#775: “Mom, stop leaving your anxiety-mouse on my doormat.”

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!


187 thoughts on “#775: “Mom, stop leaving your anxiety-mouse on my doormat.”

  1. haven’t even read the response yet, just came here to say what an amazing signoff that is!!

      1. Really? I find it really awful and triggering. Awful awful awful. Did it have to be my worst phobia?

        1. I think this is a really inappropriate thing to try to make others responsible for – it’s not really a common phobia or trigger.

          1. Mice are a common phobia but it’s very difficult to accommodate phobia triggers into media, and to be honest I agree that people shouldn’t feel obliged to- phobias can be literally anything and we all trigger differently. I say this as someone who has a fairly serious phobia myself.

      2. It’s really apt, because, much like a cat trying to teach its person to hunt, the LW’s mom is trying to teach LW/LW’s brother, “Hey, this is a thing to be anxious about!”

        1. With a dose of, “I brought this thing to you that I care very much/am concerned about.” when all the recipient can think is, “Oh…um…yeah…I really didn’t need to have to deal with this today”

    1. Seconding that! It’s a brilliant sign-off! Too much experience with this sort of thing, and I wish this metaphor had occurred to me earlier. Thank you, LW!

  2. Ugh, the Anxiety Mouse. I am familiar. You know what? It’s totally ok that your mom doesn’t understand what your brother is doing with his life. I think it’s totally ok to tell her that it’s ok that she doesn’t understand, and he’s the authority on his life, and maybe she should talk to him about it. CUT SCENE.

    I, too, have a sibling whose life I don’t understand, but I’m not supporting him, he doesn’t live with me, and he hasn’t asked me for money, so not my circus, not my monkey. When my grandma asks me what my sib is doing with his life, I very honestly tell her I’ve no idea.

    1. I have similar circus/monkey thoughts about my brother’s relationship with our mother. Neither of us gets on with her, but he’s almost totally disengaged to the point where he never sees her more than once a year and it can sometimes take her up to 6 months to get any form of communication from him. Every time I see her she vents about this and then asks me “am I really that terrible that he doesn’t want to know me?” and then waits for my answer. Which I don’t give, because the honest answer is “yes.” I just say, “I understand that you’re upset, but I can’t speak for [brother]. Only he can do that.” I let her carry on asking similar questions for a while, which I answer with “hmm” or “I see” all the while mentally reciting “not my circus, not my monkey” then I say “I’m putting the kettle on, want a coffee?”

      Sadly when she sees my brother she wastes what little time she gets with him by asking him the same questions and (as is her habit) badgering him until she gets an answer. It’s not my place to tell her that this is *exactly why* he doesn’t talk to her in the first place, but one day he’ll crack and say it himself.

      So thanks OP and thanks Captain. This has helped me feel better about dealing with my own mother’s anxiety mouse…sorry I don’t have much to contribute but I think those scripts are perfect.

      1. Try being honest with her. “You’re so mean about him and to him that I’m not surprised he doesn’t want the albatross of disapproval and guilt hung around his neck all the time.”

        1. IME someone asking “am I really so terrible that etc etc” will flip right the fuck out when told yes, even if you soften it.

          1. Yep. This is a trap! “Am I really so/I’m sorry I’m so [hyperbole]” is a technique my otherwise-pretty-great mom uses all the time, it’s fishing for validation OR an attempt to make the other party look like they’re overreacting. In my experience, any response aside from “no, of course not” is unacceptable and will be read as “YES AND I WANT TO FIGHT ABOUT IT!” – even if it’s as low-key as “Mom, you know you’re not terrible! But when you do [x] it causes [y negative consequence].”

          2. Maybe, not always? My My mother will occasionally (like twice a year) out of the blue ask “Was I that bad of a mother?” I have a half sister who cut ties about 7 years ago. Now two children can grow up in the same house and have very different experiences, but my mother tried so hard to make life fair (The daddy was MY daddy and I’m his only biological kid) my dad often spoiled me. I’ve given her a complete and complex answer every time. The short answer would be you were a very good mother who was maybe not the most emotional. All she really needs from the ritual is remember that she can’t do anything about it now.

          3. Yeah, when my mom said something like that, it was my early warning that the guilt-inducing mom tears were about to start.

        2. You could try: “Why? What do you want to hear, exactly?” or “Why do you ask?” And see if she admits to anything, be it an honest answer or need for validation.

      2. From my experience, telling a badgery mum “this thing you’re doing right now is exactly why it stresses me out to talk to you” does absolutely nothing good. She will just get very hurt and indignant and everything will be terrible. Also, don’t you know, child-of-acquaintance totally calls every week with a full life update and every time her friends ask *her* how you’re doing she doesn’t even have a good answer and how do you think that looks????

        1. With the awesome bonus that now she has Actual Legitimate Feedback that it’s causing you distress, so she can double down. I was in my late twenties before I realized that my default expression when in terrible emotional distress, especially fear, is one of *immense and consuming boredom*. I can almost certainly tell you *exactly* when I achieved that ability, in retrospect.

  3. I LOVE this metaphor. LW, you are a genius. Have you considered giving up your office job and pursuing a creative career?

    One thing you haven’t said in your letter is how your brother feels about this. Is he bothered? Is he annoyed or stressed by your mother? Or is he just happy to let it wash over him? If he is Living The Life Of The Struggling Artist, then your mother is probably sticking to the script perfectly. It’s pretty likely that he has a group of friends and friendish people doing similar things and My Parents Just Don’t Understand Me is Regular Topic #4 right after Where’s The Best Place To Get Really Cheap Food and Ugh, Rent.

    If your brother is bothered and upset by it and you want to support him, you might want to do a bit of dead mouse clear-up with your mother just so he doesn’t have to, so that might be a good time to explore her anxiety a little more and see if you can get her to admit that she is anxious and then you can perhaps reassure her. On the other hand, if your brother is actually fine and happy, then why not just keep deflecting? This isn’t actually your problem.

    1. Why, thank you! And yes, I HAVE. That’s part of what makes me so, “Brother, you do you. YOU DO YOU.”

      The Captain’s scripts are excellent, and I’ll be using them. My brother is pretty upset about the conversations. But our parents are generally kind and supportive people who always gave the (apparently, possibly just lip service) “find what you love and do it!” line a lot of play in our childhoods. So my brother has been very bewildered and hurt by all this.

      He’s tried talking to her, but his method of dealing with parental conflict growing up was always “leave the room until it goes away” whereas mine was “talk it out, cry it out,” so he and my mom are still working on how to conversate properly. So I step in, High Emotional IQ Woman to the rescue, maybe more than I should.

      The last time I tried to have the conversation of “this particular construction of ‘my friends think your life is bad’ is hurtful, please stop using it with brother” with her, she became very upset, not least because it meant that my brother and I had been having a conversation about her. The irony! The conversation as a whole did not go great. She really didn’t seem to understand why the conversation was hurtful. She honestly seemed to think she should be able to run my brother’s life choices past her friends and then run their responses past him. It was very weird.

      I am planning on sending these scripts to my brother, so he can do the deflecting himself.

      1. The part about your parents always having been big proponents of “find what you love and do it” might be worth bringing up in a script as well, either for you or for your brother. “Mom, I’m confused. When we were growing up, you always told us to do what we loved, not what [seemed socially expected or whatever]. But now that [Brother is/I am] doing exactly that, and [he is/I am] happy, you want [him/me] to stop and do something more [common/ordinary/usual/conventional]. I don’t get it.”

      2. “Even if you’re right, the only person who can decide that is Brother.”

        This is my favorite deflection of the bunch.

        I love love LOVE the Dead Mouse of Parental Anxiety metaphor, and I am SO using it (in my head), the next time my mother brings me “concerns” about my daughter’s professional future.

        Which is kind of hilarious, because she’s in her final year of college, was on the Dean’s List last year, is pursuing a degree that is highly desirable by employers, and in a program that has a high post-employment rate — but what she REALLY wants to talk about is when I’m going to “make” my daughter dye her hair back to brown, rather than purple. The job stuff is just the facade of actual concern. *facepalm*

        I do pretty much what the Captain says, deflect with scripts: “Yes, the job market is bad for everyone, but she is making the smartest choices under the circumstances.” “You’d need to talk to her about that, not to me.” “It didn’t stop her from getting into college, so it’s entirely possible that she WILL get hired with purple hair.”

        My sympathies for having a similarly-inclined parent (although mine is manipulative/narcissistic/evil in addition to just “concerned” — I’m glad that it sounds like yours isn’t!), because it’s so frustrating to have them dump on you, when they SHOULD either STFU or talk to the actual person who they’re “concerned” about.

        Best of luck to your brother — and, hey, if he IS writing that Janelle/Florence rock opera, I would totally become a Kickstarter backer!! 😉

      3. From what you say here I read two issues:
        1) brother is upset about what mother has said
        2) everyone- including you – expects you to fix brother’s problem with mother

        You don’t have to. Maybe you shouldn’t .

        If you decide not to play translator any more, here are some scripts.

        To brother:

        Brother, translating your feelings to Mom isn’t working. I believe that if you want her to stop you’ll have to say so directly.

        To mother:
        Mom, I believe that harping on how you don’t understand Brother’s choices distresses him, and I know going between you two hasn’t solved anything. So I won’t be translating his feelings any more.

        You and your brother SO nd awesome.

        1. EXACTLY THIS. If Mom drops a dead mouse on Brother’s doorstop, stop cleaning it up for the two of them.

      4. From what you say here I read two issues:
        1) brother is upset about what mother has said
        2) everyone- including you – expects you to fix brother’s problem with mother

        You don’t have to. Maybe you shouldn’t .

        If you decide not to play translator any more, here are some scripts.

        To brother:

        Brother, translating your feelings to Mom isn’t working. I believe that if you want her to stop you’ll have to say so directly.

        To mother:
        Mom, I believe that harping on how you don’t understand Brother’s choices distresses him, and I know going between you two hasn’t solved anything. So I won’t be translating his feelings any more.

        You and your brother sound awesome.

      5. Alas, parents who say “find what you love and do it!” often include a silent “…in a way that we approve of” and perhaps even “but of course you’ll do it in a way we approve of because we love you and think you’re splendid”. Sometimes the most affectionate parents are the most startled when their child does something they didn’t expect, because they assume that loving each other means naturally agreeing without having to discuss things.

        It also sounds to me like your mom might be worried about her friends thinking less of her because her son is doing this “unconventional” thing. It’s natural for her to talk with her friends about what’s happening with her kids–that’s a thing parents do. But if the friends get judgey about it, she may start to worry about her social standing, and then she wants you/your brother to provide some magic phrase that will let her explain to her friends that she is not a bad mother and hasn’t raised some terrible reprobate who will be a drain on society, destroy the nuclear family, etc. That is something she needs to sort out for herself with her peers. It’s not a thing you can fix for her.

        It sucks to have a loving, permissive parent who’s supportive right up until it’s time to defend your choices when judgey people judge them. And you wouldn’t even have known about the judgey people if she hadn’t told you! No wonder you and your brother are upset.

        I think you’re right to tell your brother to shoulder this himself, because you really can’t set boundaries on his behalf, and because your mother is so distressed by the idea of you being a go-between who actually goes between rather than simply carrying her messages undiluted to your brother. For yourself, stick with “He’s doing what makes him happy, and I don’t want to discuss it beyond that”. Your mom’s friends need to be your mom’s problem, and you’re totally within your rights to tell her not to make them your problem too.

        1. “Alas, parents who say “find what you love and do it!” often include a silent “…in a way that we approve of” ”

          Truth! Years, I spent YEARS with my parents expecting that I would be a teacher. They’re both teachers, most of their friends are teachers, of course my sister and I would be teachers!

          My sister is a librarian, so that’s close, but I never, ever was remotely interested in anything even close to teaching. I studied art, I studied jewelry design (just in time for the economic crash, yay), and now I’m studying welding. I don’t like people. I especially don’t like being the center of people’s attention. Just let me sit in a corner and work with my hands. It took my parents 20+ years to accept that I am not going to be a freaking teacher. It took me a long time to figure out what I did want to do, but I always knew what I didn’t want to do.

          Also, I kind of loathe “find what you love and do it”. If everyone only did what they loved, we’d have very few garbage collectors and restaurant servers and store clerks and all the other important but not particularly beloved jobs out there.

          1. Definitely a derail but re: the last bit, my theory is there are actually a lot of people whose “what they love” is doing a job that isn’t the centre of their life. So if they were paid well and had decent hours, as well as being treated with respect, plenty of people would do gross/boring jobs. /my imaginary better world

          2. Careers adviser speaking: “find what you love and do it” needs to die. It’s really terrible careers advice for about 85% of the population!

          3. I do think you could get away with telling people “do something you find satisfying.” I actually find a wide variety of vaguely menial jobs (farm laborer, store clerk, janitorial-type work) more satisfying than most of the desk jobs I’ve had, because it’s immediately obvious why it needs to be done and what the benefit is for me and other people. Whereas many of my office jobs have activated the “WTF am I even here” center in my brain.

          4. I am now, in my thirties, finally accepting the I *don’t* have one thing that I love and want to do forever. I have many things I would like to do and am now looking for what I hope will be a stable and reasonably low stress admin job that I will mostly enjoy, with pay and schedule to facilitate the other things. But I wasted years trying to attach to things that I was passionate about, but maybe not enough to actually want to do them for the rest of my working life.

          5. I have a job that, in large part, involves moving pieces of paper from one pile to another after making a brief notation on each, and/or on another piece of paper. Some get copies made and filed with other people. I also answer phone calls, and chase people around imploring them to sign things. I love my job. I do not love it as much as I love teaching Greek and Latin literature, which is what all my degrees are in, but I love that when I leave my office, my work stays there. This whole week I have spent my evenings at home sitting on the sofa drinking cinnamon bucks and playing with my Hey Day farm while my roommate obsessively marathons Season 1 of Jane the Virgin, and next month I plan to write a novel. I could never do that if I were teaching.

          6. I’m sorry that due to the way comments are here, I can’t respond to each of you, because I love all your comments!

            @hrovitnir – that’s the other reason I didn’t want to teach, because I watched my mom work from at least 7am to 8pm every weekday (even if school hours were 8-3), and my dad work weekends and vacations, and I could never see myself doing that. I agree, with good pay and decent hours and respect, lots of people wouldn’t mind all kinds jobs. I’d like to live in that world.

            @Mary – It’s become so entrenched in our culture, sigh. Even my teachers keep spouting that nonsense.

            @Jane – I definitely had some office jobs that activated my “WTF am I even here” center as well. I found some of the satisfying, but those were never the long-lasting ones, unfortunately. Some of them may have been satisfying BECAUSE they were of short duration, and as you say, it was clear what needed to be done and why.

            @Solestria – Yes! I am not actually a passionate sort of person, so I don’t have “things I love” that are job types of things. I’m studying welding now and I’m interested in welding and I enjoy it but I’m not passionate about it. I could have picked one of several other fields and I would probably be equally happy, this is just the one I happened to choose. Good luck with your job hunting!

            @Pumpkin deSpice – I had someone tell me once that the difference between a “job” and a “career” is that a job stays at the office when you leave for the night. And I was like, why is that a bad thing? Your week sounds more like how I’d like mine to go. And good luck with your nano!

          7. Hahahaha ME TOO
            Even now, with my own career in a field that is not teaching, I still get comments like “You could teach it!” comments and have to go through the whole “Mom I don’t have any interest in being a teacher” talk all. over. again.

            Commiseration feathers here for you.

        2. Such a good summary! My mom does this, and she does it HARD. Her angst about how she appears in front of family/friends gets in the way of her respecting me and my siblings’ decisions, and it’s hard to watch and experience. For example, after one of us expresses an opinion she disagrees with in a public space, she’ll loudly state “it’s so hard to raise children, isn’t it?”, effectively (she thinks) washing her hands of the situation.

          I’ve found the best way to deal with her anxiety mice if she specifically brings them to me is to say, “I’m sorry you have that sad/hard/scared feeling,” and change the subject. It validates her fear without taking care of it for her. If her comments are not directed at me, I ignore them completely.

        3. It took me a good 20 years to figure out that “You can do whatever you want!” had a silent addendum of “as long as it’s also what we want.” Those expectations are a weird and gaslighty realm to live in.

      6. He is definitely not alone in the whiplash of, “Do what you love–NO NOT THAT.” Parents these days often have a lot of really outdated ideas of how jobs and the economy work, and may have actually thought that we wouldn’t have to choose between vocational fulfillment and financial security.

        1. Ha, they also thought that “financial security vs. fulfillment” would be actual choices, like, jobs for young people that offer financial security are common things that young people callously reject out of rebellion, when really so many people can find neither.

          1. My parents must have an attitude like this. It’s the only thing I can think of that explains “you need to get a job that will allow you to be financially supporting– no, don’t interview there; if they hire you the commute will be awful and you’ll get into a car crash this winter when the roads are icy and DIE!”

          2. This makes me want to laugh in recognition, and let us pay no nevermind to the fact that the laugh is mixed in with hiccups and tears.

            So very very true.

      7. I am definitely backing your decision to send the scripts to your brother. It sounds like your mom is going to keep trying to enlist your emotional support, so it’ll be good for you to have them on hand as well, but your brother can handle his career-creative pursuits balance like an adult, so he can handle Mom like one as well.

        But ugh, the expectation to be the High Emotional IQ Woman. I’m glad my family realized early on that I have the emotional depth of a mud puddle in Death Valley.

      8. I tend to be pretty blunt with my mom, so adjust accordingly:

        “It’s okay not to understand, Mom. You should probably just accept that you don’t understand and you don’t have to.”

        “If you don’t know why Brother is doing ________, ask Brother. I’m not going to mediate between you two.”

        “But Mom, don’t you remember that you and Dad always used to tell us to find what we love and do it?”

        That last one is admittedly snarky and opens the door for Mom to keep dumping her feelings on you, but throwing parental wisdom back in the parents’ faces is a time-honored kid debate tactic.

      9. >> But our parents are generally kind and supportive people who always gave the (apparently, possibly just lip service) “find what you love and do it!” line a lot of play in our childhoods. So my brother has been very bewildered and hurt by all this.

        Oh gosh, this sounds a lot like me coming out to my mum. She was very upset by me coming out as gay, and part of being upset was her disappointment in herself for not getting it. She’d always assumed she would be totally cool with something like that, and then she was just so disappointed with herself for freaking out and she directed a lot of that self-disappointment at me, as if I’d cause it.

        But the thing was, the supportiveness was real, and the worry and the angst was temporary. It wasn’t lip-service, it was what she really believed, and eventually once she’d realised that i was happy, she got over herself. Hopefully that will be the case for your mother too!

        1. Can I just say, I love this site and the commenters here? You all are so awesome.

          “She’d always assumed she would be totally cool with something like that, and then she was just so disappointed with herself for freaking out and she directed a lot of that self-disappointment at me, as if I’d cause it.”

          I think this is what’s happening for my mom. She did a lot of bucking of parental expectations in her early life and I think deep down she really does want us to follow our dreams. But I think there’s some class anxiety, too? So she’s able to quell her anxiety about my brother’s unconventional DUNE OPERA (I’ll get you all tickets!) until her friends sneer at it (HOW DARE THEY. JANELLE MONAE.) and then it’s an anxiety spiral into “but what if it doesn’t work and he has to struggle and I worked hard to give my children opportunities I didn’t have,” etc. And then she gets kind of resentful when I’m like, “Brother is happy, and I think he’s going to do great.” Because “easy for you to say, if he fails he’s not going to be moving in with you.” Which, he could, but I get her point. She wants to be “follow your dreams” mom, but there’s a lot of worry standing in her way. Very stressful!

          1. Oh for the love of grid. LW, your mom sounds like a basically decent person but that class shit needs to die. right now. Mr. Jaunty’s mom did this exact same thing and it was fucking corrosive; the constant undercurrent that your child is one of THOSE people and she would rather dump her class shame on him than tell her friends to shove it up their asses.

          2. >>And then she gets kind of resentful when I’m like, “Brother is happy, and I think he’s going to do great.” Because “easy for you to say, if he fails he’s not going to be moving in with you.”

            And it’s also not *your* failure. Again, for my mum, raising children was the most important thing she’d done in her life, and basically our happiness was the verdict on whether or not she’d succeeded. When she got anxious about my sexuality or my brother’s academic career or whatever, it was because she wanted us to be happy and the more “conventional” routes where the ones where it was easier for her to see the direct route to Happy Offspring: she could logically see that unconventional routes might also lead to Happy Offspring, but she didn’t have the map for that. And if we failed, that was her failure.

            Which is a heavy burden to place on your kids! In my case, I was pretty confident that the way I was living was the direct route to Happy for me, so I had confidence that once what she was actually seeing caught up and overtook her Conventional Map, things would be fine.

            If you feel like doing some mom-management, can you reassure her very firmly of her Good Momhood before changing the subject, using lots of words like “trust” and “let go” that validate her worries, but also bolster the “follow your dreams” Mom image she wants to be? Lots of words like, “You’ve got to trust him. Maybe this won’t work out, but it’s really important to him to try. You did a great job raising us, he’s got his degree, he’s got a lot of support and he’s sensible: he’ll give the Dune musical his best shot, and if it doesn’t work out, he’ll find something else that makes him happy. You are a great mom and you did a good job! Anyway, are you watching [TV show]?”

          3. Your mom needs better friends, if they don’t realize how awesome Janelle Monae is. All kidding aside, I think if your mom’s friends are sneering at an adult child, who’s supporting himself, then they have bigger problems than your mom.

      10. “find what you love and do it” is a fantastic thing for parents to say. But they’re all really hoping that what you love is super stable accounting work at a major firm where you will make partner by 35 or other traditional/prestigious/easily understood goal.

        I have a sibling whose life choices cause much consternation among our family. My parents complain a lot about it and anxiety mouse drop about it all the time. I have my own anxiety mice about it and I will not accept them AT ALL because they are enabling many of his choices.

        Side note, my in laws are in a literal dead mouse war right now. A neighbor’s cat is allowed to roam and leaves them presents. They drop them on the neighbor’s porch in little baggies.

        1. That may be what many parents secretly mean, but certainly not all. My mother for example, has been enthusiastically supportive of me pursuing careers that are neither lucrative nor socially prized.

          I think a lot of parents who may actually turn out to be supportive have an initial period of anxiety where they think that you must not really know what you’re getting into and that you’ll end up unhappy after all. Hopefully LW’s mother will get past those feelings and be able to see that Brother can manage his own affairs and his own happiness.

        2. I don’ think any parent expects you to love accounting, and I don’t think it’s helpful to paint the mother as hopelessly slf centered. I’ve hung out with a lot of artists and artist wannabes, and my experience is that even at 20, the successful ones have a plan. Not a pie in the sky, will be discovered, magic will happen plan, but almost a business plan: okay I have this mentor who will teach me these things about my craft, and I’m interning with this company that might allow me to develop small works, which I’ll lead to… They know what the typical career path is, and more importantly will know when they haven’t made adequate progress to justify staying on it.

          I guess it’s the same with the marriage thing, that from a parental standpoint, I would just want to hear that a child isn’t investing her time without asking some hard questions. If neither wants a long term commitment or kids or even to live together, great, but too often I hear that one person is just closing their eyes and hoping the commitment will magically arrive, out of inertia.

          Does anyone owe their parents this level of detail about their life choices, of course not. And we all know parents who wouldn’t accept the plan if you told them. But if your parents aren’t jerks and you do actually have a career vision, why not share it with them?

    2. This is a very excellent point! Now that you mentioned it, I’m flashing back to my Struggling Artist days and remembering it was weird that I *didn’t* have a parent who was Gravely Concerned about my life choices (and expressing that concern in increasingly passive-aggressive ways). Which is not to minimize Brother’s distress, at all, if he is distressed. I’m just agreeing that it is highly likely he has a support network in place for this, and LW should consider asking whether or not that is the case before getting anxious about it on his behalf, if LW has not done so already.

      1. My cousin is currently writing a rock opera based on the dinner party scene from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Maybe I should direct him to this next?

    1. I haven’t even finished the Captain’s answer, and I opened this page so I could say ROCK OPERA BASED ON DUNE STARRING JANELLE MONAE AND FLORENCE WELCH

      because that needs to be said, like, a hundred times more

    2. “[a rock opera based on Dune starring Janelle Monae and Florence Welch]”

      This must happen. ❤

  4. If this was my own difficult and status-obsessed mom I would reflect back a nicer version of her, and give her a chance to embrace it.

    Like, “Mom, I really appreciate about you that you support us even though we sometimes make decisions you don’t understand. I’m sure Brother appreciates you standing up for him to your friends, but don’t stress yourself out over it – you can always just tell them you’re not worried and they shouldn’t be either. Anyway, how’s That Thing You Love?”

    I’m not saying that this is an accurate depiction of your mom’s attitude or actions. It definitely wouldn’t be of mine. But sometimes when I do this with mine, she goes, “Oh, right, I AM that awesome!” and it causes her to reframe what’s going on so that her being supportive/less of a jerk reflects on what a great parent she is, and then she does it. At least a bit. (Yay narcissism?)

    1. “I’m sure Brother appreciates you standing up for him to your friends, but don’t stress yourself out over it – you can always just tell them you’re not worried and they shouldn’t be either. Anyway, how’s That Thing You Love?”

      Cannot even tell you how much I adore this response! My Holiday Stress Forecast (Conversation with Family Members edition) just dropped by about 50%.

      1. I’m so glad you found that helpful, Cypress! It can be useful for all sorts of concern trolling.

        The intermediate version of this script can, if desired, incorporate physical gestures – eye contact, reassuring handwaves, shoulder pats, and hugs.

        In the advanced version of this script, after much practice, you can consider very VERY careful small doses comparing of the problematic relative to others who are less enlightened (“so nice that you’re supportive unlike your friend X who criticizes her kids…”). USE WITH CAUTION. This can backfire to a place of “Yes, I AM so much nicer than X, you don’t appreciate me!”

    2. “I would reflect back a nicer version of her, and give her a chance to embrace it.” Oh my goodness. Lightbulb moment. I know a couple people with whom this would be 100% successful. In general they are generous, intelligent people but can be, ah, unpleasant in the particulars.

    3. You’ve phrased this so well! I was thinking along related lines, of LW recounting specific instances and now saying affectionately to Mom, “Remember that time, when we were all baking cookies and you told Aunt Madge that you always wanted us to make our own choices in life? I have always loved that. You should be proud, Mom.”

      Then, I saw what Braver has written downthread and LW could keep in mind, doing some maneuvering to keep Mom from having the ability to say to Brother, “Well, when I talked this over with LW, she said…” Inferring you welcomed being judgemental about Brother’s life, and giving her leverage.

      Mom wants to be on the winning team, and she’s fearful, thinking her peers are right. She will only be happy, though, when she’s back on Team Brother. Reminding her of her successful parenting should give her a position to be openly proud of Brother to her peer group.

      Brother is going to struggle and maybe have doubts until he gets that darn Dune opera written, and how awesome would it be that not only his peers but his sister, too, are firmly and vocally on Team Brother.

      1. “She will only be happy, though, when she’s back on Team Brother. Reminding her of her successful parenting should give her a position to be openly proud of Brother to her peer group. ”

        That is so wise and well-put, Myrtle. Then she can crow to her friends about how she supports her kids being independent and creative and all kinds of stuff. And can throw in a bit about how they haven’t moved back in either, if desired!

    4. THIS IS FANTASTIC THANK YOU SO MUCH. Signed, I have to see my wildly narcissistic mother in two months and I’m already dreading it

      1. My absolute pleasure, Kat. Why not make the narcississm work for us for once? Time enough for it to start doing something useful around here.

    5. This is soooo good. “Reflect back a nicer version of her.” Thank you! I think my mom really does want to be that nicer person, but impressing her peers matters more to her than I would have expected, and this construction works great for whichever mom version I’m speaking to: The I’m Worried For My Son’s Future Mom or the I Wish He’d Get A Job That Was Easier To Brag About Mom.

      1. My pleasure, LW. Yeah, that’s what I like about it too – it works if she is actually legit concerned or if she is just concern trolling to get you on her side. I hope it helps!

        It’s great to give people a chance to live up to your expectations and I hope your mom will step up.

  5. Dear LW,

    The Captain’s scripts are what I could have used years ago when people. ( including my mother) concern trolled at me about others.

    When my mother did it, I had two internal reactions: annoyance and please go away; and also, the remnants of pride that I was so grown up that my mother could share her concerns with me.

    That pride left me feeling like a collaborator in the engagement. I felt as though I couldn’t (or at least, shouldn’t) tell her to stop because I had gotten something out of it in the past.

    But it’s not appropriate for adults to confide in children, and it’s often not appropriate for parents to confide even in adult children.

    I reduced my mother’s flow of inappropriateness by calling it out directly. “Mama, that’s not something you should be telling me.” “Too much information.” “Please discuss that with X not me.”

    Also, occasionally: “What are you trying to accomplish by this?”

    Yes, she did say “Can’t I talk about Fraught Inappropriate Thing with my own daughter?”

    I said, “No. You can’t. That’s what friends and therapists are for.”

    But it was hard. And she relapses. And I have to stop her even now.

    Tl;dr. Even when in the past you felt good that she confided in you, you may and can change the interaction.

    1. Ohh, this is my go to response when my friends are getting a little too gossipy for me. I call it being a PollyAnna.

      Friend: Can you believe she just paid $$$ for that?
      Me: I know, she’s such a supportive patron of the arts!

      Friend: I can’t believe they’re charging that much for X!
      Me: I know, so reasonably priced! I bet it took 20 hours to make, why they’re not even making minimum wage at that price. I wonder if they’re willing to raise their prices?

      1. Heh. I do that to someone in my life who is very complainy and whose opinions I rarely agree with. It works quite well when she says something racist and expects me to agree, so I deliberately and spectacularly miss the point she’s trying to make and end up saying something positive about the very people she’s trying to denigrate. It drives her nuts but she can’t really respond without being obviously and openly racist, which she doesn’t believe she is.

        1. Missing the Point Repeatedly and Optimistically is my most favorite way to deal with gross sexist/racist/whatever comments from people (when I’m feeling up for it, and that often isn’t the case if comment hits close to home). Worst case, they think I’m an idiot because OMG EVERYONE KNOWS that [group] does [stereotypical thing,] but at least it short-circuits whatever feedback they originally hoped for (which isn’t always agreement, they pride themselves on being super un-PC, you know). Best case, they might actually reexamine why they believe that thing or made that joke in the first place.

        2. THIS. I’ve got a friend who lives completely within our own ethnic group, where I am the only one, where I live. So when she talks hatefully about another ethnic group, I can truthfully and affectionately say, “I just realized that when I was injured in the accident, all the people who were kindest to me were (attacked group.) Hunh.”

          She hasn’t brought it up in a long while, actually.

          1. That’s a great response! I’d guess it might be the best way you can help actually change her views, too.

      2. You are my second-favourite craft-show patron. First-favourite if you also buy The Thing. Thank you for wising up your friends. That is all.

    2. Yes, she did say “Can’t I talk about Fraught Inappropriate Thing with my own daughter?”

      I said, “No. You can’t. That’s what friends and therapists are for.”

      Solidarity fistbump! I drew the line a little more rudely because I’d been parentified for decades.

      “I don’t want to talk about Inappropriate Uncomfortable Thing.”

      “Well then who CAN I TALK TO ABOUT IT?”

      “ANYONE BUT ME.”

  6. My (engineer who always knew what he wanted to do) dad dealt with his anxiety about both my and my brother’s inexplicable (to him) lack of a definable career in our meandering, creative 20s by reading The Rise of the Creative Class (which apparently explains this phenom) and giving both of us copies, so we’d understand it too. (I didn’t read it but I politely thanked him for it).

    All of which is to say, you are not alone LW – parents get weird about children choosing a different path. Set boundaries, disengage and good luck.

    1. Parents do get weird about that. I spent much of my twenties fighting bitter feels about my mother’s non-reaction to me becoming the first person in the family to get an undergraduate degree, then a Master’s and to embark on a successful career trajectory. One of her friends said to me after my first graduation, “I bet your mother’s proud of you, isn’t she?” I had no idea how to respond, because the truthful answer was that she’d spent my university years telling me I had to give up and move back with them because I couldn’t afford to pay my own way, sulked on my graduation day because she tried to make it all about her and I gently reclaimed my share of the limelight, never once acknowledged my achievements and whenever I corrected her on anything, she’d say “Oh of course you know best, you’ve been to university!” in an annoyingly mocking tone.

      Eventually I realised it was just because I’d taken a different path. Her sister once told me my mother had spent her entire life actively competing with all her female relatives, and with a bit of a jolt I realised this was what was going on.

      This may be sort of the reverse of OP’s brother’s situation, but it’s kind of the same thing.

      1. Jeezy Creezy! I wouldn’t say my parents have been unsupportive but my mother definitely has a habit of sorting things into Not What I Did = Therefore Wrong (her thinking tends to be VERY black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, with little nuance or flexibility) boxes when it comes to other things. I’ve finally started just repeating “just because it’s different than what you did doesn’t make it wrong/just because a choice is not what you made or would have made doesn’t mean it’s wrong/that person is living their life the way they want to and that doesn’t make it wrong.”

        I hope it’s sinking in a little.

      2. Yeah, that’s something I was thinking about, because on one hand you do have those status obsessed “you must be a doctor or lawyer or something truly epic” parents (or family members in general) who are looking for bragging rights via your life, but then again there are also families who have a certain definition of “normal” that you have to stick to less you betray them *dramatic fist waving*. At the end of the day what these people are trying to convey is that your life isn’t your own and that everything you want has to revolve around them, so plain old textbook narcissism if you want to give it a name.
        The LW’s mother may very well be looking for the brother to get a “real job” so she can feel some sorta pride, or if brother were to try to get into law school or gets to go to some prestigious art show abroad, mom may still complain thinking that he’s not going to have enough time for familyyyyyy or about the cost of any decision he makes. So basically, whatever chice brother (who is an adult and has the right to steer HIS own life) makes, is going to be torn apart by mom no matter what. So yeah LW should focus on her self care, allow mom to feel whatever she’s going to feel but without turning into a pin cushion for her complaints, with luck and some time maybe mom may realize that the only thing stopping her from being happy with brother’s decisions is herself.

        Also if LW’s mom isn’t seeing a counselor, it may be a good idea to gently suggest it, she may be sticking to those “old time” standards about getting a “good” job after college, but the with the anxiety added it may be best to have a professional help out. If not the mother, then at least LW herself can get some insight and support.

      3. My immediate family is a highly educated bunch that comes from a not-so-educated extended family, and we’ve definitely encountered some of the behavior you describe among some of our relatives. I think your observations are very astute, but I also think there are some class issues surrounding insecurity/inferiority/superiority there too, sometimes. Like “Do you think you’re better than us now because you’ve got a degree?” etc. Might be another angle to look at it from, and I’m sorry you’ve got to deal with it. It sucks.

        1. My dad comes from a similar background and we’ve had some…interesting interactions with the extended family. It always seemed to me that they were so afraid he would leave them behind that it was easier to push him away first. They had to be the ones to initiate the “break up,” so to speak.

          1. My uncle’s wife had so much insecurity about the fact that my side of the family generally has a higher level of formal education than hers that she basically removed him and their children from my side of the family. For the past 15+ years they have spent all their holidays with her side of the family, whereas we basically see them 1 or 2 days a year. When my grandad died I suspect we won’t see them at all anymore.

    2. Hahahaaaaaaa. My dad’s an MD. I am editing my first book, which I have had time to write and edit due to being in the extremely fortunate position of not having to work an office job. It’s taken him a while, but in the last year or so, he’s finally come around to the realization that I’m doing JUST FINE financially all the same, thanks anyway. Solidarity fist-bump!

  7. Oof. This letter got me right in the feels, as kids say these days. My mom LOVED to lob anxiety-mice/concern trolling at people under the guise of “not understanding.” She understood full well what I did, but A.) was too embarrassed to admit it to friends and family and B.) disapproved of my chosen field. I’m not in something salacious, either, but one of the performing/creative arts.

    Thing is, LW, your mom’s friends likely *do* understand what your brother is doing. And, I think, your mom does get it on some level, but this lets her couch her disapproval in unbelief.

    If your mom is a reasonable and healthy person, calling her on her shit will improve things. If she isn’t and is toxic/dysfunctional, like my mom, it could well escalate things. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call her out, because this is a shitty thing to do to a person by proxy (what she’s doing with her friends). But be prepared that it won’t necessarily fix things, if your mom doesn’t have any home training.

    Things that will help your brother: listen. Ask him how his work’s going. If you don’t understand, ask questions. It’s also good practice for him, because creative types will need to explain their work to non-creative types, or people outside their field. (Whether through program notes, artists’ statements, etc.)

    1. Thank you for this! My mom is generally an emotionally stable person, which is part of why her behavior and reaction to the calling out of said behavior have been so confusing. Your suggestions for how to support my brother are very helpful, because I know I can’t do the actual fixing of things between him and my mom (though I really want to!).

  8. As someone who’s been the subject of many a “why aren’t you married yet??” anxiety puke, I often find myself wanting to stick up for others, like LW’s brother, whose life choices are constantly under scrutiny.

    Captain’s scripts are wonderful! The main thing is not to get sucked in. The last thing Brother needs is to catch wind that LW, too, is one of the people dissecting his life. Keep pushing her issues back on her.
    “Why do you need to know?”
    “Mom, he’s an adult – take it up with him”
    “I don’t feel a need to analyze this to death, why do you?”

    Don’t get sucked in. Your brother needs a supportive sibling and your mom needs a steady reminder that Brother is an Adult that can speak to his own choices himself. So sorry you’re on the receiving end of Mom Anxiety. It sucks.

  9. With a bit of background as a peer counselor for college students, I can say that many many parents have this incredible urge to tie their children’s lives into tidy parcels labeled “Career,” “Spouse,” “Child-ren,” “Nice House,” and whatever else they and their own peer group values. It’s as though there are checkboxes in their minds and until those little boxes are checked off, they are going to nag the child about it.

    With this in mind, the Captain’s bypass scripts are the next best thing to removing the checkboxes; which is probably not going to happen. Sadly, the checkboxes are very rarely labeled “Happy with their Choices,” “Exploring their Souls,” or “Gratefully Child-Free.” These were simply not acceptable goals when most parents were growing up.

    They worry that un-checked boxes will lead to a terrible slide into poverty, drugs, and ruin, but it’s really just as likely if we marry someone, realize they are, or have become, awful, engage in a struggle over the nice house and multiple children, and then negotiate a painful and career-threatening divorce.

    But the checkboxes don’t work that way.

    1. My mother definitely has that urge. Her great dream in life is for all three of her children to be, in her words, “safely married” with children of their own. It’s been disappointing for her because I have a child but am not married; my brother is married but doesn’t want children, and my sister isn’t married AND doesn’t want children. I spend a lot of time reminding myself that she really, truly does mean well and think this is the best thing for us, even if it’s annoying as hell.

      1. Many years ago someone was arguing with me that parents “always want what’s best” for their children and then used as illustration what she wanted for her kids, and I listened for a minute and said “You don’t want what’s best, you want what’s conventional and are just assuming that’s the best way of maximizing happiness.” I think that’s true for a lot of parents, and I certainly have spent a lot of time just automatically discounting everything mine said to me that amounted to “why can’t you just BE NORMAL for once so I can tell people I have another kid??”

        1. Often, parents simply want what’s best for themselves, but projected onto you. It can be hard for them to remember that you may be two very different people.

      2. OMG, “safely married.” Just the phrase gives me a cringe. (Not your fault, VG!)

        My mother was born in the 1940s, got married in/just after college (we’re not close, for reasons that will become obvious, so I can’t ask her — and my Dad passed away a number of years ago), spent a couple of years substitute teaching while my Dad got his Ph.D. (with parental support from both families), and has spent the rest of her life as a pampered housewife.

        (Not all housewives are pampered. Trust me on this one, she was — when you have a maid and a nanny and your husband funds your antiques-buying sprees, you’re pampered.)

        I, on the other hand, was really artsy, had no intention of going to a Big Name college just to get my “M.R.S. degree” (her argument was always that a “good” college is where you’ll meet a “good” husband so that you’ll be “safely married to someone who will take care of you for the rest of your life”), wound up having a kid young, got divorced twice, and am basically her idea of The Worst Child. As she tells me, not-infrequently.

        And, yeah, she’d still really like me to go find and marry a white-collar, upper-class dude and marry him so that he’ll take financial care of me forever (her solution to being widowed was to marry again within a year — she also inherited a shit-ton of money from my father, and the kids didn’t get any direct inheritances, she holds the family purse strings) . . . which is really not my idea of a good time.

        (Especially since I am not a conventional catch — I think I’m pretty cute, but I’m also fat, disabled, a parent, no longer able to work a paying job, etc. To me, these are just neutral characteristics, but the kind of man she’d like me to marry would be just as judgmental about this stuff as she is.)[*see footnote]

        When I was younger, she said to me that I had “hopelessly blue-collar taste in men” — like it was a KILLING INSULT. Really says a lot about her, right there.

        (Only tangentially related to the OP, but it’s related to the class issues that have come up in the discussions — even when I had a good-benefits, high-earning corporate job, she still looked down on it because I “had” to be self-supporting rather than bagging a rich man, and because I was a legal secretary rather than a lawyer, which didn’t sound as impressive to her hoity-toity friends.)

        [*] The asterisk/footnote is because I’m not claiming that all conventional, conservative, rich, upper-class, white-collar men are actually this judgmental, because I’m sure that there are exceptions — but one that she would genuinely accept as “her sort” WOULD be, because being super-class-conscious and “genteelly racist” are two of her *selection criteria.*

    2. I’m always amazed that parental anxiety about their adult children not Checking the Boxes *always* escalates so dramatically. Like, it’s never ‘my child has a non-conventional career so they might struggle a bit with developing a work schedule and they will have to keep a tight rein on their finances’, it’s more like ‘My child has a non-conventional career and isn’t married so CLEARLY THEY WILL GO STRAIGHT TO DESTITUTION AND DRUGS AND DESPAIR AND RUUUUINNNN!!!!’

      Like, do these parents have no faith in their own child-rearing ability that they believe their adult children are so non-functioning that they will fall to pieces at the slightest deviation from The Plan??

      1. I think part of it is just leftover parental instincts from when said children were younger and more vulnerable/inexperienced, and needed more guidance. The shift from ‘Sally hates her math homework and needs help understanding why she needs to do it anyways’ to ‘Sally hates office work and has found a lucrative alternative and does not need input on why 9-5 careers can be valuable’ is gradual for the child, but I think often feels sudden for many parents.

      2. It’s also pretty painful how many parents so easily believe the WORST about their own children.
        Even if the kid has never shown any propensity to life-ruining behaviours, somehow they think this could happen at any moment? It’s a hurtful lack of faith in the child.

  10. In his thirties, my brother gave up a professional career that he liked quite a lot to become a professional poker player. (He did that for about 15 years then went back to his first career.) My mom promised herself she would not burden him with her anxiety and disapproval. She instead dumped it on me, in small doses, asking me to acknowledge what she was doing, because it was hard, and she hoped for some support. I gave it to her, because she really did a great job not addressing her concerns to my brother. (I believe she may have done the “I am your mother and I am concerned, so I am going to say this once, but then I will never mention it again” thing, but if so she kept that promise. After she died, my brother told me that one of the things he appreciated about her was that he was a professional poker player and her own father had been a gambling addict who often gambled away money needed to feed his many children, but she never was less than civilly supportive of the decade and a half of pro poker playing.) my broather was still playing poker to pay the rent when Mom died, so she basicslly managed her anxiety with a little help from me for the rest of her life. It can be done, gracefully and without much burden on other people.

    So I wonder if treating your mother as if she is doing what my mother did would be helpful. In addition to limiting the conversation like the captain suggests, tell her how awesome it is that she’s not burdening your brother with her concerns. My mantra with my mom was, “I get why you are concerned, but you are doing a great job of not dumping it in his lap. Read any good books lately?” Very occasionally, like once every year or so, I’d indulge her in a longer conversation about her concerns, but I could afford to do this, because once every year or so for twenty minutes.

    Sometimes when people treat me with the expectation that I am doing the right thing, that helps me do it. Maybe it would he,p your mom, too.

      1. Yes, it does. But to the degree that she is able not to do that, giving positive reinforcement may help encourage appropriate directing of anxiety. Of course, if the mother is incorrigible in her determination to spread little corpses of dead anxoety mice all over the place, it won’t help.

    1. *takes notes from your excellent mother in case tiny toddler daughter becomes professional poker player / other unknown-to-me-and-therefore-worrying thing in the future*

  11. Captain, I wish I’d had your scripts when I came out of undergrad into the Nonprofit World–which my family did. not. understand. The whole concept of working to make the world a better place for ridiculously low wages went completely over their “but you have to make money to survive” mindset heads and led to ~so many~ conversations until they realized that yes, I actually could put food on the table, and yes, I actually was working 40-60 hours/week, and yes, it was ‘real’ work….

    1. This is a thing I have noticed about my parents is that they seem to have a reality perception gap. My dad has often expressed concern about me being able to support myself in the future — except when he says “support,” he doesn’t mean “keep myself clean, dry, and fed,” he means “in the process of purchasing a house of adequate size, a car of adequate new-ness, and other such accouterments of proving you are sufficiently middle-class.” I always end up wanting to say: Just because I probably won’t end being able to afford the things you think are important, doesn’t mean I’m in danger of insolvency or even uncomfortable.

    2. Sorry, I realized I didn’t tie this correctly to your comment — what I meant to say is that my parents also repeat “you have to make money to survive,” but they are defining “survive” in what, for me, is an unrealistic and undesirable way. If I don’t own a car and rely on public transportation, I am still SURVIVING. If I share a small and not-very-glamorous apartment, I am SURVIVING. It’s like their brains completely skim over all the ways people get by that are not the way that they, themselves, choose to live at as either nonexistent or insufficient.

  12. Oh my glob. The constant (middle-class?) pressure of “please package your life for me in a way that I can brag to my friends about” is about 90% of the entirety of the “relationship” I have with my parents at this point. It’s the same questions every time I see them, to the point where I don’t even bother to pretend to think about it and give them the same packaged (and apparently unsatisfying) answers every time.

  13. Oh my goody-good-goodness, this is my mother. “It’s not that *I* disapprove–it’s just that you’re putting me in an uncomfortable position where my friends will ask what you’re doing and I won’t have an answer that’s good enough for them/me. How inconsiderate of you to do that to me!”

    If someone is an adult, making their own life choices and not breaking the law or anything, then who gives a flamingo what your friends think? It’s not their life. These aren’t their choices. And the notion that anyone is obligated to live their life a certain way just to keep some nosy parkers happy is pretty revolting when you think about it.

    I agree fully with the captain. The mother here only passes on these comments because they reflect what she feels and wants to say. Otherwise, why even mention a banal thing someone said, let alone have repeated, forced conversations about it? Having this conversation with her friends is fine. Using said conversations to kind of guilt your brother into changing his life is not. Bringing it up over and over again is not random chatting–it’s her trying to reach a goal of hers that this kind of talk facilitates.

    After trying similar scripts to what the captain suggests, I ended up being *almost* direct: “Wow, that’s a really nosy and judgemental thing to say. Was your friend having a bad day? I thought your friends were better people than that.” And I’d very forcefully respond to any further attempts at that conversation with repetitions about how unpleasant the ‘friend’ sounds to be so judgemental about something that isn’t any of their business. “Don’t you think my friend might have a point, though?” “S/he sounds really weird for pressing on something like that. Maybe s/he was sick?” “Yes, but what should I say when s/he asks that?” “Gosh, I hope it isn’t anything serious. I mean, s/he must have been really out of sorts to have acted like such an awful busybody.” etc. refusing to answer anything directly and continuing to comment on the friend. Passive-aggressive, yes, I know. Because some people just refuse to have a direct conversation about anything. This worked for me, at any rate.

    Also, the rock-opera version of Dune is a thing that needs to happen. I mean holy hell.

  14. Mangled Anxiety Mouse! This is why I read this column, why it’s so wonderful. My mother has been doing this to me for years, and I’ve never known what to call it or how to describe it. Each instance is so small that it can be swept away quickly. Taken individually it hardly seems worth complaining about. It’s always such a little nuisance: the one about how my brother lives on a busy street, implication: his kids are going to run out in traffic and get hit by cars, or the one about how my niece looks fine without braces, implication: she’s going to die in the oral surgeon’s chair from the anesthesia, or the one about how my 13 year old niece wanted to try some make-up at the cosmetics counter in the department store, implication: she’s going to become promiscuous in the hook-up culture like in that upsetting NYT article about teens having wanton sex with everyone. Each time I’d explain how there was just no evidence that her worst fears were going to happen, and she’d argue with me (“But a friend of a friend’s cousin thrice removed had a nerve cut when wisdom teeth were removed and has had a numb spot ever since!”)

    I digress. The most helpful advice I can give is to keep count. Mother proffers anxiety mouse. Listener sweeps it away and changes subject. Mother brings another mouse. Listener says “yes, you just mentioned that.” Mother brings mouse. Listener says “Right, this is the 3rd mouse,” and changes the subject. Just keep counting mice. “Hmm, this is the 6th time you brought that up. We talked about it last phone call too.”

  15. I haven’t read all the comments so I don’t know if someone has pointed this out it yet, but maybe there’s a clash of generations between Brother and Mom?

    I’m in my mid-20’s too, and it pisses the hell out of my father that I decided to go to grad school full time. He comes from a generation with the mindset that you should get a job right after college, make money, but a house, a car and all that jazz. Not having a 9 to 5 job and a 401K is not a big deal to me now, but to my dad, I “don’t have a career” and all I do is “study”.

    My advice to your brother is just to stop listening. Someday she will get tired of saying things. My dad did 🙂

  16. Also, if you haven’t already, say (or write) to your brother: “Hey, btw, I think what you’re doing is really cool and I have your back, little brother! I’m sorry mom can be difficult about this.”

  17. Do you have a set of siblings living Down South that have been previously unaware of your existence? Because our moms are the Same Mom.

  18. I lept right to the leave comment part because I wanted to ask… is it WRONG that now I want prints of art with cis attractive men with guns where their cocks should be?

      1. And it should be sneaky-subversive with all the different men in the series wearing accessories that indicate belonging to a subset of toxic masculinity. Like, one should be wearing a cowboy hat and smoking, police officers, soldiers, football, mechanics…

        1. I’m not sure toxic masculinity would render that as subversive. All the ones I know would take it as an example of how wonderful their manhoods are and want copies.

          1. Yeah, I would tend to go the opposite direction and make them nurses or artists or holding adorable kittens with their penis-hands or things like that, or have them surrounded by traditional frilly classical-art backdrops.

        2. Mechanics are an example of toxic masculinity? Eek. I hope nobody around here needs, say, their electric car, or the bus they rely on to get to work, fixed anytime soon.

          1. Attempting to end this tangent quickly: It’s not that any of these professions is an example of toxic masculinity, it’s the weird way that our culture fetishizes aspects of those professions that’s an example of toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity has a lot of splash damage.

          2. Not an example of toxic masculinity as such but definitely a job that is dominated by men and therefore extremely hard for a woman to break in to.

          3. Apologies for the tangent. I think my underlying concern with this comment was that all the roles cited were blue-collar/working-class ones. To tie this ribbon into a nice bow, and avoid subconscious white-collar privilege while we’re rightfully blasting male privilege, I humbly propose we add tech bro and Wall Street douche to our list of subjects for artistic caricature.

    1. I actually have a friend from college who did a series of works similar to this. It was an exploration of toxic masculinity that stemmed from his father’s reaction to him coming out, and featured lots of massively ripped cis dudes and superimposed weaponry. If you do a google search for “Jonathan Sulinski Men From The Boys”, it should be the first hit.

  19. There was one undercurrent of a thread I wanted to tug on, in the course of the LW’s very thoughtful and sibling-supportive letter. You talk about your brother’s barrista-ing by day, artisting by night life as “…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.” Which, yes, that’s totally an entrenched cultural narrative, and maybe one that could give your mom some momentary relief.

    But! Don’t do it! No matter how talented and hardworking your brother is, there’s a more-than-decent chance his work will never become remunerative or well-known, or anything that looks like unconventional-but-obvious success. He may get better and better and still be pretty obscure. Working to pay the bills may eventually grind down his creative energies, or (depending on his medium) he may slowly age-out of the scene that supports his work, or the bodily capacity to do it (see: ballet, punk rock).

    And your mom sounds like the kind of mom who could, maybe, accept that this is the preamble to something she can brag about victoriously later, but neither you nor your brother benefit from buying yourselves some mouse-removal now by setting yourselves up for ‘Shouldn’t you have had your Big Break by NOW?’ or ‘what do you MEAN you want an office job after all! I told all my friends I was going to meet Janelle Monae!’ down the road.

    1. This is such a good point and something I’ve been turning over in my mindfor a while. I DO believe my brother will do great things. He’s making great things now, but isn’t recognized for it, and I know there’s a chance he never will be. I figure being the person in his corner saying, “You’re great. People will see it,” is important, but I don’t think him being great hinges on his big break. He definitely does, though. I definitely fall into the trap of talking about his future success.

      But you’re so right that I can’t put “brother’s big break” out there as an anxiety alleviation. This isn’t about “supporting brother so he can become a massive success,” it’s just about “supporting brother.”

  20. LW, I love the mouse metaphor too. My mom does something similar; we call her maneuver the Opossum:

    Mom: “Guava, I went over to Pineapple’s house and it was so messy!”
    Guava: “Okay.”
    Mom: “I just don’t know how Pineapple can live like that.”
    Guava: “That’s too bad.”
    Mom: “I mean, both of you are just slobs!”
    Guava: “Hey now, that’s uncalled for.”
    Mom: “Well neither you nor Pineapple is very neat!”
    Guava: “Well just because we’re not neat freaks like you, obsessed with having perfect houses, doesn’t mean we’re slobs.”

    Mom: “You know what, Pineapple? Even Guava thinks your house is messy!”
    Pineapple: “WTF!”

    1. Mother Danu! My mom and I have some issues, but I’m glad I don’t have to start conversations with my sisters with a mutual fact-checking of what mom told each of us about what we said to her about each other.

      1. Count yourself lucky! My sister and I actually made a rule recently that were no longer allowed to share anything with each other that our mom said to one of us about the other. We’d just gotten fed up with accidentally revealing by way of venting the strange and horrible things Mom appears to think about each of us (which, of course, she’d act like the other had cosigned), and getting upset with each other over these thoughts, only to realize that the original conversation Mom was relaying was taken completely out of context and that we were getting into a mess over nothing.

        We’ve been much happier, and had a lot less fights, ever since.

  21. Can you just disagree with her weirdly? “No, Mom, I think Pineapple’s house is really neat!”

    “But there’s all that crusty stuff on the sink!”

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mom. Plus, Pineapple’s bookshelves are always so nicely arranged.”

    1. Definitely – Pineapple and I learned, after years of comparing notes about Mom, that we need to provide a united front. It’s just so bizarre when she does this. It’s even weirder when we’re all together, and she pulls the Opossum in a room full of witnesses, then denies that she was the one who started it when the object of her anxiety walks in!

      I love the idea of weird disagreement, though. It opens up all kinds of entertaining possibilities, i.e. “Oh no, Pineapple didn’t leave shopping bags all over the living room. Those are clothing chairs. You didn’t know you could sit in them? They’re very comfortable.”

      1. I love this weird disagreement idea too! Currently contemplating how to use this to completely ignore Mom’s anxieties about Sister’s new Nontraditional Dating Companion, though in this case it seems like it might backfire.

        Ugh, basically, 100% solidarity in the face of anxious moms. Sigh.

  22. My mom loves to talk about how she disapproves of my boyfriend. He has kids and she believes a partner needs to have all his focus for me, only me, forever and ever without exception. In her world I need to meet some jetsetter who will take me all over the world, directing all his attention at me constantly. That…would be incredibly draining for me. I’m an introvert, and I like that my boyfriend has things outside the relationship – not just his kids, but hobbies and friends. It’s hard to keep her up to date with my life because when I mention him, or his kids, she gets very Well I just want you to have someone who spends time with you. It’s at the point where she calls his children’s mother his “wife”, which drives me up the goddamn wall.

    My new favourite way to deal with it while not running into “why do you never tell me things??!?!” is, I make a statement about my boyfriend (“BF and I are going to move in together!”), and then I forestall any commentary with “JOURNAL ABOUT IT.” Sometimes I follow up by describing how I’m going to find her a nice journal and get it engraved with “How My Daughter Should Be Living Her Life.”

    Your mileage may vary, but my relationship with my mom is close enough that I can say that to her. “JOURNAL ABOUT IT” is shorthand for, I don’t want your opinion now (or ever). But it’s jokey enough to keep the peace as well.

  23. I have one more angle on this, and it’s that it’s possible to take all this questioning at face value. Isn’t LW’s Mom just asking for a script, herself? “Tell me what to say to my peers” might be just that.

    It now sounds to me that she’s reading the peer group’s kids as this solid group and I’m doubting it’s true that all these kids became investment bankers. Some other members of the peer group are also feeling stifled. Tell Mom to seek out alliances with those other moms whose kids took a different path and start celebrating. When the vapid one-upsmanship of “more money, bigger houses, greed is good” gets too vocal, Mom can turn to another of the group and say, “Diane, how is your daughter’s artistic thing coming? You must be so proud of her. Have I told you that my son is writing an opera based on ‘Dune’?”

    And LW’s own idea to not triangulate the relationship between Mom and Brother is very wise.

    1. I love this! Because it’s so true. Some of these judgers have kids who are following very unconventional paths. They just all pick and choose whichever aspects of their kids’ lives are most conventionally successful and compare those. These conversations frankly sound like nightmares. I will definitely suggest that my mom opt out!

  24. My mom frets about my brother’s depression to me. Which is lovely, since I have depression too, but she likes to pretend I don’t. My dad then frets about my choice to take a year off after law school to my brother, also lovely, because I made that choice to deal with my own mental health problems that he thinks shouldn’t exist.

    It took me a while to realize this, but: my parents’ narratives about me and my brother are just narratives, not truths. These stories reflect much more about the storytellers than they do about the subjects. My parents still have an image of us in their heads as kids, not as capable adults. My mom believes she’s the only one who can have the One True Depression, and she’s defending her claim. My dad thinks mental illness can be solved with hard work and willpower (which…let’s just say he deals with his anxiety by being a workaholic. Not optimal!). They both vent and fret and leave anxiety mice everywhere primarily so they feel like they’re doing something, despite how the most helpful thing may be to do nothing. And they always want reassurance that my brother’s and my own mental health issues are not all that bad, so they’re not our parents’ fault.

    I try to stick up for my brother and tell my folks to back off and trust that he’ll be able to get help if and when he chooses, and they might not hear about it when he does. Getting mental health treatment is a very private thing. I tell my parents that it sounds like they’re stressed — what can they do about that on their own? Deep breathing? Going to services? Taking walks? And I gently say that what they’re asking of me (intervening with my brother, hearing about his health issues that he hasn’t chosen to tell me about secondhand, calling him to nag him about eating more almonds or whatever my mom thinks cures “the blues,” etc.) is inappropriate. He’s an adult, I’m an adult, we’re siblings. And neither one of us has ever responded well and permanently to nagging/concern-trolling in almost 30 years. Why would it start working now? Shit, the most supportive thing my parents could do right now is go to therapy themselves and have a much better outlet for their insecurities.

    1. “Just narratives, not truths” goes on the “Put it on a pillow” list. Brilliantly phrased.

  25. Hah! This sounds so much like my Mom that I started changing the pronouns reading the captain’s response, from “your brother” to “I.”

    I second everything CA says, especially where your mom is looking for an audience for her anxiety, to have it acknowledged and/or shared with your brother. Maybe I’m projecting, but she doesn’t seem to have any idea how transparent her “concern-trolling” and her fixation on her friends’ opinions really is.

    Anyway. My mother told me as we were driving cross-country to my new, fully-funded PhD program, that she really just thinks I should be a singer. Because sure, that’s easy! “When God gives you a gift, I think you’re obligated to share it.” (Subtext: My intelligence and drive that got me into one of the top programs in the country for my field is not a “gift.”) I’m studying race and gender dynamics in US food systems, and my research is on the ways white privilege is reproduced in alternative food movements. That is *not* something she can tell her friends. 😛

    She also chided me recently over the phone, when I was raving about the great reviews I’d gotten from my lab students, “Maybe you should just be a teacher!” She said it with this “I’ve been telling you so all along” tone. She hasn’t, but I bet now she’s convinced herself (and her friends!) that she has, and it’s just such a shame that I’m doing this unfathomable thing and wasting my talent!

    I answered, “I *am* a teacher, Mom. I’m a college professor.”

    “…Oh. Well yes, I suppose so…”

    1. You handled that better than I would have, because my shoulders were covering my ears. “What do you mean JUST be a teacher? What’s wrong with teaching? Teaching is a huge part of my job, Mom!” etc.

    2. I would boast so hard about you, if you were my kid! Your research sounds amazing and very important.

    3. I feel this so hard! I let my parents pressure me into going to music school after high school, so that I could “justify” choosing not to pursue a “real job” because I was an “artist” – which worked great until they started sending me Carnegie Hall swag and asking when I’d audition for the symphony. Everything you do right is because you’re naturally talented and every failure is because you’re lazy – *you* have literally nothing to do with your own life, your just a chess piece in their one-upmanship game with their other boomer friends.

      PS your research sounds so interesting!

  26. The most wonderful thing a parent could say is “I support you, in no matter what it is you choose to pursue in your life.” And mean it.

    My parents too 25 years to “understand” me. In that they have accepted I didn’t follow their track.

    But had they truly supported me and backed me, rather than resisted me? Wow. Who knows what a great help that would have been. In my mid 20s I was jealous of friends who had parents who would LET them move back in… Such was the restrictions …

    These scripts are terrific.

    Specially about the boost family and support brings on opening night.

    Even in the din of the most rugged rock n roll of avante garde over-the-top of outrage, when or if ever, a performer points to the couple in the audience and introduces them as their parents, there is not a soul in the house who isn’t overjoyed at seeing this.

  27. My mother used to do this sort of thing to me. I called it being mother’s Sin-Eater. In essence, she dumped all her shit on me, and I would carry it so she could appear to be happy and carefree and not worry about her shit anymore, because I was carrying it. Eventually (and this took far too long) I stopped taking her calls and stopped acting as her Sin-Eater, or anyone else’s. I am much happier now.

  28. An additional possible script is “Brother is amazingly creative and courageous at pursuing risky artistic goals! And not only that, but he’s amazingly responsible for backing his awesome creative pursuits up with a solid paycheck.” My sense is that mom will run with a narrative that she can use with third parties to kvell over.

  29. My mother’s Anxiety Mouse tends to come out in regards to 1) myself and de facto boyfriend not being married and 2) my weight. In all other aspects of life she is a very intelligent woman who is perfectly able to grasp complex concepts. But occasionally a switch flips, her Mom Brain takes over and she starts making ridiculous comments about how 1) I’m not married because I’m SCAAARED of commitment (not because myself and bf are perfectly happy as we are and we believe marriage is an outdated social convention) or 2) I am SOOOO over/underweight! (in relation to what, I still have no clue). I haven’t figured out what it is that makes her Crazy Mom Brain take control occasionally, maybe there’s something about relentlessly Mothering that makes her feel good. I’m sure there’s some purpose being served, or she wouldn’t be so totally impervious to any kind of rational discussion on these topics. It’s infuriating.

    1. Yikes, yeah. Mine used to liberally sprinkle about the house anxiety mice related to my brother’s relationship. “What? They’re living together? So are they planning to get married?” (the subtext being: if not, then why are they living together?) “What? She’s HOW old?! [36 to my brother’s thirtyish] Has she been married before then? Is she divorced?” (obviously a woman can’t possibly get to that age without being married!) “WHAAAT?! She has a SON?! Where’s the father? Who is he? Do they have contact?” [explodes with anxiety]

      All of the above was directed at ME,someone who only speaks to said brother every couple of months at most. My responses started along the lines of “huh? So what if they are/she is? Why would that be more important than how happy they are?” I quickly realised that she Does Not Think In This Way and shifted to “Why are you asking me? I’m not [brother]. I’ve never met this woman, how would I know? It’s got nothing to do with me. No mother, just because I happen to know how old she is does not mean I am intimately acquainted with her entire relationship history (and I never will be, because guess what: it’s none of my damn business)”

  30. LW, it sort of concerns me that you see your brother’s pursuits as only worthwhile if they “lead to greatness”. Possibly I’m projecting, I have had to fight with my family long and hard to escape from this idea that a less “successful”, or upwardly mobile lifestyle is only allowable of you become the next Leonardo Da Vinci. What if your brother never becomes a sucessful enough artist for your mother? What if he never becomes sucessful at all, and keeps making art that makes him happy while he works low-wage jobs? Would people love and care for him any less? Maybe you ought to try framing things this way to your mother – that a good life and a life defined by capitalist markers of “success” are not synonymous.

  31. Oh, LW, I feel for you and your brother. I have often heard “what will my friends think?” and the answer I use is “…I dont know” or “…er, that isnt my problem” or “no idea, Ive never met them”.

    Dont be guilt tripped in that way. Who knows what her friends think, and who cares? My friends support me, her friends can do whatever, but it doesnt affect me.

    Sometimes, I contemplate asking what MY friends would make of HER – ach, but sadly I know the answer. At least my knowing friends are supportive and sympathetic.

    LW, what your brother -and you – do is not something you need to justify to her friends, real or hypothetically.

  32. Ahaha my parents have literally just tried to do this to me. My grandma died today so I called up my Dad in Australia to chat (it wasn’t a surprise which is why I’m on here not sobbing all over the place) and he and his wide tried to get me to buy in on a “shouldn’t your brother have a smarter facebook profile picture if he wants to find a nice girl?” conversation. HAHA NOPE NO WAY NOT MY PROBLEM. (And besides it’s a great picture, it’s just that it’s in SCA garb… well so are the profile pics of half my friendslist, and any future girlfriend of his is going to have to square it with the SCA one way or another!). I had all these scripts in mind having read this yesterday and I think I deflected rather well.

  33. I’m not sure there’s a way for you to turn this into any sort of action, but I just wanted to share an alternative parental response. I’ve followed a very “non-traditional” path, and although I’ve never actually overheard them, I’m pretty sure my parents have been putting a very positive spin on my choices. Their friends seem to have a universally positive perception of my activities, and on the rare occasion that I interact with them, they say things like, “I wish I’d been brave enough to explore the world like you are when I was younger.” Considering that these people have followed very traditional career paths, I think my parents must be the ones providing this spin that I’m “brave” and “adventurous” rather than “an underachieving slacker.” Again, I’m not sure how this information helps except to reinforce the fact that your mom’s response has everything to do with her perceptions and almost nothing to do with your brother’s choices.

  34. I’m not sure I’d suggest saying, “Maybe you should talk to Brother about it.” Because I think it’s really inappropriate, what she’s worrying about.

    I think I’d say, “Maybe you should figure out some way to stop worrying about it” or “Maybe you should stop worrying about what your friends think about Brother’s life–it’s not their life, it’s his. Meanwhile, I’m tired of talking about it–Brother will be fine, and us fussing about his choices isn’t going to do anything but stress us out.”

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