. I don’t know if he’ll regret that someday, but I don’t think I will, not really. Not in terms of my own actions.

      This was rather lovely to read, you worded it so eloquently! I hope I can get to that point one day with my father. You are right though, with time, and distance, and healthy, inward perspective, the hole does become a lot smaller and less significant to the sunny field around it.

  40. Different situation (the “leadership” at my job is totally unhelpful, dysfunctional, micromanage-y, and rude to boot), but earlier this week I wrote a thing that may be of use to some of you:

    Litany Against Giving A Fuck:

    I must not care. Caring is the soul-killer.
    Giving a fuck is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
    I will let go of all the fucks.
    I will permit the bullshit to pass over me and through me.
    And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
    Where the fucks have gone there will be nothing.
    Only I will remain.

    Best of luck to all of you in all your travails with Difficult People!

    1. Unlurking to congratulate you on an epic summary of the fucks given and a great literary reference. In my part of the Fuck Its, that’s going to be the new national anthem. I may also put it on tshirts so I don’t have to talk to the boundary amnesiacs, they can just read it.

      1. I’ve read it three times already today and copied it out on an index card so it can live in my purse, and it’s only 3:30pm.

    2. …may I please post this elsewhere, with attribution/link back here? Specifically, to tumblr? XD

  41. Naming the place as the Fuck Its is a nice image. Having moved into a sad little shack there by myself as a kid seems a lot less lonely when I can imagine it as a cold wilderness that I adapted to. I’m a veteran of the Fuck Its, it’s wilds are my home, and I have more knowledge and skill at the end of my spear than most will ever know. I’m a nomadic survivor, brave and wise. I am alone and callused and strong.

    Sometimes it helps to romanticize things like this.

    I’d also like to add my voice to the chorus of gratitude for this blog. It’s been so valuable to have a safe, educated, compassionate space that talks plainly about reasonable boundaries and that has a REALLY well moderated comment section. The Captain’s advice and the resultant community have been immeasurably supportive and important. I think we have all been growing in healthier ways since coming here.

  42. The one single thing that helped me the most in getting to where I could set these kinds of boundaries with my family was admitting to myself that my parents probably weren’t going to entirely approve of me or validate me or even be completely proud of me …

    And then realising that if we’re playing THAT game, frankly, I have a list of things they’ve pulled and decisions they’ve made that I am pretty unimpressed with, myself.

    And I’m a grownup now, and while they have to treat me nicely or leave me the Hell alone, I’m not anyone’s Validation Vending Machine, and nobody is mine. It’s a slightly softer place than Fuck It – I value their good opinion. But I’ll be fine without it, and whether or not I get it isn’t going to alter my choices.

    It’s a lot easier to set and enforce good boundaries when you get to where good boundaries is what you truly want, and all you truly want. It can be a very hard place to get to, but it’s worth it.

  43. I’m reading all these stories about terrible parents from the perspective of being a new(ish) mom. The one thing that nearly every parent I know has in common is that we all love our children fiercely and desperately want to do right by them. I doubt the parents in these stories were any different.

    How do so many parents get it so wrong? What can parents do differently to not turn into advice column fodder?

    1. See your kids as separate people from you is a good starting point. And don’t think of them as something you can optimize or perfect. Don’t see mistakes or failures as The End Of The World.

      Child abusers don’t wake up in the morning and think “I’ve got to hit the hardware store, the post office, and destroy my child’s sense of self. Oh, and buy milk. Sweet, delicious milk.”

      They think “I am trying really hard to be a good person, I’m doing the best I can, it would be so much easier if (victim) would just do everything I say so that they can be perfect. Why don’t they want to be their best selves (as I imagine that to be)?.”

      You will most likely be fine! Your kid expressing a different preference from you is not a threat to your authority and sense of self, right? Then you’re good.

    2. This is a thing that keeps me up at night. My maternal grandmother was … deeply damaged and damaging. My mother is damaged and damaging. I look at my daughter and hope that she and I will not wind up in a tangled mess of intractable resentment and anger. I have developed some strategies that seem to be working well so far. (Daughter B is 8 years old and happier than I ever was as a child.)

      1. I figure out the underlying reasons behind what I do. And I share those reasons with her and with my husband so that we are consistent in our parenting styles and decisions. When she was 4 and would badger us to swing her, we’d sometimes say “No,” and then if she persisted, we’d explain, “I have the right to decide what to do with my body. Asking over and over again is rude. Please stop.” That was a corollary of our “bodies are to be respected” underlying rule and we try to make everything consistent even when it’s hard.

      2. We’d respect her rights under those rules, too. (Even when it means letting her grow her hair past her butt because we respect her right to make decisions about her body. Mutter, mutter, the amount of money I spend on de-tangler.) Every single really dumb ass parenting mistake I’ve made was because *I did something to that didn’t respect her rights.* She didn’t want to go to X event for excellent reasons. I coaxed her into it. Everything went to shit. Or I knew she needed Y but let social pressure (usually from my mom!) push me into denying that for her. And everything went to shit.

      3. I found a sane person that had a similar parenting style and philosophy. She became my BMF (best mom friend). Motherhood was deeply and brutally isolating and boring for me until I found Jen. But a weekly playdate with her has been my lifeline. We don’t always explicitly talk about parenting, but we do a lot. We do “mom checks,” where “I think X, am I completely insane? Daughter is doing Y, I’ve tried A, B, and C. Do you have a different idea/approach/strategy?” There is so much incredibly stupid and horrible stuff in our culture, especially around mothering (and a super especially around fathering) that you need a Team You!Parent! to keep making sanity checks.

      An example: The pressure to Stop Nursing Baby B was enormous, constant, relentless, and vicious. But having someone I spent one day a week with who could say, “Hell no, why would you do that?” was unspeakably helpful. I literally would not be the parent I am today without Jen. She’s as much a part of my parenting team as my husband. (And, almost incidentally, our daughters are best friends.)

      Jen and I don’t parent exactly the same way. We are different and our daughters are different. But we understand that our goal is to respect the children as humans. Small humans who need help, but wholly complete humans who don’t get talked over or overridden.

      4. This was the hardest for me to wrap my head around: Parenting is a complex thing and it’s hard and it’s a skill and it takes time to learn. You wouldn’t start a new hobby like, say, knitting, and just assume right away that you can do it on a professional, full-time level right? You’d practice and take classes. You’d talk to other knitters about mistakes and learn how to fix them. You’d surround yourself with great knitters at clubs and watch how they do it. You’d dive into the subject and really want to understand it. Well, parenting is so much more complex than knitting! But we, as a culture, don’t really talk about it as a skill. We offer no resources or help or guidance. We just assume that if you have a kid and love them, it will all work out. That’s like handing someone a pair of needles, some yarn and saying, “have at it!” and expecting a wedding ring shawl.

      5. I read Captain Awkward. She’s helped me understand my relationship with my mom enough that I *think* (and hope and pray at night, in bed, in the dark, staring at the ceiling) that I won’t replicated the generational damages that have been passed down for at least four generations. It stops with my daughter, damnit, and that’s at least in part because of the Cap.

      1. DameB, thank you so much for such a moving comment. My partner and I have decided not to have kids, and my reasons are partly because I do not what to replicate any of the relationships I see in my family with my child, but you give me hope that it might be otherwise, were I to become a parent (which I still don’t plan to). And that hope, even if I never act on it, really means something to me, because the alternative has been quietly eating at me for a few years now. So thank you. 🙂

        1. {blushes} You’re welcome.

          May I also add an Internet Fistbump of Solidarity for your decision not to have kids? I know a lot of society puts pressure on folks to reproduce. I want to say that the first part of thoughtful parenting is giving yourself the space to make that decision and respecting it if you decide not to. Most of my friends are either really self-aware and dedicated parents or have chosen to go child-free. Don’t let society badger you into making a decision you don’t want to. (And if you do change your mind, Fist Bump of Solidarity for that, too! We can do better than our moms!)

    3. My (fantastic, excellent) parents have done a lot of things right, but one of the things my parents have always said that I’ve really valued is that they wanted to raise adults who would want to be friends with them.

      Not to raise credits to them, not to raise successful children, not even to raise adults who would be friends with them. To raise adults who would want to be friends with them, and whom they would want to be friends with in turn.

      It’s worked out pretty well, I think. All three of us are.

    4. My friends with children all joke about the money they’ve put away for their kids’ shrink funds. My parents and the parents of my friends growing up made the same jokes.

      Because here’s the thing: You will do things wrong. You are advice column fodder. That doesn’t mean that you’re a terrible person or a lousy parent. Despite my complaints, and our issues, I recognize that my parents did a lot of things right. They certainly didn’t do the wrong things their parents did. And you’ll do a lot of things right, probably everything important. You’re a person, and your children are people, and you’ll have points of disagreement. You will also remember things differently from them. They will be utterly convinced that event A happened repeatedly, and you will know for a fact that it happened on exactly three occasions.

      After all of that, even though you will be a fine parent, your children will have to separate from you. The separation will include casting you as all sorts of things you know perfectly well you aren’t.

      I say this as an introspective childless adult. My parents made mistakes, they harmed me, but by the time I was in my mid twenties I did know that the problems were mine to cope with, and that they’d done pretty well overall. Your children will know that too. Eventually.

    5. I would say also that when shit goes wrong you deal with shit. My parents had one go-to method of dealing with shit and that was to punish the kid and ignore the shit that was the cause. All of us were so screwed up and none of us ever got help of any kind. If your kid is getting crappy grades find out why. If your kid suddenly turns into a raging ball of temper find out why. If your kid cries at the drop of a hat find out why.
      You can’t punish kids into not having issues. Find out what the issue is and help them.

      1. “You can’t punish kids into not having issues. Find out what the issue is and help them.”

        I’ll just give an example of this, because it happened very recently in my life.

        My older child, who is nearly 5, suddenly began behaving erratically. Then violently. Then REALLY violently, scarily so, and having tantrums that lasted for hours and hours. I sometimes wore ear protection to bathe him and put him to bed because he’d scream at top volume the whole time. His erratic behavior increased, and increased, and he started complaining of headaches. He had an eye infection, which had been coming and going for a year (and we’d seen a bunch of docs about it, to no result), but we figured it wasn’t related (spoiler: it was totally related).

        After a few weeks of increasingly frightening behavior, we took him to the doctor. He had a bad sinus infection. Treating it solved 95% of the behavior problems, but after 3 days off the antibiotics, they started coming back, along with the eye infection.

        Eventually, it took six weeks of antibiotics, a nasal steroid, allergy meds, painkillers, and working with the teachers at his school to help him when the headaches became too bad (his school was great about this)….and he STILL might need surgery to fix the root problem. (It is an issue with his facial structure preventing his sinuses from draining properly, and some kids grow out of it, but some do not.)

        Punishing him for his behavior would not have done a lick of good. All it could have done was deteriorate our relationships with him, made things worse at school, and given him time to get sicker, and sicker, and sicker.

    6. Had a longer comment, but all my advice boils down to one thing: Don’t be afraid to go to bed angry. That was the biggest mistake my mom made, apart from all the other, y’know, emotional manipulation, foisting-oneself’s-own-issues-off-on-one’s-children things. Sometimes people argue just for the sake of arguing, or because they had a bad day, or because there’s something else going on they feel like they can’t talk about directly, or whatever. It’s okay to tell your child(ren) and/or partner(s) “look, I’m having a lot of emotions, you’re having a lot of emotions, let’s agree to put this aside until tomorrow at [convenient time] once we’ve all had a chance to settle down and get our thoughts in order, and we can have a conversation about it then.” My mother never grasped that. She made me sit down and talk and talk and retread the same arguments over and over again, no matter how late it got, until we had supposedly “”””worked things out, “” ” when in reality all that happened was that I learned to swallow my anger and say whatever she wanted me to say and display the appropriate level of contrition just so she would finally let me leave. I was very, very resentful of her for a very, very long time.

      Worries are awful things to have! But it is not the job of your adolescent children (really, your children at any age) to solve them for you.

      1. the thing that keeps coming up for me in this thread? “Wow, that was the same for you?!?!”

        Not quite the same impetus, but there was a stage where my mum and I weren’t getting on well (for too many reasons to get into here). And somehow we go into this routine of late night talks, where we’d go through “how things got to this stage”. This would start with talking about her crappy parents, then how that affected her parenting style, and her relationship with me and the other sibs and…would be very logical, feel like catharsis, and….happen again, nearly word for word next time. The first few times felt like “break throughs” – we’d pin pointed the “why” of things, but then….nothing would ever change…and the good feelings brought by that catharsis must have been very reinforcing due to how much the conversation kept on coming back.

        Eventually I said that I couldn’t have that conversation again, and was called unsupportive, and then would actively avoid any topics likely to lead to this conversation and was called uncommunicative. But I had communicated – my desire to not have that useless, draining, not-solving-a-damned-thing conversation again.

    7. I think that one of the things that can also help is if you give up the idea that there is a path your kid can take that will result in a pain-free, easy existence. Even if your kid does everything right (and they won’t, because they’re human), if they are raised with that idea in their head, they will learn to blame themselves for every bad thing that happens to them (because if they had done it right, nothing bad would happen!) It is not helpful, and in many cases it leaves deep injuries.

    8. This is something I’ve been thinking about, too. I don’t have children but want them eventually, and I’ve been unpacking a lot of my issues that I got from my family and our dynamics. My parents are decent people who have issues like people do, and our family has some dysfunctions that have affected me deeply, while still not being at all horrendous on the bad parenting scale. I also wouldn’t put my parents in the “bad parents category,” and they have always wanted to do right by me and my sister.

      My mom has said before that one of the hardest things about being a parent is realizing that, no matter how hard you try, you’re probably going to fuck up your kids somewhere along the way. And as hard as it is unpacking my family stuff now, probably any kids I have will eventually go through that as well, because I am imperfect and I’ll be an imperfect parent, and they’ll have every right to their process when they’re ready for it.

      There’s excellent advice here about how to do a really good job, but I think accepting that you’ll get some things wrong is actually really important. You’ll probably have to work some things out and let them have times of separation, and that will make them healthier people, and allowing them that will still be part of good parenting.

      Those are my thoughts right now, anyway. Best of luck to you.

  44. Aw, Captain. I’ve just started reading you and I’ve already learned so much (specially about how not to dump my feelings on other people). I love this one post because I did all the stuff here and it makes me feel great that I managed to achieve that. My mother was (happily!) not an incurable case but she was difficult. I live abroad and she came to visit once. My favorite anecdote is how when we went to a restaurant, she started to cry in front of everyone because her fish was cold. She blamed me for getting her the wrong stuff (I had to translate the menu for her and forgot that this one dish was typically served cold). She refused to order something new, she refused to have me eat her food. The only solution was for her to eat her cold fish while crying, while everyone in the restaurant looked at us wondering what I had done to hurt her so bad. It was so bad. She did stuff like that and other stuff and it made me feel horrible regularly. She judged and controlled my decisions and felt entitled to all knowledge about me. She is an intelligent woman, so she demanded the deepest insights to my personality and regular hour long conversations, as if she were my therapist. One day I refused to continue. After many many tries of having a long talk with her, she said she had forgotten all the talks we had had about my boundaries. She just outright said “We’ve never had that talk”. I said “ok, all our talks have been written and you can go back and read them. You can also go to a therapist and ask them how to treat your child once they’ve become an adult. Do not talk to me until you’ve done this and until you’ve understood how much you disrespect me”. We didn’t talk for 4 months. She tried to reach out but I wasn’t having any of it. After 4 months she understood that my right to my boundaries was not vulnerable to the fact that she gave birth to me. I was serious business and she knew she was gonna lose me if she didn’t shape up. Since then she has been perfectly respectful and careful. We have a good relationship. I almost can’t believe I am not talking about two different people here. Sometimes you need to scare the life out of your parents and make them treat you, like you said, like a coworker or neighbour for you to allow them to stay your parents.

    The not so successful part of this is that my method didn’t work with my stepfather. We haven’t talked in a year and a half. He refuses to acknowledge how he kept disrespecting me. He was the type of person who would talk about the good things in my life and throw them back at me as if I were evil for having good things happen to me. This sounds crazy and impossible but he did that. He would say things like “You left the country and made a successful life for yourself, learned foreign languages and abandoned your poor mother”. 6 months ago he wrote me saying he hoped that whatever drove us apart has disappeared by now. If this weren’t so sadly clueless, I would laugh at the irony (or at his undying consequence). Sure, dude, I am not talking to you, the person who raised me, for a reason that just dissolves into nothingness after a certain period of time. By now, I am not interested in having the least interaction with him. I bet it would be possible to have an occasional, superficial talk about the weather with him every 6 months, just to soothe his old consciousness and make his life a bit easier. But I don’t have the least will to pretend to be likeable and compassionate to someone who doesn’t have the smallest will to respect me. Not with him and not with anyone. My right to be a full human being is not a variable. It’s absolute, it has deep hard roots and it’s not going anywhere.

    1. The fish story is unforgettable. I’m glad she listened to you, at long last.

    2. “The not so successful part of this is that my method didn’t work with my stepfather.”

      But it did work. You chose not to have a relationship with him on anything but your own terms. If not having a relationship at all wasn’t the best-hoped-for outcome, it’s still better than having the relationship on his terms.

      1. Yes, you’re right. I guess that’s the part of me talking that still feels as if I were disrupting the order of the universe by not talking to a member of my family. To be honest, I am glad things turned out like this. I have discovered that I don’t like him as a person and that if he had tried to fix things, I would have felt obligated to give him a chance. I know I don’t owe him anything but it’s hard to accept that you don’t like the person who raised you and that you don’t want to relate to them even if they didn’t do anything wrong. He is actually doing me a favor by refusing to see my side of things.

  45. Oh my god LW,
    is your mum also my mum? Cause I everything you wrote felt so familiar it was like deja vu.

    A long while ago I decided on the course of action of “if I think telling you x will get a large emotional reaction from you, I will not tell you x (unless I absolutely have to)”. Would you believe many things weren’t passed on to her?

    She hasn’t gotten to know many things.

    She also doesn’t always get to know things in a timely manner because I’d wait for an opportunity where I had an escape route for if (when) it went south, wasn’t feeling too vulnerable, and wouldn’t have it even further exacerbated by her being in a bad place.

    Which lead to me being ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘unreliable’, but eh. you stop shooting the messenger, the messenger might bring you freaking messages.

    Which is a long way of saying: i feel your pain and wish you strength, a solid team me, a partner who will have good luck getting something that pays, and your mother to have an unusually supportive day when/if you tell her this.

    Good luck!

  46. I am only now reestablishing a closer connection with my mom after squelching it down for a few years. Long before that, there were topics I avoided if at all possible because even if I was just sharing what was going on in my life, she felt obliged to exert her Professional Opinion because she is an Authority on workplace safety. I didn’t want the lecture, and I didn’t want the workplace inspection by proxy, and I didn’t want her sending me literature on the topic. So I just stopped talking about anything vaguely work related. Now that I have an office job, that is much less of an issue. But I severely cut back on contact because of the toxic dynamics that escalated over time largely because of the terrible marriage she was in. I tried to be supportive for years, but decided ultimately, I needed to protect myself. Plus, she’s definitely an optimizer. And pulls that bullshit of “the struggles you’re going through are a reflection on my failure as a parent.”

    Finally, I started snapping at her on the phone when she offered unsolicited advice or in myriad other ways telling me I’m doing life wrong. So she backpedalled. There were strained and awkward silences in conversation. We stayed in the shallows of light, topical conversations and avoided the shoals of serious events, big feelings, etc. This went on for many months. The snap, retreat, awkward pause dynamic happened less and less often. And only in the last couple of months have I started to open up more. So I think it’s gotten better. But it will probably always be work and require vigilance.

    I wish you luck in mapping out a navigable relationship with your parents. I hope that you can do it, if that’s what you want. And if you decide to sail for distant shores, then I hope you can leave the dangerous reefs populated by shrieking eels without regrets.

  47. Oh with reference to the digs and complaints and threats
    My apartment was a hideous mess for a while. (This is something I was aware of, and one of the reasons was that I had internalized my mother’s hatred of being General In Charge of the Housework Army. My feeling was that at such a point as my then SO was willing to pick up the baton and become Marshall Cleaning Marshall our apartment would get cleaned) My mother commented, and “threatened” (in quotes because I never heard it as a threat) to come over and clean.

    One day I took her up on it. She showed up and promptly objected to the cleaning supplies, and my unwillingness to lend a hand. “But Mommy,” said I, “You said you’d clean.” She was game for an hour or so. She’s only rarely insulted my housekeeping since. (Perhaps five times in twenty years)

    The point of this story is that /sometimes/ calling people on their threats, even if the people are your parents, will help you and them to disengage constructively. I can’t judge your situation, but this experience says that things can get better.

  48. I don’t really have anything to add, but just wanted to chime in that I get you, LW (and everybody else). My father was very similar to this. His line was “I’m so sad for how you turned out, you were such a bright child, I thought you would do better than this.” I was drowning under a sea of his disappointment every time we talked. I invented job interviews / a fabulous job (I was actually supporting myself with sex work at the time, which was adequate income, so the lie was at least convincing), but even my lies were disappointing.

    I never bothered with boundary setting or trying to tell him how hurtful it was. I’ve always known in my gut that it would never work with him. I hope your parental relationship has a happier outcome, LW – and I suspect that in your gut, you already know whether or not it will.

  49. LW here, thanks so much for such an in-depth response. When I emailed in I felt a bit silly, like it wasn’t important enough to get a reply but I am so glad I emailed anyway. Thanks Captain and all the commenters for your Jedi hugs and kind thoughts. It means a lot to me that the Captain has been so open about what sounds like really awful experiences. I know I will be coming back to this post and the comments for a long time to really make the most of all the great advice. I’ve got a few responses to specific things said so I’ll get cracking:

    “Because if I am right, over time your mom’s extreme worry has led you to try to edit a picture of your life”

    Oh yes, so much. In fact alongside the situation with my partner I have suspended my PhD studies (not because of my partner, back in February I had a meltdown in a driving test which was due to months of pushing myself too far and getting increasingly anxious). She doesn’t know any of this. I’m due to go back in a few weeks however and it’s relatively straightforward to keep this quiet. I might possibly end up quitting the PhD, but like has been suggested in the comments, if I do that I won’t tell her until it’s all done and dusted.

    “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.”

    This is something that’s been a struggle for many years. At some points we seem to have had a better relationship but it’s never lasted that long. Sometimes I grieve for the authentic relationship we don’t have, but in the last year or so I’ve started realising that even without all these problems I don’t like her as a person and if she weren’t my mother I would have nothing to do with her, which doesn’t help.

    “You can’t control her feelings, and shouldn’t try”

    I am starting to learn this but it’s hard to unlearn so many years of habits. But every time I read something like this it helps a bit, so thank you!

    “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?”

    I have talked to my therapist about this, although we haven’t worked out a specific script. It was very much the non-apology “I’m sorry you feel that way” sort of thing. I think part of me has already moved to The Fuck Its, but it’s left some of me behind! I can make decisions without taking her feelings into consideration, but it’s after the decision has been made that I have the problems, the worry about her reaction, all of that, because I worry that she is right, while at the same time thinking I’ve done the right thing. I am definitely keen on the two-subject-changes-then-leave-the-conversation idea though. Sometimes I can get her to not give advice unless I ask for it by enforcing that boundary, but that doesn’t do much for the general worrying/blaming stuff.

    In fact I did inform my mother (over email) about our situation, or at least that the job had fallen through but he was looking for something else. My parents have been pretty restrained so far, but from past experience I know I’m not “out of the woods” as my mum has been known to be really quiet about something and then launch an inquiry just when I’m starting to relax! But I decided that if I didn’t tell them something about what was happening every contact from them would be really stressful as I would have to work out what to say (particularly because new jobs are always going to draw questions about how everything is going).

    Overall I would definitely say my mum is no way as bad as the experiences the Captain and many commenters have had, but she has still had a lasting effect on my self-confidence to the extent that I can’t shake the nagging feeling that somehow she’s right and if I do things which are good for my mental health I am in some way “cheating” or setting myself up for some kind of fall in the future, like if I stop worrying about what she thinks I will start doing stupid things.

    On to my partner. We are definitely on the same page about not taking money from my parents to deal with negative consequences of our decisions. We haven’t really talked about a Plan B other than taking whatever is available that isn’t hellish, so that’s something we should do. We have a really good idea of exactly how long our money should last and we’re monitoring the situation closely. I have an income that comes with my PhD place, although we’ll lose that for a few months somewhere down the line due to my suspension. I get some extra money from teaching and exam marking, which will help but I don’t have any other scope for increasing our income, due to regulations about how many hours students can work (quitting the PhD is a last resort but I’m not likely to get a job which will leave me much better off in the short term and will have major career implications). All decisions about jobs (leaving and taking) have been taken together with pretty extensive discussion and I am very happy about how we have handled this, even if the situation hasn’t exactly been pleasant.

  50. Reblogged this on Shadow in the Mirror and commented:
    Brilliant. How many years have I been struggling to realize my own voice matters, that it even exists? How many years of fear surrounding my stories going into the “mainstream” where I could be judged and derided just as I had when I was a child? How long was it before I finally rid myself of all those horrible voices in my head treating me down because there were so few people who had kind words or touch? I fought my way out. I started erecting boundaries. There is still so much work for me to do. I only realized recently a lot of my anxiety is tired to the fact that 9 times out of 10, perhaps even more, the people I knew hurt me, wanted to hurt me, and ignored me. The track record for human beings’ behavior towards me is atrocious. If I were just going by the msg there would be no reason to trust anyone, no reason to ever treat men with respect, no reason to live in a world that absolutely screamed at me that I did not belong. Captain Awkward knew the only way out is to do for yourself what should have been done for you before. To have and exercise agency is such a gift. It takes practice, especially when you haven’t been able to use it before. My stories are my story. Publishing it is letting go of all that darkness, fear, and trauma one book at a time. Thank you, Captain Awkward. Our hearts may pound, it may never get easier, but it is so worth it. We’ll know that we can. Bless you.

  51. Also: a quiet fistbump of solidarity to all of us for whom Rilo Kiley’s song A Better Son/Daughter is just a little too real.

  52. Oh gosh I love you for this answer, Cap. Because my mother can be awesome and supportive for months and then out of the blue will do something like tell me my goats are making my husband miserable and destroying my marriage (translation: she doesn’t want me to have goats because they mean I can’t visit her at the drop of a hat, she had not spoken top my husband about his opinions on livestock). Or will randomly question my competence as an adult because I don’t know, she’s bored or something.

    And when I call her on these things she cries because I’m mad at her and says she’s leaving to drive home because she ALWAYS does it while visiting me. And then I’m expected to reassure her that it’s ok she said something awful and manipulative. This last time was just after my husband got home from the hospital after emergency surgery and I was out of cope and found myself unexpectedly dwelling in the Fuck Its. So I went to the goat barn and she left but only went to a hotel and I just. Did. Not. Care. Which is probably why she came back the next morning with an apology and goat food.

    …so, uh, yeah. Stealing your script about “let’s pretend I’m an adult you like” because I foresee it being really useful.

  53. Oh Captain the FEELS. This was such raw and lovely advice and I want to hold onto it forever.

    And to the Letter Writer, this can be true in so many situations. My family is not nearly to the level that you are describing, but there are certain things where my parents have difficulty with boundaries and not feeling their anxiety about my life away from me, which is where their anxiety belongs. I have found, however, that some seriously abruptly enforced boundaries have helped my mother, who used to be the WORST at this sort of thing, to come to a place where we can actually talk about my life in a way that is helpful. Now, we’re working on my dad. It can be done (sometimes, not always), you just have to be willing to be really really firm about what you are and are not willing to tolerate.

  54. Adding to the chorus of greatful to CA voices, especially learning boundary setting. One may think that it’s a such a small thing to ask a mum to know not criticise your weight or your friend to stop using hurtful nicknames as jokes but they make such a HUGE difference to your life once you’ve enforced that boundary. Our inner voices of doubt and fear are fed by the outside environment and while a stranger’s comment may go past unnoticed, a close friend’s or parent’s comment will bug us forever because surely they know us best and they care for us. Maybe they do, maybe they aren’t malevolent, maybe they don’t mean to disrespect you and have our best interests at heart when they over-step our boundaries and try to take over our autonomies e.g. if you are exceedingly drunk and about to drive home. Aside from such extreme scenarios though their motivations actually don’t matter because they show you with their reactions that THEY DON”T TRUST YOU and since a relationship be it friendship, parenthood, love etc is a 2 way thing it’s no wonders that YOU DON”T TRUST THEM so if your mum ever accuses you of that you can say “I will trust you with my problems when you will start trusting me with my agency in regards to those problems”. That puts the ball back into her court, that improving the relationship with you is up to her improving her attitude towards you not about the fact that you need to stop backing away from her due to her attitude towards you.

  55. Dear Captain, thank you so much for this — it is the truest advice, and so necessary (and yet sad) to hear.

  56. This thread reminds me of “Mother, Mother” by Tracy Bonham


  57. LW, I could have written this three years ago.

    You’ve given me a gift by showing me I’m not alone. I hope it helps you to know that you’re not alone, too. We’ll find our small quiet rooms some day, I promise.

  58. Wow, like many others I really needed this post today, even though I didn’t know before reading it. It hit close to home, which is an extraordinary understatement. I’ve had a troubled relationship with my mother ever since I can remember. She did a lot of great things for me, I have no doubt in my mind that she loves me a lot and cares deeply about my well-being. She is also directly responsible for a great deal of true misery and refuses to even acknowledge it.

    The very thought, that she might – even unintentionally – have hurt me or otherwise negatively influenced my life is something she rejects out of hand as a personal attack on her integrity as a mother. My mother is a damaged person, I know this because compared to the relationship my mother has with HER mother, we’re getting along *fan-fuckin-tastic*. I suppose this has also somewhat skewed her view of “being a good mother”, because every confrontation we’ve ever had ends with some sort of accusation of me being ungrateful, her being a victim of my callous, horrific tendency to point out things she has done to hurt me and how she had it so much worse. Why am I such a horrible daughter? She never beat me, she never threw stuff in my face and made me live in a household full of dirt and screaming. How can *I* complain?

    As someone who is currently stuck living with this kind of person (thank god my father is backing me up) I can only advise you, dear Terrified Gardner to absolutely move to the Fuck Its. My experiences may be a little more… drastic, than the “worrying” of your mom, but at the core they are the same. They are about people, who don’t want to or cannot see you as a full adult. They are about people, who think everything in the world literally revolves around them. If I’m sitting on the couch being quiet, my mother will – if she happens to feel like I should be talking – interpret this as me “ignoring her”. The fact that what is going through my head is COMPLETELY UNRELATED TO HER does neither cross, nor process in her mind. Something that has taken me ages and ages to understand is, that people who love you, people who are toxic to you and people who you should not be in the same room with for prolonged periods of time on any given occasion can all be part of the same Venn diagram intersection. This is something I believe we struggle to understand, because our social narratives teach us that they are not. We’re taught to believe that when our families hurt us, we bear it because “they’re faaamilyyy” and that’s just the way it is. It doesn’t have to be.

    Please, this is my plea to you Terrified Gardner: Don’t ever feel sorry about lying to protect yourself. I had to learn this the hard way. Accepting that my mother was not a safe person, that she would take my information and use it against me when she happened to get mad, that she would refuse to help me when I was having a nervous breakdown because she thought it was outrageous that I hadn’t phoned for four days…that was hard. Lying to her protects me. Not telling her things keeps me sane. If you are dreading to tell her and it keeps you up at night,… don’t. Accept that she is not a safe person in regard to x, then keep x out of your relationship. It won’t solve the problem, but if it helps you to not dread talking to your mom maybe it’s worth it? Not giving information and making decisions without declaring them openly is a boundary. Set it and enforce it. You don’t have to justify it to anyone.

    I sometimes wish I could’ve set and enforced boundaries with my mother a lot earlier, it would have saved me a world (or several) of pain. Pain which my mother refuses to acknowledge it even exists, because she “doesn’t remember it that way” or because my pain is simply insignificant compared to anything she ever feels. It’s destroyed our relationship and my mother would probably be hurt and surprised to know that. I never told her, because… well… it’s not safe to tell her. Enforce your boundaries NOW. Pull a fence around your garden NOW. If you don’t do it now, fighting over it might leave nothing worth to salvage. I wish you all the best LW. If you have to, move your garden to the goddamn Fuck Its to save it. I hear there’s plenty of nice people living there.

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