#718: How can I be more assertive about last minute invitations from difficult family?

Hi Captain,
I’m wondering if you could give me some advice on dealing with my challenging Mother when I’m going through stressful times.

Right now I’m nearing the end of my Master’s degree, so I’m working long hours, stressed out, and have a lot to do (your posts on graduate life have been very helpful!). And today my Mom calls me to let me know that we’re having my Dad’s birthday dinner tomorrow (the next day). I ask if it could be moved to the weekend (as to give me some time to get a gift, and to just better deal with it in my schedule). She says no, and gives no reason. The dinner will only involve my Mom, my Dad, and me so it’s not a big deal where many people’s schedules have to be accommodated.

This is just typical behaviour for my Mom (my Dad isn’t perfect, but he’s easier to deal with). I’d say she has a lot of narcissistic traits (your recommendation of ‘Will I Ever Be Good Enough’ by Karyl McBride was also very helpful!). She makes everything about herself. I predict if I approach this situation in a reasonable manner, and say something like ‘Could you give me more notice for family events? Especially when you know I’m on deadline?’ it will cause a huge fight where she makes it about herself, and there will be no recognition of my needs.

My usual way of dealing with my mom is 1) emotionally distancing myself from her, and 2) being very passive and going along with whatever she wants to avoid a no-win fight (which is why I am now having dinner with my parents tomorrow night, showing up with no gift, then coming home and writing until God knows what hour to make up the lost time). It would be really great if I could mix in some assertiveness in there!

I don’t want to make things worse between us. And I want to continue having a relationship with my Mom (there are some good things). But I want to be myself much more than I am right now. I feel like I have to chop off parts of myself at the door when I deal with her :/

Thanks so much!

Work in Progress

Dear Work In Progress,

Sorry I’m not getting to this quite in time for “tomorrow’s” dinner, but there absolutely is a way to be a bit more assertive with your mom about situations like this.

To be clear, it would have been nice if your mom had given you more notice about the dinner, but failing to is not a horribly unreasonable or inconsiderate act in itself. Maybe she didn’t think to do it, maybe she just assumes that because it’s a casual affair and “you gotta eat anyway” that it isn’t that big a deal, maybe your family culture is that you do something on the person’s actual birthday regardless of where it falls in the week (so in her mind you would already predict that there would be a plan on your dad’s birthday), maybe the plan only came together at the last minute.

I mean, I absolutely believe you that some hinky stuff is involved in your relationship with your mom and your history together, and that requests from her probably aren’t ever “just” requests, so I don’t say the above paragraph to minimize the stress and annoyance you are feeling. I say this because now that you’re grown up, one way you can take back power is to treat requests and invitations from her as reasonable adult people would. A last minute invitation from a family member for an informal event isn’t by itself unreasonable, but an invitation is not a command, and it’s also not unreasonable to decline a last minute invitation. Take the things she says at face value and pretend that they came from a reasonable person, and respond in kind: “Sorry, I can’t make that work on such short notice, but I hope you have the best time and I’ll call Dad to set something up for the weekend. Good night!” She may try to put a lot of friction around any refusal and “punish” you with her reaction, but the good news is, YOU’RE GROWN. You don’t HAVE TO do anything, including call her for a while if she’s being crappy to you. You can say “Sorry you feel that way, Mom, I’ll talk to you later” and move to the Fuck Its with the rest of us. If McBride’s book is ringing a lot of bells for you, you might never have a close or comfortable relationship with your mom, but over time you can sort of recalibrate your own expectations of how reasonable people behave toward one another and apply those to your relationship with her.

How this all works in practice:

Step 1:

Sorry, Mom, I won’t be able to come. I’ve got some grad school deadlines, so for the next couple months at least I’ll need a little more notice for weeknight events. Are you and Dad free on the weekend, though? I’d love to see you then.”

If the answer is no, they aren’t free on the weekend, express regret and then get off the phone/close down the email window/end the interaction. Don’t explain why you can’t make it. Reasons are for reasonable people. For unreasonable people they are just ammunition they use to erode your case for not doing the thing they want you to do.

Step 2: 

If you can’t or don’t want to go to the short notice thing, don’t go. If you’re trying to get someone in your life to understand boundaries, follow through on the boundaries you set.

Step 3:

Follow up with your dad directly, not mediated through your mom, to wish him a happy birthday/get him a gift/make a plan to celebrate his birthday in some way.

Step 4:

There can’t be a “huge fight” if you completely ignore all attempts to fight. Good thing you’re too busy to have a fight! Turn your phone off. Filter your email. “Sorry, can’t talk now, working!” Decide when you will communicate, and be unavailable until then. If she is passive-aggressive, pointedly ignore the subtext and respond only to the text as if it is sincere and direct. If she’s a tantrum-thrower, decide that tantrums from adults are completely ridiculous. Practice saying things like “You seem very upset, perhaps we can talk another time, when you are calmer” in your best monotone. Bonus if you can use the exact phrases she used when you were a toddler who threw tantrums.

The message you want to send is: “I can survive your displeasure, and if you are going to make being in your company unpleasant, I can survive your absence.”

The first time you don’t go to something you are “expected” to go to, it will be very hard. You will feel awful, and even the most innocuous thing your mom could say to you will be fraught with meaning and angst. Your mom may enlist your dad to contact you on her behalf, she may give you a massive guilt trip. Or she may in fact behave just fine, but you have been so conditioned by your upbringing to monitor and to try to avoid her displeasure that you will still feel really weird. Those feelings are left over from when you were a child who depended on her and her displeasure could have real consequences for you, so it’s not strange at all that you’d be feeling anxiety, fear, worry, etc. Whatever feelings come up, ride them out with the help of friends, or a counseling pro. Play some great music, get your writing done. Remind yourself that you’re an adult, that you have all the power in this situation, that your fears about this are mostly residue. Remind yourself that your mom has choices about how she engages you and that one possible choice she has is “Note to self: if it’s essential to me that LW be at family events, I will try scheduling them a bit more in advance next time.” 

The first time you openly resist a controlling parent is very hard. The next couple times are also hard in different ways. But if you stick to your guns, it does get easier, and a new normal can emerge. Sometimes the new normal is “They behave better.” Sometimes it’s “you learn to give less of a fuck, so the behavior affects you less.” I can’t tell you what yours will look like, just, you will level up in some ways about this if you can get through those first few hard times.

Since you do want to maintain a relationship with your folks, I suggest budgeting a set time every week or every month to either see (if you live close) or talk to them. Could be a weekly 15 minute phone call or Skype, could be a monthly dinner, it doesn’t necessarily matter specifically what and how much time you devote to it, it just matters that whatever it is sustainable for you and happens on some kind of predictable schedule for everyone. If you have a set, structured time in your month to open the box marked “FAMILY AND FEELINGS ABOUT FAMILY,” you can work to create some more positive interactions and memories with them during those times and you can also give yourself permission to mentally detach when you need to except for those times. Your mom may resist any structure that isn’t dictated by her at first, but over time she may see that this way she gets more time with you and more positive interactions with you when you are together.

148 thoughts on “#718: How can I be more assertive about last minute invitations from difficult family?

  1. The message you want to send is: “I can survive your displeasure, and if you are going to make being in your company unpleasant, I can survive your absence.”

    Yes, so yes, and Hell yes.

  2. Agreed on not giving Reasons, because Reasons can be argued with. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I just can’t.” Repeat as needed.

    1. There’s a useful acronym for this: JADE.


      These things can be used as an opportunity to negotiate.

  3. Hey, LW. I am you, about fifteen years older. I heartily endorse everything the Cap says and I wish I’d read this twenty years ago, it would have made my life much much easier. (Instead I had to figure it out for myself.)

    Some things that have helped me:

    1. Knowing that, whenever I set a boundary, there would be an extinction burst event soon after. An example: She announced, when I was 7 month pregnant, that she was planning to move in with me when the baby was born. (She didn’t ASK, she casually informed me after she’d gotten all the paperwork done at her office for the two months off.) When I said no, she seemed to accept this. But a few weeks later she called to ask me about a doctor appointment and when i told her about it, she proceeded tell me that I was a terrible mother and was going to hurt my baby with my arrogance.

    The Cap is right in that the best way for me to deal with this is to just hang up/ignore her. That is, of course, easier to type than it is to do. She’s my MOM and she pretty much installed all these buttons, levers, and back doors into my brain. I have to be aware that I won’t succeed all the time in shutting her down before she bursts into my brain through the back door and starts mashing buttons and yanking on levers. I have to forgive myself for not being able to defend myself perfectly.

    2. Part of being prepared for that extinction burst behavior is never ever being alone with her. My mom’s an expert at gaslighting so I never talk to her without witnesses. I won’t even talk on the phone if there’s no one home. This may or may not be useful to you — if she’s not a gaslighter, it’s probably not. But, more generally, if she has certain venues of attack, you might want to try setting up your interactions with her to minimize that strategy.

    3. Team Me has been vital, if only so that I can call up and say, “My mom just did X/said Y. That’s weird and wrong, right?” Having someone to confirm that I’m not the insane one has been very very helpful to me. I hope you have an awesome Team You.

    Good luck, LW.

    1. Oh my gosh she *invited* herself to move into your house when you were having a baby? This has just blown my mind, and not in the good way. D:

      1. Yeah, that was how I reacted. She didn’t even really invite herself — she just *assumed* she’d be coming. “I finally got all the paperwork set for January.” “What are you doing in January?” “Taking two months off to live with you when the baby comes, of course.” WHAAAA?

        She also once, when I was a few rooms away, tried to calm my daughter by “breastfeeding” her. (My mom didn’t have any milk. Had never breastfed in her life.)

        LW — boundaries now will help avoid scenarios where you walk into a room to see your mom trying to convince your infant to suck her breast. Just saying.

        1. O.O

          DameB, I can’t really imagine a more apt emblem of interfering inappropriately in someone else’s life than that. SHEESH.

          1. I read a similar story on Raised By Narcissists and mind = blown. I can’t even imagine considering doing that. Not saying that DameB is the same person but SBJ, I don’t like the idea that there is more than one of the mothers attempting to breastfeed their grandchild out there O.o

          2. Book of Jubilation — thank you.

            Bashelor — that WASN’T me. Which means, yes, there are at least two moms who tried that. Ick.

            The thing is, I’ve met people who were nursing their kids at the same time their mom was nursing a baby and they were happy to nurse each other’s children. But it was discussed ahead of time, consent was given not assumed, and, you know, they LIKE each other….

        2. Oh yeah! Teach the kid that if she sucks at a nipple, nothing comes out! That’ll help!

          (Besides, I’m sorry, no offense to your mom, but that sounds creepy.)

        3. My mom has been persistently lactating through menopause, possibly due to a pituitary gland tumor (which she won’t get checked out), and she kept joking when my son was a newborn “well, I could nurse him!” I never left her alone with him.

        4. MY GOD that is terrible! That also takes some guts! Wow – I am just….WOW!

    2. What I was about to write was this only not as well stated as what DameB said. It took me a while to get to where I am. And some pain and heartbreak. A key to my success is my brother. He isn’t a recipient of Mother’s antics, but he sees what’s going on and will listen to me rant and cry, remind me of things when I forget and is a big cheerleader of me dealing with Mother in a healthy way. Another super important step for me is that I stopped calling her Mom and call her Mother. A small, but significant shift.

      1. I did this, too! It was really weird among my peers, as a teenager, to refer to my mother as “my mother” instead of “my mom,” but it helped me tremendously to distance myself emotionally from her.

        Moment of self-recognition aside; LW, it sounds like you’re in a great place in your life to set some boundaries, and you have a bonafied excuse to be setting them (graduate work). Good luck!

      2. Along those same lines, whenever my mother starts to go off the rails, I call her by her first name, and I got my brother started doing it too. She thinks we’re just being “funny” or “weird,” but really we’re reminding ourselves she’s just an adult, talking to another adult, and we’re free to respond to her in whatever way is appropriate among adults, and to sidestep the “but I GAVE YOU LIFE” baggage and guilt trips as needed. (It’s also become a signal to my spouse and a few close friends – when I start referring to her as “Jane” (not her actual name), they know it means she’s up to narcissist shenanigans and that I need some extra support around dealing with her for a bit.)

      3. This is why my father is “my father” and not “Dad” in conversations with third parties, whereas my mother is “Mom.” No one has ever commented on that asymmetry, so it may be subtler to others than it is to me, but it feels like an honest representation of how I feel about them.

        1. Man, I’m having bizarre flashback to when I was a kid and my parents were going through a really bad patch. My mom would refer to my dad as “your father”. It made me uncomfortable and upset, but I could never articulate why.

    3. The second part of #1 and all of #3 is how I deal with my mom, exactly. When necessary I also engage #2. Yup.

    4. “She’s my MOM and she pretty much installed all these buttons, levers, and back doors into my brain. I have to be aware that I won’t succeed all the time in shutting her down before she bursts into my brain through the back door and starts mashing buttons and yanking on levers. I have to forgive myself for not being able to defend myself perfectly.”

      So well articulated!!! I shall keep this analogy in mind as well when I deal with my mother.

    5. You are a very smart mama for not letting her move in with you!! It gives me the heebie jeebies just thinking about it, wtf. Besides the fact that she’s a deeply toxic person that you do not need to be around–stress is bad for the baby and her being around is SUPER STRESSFUL–you protected your kid from doing to them what she did to you!

    6. Oh my god, YES. Thank you for this comment. “Extinction burst behavior” = sums up perfectly some behavior patterns I have experienced with members of my family but haven’t been able to articulate. It’s like they’re pretending VERY HARD to be reasonable on the surface and react to boundaries like normal people, but they WANT TO have a tantrum, so they find the next possible outlet for it. So ext time you make a minor “mistake” it’s suddenly unreasonable tantrum time!

      Thanks for putting it so succinctly.

  4. Agreed with the above — and you have to also move into the adult sphere of being proactive and involved in planning stuff like this. Ask a couple weeks in advance what your dad wants to do for his birthday, and give them your schedule. Don’t just wait for your parents to set up family events and invite you, because that’s what’s putting you into this powerless state of having to accommodate whatever has been decided upon without your input.

    I mean, my mom is a narcissist too, and last year she got really upset because I didn’t throw her a birthday party since I was busy planning my son’s first birthday bash for two weeks later, and then she didn’t even come to his party (she’s disabled, but there was definitely a passive aggressive element). You just have to get good at being communicative about your schedule but also pulling your share, so it’s not just “show up at this time or else.” I sort of forgot my mom’s birthday last year, and it sounds like your dad’s kind of snuck up on you this year with your schoolwork, so just apologize to him directly and make it up when you can, without going overboard. You’re all adults, and nobody is going to be broken-hearted over a birthday unless you let your mom blow it out of proportion,

    1. My mom did that when my sister and I messed up her birthday a few years ago. I set an alarm, but things exploded school-wise, so I forgot; my sister flat-out got the date wrong. We did not realize until 5 days later, and we sent flowers and cards immediately. My mom had been super passive-aggressive all week on the phone, and I finally realized why (she never says why, so I figured she was just mad at someone in the family again). I found out later that she threw a tantrum on the phone with her 2 brothers (our uncles), her dad (our grandpa), and cried to my dad about how my sister and I were “so ungrateful for everything she’s done for us” just because we forgot her birthday. And no one gave us a heads’ up either, which I did not appreciate (I always try to text my sister for example, because she is generally the forget-er, and I appreciate when others do so for me).

      To avoid it happening again, I put her birthday in my calendar the week before, day before, and day of.

      1. Gotta say, your situation is a lot more your fault than the LW’s. It IS thoughtless of you and your sister to forget her birthday. You sound like you have a hard time taking responsibility for your own actions. No one gave you a heads up? Her birthday is the same day every year ~ you shouldn’t need a heads up. Good idea putting her birthday in your calendar ~ not exactly a novel idea, though. Might have helped the year you forgot.

        1. Yeah, but shit happens, and sometimes people drop the ball. Having an toddler tantrum because your kids forgot your birthday is a little WTF. They didn’t do it deliberately. (Though I admit freely that I don’t understand making a big deal out of adult birthdays. I try to call my mom on hers, but I frequently fail at it, because she’s super busy and I suck at being an adult with phone calls. No meltdowns and no guilt trips.)

          1. Re: making a fuss about adult birthdays. Maybe it’s because I have a massive amount of siblings but the only thing my family cares about is little kid birthdays. People who live in the same area will all go for dinner sometime around an adult birthday if they can, but no hard feelings if someone can’t make it. Generally there are no gifts or cards or whatever. I live far away from the rest and I don’t even phone them. If I happen to remember, I’ll send a happy birthday email.

        2. It’s very interesting that you think forgetting something is an intentional action. You may want to read some comments lower in this thread. Most adults understand that other adults have lives and occasionally forget even important things; that isn’t ‘thoughtless’.

        3. Hmm. I don’t think Sophiahelix needs to compete for “most unfair thing a mother has done”. I think adults who get wildly upset because of a forgotten birthday are a bit much, and it is a kindess, not a duty, of their loved ones to humour them most of the time.
          What I do when people forget my birthday and I’d hoped for a phonecall is… call them myself and mention good-humouredly that they may wish me a happy birthday if they’d care to. And for my spouse and kid, I wouldn’t dream of keeping quiet about my upcoming birthday if I am hoping for a birthday cup of tea in bed or a nice card.

        4. Oh please. I am a non-narcissist mom and my birthday is a huge non-event. I expect some steak and some lovin from my partner but my kids do NOT and never will have to do anything but wish me happy birthday after I say “Yippee today’s my birthday!” Similarly, I do not expect my kids to keep track of my wedding anniversary. They’re my kids, not my adoring fans.

        5. Way harsh, Tai.

          Forgetting happens. Heck, I forget my own birthday nearly every year (occurs very early in the month and my brain catalogs everything that happens in, say, August, as “next month, very far away” even when it’s July 29 and August is actually in 3 days). Not everyone’s brain is wired for easy remembrance of dates, and *adults* handle that by bringing up the other adult’s forgetfulness when it affects and/or bothers them (instead of throwing tantrums to third parties while being passive aggressive with the “offending” party) and being open to sincere apologies when offered.

          1. As soon as I got out of school I promptly forgot when everything was positioned in the year. Without regularly scheduled exams and breaks stuff sneaks up on me. I almost missed my own birthday this year because I still thought May was a month away on April 30. I remembered father’s day the Thursday before because my mom texted me to ask what I was getting my dad. I almost accidentally scheduled a business trip over Christmas.

            I’m not even sure what month it is right now. I’m told it is July? WHEN DID THAT HAPPEN?

        6. My brother forgot my birthday this year. You know what I did? I laughed at him (affectionately) when he called a week later, and then we had a lovely chat. Adults understand that these things happen, especially when life is busily pulling you in a dozen directions and not shoving a calendar into your face. It’s totally okay to be disappointed and upset, and it’s okay to say “well, yeah, I admit I was upset not to hear from my daughter on my birthday,” but it’s not okay to throw a temper tantrum and skip your grandkid’s birthday if you otherwise would have gone, and so forth.

        7. Yikes! That’s a bit harsh. Here’s how that happens – or at least how it happened for me one year (I forgot my mums birthday for a week…ugh). When I was younger, I could just remember stuff like birthdays. Then 15 years pass and gradually I get worse and worse at it because I’m much much busier and time just seems to fly by and how is it July already? How is it 2015? But I still just trust my brain to remember like it did when I was less busy. Then I get really stressed about some stuff and get sick and some things go wrong and oh shit my mother’s birthday was a week ago. Now I too have multiple calendar alarms set for people’s birthdays.

          My mother is another of the strange tantrum-having manipulative terrible people, so it was an enormous weird mess when it happened, just as others have described. Not her quite reasonably saying she was dissappointed and sad and me apologising and doing stuff to make it up to her and explaining the circumstances – nothing appropriate. Just a very weird cold shoulder and lots of odd statements about how she “has a memory like an elephant” and “holds grudges forever”. Obviously I was very apologetic and made many efforts to make it up to her. So it’s possible actually to have done something bad and thoughtless, and to also note that the recipient of your thoughtlessness is reacting really wierdly and badly and disproportionately to that.

        8. OH HAI, LW’s mom (or someone doing a spot-on impression of her, guilt-trips and all). I wonder what YOUR kids are going to end up writing letters to Captain Awkward about? No, actually I don’t — but there WILL be something, because people who expect their kids to be 100% picture-perfect end up with messed-up kids.

          1. It was a small thing for her mother to expect to be acknowledged on her birthday. Far from expecting her to be picture perfect.

        9. She’d put an alert in her calendar then got swamped. I think she meant no one gave her a “heads up” that her mother was tantrumming all over the place.

        10. Most of you are making excuses for her and taking her account of her mother’s behavior at face value. I stand by my statement that rhythla sounds very self-centered and unable to take responsibility for her own actions. She hurt her mother’s feelings and her response was that she did not appreciate that no one reminded her of an event that happens on the same day every year. My guess is that this is how she lives her life in all areas. No wonder her mother vented to others.

          As for those of you who think I am the type of mother the original LW wrote about, or that rhythla claims she has, no worries there. I’ve never actually been tested as far as having my kids forget my birthday because they are thoughtful and considerate and realize that acknowledgment in some form is pretty easy to do.

          1. Are you done with lecturing everyone now? “My guess is this is how she lives her life in other areas” = u r the 1 who sounds like a jerk right now.

          2. “It was a small thing” — it’s ALWAYS “just a small thing”. No matter how many times it happens, it’s never part of a larger, consistent pattern.

            “Making excuses for her and taking her account of her mother’s behavior at face value” — because thoughtless and ungrateful children ALWAYS lie, while their long-suffering parents NEVER do.

            My kids are thoughtful and considerate” — unlike all the rest of you ungrateful brats who have the temerity to believe that Shit Happens.

            What people are really objecting to here is your rampant One-True-Wayism, which once again fits a common pattern that many of us are already familiar with. Oh yes, and the fact that you came in here specifically to lecture and hector and shame, with the intent of stirring up trouble rather than offering advice or, like, actually being helpful. That’s yet another pattern, and it has a name: TROLL.

          3. Wow.

            My parents forgot to call me on my 40th birthday. I was surprised and a little disappointed because they’d always remembered before, and this was a big one. But it wasn’t the same as if they’d forgotten my 8th birthday, y’know? There comes a point when you stop expecting the world to revolve around the anniversary of your birth.

            Incidentally, my mom called the day after to say she was the WORST MOTHER IN THE WORLD for forgetting. Which made me laugh, because see above. This wasn’t how she lived her life “in all areas.” This was a thing that sometimes happens to people who have other things going on.

          4. Heh. I *did* forget my mother’s birthday one year. I was 13, she turned 50. I apologized several times for being a self-centered teenage idiot, and tried to make it up to her by buying an extra gift a few days later. Alas, she spent most of the next year making pointed remarks about my forgetting her birthday. Looking back as a more considerate adult, I’m a little more appalled that a 50-year-old woman would spend that much time behaving like 13-year-old girl because she was offended.

          5. This comment says a lot more about you than it does about rhythla, honestly…

          6. Ah, but what would you do if they did forget? Probably pile on them for not being thoughtful and considerate. You see the problem here?

            When I started dating my now-fiance, his mother’s birthday was about two months after we starting seeing each other. I remember the way he kept telling me I -must- bring a birthday card for her. Even though I’m totally not a card-giver, I humored him, wanting to stay on his mom’s good side. In retrospect, it was the first of many red flags that his mother is a Huge Narcissist.

          7. Why should we NOT take her description of her mother’s behavior at face value? What better source on her mother’s behavior do we have?

            “My guess is that this is how she lives her life in all areas. No wonder her mother vented to others.”


        11. Well then. You seem like you enjoy finding what somebody did wrong and then using that thing as a beating stick. Maybe… let’s not?
          What, you’ve never messed up ANYTHING in your life? Ever?

        12. It IS thoughtless of you and your sister to forget her birthday

          Really? It’s her fault? No. Yeah, she forgot, but SO WHAT? If someone forgets my birthday, I assume there was something else going on. I do not assume malice and I do not punish the person. IT IS NOT A BIG DEAL and it does not merit blowing up or tantrums.

        13. Holy inappropriate shaming Batman!
          Maybe she didn’t have it in her calendar because she normally remembers the date, but this year something came up and she got sidetracked. Maybe she wasn’t/isn’t all that close with her mother (which, based on that -admittedly only one – instance of her mother’s behaviour, could be entirely possible) and so birthday doesn’t classify as an all important date in her mind. Sometimes, Shit. Just. Happens.
          While I understand where you’re coming from, I think you need to take a step back and analyse your own feelings on the matter and why your first reaction to the situation is a virulent shaming.

        14. Gotta say, I lived my whole life with my mom and dad, we got along well as adults, never gaslighted, never tantrumed, never argued, agreed to not argue about things we knew we disagreed about, acted like adults.

          I don’t do dates. I remember my wife’s birthday, mostly, and our anniversary (44th last) mostly. Flowers and bubbly, mostly.

          My mom never said a word if I forgot her birthday, nor did my dad. They know what I’m good at, and it isn’t dates.

          Your focus on false importance, of a date, means nothing if you love a person, and they love you, they should never hold a fault against you. My wife forgets stuff, I forget stuff. I call my brother around his birthday, and my parents knew I loved them til the day they died. Mom died in Dad’s arms, and my Dad died while I held his hand. Some things matter, and some don’t. You can’t tell the difference, and that’s your problem.

    2. To give a counterexample: a few years back, I had occasion to talk to my mom on her birthday. I had forgotten the date and did not wish her a happy birthday at any point during this fairly long conversation. The next day, I woke up in a complete panic and called her to apologize as soon as it was not Way Too F’ing Early In The Morning. She shrugged it off, said it got funnier to her the longer I went on talking about things Not Her Birthday, and said forgetting one birthday in [DELETED] years was completely forgivable, especially because a great conversation with her offspring was all the birthday present she would have wanted.

      That’s how non-narcissistic adults handle that sort of thing.

      Throwing a tantrum or going passive-aggressive is how children handle not getting what they want.

      Side note: my mom is kinda awesome and I’m really lucky to have her.

      1. Similarly I would regularly forget both parents and sister’s birthdays when I was completing my undergrad, and during that time period was pretty much absent from most major extended family events. However since I was a full time student and had a major that would regularly involve trying to complete projects involving 10 to 100 hours of work, and they’re all reasonable people they were not bothered by this supposed slight. Actually a lot of the time they would be super excited and surprised if I managed to set aside just a little bit of time to call them and to wish them happy birthday and talk longer then the standard I’m still alive text/call.

    3. I messaged my mother yesterday to ask what she wants for her birthday. She replied with “I thought we weren’t doing presents?”

      So I said good idea, don’t worry about mine then, buy yourself something nice, bye.

      Reply: “you weren’t meant to say that, you were meant to say you’d send me something”.

      Ach, WTF? Life is too short for dealing with her.
      (trust me on that)

      1. “Unfortunately, I cannot read your mind. Therefore, I will have to take you at your word.”

      2. It’s so funny when you go off-script and they actually try to drag you back on.

      3. “I thought we weren’t doing presents?

        We have been trying for years to get to that point with my husband’s mother, who has sent us, among other things:

        1. A potted tropical plant that wants warm and sun. We live in the upper midwest in an old cost that costs an arm and a leg to heat. I am not keeping my house at 68 just to keep a damn potted Meyer lemon tree alive. (Which is also the only houseplant we have because I hate houseplants.)
        2. A life-sized cast-iron cat.
        3. A ceramic cat with tiles of many colors
        4. A vase hand painted with tacky purple flowers
        5. Nested cheap pressed board Chinese-made tables painted with hummingbirds and hibiscus.

        Search for any of these items on my blog – there has been so much drama associated with them. I want a no-gifts policy. Nothing. I would rather get nothing than get tacky, cheap crap.

        1. Holy moly. Read your blog. Your in-laws (or “outlaws” as you say – gave me a great chuckle, thanks!) are really something. My husband’s mother has really weird tastes in gifts for us too, so, sympathies. When she gifted me a shoebox full of random stuff including a selfie stick and a travel pack of Q-Tips, she was like “I haven’t known you long enough to know what you want so here ya go!” A) I’ve known you for 3 years, and B) you…could have…asked?

          1. Q-tips? I guess that’s something everyone will always need, but doesn’t everyone also always need chocolate?

            I would send you the cast-iron cat, but there is a list of people who have dibs on it. 🙂

            Yes, they are something else. They are inspiration and material, if nothing else.

          2. My mother gave me a red leather purse shaped like a salmon for Christmas one year. I had no idea what it was and she was furious when I failed to appreciate its inherent awesomeness immediately. I was punished for not loving the fish purse for about two months straight.

            I have carried one black purse since I was 15 years old. When it wears out, I get a new black purse. No one who knows anything at all about me would ever buy a purse for me as a gift. Note that I couldn’t even fit my whole hand (and I have small hands) or my wallet into the fish purse.

            There is literally no occasion for which a red leather purse shaped like a salmon is truly appropriate.

            On the plus side, it makes for an awesome anecdote.

        2. I’m giggling so much at the cast iron cat– that must’ve cost a fortune to ship!

          1. 1. Knights who say “knit!” 10,000 points
            2. They paid the shipping and I don’t remember. All I could think was, “That money could have been used to buy something I want instead of something that needs to be dusted.”

    4. According to sophiahelix’s timeline, last year, when she forgot her mother’s birthday, she was TWO WEEKS from giving birth to her first child. Exhausted? Trying to stay working as long as possible? In and out of ineffective labor? There are many possible reasons to cut this woman some slack, and her mother should have been the first in line to do that.

  5. The Captain’s advice is great — the part that really struck me was what she says about how this takes a lot of discipline. I think especially if you are someone who is sort of intuitive, prides yourself on reading cues and subtext, it’s really hard to put those habits in a box and just be robotic about “I’m totally going to take this at face value and respond accordingly”. But once you learn to do it, it is so so so powerful if you are dealing with someone who is trying to wind you up. They are very, very likely to keep edging it over to behaviour less and less able amenable to interpretation as reasonable. They are trying to get you to snap (with anger, tears, pleading, whatever). But the beauty part is the more you *don’t* snap, and the further and further out there their own behaviour gets in mounting bids to get you to snap, the less they are able to do the thing about how you are the volatile one. I hesitate to invoke this, because I’ve learned a lot in recent years about stigmatizing ableist language around mental illness. But in my own mind in these situations I always think of the Monty Python skit “spot the looney” — if you have a history with someone where you have been repeatedly labeled as “the looney” it can feel pretty great to be like… wait. I think there has been a misidentification?

    1. This is sooooo hard for me! Partly because of the intuitive thing but partly because I have been the screaming “looney” with someone who is crazy-making and giving me the silent treatment to my face all for having the nerve to try and talk about a hurtful thing they did. When I start with “that thing you did was really hurtful to me, can we talk about it please?” and they say “ok” and then shut down entirely. Cold, expressionless, silence with their only response being “I don’t know what you want from me” in complete monotone. After months of this I lost it and screamed “talk to me! Why don’t you care about my feelings! how do you not understand how this works?!” While I obviously should have cut this person out long before it got to this point, I learned that the person doing the screaming isn’t always “the looney.”

      So for me to do that to someone else feels almost impossible. Because I know how awful it feels to feel someone shut you out and not care a whit about your feelings and how they have hurt them.

      1. Yeah to be sure — you only go with this strategy once you have figured out truly back and forth mutual engagement is impossible. I mean you don’t lead with it! With most people all the reading cues, subtext stuff is great — helps you be empathetic, get jokes, live a good life with others [& I know, exactly these social skills are absent for some people who are totally non-evil, which is hard and unfair].

        I’m talking about people who *know* what they are doing and are trying to get you upset, on purpose. So your stone-faced counterpart was *trying* to elicit a freakout from you, it sounds like, as their opening gambit. I’m not talking about responding to all genuine good faith attempts at engagement with a pocket Dr. Spockatron. You only bust out flat literalism with people whom you know to be dangerous.

        1. Yeah, logically this all makes sense and I agree! It’s just the follow through that is so. darn. hard. It’s something I want to work on with my therapist for dealing with personality disordered mother and sister: running through these Spockatron scripts (I am totally stealing that by the way!) until they feel natural and I don’t feel like a horrible person wracked with guilt afterwards.

          1. I think feeling a little guilty is okay. It means this isn’t the way you wanted to do things. It means you tried to do better and would have done better if you could have done so safely.
            This is taking it to an extreme, but in the fantasy books I read, at some point the hero/ine gets upset that they are upset by killing people. Some wise character comes out of the woodwork to say yes, of course, you are upset. The ones who aren’t upset by killing people are bad people. Killing someone isn’t something that should be done lightly. It matters, and it should matter. This doesn’t mean don’t do it, but don’t ever lose that sense of wrongness.
            Back to the world of crazy-making people who want you to explode, yes, of course, you feel guilty when you show no reaction and refuse to engage. Of course, it feels unnatural and wrong. It is. But it’s also safer for you, and that matters more. Keep practicing.

        2. As a bonus, choosing to intentionally be literal and direct in an assertive, non-aggressive, inflammatory-mixed-messages-are-not-received-here way is useful not only with people who are intentionally or carelessly trying to wind you up. It can also be useful with (1)people who you don’t know to be manipulative-winder-uppers but they might be and you don’t want want to be ambushed by that; (2)people who are mostly-not manipulative winder-uppers, maybe recovered/recovering from the habit, but slip into it sometimes unintentionally; (3) people who are wholly not manipulative winder-uppers but are communicating with good intentions and skill from *very* different implicit perspectives, assumptions, or methods than the ones that work for you; (4) people who don’t have, or can’t presently bring to bear, sufficient skill in decoding/encoding empathetic subtext– not only people with social-communicative neuroatypicality,but also people of average ability with incomplete learned decoding/encoding skills, or young kids who who haven’t yet reached the developmental stage to access those skills (average kids don’t begin to recognize the literal/subtextual mismatch of sarcasm, for instance, until around age 6, or fully understand it til around age 10-12), and people who are temporarily off their game for any reason from overwhelming emotion to a few beers too many and don’t realize their sending or receiving is off target.
          Another person doesn’t have to be *trying* to wind you up, for you to benefit from decoupling your peace of mind from their provocations. If they’re trying to wind you up, that will become clear as they escalate. If they’re not trying to wind you up, the ACTUAL source of the problem may become clear if YOU don’t escalate.

          But employing that strategy and attitude IS a lot of work, especially for one who is naturally inclined to be very responsive, not detached.

  6. I really like this advice, and I think it also would work for younger adults/teens that are moving towards more independence and are trying reset their relationships with their (reasonable) parents to a more equal footing. I’m seeing this with my niece and her mother and it’s interesting to watch, especially as I have younger kids.

    1. Yeah, my mom is pretty reasonable and it still took a long time and a fair amount of this kind of work to reset her approach from “This is my child, I know her schedule and am authorized to make plans for her” to “This is a fellow adult with her own life and commitments, I need to consult her BEFORE making plans that include her.” This would have been really useful advice to 21-year-old me.

  7. I have a similar, yet different problem with extended family. They decide dates for gatherings without discussing them with my branch of the family and then respond irrationally when we’re not able to attend. I finally had to tell them, “When you make plans without me, you’re making plans WITHOUT ME. If you want me to be involved, call me before plans are finalized.” They did not respond well, but said “if I was going to be so unreasonable about it, they would call me.” Of course, when they call, they’ve still basically decided the dates and still pout like children if I don’t attend.

    1. And this would be the main reason I get to so few ‘family’ events and how my mother ends up with unexpected ‘company’ every once in a while when they just show up for the weekend.

  8. LW, this is great advice. The hard part is following through on it. I very (VERY) strongly suspect my mother is an undiagnosed narcissist, and it took me until this year to finally clue into that possibility. (The embarrassing thing, to me, is that I have worked as a medical librarian, as an assistant for a psychiatrist AND as a medical malpractice paralegal and still, with a lot of literature stuffed in my head and diagnosed real-life narcissist acquaintances as cases in point that I could MAYBE have learned from, I didn’t twig to this possible explanation for the non-optimal behaviors I have lived with as my mom’s scapegoat since, well, birth. She is also targeting my SIL and nieces, which really sucks, and is totally blind to her own behaviors (which are the usual narcissist’s tool kit of gaslighting, bullying, lying, shaming/blaming, rewriting history, not keeping promises, being mean as hell, making plans for me and volunteering my time/labor without consulting me first, being controlling…all that kind of fun stuff).

    Your situation strikes a chord, because my mother’s bad behaviors really intensified when I went to school for my MFA. My mother got extra-competitive and decided to sell the property I was staying in while I was working on my thesis. FWIW, I ended up settling for an MA, as every time I had a midterm or test or meeting with my advisor or work project due, I “coincidentally” also “needed” to be around for Open Houses and handymen/workmen and polish the silver and etc., etc., and it was horrible and disruptive and nerve-wracking, especially as I had given up a job to be an unpaid caretaker/nurse for my grandmother full-time, eaten up my savings for basic needs like groceries that my mother suddenly couldn’t bother to help us with (but she could buy antiques and a new Mercedes and a baby grand piano), and I could not afford to pay movers and also find an affordable pet-friendly apartment to rent.) This highlighted a life-long pattern for me: whenever I was doing something scary but important, and struggling to manage my mental illness (depression) to succeed at the scary thing, my mother would make all kinds of speeches about how she was going to help me and how proud she was of me, and then she would sabotage me in a dozen subtle ways by having some crisis after midnight the day I had a meeting or important class or paper due, or scheduling my time and labor for one of her projects that could wait (my favorite recent example is how she took her car in to be fixed right before a planned trip out of town to visit my brother, and had me chauffeur her around while I was studying for finals, and abused me about my car needing a wash and the music I chose to listen to, and me not being able to afford to see my family for Xmas (not that she offered to loan or give me the money), and railed about me not being cheerful and thrilled to drive her hither and yon on her whim. This Hell lasted a whole week, with her refusing to just borrow my car for a few days and drive herself about, and when she got her car back, she then CARPOOLED with a friend to visit my brother for Xmas and that means that all the abuse and stress related to the whole car-in-the-shop drama could have waited until she got home and I was on vacation from grad school. If any of that sounds at all familiar, well, I feel your pain. I hope you’re not dealing with someone who is threatened by you getting your MA (which, BTW, good for you, it is not easy.)

    My opinion: The Captain’s advice applies well to my mother. I suspect it is good for all kinds of Difficult People.

    My goal right now is to separate myself from my Difficult mother as quickly as I can, and to never rely on her for anything (validation,a loan, kind words, ANYTHING) again. Any unsolicited positive stuff I happen receive from her once I extricate myself is going to be treated as a nice bonus and that’s it.

    I think it will help to remind yourself that you’re not being unreasonable, here. You’re working and going to school and doing other busy life things, having last minute weeknight plans forced upon you is hard for a lot of people (especially introverted people, if that applies), and not being able to magically rearrange your schedule to crowbar things in at the last minute is not a reflection of how much you care or don’t care about the people wanting to make plans with you. It’s not you being the problem.

    1. Wow. I know I’m not contributing anything here, but I think you have come MILES to recognize what’s going on here. You sound like a wonderful generous and disciplined and determined person. You’ve only created good karma.

  9. I don’t know if this is a helpful suggestion but in my quest to manage my boundaries (defend them with spears and pitchforks), I picked up a habit on cutting off fussing and guilt trips. I automatically ask my mother now, “Is that all you’re going to talk about?” (Kind of indicating that “are you really just going to talk about that the 15 minutes I am here this week?” since I usually do short visits now. It’s my way of reminding her that she doesn’t see me often – does she really want to spend that entire time, whether it’s an entire dinner or a 5 minute drop-by, doing shit like that?) It works about 50/50. It worked better in the beginning when she was more surprised by a response that broke the “cycle” of our normal interactions but now she’s also getting better at plowing through with her fussing/nattering/whatever-subject-she-has-by-the-teeth.

    Just as an aside, I found that once I started self-defense (I used to take Krav Maga and now I take Brazilian jiu-jitsu), my mental/emotional boundaries started improving as well.

      1. Hi thetigerhasspoken!

        Yes, my martial arts journey (though Krav Maga is technically a combat system, not an art – it was the start of my journey) has been really helpful towards working staying firm emotionally in my relationships.

        I’ve gotten much better at handling my own helicopter mother and fussy family by being able to “armor” myself emotionally while dealing with them. I’m not going to lie and say it’s a magic cure and suddenly everything’s better/easier/shinier, though.

        I bought this book called Women in Martial Arts and I love it – there are some great excerpts from it I like to share:

        “The value of the martial arts is not in the perfectly executed front kick or hip throw; the value is in how people use the training to develop themselves. Several essays in this book refer to the martial arts as a mirror for life, a way to see oneself. Challenges that arise in training often arise elsewhere in life where they are muddled by surrounding complications. If a person finds herself collapsing under a strong attack in class, she also may be collapsing when mentally or emotionally pushed in life. Learning to be strong in training can translate to being strong when faced with life’s other challenges. In this way, the value of martial arts training is the empowerment of self.”

        “The martial arts are often automatically linked to self-defense, and some of the essays discuss self-defense. Self-defense is more a mental attitude than a specific set of techniques, and the martial arts are only one possible way to develop that attitude. As one contributor says, “It’s not enough to learn that you can hurt someone twenty-three different ways in five seconds flat if they jump you. If you don’t feel good about yourself, if you’re not confident within yourself, if you haven’t got a sense of having a right to the territory that you occupy, then no amount of technique, no bag of little tricks is going to help, because you aren’t going to react properly when push comes to shove.”

        Good luck with your KM adventures!

  10. Oof yes. I struggle with this and I *don’t* have a difficult family. Because how can you say no???? (well, because you gave me no notice, at all)

    One thing that I’ve found helpful resetting boundaries (with fairly reasonable parents in my own experience, but even reasonable moms can have trouble with the “I’m a grown up now” development) is to initiate my own plans with the parents. On my terms, when it’s convenient and pleasing for me. Negates some of the guilt that comes along with declining for time or mental health or happiness or I just don’t wanna reasons. Plus, creating the plans gives you power over the plans, power to fit them into your schedule, power to arrange for things that limit overbearing mother’s overbearingosity, whatever.. I’m studying for the bar exam and in law we have this phrase “The Offeror is Master of the Offer” In other words, he who makes the invitation gets to control the means by which the invitation is accepted and how things go down at that event. Someone tries to change up the plans you’ve put forward? Well, we call that a counteroffer and you can accept those terms or reject them.

  11. I, too, have one of “those” mothers, and completely agree that the only thing you can do to create a boundary is to create it and stay on your side of it. She probably won’t respect it herself, but if you make it uncrossable, she won’t be able to cross it. It’s really hard. You feel like the worst person in the world, probably because she’s in your head yelling “You’re the worst person in the world!!”

    I recently had to enforce a very difficult boundary that my mother was going to great lengths to try to cross. She had started repeatedly inviting herself to my house (to stay overnight), regardless of whether or not it was a good time for me. Once, I specifically said to her, “That is not a good day for me, mom.” And she countered with, “Well, it works well for me, and so you’ll have to make it work for you.” What ended up proving effective was calling her out and warning her, explicitly, that if she spontaneously invited herself to my house anymore, she would not be welcomed in. I specifically told her that this was my advanced notice of the policy, and that she needed to plan her future behavior accordingly. She of course got angry and called me a terrible person, and of course that feels crappy, but it also feels crappy to be disrespected and have your mother show up for the weekend and expect you to cheerfully welcome her and make her breakfast.

    If your mother is anything like mine, I’d try laying out exactly how much notice you need before you can make plans. “Mom, I need at least one week notice of any plans so that I can plan my work accordingly.” Or whatever your parameters are–it could be, “Mom, I’m telling you now that I have a huge amount of work in the next two months, and I may not be able to make plans with you during that time.” Then, when she springs plans on you, you can refer to your previous statement.

    It’s not a perfect solution, as anger and guilt trips still occur, but I found it to be helpful in aiding ME in keeping to my own set boundaries, because there was my past self backing up my current self.

  12. Ugh. Setting boundaries with parents is so much harder than with almost anyone else because you have to break that childhood dependence cycle. But it is good and worth it. Just cut yourself slack when you inevitably fail to be utterly true to yourself — you are learning new habits and unlearning old ruts. Boundaries are the most awesome thing you can do for yourself, though.

  13. Oh, a thing that may (or may not) be helpful. My therapist says that this sort of behavior tends to escalate a lot during life events. Certain my mom’s horrible behavior ratcheted up dramatically around my wedding and my pregnancy/giving birth. You may want to consider that any increase you see may be specifically in response to the fact that you’re nearing the end of your master’s program. I learned to be very aware of the guilt trips and “nudges” she throws my way during any major life transition.

    1. Totally agree that problems can ratchet up during major life transitions. When my son was six weeks old he was suddenly very ill with projectile vomiting (consequently not able to feed, of course), lost weight rapidly, etc. After 48 hours of living hell we got him into hospital, he was diagnosed with pyloric stenosis, lovely nurses mopped up my hysterical tears, pointed out that I was exhausted and told me to go home, sleep, get normalised and come back the next morning at 11 when baby having been intravenously fed overnight, would be ready for the op. Went home, husband had made lovely meal, worried little daughter reassured, slept well. All was fine. Until Mother phoned at 6 am the next morning.
      — Why aren’t you at the hospital?
      — Because [as above]
      — Well. If this was my child AND I REALLY CARED ABOUT HIM I’d have stayed in that hospital. I’d be there now. )Puts phone down)
      It was really admirable that the hospital staff dealt with my arrival 20 minutes later as well as they did. And that they insisted on giving me breakfast.
      In retrospect I think this occasion was perhaps because she was reliving the death of one of her twin boys at a very early age — and she was trying to make me be her, or make the past be different or something. There were a lot of instances where ‘my daughter will be me, achieve for me, do my thing that I wanted to do’ was the explanation for what seemed at the time simply maddeningly passive-aggressive unnecessary control-freakery. Shortly before she died I was bringing her back from a doctor visit or similar and she suddenly said ;You are a wonderful daughter’ and I felt nothing except volcanic, red-hot, extreme fury.

      1. Gah. I’m sorry. That’s awful. Jedi hugs if you want them.

        Yeah, my mom has this little ditty she trots out sometimes that makes me see white with rage: “A son is a son until he takes a wife, but a daughter’s your daughter for the rest of your life.”

        I remember thinking, one time when she sang it at me, “OMG, it’s a LIFE SENTENCE!”

        1. “A son is a son until he takes a wife, but a daughter’s your daughter for the rest of your life.”

          That is so far beyond loathsome…

        2. LOL! My mom (who fits the pattern here) has said this rhyme many, many times, especially on “Just – us – two” outings she planned and I endured. Moving to the other side of the continent was the best mental health treatment ever.

  14. The thing that helped me most with my mother was a clear image of a nondescript man on the street. In my imagination, he’s nameless, sitting on a park bench, quite ordinary, maybe about 40, and wearing a grey suit with a hat. Whenever my mother would act like her opinion mattered, I’d ask myself how it would feel if my imaginary nameless man said the same thing. So if my mother gave her opinion on some political subject, I’d imagine my nameless man talking into the air from his park bench. Turns out I don’t care if men on park benches talk to themselves. If my mother voiced her opinion on my clothes, I’d remember that should an anonymous man comment on my looks I’d walk away quickly. If that guy asked me over at an inconvenient time, I wouldn’t waste any time feeling guilty if I had to say no. Note that I feel no animosity towards that stranger. I don’t hate him in the least, don’t wish him ill. I mean, I don’t have any reason to want anything awful to happen to him, but I don’t have any reason to bother myself with what all the folks in the subway are thinking. (My man is sometimes on the subway, sometimes walking into buildings. He could be anywhere, but for some reason he’s always wearing a hat.) Thing is, that guy doesn’t recognize my needs either, and I’m not making a big deal out of that. I’m okay if he doesn’t take me into consideration. I’m okay with his last minute dinner plans and tantrums too. I accept dinner invitations if they’re convenient for me. If they’re not, I don’t worry about them

    The other thing that’s helped a lot is the one shot rule on talking about something important to me. It goes like this. You’re at dinner at a time that’s convenient to you when your writing for the moment is complete and going well. You bring it up as a topic of conversation. Your mother brings the conversation around to herself. You listen while making good eye contact and nodding while you listen, but you say nothing more to further the conversation. After a few minutes, your mother has talked herself into a corner and needs more ammunition. She needs you to say something else about your studies so that can remind her of something else about herself and her opinions that she wanted to say. She asks you more about your writing. Your impulse is to go back to what you were saying, but instead, you look at her, look down for a moment, look distracted, and look back at her. The whole time your face belies no annoyance, just a blank because you can’t think of anything else to say. You wait until the next time you see her before even if that’s a month later before trying again to include her in your life by telling her something about your work, your writing, or your friends.

    I can’t guarantee that your mother will be like mine, but it was the wildest funniest thing when I realized that she’d had a month to realize how much she WANTED to hear about life. She was dying to know the most trivial things about my life, and she was willing to listen to me uninterrupted when I wasn’t crawling over myself and her trying to get a word in edgewise.

    1. I kind of really love this! 🙂 It’s brilliant, especially the bit about not giving anyone more ammunition to natter on about their own opinions/life/thoughts. I shall employ this trick!

    2. Your technique for dealing with your steamrolling mother is excellent. I’ve been trying to do something similar with mine, but it takes a lot of discipline.

    3. I tried this. It’s been 14 months and she still hasn’t asked. I think she really just doesn’t care.

      1. That’s sad, and I’m sorry you had to find out this way. But at least now you know, and can plan your own life accordingly going forward.

      2. I’m sorry. My mother was the same way. I completely gave up trying to share with her. It hurt less than opening up only to be dismissed or ignored.

        Sometimes it still hurts. I envy my friends whose parents actually care about their lives and their interests. But I was never going to have that with my own mother and pretending otherwise would have been worse. It sucks, it really does, but it wasn’t me and it’s not you- it’s her.

      3. Mine is the same way. The one time she asked me about my academic work and actually listened was when I had a friend with me and she couldn’t interrupt because company manners.

        I’m 40 this year. She’s been approximately the same amount of bad my whole life. At this point it’s more funny than anything.

    4. I did this with a competitive, judgemental sister one day, not as part of any plan, and was delighted with the effect. We were on a long drive, and everything I said, she found a way to say I was mistaken or wrong. I’d change the subject, and she’d do it again. When I was finally about to scream or cry, I kept silent and found out that silence can give you power. She started bringing up topics, and I would answer as minimally as possible so as not to give her any way to find fault with me. It was so great to see her squirm!

  15. How sad is it that it took me a minute to remember that the day before is short notice for some people? My in-laws can be pretty bad about leaving plans to the last minute so the day before would be a HUGE improvement. They once asked if we wanted to join them at the zoo. They called from the zoo. Which is an hour from here.

    No real advice but you have my sympathy. It sucks to be treated as an afterthought, especially for family events.

    1. My father in law (lives in State B) has the weird habit of calling my spouse (we live in State A) as FIL is leaving his cabin, which is located in State A. FIL always tells my spouse “Oh we had a great time at the cabin, wish you could have been there! But we’re on our way back to State B now.” I honestly don’t know how my spouse’s eyes haven’t boiled out of his head yet.

  16. One other suggestion: when you have made it clear that you are unavailable on short notice, you may want to plan on ignoring or even turning off your phone and other contact methods during the specified time. Your mother would love nothing more than to call you from the event you declined and have you pick up, “proving” that you couldn’t be that busy because you have time to talk on the phone.

    If nothing else, recognize that if it’s really an emergency, your mom can text you. Let her go to voicemail. Several times, if that’s how often she calls. Later on, when you return her calls, say, “Sorry that I couldn’t return your calls, but I was busy.” “Busy” is one of those words that doesn’t require elaboration — when (not if) your mother says “Busy doing WHAT!?” your response is, “Oh, just working. Gotta hit those deadlines!” or even “Eh, it’s boring and I don’t want to talk about it. How was dinner?”

    I really like the comments earlier about reaching out to your dad directly. It totally kills the fire in your mom’s engine of entitlement if he tells her, “Oh, LW already called me. They’re so thoughtful.”

  17. Oh! How could I forget. This is the one where you tell your mother that you can’t get to the dinner at the last minute. You say no, and you’re feeling pretty good about it (or you haven’t gotten there yet, and you’re feeling iffy, maybe a little panicked about it), but anyway you’re at home writing or with the friends you made plans with, and THAT’S THE MOMENT YOUR MOTHER CALLS. Because you may have gotten out of going to her house for dinner, but there’s no way you’re actually going to have time to yourself not thinking about her. I call this one “hates a party she’s not invited to.”

    I’d flown into town in order to spend time with my elderly parents. My boyfriend and I spent time with them every single day for 2 weeks. That was dinners out, dinners in, errands, trips to the doctor, meeting their friends, their various religious studies classes, their book group, performances they wanted to see, the works. There was one exception. A group of my boyfriend’s old work buddies planned a get-together so I told my parents that we’d be gone that one night. I made the mistake of saying briefly what we were going to do (informal dinner at one of the guy’s home). In the middle of dinner my phone rang, and seeing that it was my mother, I answered it. At the time (and before I thought it through and learned better), I figured that if my mother was calling on my one night off, it must be important. I pictured a medical emergency. Silly me. She’d seen something on television that disappointed her (a candidate we both supported had lost an election) and she wanted to talk it out with me. I stayed on the phone with her for 10 minutes before returning to my friends.

    Later I figured it out. She didn’t see herself as interrupting my enjoyable evening. She wondered how I could be enjoying an evening without her, or she figured that or I was out partying the night away WITHOUT HER. Either way, her loneliness overcame her, and she just had to call.

    Moral: Expect this behavior, and turn off your phone.

    1. I’m working on this issue right now, Clarry, and holy cannoli, “hates a party she’s not invited to” is going into my lexicon immediately. BRILLIANT phrasing.

      Things that have helped:
      1) It’s obvious, but a special “oh crap, it’s your mom calling” ringtone helps. As does muting my phone when I am busy. If I can’t hear it, I don’t get that “shoulders meeting far above my head” OH SHIT anxiety response to the sound of the phone ringing.
      2) Since I didn’t want to pay extra for caller ID on my home phone, I got rid of it. No more “what fresh hell is this?!” feeling when the house phone line rang and I didn’t know if it was a solicitor, a wrong number, or my mom. It was literally never anyone else.
      3) She doesn’t know how to text, thankfully, and neither of us are good about checking email. PROTIP: Do not give her your work email or phone number. Never, ever. Never.
      4) I am terrible about checking my voice mail and answering the phone. I blame my phone (sorry, phone), but it is all me. There are never any good voice mails from her. I do not have a lot of free time to feel like crap and deal with the latest whims and marching orders from her.
      5) This forces her to write down her bullshit on a piece of paper (usually she ignores the notepads I have nearby and just writes on a piece of my mail, which she also rummages through, picking something she deems to be junk but which sometimes isn’t actually junk), and I NOW have something to photograph and share with sympathetic friends who all tell me it isn’t me being wrong and awful, it is her being wrong and awful (and I have something to show my therapist, too). Best idea ever; I wish I had thought of it YEARS ago. *

      * My “favorite” recent NOTE FROM MOM** included a drawing of a hysterically crying face! INORITE? There was a written complaint (on the back of a letter from my health insurance provider and not any one of the fourteen notepads nearby) that wished to inform me that…

      …despite the fact that I am trying to transition from a staffing agency employee without benefits into a full-time law firm employee with benefits and a decent salary, and am thus under stress and working hard, long hours AND despite the fact that she has decided to rewire the entire house where I am staying and install HVAC and despite the fact that three floors of furniture and boxed stuff were moved BY ME up two flights of stairs into three small rooms (never mind that I have had a bad back / scoliosis since the 1970s and it is 100 degrees Fahrenheit out and the house has had no A/C since 1935 when it was built) in less than two weeks while working up to 60 hours a week (and now she wants me to rent a POD or storage unit and movers with my minimum wage salary because hoiking all the stuff I own into three rooms and living without cable or Wi-Fi for a month surrounded by mountains of boxes was not sufficient labor and discomfort on my part to meet her standards), AND despite the fact that I can’t afford the medication for my depression right now and getting out of bed in the morning takes Herculanean effort some days and I am still getting to work on time or early and moving all this shit around and managing basic self-care…

      (here it comes)

      …I have failed to live up to her standards of housekeeping (she hires a maid, lives in a tiny condo, and has no pets), my dead grandmother would be very sad, and she doesn’t understand why I CAN’T JUST DO THIS ONE TINY LITTLE THING ERMAGERD WHY. Because she has told me and told me and told me and TOOOOOLLLLLD MEEEEEE, you know. (INSERT CHILDISH DRAWING OF A HYSTERICALLY CRYING FACE WITH TEARS LIKE RAIN HERE). So hop to it. Chop chop. Tote that barge, lift that bale, I see dust on that mirror, and is that a dead bug in the corner?

      (Choose Your Own Adventure! If you opt to feel bad and crappy, turn to page 10, pursued by a bear, enter the Slough of Despond, which is inhabited by Rats of Unusual Size, and prepare to get eaten by a grue. If you opt to LOL instead, because OMG WTF IDK JFC LOL, turn to page 44 and prepare to deal with round umpty-leven, Revenge of Thwarted Narcissist, wherein your punishment for not demonstrating that you are feeling totally crap about whatever bullshit your Narcissist is ranting about today will be awe-inspiring in its awfulness! Because you have not physically removed yourself from her sphere of influence YET. But you will. In the meantime, deploy sarcasm: Huzzah! Pack a lunch! This will take a while.)

      So YEAH. All my BAD FEELS of shame and guilt and UTTER FAIL AT ADULTING that she wants me to feel so I OBEY her commands would be SO MUCH WORSE if I didn’t share it with my friends and therapist, who Avec-LOL heartily at the narcissistic drama queeniness of it all and give me needed support and perspective.

      So…find some validating friends and document these things if they are a pattern…maybe? That’s all the suggestions I can think of.

      ** I WISH they were as funny as TEXTS FROM DOG. Unfortunately, they aren’t.

      1. She doesn’t know how to text

        I actually have a really nice mom – I didn’t know how lucky I was with my parents until I met my husband’s alcoholic, narcissistic (“You are a BAD SON for not spending Christmas with us”), mean parents.

        But even I yelled at my brother in law for putting my mom, who had nothing but a local land line, on his cellphone plan and giving her an iPhone. My mother has discovered texting, but does not use it for things like, “Get milk” or “At baggage claim” but instead will send me (and my husband) entire paragraphs that end with questions like, “What are you having for lunch?”

        Why yes she discovered the voice function!

        I have had to ask my mom not to text unless there is an emergency. And again, I have a nice mom. Even a nice mom can drive you crazy with texting.

        1. My aunt sends me 4+ paragraph texts complete with salutation and closing. THAT IS NOT HOW THAT WORKS.

          I’m the one who took her out and got her the iPhone because she wanted to be able to do maps on her phone though, so I can’t really complain.

      2. That sounds like an utterly miserable situation but you are amazing at telling a funny story about it. If you felt like writing a blog (and I would totally understand if you couldn’t run the risk of the nuclear freakout that would happen if you mother found it) I would read the hell out of it.

        Also, OMGWTFBBQ that woman deserves some kind of medal for sheer unreasonableness.

        1. I used to blog, but then life happened. Kind of suddenly, inconveniently, and all over the place. But thank you so much, you are very kind.

  18. Oh hey! Another post which is basically about my mom! Brilliant suggestions everyone 🙂

    Tangential but possibly relevant to some:

    Ferdalangur’s guide for Simply Not Picking Up The Phone:
    * Turn off the ringer immediately. Don’t deny the phonecall, just turn off the ringer – it’ll drive you crazy, especially if she keeps calling.
    * Take a deep breath and remember why you are not picking up the phone at the moment – be it because you simply don’t have the time, because you’ve got your mom on notice for a previous instance of being terrible, or because your mother agitates your brainweasels and they’re already running around plenty fast. Whatever it is, remind yourself that this is your reason, and you don’t have to share it or justify it to anybody else. You are an adult and you are allowed to prioritize your own mental wellbeing.
    * If they keep ringing, if possible, give your phone to somebody else – husband, friend, etc. Tell them to keep the ringer off and to give it back to you once you can handle seeing [6078 missed calls from MOM] on the screen. If you don’t have another person around, I find putting my phone in the fridge to be an excellent substitute. There’s something about closing it in there in the cold and dark with yesterday’s leftovers that I find eminently pleasing in that situation. You can, obviously, put it wherever you want.
    * Never explain why you didn’t pick up the phone, unless directly asked. Just say “Sorry, I saw you rang, what’s up, ” or something to that effect, omitting the ‘sorry’ if necessary.
    * If you have to explain, come up with excuses that don’t really require discussion. Suggestions: I took a shower/bath/walk, I had a guest/deadline/study group so it was on silent, I forgot to take it off silent, it was charging [where I couldn’t hear it], I left it in the car/the jacket/the purse/at work/at a friend’s by accident, I had my headphones in, I was vacuuming, I was driving and didn’t have a headset, It was [noisy for whatever reason], you must have rung precisely when I was taking out the garbage/getting a textbook from the attic/had the blender running, I was at school/the gym/the store, etc.
    * Preempt the phonecall – either by calling her first or by stating outright that you’re going incommunicado for a set period due to obligations.
    * Don’t have a home phone /landline. Tell everyone it’s just cheaper that way, and you never used that thing anyway. (If you have to, engineer an “accident” to the physical gadget and then don’t bother replacing it.)
    * Do your best to start the return phonecall with something like “what did you want to talk to me about?” immediately, and don’t let them deviate from answering that by accusing you of not picking up. I find that a quick “I just didn’t hear it, now what’s up” is a fairly efficient redirect.
    * Unless they called you 6078 times, in which case, the correct opening line is “omigosh, is everybody okay? Is dad okay? Is grandma okay? My sibling? The dog? There were 6078 missed calls, I thought it had to be an emergency. Are you sure you’re all right? Are you SURE? Okay, well, what’s up – is it urgent? Do I need to email my teacher/friends/husband and tell them I can’t do today’s lecture/planned activity/dinner tonight? Will I have to make arrangements? Because I can just call and try to explain and hope they’ll be okay and that it can be sorted out.” Of course, there could be an actual emergency, but I’ve found in those cases my mom doesn’t call me 6078 times. She calls me twice, and then tries calling my husband or the kid.

    tl;dr – the short version is, they are not entitled to your time, even if it’s in the form of a phone call or email. Strategically ignoring people can be a very effective method of boundary setting, and you don’t have to apologize or feel guilty for doing so.

    1. Heh. This reminds me of how I broke my parents of calling me at OMG EARLY on weekend mornings. First I asked them not to call me before 10 AM on the weekends. Then when they did, I’d pick up the phone and open with “OMG is Granny okay?” as soon as I heard their voice. (no Caller ID in those days). That would effectively derail what they were calling about, because they’d ask why I asked that. At which point I would say, “Because I’ve asked you not to call me before 10 on the weekends, so I figured if you did it must be some kind of emergency!” And they’d say no, and I’d say, “Okay, then if it’s not an emergency I gotta go,” and hang up.

      It still took months for them to get the message — but they *did* get it eventually. The key was consistency. If they called me before the time I’d set, they got derailed and didn’t get to say whatever they were calling me about.

      1. I used to answer the phone “WHO IS DEAD?” when my mom called more than three times in an hour and that shut that down right quick. Especially since one time she did that it was actually because someone was dead.

        Now she calls once and then texts me with whatever burning question she had.

        We are a blunt family though.

    2. If you do have a landline you can make sure it gets knocked off the hook accidentally. Then the caller just hears a busy signal (I think…it’s been so long since I used one).

      1. One trick I learned from my (historically unreasonable but now much better because I’m a grownup with a car of my own and I can leave the house if I decide I’ve had enough of her bullshit) mother is this: take the part of the phone you hold next to your head off the hook. But then it starts making this really loud annoying buzzing sound to let you know it’s off the hook. So you unplug the cord from the handset. (This means it only works on a corded phone, but still. It’s a handy reason to keep a corded phone around, in addition to the whole “still works during a power outage” thing.) In this case the call will go directly to voicemail, for you to decide how to handle it afterwards.

        1. It only makes the “Hey, I’m off the hook!” noise for a while. I find that if I take it off the hook before I take a shower, its settled down by the time I’m finished.

    3. On the “X missed calls from MOM” thing–my mother’s entry in my contacts says “Firstname”. So if I miss a call or she texts me, it doesn’t say “Mom” and I find that freaks me out way less. I also did that because if something happens to me and someone gets into my phone somehow they won’t call my parents first because there’s nothing to indicate that they’re my parents.

    4. Putting things in the fridge seems somehow like sending them to the corner to think about what they did. I once opened the work fridge and found a laptop. It had been bad.

      1. I understand that this is actually A Thing with electronic devices that are having an intermittent (and therefore undiagnosable) glitch of some kind. Putting the misbehaving item in the fridge will often cause the glitch to become permanent, at which point it can be diagnosed and fixed.

  19. Oh! How could I forget. This is the one where you tell your mother that you can’t get to the dinner at the last minute. You say no, and you’re feeling pretty good about it (or you haven’t gotten there yet, and you’re feeling iffy, maybe a little panicked about it), but anyway you’re at home writing or with the friends you made plans with, and THAT’S THE MOMENT YOUR MOTHER CALLS. Because you may have gotten out of going to her house for dinner, but there’s no way you’re actually going to have time to yourself not thinking about her. I call this one “hates a party she’s not invited to.”

    I’d flown into town in order to spend time with my elderly parents. My boyfriend and I spent time with them every single day for 2 weeks. That was dinners out, dinners in, errands, trips to the doctor, meeting their friends, their various religious studies classes, their book group, performances they wanted to see, the works. There was one exception. A group of my boyfriend’s old work buddies planned a get-together so I told my parents that we’d be gone that one night. I made the mistake of saying briefly what we were going to do (informal dinner at one of the guy’s home). In the middle of dinner my phone rang, and seeing that it was my mother, I answered it. At the time (and before I thought it through and learned better), I figured that if my mother was calling on my one night off, it must be important. I pictured a medical emergency. Silly me. She’d seen something on television that disappointed her (a candidate we both supported had lost an election) and she wanted to talk it out with me. I stayed on the phone with her for 10 minutes before returning to my friends.

    Later I figured it out. She didn’t see herself as interrupting my enjoyable evening. She wondered how I could be enjoying an evening without her, or she figured that or I was out partying the night away WITHOUT HER. Either way, her loneliness overcame her, and she just had to call.

    Moral: Expect this behavior, and turn off your phone.

  20. All really good advice. Just one thing to add: In my opinion, unreasonable, manipulative, intrusive people are not entitled to the truth, as they have waived that entitlement by their own refusal to deal fairly and honestly themselves. Thus, it is ethically sound to lie to such people to make them easier to deal with and to limit their adverse impact.

    1. My best friends have been trying to convince me of this for years, but it’s hard when you’ve been conditioned for 2 decades to never lie because it’s THE WORST SIN IN THE WORLD AND YOU WILL DIE and you were trained to do it very badly so people can always tell if it’s happening and you immediately get caught. I’m working on shutting down convos where the truth is not going to help as a stopgap measure.

      1. I was too conditioned to never lie, under the conviction that my mother will always find out. She was the local version of the CIA director. She knew everyone, she made sure that everyone knew who I was, and she had the gift of touring any conversation to get extensive information. I sometimes joke with friends and say that my mother invented Big Brother.
        We lived in big city with a 2’000’000-people population. Take for granted that, if I was in an given area and I hadn’t informed my mother about it, later she would ask me how an acquaintance happened to see me there. Like that time that she sent me to collect a parcel from a new post office, I got the directions wrong. After twenty minutes wandering, I asked a male passer-by for directions and was able to collect the parcel. Three days later, she called me to her presence: she wanted to know why I had been doing in the wrong street (which I learnt later had several “alleged” night clubs), as Mother-In-Law Of Her Hairdresser had seen me there talking to a older man. This happened all the time. I must say many acquaintances cannot tell my sister and me apart, so sometimes this “you were seen” conversations would end in a verbal fight of accusations where I heatedly denied being there and then, and my mother called me a liar, until at some point it dawned to her that it might be my sister the one that was wandering around. Her philosophy was that kids always keep things from their parents, so they should be treated as liars even if they brought physical proof of the truth.
        I didn’t know how much her attitude drained me until I moved into another country. It took me months, though, to stop telling her everything, after I processed that her informative net could not span over three countries. However, every time that I go back for holidays she tries to establish the old pattern

        1. How awful! This turns the most ordinary things into an accusation! “My landlord’s cousin says you were in Kroger looking at yogurts that were not reduced-fat!”

          1. LULZ!


            But poor you, MadDissector. I, too, was raised to be honest. Funny how it is okay for the people who raised me that way to lie to ME, and to assume I am lying when I am actually not. And yes, it is hard to not tell the truth now that we have been brought up to respect the value of honesty!

            I find that you learn to tell the truth, but maybe not the WHOLE truth, and maybe you skip the NOTHING BUT the truth part, when dealing with people who do not reward your virtuous honesty with reasonable behavior in return, and who think nothing of stomping on your boundaries and lying to you. Once you know what kind of person you are dealing with, you can adjust the breadth and detail of your truthiness accordingly. My default is strict honesty, but if you abuse me as a result, and you do it more than once, then you’re immediately off the guest list and get the P.R. Filter Spin Version instead, if not just grunts, awkward silences and shrugs.

          2. “It’s a lie! It was pudding, not yogurt!”

            But yes, anyone was more credible that I was. In all areas. Even in my area of expertise. I thought that she had an ageism problem until I learnt that my grandfather used the same treatment on her. Until he died, he didn’t believe even that she had earned a title as a trained nurse.

        2. “It is not a lie to keep the truth to oneself.” – Spock

          My mother had that kind of spy network, though not nearly as advanced as your mother’s. It was absolutely amazing how much more relaxed I felt when I finally moved 15 hours away, into a part of the country where she didn’t know anyone and there was NO CHANCE that one of her spies would see me.

        3. Suggestion that is simple to state but probably hard to implement: Deny everything.

          Agent Mom: “What were you doing over on Questionable Street?”
          You: “I wasn’t.”
          Agent Mom: “Yes, you were! My dogwalker’s sister’s postal worker’s cousin’s … neighbor saw you there!”
          You: “They must have been mistaken.”
          Agent Mom: “No, it was definitely you.”
          You: “It wasn’t. They were wrong.”

          Unless Agent Mom can supply photographic evidence (in which case, the conversation is “Why are you asking your friends to stalk me?”), the answer is “No, I was not there,” even (especially!) if you were. If it comes down to “Are you calling X a liar?” the answer is “No, I’m saying X is mistaken, but if the choices are X is lying or I am, then I guess I’m saying X is lying.”

          1. I had to laugh at the conversation re-enactment because it felt so familiar, specially the dogwalker’s sister’s postal worker’s cousin’s part… I cannot remember any more how many conversations fell in the dead end of “I was not there, that person must be mistaken/lying”. My mother’s answer would be “but what reasons would have that person to lie to me? Why would that person mention it to me if that person wasn’t sure it was you?”. I, on the other hand, had plenty of reasons, apparently. At some point I stopped bothering and answering things like “oh, really?” as with a deadpan expression or, if I was feeling annoyed, “oh, really? I could swear that I was somewhere else, so I must be god because I have managed to be ubiquitous”

            I will add another typical exchange that maybe it will be familiar for other people.
            Daughter: “Hi, Mom, I am two hours late because I spent some time drinking coffee with fellow students in pub three streets away!”
            Agent Mom: “I KNOW. The dogwalker’s sister’s postal worker’s cousin saw you.”

            Every damn time. I wish I were more cheeky at the time. Leaving the house saying aloud “good bye, mother mine, I will be at place X so send your spy minions there asap so that they don’t miss me!” would have been just great.

    2. “I’m sorry, I already had plans for that evening” is a classic. No one else needs to know that the plans were studying, a Netflix marathon, or some quality sleep.

  21. Start setting those boundaries and keep at them. Decide for yourself whether you can make it or not. My mom’s very good at a guilt trip, but started getting the message when I started missing things that she would’ve rather had me at.

    For me, it’s partially my mom’s behavior and partially me being the youngest. She’d literally have everything set and unmovable and then say oh yeah, can you make it? No mom, I continue to work weekends just like we’ve talked about. Part of it was that she was having trouble seeing me as an adult with inflexible requirements on my time.

  22. Chiming in just to confirm that I have seen some of these techniques work in action. My boyfriend has a very similar relationship with his mother, and he has also found that enforcing boundaries with her is difficult for him. As the Captain suggests, he has a regular phone call with her. Now, when she calls him multiple times a day for no particular reason, he can refer to the weekly phone call coming up and that assuages her irrational fear that she will never talk to him again. He’s been doing this for about a year, and the number of random phone calls has decreased as far as I can tell.

    Step 3, going directly to your dad, is something he also tried recently with some success. Short version, she ignored a previous conversation they had about the frequency and reciprocity of his visits and tried to guilt him into visiting for Hallmark Holiday. Instead, he spoke to his dad directly about what his dad would want for his holiday, and dad decided to come visit BF instead. Huzzah!

    (I’ve also observed that, in his case at least, it’s definitely true that she taught him and his family to fear her reaction so much that she largely doesn’t need to react. Her relatives will fall all over themselves to placate her without even really thinking about it. This is also why she doesn’t like me – I come with a pre-existing Don’t Give A Fuck About You, Lady button that doesn’t work the way the fear button does.)

  23. Learning the No Fucks attitude is the most important–and hardest–part. I have a cellphone, and email, but I’m not connected at the hip to them. In fact, I only have my cell phone in earshot when I’m physically away from home (not often), and I check my email MAYBE once a week. Anyone and everyone I could give a single care about knows that if they need a timely response to call my landline. If they email or text me (or even ring the cell) I may not get the message until whatever they want is several days in the past. Most people understand this, respect this. One in particular never remembers, even though he doesn’t respond promptly to messages either. You have to learn to just not give a fuck if they don’t get something they want. They know what they need to do, you’ve told them, it’s their problem now.

    It’s hard. It’s really really hard, especially if it’s someone close to you, who you care about. I find the cross-stitch field of fucks helps, it makes me giggle. I can’t giggle and be unreasonably guilty at the same time

    1. When my father first got e-mail (back in the 1990s), he appeared to think that it was magically wired into my brain or something. So it would be Saturday and I’d get home from running errands or being out with friends to find one e-mail asking me a question, followed by a dozen or more increasingly-agitated e-mails at roughly half-hour intervals demanding to know WHY I HADN’T ANSWERED HIM YET! Sometimes interspersed with long whiny answering-machine messages on the phone to the same effect.

      Note: NEVER respond to a long whiny answering-machine message by calling back, even if you had intended to call before you heard the message. This is on the same principle as “don’t reward tantrums” — you never want them to get it into their heads that this shit actually works, or you’ll never hear the end of it.

  24. Captain is right, the first time you set a boundary it is hard and you will feel weird and guilty no matter how much you are sure you are correct in setting the boundary. My parents used to have the expectation that their children would attend ALL family events, including extended family events, unless death bed ill or something else extremely important was going on. This expectation was fine when we were young children, got a bit annoying when I was in high school, was really starting to chafe when I was in college and they still had it when I was married and living in my own place. Since I am the oldest with 3 younger siblings, no one had really challenged this rule more than some teenage grumbling. My husband finally opened my eyes to how unreasonable my parents’ expectation was and he wanted to put our foot down immediately for some event I wanted to attend, but we held off until it was something we didn’t want to attend even though we technically could attend (remember, having a conflict preventing us from going was acceptable). That first time was awful, I felt really bad, my parents were acting hurt and wounded and laying down guilt trips (not intentionally, but still) and so on. The next few times were still hard, but now 14 years of marriage later and all my siblings are married with kids, our relationship with my parents is so much better and expectations and boundaries have been reestablished to something more appropriate for adults. We had to do some hard adjustments when we became parents too as we were the first to do that as well, but by that point it was easier to do because I had practice and because I was protecting my child now too, not just me and my husband. I hope I do better as a parent making this transition as I already know its going to be tough!

    And really, that’s with parents who are mostly reasonable, it’s going to be even harder with at least one parent who probably isn’t. So good luck to you and don’t be afraid to set the boundaries you need to set no matter how weird and guilt-ridden you feel, it will get easier and it will get better even if it is just your attitude about your mother’s reaction getting better.

  25. One of the biggest turning points in my relationship with my narcissist mom was realizing that she didn’t have power over me like she did when I was a child, and that I therefor didn’t have to stress about keeping her happy any more. The first time I walked away from one of her tantrums was still very difficult and nerve-wracking, but if you have someone to hang out with who gets what you’re going through it makes it easier.

  26. A phrase that my mom (who was awesome) used to use on us kids was, “Want shall be your Master.” I have no idea where she got the phrase, I’ve done searches to find its origin without luck. It sounds sorta Buddhist, but Mom had no exposure to any of that in her youth (and most of her adulthood).

    Anyway, she used it when we moaned and whined for some thing or experience, like a trip to the Dairy Queen or some new toy. She’d listen for a bit, sigh, and Pronounce. If we didn’t quite understand the profundity of the message, we sure got the takeaway of “Nope. Not happening. Adjust your expectations accordingly.”

    I would be lying if I denied using Mom’s trusty aphorism when setting boundaries in my adulthood. Gripe all you want about me not doing what you want: Want shall be your master, not mine. Me, I’m free.

    1. I know the same phrase as “want must be your master”. I don’t know the origins but my family use it too.

  27. “Reasons are for reasonable people. For unreasonable people they are just ammunition they use to erode your case for not doing the thing they want you to do.”

    Thank you for this, Cap’n! I think I need it in poster form and framed, to remind me why I shouldn’t bother justifying myself to my mother/mother-in-law when they are determined that I’m Wrong.

  28. LW here! Thanks so much for everyone’s advice/sharing. I think I’ll be coming back multiple times to mine it all for help.

    This whole thing with dinner/me with deadlines just threw me for a loop, likely because I didn’t have the emotional energy to put in the usual boundaries with her (not because being summoned to a dinner is a super-terrible thing). My mother is just so difficult, very critical, sabotaging, and incapable of real connection. Its been a long process realizing its not a situation I can get what I need out of. About a year ago, I realized the narcissist label fit her well, which helped me make sense of her behaviour. And I still have moments when I’ll remember an event from childhood and I’ll realize how abnormal/cruel it was. Present behaviour can still shock me too (at this dinner I got told how terrible I was doing at school, and how badly behaved my dog is – and this is with basically sharing no details of my life with her).

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