Dear Captain Awkward,
My mom has always been something of a worrier. Anxiety runs in our family. But recently, there’s been this special, specific little anxiety bundle my mom’s been trying to hand me and my brother recently, like a cat leaving a mouse on a doorstep. I don’t know what to do with it!
The situation: my brother is currently living an (for our family) unconventional life. He graduated college, and then instead of getting an office job (like I did, and like my parents have), he’s pursued his creative projects and he got a job at a coffee shop to pay the bills. I think this is just fine. To me, this is the part of his artist’s journey where he struggles to pay the bills as he makes art in his shitty apartment. Not fun, perhaps, but sort of a necessary preamble to greatness. My mom has made it clear that she Does Not Get It. She says it’s not that she disapproves, she just doesn’t understand. She is a very smart lady and the struggling author/artist is a pretty robust cultural touchstone, but she keeps seeking clarification on “what exactly is he doing with his life” in these really hurtful ways.
She has done this same thing multiple times: She has a conversation with her friends about what my brother does for a living. They say something to the effect of “I don’t get it.” Or, “What is he doing, really?” Or, “But why?” My mom then relates this conversation to my brother under the guise of “Let’s figure out a way to explain what you’re doing to my friends, together.” Which – why? Why do your friends need this rock-solid grip on what your son is doing with his life? Also, he’s in his mid-twenties, supporting himself, on his own. Why does she need her friends to weigh in at all on what is, currently, a pretty successful story? She has pulled similar “help me figure out what to tell my friends” about my current state of un-marriedness to my boyfriend. When I told her “we’re happy with the way things are right now,” she seemed genuinely relieved, as though I had given her a script that she (A SMART LADY) could not think of. She hasn’t brought it up again, but my brother’s “I’m following my creative pursuits and figuring things out” script has not stuck quite so well.
Do you have any scripts for what I can say to just make her stop with the “my friends said” nonsense? Or any insight on why she’s doing this in the first place?
I Do Not Want Your Mangled Anxiety-Mouse, Mom
Dear Do Not Want,
Here’s my insight into why your mom does this in the first place: Your mom disapproves of your brother’s choices and wishes he would make career choices that make sense to her (and let her brag about him to her friends). By constantly asking people who are not your brother for advice about and explanations of his choices, she is hoping to a) offload her anxiety onto others in the hopes that her burden will be lighter, b) get attention & commiseration, and/or c) invoke others as a chorus of outside authority that she can add to her concern-trolling, like, “I don’t judge you, but my friends really wonder what your brother’s long-term plans are.” She vents her findings onto you, much like this recent mom who is anxious about holiday gifts, because d) she kinda knows that dumping it all on your brother is not cool and will alienate them from each other and e) if she’s really lucky, you or her friends or someone will pass her concerns onto your brother, like, “Mom is too cool to actually say anything, but she is really concerned about you. When are you gonna get a job that we all perceive as ‘real’ so your poor mother can stop worrying?” Think of this as an emotional circling of the wagons with your brother playing dual roles of “innocent who must be protected and guided by his community” and “confusing outsider with dangerous views.”
Some venting to friends about things that worry you is normal, and your mom may or may not be entirely self-aware about what she’s doing here. Lots of people channel anxiety in annoying ways, and venting can be a habit that is hard to break on your own especially if you’re in a low place. Your mom’s behavior is also one of the reasons I suggest that people should confront others’ awkward behaviors based on their own observations and experiences – “I think, I have observed, this is not working for me, etc. – rather than appealing to the (possibly fictional) authority of the group. The totally understandable reaction of “Wait, you were all talking about me when I wasn’t there? What did so-and-so say about me, exactly?” creates both drama and a distraction from the issue you want the person to address.
Where does this leave you?
- “I dunno, Mom, he seems pretty happy when I talk to him.” + “So, about [subject change]?”
- “Well, it seems like your friends really have your back on this/have covered all the angles.” + “Let’s talk about something else!”
- “Besides telling him how you feel, is there something else you think you can or should reasonably do about this?”
- “That sounds like a question for brother; frankly I have no idea what the market for [paintings of naked cis het men with guns where their cocks should be and dicks where their fingers should be][avant-guard cinema projected in a minivan for an audience of 4-6][a rock opera based on Dune starring Janelle Monae and Florence Welch] is like.”
- “Even if you’re right, the only person who can decide that is Brother.”
- “Mom, I don’t want to spend all my time with you today fretting about brother. I’m gonna make us a cup of tea, and when I come back, let’s talk about something else.”
- “Mom, sorry to cut you off, but frankly I don’t share your worries about brother. Let’s change the subject before we get in to deep.” Oh yeah. Interrupt her if you need to. You are probably a polite and not-interrupty person and this will feel very, very wrong the first three-five times you do it, but as she adapts it will start to feel oh so right.
- “I’m glad you can talk to your friends about things that bother you! How about that [subject change]?”
- “Yes, I am changing the subject on purpose. I feel worn out by this topic and I am not the best audience for it.”
- IF you have the energy for a bigger conversation, “Mom, you’ve told me this story three times. What’s really going on here?”
- “Huh.” “Wow.” “You don’t say.” “Hrmm, interesting.” “I don’t think that’s true.”
If you’ve always absorbed her worry before without protest, be prepared for some harrumphing and guilt-tripping of the “can’t I even talk to my own daughter?” variety. Ride it out and stick to your boundary. Over time, your mom may or may not find better audiences and coping methods for dealing with her worry, but she will most likely learn to catch herself and dial it back around you, which is the one thing you can really try to control. You don’t have to eat the dead mouse of her anxiety. Disengage!