My mom and I have had a fraught relationship for most of my life. Her parenting was often verbally and emotionally abusive, she spent much of my adolescence self-medicating with alcohol, and she’s both extremely volatile and prone to interpreting criticism as an indictment of her entire being (so, for instance, “Mom, I feel like you don’t really listen to me” is met with “Well, I’m SORRY that you have the WORST MOTHER in the WORLD!” and similarly manipulative, derailing crap).
Because she’s very conscious of how others see her, she’s a pro at turning on the Cool Fun Mom routine, which she used to win over most of my childhood friends. Any time I was critical of her parenting or expressed frustration about not having my needs met, she would invalidate me by pointing out that my friends thought she was awesome, and therefore the problem must be me. It made me feel terribly alone and doubtful of my own perceptions, which of course was the point.
Our relationship is marginally better now that I’m an adult and we live in separate states, but lately she keeps trying to pressure me into a closer relationship that I’m frankly not interested in. After years of reaching out to her and being rebuffed, her newfound zeal to be my pal feels like too little too late, and very one-sided. Like, “I know I was checked out for most of your childhood, but please get over it because being your mother is finally convenient for me.” I also can’t help but notice that the way she talks about being closer always necessitates me changing to accommodate her, but never includes any explanation of how she plans to meet me halfway by, say, addressing her anger issues and constant need to criticize with the help of a therapist.
As far as I can discern, her vision of our new and improved relationship basically amounts to me giving up my boundaries for her comfort. Example: I asked her to stop prying into my dating life because a.) it’s annoying and b.) it’s not a subject I feel comfortable discussing with her, and I assured her that if there was anything she needed to know I would clue her in. She responded by telling me how hurt she was that I wouldn’t be more open with her and then asking if I was secretly gay.
Occasionally she’ll get tearful and ask why I won’t give her more of a chance. This is a trap, because then if I try to explain (“Well, Mom, you’re relentlessly judgmental and kinda mean, you refuse to admit fault for anything, and you won’t respect my boundaries, all of which makes you not a lot of fun to be around”) the inevitable outcome is a heated, defensive lecture about why my feelings are wrong and her toxic behavior is totally defensible.
This does not make me want to be closer to her.
Captain, I would like to have an amicable, well-boundaried relationship with my mom. I would like for Christmas Eve to never again involve “IT’S OBVIOUS THAT YOU HATE ME!” being shrieked in my face. I would like to be able to work through disagreements with her peaceably instead of getting baited into a shouting match over who’s right and who’s wrong. But I don’t get the sense that my mother is prepared to do her share of the emotional heavy lifting that building a better relationship would require.
Difficult Mom Is Difficult
Someday I am going to send Dr. Karyl McBride, author of Will I Ever Be Good Enough?, a thank you letter wrapped in an invoice for how many times I’ve been like “read this book it will help” on the site and in life. If you haven’t read it, check it out, because it might be really apt for your situation. The one takeaway from that book that sticks with me to this day, 5+ years after reading it, is that while you can sometimes reset a difficult relationship with someone who has “all about me!” tendencies to be more pleasant overall, you cannot expect to necessarily have an emotionally authentic relationship and you should let go of the prospect of either a reckoning with the past or a self-aware admission of how the person created and contributes to the dynamic between you. McBride suggests grieving for what was lost and what you should have had, keeping your expectations low, and disengaging without guilt when self-care demands it.
One way you get to the “overall more pleasant” relationship is by creating a series of time-limited, shallow, brief interactions where nothing unpleasant happens, which means engaging when the difficult parent behaves themselves and disengaging when they do not. Overall those good experiences might bury some of the bad experiences, and the parents might learn that behaving themselves gets them your time and attention and disrespecting boundaries and behaving badly gets your absence. This requires a mental dance, on the part of the adult child & victim, of acting like things that most definitely happened never happened to preserve the parent’s self-image as a good parent who did the best they could. It sometimes means carefully editing the picture of your life that you present to them. It means paying lip service to the idea that everyone is having a relaxing time, when really you can never relax around them, because you don’t know when the next barb or critique or blame or other feelings-bomb is coming. Getting to the point where “we can interact pleasantly sometimes about neutral/boring topics” IS the victory with this kind of person. No other victory is coming. For some people, the cost of pretending that, like, their whole childhood didn’t really happen or only happened from the point of view of their emotional abuser is way too high and cutting contact to preserve their own sanity is the way to go. Mad love and respect to people who cut the cord with abusive parents and also to the ones who try to keep the door cracked open in hope. Robbed of something as precious as being able to trust your parents, there was never going to be a good way forward that feels good for you, so do what you have to do to survive without guilt.
Letter Writer, your mom’s need to see herself as a Cool Mom who is Close To Her Daughter is so strong that it is warping her own reality & memory of things that actually went down and things that are going down right now in the present when you communicate. She wants to invite you into her reality, where she is Cool & Loving and you are Cold & Distant & Ungrateful, and all closeness between you comes at the cost of you crossing that barrier into her headspace and letting her reality dominate yours. Sounds fun! Who wouldn’t want that?
If you wanted to, you could write her a letter:,
“Hey Mom, I’m hearing you on your wish to be closer, and I want you to know that sometimes I too look at TV shows where moms and daughters are close or look at my friends who are close to their moms and it feels like everyone is speaking an alien language. I know what it looks like when I see it, but I don’t know how to get there, and I don’t know how to get there with you. It makes me feel really sad and lonely when I think about it, and I too wish we could figure this out someday.
However, so far all of your suggestions for how we could be closer so far are either outright criticisms of me or involve me changing something about my behavior or my boundaries, and that makes me feel both angry and very nervous. Like, I’d be curious to know why you think we’re not close, and what you think your contribution was to the distance between us, and what do you think you could do to bring us closer together?
From my perspective, growing up with an alcoholic mom who constantly criticized me and took her anger issues out on me, I developed a lot of defense mechanisms to survive. I don’t think it’s ridiculous that I would be guarded and wary around you at times. Even as an adult, I think of holidays as times when I’ll probably be screamed at. I think of phone calls from you as times that I’ll be told all the ways I’m not measuring up. If I push back at you, you don’t apologize, you make it all about you and how terrible you are and ask me to reassure & comfort you. I know you were sick when I was growing up, and I try to factor that in when I think about the past. I need you to factor it in, too, not because I want you to feel guilty but because I want you to acknowledge that there are reasons the ground between us is so rocky and understand that there are no shortcuts. Rather than being closer, I would settle for some time together that didn’t end in tears and yelling, like, maybe one where we watch a silly TV show for one hour and nobody says anything mean and then we go to our separate corners to try again next month.
I think that if we’re going to ever bridge this gap between us we might have to act a bit like strangers who just got to know each other as adults, and to stay away from deeply personal topics or the past when we interact. Work your deeper feelings out with a therapist and don’t expect me to help you sort them out – I have my own grief for what was lost and my own stuff to work out, and I can’t handle yours, too. Don’t say anything to me that you wouldn’t say to a nice work colleague that you were just getting to know. Don’t criticize anything about my life, my body, my clothes, my hair, or my choices. Ask questions and listen to the answers instead of telling me what I should be doing. Go very slow, and very gently, and if you don’t have anything nice to say then silence will work just fine. I can try to do the same. Maybe after some awkward coffee & movie ‘dates’ we can find some new grounds for being friendly as adults and rebuild from there. I don’t think we can get back what we had or should have had as mother and daughter, because those years are gone and too much has happened. But maybe we could make something else with the time we have now. I would be willing to try that if you would.”
I put the letter out there mostly as a fantasy exercise in getting your needs & feelings out. You could write it and send it to her if you think it would make you feel better to have it all out. You could write it and ritually burn it to acknowledge that she is incapable of really hearing you. You could answer “Why can’t we be closer?” with “I don’t know, Mom, why do you think that is?” or you could answer it with a subject change or you could answer it not at all. You don’t have to dig deeper into this ever if you don’t want to, so if you wrote in for permission to say “Nah, don’t wanna” to her overtures then you have that permission completely.
You have done an awesome thing by extracting yourself from that house and growing up to be a person with boundaries and a good sense of self, and you are smart to really examine her requests and to realize that they are more about her than they are about you. Parents who mistreat their kids and then express surprise when their adult children want to keep their distance will never not totally mystify me. You don’t have to try to be closer, you don’t have to fix it, you don’t have to heal it, you don’t have to try to heal her. You gave enough of your life to that project, and it’s okay to say “I don’t know how to reassure you about that, but I hope you find a way to be at peace with what good things we do have” and then keep keeping your distance.