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:
“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.
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.
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.
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.