#785: Difficult Mom Wants To Be Closer

Hi, Captain,

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.

What do?

Difficult Mom Is Difficult

Dear 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.

268 comments
  1. LdyEkt said:

    Wow, I’m reading this and going, “Are we secretly related?” But my mom wasn’t an alcoholic so I don’t think we actually are.

    *”I would like for Christmas Eve to never again involve “IT’S OBVIOUS THAT YOU HATE ME!” being shrieked in my face.”*

    I hope that some day, that is a Christmas Eve you can have with your mom. In the meantime, however, you can definitely have it by not spending it with her. Let her ruin some OTHER day instead, for lower air fare and fewer cultural expectations. Stay home and send her calls to voicemail. Go see some carolers or watch It’s A Wonderful Life on TV. Do something that would be meaningful to you. And yes, I am sadly well aware that this may come with tearful recriminations about how you don’t love her and similar penalties. My suggestion is that you consider just trying it once. As I have, you may find the echoing silence of No One Is Criticizing Me Or Telling Me How I Should Feel to be beautifully peaceful.

    The first time is the hardest, and maybe you’ll decide it wasn’t worth it. No worries. You can give her another chance next year. Or, you can wait until she is treating you like a human being when it’s Not The Holidays – I found that to be pretty effective with my mom. Or you can just, well, not. You have all the choices here – that is the funny secret weapon you always have when the other person thinks all the change should be on YOUR side.

    • Yes, my mom is like this except for the alcoholism, up to and including the notion that all our difficulties are 100% my fault and the only changes required should come from me, because she just endlessly helps (halps) me and doesn’t know what to dooooooooooooooo (though she knows full well what she could do) and why do I look at her that way and talk to her that way I am so mean and she doesn’t deserve it and bla foo bar. Also, she doesn’t really shriek, but she says things very unpleasantly, scolds and criticizes, and is generally a pill, and when called out, she proudly notes that she didn’t really YELL those things, as if that is the important part.

      I was shocked, long after I arrived at adulthood, to realize that there are a lot of moms (and dads) like mine, and a lot of daughters (and sons) like me, and it is so stereotypically narcissistic abuse that websites on the subject have been able to quote my mother’s favorite comments and rants WORD FOR WORD. It helps to be validated. (LW, it’s not you, it’s her.) It helps even more to realize you’re not alone. (LW, you’re not alone.) It helps most of all to be given some tools and scripts and support when the inevitable momster behavior happens again. (Voila, LW has found CA’s website!)

      As CA said, “Parents who mistreat their kids and then express surprise when their adult children want to keep their distance will never not totally mystify me.” There are a LOT of them out there, LW. Unfortunately. And they like to install buttons in their kids that make the kids feel like IF ONLY they did or said something different, the parent(s) would not be abusive buttwarts, and those buttons they press keep you searching for ways to change YOURSELF in order to avoid unpleasantness, but it is a freeing moment when you realize that literally nothing you can do will prevent their bad behavior, because their bad behavior isn’t something you can control or influence in any way. You can just distance yourself.

      Not brilliant advice from me, alas, just empathy for LW and LdyEkt and everyone else with a Difficult Parent.

      • Yeah, similar here. I think in the case of mine, a lot of the reason she mistreated us and then expected we would run after her seeking her approval forever after was because that’s the pattern she had with her own horrid mum, who mistreated her and whom she has spent the whole rest of her life trying to impress and force to love her through sheer persistence. It’s sad, too, because she doesn’t seem to realize that it’s possible to just…opt out of that whole system. So she doesn’t understand why I just noped on out of my *entire damn family*.

        • Brisvegan said:

          Is your mother my mother in law? This is exactly the dance I watch her do with my BIL’s. She just can’t understand why it won’t bring my husband running when she is nasty to us. I sometimes think she can’t comprehend kindness being returned by company and kindness.

          • I wish I could say yes because then the world *wouldn’t* be full of toxic mums. My sister dances attendance on her, though, and refuses to nope out of gatherings with her own toxic mother-in-law, so…I mean, it’s worked, I suppose. Just not on me.

        • Myrtle said:

          Precisely what I tapped in to write on! My mother re-ran the script her mother ran on her. I get that it was her normal, but at what point was it reasonable to expect her to think, “I’m standing over my cowering seven-year-old and hitting them full force with a hairbrush?” Especially when the hairbrush, the third one bought that week, just broke? No wonder she drank.

          My sibling told me even they’d been taken to court by their own spouse for abusing their kids. My sibling said, “I didn’t do anything to my kids that wasn’t done to me.” “I said, Sib, we were severly abused!” Man. No insight, still? After the conviction?
          It’s a terrible script. My mom committed suicide rather than confront her mother, who then played Swell Parent at the funeral and sobbed to her audience she just didn’t know WHY my mother didn’t ever get HELP…
          I opted for no kids, terrified I’d see myself standing over my child.
          Holidays alone are delightful. I’ll have a tree, all the Charlie Brown and Rudolph vids in a stack, and a turkey roasting.

          • Myrtle said:

            Hmmm! I’d clicked “Reply” to Pumpkin DeSpice’s comment. 🙂

          • Brisvegan said:

            Hi Myrtle. So did I. That’s why we showed up one after the other. 🙂

        • Lathyrus said:

          Thank you for writing this. Something just massively clicked for me here. That is exactly what I do.
          She is horrible to me, and I seek her approval. And the more horrible she is, the worse I feel that she doesn’t approve of me, so I try harder, I explain more, I try to convince her.
          Wow.

          • It’s hard to get out of that pattern. When you were a child, you needed love and care and you needed her to provide shelter and clothing and food, and when you grow up with parents who are bad, you desperately placate because you know that receiving the necessities of life is contingent on that–I think children be and do whatever it takes to ensure their survival. And that’s okay. Whatever you had to do to get to the age that you could leave alive, that is okay. Your child-self didn’t do anything bad by doing what they had to to make it to adulthood alive. But your adult self gets to choose, well, *everything*.

            You get to choose what kind of relationship you want to have with her. Or if you have one at all. And you can–and should!–have that relationship on equal terms. That is something that abusive parents have a really hard time with, I think. A lot of them tell you that you “should” feel a certain way toward them or “owe” them a certain amount of access to you or control over your life, and that’s just their abusive and controlling outlook changing to maintain control as you distance yourself as a natural consequence of growing up. Something that really helped me was honouring my own desire for a maternal, loving relationship as okay and normal and natural, but also understanding and accepting that my mother is not that person and never will be. She is what she is, she’s not going to change, and understanding that, I could deal in the possible when it comes to her, rather than constantly trying to get this thing from her that she just doesn’t want to participate in (and probably isn’t capable of it). I mourned that desire that I had for a mum who loves me, and let it go, because it’s just not going to happen. As a result, I’ve been no contact and minimal contact, and I’ve trying confronting her, and I’ve settled into a pattern that, though it doesn’t make me happy, most importantly, *doesn’t make me sad*.

            This makes it seem really easy, maybe, and it wasn’t. I had to decouple a lot of concepts that were stuck together because of my abusive upbringing, but it’s very possible, and very worth it.

            I believe in your victory.

          • Lathyrus said:

            Seemed to run out of nesting, but this is in reply to Pumpkin dePie at 1.39pm on 6 Nov.
            Thanks Pumpkin, that’s a lovely comment, and I am going to try to do that. Lovely to know that you believe in me – now I just have to believe in myself!

    • Alli525 said:

      I, too, could have written this letter word-for-word except for the alcoholism. I haven’t started speaking to my mother again yet (it’s been about 7 months since she attacked me in such an ugly way that I cut off all contact) and I’m having a fair amount of anxiety about what that will mean for the holidays. We haven’t spent the holidays together in a few years, but even the thought of having to call her on Christmas depletes my spoon reserves way down past where I need them to be. There’s no good answer to a terrible parent asking why you are keeping your distance, but whatever makes you feel okay (or even – gasp – GOOD) is the best answer.

      Positive thoughts & Jedi hugs. ❤

      • M said:

        There is no rule that you have to call an abusive parent on Christmas. Nor is there a rule that you have to answer the phone when an abusive parent calls on Christmas. Nor that you have to listen to whatever voice mail abusive parent might leave on Christmas. The Delete button is your friend.
        The first round of holidays after a schism is hard, because our culture brainwashes us that holidays are big happy cheerful family events, but once you let go of the feeling of obligation, you might find yourself enjoying the holidays for the first time ever.

        Good luck and hugs.

    • manybellsdown said:

      I think a WHOLE LOT of us have this mom, plus or minus a few incidentals.

      • twomoogles said:

        Yeah…I have this dad, myself. The part about present as Cool and Fun (so much self deprecating humour! So funny!) in public so everyone thought he was great was particularly spot on.

        • Quint&Jessel, Sea of Azof, Bly, UK said:

          God, yes. Everyone was so “Your dad is so cool,” but they didn’t know about the secret sleezy valiumed or drunk coward who routinely let his wife beat me up because if she didn’t beat me up, she’d turn her attentions to him. Much easier to let me be the punching bag. Dad was a narcissist but he was so good at being the cool dad…now, Mom, I haven’t spoken to her since 1989 and my life has been so much better. I could never make her happy (except by being a punching bag, and I stopped wanting to do that) so why stress her out by being around and not being punchable?

        • Jenna said:

          I had an uncle like that. After he passed away there were hints at family stories that were a hell of a lot darker and more controlling than what us nieces and nephews ever were shown. It finally showed me what the bright side of living far from (certain) family members could be.

      • I had this mother in law. I actually did write her a letter saying I hoped we could have a better relationship. She wrote back, saying, “When we were together, you always appeared chilly, guarded, and rather judgmental.”

        Yeah. I was guarded! Because she and my FIL would spend all their time trash-talking anyone who wasn’t in the room!

        She also wrote, “It took me a long time to build a relationship with some of Sly’s relatives and the initiative was all mine.”

        As in, I had to work my ass off to have a relationship with my husband’s family and by God, it’s your turn now.

        Nope. I just decided not to have a relationship with her. Of course, that is a lot easier to do with an in-law than a parent. (And it helped that my husband understood how awful his parents are, even if he is not going to separate from them.)

  2. As someone who’s got some of this kind of relationship with a parent, thank you for asking the question LW, and solidarity. (and thanks to the Captain!)

  3. Andrew Glasgow said:

    I suppose it would be counterproductive to agree with her when she says things like “It’s obvious that you hate me” (“Yup, and things like this are one reason why”) and “I’m sorry you have the worst mother in the world” (“Well, apologizing for it is a start, at least.”) Seems like it would be tempting, though. Maybe I’m just excessively sarcastic.

    • JenniferP said:

      I actually like this tactic when someone is spiraling – it can be done gently, but sometimes agreeing with someone who is doing the excessive self-deprecation derail (instead of giving them the already-scripted out argument they are having in their head) is the best way to change the subject.

      • Fish said:

        I find that going off script is the best thing ever. Other ways of going off script:

        “Its a shame that you feel that way, but its not my job to make you feel differently.”
        “I hear that you feel that way. What are you going to do about it?”
        “Perhaps you should be talking to a therapist about those thoughts, and not me.”
        “I see you need some time to your thoughts right now. I’ll go take a walk. See you in an hour!”

        or just pretend the sentence wasn’t said, and continue on the original topic that the self deprecation is derailing.

        There is an infinite sink of emotional labor that can go into disagreeing with some people when they beat themselves up. “I will not carry your baggage for you today” is just about the only way to stay sane.

        • Terrified Gardener said:

          I am stealing this to recommend to my partner. I haven’t done it for a while but I do occasionally do this spiral and he tries to reason me out of it but this would be so much more effective! Thank you!

          • Terrified Gardener said:

            Argh I forgot to paste the specific line I meant. I was talking about this one: “I hear that you feel that way. What are you going to do about it?”

        • RedCat said:

          Fantastic suggestions, thanks.

      • lizinthelibrary said:

        I love this tactic and use it all the time – I call it taking people at the word. “I GUESS THE WHOLE DAY IS RUINED!” Yes, seems that way, I’ll go home since today is ruined and try to call you later this week. Seriously shocked silence when I don’t fall over myself reassuring them/fixing imagined wrongs and instead leave with a cheery wave.

        Also works in public service settings. The woman who brought a untrained, poorly behaving 6 week old puppy (behaving well for a 6 week old puppy) into our library? “I’LL JUST NEVER BRING MY PUPPIES TO THE LIBRARY AGAIN”. Thank you! and end of conversation to her consternation.

        • Quint&Jessel, Sea of Azof, Bly, UK said:

          Wait, what? A puppy to the library? What?

          • lizinthelibrary said:

            This was not the first time and I doubt it will be the last. I’ve also seen kittens brought in snuggled under hoodies. I adore puppies and kittens! But some (many) of our patrons are allergic and it is a pain to get our carpets clean. In this case of the 6 week old puppy, I started with a gentle inquiry as to if the dog was a service animal (I knew it wasn’t, but legally I should ask that). Apparently I was the third staff member to ask her that (it was literally two weeks after legal had given us this training about service animals) and she exploded on me that OF COURSE a 6 week old puppy wasn’t a service animal, why DID WE KEEP BOTHERING HER, and ended with the ultimatum about never bringing puppies to the library again. As I said, I smiled and thanked her.

            Seriously was a cute puppy though. I would have begged for a cuddle in almost any other situation.

        • Light37 said:

          I love puppies, and I love libraries. I do not love an unhousebroken, untrained puppy IN the library. I feel sorry for the puppy.

        • thelittlepakeha said:

          Not just a puppy, a SIX WEEK OLD puppy! Eesh. Take it back to its mother! The time to socialise them is later, with people who aren’t trying to use a library.

        • pagooey said:

          Love this tactic also. Most recently deployed it when my sister, demanding a 45-minute ride to the airport at holy crap o’clock, snapped “I’LL NEVER BRING YOU A GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICH AGAIN!” We are both in our mid-40s; she’d given me a snack from the drive-in earlier in the week.

          But the puppies/library ultimatum is also so great; I might just start using it as an interjection in these sorts of circumstances. Regardless of whether any puppies, libraries, or grilled cheeses are featured.

        • Susan Carlen said:

          I work in a public library, too. My favorite ultimatum was “I’LL TAKE MY BUSINESS ELSEWHERE”

      • Marna Nightingale said:

        I feel like this works better on low self-esteem or unhealthy self-talk spirals than on manipulators and abusers though.

        The genuinely unhappy spiraller wants help they don’t know how to ask for. The abuser wants you to react in a way that lets them keep forcing YOU into a spiral. Answering like that is escalating, which isn’t always safe.

        I’m not sure what a good script is, unless you can safely say “if you keep that up I’m leaving” and then actually leave. I’m not sure yours isn’t a good script. But it does seem risky.

    • I think…it works better on less toxic people than the LW’s mom? My mother is far from perfect, but a cheerful “yep, you’re terrible, how did I survive” will often yank her out of an uncomfortable and vaguely manipulative recrimination spiral. But my imperfect mother is not a gaslighting abuser, just a regular decent person with some capital-I Issues.

      Similarly, my mother and I had a complete meltdown screaming fight a few years ago about a thing she kept doing that drove me NUTS and she wouldn’t STOP. It took the screaming fight to impress on her that I really did want it to stop, but stop she did. I feel like the LW’s mom is probably not responsive even to screaming fight levels of STOP DOING THAT.

      • Mayati said:

        Yeah, my mom doesn’t respond well to a cheerful “yep, you’re terrible and I hate you! Let’s go watch Miss Fisher’ Murder Mysteries!” because a) she thinks it’s dismissive, which…yeah, it kind of is? on purpose? and b) she slut-shames Miss Fisher and that’s a NO GO.

        About a year ago, she started into her “I was such a bad mother” spiel, and she paused after she said it for my expected “no, Mom, you did the best you could and everything is OK,” and instead, I just agreed with her. Just a simple “uh-huh.” My heart almost stopped when I said it, and it took so much courage, you guys. But it stopped her cold too. It meant that the story of how she was a bad mother is no longer her story to tell, it’s no longer a Reassure Mom Session. She admitted it, and I took it as an admission, and now I know it’s true. After that one time, it never worked the same way again, because she’d plan ahead and follow it up with “YOU HATE ME and I should go FLING MYSELF INTO THE VOID” or whatever, but now she has to beat herself up without me patching her up afterwards, which of course was half the point.

        • WAY TO BE AWESOME! Seriously, that is so amazing and impressive and brave.

    • MellifluousDissent said:

      Along similar lines, I’ve had some success using “Really? This is where you want to go?” or “Hey, we’re not doing this today” as a kind of polite warning, followed by leaving the room or hanging up the phone if mom can’t drop the shame-spiral-loop-of-death within two sentences after I’ve issued my warning. She did not enjoy this new pattern at first, but she’s very invested in the “my daughter and I, we are SO CLOSE” narrative, so she learned that rolling with it was the price she paid for the illusion of closeness that she desperately wanted (we’re not actually close, obviously, but I contact her often enough/include her in enough things that she’s able to spin the “we’re so close” story to her friends, which is all she really cares about).

      For me, the biggest helpers in re-establishing a mostly pleasant, well-boundaried relationship with my (narcissistic, gas-lighty) mother were (1) politely refusing to engage with her manipulations/misstatements of reality, instead of trying to argue her back into reality; and (2) letting go of any expectation or hope that we’re ever going to be a tightly-bonded mother-daughter duo. (The second one was especially hard for me because she used the “we’re so close, we’re best friends, I know you better than you know yourself” narrative to control me well into young adulthood, so I went through a real mourning period when I realized what a terrible, destructive, useless lie that narrative was for me.)

      • Anna said:

        “I know you better than you know yourself”

        Oh God, my mother says this and EVERY TIME I want to vomit. I know it’s not true but it makes me feel so gross anyway and the dissonance makes my head spin.

    • The Room Where It Happens said:

      LW here. I’ve done this and it was indeed entirely counterproductive. 😛

      • thebewilderness said:

        I got a certain amount of satisfaction from finally telling my mum, when she said that, that while I did not hate her I certainly did not like her or trust her. That was when we finally talked about why I am the way I am and how I got here. It helped some. We spent the last twenty years of her life living as room mates who met as adults because that was the truth of our situation. I continued to fail to meet her unrealistic expectations to the last.

        • Evie said:

          This is where I’d like to get to with my mum but she has this inability to look at information like that and deal with it – if I saw things like that she needs proof and reasons (none of which are good enough) and then tells me how long ago they all were (once in a conversation where she literally brought up things that had happened to her in her childhood as a ‘this is why I’m like this’)

        • Muse142 said:

          Heh. I tried to have a similar conversation with my mom (which began with her usual “Are you MAD AT MEE?!?” accusations, after which I finally drummed up the courage to say “Yes actually” rather that going into placation mode).

          She flipped her lid. When she got to the “I’m done” / “I don’t have a daughter” bit, I took her at her word. Going no-contact has been lovely!

      • perlhaqr said:

        Ah, bummer. :-/ It would be so nice to re-rail the conversation by countering “Well, I’m SORRY that you have the WORST MOTHER in the WORLD!” with “Yeah, Mom, honestly, so am I.”

        “But I pushed the sympathy button! Why didn’t anything come out this time?!?”

    • The one I always wish they would *actually* follow up on is the ‘Well I guess I’m not ALLOWED say ANYTHING!’ when you challenge them for saying something horrible. See also: ‘FINE then, I guess I’ll NEVER SAY ANYTHING AGAIN’.

      Why dangle such a delicious promise if you don’t mean it?? 🙂

      • It occurs to me that parents like this are very like the MRA types who bristle at having to consider women’s feelings instead of just hitting on them – it’s the same outraged pout-fest, as in “OK THEN! I WON’T LOOK AT ANY WOMAN AGAIN EVER!”

        • Lablizard said:

          To which my reply is, “Works for me!”

        • jeanne said:

          “On behalf of women everywhere, I commend your decision.”

      • Muse142 said:

        SERIOUSLY! I mentioned upthread that the last conversation I had with my mother ended in her “cutting me off”.

        Of course, after I took her at her word, I was treated to a number of texts / voicemails to the effect of “WHYYY are YOU doing this TO ME!”

        I’m disappointed but not surprised that she didn’t actually mean it.

  4. AMM said:

    My mother wasn’t overtly abusive, but I had the same sort of “she wants to pretend everything was always fine” shtick. She never really emotionally connected with her children (and probably not with my father either), but was able to seem warm and charming to people who weren’t with her every day. I always say she was like the cloth mothers in the Harry Harlow monkey experiments — it looks like a mother, why doesn’t it feel like a mother? If I would complain, I would get the guilt trip — the “how could you even think that about your mother?” shtick.

    The end result was that on the rare occasions when I would visit (400 mi. away), it would take me a month to recover from the depression it caused, and when she died, I felt nothing. I still don’t feel any sense of loss about her death. The only “loss” I feel is of the mother I wish I’d had.

    • Lynda said:

      Oh, how that last sentence resonates with me. Substitute “parents” and that would be my experience.

    • Astute comparison. IIRC, the cloth mother monkeys offered no sustenance/food, but were soft and thus FELT, to a baby monkey, more like mothers should be. And the wire mother monkey offered formula, but the wire was cold and uncomfortable, and the baby monkeys thus preferred the non-nurturing warm fuzzy cloth dummy anyway.

      Cloth mother monkeys look right on the outside and at a casual glance, but they offer no sustenance, they are all surface. Only the baby monkey knows that the cloth mother monkey isn’t stepping up and fully providing for the baby’s needs, because the cloth mom LOOKS right. Not that wire mother monkeys are much better. They do the bare minimum required to keep the baby monkey alive by offering formula. It isn’t an either/or situation, it’s a “both mother monkey dummies are flawed, one is just less obviously flawed” situation.

      I suspect that, in real life, wire monkey moms are the ones that abuse obviously by neglecting their kids to the degree that outsiders take note, while cloth monkey moms abuse more subtly by putting on a good show for the neighbors and others, but the baby monkey knows, deep down, that something isn’t right, and will struggle for a long time to figure out it isn’t something the baby monkey did or didn’t do, or something that can be fixed or controlled by the baby, because everything LOOKS right on the surface, and the cloth monkey mom always looks like mother of the year when there’s an audience around.

      Since CA readers reminded me of that experiment, I have associated wire monkeys with overt terrible behavior, and cloth monkeys with covert, harder-to-identify terrible behavior. The cloth monkeys are a lot harder to deal with, because there will always be people around to gaslight you into doubting your perception that there’s something wrong with the cloth monkey.

      Then again, maybe I remember the experiment incorrectly and the analogy doesn’t apply.

      • LdyEkt said:

        Wow. That really resonates for me. I definitely had the cloth monkey mom.

        “and the cloth monkey mom always looks like mother of the year when there’s an audience around.”

        Word.

      • That’s one interpretation of the experiment. I didn’t take it as a metaphor. I took it as: animals (including humans) are so desperate for love and affection we will sacrifice life sustaining resources in order to get even measly little scraps of superficial love.

        But yeah, the experiment is viciously cruel either way. Neither “mother” is acceptable or providing the care required and the amount of neglect is in and of itself, abusive.

      • Muddie Mae said:

        You remember one correctly, although there were many. The original Harlow experiment had two mothers – one wire and wood, and one covered in cloth, both with food attached.* The baby monkeys preferred the cloth mothers. Even when the food was removed from the cloth mother, the baby monkeys would interact with the wire mother only when they needed to eat, and otherwise spent time clinging to the cloth mother. Later experiments showed that the babies with a wire mother only were fearful, anxious, and stressed enough to have physical symptoms. The babies with cloth mothers were basically okay.

        The way I always thought of it is that a wire mother *appears* to be providing everything for their children (food) but huge key parts are missing.

        Re: your analogy, I think you could make the argument that a cloth mother doll in a lab cage might be a better mother than a wire one, but on a continuum that includes “actual monkey” there is probably a lot of things missing from the cloth simulacrum.

      • Brianne Nurse said:

        The experiment itself dealt with the fact that the baby monkeys would choose comfort over sustenance, suggesting that for primates, socialization and the mother-infant bond is in some ways more important even than food.

        However, I think your extrapolation from fake monkey-moms to different types of abuse (overt vs covert) is spot-on, and I think there’s even more that can be said about it:

        The cloth mother is a far more insidious abuser than the wire mother, because while the wire mother is overtly abusive and causes definite harm to the baby monkey by not providing it the support, nurturing, socialization and bonding it needs, the cloth mother comes with the same kind of abuse and neglect, but with the added psychological torment of the performance of nurturing, which is known to contribute to the formation of codependent relationships. Most of the time, the cloth mother is just as neglectful and abusive (if not more-so) as the wire mother, but those times when the cloth mother is “playing the part” can feel so good and so validating by contrast to her usual behaviour that it can lead a baby monkey to pine for and cling to those moments, trying desperately to please the cloth mother and hopefully provoke some fleeting performance of motherhood. Which, in the long run, can really, REALLY screw with a baby monkey’s head.

        • Saira Ali said:

          I don’t get why people keep calling the wire mother overtly abusive and the cloth mother covertly so? In my experience it’s really fucking hard to get authority figures (teachers, priests) or actual authorities to care about wire monkey mothers. Because you’re being fed and clothed and sent to school with no visible bruises, no one understands that the lack of affection is seriously damaging and abusive. The whole reason Harlow did that experiment was to prove that there are negative outcomes even if all the currently-known needs of the baby (food, shelter) are provided.

          • FlyBy said:

            That’s about where I’m at too. My dad made sure we were fed and clothed, and he didn’t hit us or yell at us, so he was a good parent, right? Except he was emotionally completely neglectful and/or abusive. To me that sounds like a wire monkey.

            It’s an interesting metaphor whichever way it’s used. 🙂

          • Lou said:

            Perhaps they mean overt in the sense of not even trying to pretend to the child that they care about anything beyond the bare minimum of feeding/clothing/not visibly bruised such that they won’t have CPS called on them. As opposed to the cloth mother who covertly abuses by actually performing “proper” care/feeding in public. I don’t think they mean overt/covert in terms of people outside the situation recognizing it as abuse.

          • This is that thing that people–even here on CA!–do where they give people credit for parenting someone if the child didn’t actually die in their care. Sorry, the bare minimum is not enough. Certainly not enough to engender any kind of positive feeling or sense of obligation. I had a comment interaction recently with someone here who said, in essence, “why should I write off the whole person? why don’t they get credit for the good things they did?” Here redefining “good” of course to mean “the bare minimum necessary for supporting continued existence, grudgingly given but expecting to be received with extravagant thanks”.

          • storyranger said:

            When someone I know very well was little, they told their mom they were going to get help and escape. And they were told “no one will believe you, because you don’t have proof I don’t care about you.” They were fed (though meals were sometimes withheld as punishment, they were generally provided adequate nutrients) they had their school uniform, they had no physical marks on them.
            But they’re still damaged decades later by the verbal and emotional abuse. And I don’t know what’s more overtly abusive then actually telling a child “if you try to get me to stop no one will believe you so don’t bother trying.”

            All abuse is wrong. And we need to stop teaching people with our reactions that emotional abuse in the absence of physical neglect is actually not that bad.

          • Wow. I used to say I was going to escape, too. I either got “Don’t you DARE” or “Don’t be stupid – who else would have you?” The implication was that she was some sort of saint for putting up with me, which someone made it worse on the frequent occasions that she told me she had had enough of me and was going to put me “in a Home” like some sort of incorrigibly badly behaved dog.

            Because of her, I thought for years that foster kids, residents of children’s homes and even kids like my cousin who went to boarding school were somehow so bad that their “real” parents didn’t want them. It makes me feel slightly sick to remember that now.

        • thelittlepakeha said:

          Like the experiments where pressing a button gives you a reward SOME of the time and most animals will just keep. on. pressing the button.

        • ashbet said:

          This is a really fascinating discussion. I have referred to my mother-thing as “the Wire Mother” for years and years — I got the basics of what I needed to survive, but with a hefty helping of emotional and sometimes physical abuse. My mother is so narcissistic that she has built a Reality Field around herself that makes her Mom of the Century, and anything that challenges that is met with violent opposition.

          But, reading this — I think my mother was a Wire Mother in a Cloth Mother suit. She *always* came off as this poised, polished, white-glove Southern belle, she dressed us in new clothing and put on a performance of affection, but it was always immediately withdrawn in private. She was INCREDIBLY concerned with “What will the neighbors think?”, to the detriment of my health and happiness.

          Definitely thought-provoking.

          (LW, I’m so sorry that your mother is pressuring you this way, and please be aware, you are not at all alone — a lot of us with inadequate parents are dealing, in adulthood, with their need to rewrite history and turn themselves into saintly, self-sacrificing parenting hero/ines.

      • Druidspell said:

        “I suspect that, in real life, wire monkey moms are the ones that abuse obviously by neglecting their kids to the degree that outsiders take note, while cloth monkey moms abuse more subtly by putting on a good show for the neighbors and others, but the baby monkey knows, deep down, that something isn’t right, and will struggle for a long time to figure out it isn’t something the baby monkey did or didn’t do, or something that can be fixed or controlled by the baby, because everything LOOKS right on the surface, and the cloth monkey mom always looks like mother of the year when there’s an audience around.”

        You have just contextualized my entire life to this point in one paragraph. My father is a sociopath and my mother is a cloth monkey who thinks she did an excellent job–not even “the best she could under the circumstances” but a forreal excellent job taking care of her kids because we always had food, and clean clothes, and shelter, and she used to be a 4H leader for my sister and a playground monitor for me. She’s so good at being a Mom in front of other people, but so inadequate at being my mom when no one else is watching.

        LW, all I can offer you is my sympathy and my hope that the Captain’s scripts are helpful to you; I’ll be cribbing them for myself when the holidays get closer and I have to have the discussion with my parental units about my holiday plans re: family time. *jedi hugs* if you want them.

        • So much yes. It needed a few years for my alcoholic verbally abusive mom to warm to my SO so she was less restrained by his possible perception of her. Happily he believed me-but still the good image she built was good enough to leave a bit of doubt-untill he witnessed one of her mentosfountain of anger (bc she’d bottled up all small things she never learned to openly bring up(bc her mom was also a ‘proove-your-devotion-to-me-by-never-verbalizing-your-needs-and-hurt’-wiremom) until one random small thing, becoming the dragee of enclosed anger would make ALL THE ANGRY FEELS come gushing out at me.

          Living with such people is like playing ‘hit the pot’* in a minefield of angry FEELINGSBOMBS alone. You never know whether you hit something or not..

          * Its a birthdaygame for smaller kids in Germany. One child gets blindfolded and given a wooden spoon or cooking spatula.One hides a small present under a metal cookingpot somewhere in the room or open space. Then the blidfolded child gets turned around a bit to disorient and then has to find the present by crawling around and patting the space/floor around them with the spoon. The other kids have to lead them verbally to the present by saying ‘cold’ when the pot is not near, ‘warm’ when they get nearer/are on the right track and ‘hot’ when the pot is very near. When the child hits the pot with the spoon they can take the blindfold off and claim the prize. Then the next one becomes searcher until all kids have gotten something.

      • shehasathree said:

        *whimpers with how awesome/horrifying this metaphor is*

      • Well said, britpoptarts. As I understood it, the Harlow experiment was designed to show that monkey babies would choose warm fuzzy comfort over food – but you are absolutely right to say that the “cloth monkey” is not much better than the wire one – and in some cases may be worse, as it doesn’t provide food. I also think you have hit the nail on the head about the “cloth monkey” parents.

    • Thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis. This is my mother. And I was so wrapped up in the facade that it took 31 years before I pulled back the curtain of denial and realized everything, everyone, and mostly importantly *I* was NOT FINE. I was (erm, am) so incredibly NOT FINE that I completely fell apart. I’m still trying to pull myself together and I feel so isolated because the rest of the family is still entrenched in the FINE facade and my childhood friends are mystified as to why I am feeling like this (because we appeared to be the Most Perfectest Family ever) and most of the time I feel like I must be delusional with all the lies I am swimming in. I even told my therapist, that every time I say “fine” I am lying. Not consciously, but it’s just a reflex to tell myself that rather than confront my real and previously invalidated feelings.

      All that to say, I empathize. Hard. With this whole thread. And it sucks.

      • E said:

        Just commenting to say: giving you ALL the online *hugs*

        I don’t have quite the same story, but I am also currently estranged from my physically parents and everyone thinks my dad is a fucking saint (like, those words have been said to me, your dad is a saint).

        • Much appreciated and reciprocated! It’s been really tough and I am just incredibly grateful to have a lovely therapist who lets me cry for whole entire hour every week (I cry more in one week than I ever did in 10 years). I hope you have good support and validation, it’s truly invaluable.

        • Janet said:

          What people tend not to notice is that saints are often pretty shitty *people*. The definition of a saint is someone who cares more about principles, abstractions, and the large scale than about individuals. Which is great when you’re trying to change civil rights laws or save the environment, but not so good for parenting or being a spouse…

          • There is a story that Gandhi told about his family, concerning one occasion when his ten-year-old son was dangerously ill with typhoid and pneumonia. The doctor who attended said the boy needed chicken soup to give him strength, but Gandhi, as a strict vegetarian, forbade this. He actually put his religious principles above his child’s life. He said afterwards that this son became the healthiest of his boys, but things could so easily have turned out differently. The full story, in Gandhi’s own words, is here: http://www.mkgandhi.org/autobio/chap76.htm

  5. Aaahhh this is the story of my life, minus the alcohol! The Captain’s advice is golden. (Maybe I should be grateful my narcissist mom was deathly afraid of all mood-altering substances, even medicine she actually needed.) LW, whether you decide to go no-contact or can maintain a light acquaintances relationship, you are wise and brave and totally within your rights.

    I’ve been basically no-contact with mom for 5 years, except holiday cards. I did my damndest to keep up a casual friendship with her, but my boundary-setting made her so enraged that she started slandering me in the community (to destroy my other relationships that competed with her for my attention!), so it was no longer safe. Sounds like your mom cares more about keeping up appearances, so I hope you can find the middle ground that eluded us.

    Yeah, there’s a lot of grief when you see the truth about what you never had. I cried when I saw the kids’ movie “Brave” — like, “Waah, I wish I could turn MY mom into a bear to fix our relationship!” Those triggers will come up every now and then, even though I’m completely at peace with my decision. BUT take it from me, you can also hope for a huge boost of sanity, healthy self-love, and creative energy, once you unplug from the toxic struggle. I was surprised to see how much it had been draining my battery, because it was all I’d ever known. Believe in your healthy future. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s brighter than you can imagine.

    I second the recommendation of Karyl McBride. I also like the emotional abuse survivor website The Invisible Scar (note that it has a Christian moderator so some of the book recommendations may be evangelical). https://theinvisiblescar.wordpress.com/

    • jellotheocracy said:

      For me, it was the movie Tangled. I cried because I spent a significant part of my childhood wishing I had “real” parents.

      • My N-mom suggested we watch “Brave” and spent most of the movie telling me why Meridia deserved to feel bad because she didn’t conform to her parents’ / mother’s expectations. She basically rewrote the script and message of the film as we watched it, sympathizing heavily with the bear-mom. So that backfired pretty badly.

        On the other hand, I watched “Tangled” alone and I agree with jellotheocracy that it really hit me in my soft underbelly. Children don’t exist solely to serve / do chores / flatter / excuse / parentify / benefit, and be an advertisement for the ‘wonderfulness’ of their parent(s)…and nothing else. I suspect normal parents don’t expect them to, either.

        • philae said:

          Ugh. I also watched “Brave” with my mother and was deeply uncomfortable the entire time. Thank goodness we were in a cinema though, so I was spared her commentary! I suspect my mother’s takeaway was “Meridia learned what an ungrateful drama-llama brat she was, the end.”

        • Unah said:

          Oh my god, the movie Brave. I have been able to disconnect from my n-mother for a while now. She hates it, but I don’t care, it’s the only way I can survive. She gave me the movie Brave for Christmas one year, and told me it reminded her of us. I watched it and I wanted to throw up. Here she was trying to rewrite history again to make it look like we only have minor disagreements, because she only wanted what was best for me. I don’t remember the movie Tangled, but the movie that triggered me the most is Coraline. The scene at the end when Other Mother chases Coraline up the spider web screaming, “You selfish brat! Don’t leave me! I’ll die without you.” Most people talk about Tangled when they talk about their abusive narcissistic parents, but Coraline was way more triggering. Watching Other Mother was like watching my mother in cartoon form. They say the book is way worse, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it.

      • tessiselated said:

        Oh my gosh Tangled does things to me. The mother knows best song gives me nausea.

        The line where they have an argument and then Mother Gothel says something like “Great! Now I’m the bad guy” made me break out into a cold sweat.

    • E said:

      OMG, I cry ALL the time whenever I see a happy family on TV/movies, etc. The other emotion I have is STRAIGHT RAGE – both stem from the fact that I’ve never had that, I’ll never ever have that, and I’ll never understand what it’s like. I used to feel horrible about crying at something so stupid, but now I’ve just decided that’s just a weird part of me (and also I found a friend with similar circumstances that feels the same way, that helps a LOT).

      • Exit Flagger said:

        I just get the rage and avoid TV/movies that I know will have significant family content for that reason. I had a blue-screen moment the other day when I saw someone’s Twitter feed about how she got so much support from her family for her mental health issues, I was this close to type-screaming “must be nice, MOTHERFUCKER.” I’ve also hid people on Facebook who talk about their families positively because my animal-brain says they’re bragging. It’s probably not something I’m ever getting over so I’ve just found ways around it.

        • Quint&Jessel, Sea of Azof, Bly, UK said:

          But they’re not doing it at you. No one is having a good family at you.

          • Exit Flagger said:

            Duh. But I prefer not to have to think about it at all or confront my own feelings in any way. (I also have only hidden/defriended acquaintances not actual friends… then again, most of my actual close friends have screwed-up families because like attracts like.)

          • Vicki said:

            Those of us who have good (or mostly good) families, and aren’t having them AT someone, mostly won’t mind if someone doesn’t want to hear us talk about it being good. It’s similar to trying not to burble about how wonderful my partners are to someone who is unhappily single.

          • Data Points said:

            Exit Flagger never said anything like that? They are taking care of their feelings without involving these happy family people in it. Having these feelings is not wrong and there’s no need to ‘splain how to be a good abuse survivor, okay?

      • Myrtle said:

        Defining your pain as “Something so stupid” sounds like an external script forced on you-? Of course you would feel pain and rage at the loss! I know I felt all those things, at mine!

        • philae said:

          *Light bulb*
          Thank you for writing this.

      • This rings so bells for me too. Though I go back and forth. Sometimes I feel a ragestroke come on whenever I find myself watching/listening to/reading anything with supportive families (go away Parenthood!). Other times, it is All.I.Watch. Like I am living vicariously through these people, pretending these lovely parents are talking to me and even stealing their scripts. Like I am learning how to parent myself from these fictional (and sometime non-fictional) people. But it does make coming back to reality extra hard sometimes. Either way, I don’t think we are weird we are just coping. Ain’t no shame in that.

        Though, Mother’s Day is the day I do not touch social media for all the gold medallions in the world.

        • ashbet said:

          Like I am living vicariously through these people, pretending these lovely parents are talking to me and even stealing their scripts.

          When I was a child (I mean a REALLY YOUNG child, like 7-8), I started picking up parenting books at the used bookstore. I really liked James Dobson’s “How to Parent” (1970’s or early 80’s edition — before he became an ass-whistling religious nutjob, in fact, I appreciated that those editions of the books treated “spirituality” as an optional thing that a parent might share with their child.)

          I read them to figure out how normal families worked, and to reassure myself that no, there wasn’t something wrong with me, there was something wrong with MY MOTHER, and with my father for excusing/enabling/not noticing her abuse.

          I also wanted to figure out how to be a decent parent when I had a child (I really wanted a child or children, and I had my daughter young), because I didn’t want to repeat the cycle of abuse. I didn’t know that term back then, but I knew I wanted to be a better mother than the example in front of me. Thankfully, I *was* able to break the cycle, and my daughter is AWESOME and is older now than I was when she was born — and she can see my mother for who she is, rather than the mask she puts on for the world.

          But, yeah. I don’t get quite as strong a reaction when seeing/reading about happy families, because I was able to form a good family-of-choice of my own, in time . . . but it does still really hurt sometimes, to see depictions of parents who support their kids unquestioningly, who give them all the things that I didn’t get.

          Jedi hugs to all of you ❤

          • Wow, that’s really impressive to find such a healthy coping mechanism at such a young age. Good on you for doing that and for doing the super hard task of breaking the cycle.

        • Remy said:

          Like I am learning how to parent myself from these fictional (and sometime non-fictional) people.

          This has been most of how I learned to have functional relationships. Parenthood is on that list, and also the family in If I Stay.

      • Book Girl said:

        Happy families used to be my biggest trigger as well. Tears, rage etc. Or anyone in a authority-type role who took a child seriously. For years. It has gotten easier now and I can cope and enjoy being around actual happy families in real life, but it took a loooong time.

    • SubmarineBells said:

      Me too. I cried my eyes out when I watched Brave; which was a big surprise to the folk around me, since I’d been in a pretty good mood when the film started. The idea of a mother being actually *supportive* of a daughter shouldn’t be a cause for tears, should it? But sometimes it is.

  6. Mir said:

    My mother is a revisionist too. She cares a great deal about what people think about her and how she’s perceived, and that desire is so strong that she not only lies and gaslights people, but also actually rewrites the past in her own head to more conveniently fit with the person she wants to be and the mother she wants to be seen as.

    When I was a teenager, she’d do dangerous, irresponsible things (like go out with friends and not come back to the apartment for three days, without calling to say she was okay, leaving me to get my little brother and sister fed and off to school and otherwise cared for, or neglecting to buy groceries or pay bills so that I would have to cover it using money from my job) and when we’d fight about it she’d act like I was crazy for having a problem with what she’d done, and constantly derail and say things like, “I know you’re angry I don’t have enough money to buy you a car when you turn 16, but you need to stop being so selfish, it’s not unreasonable for me to have some me-time,” which was so far from reality it was surreal. How do you argue with stuff like that? And then when her friends or my grandmother noticed I was angry with her, she’d make up lies to tell them that invariably made me look like the problem. She’s very, very good at acting and telling stories to manage perceptions. I used to joke she should have been in PR.

    Thankfully for me, we were forced to move in with my grandparents for financial reasons and then they learned the truth. They were horrified, a bunch of stuff happened, and long story short I lived with my grandparents from about 17 onwards. I cut ties with my mum and we went almost 8 years without much contact.

    We do have a relationship now, however, that mostly works for me. A family death motivated me to try reaching out to her. At first it was awful. It was bad enough as a kid when she and I both knew she was lying even if she would never admit it, but now with the passage of time she has completely convinced herself that all of the crap she made up back then as the 100% truth. I know, every time I look at her, that she honestly believes those things about me. She honestly believes she was an awesome mother. It drives me nuts. At first I almost gave up because I felt constantly gaslighted just by being near her and being unable to erase all those unjust lies from her conveniently forgetful brain.

    However after many talks and a lot of crying, we ended up in a place where we just do not talk about the past. Ever. No references, no anything. We basically pretend that we met when I was 26 and don’t know anything about each other before that. Yes, it’s weird and fairly shallow. But at least we get to talk to each other and be supportive about what’s currently going on in each other’s lives, without making me upset every time we talk to her. It’s something and it works for me.

    It did take time. For a long time she tried to push the boundaries. She’d make sneakily casual references…like when I went on vacation to Spain a few years ago, she said something about how lucky I was that I’d already been there when I was in high school, and how not many kids from poor families get a chance like that because their parents aren’t willing to sacrifice. Of course me going to Spain in high school had absolutely zero to do with her sacrificing anything. I got upset at her taking credit for my hard work (I paid for the whole trip myself – I had a job where I worked 25 hours a week while in high school). Every time something like that happened she’d try to argue either about the past, or that her comment was innocent and I was overreacting. Every single time I refused to engage. I just left, or hung up. I said, over and over, if you want to see me, this does not happen. Period. Don’t try to use me to validate your views about the past. I don’t want to hear it.

    Eventually, it did stick. I was lucky that she was willing to have those conversations, agree to the rule, and that she cared enough about seeing me that she was willing to (eventually) adhere to it. I’m sure she tells her friends all sorts of crap about her demanding and difficult daughter but thankfully I don’t really care about that.

    LW, I hope you and your mum can come to some kind of truce. From personal experience I have to say that the likelihood of her validating the crappiness of her past behaviour is pretty low. The question is what kind of a relationship you want with her now and how you can get her to respect those boundaries. Remember, she is unlikely to acknowledge the reasonableness of those boundaries based on her past behaviour, because she can’t admit her behaviour was a problem. So you may need to take ownership of your “unreasonable” boundaries and enforce them anyway. I have many times said things like, “Sure mum, I understand you think this is crazy and unfounded. But it’s the only way I’m going to be able to feel comfortable staying in touch. Are you in or not?” and I have had to prove, over and over, that I meant it. No boundaries, no contact.

    It sucks. And it might not even be worth it for you, if you don’t strongly feel the need to have her in your life. Either keep her at a distance, or let her in but enforce your boundaries. Don’t give up on the boundaries. Don’t let her revictimize you. Don’t give her the illusion of the relationship she wants at a cost to your wellbeing and happiness.

    • Polychrome said:

      THREE DAYS?!?! I am opening and shutting my mouth like a fish. Huzzahs to you that you came through that and are who you are today.

    • espritdecorps said:

      I started working odd jobs and under the table at 10. Started using my pay to buy groceries/toiletries/household supplies and prepare meals at 11.
      My mother has Issues, but she at least had the grace to thank me, and acknowledge that it was not a normal thing to expect from a child.
      She didn’t stop my father from drinking up his paycheck or taking his rage out on me physically and verbally.
      She didn’t ask where I was disappearing to when I’d come home from school, smell the alcohol, pack a change of clothes, and leave, or stop constantly ratcheting up her expectations of what it took to be a worthy daughter, but she did recognize my labor.

      I can’t even fathom being responsible for younger kids for days on end, in addition to taking care of myself, while being gaslighted by a parent pretending that was totally normal. You are an incredibly strong person, and I’m so sorry you had to be.

    • twomoogles said:

      This sounds a lot like my relationship with my dad. We just..don’t talk about the past. He blames pretty much all his bad behaviour on the fact that my mom passed away when I was in high school; he really did fall apart after that and things went to absolute hell, but I remember him screaming at me when I was 5 or 6 for not looking happy enough about raking the leaves, so…no, it was always there. (The whole resting bitch face thing, I identify with it so strongly but it’s also really painful because a large part of my father’s bad reactions towards me were based on my looking unhappy, defiant, etc. all the time, even when I wasn’t.)

      The strange thing is now I’m an adult he does seem to have genuinely changed, or at least his temper is much, much calmer. It feels…really weird that I can go out for lunch with him, have a reasonably normal interaction, but still be affected by some of his behaviours when I was growing up. I think we both have zero desire to ever talk about the past for different reasons, because in the past when he tried to bring it up it went really badly.

      Your comment about interacting like you met when you were 26 is true for me too and…I don’t know, it works. Weirdly. But I’m ok with it for some reason. Haven’t entirely figured it out myself yet though, so this thread has been pretty helpful for me…

      • espritdecorps said:

        My mother and I had a cordial, superficial, relationship for many years. It was worth it to me to do that work. She supported me when I didn’t have anywhere else to go after Vader-ex, and even though she adores him, my being afraid of him was enough for her to respect my boundaries around that.

        Her memory has been declining due to a chronic illness, and it has bought warmth to our relationship.
        She doesn’t remember all the ways I was a disappointment, and takes more joy in her grandchildren. She called me a good mother the other day, and I held my breath waiting for a nasty dig to follow, but she seemed to mean it.
        Our family and her friends are grieving the loss of the hyper-competent, witty, driven woman they depended on. It’s confusing, I admired her strength, but am enjoying my kinder, gentler, mother.

        Boundaries are still enforced for my security, and because it hurts when she says something triggering out of ignorance.
        There’s nothing to be gained by yelling at her now, so when she disapproved of a former co-worker treating her daughter the way she treated me in the same situation 25 years ago, I excused myself and walked away. I suppose it should be a validation that she (kind of) admitted she was wrong. but it makes it worse somehow.

        • RuinousIllusion said:

          If my mom thinks what she did to me is normal, then it was done in error and she didn’t mean to be abusive. If she recognizes that her behavior was abusive then why did she do that to me?

          • espritdecorps said:

            “If my mom thinks what she did to me is normal, then it was done in error and she didn’t mean to be abusive. If she recognizes that her behavior was abusive then why did she do that to me?”

            Thank you, I’ve been chewing over that statement for days. It’s very wise.

            There’s a kind of peace in knowing that there’s no more resolution or validation or closure that can come from her.
            She’s had this illness for over a decade, but has recently hit a tipping point, and isn’t the woman she was even 3 years ago. Her body is in good shape, so I have another 10-20 years with this person who both is and isn’t my mother.
            Every time it seems I’ve accepted that, some sharp realization will stab me out of the blue, and a wound that has scarred over decades ago is fresh again.

            My whole life other people have adored my mother. She spent her life helping others, volunteering in her community, choosing a career working with the most vulnerable populations. She was empathetic, patient, strong, she fought for the needs of the underdog. Everyone told me how lucky I was to have her as a mother, but she rarely showed that side to me.

            It took years of therapy to get to the place where I could tell myself it wasn’t about me, she just didn’t have it in her, there’s nothing I could have done to change things.
            So to get this mother I desperately needed as a child and young adult, to get her now, and realize she chose to give her kindness to others and withhold it from me. That there was nothing I could have done, but quite a bit she could have. It hurts.

            My children are young enough to accept this new grandmother without question. In a few years my oldest child’s memories of a critical woman who said hurtful things will be fuzzy.
            My youngest will never know the woman who is listening to her ‘read’ the same book over and over again responded to the news of my pregnancy, with “Another one? I had hoped you might still accomplish something in your life. Well, that’s done now.”

            At times having a relationship with her is like gaslighting myself.

  7. JustClaire said:

    That book is puts in black and white all those messy, tangled, sticky feelings of a difficult relationship between parent and child. It shines a bright white light on those guilty, angry, longing feels.

    I checked out the book from the library, renewed it so many times I reached the limit, and then promptly lost the book. All while never reading the book. (Yep, too scared to read it.)

    Paid the fine for the lost book.

    Then promptly found the book.

    So mad by that time, I was determined to read. the. darn. book.

    So glad I lost that book.

  8. “we can interact pleasantly sometimes about neutral/boring topics”

    This.

    My mum is very much like LW is describing here. After a series of spectacular rude interactions on her part in recent years (after a relatively calm spell for a few years when i had left home and we were living our own lives), I noped out on all but the most basic, infrequent of contact, and went back to therapy for a year (which was really useful and validating.)

    Over the last 6 months we have got back to semi regular contact where we talk about tv programmes, films and books for short periods of time, and then she hangs out with her grandchildren. A month ago we even managed four days away with my family and her and my step dad, and it mostly went well (though they didn’t do some of the things that they insisted they were going to – like baby sit for a couple of hours, – but i was unsurprised, and the location helped a lot since it allowed us lots of active time with our children, and just to see them for meals and things, which worked well for all concerned) I even managed a four hour spa session that she really wanted to do with me. It was fine. We talked about nothing, and it was (actually, almost) comfortable. Well as comfortable as being on guard for the next clanging criticism that she will then try to pass off as a joke can be.

    Mum gets to tell everyone what a great holiday she had with us. We got a few days away and nothing terrible happened. YMMV.

    My grief over the years of not being fully listened to or understood, of the years of parentification, of the criticism, is a separate thing that I have to work through without either of my parents. They are not going to change. They love me in their own way. They probably don’t see/remember the stuff that has had such an effect on me. All of these things are really hard, and I still go through periods of anger, and sad self questioning.

    I nearly cut my mum out of my life completely. Right now I have put that on hold. We talk about nothing and the children get to see their grandparent for short periods of time in a way that means she has to be on her best behaviour. It is pleasant. Kinda. Sort of. It is bearable.

    I second reading Will I ever be good enough? and also read ‘Toxic Parents’ by susan forward which was also really helpful (particularly for people who are second guessing if the emotional abuse they suffered counts.)

  9. brooke said:

    Except for the alcohol you described my mother. I read the book by Karyl McBride too. It was very helpful. Unfortunately my mother gets her kicks by destroying other relationships within our extended family so we have all quit talking to her.

  10. No Longer In Academia said:

    LW, you said that you spend years reaching out to your mother and being rebuffed. Did her sudden demands for a closer relationship happen to start after you stopped reaching out to her? Controlling people are very good at sensing when their control is slipping. They especially don’t like boundaries, and it sounds like you started to enforce some (like her keeping her nose out of your dating life.) Does she actually want a closer relationship at all, or is she simply missing the tasty little snacks of ego kibble that she used to get from knowing that you were still chasing after her love and approval, and she still had power over you? Because if that’s the case, then I don’t think that you’ll ultimately be able to extract much happiness from interacting with her more often, however you try to frame it.

    • Polychrome said:

      “ego kibble”. I love this phrase and will be stealing it. It is on le moneh.

    • The Room Where It Happens said:

      LW here. That’s a good question.

      Does she actually want a closer relationship at all, or is she simply missing the tasty little snacks of ego kibble that she used to get from knowing that you were still chasing after her love and approval, and she still had power over you?

      Thing is, I don’t think this really describes the dynamic of our relationship. It was never so much “I’m going to make you dance for love and approval” as it was “I cannot be bothered with your need for love and approval.” She consistently took care of all my material needs and then some, but there was a major dearth of love, support, and nurturing.

      My most optimistic interpretation is that she’s trying to hop on a ship that’s already sailed. I’d be a lot more open to reconciliation if she wasn’t also hell-bent against connecting the dots that join her toxic behavior to my reluctance to open up to her.

      • Another book you might look at is Running on Empty, by Dr. Webb. Part of her point is that emotional neglect is really hard to point to, because it’s what DIDN’T happen instead of what did, and that sounds like at least part of what you’re describing here. There are a lot of consequences of being raised with our physical needs met, but our emotional needs ignored completely.

        • Oooh, thank you. Karyl McBride doesn’t quite work for me because it was my dad who was totally emotionally absent, so we’ll see how that one goes.

          • shehasathree said:

            There’s also “Children of the Self-Absorbed”, if you haven’t come across that one yet.

        • The Room Where It Happens said:

          I’ll check that one out, thanks. I have read Karyl McBride’s book, too, and while parts of it were helpful I felt that overall it didn’t really capture the nature of my relationship with my mom. This book sounds more relevant to my situation.

  11. Long time reader, first time commenter, etc.

    LW, I want to send you some love and solidarity if you want them. My mom was an alcoholic and an abuser. Now that I’m grown she finds it much easier to relate to me, wants us to be close, and she really, really wants to add me to her team of enablers. Distance is the only thing that helps me. Well, that and a creative outlet.

    I wish you all the best!

  12. The Awe Ritual said:

    I’m on the opposite side here. I am not an alcoholic, but I did have terrible depression and ADHD while my daughter grew up, and she internalized the message her father gave her, that I left the family because I didn’t love her enough.

    So now, I am trying to make it up to her, by being there physically and financially, by interacting with her daily in a calm, respectful manner. Sometimes it’s not easy. Sometimes she says things I find terribly hurtful, whether it’s “you were only pretending to be suicidal that time to make me feel like shit,” (she found some private correspondence while reading my e-mail. For the record, I mostly pretend not to be suicidal, in order to not put inappropriate burdens on my daughter.), or giving an impromptu toast to her husband’s foster mother as “the mother I never had,” six feet away from me. And I thank her for her wonderful courage and honesty, and if necessary, have a sniffle where she can’t see.

    But LW, it is not your job to make your mother happy or healthy or quiet, just as it is not my daughter’s job to protect my feelings. It is your job to take care of you. On behalf of neglectful moms everywhere, LW, I am so, so sorry you went through your childhood, and you are completely absolved of taking care of us the way we couldn’t take care of you.

    • Tonia said:

      I want to thank you for commenting, and also say I wish there were more parents posting here. I suppose it’s hard to post as an imperfect parent without having people jump down your throat, but parents are rarely perfect, almost everyone is a revisionist, and I really wonder what it looks like from the other side.

      And I think your note to the LW is perfect.

      • I’m a parent, though my children aren’t yet all the way adult. I’m still making my mistakes with them, and I’m sure there will be things I do that they’ll hate me for.

        The thing is, The Awe Ritual’s absolutely right, and their statement to LW is exactly what differentiates a genuinely well-meaning parent whose child is their priority, from a self-serving narcissist who is their own first priority and who wants to use their child for some emotional purpose of their own. We all screw our kids up without meaning to, but those of us who genuinely care about and prioritize our kids want them to have what they need, even when we are unable to be the ones to give it to them.

        So, if they can get what they need for themselves, or find someone else who is able to provide it, then yes, that can hurt — a lot — but the hurt is not the most important thing. The most important thing is that our child gets what they need.

        In reality, of course, few of us are completely self-serving (though such parents do, unfortunately, exist) and none of us are completely child-prioritizing. I wish I could be, but I know better. But those are the rough outlines, at least; even if most of us stray a little over the border in one direction or the other. A parent who **consistently** prioritizes their own desire to be important to their child, over their child’s needs being met by whatever method, is not doing the parenting thing in a constructive way; and there is no obligation on their kid’s part to deal with them. And a parent who *does* prioritize their child’s needs over their own desire to be important will find ways to accept their grown child’s boundaries, without making the child suffer for having those boundaries… even if their heart breaks while they do it.

    • The Room Where It Happens said:

      LW here. It’s unfortunate that your husband chose to represent your illness that way.

      My father was also an alcoholic who abandoned me and screwed my mother out of untold thousands in child support, and to my mother’s credit she never trash-talked him around me. She has always acknowledged that he was sick. It’s shitty that your husband didn’t extend you the same courtesy.

      And thank you for your words. I appreciate them.

      • The Awe Ritual said:

        LW, it seems pretty obvious that , like my daughter, have used the crucible of the survive-that-parent and let it make you strong instead of hard. In my head, that makes you a freaking hero, and you deserve a ticker-tape parade, not constant badgering about why you don’t look at her the way you did when you were breastfeeding anymore.

        My daughter’s father had an unfortunate therapist and a more unfortunate equation of “allowing to control” with “love.” To this day, he cannot get that I left not because I thought I was “better” than him, but because we were both much better people separately than we were together. (Well, that and he dislocated my jaw, which I found irritating in the extreme. One gets so tired of soup and the Ensure glop.) He needed to be the hero, and to be that, his pain had to come from the villain, and villains don’t love their daughters, nor do the daughters of villains profit by believing that the bad guy loves them. Sigh.

        Anyhow, one thing that my daughter did that helps me police myself was to sigh and say, “I don’t think you know how much it hurts the people who care about you when you say x.” (x being mean and hateful things about myself. I would never say or even think things like that about another person, but it feels like a lie not to constantly savage my flaws in conversation-derailing detail and acknowledge that I should die for them. It’s like I have a Youtube commenter living in my mouth.) Thereafter when she noticed it, she would very pointedly stop talking until I acknowledged that I was doing it and re-rail. (YES I’m a piece of shit for letting my daughter do the parenting and oh my god I’m doing it again.) You may have tried this already, or it may not work with your mother’s particular breed of ice weasel, but if not, worth a shot.

        Once again, yards of unpopped bubble wrap to you. You’re a survivor. That’s a pretty cool thing you are doing, right there.

    • Brisvegan said:

      I have depression and have been through rough times, though not as rough as you.

      I am reading this and seeing not only my parents and in-laws, but cringing and worrying that my kids may see me as distant, because there were times I didn’t be there for them as much as they needed or times they saw my anger or despair.

      I am medicated now (have been for a couple of years with a med that works for me). I am hoping now that my kids see me as a good parent.

      I am so sorry that your ex did not explain your illness to your daughter and that you did not get help you needed early enough. We can only do what we can do.

      I have said a bit about my parents on this site, but I don’t always add that while they weren’t great (dad abusive, mum neglectful), I also know they were dealing with Dad’s probable untreated serious depression and Mum’s reaction to his emotional abuse, using the only tools they had, and with their personalities as formed by their families (and Dad’s was very abusive in many ways he didn’t repeat). So while I have anger and needed to put hard boundaries in place, I can understand and mostly forgive. Maybe your daughter will understand more as she is older.

      No parents are perfect. I just aim for best I can be.

  13. LW, stop asking your mom for anything, and stop trying to explain anything at all to her. By initiating conversations or continuing a discussion or argument or debate, you’re engaging with someone who never has played fair, is not now playing fair, and never will play fair.

    It hurts and it’s hard and it’s not equitable, but just don’t engage with her any more on any of these topics. If she asks about your love life, don’t answer. Don’t say, “I’m not telling you because it’s none of your business,” because that answer invites a response as to why it’s her business (she wants to be closer). Just say something like, “It’s fine,” and let the silence hang. If she recounts some completely false story about her parenting back in the day, don’t even correct her. Decline to engage. Everybody knows what really happened. Let the silence hang.

    Maybe she’ll shriek at you. If she does, I think I can speak for all of us by saying that at that point you have permission to walk out the door and head home.

  14. Sarah said:

    “Parents who mistreat their kids and then express surprise when their adult children want to keep their distance will never not totally mystify me.”

    See, that’s the thing, though. For many abusive or narcissist parents, I don’t think they actually realize they were mistreating their kids. I think their brains twist everything into “I was being the best Parent I could” and “it was always Kid that was in the wrong/pushing my buttons/not grateful”.

    I feel like they can’t understand when they’ve screwed up because they’re so wrapped up in the I-can-do-no-wrong and I-have-the-best-intentions mindset. idk. Maybe it’s just me.

    • Serin said:

      I think a non-distorted view of parenting requires starting from this axiom: “It is always the parent’s job to be the grown-up.”

      Abuse isn’t defined by how “bad” the behavior is; it’s defined by the power relationship that’s the context for the behavior. That’s why if a six-year-old says to a parent, “I hate you and I wish you’d never been born,” that’s really unkind, but if a parent says the same thing to a six-year-old, it’s emotional abuse.

      That power element seems to be completely invisible to the kind of distorted parents we’re talking about. They figure that if *you* bit *them* when you were four months old, it’s exactly the same as if *they* bit *you*. Or even worse, because you ought to have been being grateful instead of randomly peeing all over everything and demanding food all the time.

      • Myrin said:

        This is a great point I have never, despite actually thinking and talking about it numerous times myself, seen phrased quite as clearly.

        My estranged father isn’t abusive in any way but he very much lacks the understanding you’re talking about, the understanding that there’s a difference from when he as the adult and father does something to when my sister and I as the children and daughters do something. Granted, I’m 24 now and haven’t really been in contact with him for a long time (my parents have been divorced for eight years), but he totally did this when we were still kids. I most vividly remember his behaviour shortly after the break-up, when I was sixteen and my sister was eleven and he showed no interest in us. And I said “You know, you could just call and ask about our day.” and he in all seriousness answered “Well, you could call me, too!”, all indignantly. My mum almost blew a gasket (fun aside: Until googling it just now, I thought the phrase was “Blow a casket”. Awkward.) and told him sternly that he’s the adult and he’s responsible for actually, you know, caring. (Which isn’t to say that we didn’t care about his day or didn’t reach out but my sister was eleven, for heaven’s sake. It wasn’t on her to think about how she would be able to maintain contact with him.) It never really stuck, though, and I’m pretty sure it never will, and that explanation with the axiom is really well said as to why.

        • Serin said:

          Well, sometimes it sucks to be a grown-up — but that’s not his kids’ fault!

      • peregrinations said:

        Abuse isn’t defined by how “bad” the behavior is; it’s defined by the power relationship that’s the context for the behavior. That’s why if a six-year-old says to a parent, “I hate you and I wish you’d never been born,” that’s really unkind, but if a parent says the same thing to a six-year-old, it’s emotional abuse.

        This is brilliantly phrased and explains so much about my mother. Thank you!

      • Oh. Wow. Thank you for explaining it this way. It helps me understand even more that rage-y feeling I get whenever my mother cries. It also explains why I feel like the most mature version of myself whenever I am around her, I mean *someone* has to be the grown up and if she refuses I guess that person is me.

        That is very much how it feels with my mother. She thinks I should be grateful for everything she did for me, things like: feeding me and occasionally hugging me (which she has made clear she hates doing).

      • The Room Where It Happens said:

        LW here, and you completely nailed it with this comment. Even when I was a kid, my mother behaved as though she really believed there was an even distribution of power in our relationship, which helps to explain, among other things, why she thought “You started it” was a suitable explanation for why we happened to be fighting at any given moment. It was seriously like being parented by another child.

        • Brisvegan said:

          All the jedi hugs, if you want them. You should never have been made to care for her emotions. She should have been there for you.

      • Rana said:

        Yes. One of my mantras as a parent is that my daughter is not here to provide me emotional support. I am here to provide her with emotional support.

        I’m an adult. If I need emotional support, I can turn to another adult for it.

        • Which, when you think about it, is not good for parents, too. Kids are really wonderful and affirming and amazing for many reasons. But maturity and ability to understand and appropriately respond to adult problems are not among them. Asking your kid to be your support is really not appropriate. They’re probably not actually going to do a very good job of it, if only because children aren’t developmentally able to.

          Demanding parents get something from their kids, but if they think it’s appropriate peer support, they are quite wrong.

          I mean, all this is aside from that fact that your adult offspring’s support =/= peer’s support anyway.

          • Serin said:

            Seems to me that a lot of the kind of parents we’re talking about are actually angry that their kids are not doing a better job of providing them with emotional support.

            Which: No.

      • Anna said:

        Just want to add my thanks to the others’. This is a really great point in both substance and phrasing.

      • John said:

        Oh wow, thank you for this, it was definitely a light bulb moment for me! My parents were relatively awesome, but there are a couple moments that still stick out in my head when they were not “being the grown-up” when faced with some of my childish and ultimately banal fuck-ups.

      • neverjaunty said:

        Yes, this is absolutely right. Being a parent means being the grown-up FOREVER. Which sometimes kind of sucks. There are days when I would love to let somebody else worry about the bills and killing gross spiders and Being Patient when somebody is throwing a drama hissy about doing chores, but you know what, that is what I signed up for.

        As to narcissist parents – cognitive dissonance is a normal human thought process. You have a belief or a thought, and then something contradicts it. This creates mental stress. So you have to find some way to reconcile the conflicting things. You can discard one of them as false or find some rationalization or way to reconcile them – the classic example is the religious fanatic who thinks the world is going to end, and then it doesn’t, so explains it away by saying that God heard his prayers and relented.

        Narcissists choose to believe they are wonderful, caring people who are never really wrong. They will never, ever question or discard this belief. Therefore, any evidence that conflicts with this or disproves it must be rejected utterly. They don’t see themselves as warping reality or gaslighting; they’re making everything align with What Is True, i.e. their own perpetual awesomeness.

        There is nothing you can to do reason with these people or, as someone else put it, expect them to play fair. All you can do is avoid them or find workarounds, like making it clear they will not get what they want if they engage in certain actions.

        All the jedi hugs you want, LW. You have come so far already.

      • Brisvegan said:

        This, so this! I mention my depression issues above, but I know I am always the person with 40+ years of practice at this whole human thing and the kids are just growing up. Also, I chose to be a parent, they don’t get to choose. I owe it to them to be the one who manages my feelings (and tried so hard to hide my depression and be there – I just worry that it seemed forced or not authentic) and meets their needs, not the other way around.

        • You just made me realise something. My mother is basically being the adult and the child at the same time. On the one hand, she constantly makes out that I was as bad as her when I was a kid and expects me to process all the feelings she dumps on me and to comfort her. But at the same time, she’s expecting me to respect her authority as an Adult who Knows Better. Her favourite shut-down is, “I’ve been around longer than you: I have more life experience” with the implication that I therefore have to defer to her in all matters. Which, considering how incredibly sheltered her childhood was (while I was a bit of a rebel if I’m honest and got up to a lot of things I did not have permission to do!) and especially when talking about romantic relationships, of which she’s had a grand total of one (she’s still in it) and I’ve had…double figures, is pretty laughable sometimes. The best one was when she told me how to deal with a breakup, which she has never had.

      • DameB said:

        @Serin I know you likely picked that example at random but my mother will gleefully tell about the time toddler-me bit her and she *bit me back*. She tells it proudly. She was a GREAT MOM because she bit a toddler and that’s why I never bit anyone ever again.

        • Serin said:

          OMG, my mother has this exact same story with a completely different message! Apparently her pediatrician (?!) told her that this was the way to teach me not to bite. And the way she tells it is: “So here I am, with tears running down my face, and here you are, giving me this look of such SHOCK and BETRAYAL … and I said that pediatrician could go to heck because I was never going to bite a baby again.”

      • Kayla said:

        I feel so validated for having this spelled out. I remember my dad screaming at me and swearing at me as a young child, and then apologizing afterwards and starting to scream all over again because I didn’t apologize back. He used to ask all the time “Do you think this was ALL my fault? Why don’t you take some responsibility!” And I just wanted to say, I’m 10 years old and you called me a little bitch for ‘looking happy’, what responsibility am I supposed to take??

    • FWIW I don’t think it is just you. The human brain has a seriously amazing ability to adjust in order to avoid pain and trauma. And sometimes the pain and trauma it is trying to avoid is actually acknowledging how terrible of a parent/person you were.

      I think it is possible partly because of how memories are formed. They are essentially stories we tell ourselves, little movies we play in our heads. And when we can’t remember a piece of information, we fill it in with what we think probably happened.

      And it also has to do with cognitive dissonance and how we view ourselves. There is something called the backlash effect, where when people are faced with proof that what they believe is wrong, people will become even more convinced of its truth. And the stronger their belief, the bigger that backlash is.

      So I think this happens with abusers. At first they deny evidence of their bad parenting, to avoid having to deal with the pain of that acknowledgment. And then their brains protect them from remembering what horrible parents they are by filling in wrong information in their little memory stories. So eventually, the lies that they maybe made up once to defend themselves are all they can remember.

      Maybe some of them do know deep down that they did something wrong, but I bet a lot of them really don’t.

      The thing is, that intent doesn’t matter. The fact that they don’t know, or can’t remember, doesn’t CHANGE anything. It doesn’t absolve them of guilt or make them in the right. It makes them horrible self deluded individuals who live in an actual fantasy world.

      For me I think it helps with accepting that they are probably NOT going to change. The person they are is based a twisted spiral of self delusion and fake memories. They aren’t secretly holding out on giving the closure you want. They have just never been self aware enough to really see what is going on.

      My father is not abusive, but he does have this self editing tendency. But for him I see how it is helpful, he can hold out hope and keep from despair until long after most of us have given up. And in some ways it has saved my Mother’s life. Because he can delude himself into never giving up. But man is it annoying that he doesn’t remember that the reason I covered his mouth so I could try to make a point, was because he told me I would never live to see 40. Obviously I was just being unreasonable.

    • Jen said:

      Or my mom’s canard, “Abuse? I had it worse! You don’t know what abuse is!”

        • Hyacinth said:

          Yep. My mom made me read A Child Called It and told me that the stuff in the book was abuse, she was amazing, and I was elder abusing her by telling her that if she ever pushed me again I’d push her back.

          • Temporary Null said:

            “If she ever pushed me again I’d push her back.”

            I always hated this. The lingua franca of my family is complement wrapped insults and derailing. The worst crime was to be too stupid to know when you were being insulted.

            When I was in high school, I had enough practice that I could politely insult them too, and all of a sudden that wasn’t how the game was played anymore. It felt like I was forced to play their crappy game my whole life, and once I could beat them, then the game wasn’t fair anymore.

      • Lou said:

        And, you know, maybe she did. But that doesn’t automatically make her behavior not-abuse. I was reading something about parents-who-were-abused-as-kids and how many of them think/say “I was a much better parent than my parents!” and that is often true! However, like I said, being better than “really abusive” ranges from “slightly-less abusive” to “totally not abusive at all”, and that’s a really wide range.

        • Brisvegan said:

          That was my dad. He thought he was not an abusive spouse because he didn’t hit Mum control all the household money, or take away needed medication the way his father had as part of the abuse of my grandmother. He didn’t see the rages and insults as abuse, because it wasn’t what he saw growing up.

          Hitting us kids in a rage (way harder than was acceptable even in the 70’s) was just “discipline” and not beatings like he had been subjected to.

          Still didn’t mean he wasn’t abusive, but he saw himself as the good guy for not punching Mum, not the bad guy for destroying her confidence with insults.

          • Divizna said:

            My father claims what he habitually did to me wasn’t abuse just because it was DIFFERENT from what my grandfather did to him. Personally, in retrospect I think I’d even prefer being beaten with a belt (not particularly different from what my mother did on a daily basis anyway) to having a fully grown-up man sit on my lungs and forbidding me to even TRY to breathe (possibly being turned on by my chest bumping into his crotch as I struggled? who knows). The fact that I had to forcefully suppress my own basic life function… completely obscured the sexual connotations for more than twenty years to me.

      • Druidspell said:

        That attitude from my father is why I lied to a teacher who asked me if I was being abused at home. (Well, that and “Who do you think the cops are going to believe?”)

        I’m so sorry there are so many of us, but I’m so glad I’m not alone at the same time.

        • Ah yes, the cops. Sigh. I got that one too. Also “the cops would love to take you kids away! Go ahead!”

          • I remember being stopped at the Canadian border on bicycles (parents had passports, but we were kids and had no documents), and the border guard bending down and asking earnestly, “Are these your parents?,” and seeing the look on my brother’s face and realizing, “Holy shit, he’s about to say no,” then both of us looking at my father’s face in full “I am going to make you wish you hadn’t thought that thought” mode and answering the way we were supposed to.

            As we biked further into Canada, and got out of earshot of the guards, my father started yelling at us, “I saw that! I would have happily left you there! They would have begged me to take you back, and I would have said, ‘They’re your problem now!’,” while I quietly cried and thought about how that would probably be our best and last opportunity to say to someone in a uniform “Sometimes we are scared of our father” and have them maybe believe us, while also being sad that someone who was supposed to want us in his life, really apparently didn’t.

          • Druidspell said:

            Oh yes, that was a frequent refrain in my house, too.

    • Mary said:

      I agree – parents who mistreat their kids and remain in denial about it seem to me to be much more common and less mysterious than parents who mistreat their kids and have the ability to recognise what they did. I think there are some people who are unable to center their children’s needs when the kids are young and somehow gain the ability to do that when the children are older and to recognise the damage they inflicted, but I think the majority of parents who aren’t able to care for their children when they are young or who are actively harmful will never gain the insight to recognise what they did.

      • I agree with your last point. In my experience, there is often a double twist when you have grown up with abusive parents – the very people who hurt and terrified you, and made you parent them, are often the most needy when they get older. And guess who has to step up and look after them?

        For anyone in this situation, I highly recommend Dr Laura Brown’s book “Your Turn for Care: Surviving the ageing and death of the adults who harmed you”. http://www.drlaurabrown.com/written/your-turn-for-care/

  15. Jill said:

    Hugs for your paragraph about your love life and the “are you secretly gay” line of questioning. That was my mom. Apparently preferring to keep my private life private means I’m gay. Whatever….

    I, too, had a fractured relationship with a mom who, in my 20’s suddenly wanted to manufacture a “so close we talk on the phone everyday” kind of relationship. No thank you. Captain’s advice to accept that you will never have the type of relationship you craved as a child – and than grieve that loss – is excellent. Once I accepted that fact, it was so much easier to look to my future and know that it was MINE to create as I saw fit.

    You cannot manufacture closeness. For me, it wasn’t until I was 38 and mom and I were co-caregivers for her father. I took care of the money, she the healthcare. There were many issues that depended on me being an absolute barracuda in order to protect his financial well-being. It wasn’t until she saw how strong I was for him that she finally, finally after 38 years realized that, oh yea, I’m an ADULT and we can finally talk adult-to-adult. But that happened organically. I hope that things change for the better with you and your mom, too, but it’s gotta happen naturally. She cannot force it if it doesn’t and it’s OK to set boundaries to protect your heart and mind!!

    • lilisonna said:

      Yeah. When I was 18, my mother accused me of having a secret abortion as the explanation for why I wasn’t sharing my entire life with her.

      As for the repairing of relationships: there is a period of four years of our lives that we Do Not Discuss, Ever. My mother wasn’t abusive, but we did have a LOT of issues — mostly because we were both massively depressed during a lot of my childhood — that exploded when I turned 18 and moved in with my boyfriend instead of going to college. We do not speak of that time period, and so we manage to have a civil relationship. I know she would like it to be a lot closer and more ‘friends’ instead of mother/daughter, but that’s not really an option, so we cope. I hope LW can get to the Coping Point; it’s not great, but it’s better than many of the alternatives.

      • JenniferP said:

        What IS it with the “secret abortion” accusation? Solidarity!

        • The Room Where It Happens said:

          This is A Thing? WTF.

          • Only Child said:

            My mom accused me of being on drugs because I borrowed overalls from a friend and wore them to school. (only druggies wore overalls in the early 90’s apparently.)

          • lilisonna said:

            Totally a thing! On a grand scale, she was looking for an reason for my admittedly Not Super Awesome decisions. The Secret Abortion theory was one that put the blame on my boyfriend (who she did not like) and removed any blame from her Perfect Daughter and from the Good Mother.

            Also I suspect that reason pops up because my mother (and I think the Captain’s folks) are of a Certain Age where abortion wasn’t legal when they were growing up/navigating the early adult world. The only way one could have an abortion would be in secret, and it was likely to be an entirely traumatizing and possibly exceedingly dangerous experience. I’m sure my mother knew of people who had had this happen; she may have had this happen to her. That I could have walked down the local Planned Parenthood with my then-boyfriend and gotten any (non-existant, I will point out) pregnancy terminated without trauma probably never occurred to her.

            (My not Super Awesome decisions, BTW, boiled down to being cripplingly depressed and over-stressed from trying to maintain Perfect Daughter-hood.)

          • Raeyne said:

            This is TOTALLY a thing. My mother accused me of having a secret abortion AND was sure that this was the reason I was secretly gay. So, that happened. O.O Evidently, lesbians are lesbians because they’re deathly and “irrationally” afraid of pregnancy, babies, and men. Not because they’re, you know, lesbians. Who knew?

            Joke’s on her though. No man has *ever* been on my dance card and the fact that I’m gay? Well, that’s no secret at all. 🙂

          • ashbet said:

            My mother also accused me of being on drugs (I was 14 or 15), because I’d been crying and my eyes were red.

            I told her that I hadn’t taken any drugs, ever, and said “Fine, take me to the emergency room and get me tested if you don’t believe me!”, and she started screaming that I had obviously FOUND SOME CLEVER WAY TO GET AROUND THE TESTS, but that I was TOTALLY ON DRUGS.

            When my Dad got home from work, she confronted him with this assertion, and then I spent the evening being raked over the coals for my wicked druggie ways.

            No one ever asked why I had been crying. (I spent much of my childhood/adolescence being intermittently suicidal, in part because I felt completely unloved and unlovable.)

            For the record, I am turning 40 next month, and I *still* have never used recreational drugs — I think, in part, to prove that bitch wrong FOR LIFE.

        • ferdalangur said:

          I didn’t have a secret abortion, according to mine; I had several secret pregnancies. (She was convinced I was pregnant, I had no idea until she’d say something…)

          The worst time was when the condom broke and I was hellishly nauseous from the Plan B. My poker face probably wasn’t very good, since that was the only time she informed me that she would go to any lengths to stop me from having an abortion for any reason “because she’d had a miscarriage.”

          Christ, I’d forgotten that until just now. Remarkable, how we gaslight ourselves, isn’t it?

          • The Room Where It Happens said:

            she informed me that she would go to any lengths to stop me from having an abortion for any reason “because she’d had a miscarriage.”

            This just blows my mind.

        • Maybe there was a really popular Lifetime movie with that plot when we were all children or something.

          • DoctorMead said:

            It’s probably an attempt to maintain their illusions that they are in fact good, reasonable people. It goes something like, “I’m a good mother and, since I AM a good mother, my children should have no problem sharing EVERY FACET of their lives with me. Therefore, if they don’t want to share EVERY FACET of their lives with me, they must be harboring a DARK, SHAMEFUL SECRET. Ergo they must be gay/have had an abortion/are addicted to drugs/wear white shoes after Labor Day/etc…”

      • Aurora said:

        Oh man I remember having the annoying series of “are you pregnant? Are you doing drugs? Are you being abused? Are you…” series of questions about what I could *possibly* be hiding. My parents felt so vindicated when I finally told them I was bisexual, as if this confirmed all of their paranoia over the years that I really was hiding something. No, parents, I had really just figured it out.

        • Mayati said:

          tw: homophobia, biphobia, ace/arophobia, bad moms

          Oh man, me too. Which, coupled with the stereotypes about bi women being promiscuous and sexually adventurous, meant that my mom thought “oh! She’s opening up about her sex life! I get to ask her a million incredibly intrusive, personal questions now! WE ARE SO CLOSE.”

          She still hasn’t quite learned that sexual orientation is not the same as sexual behavior. She’s also relieved that there isn’t something “wrong with me” that “turned me asexual” because I hadn’t been talking to her about my sex life. (So many offensive things about that, not sure where to start.) Her reaction when I came out was “I’m just so glad you’re sleeping with somebody!!!!1!” (I wasn’t) and “thank god you act like a woman, not one of those [slur for lesbians that she meant as a slur for butches]” (so glad my queerness is acceptable to you, Mom, the arbiter of womanhood and human dignity). Then she brings us to the “you’re just too sensitive” portion of the evening’s festivities.

          So we’re low contact these days.

          • Blue Meeple said:

            Ahhh, I love my mom but we had a couple conversations about how my sister doesn’t date much (also a little bit about how I don’t date much) and she managed to make it all about her by suggesting that maybe she’d raised us wrong. You know, too independent, too feminist, too “masculine” to get a man. Oh, Mom. Mom. No.

            (Also she tried to ask me if my sister was a lesbian. Because it’s clearly my place to out my sister, if she is? What?!)

            (I have not told my mom I’m ace. I can’t imagine she would understand, and I don’t want another round of “oh, I raised you wrong”, gah.)

      • Mine was convinced that any time I was out of their sight for more than a few hours I was getting pregnant. She loved to tell me how she’d throw me out in the snow so I couldn’t shame the family. We lived on a farm, not quite in the middle of nowhere but certainly far enough that in the right weather, dying of exposure before being found was a definite possibility. Good times.

    • peregrinations said:

      My mother’s reason for my not sharing every detail of my life with her at 18 was that “you are doing drugs and having sex with your “friend” [who is a gay man and I a straight woman, but never mind that or the fact that I never touched drugs once as a teenager]”. Obviously. It had nothing to do with the fact that whenever I did tell her something private about my life she’d find a way to use it against me, often including running to tell everyone she and I knew. She was so convinced of this “fact” that she read my [hidden and locked] diary, then punished me for what she read there and continues to use it as an emotional weapon in her “you’ve always hated me, I know it and I HAVE PROOF!!” attacks. She has also conveniently rewritten most of our childhood, to the degree that she attributes all of the “bad” things that my Golden Child sister did/said to me, and the good things I did/said to my sister.

      I have exactly the kind of superficial relationship the Captain describes with her now. It works for me for Reasons, but for a long time I considered going No Contact. Holidays are never fun or relaxing but they’re not as bad as they used to be, and I get to spend them with my sister (we’re thankfully close, despite our mother’s many attempts to drive wedges between us). Mother still likes to pretend that we’re a perfectly happy Norman Rockwell family and that she and I are close. The mismatch between her insistence that I come home for the holidays to be with faaaaaaamilyyyyyyy, and her actual complete disinterest in me when I did arrive, threw me for a loop for years. But now that I see it for the charade it is it’s easier to play along without getting upset. But, as always, YMMV.

    • Jen said:

      Oh yeah. Mine was convinced I was gay, because I didn’t have any boyfriends or date. I…just hadn’t found anyone particularly worthwhile. And, really, if I were gay, my mom (a homophobe) would’ve been the last to know.

  16. Moricakes said:

    “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.”

    THIS. This is the most concise and perfect way of describing why I have cut off contact with my family. LW, conversations with my Mother often went like yours – combined with the aggressive verbal abuse of my father – just became too much for me to live my life comfortably. Like the Captain said, if you’re looking for permission to disengage go for it – sometimes it can be the best present you ever give yourself.

  17. BiancaSnoozes said:

    Oh, man. We have the same mom! The Captain’s description of “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” rings incredibly true. Like, really, do you know her?!

    Our relationship was always very, very broken, even when I was a little kid (which resulted in a lot of childhood mental health troubles), and now that I’m older, my mom thinks that she deserves a “close, grown-up” relationship, where I call and visit her and generally care about her life and want her to be in mine, where I share my news and want to listen to hers. In spite of many demanding “WHY DO YOU HATE ME?!?! YOU ARE NOT ENTITLED TO HATE ME!!” episodes, she has a very revisionist view of her own behavior and is in complete denial of any role she played in the reasons why I can’t love her. Therefore, she answers her own question of why I hate her with “Because you clearly are a horrible person. You should work on that and the number one thing on your list of self-improvements is to start loving me right now. As I get older, you WILL start to care about me. I demand that.”

    It did help a lot when I started to realize that she does have a mental illness that has negatively affected her success in other parts of live (socially and professionally). This is just who she is, and she happened to give birth to me. It’s not me that made her this way, and it’s not some lack of character on my part that broke our relationship so badly. I know this because I can love other people. I can have functional friendships where I can appreciate and be appreciated. It is from those pieces of my life that I need to build my own opinion of myself, and not rely on her estimation of my quality as a person.

    For me, I approached my relationship with my mother with “path of least resistance.” Meaning, I will answer the phone when she calls and listen to her news (but I will not share any of mine, because any information is always used against me). I will show up at two family holidays per year with a limit of two days each. I will walk away or remain silent if she starts demanding to know why I hate her or demanding to know why I chose to be mentally ill when I was a kid, (which greatly embarrassed and inconvenienced her). This is the balance I found for myself that I am OK with, and that makes me feel like I have the most control over how much abuse I’m willing to put up with. I’ve found that any more accommodation that looks like a “normal” relationship leads my mom to think she can get more (for example, if I’m willing to happily see her for one extra day, that is evidence that I enjoyed myself and I should have no problem doing it again next week). Less than this, and the guilt exceeds what I can tolerate, and also I suspect she might come after me (she has a history of stalking).

    LW, there’s no magic way to change who your mom is, or what she chooses to believe about herself or her own behavior. The only thing you can do is map out what you feel you can do, assuming your mom is who she is. It’s not mapping out a relationship you would like, but one you feel is possible given the current facts. It could be that you cut her out completely, or only tolerate a meal together once per year. Only you know what this might be for you. But, whatever it is, you need to take into consideration what your mom’s company feels like right now, not what it could be at some point in the future with a bunch of “ifs” thrown in. This isn’t a negotiation with your mom, this is a negotiation with yourself.

    • Mary said:

      when I started to realize … It’s not me that made her this way, and it’s not some lack of character on my part that broke our relationship so badly. I know this because I can love other people. I can have functional friendships where I can appreciate and be appreciated. It is from those pieces of my life that I need to build my own opinion of myself, and not rely on her estimation of my quality as a person.

      I just wanted to say that being able to realise this and make it how you see the world is SO hard when you’ve had a crap-parent start in life. Kudos to you!

  18. Mary said:

    Thank you for this post and all these comments. I needed this today. I could have been this LW minus the alcoholism and I have been struggling on how I can form a respectful adult relationship with my parents, or if that is even possible.

  19. Meredith said:

    Man, I relate to this so hard. I don’t think my mom was an alcoholic, but she’s DEFINITELY a revisionist who has convinced herself that she was an excellent mother, despite years of telling me that I’d be SO pretty if I just lost weight (among other things), leaving my brother and I to fend for ourselves when she decided it was time for her to relive her young and “free” years and in the end, choosing to send me to live with my dad when her boyfriend at the time didn’t want me around (which now I am very grateful for, but fucked me up when I was 11). Now she’s “just can’t understand” why neither of her children want to talk to or spend time with her. I stayed the longest, my brother cut her off years ago. I’m not angry at her anymore, I just don’t have any more energy for it. She good at the guilt card though and she is playing it HARD.

    I don’t have any advice for you. I’m still figuring out how to navigate this minefield myself. Only understanding and Jedi hugs if you want them. Difficult moms ARE difficult.

  20. resili0 said:

    Captain, thank you, the onslaught of Christmas is beginning already and even thinking about my mum is trigger. This has given me some journalling ideas on how I can keep myself safe.

  21. newlife said:

    I so feel this. I am still sorting through all of the ways my childhood was not right and not normal.

    My parents occasionally bemoan that I don’t visit them very often and that they didn’t get to know my children as well as their other grandchildren. I just stare blankly back at them. Maybe if they hadn’t refused point blank when I asked them not to allow my abusive brother in the house while I was there, I would have visited them more. Maybe if my dad hadn’t hit my kids while he and Mom were babysitting them, (When I confronted them, my dad was unrepentant and my mom helplessly fussed about it) I would have let them visit with the girls unsupervised. They just don’t connect these events and frankly, it’s not my job to do it for them.

    I am still grieving the childhood I wish I had had and the adult relationship I wish I did have. If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.

    So I accept what they can give me and work hard on myself, learning to parent myself, develop healthy self esteem and good boundaries. It can be lonely, because I want what I think I “should” have gotten from them. But that boat has sailed. I have to build and sail my own boat if I want to get anywhere.

    • “But that boat has sailed. I have to build and sail my own boat if I want to get anywhere.”

      Appreciating this beautiful metaphor!

  22. Valvopus said:

    Oh Gosh the “Well obviously I’m a Terrible Mother,” guilt trip. My mother has this down to pat. Like when I corrected her that I hadn’t failed the year at uni and was going to resit exams optionally for higher marks. I apparently didn’t volunteer that information (apart from the five times I clearly had) and it was my own fault she doesn’t take an interest in my life because I make it difficult for her and get angry.

    I have now just let there be awkward silence following that statement. The record is the thirty minute drive back from the supermarket after I pointed out that she had forgotten my birthday.

    • The Room Where It Happens said:

      I apparently didn’t volunteer that information (apart from the five times I clearly had) and it was my own fault she doesn’t take an interest in my life because I make it difficult for her and get angry.

      Oh my GOD, you have all of my empathy. The selective memory shit is so frustrating, and my mom does it, too. My favorite was her crying on the phone to me, protesting that she “wasn’t the perfect mom” because she “just never knew” what I needed from her. Except, you know, for the LITERALLY COUNTLESS TIMES I told her explicitly what I needed from her.

      • FlyBy said:

        Sometimes I wonder if that’s selective memory or that they just don’t believe what you said in the first place. Because clearly the things you told her were wrong/misguided/but she’s doing that already, so you haven’t told her what you ACTUALLY need. It’s fantastic bullshit.

        • Lou said:

          Well, what you actually need isn’t what she wants to hear, so either you don’t really need it or she doesn’t have to do it. Or both!

        • It’s that they don’t take you seriously because they think they know better, and then get confused when you don’t want what they have to offer.

          (hi; dealing with something similar here.)

        • Dani Alexis said:

          I’d definitely believe this is what my mom is doing. Specifically, that what I said does not conform to her Reality Field in which I she is a perfect, patient, noble, suffering martyr and I am an exact replica of her, so clearly I am just saying this to try her and not because I might actually mean it.

      • Druidspell said:

        (omg all of this but also OMG Hamilton-inspired username!!)

      • Dani Alexis said:

        Oh, how I hear this. My mother is currently sending me pretty notecards containing copperplate apologies, then complaining to her sisters about how Mean and Ungrateful I am for not extending the obligatory abject apology for making her sad face/total absolution/bonding cryfest.

        Except I am ignoring them because (a) they apologize for things I explicitly told her were NOT problems and did NOT require apologies, and more importantly (b) they are silent on the things I explicitly told her WERE problems and DID require apologies.

        She’s trying to maneuver me into the position of Cold Unfeeling Ingrate and herself into Patient Suffering Repentant. I know this game. My family plays this game a lot. I am not playing this game.

    • “it was my own fault she doesn’t take an interest in my life because I make it difficult for her and get angry.”

      Hahaha YES. I spent years repeatedly reminding my mother that, just to give one example amongst other things, I wasn’t and never had been a psychologist, I just had a degree in psychology and actually worked in mental health quality improvement. I often tried to tell her about what I did, and this response kind of showed that she didn’t bother listening. Every time I’ve said it would be awesome if she took an interest in my life, interests and stuff that’s important to me (I feel as if she doesn’t really know me as a person, as things are), she’s shot back that she Doesn’t Dare ask me any questions because I’ll get angry at her.

      Apparently, she can’t see the difference between “You mentioned you were doing a research project, wanna tell me more?” and “You went to the museum with whom? I don’t know him. How did you meet him? Whose party? Who else was with you? What do you mean nobody? What about [husband]? What does he think of you spending time alone with this man? I hope you weren’t out late. Were you out late? How did you get home? What does [husband] think of all this?”

      Because those are the same thing, obviously!

    • ferdalangur said:

      God, I pray for the strength to just let it get uncomfortable. I have seriously considered replacing everything I say to my parents with some variant of “blaaah blaah blaaaaaah?” because why should I tell them things if they’re not going to listen.

  23. Clarry said:

    I can’t be certain, but I believe my mother started reaching out to me when she got into therapy herself. I believe my mother remains certain that she did nothing wrong while I was growing up and is genuinely baffled by why we’re not “close” (i.e. boundaryless). She spent several years blaming me for not being “good” (i.e. sharing in her anxieties, relieving her anxieties, making her happy). I continued to “drift way” (i.e. live my own life). I believe it was at a therapist’s instigation when she out of the blue one day asked me what my “rules” were.

    I was taken aback. I had over the years said that if she was going to broadcast my private email to everyone she knew that I would stop sending her email, and I did begin a policy of making my email letters as boring and as non-broadcast worthy as I possible when I realized that her definition of “not doing that anymore” was “make sure Clarry doesn’t find out.” Similarly I decided I never wanted to be in a large group with my mother when I realized that her idea of hilariously entertaining guests meant making fun of me in public. I don’t try to stay overnight under the same roof with her when it finally dawned on me that (and I’m embarrassed that this one took as long as it did) she hates it when I sleep because she feels left out. So I spend whatever it takes to stay in a hotel when visiting (and keep the hotel location secret since she’ll call the front the desk and ring straight through to my room if my cell is turned off).

    I didn’t give her a list of my “rules” because, after the first time I gave her an example of the way she ridicules me in public, she first defended herself as being witty– as opposed to those “other boring people who just don’t get it,” and then (after another therapy visit?) wanted more and more clarification on what she was allowed to say and what she wasn’t. I’d guess she genuinely didn’t know while I heard it as an accusation that I was crazy to mind her subtle and not-so-subtle public put-downs. I didn’t list “you’re not allowed to make fun of me to this friend. You’re not allowed to make fun of me to that friend. Nope, not that one either. Or that one. Or that one.”

    The last time she lamented that we we’re not close and that I don’t tell her anything, I asked her “what would you like to know?” I think that took her aback. She looked at a necklace I was wearing and asked where I got it. I told her, truthfully, that I’d found it at a thrift/consignment shop for a dollar and was very pleased since I’d gotten several compliments on it. Sometimes she asks me a friend’s name, and I tell her. I supply no detail. When I forgot one time and began telling an amusing story about a dear friend’s daughter’s difficulties with a co-worker, my mother took the opportunity to cut in with withering comments (but ever so funny) about anyone who would do that sort of work (tutoring in a low achieving school). When I stopped and asked why she was making fun, she said “I’m insensitive.” (I think she didn’t understand how I couldn’t get the joke given that everyone knows that spending time with young children would drive anyone insane.) The result is that she continues to ask about my friends, and I now give answers of “they’re fine.”

    Here’s my suggestion at the end of all this. When she says (accuses) that you won’t give her a chance, ask her what giving her a chance would consist of. It may surprise her as I think it surprised my mother that she has no idea what it means. She says “well, um, you never tell me anything,” and you ask “what do you want to know?” There’s a chance that she’ll suddenly realize that wanting to know about your sex life really is weird. And if she doesn’t realize, you haven’t lost much.

    • Temporary Null said:

      “Similarly I decided I never wanted to be in a large group with my mother when I realized that her idea of hilariously entertaining guests meant making fun of me in public”

      “my mother took the opportunity to cut in with withering comments (but ever so funny) about anyone who would do that sort of work (tutoring in a low achieving school)”

      It’s like our mothers read the same “How to be a Hilarious Mother” book.

      • ranunculus said:

        Oh yes. Mine too. Always with the subtle and not-so-subtle little digs, insults, and barbed compliments, especially in front of others. When she did it in front of her brother and his family, AT HER OWN FATHER’S FUNERAL, and I snapped back “oh give it a rest, mother!” I knew I was done.
        When she died, suddenly, and alone, many years later, we had not communicated for… a LONG time. And I was a mess of grief and loss, not just for her, but for the relationship we should have had but didn’t, for missed opportunities, for recognition of her emotional pain and loneliness (much of it self-inflicted, but the worst pain usually is)…and you know what? Nobody, not family members, her neighbours, or former colleagues, condemned me (as I had expected them to do) for staying away from her. Her next-door neighbour even said to me “she was a nice woman, your mum, but she could be a bit… you know.” I certainly did. And even if they had condemned me, it still wouldn’t have made me wrong. Perhaps I could have made more of an effort to stay in touch with her. And if I had? She would have still been just as difficult, and all the emotional work of the relationship would have still been on my shoulders.
        What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer for you, LW. The mother/child relationship is fraught with complications even when both parties are decent and well-intentioned. When one of them is controlling, selfish, narcissistic, and/or suffering from Selective Memory Syndrome, it can be impossible. You’ve had some excellent and compassionate advice from Mme La Capitaine and others, and I hope all the folk sharing their own experiences has shown you you’re not alone. I hope you can find a solution that works for you.

      • tessiselated said:

        I also really hate that being cutting and “witty” became a survival mechanic in my family house. If I could say something that was more cruel to someone else first and make everyone in the house laugh at them then it was less negative attention that I got I guess? I don’t even remember when I started doing it.

        I remember the moment I recognised the behaviour. I was still trying to make things work and I came over for family lunch and everyone was just being awful to each other in passing. And I was so blindsided by it… My chosen family were kind and considerate to each other and that had become my new normal and to be thrust back into that negativity was really jarring.

        But the most jarring thing was realising that a few years previous I was just as embroiled in that behaviour.

        And to this day I have to really watch myself that “funny and gentle ribbing between friends” doesn’t become “actually poking at sensitive spots for laughs”

    • Only Child said:

      <>

      THANK YOU! I have been dealing with these exact things all my life and now even more so as an adult. It’s so nice to see know that I am not crazy after all. I have been in therapy for the majority of my adult life and it has helped a lot but there is nothing like the feeling of knowing that other people out there have the “same ” parent you do.

    • shehasathree said:

      This this this this this.
      I have stated boundaries so many times (although only in recent times explicitly identifying them as such) and she always has a reason or an excuse as to why I shouldn’t have or don’t need that boundary, and she’d respect it, *really*, if only I would lay out in excruciating detail (over and over and over again) what exactly is and isn’t okay. As long as I remain “nice” and “polite” while letting her know.

      Apart from the revisionist history and gaslighting (and the wonderful: [does it count as gaslighting if they really, really believe it], one of the things that gets me the most is the complete lack of generalisability around general principles wrt boundaries. No, [x] is not okay. [x-1] is also not okay. [x+1]? Still not okay! [2x]: most definitely not okay. But how was she supposed to know that? Because I only ever mentioned [x]! /o\

      • Clarry said:

        I love the [x-1] explanation. Brilliant!
        My mother’s other tactic has been the ridiculous exaggeration. In addition to my not liking my own email forwarded to everyone she knows, I don’t care for other people’s personal mail sent to her to be forwarded to me. I usually ask “does Aunt Myrtle know you sent me her letter?”

        But I don’t think anyone minds if purely informational email having to do with arrangements is forwarded. If the mail reads “We’re meeting at Joe’s Diner on Main Street at 1:00 on Tuesday for doughnuts, and everyone is welcome to join us,” there’s really no problem with forwarding that to everyone so they can get the details straight. So what does my mother do? She RETYPED the message rather than forwarding it + including a message that she did that since she knows I don’t like forwarding.

        The main thing I’ve noticed about my mother’s lack of boundaries is that the emotional content has the most value to her and becomes a sort of currency that she can trade. In the old days when I used to share parts of my life that were important, back when we used to be “close,” she’d react (sometimes but not always and therefore just enough to keep me lulled into thinking that it might be okay) with anxiety or with telling my secrets to everyone she knew or with turning my story into one about her. Then when she complained about our not being “close,” I hit on the what do you want to know trick. Whatever she asked, I’d answer with virtually no emotion. “I’m not dating anyone.” “I’m not working there anymore.” “We broke up.” “I got it at a consignment shop.” “I made corn on the cob.” “They’re fine.” Whatever she asks, I give a minimum emotionless answer– and because there’s no emotion, it has no value to her. It’s like she’s eating some weird food-like substance that sort of looks and tastes like food but has no caloric or nutritional value. She’s not getting what she wants, but she doesn’t realize it until later or doesn’t know quite what’s wrong. That’s what I keep feeding her. It costs me nothing and works for me to keep that polite relationship with her. I’ve never gotten full blast “It’s obvious that you hate me.” My mother is more subtle than that, not as bad, and better at masking it with just enough humor so I’m never sure if she really said and meant it or not. If she did say it, I’d give her that bland emotionless reply, a sort of shoulder shrugging whatever.

  24. resili0 said:

    I am in therapy to work through being sexually abused by my father. My mother says she was not aware but also that she has memories and her entire approach to the abuse (and my severe PTSD) has been to insist I keep it secret and spend our time validating her. I think she knew what my father was doing and she stayed with him despite admitted his neglect, emotional and physical violence to me and my sibling.

    Needless to say, we are trapped in an odd relationship where we pretend to be close but really, I do the emotional support for her and my job is not to expect that back. She has whitewashed our past. My life involves a fair amount of therapy and so it feels very fake to play happy healthy daughter to her fake saintly mother.

    Christmas is making me feel sad because I know deep down that she knew enough to merit protecting us when we were kids but chose not to. She isn’t interested in sharing her reasons or acknowledging that my fathers legacy to me had been mental illness and terror. I won’t get that validation from her and while my father is a monster I have no contact with, I am missing a mother; I have no authentic parent and never have. I will be opening gifts on Christmas day from a woman who let her husband rape me. That feels hideous.

    I am hoping to put me first and build on the progress I made in my recovery this year by going on holiday before Christmas and doing nice things.

    • Mayati said:

      Oh, sweet friend, I am so sorry. Pretending to be okay is excruciating, and when an enabler-parent also denies the reality of your abuse, it can really cut deep. I’m in a very similar boat. Please know that your situation is hideous, but that your determination to heal and to hold on to your reality brings beauty to it. Not that it feels beautiful when you’re the one going through it, but my point is: the hideous part is not you.

      • resili0 said:

        Thank you, I shall visit this comment when I feel sad and tired with it.

    • Sacred Howl said:

      You are an amazing soul. You are a superhero. You have endured such betrayal and yet you are here. Kudos to you, and all the strength vibes for putting you first.

    • ranunculus said:

      “She knew enough to merit protecting us… but chose not to.” I also had to make this realisation about my mother. It is, as you say, hideous. Mine not only chose not to protect me, but used my terror of my father to manipulate me into emotional dependence on her. Realising that your parent has let you down and abandoned you in such a fundamental way is devastating, and leaves you hollow inside. I am so sorry. You deserve many, many “nice things” for yourself, not only at Christmas.

  25. LW, thank you for writing this. Because it is the exact same letter I have been trying to write for a long time (except instead of “alcoholism” read “physical abuse” – the rest is identical).

    Like your mother, mine is only now trying to reach out to me after several years of us having a terrible relationship. She is clearly putting the blame on me for this and is even saying our relationship has been worse since I got married, as if it changed me or something. Every time I tell her about an issue I’d like us to work on together because I just can’t have a relationship with her until we do, no matter how carefully I phrase it, she ALWAYS responds with a derail making it about her feelings. “It really hurts me to hear that you think that!” or similar. Because of this, we never get to discuss Actual Issues. Even when I asked her super politely to use my preferred name (a family nickname I’ve been asking her to use for 20+ years because my birth name is triggering for me) to help me feel closer to her, her response was “it really hurts my feelings that you won’t let me use the beautiful name I gave you.” I can’t explain to her (you will understand why) that if every time you hear a certain name called out as a child you know you’re about to be humiliated physically and/or psychologically, you are going to struggle with hearing that name as an adult.

    Like you seem to be suggesting, I’m actually not interested in having a relationship with her at all but I feel I have no choice because 1) I would lose people who are extremely important to me if I cut her out; 2) my brother tried it and she basically hunted him down and has been bombarding him with Feelings!Bombs ever since, and I just can’t right now.

    I don’t know to what extent this will help you, but this is what I’ve been doing:

    1) I’ve been trying to help her become more aware of what’s happening (which is hard to do without her leaping to the conclusion that I’m blaming her for everything) by using a lot of “I statements” and owning my feelings. Like, “I feel uncomfortable when we talk about X. I’m not saying YOU make me uncomfortable, just that I’m not ready to talk about X yet. I’m happy to work towards that.” I make it about me being unable or not ready to do something, rather than being about her (which it is really: it’s actually because of how she’ll react but it isn’t a lie to say I’m not comfortable talking about it).

    2) I wrote down, in a Word document on a computer she will never be able to access, everything that bothers me, all the resentment I have bubbling under the surface, about her and how she behaves towards me and all the crap from our past. My friend, this word document is 36 pages long. I saved it as “Stuff to discuss in therapy.” Not with her. Ever. I then imagined putting all that baggage on a boat and pushing it out to sea. It was very cathartic. Yes, I do need to deal with those issues in therapy. But like the Captain says, I know I’ll never be able to talk them through with my mother because GUILT and I’M SO TERRIBLE. If she had any idea how much she has hurt me, she’d never be able to speak to me again without a whole lot of snarky comments like “I suppose I’m not allowed to do [innocuous thing] because that’ll ruin your life!” Which is, I think, just her way of dealing with guilt and not a malicious attempt to hurt me more. I believe your mother may be experiencing similar reactions. Letting go of the idea of talking through these things with her (and let’s be honest, using them as weapons to get her back – we won’t go there) was a revelation. I can’t just let go of the past and pretend it never happened, but whenever I have to see her I like to pretend we’re strangers and have no shared history. It doesn’t work that well because it’s only a matter of time before she says something I wouldn’t even put up with a stranger saying, but I recognise that’s about my self-control and is something I can work towards.

    3) I am unfortunately not in a situation where I’m able to attend therapy (I have a young baby and nobody to look after her if I go somewhere). But in an ideal world, I would absolutely try to get into some joint therapy with my mother and agree with her that everything we talk about in therapy stays in therapy. I would also arm myself with a bunch of scripts for when she inevitably broke that rule. Like, “That sounds like it’s important to you. We’ll discuss that in our next therapy session, because we agreed not to outside of it, remember?” Now the idea of attending joint therapy with your mother might make you feel all kinds of icky, LW. But I thought I’d put it out there in case it was a viable option for you and available in your area.

    4) This one only works because after a long long time, she actually responded to all the stuff I’d been saying about why I found it hard to talk to her about our issues, i.e that she makes everything about herself and her feelings. Amazingly, she wrote to me saying that it was important to her to not bottle up her feelings and that she’d been taught on assertiveness courses to always tell people how you feel when they’ve upset you. I was like “ahhh! That’s why the feelings!bombs!” So I explained to her that while her feelings are important, she’s misusing that technique in a way that’s stopping us having important discussions and maybe we need to discuss exactly what is happening before talking about how it makes us feel. The technique she mentioned is super useful if someone does something thoughtless or rude that violates your boundaries or keeps on doing something they don’t realise is bugging you, but is very…not useful for responding to someone telling you that is happening. So I took her latest communication as an example, where instead of just dumping her feelings on me and expecting me to process them as well as my own, she had told me how she felt in response to what I had said, then acknowledged what I had said and asked me to suggest a way of talking through both those things! This is a first, and I jumped on it and gave her LOADS of positive reinforcement. I said that was a brilliant way of looking at both sides, that I found it much easier to hear that than just “you’ve made me feel terrible” and suggested that if we discuss the original issue avoiding talking about Feelings as much as possible and then making that a separate discussion, she might find that she feels less bad once she understands fully where I’m coming from (she tends to jump straight to the most negative conclusion possible). I’m still waiting for her reply, but normally she’d respond immediately with something really negative, so this is a step forward.

    LW, I don’t know how much of this will help you. If none, then I am sorry for wasting your time with this huge-ass comment, but I want you to know that I’m sending you Jedi Hugs of Solidarity. I will never have a good relationship with my mother, I’m only working towards “tolerable” but I think realising that was the first big step for me. Good luck! 🙂

    • The Awe Ritual said:

      Not to derail or be hlepy, but I am finding Moodgym, which is free online cognitive behavioral therapy, to be helpful. It’s something one can do in those precious 239-second breaks that mothers of young children get every few days…

      • Thanks so much! I might actually try that,even though CBT is really not the type of therapy I need right now. It would be much better than nothing.

    • RuinousIllusion said:

      I dunno how it is near you, but if your only holdup really is just having the baby physically present, you might find a therapist who’s ok with you bringing the baby along. Mine understands when I’ve got to bring the dog with me, you might find someone willing to work around the baby or via Skype or phone calls.

      Good luck!

      • That would have worked a few months back, and I considered it myself. But now my daughter, bless her, would demand constant attention – I can hardly follow a conversation with a friend when she’s with me, let alone in-depth therapy – and she won’t sit still for five seconds without needing to be picked up. It’s definitely something I’d consider once she’s out of her clingy phase and more able to entertain herself with toys etc.

  26. Jenny Islander said:

    I do not mean to Internet-diagnose, but I have to say that the original letter and many of the replies sound a whole heck of a lot like the posts at reddit dot com slash r slash raisedbynarcissists. LW, you might find additional support and validation over there.

    Let’s assume for the sake of an argument, LW, that your mom is a narcissist. IANA psychologist, so I’ll try to paraphrase the psychological explanation. Actual psychologists reading here, feel free to correct me. Here goes: At some point in our very young lives, we all come to the realization that we are tiny and helpless, the world is big and confusing, and if we don’t get somebody to make it all better RIGHT NOW something unimaginable yet terrible is going to happen. So we cry, and somebody comes and makes it all better. As we get older, we start to learn that the world is more than us and the good or bad things that happen to us–that the world does not exist at or for us, and that other people live in it even when they aren’t doing stuff for or to us. We also learn that we can help ourselves feel better by doing stuff on our own. For whatever reason (heredity, environment, both?), the narcissist never gets this far.

    The adult brain takes this fundamental mental abscess down elaborate pathways a tiny child can’t conceive, including, but not limited to:

    *The feeling of always being vulnerable often means that any breath of a hint of a suggestion of a possibility that the narcissist is wrong in any way shape or form feels like a life-destroying disaster about to strike. The ensuing fear/rage/fear storm leads narcissists to do awful things that in their minds are simple self defense.

    *The feeling of always needing somebody available to provide comfort leads to a narcissist pushing hard into the lives of their families, friends, even employees, in order to keep them always oriented toward the narcissist, and reacting with rage when the target has a thought that the narcissist did not preapprove or a life that the narcissist cannot direct–or a problem that the narcissist can’t fix with a snap of the fingers. This may be partly masked if the narcissist realizes that they can keep people oriented toward them by presenting the appearance of a good boss/loving parent/etc. at some times, while keeping other people oriented toward them by constantly making them angry/sad/confused; a smart narcissist will adjust their behavior to whichever type garners the most attention with the least effort depending on the audience.

    *The feeling of being the only real person in a universe of things that happen to and for just that one person may lead to things like narcissistic parents ignoring a child’s medical problem because it isn’t one the parents had or have, and so forth.

    *Because this is all rooted in the primal emotional level of the brain, the narcissist experiences their emotions as reality. That is, you or I will have an experience through our senses, have emotions about that experience, and construct memories based on that experience. The narcissist has an emotion, filters their sensory experience through that emotion, and constructs memories that support that emotion. The memories may be further edited as later emotional states require.

    The strong emotional component of all this means that as much as we may want them to, the narcissists in our lives aren’t going to change. Remember, even the most indirect and gentle suggestion of a need for change feels like an attack on a helpless, innocent person who never did anything wrong. People generally can’t think past that kind of panic. Posters at the subreddit report some success with the measures the Captain outlined above, but a lot of them have found that cutting contact is where they end up no matter how hard they try.

    I really hope I’m wrong about your mom. If I’m right, I’m so sorry.

    • peregrinations said:

      Thank you for this Jenny Islander. This is the best description I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of them!) of how people with this kind of thinking pattern (narcissist or not, IANA psychologist, I don’t know!) work / experience their emotions and reality.

    • ashbet said:

      may lead to things like narcissistic parents ignoring a child’s medical problem because it isn’t one the parents had or have

      OMFG, this!!!!

      My daughter and I inherited a rare genetic disorder from my father. It expresses differently in women than in men, so men tend to be mildly affected (although my Dad had plenty of health issues because of it, and died at 65), but women are usually more severely affected, and many symptoms manifest at puberty. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my twenties, and my daughter got her diagnosis at 15.

      My mother still does not, to this day, actually believe that we have this disease. After all, SHE didn’t have it (well, no, it’s autosomal dominant and my father’s mother had it, and my father had it, so my mother’s health status is immaterial), and SHE would know if there was anything wrong with her children!

      She looked up things on Wikipedia and showed them to me as “proof” that our doctors were wrong (some of the rarer manifestations of the disease can cause issues like dwarfism — we don’t have that subtype), she tried to talk my doctor into stopping taking her prescribed medications (without my knowledge) because of some shit she read on eHow.com, and she constantly insists that the reason we’re ill is that we’re fat and lazy (never mind that both of us have had weight gain from meds, and that I was a size 10 when the disease disabled me.)

      My daughter has had serious heart issues because of this condition — but even developing cardiomyopathy at age 20 wasn’t *really* enough to convince my mother that if we’d just EXERCISE MORE, we wouldn’t be ill!

      I remember how sick and outraged it made me feel when she accused me of “teaching [my] daughter to BE DISABLED” — no, you narcissistic bitch, my smart, amazing, kind, hardworking, incredibly determined daughter is struggling with a life-changing illness that hit her severely at an earlier age than it hit me, and the only things I’ve been “teaching” her about disability are about how not to give in to despair, how to live the best possible life you can, even if you’re in pain and dealing with health issues, and that your only value to society/other people isn’t solely as a wage-earner.

      But, yeah — she still tries to convince me that we don’t REALLY have a genetic disorder, and at this point, my daughter and I joke that it’s because it personally offends her on a “MY LOINS DID NOT BIRTH MONSTERS” level.

      • Dani Alexis said:

        Sub in autism (which I obviously got from my dad and his dad) for your condition, and this is my mother. Even the “exercise more” bit.

        (The irony is that exercise DOES seem to help my motor function. But that’s not the same thing as not being autistic.)

    • I find this incredibly helpful.

      The way I think of it is, we all have various identities: quilter, writer, activist, boxer, runner etc. For these people their primary identity is Victim. Couple that with a healthy dose of entitlement and you have a Difficult Person. (Entitlement isn’t always “stuff” in my experience it’s “I am the only one allowed to get upset/hurt/angry because I am The Victim!”) I find this helpful when I have entered into a world where up is down, and down is sideways, and sideways is tomato and I’m grasping for *any* sense to cling to.

  27. Fishmongers' daughters said:

    This is… very timely. One week ago wrote a letter to my mother wherein I tried to talk to her about the time she blamed me for being raped by a much older man when I was 16. It was the culmination of a lifetime of gaslighting and projection wherein my mother began to try to convince me I was mentally ill starting at the age of 10.

    The letter… did not induce the intended effect. CA’s advice about how that honest conversation is never forthcoming? I’ve read it before, but it’s real to me now in a way it never was. Mom responded to the letter by telling me how very sorry she was to tell me that I was making this up. That it never really happened, that she would have done anything and everything to punish a man like that (including some graphic and disturbing imagery of what should happen to a rapist). I responded with all the details to make it clear to her that yes, it had happened, yes, she knew about it, yes, she did nothing. She ignored that, then went on my facebook page to like a few pictures and make a nasty comment about Obama.

    II spent last night and this morning talking to my sister and partner about what I should do from here. I pretty much talked myself into cutting her off. I think that’s what I need to do. I have to find some way to mourn and accept the loss. But… it’s hard. CA is right and I wish I’d remembered it before making a demand for “authenticity” in a relationship where it will never exist.

    Letter Writer, here’s how I describe the violence my mother has done to me: If I’m a piece of beautiful and interesting topography, with hills and valleys and cliffs and crevices and woods and streams, my mother is like a giant glacier that grinds everything in its path down to what it needs it to be. She flattened me. She tried to destroy all my uniqueness by dropping her heavy, suffocating blanket ideology on it and enforcing a new, silent, dead landscape. I will never fully recover from this violence. It carved away pieces of me that I have sorely and deeply missed.

    Or like a colonizing nation, which sweeps into a vibrant, nuanced culture and levels it and tries to turn it into a pathetic reproduction of a failed and violent ideology for the service of the colonizers.

    Colonized nations resist. I resisted. You can resist. And like a colonized nation, you can do whatever you have to to resist. The beautiful and unique landscape that is you will be forever affected by her influence, but you can make it your own in new ways. You can court the rain and the rivers and techtonics and biotics that will add to your topography. It sounds like that’s exactly what you’re doing, and I celebrate you for it. 🙂

    • Sacred Howl said:

      Oh ye gods. The glacier analogy is one of the best analogies I have EVER heard. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • That’s horrible. I’m so sorry. And I wanted to offer a solidarity hug, because something similar happened to me although nowhere near as bad as what happened to you. My mother blamed and continues to blame me for a man spiking my drinks, sexually assaulting me and then reporting me to the police for underage drinking. I was sixteen. She maintains it was my fault because she had wanted me to stay home that evening and I went out against her wishes. (Bear in mind that here in the UK, I could legally live on my own without social services being involved, have sex and even get married [with parental consent] yet she actually believed that she had a legal right to detain me in her home and it therefore served me right that I was assaulted.)

      I always wondered if it was some sort of guilt that made her believe it was my fault, rather than “you defied me and this is your punishment” but your post has helped me see it more clearly. Thank you.

      • Fishmongers' daughters said:

        *hug* Man, that is rough. I’m really sorry. I don’t know if an “as bad/more bad/less bad” kind of comparison is even possible with these kinds of situations, because if your mother is capable of blaming you in that situation, that mindset has probably made itself known throughout your interactions with her in subtle or obvious ways. Suffice to say, it must have been a very difficult situation for you and I’m so glad you’ve been able to put it into some kind of perspective that exceeds the one she’s been trying to force on you. Cheers to you! 🙂

    • shehasathree said:

      God, that is amazingly well-put, and so horrifying. Thank-you for sharing your words and yourself with us. Jedi hugs if wanted. So, so many Jedi hugs.

    • Mayati said:

      Thank you for saying this. You helped stop me from writing a letter of my own.

    • Fishmongers’ daughters, I feel you when you tell us about writing that letter to your mother.

      Twenty years ago, I wrote a similar letter to my parents. I was suffering serious mental ill health at the time, due to the abuse they had both perpetrated through my childhood. My letter was pretty simple – I said to each of them, “This is what happened and this is how I feel about it.” And I asked for a couple of positive steps so we could rebuild our relationship from that point on.

      My mother told me that when she received the letter she cried for a whole day, because she was so hurt. Then she threw my letter in the fire and once it was burnt she felt so much better.

      Her reply to me was witheringly cold, typed like a business letter – even with bullet-point lists.

      Twenty years later, she still refers to this letter and says how hateful and hurtful it was.

      In emotional terms, I do not have a mother.

      • Ouch. This is exactly why I’ve been unable to get anywhere with my own mother. Every time I try to take a step forward by gently bringing up an issue that needs to be discussed, she instantly derails me with “YOU’VE HURT MY FEEEEEEEEELINGS WAAAAAAA ME ME MEEEEEEE!”

        Then she had the nerve to come over one day and have a go at me for “taking everything so seriously” and if I would only lighten up a bit, we’d be able to have the friendly, lighthearted mother-daughter relationship she’s been trying to have with me (in other words, I should laugh when she makes her “jokes,” which are always at my expense).

        This is after a childhood of emotional and physical abuse, which she apparently thinks either never happened, or that I can just forget at her whim and just switch to a happy, friendly relationship with no further work or discussion.

        So I can definitely relate to what you’re saying 🙂

    • newlife said:

      Thank you for that glacier/ colonizing analogy. Thinking about it, I feel more terraformed. Parts of me were valued and cultivated, parts were ignored,devalued or changed. All of it was painful in a way that I was taught was love. Relearning what love is has been a hard, ongoing job.

    • aw said:

      I just wanted to comment and say that you seem to have come to the conclusion that you need to cut off contact with your mother, but you may not execute this right away, and that’s ok. I was the same way when I cut off contact with my mother seven years ago. And the same way when I reopened limited contact with her just about a year back. I took a long time considering all the facts, discussing it with trusted friends/partner/therapist, and finally came to a decision, but then sat on that decision for some time to make sure it felt really right to me.

      You will do what you need to, when you need to, and it will be right for you. I wish you the best.

  28. Gallantqueer said:

    “But maybe we could have something else with the time we have now”

    THIS

    My Mom is similar to LW’s, while my Dad was physically and emotionally absence for large parts of my childhood. I don’t talk to my Mom. I have an authentic, safe relationship with my Dad. Our relationship is more a close family relationship btwn adults than parent/child.

    LW, it is possible for parents to change and start acting reasonable. You’ll only know your Mom has changed, though, when you see her act reasonably and keep doing so over a long stretch of time. If she wants true closeness she’s going to have to change. Don’t settle for anything less or you’re going to be stepping into her reality where the problem is you, as the Capt said.

  29. Szandara said:

    Hi, I’m also a member of the International Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers Support Group and Drinking Society. *waves* I once wrote my mother a very honest letter after she did something reprehensible, and got a response telling me everything I’d written was bullshit. Not long after that, I cut out all communication for a couple of years. Now we’re back in occasional touch, and she’s less unpleasant to me than she is to my sister, because she knows I’d have no problem cutting her off again. My sister is slowly learning not to put up with her nastiness either.

    I will share two phrases I’ve found helpful, in the hope that someone else can use them.

    Mom: Why are you so (horrible/mean/not what I want you to be)?
    Me: I don’t know, Mom. Must be the way I was brought up.

    Mom: Why don’t you do (something I am never going to agree to in a million years)? You should because (reasons, which basically amount to ‘because I want you to’)?
    Me: Mom, we’ve had that conversation already, several times. I’m not going to change your mind, and you’re not going to change my mind, so we’re not going to have it again. Let’s just talk about other things. Hey, how’s (anything else)?
    Mom: But why don’t….
    Me: We are NOT having that conversation, remember? (repeat as needed and/or leave)

    Good luck. Keep your head held high and your expectations low.

    • LdyEkt said:

      “Hi, I’m also a member of the International Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers Support Group and Drinking Society.”

      *fistbump of solidarity*
      Reading this, I immediately thought, “Such a great name! We should get Tshirts!”
      Which was then immediately followed by the thought, “BUT WHAT IF SHE FINDS OUT?”

      Yeah, So that’s my brain.

      • Only Child said:

        Another member here too!
        If my mom found out, she would a) pretend to not understand what the word narcissistic meant and ask me to explain it & the shirt to her, and/ or b) just assume it was in reference to another mother, perhaps my MIL, and then proceed to tell me how lucky I am not to have a mother like that.

  30. Mel said:

    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.

    Oh my god, thank you Captain. No one’s ever explained so clearly why I can’t have contact with my mother. I’m just not able to pretend my entire childhood didn’t happen, especially not for the sake of having a superficial conversation about movies or pets with the woman who spent my entire childhood terrorizing me and my sister. I honestly don’t know what I’d do if my mother ever tried to rekindle some sort of relationship with me, but on the upside (yes I’m being super sarcastic), I’ll probably never find out because for that to happen she would have to acknowledge that she doesn’t have any contact information whatsoever for her oldest daughter, which she’ll do when hell freezes over.

    When I cut off contact years ago, it was partially self-protection and partially kind of a last ditch effort to make her understand that things are not okay. Since then, I’ve mostly stopped caring about whether she’ll ever understand what she did. I’d still like an acknowledgement that she made my childhood a living hell, but I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that that’s never going to happen.

    LW, I think it’s really important to mourn the mother you should have had, and then separately decide if the mother you ended up with is actually capable of giving you anything you need. I really recommend the Captain’s letter writing idea, I found it helped to get it out. I don’t know that I’d recommend sending it, since it sounds like your mother can’t handle criticism, but if you were to simply and unapologetically lay out how you’re willing to interact with her and what will cause you to hang up/leave the room/end the visit and go home, well, it doesn’t sound like that’s going to make your relationship *worse*.

    From the perspective of someone who did cut off contact with their mother, it’s hard and you’ll feel guilty even if she’s a complete asshole. It’s also the best thing I ever did for myself. Not having to swallow my rage about my childhood is amazing, not angsting about every letter I got from her until I was sick of my own complaining is amazing, and never being under the same roof as someone who I simply cannot tolerate is absolutely glorious. I freely admit that I recommend cutting people off. There’s so much pressure about “but faaaaamily!” and “but she’s your moooooother!” and I think it’s important to push back against it.

    Also, cutting off contact can be temporary. You are totally free to take a break from your mother and when you feel ready, send her a letter or something saying if she still wants to have a relationship with you you’re willing to do x, y, and z but not tolerate a, b, or c.

    All the jedi hugs, LW. That’s a tough situation to be in.

    • Fishmongers' daughters said:

      Man, did I need to read this as I contemplate cutting off my own mother. Thank you for your thoughts.

  31. Alianne said:

    I watched this sort of relationship from the outside when I was a child. My maternal grandfather up and left my grandmother, mother, and her sisters (Mom was a teenager, sisters were younger) for another woman, and could never parse the concept that they were all, to varying degrees, angry at him for doing this. My mom made a determined effort to keep him in her life so my brother and I could have a grandfather, and I loved him dearly. But I have so many memories of my mother sitting tight-lipped while he bemoaned his selfish daughters and their hard-hearted mother, who never spoke to him and never wanted a relationship, and he couldn’t understand why they kept insisting on holding a grudge over the past, no one was *really* hurt when he left, and surely they wanted him to be happy… It was (in the most courteous, most implacable Old-Southern-Gentleman style you can imagine) his way or the highway, and if you didn’t agree with his way, well, you were Wrong, and he was happy to explain to you at length just how Wrong you were. He did it to my mother (who nodded, smiled, then went home and had a glass of wine), he did it to my aunts and then wondered why they never visited, he did it to me when I became a teenager and stopped adoring him blindly.

  32. My parents are like this, too, and I keep my physical and emotional distance. They sometimes complain, “We feel like you only spend the bare minimum of time and effort on our relationship.” My answer is always the same: “Not true. The bare minimum is none at all.”

  33. boutet said:

    My mom of this type actually said to me recently, “I think there is something wrong between us and I would like to talk about that.” I think she was actually serious, and was perhaps willing to consider her own failings.

    And after some thought I decided that really, I didn’t. What possible gain can there be that dragging through the past 30 years would be worth? Going bit by bit through it all and talking feelings and playing parent to her feelings? Dealing with her revisionism, fighting for any kind of acknowledgement of her wrongs (that will probably take the form of I’M A TERRIBLE MOTHER COMFORT ME)?

    I guess there’s a chance that we would come out the other end as two adults in a healthy-ish relationship. Maybe I’m missing out on the kind of parent other people have. But I have a good functional life without that, and I’m not going to put in another decade of managing her bullshit in the hopes of some reward that should have been a given from day one.

  34. Twitchy said:

    I tried to make up with my abusive mom over the course of a year or so. I kept social visits short and low-content, took all the shit she threw at me when I tried to address our history together, and even got her to go to therapy with me a couple times. But what it came down to was that she was not only unable to remember the abuse, but unwilling to talk about it. She actually gave me the stranger line. It felt kind of like a gut punch. I mean, I wouldn’t have gone through all that for a stranger. I was only still talking to her because she’s my mom and I love her, and family is important to me. But she didn’t want that. She wanted a cool young adult friend who listened to her cool stories and helped her with her cool projects and didn’t remind her of the sad parts of her history. And doing that would make me miserable for literally no return, so I said no. And now we don’t talk. I just didn’t see the benefit anymore.

  35. Sacred Howl said:

    LW, I am sending you ALL the good vibes I have. I have only just realized the kind of mother I have, and it’s been illuminating in a lot of ways.

    I’d like to offer you the one piece of wisdom I have: when thinking about what to do about your mother, think about what that will mean for any future life event you have (as in, if you’re interested in graduation, marriage, buying houses, having children, winning oscars or pulizters, etc). If there is an event like that and you have a relationship with your mother, there will be new and exciting boundary negotiations to go through, and it is worthwhile to be really prepared for that (and the disappointment that might ensue). I had done the separation thing without realizing what it was for, due to my mother’s reaction to some abuse revelations, and I had completely forgotten half of the issues with her were until I had one of those aforementioned life events and every. single. weapon. she. had. was pulled out. Being made fun of to her friends, criticizing choices and then wondering why I wouldn’t talk to her about my details, ignoring my express wishes… I could go on. The deflection and separation was not enough to carry me through that event and I’m back in therapy about it.

    So yeah. I’m also Team LW and I don’t trust a single sliver of your mother’s intention, but I can say that the threat of cutoff is the single most effective tool I had in my arsenal.

  36. My mother is, in many ways, a pretty great mom, and she is the reason for some really good things about my life (for example, the reason I eat a mostly healthy diet and take care of myself pretty well). In fact, this is why I struggle with my relationship with her, because she DOES have her good points. She is also a Difficult Mom in one way – self-centered in her ideas about “the family,” and in particular what her children (read: daughters, and I am a daughter) “owe” her: emotional intimacy, to be heterosexual, to marry, to raise children who resemble her more or less the same way she raised us, and to ensure our extended family revolves around her. The fact that some ideas directly contradict each other hasn’t occurred to her, I don’t think (very few people can stay married and constantly prioritize their mothers over their own families, for example.) I also don’t think she is alone in this – I’ve come across many mothers who think that daughters genuinely don’t need to separate from mothers to become adults the way sons do, and that grown daughters aren’t allowed boundaries with their moms – boundaries are for sons!

    So being accused of being “distant” from her as a child and later an adult, is something I’ve struggled with, because it implies only her feelings are being hurt, plus it includes an accusation that I’m not normal. It also conveniently allows her to insult me about my singleness, dating life and how I “owe” her a wedding – back when I shared said dating life with her. It took several years of on and off therapy before my therapist said to me, “why don’t you leave your mom out of your dating life? Or anything else you want to? Distance is NORMAL when you’re treated to insults and judgment” So simple and obvious (and appropriate for adults!), but it was practically revolutionary for me. My mom and I can talk about many subjects and enjoy ourselves, and if she brings up something dangerous, e.g. “I don’t like Christmas,” with the assumption to me that I have to fix this and make sure things are done her way, I just say, “you don’t have to celebrate,” or, “we can do something different separate from the rest of the family,” and change the subject. On her, so far, it’s worked, and I feel less and less guilty about anything. But yes, it took me until my 30s to get here and change the “you OWE me” equation in my mind.

    • LdyEkt said:

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate what you had to say about ideas that contradict each other (yes yes) and believing that daughters need no separation from their mothers. Those really fit with my own Difficult Mom.

  37. Anisoptera said:

    Hi LW – I’m at work and haven’t had the chance to read all the other comments yet so I’m probably repeating someone else, but I share your mother problem and just wanted to say something simple. You say “I would like to have an amicable, well-boundaried relationship with my mom.” Know that this might not be possible. The Captain’s advice and McBride’s book are excellent places to start with making your mother an aquaintance that you can stand to be around, but in that sentence I hear a hidden desire that I still have really, which was to have a real relationship with my mother that didn’t suck. You probably can’t ever have that. She will be who she is, and there will always be selfishness and manipulation and weird cruel statements and total obliviousness. She will always always push at your boundaries. That well boundaried relationship will probably have to be fought for every step of the way. I mostly deal with my mother by not seeing her very often, and I try now to constantly disengage whenever she does anything weird when we do see each other. But the most important lesson I’ve learnt is to really *internalise* that I can’t actually fix our relationship. Full stop. All I can do is navigate around her awfulness, and try to be not-there when it manifests itself. Some people decide to go no contact when they realise that, which is honnestly a valid choice.

  38. Ruby said:

    LW, you are so good at articulating the interpersonal dynamics of this kind of mother-daughter relationship! I wish I could print your letter and give it to roommates/friends/acquaintances who assume a mother couldn’t do this to her child, and that when I acknowlegde–matter of factly–the limitations of my parent I’m not being disrespectful or ungrateful.

    I’ve made a lot of progress in reaching détente with my mom, which I think is sort of what the Captain is advocating for as a possibility. Its undermined when she comments on how much I have “improved” in the past few years, by which she means I am now a more worthwhile human in her eyes, but in reality means I don’t fight her tooth and nail when she tries to bend me to her will or demand accountability for her past abuse anymore. I’ve let the fury go. When I get pissed she turned this horrible personal journey of grief and forgiveness into yet another metric of how well I serve her interests, I remind myself that she is ill and that letting the fury go was one of the best gifts I have ever given myself. When we are in the same house I avoid her when I can’t handle it, and I watch christmas movies/movies anout 18th c sailing (don’t ask) we both like when I can. I feed her, I show her pictures of cute animals I know we both like–that’s all there is and its okay, I think. I’m still struggling with my guilt over not staying and “saving” her from herself, and every hospital visit or arrest or bender makes that a real struggle. I don’t know. Its a good thing for both of us that I love her without sacrificing myself as best I can, I hope.

  39. CrushLily said:

    I have a question for the LW. If someone in your family had noticed what was going on while you were growing up, what would you have wanted to happen? I ask this because I see this type of mother in my sister-in-law. And I just don’t know what I can do – we are not friends, we don’t live nearby and I barely know her except all the crappy things she does to her son. I have urged my partner to say something to her and call her out on her behaviour, but he doesn’t know how to do it or even if he wants to as he has spent his adult life keeping a healthy distance from his family.

    I just try and support her son by ensuring his birthday and Christmas is remembered and that he knows we are here if he needs us. But, he’s 12 – he is old enough to know that he is treated badly, but not old enough to leave. I sometimes wish that she’d beat the crap out of him one night so we could call the police on her.

    • resili0 said:

      I remember and cherish thd adults who noticed my plight and offered me cars. So the teacher who found out about my suicide attempt aged 12 and sat with me to talk about how it didn’t mean I was a bad person or a crazy person. I remember my Gran who didn’t know and couldn’t help due to distance who kept a cupboard of paints and art supplies and spent hours painting with me and validating me. Any adult who showed me healthy love and affirmed that as a kid, I was worthy of that and that someday I would be surrounded by loving people kept me going.

      For a long time I thought my family was normal and our unhappiness was because I was a horrible dirty burden of a child who should never have been born. Seeing families model what love and care is helped me have hope that that is how it can be. A world without healthy families is one without hope.

      Lastly, can you make a report and ask what would be involved in the police/social services stepping in? Could you quietly document the abuse so that if and when action is needed, you have dates and evidence? Physical abuse is not the only kind, emotional abuse waa the veneer under which my father sexually abused me. I do wish someone had spoken up for me. I might have had the courage to tell.

    • Serin said:

      Recently my kid (who’s 16) brought up their relationship with the spouse’s parents. I said, “I can tell they’re trying to be loving in the best way they know how, but I find them difficult, and when we go visit them, we always talk beforehand about strategies to use in case certain predictable problems come up.” The kidlet said, “I wish I had known that years ago. I couldn’t tell it was hard for you — I thought it was just me.”

      It might be meaningful and helpful to let the son know some of what you can see, and give him space to talk about it. Words like “difficult” or “confusing” might help him see that he’s not the source of all problems, while not inviting him to attack his mother behind her back.

    • LdyEkt said:

      What saved my life when I had That Mom was an amazing children’s librarian. She helped me figure out what I wanted to read, and then she helped me find those books. I always felt safe with her. And then when I was at home, I felt like nobody could touch me, not even my mom, when I was immersed in a book.

      I bring this up, CrushLily, in the hopes that maybe you can see about facilitating some kind of short-term escape for your nephew. Books as presents if he likes them, or maybe video games, or a gift certificate for a class or something he would like to do that is out of the house and away from her?

      • CrushLily said:

        Thank you – yes, my partner and I are currently trying to persuade his sister to let us pay for swimming lessons for a Christmas present. Mostly because I think its a travesty that a 12 year old doesn’t know how to swim, but also to hopefully encourage an activity for him outside of the house. The complicating factor is that there is a younger brother who is blatantly favoured over the one who is ill-treated and we don’t want to perpetuate the favouritism by only focusing on the older boy. I have ensured that my nephew has the contact details for his uncle independent of her should he ever need them, but we are physically too far away to be much day-to-day help unfortunately and we have our own (much younger) kids who need us. She also ensures that direct communications are restricted – he does not have a phone nor does he seem to be allowed to use email.

        My nephew is very intelligent and quite aware of his mother’s favouritism and his treatment, so on the rare occasions we see him and can get him alone, we encourage him to work hard at school so one day he can get the hell out of there and never go back.

        • Data Points said:

          Restricted communication makes it hard indeed. Is there maybe somewhere else in their town who you can encourage to look out for the child?

          I’d suggest ask him if he wants to write letters, but there’s no reason to believe his mother won’t open or even hide them :/

  40. Karak said:

    LW and Captain I’m dropping a website I ran across that looks at estranged parents and the delusional ways they reconstruct relationships with their children:

    http://www.issendai.com/psychology/estrangement/index.html

    I read through the whole thing and it’s just the same kind of things we see here only with the parents’ words being used illustrate how they see the dysfunctional relationships. I think it might help LW and might be a good resource (of all things, I was linked to it from Reddit).

    • ranunculus said:

      I’ve come across that one before. Some of it is chillingly familiar.

    • Tattie said:

      Wow, that’s an… um, eye-opener. Might be triggering for many.

  41. Consolaré said:

    My mother liked to brag that she only liked to take care of babies until we were a year old. And she had five of us. LW: you have my heartfelt praise and compassion. I was lucky in that she only wanted to spend time with me if she could use me. The others really loved her and her passing has caused endless melancholy. My siblings do an act that I call “being Mommy’s Little Hero.” This consisted of defending Mommy in absentia of any critisism, usually directed at me since she constantly complained about me when she was alive. Was I neglected? I have nothing to compare it to. I don’t have any memories of her from before my teen years and very few then.

  42. Ioethe said:

    Re Just Not Getting this attitude from parents, you might find this site;

    http://www.issendai.com/psychology/estrangement/index.html

    “Down the Rabbit Hole” interesting.

    I suggest not reading unless you’re feeling quite strong and have a cup of tea to hand.

  43. yan said:

    My therapist’s scripts for that involved a lot of turning the conversation around. Realize that it sounds like your mom is doing what mine does — putting all her feelings on me, instead. Guess what? I don’t have to take them! “That seems really important to you, Mom.” is actually a really good way to a) put the feelings back and b) shut the conversation down, because she really doesn’t want to talk about it if we’re talking about here.

    I’m sorry this is your dynamic. Give yourself space to mourn the loss of the relationship you always hoped you could have.

  44. Heynonnymouse said:

    I’ve only been reading CA for a couple of weeks but I’m addicted, I see so many bits I recognise of me, my life and my past!
    We grew up with just Mum; my parents divorced when I was 1ish and dad remarried pretty quick – my siblings remember Dad a bit but to me he’s just this guy. It wasn’t hideous with mum, my siblings and I got a wooden spoon or a hairbrush around our legs if we displeased or disobeyed her (the *silent treatment* was worse). Dad simply wasn’t there.
    My sister and I both have chronic depression (her stuff=her story). I have an issue I thought I’d beaten, needing “parental” approval to validate me as a worthwhile person; after talks with my sister I’ve realised it came from having to *earn* mum’s love but never knowing exactly what price she’d set. It translated to any older person in a parental/authority role (read: boundary and sexuality issues).
    Mum died years ago so no reboot there, but we all reconnected (sort of) with dad and spend time with him… when *we* initiate the contact. I’ve only just twigged that I need to rework my behaviour and thoughts around dad because my self-esteem plummets and my depression rockets if I don’t get his approval when I’m with him – yet we’re not close, I’m closer to my siblings, my aunt, my spouse, and I have *no* issues with them.
    Long ramble; skip to here!
    My take from reading this and other many CA posts & comments (love those 24-hr net binges!) is that if I can’t change my own thought and behaviour patterns for my best mental health then I can’t be around him. He’s appropriating a role he doesn’t own and it’s up to me if I choose to let him. Maybe I can’t – maybe you can’t with your mum, because honestly it requires a rewrite of memory & history. Good advice from CA and regular commenters: look after You; protect yourself and your sanity. And good luck. Be true to the self *you* had to put together.

    • Myrtle said:

      “He’s appropriating a role he doesn’t own and it’s up to me if I choose to let him.” Wonderful to read your insightful strength in this!

  45. AltoFronto said:

    I don’t know if this is relevant – it sure won’t directly address LW’s issues with Mom’s problematic behaviour, but I’ve noticed a bit of improvement with being able to relate to my mum since we’ve both taken up a musical instrument.

    I had a rough teenage with her being strict, and ignoring my severe mental health issues, and she had a massive period of weirdness when I left home (Literal empty nest syndrome, as in, she used my old room as a place to incubate chicken eggs) and when I decided to live with my partner in Another City.

    She’s no longer freaking out about my lifestyle choices now that she can see that it’s working out for me and I’m not living in the gutter, but we still don’t always have a lot in common and conversations can quickly become tense when we disagree. We’re still working out how to stop falling into the Concerned Parent > Wayward Child dynamic, and to repair some of the messed up patterns I started noticing were messed up when I started reading stuff like Captain Awkward.

    So some neutral ground where we can enjoy each other’s company, without having to skirt around conversations that might lead to disagreement on politics, social justice, My Life, etc, is when we both set aside time in the evenings to play ukulele together.

    It’s still a source of some boundary problems – She has a busy work schedule, so she’ll sometimes ask me to jam with her just as I’m going to bed, because she’s “hardly seen me all week” and this is literally the only time she can set aside for it. And she usually complains if I play too fast or use the “wrong” strumming pattern or vocals. And she hates a lot of the tunes that I think are nice.
    But aside from that, we can usually have fun harmonising with the tune she’s been learning with her group that week, or I can show her something I’ve been practicing, with easy chords that we’re both familiar with.

    Is there something like that you can both channel your time into, where you can enjoy it separately or together, and it takes you away from forced conversation or anything confrontational, into the two of you just kind of hanging out with a fun shared activity?

    It sure won’t fix your problems, but if you’ve already started to reconcile and you just want to be able to spend normal Mom/ Daughter time in between FeelingsTalk about Past and Present Stuff, a shared activity might be a place to start to foster that real closeness that builds over time.

    Your Mileage Will Almost Certainly Vary, because I don’t know your Mom, but playing the ukulele seems to be something my mum and I have enough in common to make it easier to spend time together when we’re getting along. (I still find her a Very Difficult Person, we’re still learning how to have a better relationship with each other, and sometimes we get annoyed and just avoid each other until we’ve cooled off).

    Progress will have its ups and downs, but I hope your mother can be coaxed into meeting you halfway. You can’t be certain it will happen organically, but sometimes you can find a calm environment for yourselves that provides the right growing conditions. This is The Chance you can give her, without having to compromise your position on all the stuff that went before.

    I don’t know if that’s helpful, or too much like “why don’t you just..?” advice. I just find that my mum can’t ask probing questions about my job prospects when she’s trying to sing along to something. 😉

    • The Room Where It Happens said:

      This is actually great advice. Persuading my mother to take up any new activity is pretty much a non-starter (she’s a perfectionist who will abandon any project she can’t catch onto immediately), but I’ve had some success with finding media we both can enjoy. Most recently I got her hooked on Serial. She loves true crime stuff, so that was a good temporary source of conflict-free conversation.

      • MellifluousDissent said:

        If you both liked Serial, try Undisclosed – it’s a podcast by some of Adnan’s defense team, so obviously it’s pretty firmly on the “he was wrongfully convicted” side of the line, but they get into the nitty gritty of the case, and I’ve found it to be an interesting companion to Serial.

      • briz said:

        Another good True Crime podcast is Sword&Scale. It is graphic and delves into pretty dark, true material – but it is SO GOOD.
        I listen to it while I clean as a *reward* and my apartment spotless as a result.

  46. Add me to the horde of “there but for the alcoholism go I”, please. My mother is a bit better now – she’s in her 70s and spends loads of time travelling, which I think distracts her from what a failure I am. But I’m still a neurotic mess, thanks mum. I think she had a pretty picture in her head of what her Perfect Little Girl would be, and resented the hell out of me for not matching up to it. I’m 43 now, and she’s just about got her brain round the idea that my piercings, clothes, music choice etc aren’t a teenage phase!

    Classic my-mother-isms:
    * spends forever having a go at me until I get upset. Criticises me for being over-sensitive.
    * spends forever having a go until I defend myself. Bursts into tears and “I suppose it’s all my fault for being a terrible mother” etc.
    * spends forever having a go while I grit my teeth and try not to rise to it. “You always look so ANXIOUS all the time. You’ll never find a man if you’re always scowling.”
    * the un-compliment, eg “your bottom doesn’t look as fat as it used to”. GEE THANKS!
    * “If you lost some weight you …..” wouldn’t have depression / would get an awesome job / might marry a millionnaire / could solve world poverty and achieve world peace
    * “You never tell me anything…” Can’t imagine why.

    Sorry, LW, that’s a whinge and not advice. BUT (a) you’re not alone (b) I’m not sure there’s a solution where both you and your mother are going to be happy with the outcome, because she is treating you like playdoh that she can stuff into the gaps in her life. I know she’s your mum but her wants don’t trump yours. Repeat after me: “Saying no to her does not make me a bad person. It is ok to be selfish about this.”

    • storyranger said:

      Ah, the magical properties of “just losing weight!” Did you know that just losing some weight, in addition to curing depression and joblessness, can also:
      *cure literally every other mental illness known to humankind, including eating disorders?!
      *make your man more likely to stay (even when he loved you already at the size you are and is super attracted to you no matter what)
      *improve your grades by 20%
      *make all pre-existing conditions before you gained weight magically disappear
      *solve the energy crisis and achieve a cure for the common cold.

      LW, it sounds like we’re being absurdest here, but seriously logic doesn’t enter into it sometimes when a mother wants you to do something. Any reason will do regardless of truth or proof. So remember, walking away is okay. Short circuiting the interaction is okay. Hitting the kill-switch in the telephone call is FINE. Do what you need to do to feel comfy.

      • Ironically, the reason I’ve gained a lot of weight in a short space of time is my meds. I got pretty skinny 3 years ago because I was so depressed I couldn’t be bothered eating. My mum was delighted by how “slim and healthy” I looked. I’m convinced she’d rather I was skinny and practically suicidal than chunky but happy.

    • We must share a mom. Oy vey. *empathy*

  47. CC said:

    Thanks LW, I’ve been drafting this same letter the the Captain for years.

    • The Room Where It Happens said:

      *fistbump of solidarity*

  48. perlhaqr said:

    I dunno if this will be helpful for you, and hell, maybe it’s not actually helpful for me, either, but when I encounter stuff like this:

    (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)

    I shock the piss out of them by agreeing.

    “Yeah, Mom, honestly, so am I.”

    If nothing else, I find it tends to derail their derailing, and let me get back on track with the thing I was trying to talk about. So maybe it’s re-railing? OTOH, I dunno, maybe they aren’t even actually listening any more, just shocked into silence that their technique to get sympathys didn’t work this time.

  49. AMM said:

    I just looked at the web page for Will I Ever Be Good Enough?, and boy, I think it does describe my mother. (FWIW, the book says it’s for daughters, but even though I was a son, it describes my relationship for a long time):

    She approved of you only when your behavior reflected well upon her or your family. Since her love for you was conditional, you inherited a distorted sense of love and lacked the experience of genuine maternal nurturing. As a result, you have likely developed particular coping mechanisms: you hide or deny your pain, you become involved in intimate relationships that tend to be unhealthy or unsatisfying, you are an overachiever or a self-sabotager

    My mother would act like a loving mother as long as I went along with and managed to be what she wanted. When I didn’t, I pretty much didn’t exist for her, I was some stranger. I remember her saying “I never liked babies. I only like children when they’re old enough to have intellectual conversations with.” (This from someone who had five of those babies she didn’t like.) I interpret that to mean that she liked children who were willing to conform to her needs, but not babies who of course can’t.

    Discuss declension of German nouns (so she could show off her erudition): loving mother.

    Bring up my problems in school or with my brother beating me up: brick wall. Tacit message: you’re on your own.

  50. Katamari said:

    I totally hear you about the “honest conversation” trap. My dad (who has an anger problem and was verbally abusive my whole life) tries to goad me into these as well. His favourite way to do this is asking: “Was I a good dad?” (TRAP! TRAP!) And if I don’t immediately bite he’ll put effort into really sweetening it up. “I really want to hear how you feel, honestly. Tell me straight, I can take it. I’m listening, I really want to hear the truth”. And then as soon as you start to respond, you’ve fucking fallen into it AGAIN. Then the trap closes: “But wasn’t I a good dad I never hit you did I so there I wasn’t so bad my mother used to hit me and I never raised a hand to you so you shouldn’t be so touchy why are you crying.”

    Thankfully I’ve now learned to detect the trap and just say “I’m not talking about this” or something similar. Then repeat ad nauseum until the parent gets tired and agrees to change the topic. WIN! 🙂

    • This is how I shut that one down.
      Mother: “I may have been a terrible mother, I made my mistakes but at least I tried!”
      Me: “Huh, yeah, it’s good to make an effort.”
      Mother: “Oh so I WAS a terrible mother? WAS I A TERRIBLE MOTHER?”
      Me: “I don’t know. I’ve only had one mother, so I have nothing to compare you with.”

      She then goes off muttering about how she was at least better than her own mother.

  51. johann7 said:

    “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.”

    Hold up, there are people out there who trust their parents? Like, how? I was never subjected to anything that comes close to behavior that might be labeled abuse, and I still learned that my parents could not really be trusted after it turned out they had been lying to/gaslighting me for years by telling me that magic is real (i.e. Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, ghosts, for many people – though not me – organized religion) or “protecting” me from knowing how truly screwed up the world is regarding things like war, rape culture, the corrupt racist/classist (and otherwise -ist) legal system, economic exploitation, etc., usually by way of “not until you’re older” obscurantism. A LOT of our socialization is based on mythology, much of it false, sometimes in ways that perpetuate various forms of oppression, exploitation, and marginalization. I know that’s all normal socialization, which is why it surprises me to hear anyone say that the ability to trust one’s parents is precious and something of which one might feel robbed: I was unaware that ANYBODY had perents who didn’t spend most of one’s childhood demonstrating how they are not actually worthy of an assumption of trust.

    • JenniferP said:

      This sounds like a discussion for your own blog.

  52. GirlNotAppearingInThisLife said:

    Friend directed me here, said this sounded sort of like my mom. It does, expect for the states separation and some other details. (My mother married the man that molested and sexual abused me – after she knew about what he’d done to me). She doesn’t understand why I don’t want to come see her and find family gathering upsetting, and complains my staying away makes her look bad. She only helps me with things that she can tell others about that makes her look good. My PTSD from her husband isn’t really as important as making sure everyone sees us playing happy families.

    • ranunculus said:

      I cannot fathom how any mother could sacrifice her child for the sake of her own pleasure. Even my mother had the bad excuse that she was already married to the sperm donor before she realised what a twisted monster it was (and chose to do bugger all about it). Finding out when you still have the chance to walk away and choosing the pervert over your child… I just. Cannot. All the positive wishes and remote hugs to you.

  53. Unah said:

    I came to terms with what my mother is a few years ago. It was a difficult process, but when I finally realized that my mother will never love me, not because I’m not worthy of love, but because she doesn’t have the capacity to love, it changed my life. Trying to get her to love me is like trying to get a colorblind person to appreciate a rainbow. This realization was only the start though. I started out going low contact, and disconnecting from and ignoring some of the things she says. Admittedly, this was impossible with certain topics, because they were just too triggering to ignore, but that is where low contact came in. Last year she did something unspeakable, and I went no contact. She just isn’t safe to be around. I was fine with it, and it was really a relief. My problem is with the rest of my family. My extended family has been trying to smoothe things over between my mother an me for years. I always thought it was because they didn’t see her for what she really was, or they didn’t believe what she was doing to me because she was so manipulative. When my mother did what she did last year, my family tried to hide it from me because they knew I would cut her off to protect my children. Of course I found out pretty quickly, but not before my grandmother had convinced me that I was crazy, my mother was fine, and I had a moral obligation to let her come and see my newborn baby. That was literally an hour before I found out what she did. Of course, the person who told me what happened was the bad guy, not my mother. This past year I have had to come to terms with the fact that my mother spent my life carefully choosing the people that she would allow in my life. She would only allow me to have family and friends that would ignore her behavior, andbarest me like the terrible one for not giving, being, sacrificing, and doing more for my mother. All of the important relationships I had with family members have been hollow. That realization really hurt. I could accept that my mother didn’t love me because there was something wrong with her, but to find out that the people I went to for support and help were only there to make sure I stayed compliant. I just don’t know how to even face that right now.

  54. Anyanka said:

    What is it with horrible parents who want to reap all the rewards of being a good parent without doing any of the work?

    So many times–especially in high school, but also now–people (bad parents) would look at my parents and mine/my sibling’s close, happy relationship and say “How can you get that??”
    And of course my parents would respond with, essentially, polite versions of “by being good parents”. And then the bad parents would just lose it or rationalize it away as us just being ‘good kids’ by genetics, which to put it nicely, we were not.

    Also, my currently-alive grandmother also wants to be close with me, which I ignore. I write to her and talk to her, but that’s more for everyone’ else’s benefit than hers, and also because I do actually not want her to be lonely. She’s not close to me because if I gave her the gift of a close, trusting, intimate relationship, she’d hurt me, because she’s emotionally abusive and doesn’t take care of other people. Fact.

%d bloggers like this: