#995: Reassuring abusive parents? (It’s a trap!)

Slainte, Captain!

I have a weird family question that I couldn’t find an answer to, so I turn to you.

I’m 30 years old, raised by my mom and my stepdad. Hopefully brief context: my stepdad and I have never got along. There were many instances of emotional abuse – he’s the kind of guy who would excitedly volunteer to tell me when I was in trouble because he delighted in bringing me bad news, and was jealous enough of my relationship with my mom that he would come up with chores for me to do whenever he caught me sitting and talking or reading with her. There were also a few occasions of drunky physical abuse; I got slapped and thrown around a fair bit. He’s still incredibly rude to me a lot of the time, which is why we don’t really talk. They live in another state and that’s the way I like it.

By contrast, my relationship with my mother is… good, but problematic. She is the strongest, classiest, most brilliant and brave woman I’ve ever known, and I practically worship her, but I also know that I can’t be around her and retain my adulthood at all. She loves me ferociously but spent most of my childhood pushing me away. “Love me from afar!” was her favorite line. We can talk for years about books, movies, history, science, ideas… but I cannot tell her things that matter to me, because she will either ridicule them or simply tell me, “Oh, honey, you know I don’t care about that.” Yes, she actually says exactly that.

So! Here’s my issue:

Every time I talk to them on the phone (usually about twice a month for an hour or more – my mom and I LOVE to talk) one or the other of them will say something like, “Do you think we were good parents?” I never know how to answer that question. I don’t think they were great parents, but at this point, there’s nothing they can do about that, and they’re not likely to agree with a lot of my criticisms anyway. Answering that question honestly would ultimately involve me DEFENDING my memories of neglect and abuse. I’m happy with my life now; I have a family I love and I am finally discovering the person I want to be. Why make both them and me feel like crap when it doesn’t really matter now?

But it keeps coming up. They won’t stop asking, and I hate comforting them about it when I can’t feel genuine doing it. How can I make this question go away without opening up a whole can of emotional nonsense when my life is finally getting better?

Thank you for your time!
Loving From Afar (she/her pronouns)

Dear Loving From Afar (WUT? Ugh, your MOM),

A lot of people who were emotionally abused as kids walk in your same shoes. How to reconcile the demogorgons of our childhoods with the mellower, grayer, almost fragile-seeming fellow adults in front of us now?

This question that your parents keep asking you is deeply strange. If they are concerned about how they treated you and they wanted to have an actual honest conversation about it, your stepdad could say (for example): “I’m in the ‘make amends’ step of recovery and I’d like to apologize for [specific things] I did back when I was drinking.” They could tell you specifically what they want to talk about and why instead of making you play some weird guessing game. They could include, I dunno, an actual apology? None of this is an apology. Their question is a trap, so, good job for knowing that it’s a trap.

Possible answers:

  • “You’ve been asking this question a lot. Is there something specific from the past that you want to talk about?” 
  • “You’ve asked this a lot. What’s prompting this?”
  • “Wow, what a question. What’s really on your mind?” 
  • “Wow, what a question. Is there something specific that’s bothering you?” 
  • “I could have done with 100% less being slapped around by [Stepdad] – is that what you want to talk about?”
  • “If I said ‘not really’ what would you say?” 
  • “Wait, are you asking me to reassure you about your parenting? I have no idea how to do that.”
  • This feels like a trap.
  • “I don’t know how to answer that, but I’m a pretty happy adult.” 
  • Do they make comment cards for family relationships now? Let’s talk about something else.”
  • What an awkward question. Why on earth would you ask me that?
  • No, but we can’t change the past. Why do you want to talk about this now?
  • “Do you think you were good parents?” 
  • “Wow. What brought this on?” 
  • “I don’t know how to answer that.” 
  • Edited to add:Oh, Mom, you know I’m not interested in talking about any of that.” 

If a lot of the scripts above look like answering a question with a question, yes, correct! Think of this as “If you’re going to bring this up, then you’re going to be the ones to do the work of explaining why.” Your parents are almost certain to pass on answering your counter-question or give a “no reason” non-answer, which gives you an opening to ignore the question entirely, like, “Ok, I have no idea how to answer that, but if you think of something specific you want to talk about let me know.” Return awkwardness to sender!

This is such a fucked up question from fucked-up people that there’s no right answer. But (good news?), that means there’s also no wrong way to answer. Answering honestly and giving them an opportunity to have an honest conversation doesn’t mean you have now agreed to discuss or defend or rehash anything. Alternately, saying “If I say ‘sure,’ will you stop asking me?” doesn’t undo all the true things that happened.

My thinking is, no matter how you answer you’re gonna feel weird and bad for a little afterward while because these people are experts at making you feel weird and bad, so you might as well be genuine and honor the life and the self you’ve created. Maybe your script is: “Not really, but I like our relationship how it is now.”



193 thoughts on “#995: Reassuring abusive parents? (It’s a trap!)

  1. Oh, LW, so many jedi hugs!

    My mom wasn’t precisely abusive, but I’m dealing with a lot of childhood-based issues that are pretty much her fault. She will sometimes pull the “was I a good parent?” thing — or, worse, “I’m sorry I was such a bad mom” in woeful tones as a lure to get me to protest that she wasn’t.

    It’s so fucking far into trap territory that Admiral Ackbar has long since disappeared.

    I tend towards deflection (“We seem to have turned out okay, haha, so anyway what’s the latest catastrophe at work?”) because I’m too conflict-averse to do otherwise. But she also doesn’t bring it up too often.

    Good luck. ::fistbump of awkward-parental-conversations::

    1. My mom sort of does a similar thing. She’ll bring up times when her parenting was subpar, but then get MORTALLY OFFENDED if I in any way imply she was less than a stellar parent.

      My mom did the best she could, but she was severely depressed for most of my childhood and my dad is a major workaholic. So I was clean, fed, and clothed, but I had zero emotionally functioning parents. A lot of it wasn’t really my mom’s fault, but I sure do resent it when she makes out like she was an amazing mother. There were swaths of time when I didn’t have a mother so much as a person who existed in the house and fed me and took me to school and made sure I bathed and occasionally had irrational fits of anger at me. The fact that between her and a small child we could adult hard enough to look normal doesn’t mean she was a good parent.

      1. Your parents sounds exactly the same as mine, stellanor. Father always working away, resentful mother who barely lived up to the title. Just enough to look ‘normal’ but done with no love or any joy. I also become the ‘depository’ for all her anger at my father at a very young age.

        She was once in the middle of her very frequent pity parties when she said something along the lines of ‘neither of us were good parents’….I replied ‘no, you weren’t’ which shocked her into shutting up. She hasn’t bought it up again, and she’s also stopped making out she was an amazing mother. I think another good repsonse is ‘If you have to ask…’

      2. *fist-bump of solidarity* I had the same parental combination, plus my dad was deployed for most of my childhood and we lived overseas away from any support network (not that we’d have had one anywhere else; my parents were estranged from their extended family and had/have no friends) AND we were homeschooled so there was LITERALLY NOT A SINGLE ADULT looking out for our well-being.

        On top of that, my mother has a lot of good qualities but she was at the best of times a neglectful, distant parent and at the worst of times an actively bad parent. She also didn’t really have any resources, though, and I think she did try her best, it’s just that her best was pretty bad and not the parenting I needed.

        LW, it’s not your job to absolve your parents of their guilt about being terrible. Also, I know you love your mother, and I’m sure that she has a lot of good qualities, but when you were a child, her biggest responsibility as a parent was to protect you from harm and she chose not to.

        If your mother or stepfather are feeling guilty about their terrible parenting – and they should! – you do not have to forgive them, or help them process that guilt, or assure them that they weren’t bad parents (spoiler alert: they were!), or do any emotional labor around this subject. This is their thing to work through, and sometimes guilt is good, because guilt is the appropriate response to doing something wrong, and I’m glad they’re feeling it.

    2. “I’m sorry I was such a bad mom”

      I’m so used to that one. My mother is not sorry. Never. It is indeed a trap. She wants to hear what a great mum she was (in her fantasies, reality is way to ugly anyway). Any other answer triggers a retaliatory ballistic response. Still, with that one phrase, I quit playing her game a long time ago.

      Mother: I’m sorry I was such a bad mother.
      Me: Are you?

      (okay, maybe it’s me going ballistic on that one)

      In other instances, I really like the return-the-question strategy.

      Mother: Do you think I am/was a good mother?
      Me: Why do you ask?

      Mother: Did I make a lot of mistakes as a mother?
      Me: Weird question. Why do you ask?

      Works wonders.

    3. Similar here, except that I didn’t really turn out okay. I have a plethora of issues and hangups that I can trace directly back to my mother’s abuse of me as a child, but if I ever make the slightest suggestion that a problem I have now might have originated in childhood, she does the whole “you’ve hurt my feeeeeeelings” thing followed by, “I see. I was a TERRIBLE mother” then glares at me and if I don’t reassure her that “that wasn’t what I was saying, I’m talking about me not you” she goes absolutely ballistic and honestly it’s just not worth it. See also: “I know I wasn’t perfect, but nobody’s perfect!”

      (Pro tip: hitting a child daily with your hands and any household objects within reach, imprisoning them in an attic as punishment, yelling slurs at them and almost constantly putting them down is not just imperfect parenting, it’s abuse).

      As such I am HUGELY grateful to LW for writing in (I’m sorry you had to grow up with a shitty stepdad and I’m sorry your mom always puts her own needs before yours, and I hope this advice helps you) and to the Captain for writing in because I’m definitely taking this advice on board.

      Another thing is the “that’s what you think” technique my therapist taught me. It might go like this with me and my mother:
      Mother: I suppose you think I was a terrible mother.
      Me: Okay, you think I think you were a terrible mother. That’s what you think.
      Mother: See, you’re agreeing with me.
      Me: You think I agree you’re a terrible mother. That’s your opinion. Okay.

      It’s quite a good technique for reminding someone that they were the one who said (whatever it was) and that you’re not going to play the game they’re trying to play with you.

      1. same here, amberxebi, with the not even being able to talk about childhood part. The way they go ballistic is to say (seriously) “It’s not like we BEAT you!”

        1. Yeah, I get this one. (My grandmother was a Piece of Work and my mother at the very least has fleas). Except, of course, that they DID beat my sister and I but I can’t point that out without a major pity party for my mom about how difficult it was raising two bright children and don’t we know how they sacrificed for us and on and on and…ugh.

          I have a laundry list of issues from my growing up, and I know my mom does from hers, too, but that doesn’t mean she gets to have my reassurance about any of it.

        2. Yeah, mine actually did beat me so my mother’s equivalent response is to drag up sensationalistic news articles she’s read about parents who’ve tortured their kids to death and go “I would never dream of doing something like that!”

          Pretty low bar, if you ask me.

        3. LW here. I have also heard this one from my mom. Which is ironic because, while my stepdad was more inclined to slap, my mom was the one who broke a wooden spoon and a hairbrush over my ass in the same afternoon.

      2. Oh, lord, the “alluding to facts hurts my feelings” jazz. I got to witness this conversation between my MIL and husband after a young relative was done visiting:

        MIL: “I’ve heard the father spanks [child], isn’t that awful? No one should ever hit a child!”
        Husband: “This from the woman who used to get a spoon to hit us with because her hand ‘didn’t hurt enough.'”
        MIL: “………I guess my children don’t love me.” Exit stage right.

        She didn’t have an easy time of it either when he was small, but she’d get a lot more sympathy if she had even a smidgen of self-awareness.

    4. Whenever I got the mournful “I suppose I’m a bad mother” thing, I’d cheerfully agree. “Yes, you are!” That usually shut that line of conversation down pretty quickly.

      1. After a few rounds of radical honesty my mother started pulling that way less.

        Although the other day she got really mad at me for not being impressed with the fact that she apologizes to me when she has wronged me. “All of my friends were shocked when I told them that! They never apologize to their children!” I was like, “Yes, unlike them you are not an asshole to your kid..?”

        She really wanted a cookie for not being a jerk. :/

      2. Sometimes brutal agreement is the way to go. And in my experience, the question only came up once more, and received the same answer. “You should have spent time in prison.”

    5. my mom wasn’t around a lot, and is an alcoholic, and she will do the ‘i’m sorry i wasn’t there for you more’ thing on occasion (not often, thank goodness!). I find it incredibly awkward, and the first time didn’t know how to even respond, so I just let an awkward silence hang there. Afterwards I realized that the silence was perfect – I didnt falsely reassure her, I didn’t play along, I left the awkwardness on her. She’s pulled this a few times since, and I stick with awkward silence. (all over the phone conversations, I call her the same day of the week on my drive home from work, so I can limit the phone conversation to 20 minutes tops. This is the most I can give her and keep my own sanity in check).

  2. Your stepdad sounds like a real asshole and I’m so sorry you have had to deal with that. I am glad you now live far away and don’t have to have much contact with him.

    “By contrast, my relationship with my mother is… good, but problematic. She is the strongest, classiest, most brilliant and brave woman I’ve ever known”

    No doubt your mother has many wonderful qualities, but it is cowardly and weak and abusive to let your partner emotionally abuse and hit your children, alcohol or no alcohol. To then pressure your child into making the abuser feel better about what he did is equally abhorrent.

    It sounds like your idolizing her might be getting in the way of letting yourself see the full extent of her mistakes and abuse. It’s like you’re shouldering some of the blame because it’s more comfortable than blaming her. Even when you talk about the rude and insensitive way she currently behaves, you phrase it as you being unable to retain your adulthood. It’s not that you’re unable: it’s that she’s belittling you in a cruel and callous way, no doubt stemming from her own emotional needs or insecurities.

    What they did to you as a kid was wrong. What they are doing now is wrong. I totally understand not wanting to unbury old problems, but you certainly do not have to participate in helping them lie to themselves about it.

    1. Seconding so, so hard. It’s not your responsibility to absolve their guilt about how they abused (and still hurt) you, LW.

      Sometimes, when both parents hurt you, you demonize one and ideolize the other because being able to classify them as “the bad one” and “the good one” feels safer to a child than having to admit that both of their main caretakers are unsafe or hurtful to be around.

      LW, does that ring any bells? Are you able to get angry and stay angry with your mother for all the harm she’s done to you, or does even the possibility of that anger feel scary or like a betrayal?

      She harmed you back then and is harming you now with her “question”. You don’t have to cut ties with her over that, but you needn’t forgive her either. Especially since she hasn’t stopped or apologised.

      PS: You have my permission to just hang up whenever she asks the abusive question of “perform forgiveness for me so I can feel better about our abusing you as a child”. Ain’t nobody got time for that. You shouldn’t have to deal with that bullshit, and you certainly don’t deserve to.

      1. Yes to the absolving one parent thing. I have always disliked my dad, so my mom was by comparison the good cop. Only thing is, she deliberately positioned herself as the good cop, carrying tales back to my dad so he would tell at or spank us, prying out our secrets so she could tell him…she wasn’t actually the nice one, she just wanted to shield herself from having bad feelings about anything. Plus she’s the one who has been smothering, emotionally, even after I’ve grown up. So now I’m madder at her, because I actually had a relationship with her which she exploited and betrayed. My dad, I have few feelings for at all, so I’m over all the things he did.

        1. I’m sorry she betrayed you like that. That’s a crap thing to do to anyone, especially your own child! 😦

      2. LW here. Thank you SO much for this. I’m going to have to think about it at length, but I think you’re right – I have a very hard time staying mad at my mom. She’s always felt more like… a twin than a parent, I guess? Like she’s part of me, or I’m part of her, or something like that. She told me once, “I had you because I wanted a friend who would never leave me… so I made one.” It made me feel good when I was a child, but I’m only now beginning to understand that it’s not really a flattering thing.

        We always assume that the way things are is “normal,” y’know? It wasn’t until the past few years, when I moved away and started talking to people about my experiences and seeing the looks on their faces, that I realized it wasn’t how everyone’s family works. Reframing all of it in my head is taking time, and it hurts. The Captain’s response, and yours, and all of these comments, have given me a lot of help and comfort. I might just print it all out and take it when I eventually get a therapist, to give her somewhere to start. ^.^ Thank you, again.

        1. I’m glad I could help 🙂 Dismantling all these thought patterns we’re used to is super hard, so kudos to you for starting! I’d just realised that about my own mom a couple days before I wrote in, and yeah, you’re right: it hurts. But I believe it will be worth it, and I wish you healing and safety while you work it out ♡

          And oh my God, what your mom said. Gah. Agh. Definitely not an OK thing to say to your child! LW, you are your own person and you deserve your own life. You own yourself and you own your path. Your mom can be part of that, if you want her to be, and as much as you want her to be, but she doesn’t get to set your path for you. Only you get to do that.

          Again, I’m happy that my words helped. Be well, and remember: you’ve got this 🙂

  3. There is an amazing book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, that I have found so incredibly helpful in untangling these webs. Just wanted to drop that in as a resource. Jedi Hugs to you, LW

    1. Seconding this recommendation. It was also very helpful to me in understanding my parents. Just a caveat though, it does strike a tone of more empathy for the parents than other books about toxic parents, so if this might sound like apologia to you or trigger you, it might not be the book for you.

    2. Popped in just to +1 this book. It was real eye-opening for me. The list of Externalizer & Internalizer traits was especially interesting for me to read (I definitely lean towards being an Internalizer). A warning though: I dissociated a lot when reading this book as I would recall my childhood/parents’ abuse.

      LW, I’m so sorry that you’re being put into this trap. As per usual, Captain’s scripts are excellent.

    3. I’ve been on the fence about that one for a while (no particular reason), so thanks for the rec!

      When it comes to Adult Children of Hot Mess Situations Book Club, I’d throw in /Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers/ by Karyl McBride. Gender essentialism notwithstanding. Though to be clear, LW, I do not know your mom nor you, and this is not a diagnosis.

      1. Back again to say that this book (Will I Ever Be Good Enough) is another resourceful one. I read this to burrow into my Imposter Syndrome/Perfectionism; I quite identify with the author’s summary of “The Mary Marvel”. I didn’t immediately think of this book when reading LW’s letter (it’s been a while since I’ve read it), but I do recall it shedding some intriguing light about my Narcissistic Parent (in my case, my dad).

      2. I’ve also read Will I Ever Be Good Enough? and it’s been at least some help. My abusive parent has some narcissistic characteristics, but in a strange, martyrdom-focused way, where the more she erases herself for others, the more control and importance she has.

        The tricky part, for me, is that the author talks about grieving as something you have to get it all over with before you can make progress. I lost a LOT to my mother’s problems. I do need to take the time to do more deep grieving…but 5+ years into recognizing the abuse and its consequences, I’m still finding new things to grieve for. Big things, often enough. How can I ever make progress if I have to do ALL the grieving first?

        1. Yeah I would certainly not co-sign. Yes of course, if we would be able to grieve everything in an orderly fashion (*snicker*), this would probably be quite freeing. But speaking from experience, things get better in bouts and sometimes years can pass before something else bubbles to the surface. I certainly felt better every time I grieved and my life got better every time, gradually.

          I certainly don’t look back and feel like I’ve wasted my time just because I still had (and have) some blind spots. You might regret repeating some annoying patterns but you get better at spotting them, navigating through or around them and eventually, preventing them.

    4. awakingsleep, thank you thank you thank you for your book rec for Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents. Out of all the stuff I’ve read trying to figure out how my mom is messed up and therefore how she messed me up, this is one of the few really tight matches. If only this had been around 20 years ago.

      That section about detaching from the problem parent and not asking them for emotional contributions they can’t give? It does work. A few years ago, I invented the same tactic. The one thing I hadn’t tried with my mom was NOT needing and caring, so I gave up and tried it. The relationship improved enough that now she’s trying to enmesh me as a support system instead of an antagonist. In between those two points, in the zone of relatedness without need, it was a lot better. I need to pull back again, maybe get a bit more prickly, and get back to there.

      I feel the tone of empathy for the parents is moderate — the author is being gentle to the people who need this book but are new to seeing the bad stuff. The parts about being cared for physically and financially but not emotionally, and the guilt for questioning the situation, are very real.

      The statements that the parents may well be damaged and trying to care of themselves, and you’re the collateral damage — that’s my childhood in a nutshell. The author also puts a lot of emphasis on saying that even if your parents did it by accident or out of good intentions, it doesn’t change the resulting damage. So much of what the author said acknowledged what happened to me, and said that it wasn’t right.

      My mom really does love me and want me to love her in return…but her ability to give and receive love are both broken, full of barbed wire and sharp edges, and therefore so are mine. Once in a while we get lucky and something good makes it through the no-man’s-land of her defences and mine. Most of the time we step on the landmines or somebody lobs a bomb. It’s going to stay that way until and unless mom deals with her own childhood and finishes growing into a complete person. I’ve spent years figuring that out with slow and careful analysis. For a professional to have a matching analysis, and explain it’s an example of a type? It’s very reassuring.

  4. My mother, about a year before she died, was feeling maudlin and asked me and my sister “was I a terrible mother?” (Spoiler: Yes, she was.) The only thing I could do was make a joke, so I told her “yes, but only on Tuesdays, the rest of the week you were pretty good.”

    The truth is, they are feeling guilty because deep down, they know they were crappy parents. They want you to absolve them from their guilt. So, the questions are:

    What do you want to get from them? An apology? An honest discussion of how they hurt/damaged you?
    Do you think it is likely that you will get that apology or admission of wrongdoing?
    If you do open an honest discussion, how will your relationship with them change?
    What kind of relationship do you want from them, going forward?

    Not really knowing you or your parents, I have no idea how to answer these questions. But I think asking them and thinking about them will show you the way forward, as will discussing them with your therapist if. you have one. For me, I knew I was never going to get that honest conversation or any kind of apology. I got as close to honesty as I could (the real answer was, Yes, but only on days ending with Y).

    Possible deflections are “what a silly question” or “don’t be ridiculous.” Both of which suggest that the answer is obvious, but their obvious answer can be different from yours. Isabeusuro’s response is also good.

    Jedi Hugs if wanted.

    1. This:
      ~Possible deflections are “what a silly question” or “don’t be ridiculous.” Both of which suggest that the answer is obvious, but their obvious answer can be different from yours.~

      and making it about ‘What do you want from them, and what response is most likely to get you that’ strikes me as the most sensible way to move forward. It sounds like LW wants to continue the status quo – minimal contact with stepdad and distant, emotionally-shallow conversations with mom – minus being badgered with this question.

      For me, a big part of coming to peace with my mother’s emotional terrorism was coming to terms with the fact that the big cathartic ‘Wait, *this* is how you’ve felt all these years? *This* is what I did to you?’ moment was never coming. Fighting to get her to recognize what I went through would just be more fruitless emotional labor on my part, and it’s not worth expending that effort to try and bring her to an understanding that I honestly don’t believe she’s even capable of.

      It does sting to allow her to continue the happy loving more-friends-than-mother-and-daughter fiction she’s got in her head, but the minimal effort of performing that role, while maintaining enough emotional and physical distance that her irrationality and tantrums can’t cause me more pain, is the least complicated solution for me.

      ‘That’s a silly/ridiculous question’ has the benefit of technical honesty (not to say you’re *obliged* to be honest with abusive/manipulative people, but it’s a fun bonus if you can swing it), and if you tack on a bit of pushback like ‘you shouldn’t even ask that’/’I don’t know why you’d ask that’/’it bothers me that you’d even think about that’ (again, all technically true!) it might get them to shut up with the pleas for reassurance so you can continue relating to them on whatever sane adult level works best for you. Pick a response, tape-recorder it out every time they pull this, and maybe they’ll get bored and drop it.

    2. Yes, this is what I was thinking too. I think the Captain’s list of responses will almost certainly cause your mum to go into “aargh, help, terminate programme, abort, retreat, go backwards, oops!” mode, but there is a chance that she’ll take “Why are you asking me that?” or “What kind of response are you looking for?” as in invitation to get into the deeper emotional stuff.

      If you’re OK with that, fair enough! But if you absolutely don’t want that, then I think brushing it off with, “what a silly question!” or “don’t be so daft!” or even something like, “Oh Mum, what is this, a daytime soap?” is totally legit. You don’t owe your parents the Big Deep Emotional Stuff, and you’re absolutely allowed an opt-out from stuff that you don’t want to discuss with them. If you’re happy with the relationship as it stands at the moment and you’ve processed what you need to process and organised your memories and your past and your present into appropriate boxes and put the ones you don’t need any more into the attic, then you aren’t obligated to get them out just because your mother has decided she wants to sort through them with you. If she wants to do that, she can go and see her own therapist, but that absolutely doesn’t have to be any of your business unless you actively *want* to do that.

      1. Huh. Interesting. I like this. It’s turning the mother’s arm’s-length emotional high-handedness back on her. It will probably be very disorienting for her, and possibly very liberating for the LW. It’s so sad that the mother refuses to engage emotionally with her daughter to meet the daughter’s needs–keeps her dangling there, hoping for connection and support–but also demands that the daughter contort herself emotionally to soothe the mother’s own ego. It’s gross. I remember reading somewhere about a personality type called a “seductive withholder.” This reminds me of that.

  5. UUUUGH. I can hear Admiral Akbar shouting IT’S A TRAP from space. Good job on dodging this question.

    My mother also likes to ask similar questions about whether her (extremely bitter and messy) divorce from my dad damaged or badly affected me, usually in the context of asking why aren’t I in a relationship. I have no idea how to answer because “no” would be dishonest, but “actually, yes your constant tirades about each other and trying to make me pick sides and asking me to pass messages or forbidding me from telling the other any information about you did permanently damage my relationship with both of you, and probably my ability to have trusting relationships in general” would just make her spray defensive gaslighting everywhere about how hard it was to be a single parent and how actually everything is dad’s fault of course. Sigh.

    *ghost hugs if you want them*

  6. Wow, that is a really tough situation for your parents to put you in.

    The captain is so much more diplomatic than I would have been, since my first suggested script would have started with “No!” But of course that’s probably why the captain writes them and not me. Either way, remember that you absolutely don’t have to comfort your parents about how they parented you. It’s the gaslighting so typical in abusive relationships of all kinds, where the abuser guilt-trips their target into comforting them about the abuse.

  7. I really don’t like these kind of trap questions – my answer tends to be the counter-question, “do you just want reassurance or do you want the truth?” and then let it hang there… but I’ve developed a bite-the-bullet-and-just-do-it attitude after reading the Captain’s responses & scripts for a few years. This is not a tactic that works for everybody! but the open-ended questions the Captain suggests are excellent. Good fortune to you LW.

    1. In my own personal experience, that kind of question invites a ‘of COURSE I want the truth, just the one that I like, where I forget about all the crappy stuff I did’ sort of response from a narcissist/controlling parent. I like the Captain’s scripts too, especially since it sounds like the LW has done plenty of emotional labor for her parents and maybe now it is their turn?

      1. Yeah, my abusive parents would also say they want the truth but they would be lying. I have tested this many times. It just results in more drama than a deflection will — especially because they’ll pick times when we’re alone in person and my ability to physically leave is compromised — so I have learned to deflect like a Jedi. Insert lightsaber noises here!

        LW, I’m so sorry that your parents failed you and continue to fail you (as parents — it sounds like you and your mom do okay as distant friends?) and that becoming a deflection Jedi is a path you too might have to take, but the Captain’s scripts are a good start.

        Best of luck!

        1. But, if you can’t physically leave, then neither can they, right? Isn’t that the ideal time to say, “In answer to your question, No, you were not good parents, and let me list every single example I can think of, to show how rotten you were. Wait! I’m not finished, yet! Where do you think YOU’RE going?!”

          OK, that probably feels better in my head than it would it real life. The fantasy if very satisfying, though. I’m picturing a reunion in a broken elevator with a certain someone from high school.

          1. Obviously I can’t speak for others in this situation but to me the idea of being trapped somewhere with my abuser after having challenged them like that is frankly terrifying. I wouldn’t get ten words out before she attacked me, by which point she’d be screaming so loudly that she wouldn’t hear a word I said anyway.

          2. Yeah, and mine would have his hands all over me, no doubt.

            I think I’ll add a full suit of armor to my fantasy.

            Or, I could, you know, just avoid the guy forever. That works, too.

      2. Yup, in exactly the same way my mother is always saying “of COURSE I don’t want to control your life” [I just want you to happen to do everything exactly as I want it.]

    2. In my experience, my parent would hear that counter-question as an exclusive-or scenario – that telling them the truth would not be reassuring to them, and would be just as good as telling them “No, you were the worst monster of a parent that ever monstered.”
      I’m not saying that that’s a bad counter-question, just that people should anticipate how the question would be received before asking it. (Which, to be fair, is true for all of the Captain’s scripts.)

  8. LW, you asked ‘how can I make this question go away’ and not ‘how do I answer this question’, so in addition to the Captain’s always-good advice, here’s what works with my own bizarre, manipulative narcissist parents: ‘we’re not having this conversation + [SUBJECT CHANGE]’. (sometimes in extreme cases the subject change is me walking out of the room.)

    being a young adult child of abusive parents is a weird place to find yourself in because you’re gaining lots of control and autonomy in the rest of your life and then as soon as you get talking to your parents again, all of that can feel like it’s disappeared in a puff of smoke, so just in case you need reminding (because I often do): you did not have the power to control the situation when you were a child, but you do now. if you do not want to have a conversation with your parents, you do not have to have that conversation. if you do not want to answer a question they ask, you don’t have to – not just ‘you don’t have to find a nice way to answer it’ but you don’t have to answer it at all.

    the bonus result of telling my parents ‘we’re not having this conversation’ is that they don’t expect it either, because they’re also used to having all the power in all conversations with me, so it generally startles them enough that while they’re recovering I can lead the conversation round to something I do want to talk about.

    also, many many internet hugs or equivalent as a fellow child of ‘this woman is so AMAZING why on earth did she have to be such an AWFUL PARENT’. it’s incredibly hard to reconcile those things and you sound like you’re doing good stuff with your life & congratulations, truly, on that, because it’s a big big deal and I hope you know how great you’re doing.

    1. “You’re gaining lots of control and autonomy in the rest of your life and then as soon as you get talking to your parents again, all of that can feel like it’s disappeared in a puff of smoke.”

      Oh my goodness – I’ve never quite been able to put that feeling into words, so thank you for that.

      I’m more or less coming to terms that I will never have a strong, close relationship with my parents. Superficially we get along fine, but I’ve never felt safe opening up to them. We can talk about the weather, about work, about the funny stuff our respective pets do … and that’s OK. It still hurts a bit that I don’t have a close relationship with them, especially with my mom (shouldn’t every girl be able to confide in her mother?). But it helps to reframe it as THEY don’t get to have that type of relationship with ME. They laid the groundwork for the dynamic we have now, and I don’t have to spend all my emotional energy to dig it up and fix it if I don’t want to. I am allowed to set parameters around the relationship now, and for the moment what’s best for me is keeping the distance that they created.

      Fortunately I don’t get too much of the “I was an awful mother” guilt trap, but every now and then my mom will be like “whyyyy don’t we ever TALK?!?!?” Standard response: “what do you mean? we just spent half an hour talking about your dog.”

      1. But it helps to reframe it as THEY don’t get to have that type of relationship with ME.

        Thank you. That is incredibly helpful. My father was insensitive and unkind to me, and my mother never EVER stood up for me.

        Thank you, Friend.

      2. My 20s were the time that I really came to terms with the fact that the kind of relationship I’d like to have with a mother is not possible with the mother I have. I made a space in my life to grieve that lack–not with self-hatred that I couldn’t single-handedly transform my mother into someone who doesn’t fundamentally view other people as geranium pots that manage to move around and make noises, but with acceptance that she is what she is and no amount of sadness or attempting to parent up was going to change her fundamental nature. Like the scorpion, she must sting, even if it drowns her too.

        Once I divested the person who contributed half my genetic material from my wistful dreams of a mother–someone who would love me unconditionally and like me for who I am–I stopped falling into those conversational traps, because I literally don’t care enough to have a real conversation with her. She’s tried a few times in my life, and she can’t help herself but to either turn it around so she’s trying to make me either comfort her for abusing me, or praise her to the skies for something that is basically the bare minimum a normal person would do for anyone.

        My official policy now is that parents don’t get cookies for not actually killing you.

      3. “But it helps to reframe it as THEY don’t get to have that type of relationship with ME.”

        Exactly! I mean, they were the ones who set up the relationship, in the first place. THEY were the adults, in charge of things, deciding how they were going to do things, and how they were going to relate to you. They got the exact relationship they DECIDED to have, and if they are sad about it, now, that it’s not all roses and sunshine, well, too darned bad.

        You, meanwhile, are in a position to take what you’ve learned from this, and put it to work (or do the opposite) in deciding how you want you own future relationships to form.

    2. My parents weren’t abusive but I wanted to say thank you for your second paragraph in particular. In my mid 30s I still am acting like my mother has all the control in our conversations, and recognizing that it is an issue of control and that I can take steps to gain some control of certain things so that I don’t get hurt emotionally, is a good thing to know.

  9. I am sorry that your parents put you through that. Children deserve to be loved and to know they belong, not be there as a source of adulation and entertainment. The past cannot be changed but if deep down you find the past did matter to you, and you were angry/sad, that would be okay too.

    I cut contact with my abusive father when I saw that there was never going to be a way that he would stop abusing me. It was a difficult decision and I was very invested in keeping hold of some family. I still have a relationship with my mother. She was less abusive, more of a ‘helpless’ bystander. That meant I had a lot of anger because she is easier to love but also I felt (feel) a lot more anger that she never protected me. For a long time her life came first, I was there as a buddy and despite my suffering major mental illness and life crises, I had to put her first. She was in so much denial, it was as if she ignored my circumstances alogether. She is a powerhouse in her career, in the caring professions. I idolised her as a kid. How could a woman so strong and kind to people outside our home just bail on me?

    Being close to her involved dissociating mentally and almost playing the role of another person who wasn’t abused. It was really destructive. Eventually I pulled back and went into therapy. I knew confrontation with my mother would be the nuclear option so I gently dropped the ball of being the good daughter whilst staying in contact now and again.

    The good news is, my mother got help herself and started to see how her own mental ill health was linked to our past. She began to spend time with me in a more reciprocal way, she stopped seeking reassurance about what a great/terrible parent she was. We had a few babysteps into the ‘WTF why did you let Dad sexually abuse me?’ territory. My father’s habit was to isolate me from my mother by telling me she hadn’t bonded with me after a traumatic birth and that she didn’t love me. Mum had no idea he said that, it wasn’t true and she had photos and stories and memories to reassure me that she loved me. My mother was a flawed, scared, bereaved new mum whose own parents were abusive. I think she did her crappy best.

    I don’t think I’ll ever forgive her. A certain amount of anger will always exist. But as adults we have found a way to be genuinely friends without either of us having to play pretend or open up old wounds. I think this was possible because I made space away from her to honour my truth. I stepped out of the fakery and felt my feels. My therapist taught me how to trust my own perceptions and emotions. Now if my mother says something about our past, I can tune in and trust what I feel. I don’t need her to dictate how things happened or tell me how to be her daughter. I do what is right for me.

    It’s ok to feel what you feel. A big confrontation or no contact are not the only options.

    1. Oh, A safer tree, this post brought tears to my eyes. I’m sorry you had so much horror to bear as a child. I’m glad you found a way to be both kind and honest about it as an adult.

    2. As another kid who was abandoned and sometimes abused by another ‘helpless’ powerhouse in a caring profession who couldn’t extend any of that same effort to her own child(ren)…yeah. Sympathy and solidarity. You’re not alone. My mom saved lives! Every one of her patients adored her. She has boxes of certificates, and awards, and thank-you cards, and photos of all the kids who are alive and well today thanks to her. She had All The Awesome Leadership Techniques, and All The Good Advice, and All The Patience… at her job. None of that was left over for her kids when she got home – for me, her daughter, who was raising her own little brother, and babysitting even more kids to pay for the stuff we needed, and cooking dinner, and washing/drying/folding/ironing everyone’s clothes, and keeping house, managing a household, all while keeping her own grades up, and making sure brother does too, meeting with his teachers, while having her own opportunities for advancing education denied, all so that mom could have a shining career. She doesn’t even REMEMBER refusing to sign the paperwork to allow the admission and scholarship award for the prestigious Math and Science School I was accepted into! But she remembers the diagnoses and medication regimens of patients who are parents themselves now. Why couldn’t she spare just a little bit of that kindhearted empathy that she had for her patients when it came to own kids? Why was it so easy to be a caretaker to those kids and not to us?! Why did my “8 hours a day” count for nothing when it came to the effort I was expected to put in at home? How could she dump all that in the lap of a 12 year old and feel completely justified, as if none of this was ever her responsibility, and how dare I expect it to be so? Every time mom wanted to take on some new aspect of her career, I got loaded down with a heavier burden, and was forced to sacrifice even more, because “that’s what families do for each other,” because our needs were never as important as her wants, and I was just “so mature” for my age anyway. She frames it as if her job was solely for our benefit; she went to school just so that she could make a good life for us. But that “good life for us” never seemed to materialize in any way – the money went onlygodknowswhere, because we lived in abject poverty as she jumped from one abusive relationship to the next, supposedly looking for a “good father” for us both.

      Anyway… I guess this letter touched off a sensitive spot in more than one of us. So much love to you A Safer Tree. May we all find the shelter and care we deserved to have back then.

      1. I am sorry you went through that suffering by another ‘helpless’ parent.

        I started my journey off trying to reconcile some noble reason why my mother could be one capable person at work and another at home. I scoured for a back story that might help me explain it. Eventually I realised that my own conditioning to compartmentalise/dissociate was a habit I gained through copying her. Looking at my grandmother, well she too is not much a joined up, self aware person. The healthy ability to shut off sometimes and generate more compassion for unlovable patients makes my mother good at her job. It also got her out of my father’s clutches in one piece, and it got me and my brother out alive too (in terrible shape but alive.) I know my mother was terrified of leaving and my father getting custody. Earning gave her some control. Yes, it’s ruined my life in so many ways but whether I like it or not, three generations of women grew up knowing no other way to be. And that might change with me but only after a heck of a lot of work and therapy.

        I know my mother tries to ‘do over’ her mistakes by fighting for her patients. I think the tiny bit of her that can comprehend our past is panicked and she uses work as a numbing habit. So I don’t blame her for it. I’m sad for her. But mor sad for me.

        My family exist in the emotional equivalent of a dark room, too afraid to reach out and put the lights back on. I’ve told the truth, flicked on the lights and walked out. I can’t bring them out of their denial, much as I long to. It’s not my job to do that, it’s to care for me.

      2. Holy Good Grief, I am so sorry. What a heartbreaking and twisted way to grow up. All the love and Jedi hugs. Know you are not alone.

      3. My mom actively abused me, but she also was in a caring profession and didn’t offer that caring to me or my brother. She was a special ed teacher for children with severe and multiple disabilities, and was wonderful at her job. She also volunteered to help some families in our church and community. With us, she kept hitting us until she wound down and ran out of gas, and didn’t seem to be in control at all. I’m so sorry you were treated so horribly by your mother, and that she stole your childhood. 😦

    3. Huh. All the talk about “helpless” parents in this comment and below…reminds me of my workaholic, apparently hyper-responsible, supremely capable father. WHO DID SOME OF THE SAME DAMN THINGS. Once I was “old enough,” he brought me on as a coparent to my own abusive, emotionally unstable, therapy-refusing, volatile mother. It was a form of emotional incest without being at all sexual or romantic: I was expected to be my father’s “wife” and my mother’s “mother.” He tolerated all sorts of childishness, irresponsibility, toddler-like behavior, and flaws that he had no patience for in me. He was a powerhouse in his own career and he was in denial about the trauma his own wife wreaked on me every day — and the trauma she put him through, and his own childhood trauma that he hadn’t resolved. He was an enabler.

      It’s funny how your mother wasn’t helpless in the ways she pretended to be (she could not stop your father from being abusive, but she could have gotten you to safety) and my father wasn’t capable in the ways he pretended to be (he pretended he was somehow pacifying my mother and keeping me safe, and he was actually powerless to do anything except for the one thing he would not do: get us out of there) and it’s all just twisted attempts to keep the dysfunctional status quo.

      The bottom line is that parents who enable their partners to abuse their children are NOT a good model for what it means to be an adult, a parent, or a responsible human being. And yet we look up to them, because we needed our less-abusive parents to be our role models, our rocks in the storm. I have much less trouble working through the toxic expectations my mother put on me than the toxic expectations my father caused me to internalize. I keep thinking responsibility and honor and personal value come from self-sacrifice, workaholism, perfection, and a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the importance of emotions. I keep thinking I’m weak for not performing the Good Daughter dance, not to mention pathetic for not being a Good Daughter — never mind that my parents defined that with such shifting goalposts and so little room for any humanity that the Good Daughter is just a cartoon character rather than a real role for a real human being. But the truth is that I’m stronger than my father. Tree, you are stronger than your mother. We are finding our strength, and it’s different than theirs, less brittle, more kind, more able to give love.

      The pain of giving up on your “good” parent is earth-shattering. Giving up on my abusive parent wasn’t as hard, because I was primarily dealing with guilt and fear, and I processed the longing in small amounts over time. The revelation that my dad was a co-abuser and that his moral code was false, weak, selfish, and deluded basically ripped True North from my world all at once. I love my dad. But I’m so goddamn angry and confused. How can someone so capable be so…useless in the one way it really mattered?

      I don’t want to criticize parents who are stuck in abusive relationships or who struggle to leave them permanently. That’s normal. I’ve been abused for decades and I know how hard it is to leave. But if you (hypothetical you) teach your children to manage your abusive partner’s feelings and put the burden of abuse on them, if you refuse to consider that your children might be harmed, if you won’t even acknowledge the abusive nature of your partner…well, with loving kindness, I ask you to look into codependency and to get your kids and yourself into therapy (not couples’ therapy). I don’t know where the line is between being stuck in an abusive relationship with a co-parent and being complicit in child abuse, but parents have an obligation to protect their children to the best of their abilities, and my dad failed me pretty deeply there, all while telling me everything was totally okay and my needs didn’t matter. I trusted him to be my safe parent. Instead, he multiplied the effects of the abuse by reinforcing them and forgetting that I was a vulnerable child who needed safety and unconditional love.

      1. Beautifully said.

        Most of my issues stem from my father’s emotional abuse, which was overt and ongoing. But I’ve finally started to recognize my mother’s passiveness, which aided and endorsed his actions. She never spoke up for me, she never held me and said, “This is not cool, PolicyChick, and I’m sorry I can’t do more.”

        Whatever my dad said, was how it went. And she just…allowed it all.


      2. Mayati, that sounds so painful and you talk about being willing to look at the reality of it so courageously, I am sorry you were put through that.

      3. I would have forgiven my mother’s bystander-ism – heck, I did forgive it, for years – if I could believe that she really was helpless, that she knew it was wrong and maybe just didn’t know how to leave. Instead she still tells the story as “wives are supposed to be submissive so protecting you wasn’t my job, God’s will is shown to you by your father so if he was harsh with you, that must be what you needed on some level.” When she said this to me (when I was like 28) I gave up on thinking of her as the good one. She was complicit. She made up a story for herself, out of her religion, that let her off the hook so she didn’t have to do anything hard. Another time, maybe more honestly, she has actually said, “well, what could I have done? If I’d argued, he just would have been mad at me instead!” Yeah, now that I’m a parent I see how horrifying it is to let a child face something because you’re afraid to.

    4. It seems like sometimes, we can become real, actual friends with abusive parents, but only when we stop thinking of them as either our parents or the people who abused us, personally, and instead start thinking of them as people we know, and with whom we have some things in common.

      If you can disconnect the familial relationship, you can start to empathize, and even become friends, but as long as you think of that person as “Mommy” or “Daddy,” and crave their love, it just will not work.

  10. Oh, wow. Thank you, LW, for asking this question and thank you, Captain, for answering.

    I am the adult child of abusive parents, and just next week I’m heading interstate to visit them. I cannot describe the relief I felt reading the Captain’s line about how adult children are faced with the question of ‘how to reconcile the demogorgons of our childhoods with the mellower, grayer, almost fragile-seeming fellow adults in front of us now’. That is exactly my predicament, working to maintain a relationship with the vulnerable unhappy people while wrestling with the damage they caused when they were still the monsters of my little world. Thank you for getting it so well.

    I think LW knows what she wants: to have a positive relationship with her mom and stepdad while maintaining the psychological and physical distance she needs to flourish in her own life. She also wants to remain true to her own experience. I suggest that she tries to move conversations in this direction, defusing intense comments and redirecting them back to the subjects she feels comfortable speaking about.

    ‘Oh, mom, you know I don’t like to dredge up the past. Why don’t we talk about [book/movie/history/science/idea/thing]…’
    ‘Oh, mom, you know I don’t like talking about that kind of thing. Meanwhile, I’ve been wanting to ask you about…’
    ‘I’m really happy with the relationship we’ve been able to build over the last few years. It’s great to be able to talk to you about…’

    I lean towards redirecting, rather than questioning, because I think LW knows she just doesn’t want to go there – she doesn’t actually want the parents’ response. Which I totally relate to, I don’t think it would make much difference to me now even if my parents fully acknowledged the truth of their abuse and apologised for it (which they won’t anyway), so it’s a painful subject I’d rather not revisit.

    Something I can say to my own parents is: ‘I believe you did the best for me you knew how’, ‘I believe you loved me very much’, ‘I believe you did the best you could with the resources you had’, or ‘I’m always grateful for the [insert positive aspect of their parenting and/or special memory]. I then change the subject – bringing up positive memories is particularly good for that I find as we an then discuss the memory in question. These are statements I can say with honesty and without feeling like I’m compromising my integrity or invalidating my experience. I won’t recommend these specific scripts to LW, because they might not be true of her experience, but she could think about whether there’s something along these lines she’d be happy to say.

    Final comments for the LW:

    – I know the derailing and distancing scripts I’m recommending might seem a bit like the terribly cruel ‘you know I don’t care about that’ statement that your mother used with you. I just want to reassure you that redirecting a conversation with an abusive parent so that you can maintain a relationship with them, as you would be doing here, is totally different from ridiculing and invalidating child’s deep concerns and cares. Please don’t feel bad about using them with your mom and stepdad, this is what’s necessary for you to maintain your healing and keep your relationship with them afloat.

    – Good on you, a million times, as hard as I can say it, for staying true to your experience and for insisting on your boundaries. For not being willing to tell your parents they were good parents when they weren’t. We as adult survivors get so much pressure from society and our families to keep the peace by trivialising or denying our abuse. Because faaaamily, as the Captain often puts it. It is a hard and brave thing for a survivor to resist this pressure, to insist that we won’t deny our experience or appease our abusers’. But as well as being hard and brave, it’s also beautiful and powerful. When we’re emotionally abused as children, we’re being told that our feelings, experiences, and safety doesn’t matter. That we don’t matter. And we survivors can internalise this inner feeling of not mattering, of worthlessness. When a survivor gets to a place where they can turn around and say, whether through words or actions: ‘actually, my experience and my needs matter, because I matter’ – well, that’s a very powerful thing. That’s the place you need to be to do what you describe in your letter, which is discover the person you want to be, and be that person. So don’t budge on this please, dear LW, don’t let them guilt or pressure you into anything you’re not comfortable with. Because you matter.

    Best wishes and big hugs (only if you want them), from one adult survivor to another. Good luck to you!

    1. This is beautiful, and I’m sorry you had the experiences that allowed you to empathize.

      One word of caution, though: everyone reacts differently so make sure, LW, that your scripts are tailored to your mom. (for example, if I were to say, “Oh, mom, you know I don’t like to dredge up the past,” mine would go absolutely ballistic about how she’s not going to “pretend” things didn’t happen and the past is present. She is not a Hakuna Matata person, for justifiable reasons, but still.)

    2. LW here. Thank you for saying this. Another one of the things I have a lot of difficulty with is measuring my own success, or knowing when I’m doing something that is praiseworthy. I was brilliant at lying when I was a kid, but these days it seems like I’ve lost the knack – when I try to reassure her, I just… can’t spit it out. It doesn’t feel like I can be proud of something that I’m literally unable to NOT do, but I’m realizing that that is, in a lot of ways, also her doing. I’ve never been good enough for her, to the point where I think it’s affected my whole life. I stopped trying to succeed at all, because when I didn’t, I got punished, and when I did, she said, “Well yeah, that’s what we expect from you. You should do that well all the time, you’re smarter than this, you just don’t try.”

      At any rate. Thank you, so much. I’ve been crying all day, on and off, reading these comments, and I am so thankful for the Captain and all of you. You’ve given me so much to think about.

  11. My mum doesn’t let anything intrude on the happy glow of recollection she has about that time when she had her three kids at home, we were all happy, she was happy, my dad’s career was taking off and so on. Except that we weren’t happy, and had been led to believe that she was utterly miserable because of us horrible kids who just went around destroying her life. Screaming and shouting and guilt all the time. Classic emotional abuse territory. The reason that I’m saying this is that anything that doesn’t gel with her golden haze of memory is met in any of three ways:

    1: Sudden, abrupt, icy silence.
    2: “Did that happen? I don’t remember that. That doesn’t sound like something that I would do. Sure I was absolutely in the wrong, IF that ever actually happened.”
    3: “Oh, and you’re still angry about that?” *Amused smirk at me, waiting for me to say no*

    If LW does bring up painful stuff like this there’s a good likelihood that the responses will be along these lines. It might be worth thinking through how to respond with the next phase of the conversation and how to get away from it if it becomes painful. I’m kinda lucky that my mum never asks if I thought she was a good parent; her memory of my idyllic childhood (which seems to have come from a completely different timeline) is so strong that she just KNOWS she was the best.

    1. I’m so sorry. That brings a Carol Ann Duffy poem to mind:

      Nobody hurt you. Nobody turned off the light and argued
      with somebody else all night. The bad man on the moors
      was only a movie you saw. Nobody locked the door.

      Your questions were answered fully. No. That didn’t occur.
      You couldn’t sing anyway, cared less. The moment’s a blur, a Film Fun
      laughing itself to death in the coal fire. Anyone’s guess.

      Nobody forced you. You wanted to go that day. Begged. You chose
      the dress. Here are the pictures, look at you. Look at us all,
      smiling and waving, younger. The whole thing is inside your head.

      What you recall are impressions; we have the facts. We called the tune.
      The secret police of your childhood were older and wiser than you, bigger
      than you. Call back the sound of their voices. Boom. Boom. Boom.

      Nobody sent you away. That was an extra holiday, with people
      you seemed to like. They were firm, there was nothing to fear.
      There was none but yourself to blame if it ended in tears.

      What does it matter now? No, no, nobody left the skidmarks of sin
      on your soul and laid you wide open for Hell. You were loved.
      Always. We did what was best. We remember your childhood well.

      1. Yeah, wow. As the child of an abusive, narcissistic, reality-altering parent (who thinks she’s an amazing mother who Always Knows Best), this punched me right in the feels.

  12. From the standpoint of a bad mom: look, I did the best I could. I had issues. ALL the issues. I hate that I put my kid through that. By that metric, the metric of the mom with few spoons who was barely ten years ahead of her kid by social/ emotional (and in some cases, even physical) maturity, yeah, I sucked hard. I did way better by my daughter and later the stray teenager who grew up to become my son-in-law than anyone could have expected. I’m sorry that I put them through that and so, so, sorry, by proxy, for what other commenters here have gone through. Jedi help with laundry-folding and budgets to all of you; you may want that more than hugs from a stranger.

    I probably should have put her up for adoption. I am, quite selfishly, glad that I did not.*

    (If you want an image here, think of the season two finale of Kimmie Schmidt: I had thought that the big reveal would be panning down to the mother’s untied trainers: she did not teach Kimmie not to tie her shoes because she, herself did not know how. YES, I know that there is no reason on the blue-green earth that a grown woman should not be able to tie shoes, and certainly no way such a person should be conceiving and growing babies, but. Well. Sometimes people have sex before they are ready. Sometimes, these people have babies. I really am sorry, not that this butters a single fucking parsnip.)

    HOWEVER, by the metric that matters, I am a TERRIFIC mother. My daughter is an amazing, smart, strong, fierce, artistic woman who makes the world a better place every day. If you feel the need to spare feelings, LW, I can tell that your parents raised a great kid, and yup, if intent is not magic and the result mattered, your parents are very good parents indeed.

    *There were Reasons for this, good ones that went very much beyond my personal feelings and turned out to be objectively right, but I feel now is not the time for them.

    1. This comment makes me really uncomfortable. Some of the best people I know had some of the worst parents I’ve ever heard of. It feels like you’re saying that LW doesn’t get to complain about the *actual abuse* she suffered because… she seems well-adjusted on the internet? If she’s doing well, it’s in spite of her parents, not because of them.

      1. That was not what I meant, but I do see what how it could bs taken that way.

        I do not want to negate LWs struggle, or my daughter’s, or anyone’s. Except maybe the stepfather’s, he sounds like a buttboil and would need to earn my sympathy.

        I honor this person’s courage and strength. “The best I could” is no excuse. Sometimes, you get a wire monkey instead of a mom. That sucks. Sometimes you get worse than a wire monkey, which also sucks.She is under no obligation to care for her parents. Don’t know if having a parent-who-sucked (but who tries to get better every day!) acknowledge it, but if so… shrugs. If not, maybe she has someone safe to practice her “chewing out terrible parents” skills on.

    2. I’m so pleased for you that you can say that! And grateful for your perspective, because what you said must have taken courage. But that sort of thing is not going to apply to everyone.

      Please note that none of what follows applies to you, it’s about me and I’m only offering it as a contrast because a lot of truly abusive parents use “I did the best I could” to deflect blame and deny responsibility for the damage they inflicted and I think it’s important to remember that many abusive parents say the same things you said, NOT because you are abusive! but because they think they’re not.

      I think I’m an ok person now, but my mother was and is horribly abusive. She doesn’t believe she was, but she most definitely was. Bad people can raise good people, I think.

      I am in therapy because of it and that’s made me realise that I was an emotionally stunted, immature, stubborn, self-centred person (with very few friends as a result) until I got help as a young adult and basically raised the child within me by myself.

      But my mother genuinely believes she did the best she could. And if the best you can do involves dragging a child backwards down the stairs by her hair because you don’t like how she’s tucked her shoes under the hall table, or mocking her with suicide jokes after she’s attempted to take her own life to escape your abuse, then your best is not good enough and you have no right to use that as an excuse.

      Either way, it’s not fair to put the burden of reassuring you about the quality of your parenting onto your children, which is what LWs parents are doing.

      1. Absolutely agreed, especially your last paragraph.

        I hate that you went through that and I am so glad you are healing yourself. You deserve goid things. Calling me “courageous” is a bit pot-kettle-black, though, hm?

        For what it’s worth, I never, ever physically hurt or yelled at my daughter. (It’s worth fuck over all.)

        1. That’s kind of my point – if you weren’t abusive then I’m not sure it’s helpful to compare your experience in this way with that of parents who were abusive. I feel particularly strongly about this because it can be VERY hard for abused children to realise they are being or have been abused, because that’s their “normal” and also because they hear stuff like “I tried my best, what more could I have done” which is very effective in making someone feel helpless and guilty for the negative feelings they might have about their childhood.

          Thank you very much for your kind words! 🙂

          1. Who says I wasn’t abusive? You don’t need to yell or hit to be abusive.

      2. “Either way, it’s not fair to put the burden of reassuring you about the quality of your parenting onto your children, which is what LWs parents are doing.”

        Very well said. When my abusive Dad was on his deathbed, I said to him. It’s okay, I’m learning to let go. . .you have peace.” I didn’t say, “You were a great Dad and I love you,” because I couldn’t make my mouth utter something so fundamentally untrue. Even under those circumstances, I don’t feel guilty or regretful.

        1. God, the deathbed thing. My two siblings who were at our father’s deathbed with me had taken a much more forgiving attitude toward him in the last couple of years of his life and were giving him “I love yous” and I just felt like something was trying to claw its way out of my chest because I did not love him and hadn’t loved him for a very long time but sitting there watching his wasted body struggle to breathe and surrounded by a huge family all of whom were offering messages of love I felt overwhelming pressure to say something. The best I could do was “We love you” and I guess it got me off the “terrible daughter” hook but it hurt to say.

          I wouldn’t describe my father as abusive but his physical and mental illnesses along with incredible selfishness/self-centeredness and a massive victim complex really fucked up my entire family. From the time I was 12 he tried to make myself and my siblings responsible for keeping him healthy (after he had a quadruple bypass) but then lashed out at us when we tried. He always put himself and his needs first (and even once told me explicitly that he cared more about himself than about his children without any sense that that was messed up), treated us kids like we were monsters whenever we took issue with something he was doing that was harmful to himself or to someone in the family, sank into paranoia about our mom poisoning us against him, drove our family into financial ruin and also managed to be an asshole in a general sense (my favorite was his constantly telling me things like “You were such a cute kid, people would comment on it constantly, and you could be like that again if you lost weight”). I’d get into fights with him constantly when I lived at home and it was a really toxic situation.

          When his health issues finally caught up to him and he ended up in a nursing home he became a mostly benign, fragile old man who truly loved his family and wanted good things for them. That was enough for pretty much everybody in the family but me to let go of the past and have a loving relationship with him in his final years. I was and am the asshole who will never forgive him and never remember him fondly, but even I got to the point when I would have pleasant and civil conversations with him when he called or when the whole family went to visit him on holidays. But it was really hard to maintain that peace when he would insist on asking if I was happy, because it was exactly this kind of trap. I guess his version of the question meant that he at least recognized that he was a shitty father but it had this wheedling “Please tell me that I wasn’t THAT bad of a dad so I don’t have to feel guilty” tone to it that it drove me crazy. And it drives me crazy that I always just said yes even though I was suicidally depressed at the time. It’s an impossible situation and I know how hard it is to prioritize your own well-being in that situation because we’re conditioned to not want to make other people feel bad, but I think the Captain’s scripts are a really good balance between honoring your own feelings/being truthful and not being hurtful to your parents (even though IMO they absolutely deserve to feel bad). Best of luck to you.

          1. I wrestle with the issue of what to do if and when my father is on his deathbed. It helps to read stories such as yours because I am sue in my soul that the death bed couldn’t change how I feel about him and his crimes.

      3. I would also like to underline, though…. “I did my best,” does not make me not a horrible person or somehow a good parent. I see, so often, this underlying attitude at the core of abused and neglected children, that they somehow believe that if THEY, the kids, had been better, the parent would have been the parent they so desperately craved.

        1. It’s kids’ job to learn and eat and grow and make messes and noise and receive good attention. You are inherently deserving of love and care. Always.

        2. See 1. You deserve a loving, stable home if your parent is an addict. You deserve a loving, stable home if your parent is emotionally stunted. You deserve a loving, stable home if your parent is dysfunctional. You deserve a loving, stable home if your parent is a piece of carpet stretched across a wire model of a monkey. All the love and model behavior on earth isn’t going to change a wire monkey into a living, nurturing mom, and neither will all the screaming and acting out on the planet. Nothing you can do can make a bad parent good. Bad parents maybe never change? Or they have to change on their own, and I suspect kids don’t have the time to wait for lasting change. You guys grow up terrifyingly fast, and good for you! Don’t wait around for us. You have places to go and people to be.

        I don!t want to discount or devalue your experiences. I just want to say that dogshit mothers don’t mean dogshit kids. And you kids SHOULD get to choose how much shit is good for you.

      4. This is a timely letter because, after about 5 years of detente with my mom where I was OK with things being in the past (and mom was in therapy! whooooo!), all of this just got opened up again in a big fight during a visit to my parents. Hoo boy did this letter touch on some newly reopened wounds when I read it.

        My mother is the daughter of a narcissistic mother, and her narcissism, unfortunately, takes the form of being determined to prove that she’s a better mother than her mother was. Not that that’s not a laudable goal, but being emotionally abusive to your children AND then insisting that they be perfect in order to reflect well on *you* doesn’t quite make you mother of the year. I still struggle with feeling like a failure because I always failed to be “resilient” enough — I’d cry when people teased me (which was a LOT). A huuuuuuge issue for me was that I was very extroverted but also shy (because of the teasing) and my mother has never understood that things like angrily telling angst-ridden why-don’t-I-have-friends me “when are you going to understand that you weren’t *meant* to have a lot of friends?” wasn’t really what I needed. It’s felt like she has always been angry at me for needing things–like actual friends–that weren’t what she provided.

        The analogy I’ve been thinking of is this: imagine you have a favorite coffee shop, where the staff are so personally invested in knowing to make your “regular” drink that they become angry at you and throw you out of the shop when you ask for a latte instead of your usual regular coffee, because you have challenged their perception of themselves as able to perfectly anticipate what their customer “needs.” (Which probably wouldn’t be great for business, right? “Hey everyone, meet me at Cafe Narcissiste! It’s just across the street from the Soup Nazi!)

        I have spent literally decades listening to my mother talk about how terrible her mother is/was (grandmother has since passed on). I really do understand that my grandmother was not a good person. But I am tired of having to endlessly reassure my mother that she was better, because honestly, I am still pretty damn messed up — not just because of things my mother did, but from things that the extreme low self-esteem all of that led me into (hello, incredibly manipulative rapist college boyfriend!) because I did not/do not believe I could do any better. I am, to be honest, really tired of my whole family STILL being in thrall to my grandmother’s bad behavior because my mother cannot let it go and STILL expects us to reassure her. My sister has had a child, and my mother complains to me about my sister’s childrearing — and has taken to comparing my sister to my grandmother.

        I am really appreciating the Captain’s advice and the comments here.

        1. (Well, this showed up in the wrong place and was meant to be a standalone comment…. ) (Captain, is it possible to move this? I really didn’t mean to make it sound like I was participating in the discussion about Awe Ritual’s comments)

        2. Hooooly shit this sounds familiar. I have that intensely mixed “I’m not alone yay!”/”oh god it gets worse when I realize it happens to other people too” feeling.

          My mother likes to talk about how awful her mum was and how hard their childhood was and how difficult it was to be the unloved middle child of a deeply self-involved woman–and I believe her! It’s pretty obvious that it fucked my mum up very profoundly! But she also told me repeatedly as a small child that I needed to be self-sufficient because I wasn’t a likable person–the proof of course was that she didn’t like me, and she should, so I was clearly defective–and so I should never expect to have friends. When you’re 7 and sad because making friends in your new school is hard (partially because you are in a cult, thanks mom!), “you’re just not likable” is really not that helpful.

          1. Oh yes, I know that “I’m not alone/oh God worse the triggering” feeling. When I read this post before going to bed I had such terrible insomnia that I had to stay home from work because I was too fatigued to drive. And I know just what you mean! I believe her! My grandmother did seem pretty awful! (Not that it was easy to get any kind of real read on her given how much I had to hear about how awful she was).

            And, before this fight opened up all kinds of old wounds (YAY!) I had pretty much come to the conclusion that my mom actually believes that nobody really likes anybody, which, while it doesn’t really help with all the “that person doesn’t really like you, they’re just being nice to you” crap I got told growing up (asdjeruslierfsl!!) does at least make it less personal? I don’t think she ever explicitly said “you’re not likable” but it was impossible not to intuit it. (She has also bragged about how she told off one of my teachers who was concerned about how shy I was. She stood up for my right to be a shy, awkward little girl — goddammit, they weren’t going to force ME to learn social skills! When this came up with my first therapist — my parents visited and saw her with me once — my mother looked at me and said, in her meanest tone, “Your SISTER learned it. Why didn’t you?”) BLARGLE ARGH.

            Let’s give our 7yo selves a play date. We can just hang out and eat candy or something. Maybe go to the playground at my school. It’s a nice one with a big field for running around.

          2. Been there. My father’s two favorite things to say to me were “No one will ever like you” and “I only liked you when you were a baby.”

    3. I don’t quite get where you’re going with this? Like, the LW wasn’t asking for reassurance that she’s still a good person despite crap parents, she asked for advice on how to deflect the conversation about “was I a good mother”. This reads like it’s a contribution to the conversation that she’s explicitly saying she doesn’t want to have?

      1. +1

        I don’t think it’s helpful to make this a conversation about the feelings of bad parents.

      2. I agree. It’s not the time or the place – this feels like something more suited to a Friends of Captain Awkward thread. Juxtaposing this post with the topic makes it come off as… I don’t know. Like this touched a nerve or sounded too familiar so there was a need to try to distance oneself from comparing to the LW’s mom, but ended up in an unflattering, subject-changing way. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.

        Awe Ritual, I’ve loved and appreciated your posts. I think that this is something for you to come to terms with outside of the context of this letter, because this letter just doesn’t seem like it’s ‘for you’.

    4. I think it was really brave of you to say this.

      I also think that the last paragraph (ignoring the footnote) is you saying that someone can be a terrific parent if their kid turns out well, and that… feels a bit too much like assuming the kid turned out well because of the parent?

      Therapy helps. Other adult figures help. Friends help. Parents are not the only reason kids grow up to be awesome, so taking an good person as evidence of good parents seems like it’s erasing a lot of stuff and assuming facts not in evidence.

      If LW wants to spare feelings, yeah, she can say “well, I’m a good person so you must have been decent parents” but that doesn’t mean the logic underlying the statement is true.

      1. Yeah that is a fallacy that can be extra harmful to kids in this situation. I posted a novel about my dad above, but my mom was the one who was actually emotionally abusive towards us. One of the ways the abuse manifested was in uncontrollable anger on her part. She’d scream and berate me if she perceived that I had stepped out of line of her expectations of me (especially related to academic achievement) and then come back 20 minutes later sobbing and asking me to forgive her.

        I tell this story because later in life, after she had turned herself around and worked on her issues and become if not a positive presence in my life then at least a neutral one, she admitted to me that during the screaming years she knew that her anger was a problem and that she shouldn’t be treating her kids that way, but we were all doing well in school so it couldn’t have been THAT bad. It hurts to know that my ability to survive and do well for myself in terms of my education IN SPITE OF what she was doing was taken as a free pass for her to put off looking seriously at her behavior and learning to treat her children with real love and respect. I’m so grateful that she was able to change and we have a pretty good relationship now but that kind of betrayal leaves a mark.

        1. I think our moms read the same manual. The switch from berating to asking for forgiveness was such mindfuckery. She focused on academics and appearance – the one time she didn’t ask for forgiveness was when she disowned me for shaving my head instead of my legs. That time, it was just gradually not being ignored anymore and eventually she was more or less back to “normal”.

          And then of course, the time I had a rare good day, was feeling less depressed, was visibly happy and she thought I was on ecstasy and drug tested me.

          Heh apparently I’m yet another commenter struck with some feels and memories from this discussion… Carry on…

          1. Oh, the drug testing!!!

            One day, I had been crying because I had just gotten some personally-shattering bad news about the High School Love of my Life, and my mother became irrationally convinced that I had been smoking pot because my eyes were red.

            I have never used recreational drugs IN MY LIFE, but it didn’t matter — she was shrieking at me like a harpy, and she brought my Dad into it (and it really hurt me that he believed her.)

            I offered to have them take me to the hospital to get drug-tested, but my mother said that I “thought I was so smart” and obviously had some way of getting around a test (!!?!), which meant that there was no way to clear my name.

            I’m STILL angry about that, 25+ years later.

          2. One of my favorite horrible stories about my dad is the the time when my mom was getting on his case about something shitty he did and he changed the subject to “I found lighter fluid in [my sister]’s room, do you think she’s huffing?” and my mom was then of course convinced it was true (it wasn’t; we had recently moved and various things were turning up in weird places). My poor sister was accosted by our sobbing mother later that day and had a really hard time convincing her that she had never huffed in her life.

    5. Two things:
      1) This is not about you, nor about the Poor Beleageared Parent wHo Just TRIED THeir BEST!#21 in any way

      2) Maybe you should talk to LWs parents and they can stop asking that trap question afterward.

    6. I had thought that the big reveal would be panning down to the mother’s untied trainers: she did not teach Kimmie not to tie her shoes because she, herself did not know how. YES, I know that there is no reason on the blue-green earth that a grown woman should not be able to tie shoes, and certainly no way such a person should be conceiving and growing babies, but.

      I don’t mean to derail, but this is incredibly ableist. There are plenty of excellent parents who cannot tie shoes. And aside from the specific case of shoe-tying and how many disabilities affect manual dexterity, Marguerite Bennet has an excellent explanation of why jokes about eugenics aren’t funny.

      1. You are, of course, right. Just because I can’t tie shoes, and I have been a terrible parent (am a terrible parent, because nothing I do today will take a hard childhood away), does not mean that people who can’t tie shoes are bad parents. I should not have implied that and I did not mean to. I’m glad I did, though, because it enabled that comment to be brought up. I have a lot to think about today.

    7. Okay, I have to go to work.

      I want to apologize for saying what I did. Commenters are right: looking back, I don’t even remember why I felt saying this would add value to the conversation. It is not about me, the shitty parent. It is about recovering from shitty parenting and the child’s right to keep them from harming her further. “I did my best,” is not an excuse, and I really did not mean to sound like it was. I don’t want to say putting people, especially people of dependent age, through unnecessary pain (as opposed to vaccines and such) is ever okay, no matter what the results. I would ask the mods to delete my comments, but there are such excellent points in the rebuttals that I would hate to see them go. Perhaps the column would feel a safer space for some if I were banned? Is there something that I can do to make amends for your lost time? I would suggest things, but everything I think of feels like a jerk move.

      I shall be extra-conscious of “needful, nice, true,” going forward (although I do think that particular phrase was just a way of shutting women, in particular up. Whatever. I should have shut up.)

      1. Hey, I hope you’re ok. I don’t feel like your comments are so bad you need to be banned or anything. It feels more like the conversation is stirring up difficult and uncomfortable feelings for you and this probably isn’t a good place to discuss them, but the feelings themselves are valid and you are allowed to have them. I hope you have somewhere where you can share them and get validation and care. ❤ You deserve that.

      2. It was a true thing. You felt at the time it would be a nice thing. That’s two out of three (I’ve always heard two out of three was the criteria), so I there’s that?

        You didn’t strike me as threatening or malicious. I do think you came across as refocussing the conversation weirdly; when it was pointed out, you listened really well.

        I don’t feel I lost time.

        1. Mary, Aphotic Ink, you are both, perhaps literally, far too kind. This was not the appropriate venue for my comments, if there is an appropriate place, and for the purposes of this discussion, abused children are not my tribe. Didn’t mean to make it weird or hurtful. I hope it’s time to focus on the matter at hand?

      3. I want to gently assuage your fears, because it sounds like you’re beginning to have an unhealthy reaction to this (immediately equating a mistake you made = I shouldn’t be allowed to be in this space/I should be banned).

        Like I said upthread (I just commented, I didn’t read to down here) this just seems like a thing you have to work on, that you still need help with, and you just made a mistake about when the time to talk about this was. All of your responses have been really nice and you get why this was not the time to talk about your situation/the parents’ side of things. There’s nothing else to make amends for.

        TBH, I wish I could have handled this as gracefully as you’re handling it when I’ve made things not about me about me in a way that came off really unflattering. It happens. Any ‘amends’ I would want you to make are coming to terms with your situation however you can, in a space and context that’s just for you and where you’re the focus. However long that takes, whatever that looks like.

        1. Seconding this. I was super impressed with how you took feedback to heart while still expressing that you have feels.

    8. LW here. I appreciate you saying this, and I recognize that it was hard. I truly believe that my mom did her best. Her best was not what I needed, that’s all. But if I can get to the point where I am proud of myself, I will be able to forgive her too, I think. So thank you for your perspective.

  13. You are nicer than me or smarter than me. I hold grudges. If my parents had been like yours, I’d consider their question a golden opportunity to relitigate every resentment I could think of offhand.

    That isn’t my advice to you, as it wouldn’t lead anywhere satisfying. I have no advice. Just sympathy. I can’t understand how it’s possible for people to be so lacking in self-awareness.

  14. Yeah, wow, blast to the past here. My dad used to yell and occasionally slap us for “discipline” – me especially – I got on his nerves. He used to do this thing where he’d make me stand in front of him for a lecture on what I did wrong, punctuated by surprise slaps in the middle of it – never knew how many or when they were coming, and I’d get in trouble if I put my hands up or cringed.

    But he stopped doing it by the time I was 13-14 (chivalry, you know – not right to hit a woman) and very rarely raised a hand to my younger brothers. My parents then divorced, I moved in with my Mom by 16, and generally Dad and I stayed on civil terms.

    About 3 weeks into my first time living away from home for college I get an email from him saying “Older sister (2 years older than me) blew up at me regarding a disciplinary issue with one of the younger brothers and said a lot of things – especially about how I was abusive to you – I wasn’t, was I?”

    …yeah. Really needed that on top of all my ‘first month at college’ issues. Now, it was easier than what you have to deal with because I could compose my thoughts in a letter, but I was pretty matter-of-fact about “well, you’re my dad and I love you, but yeah, you hit me, and you shouldn’t have.” He apologized and we never spoke of it again. We’re not that close but we get along now – although I live far away so there’s not much interaction.

    Considering you and your Mom don’t have a close relationship and she doesn’t like to talk about things I’d advise a similar sort of response: “Were you a good parent? Not really, but I love you anyways.” If she wants to go into it, just be like “look, I’m not your therapist – if you need to sort out your feelings on this I can’t help you.” Just repeat ad nauseum “I can’t counsel you through this. You need to talk to someone else to resolve your feelings on this.” And yes, I’d be very blunt about “well the violence was kinda shitty, Mom;” and “Love-From-Afar just meant you weren’t there for me emotionally, and it would have been nice to have that in a mother.”

    I mean, I’m not you, and something else might work better for you, but I found just being like “yeah, you sometimes sucked, but you need to deal with that on your own” really worked. I have no doubt that getting smacked around left me with a few issues, but they’re mine to deal with and talking with my Dad about why he did what he did won’t help that. At this point I don’t feel that anything he does or doesn’t do will make it better or worse. Horse, barn, Pavlovian conditioning completed, etc. It’s my issue, regardless of why I have it, and I have to deal with it.

    At the same time, it’s not my job to make him feel better about the sort of father he was. He can resolve that on his own, or not, and I am not going to go over it with him. That is just not something I’m interested in doing. It’s tough enough dealing with your childhood issues without having to help your parents through their guilt over them – and the whole concept just gets a real hard ‘Nope’ from me.

    So… um.. yeah. I’d go with “I love you but you sometimes sucked, and no, I’m not getting into this with you.”

  15. Oh LW, do I feel you.

    During the obligatory Happy Father’s Day! phone call, my Dad asked. “Was I a good father to you?” It was completely unexpected (so different from your Weirdness) and I almost fell apart. Because he really kind of wasn’t.

    He never hit me (which is a low bar, isn’t it?) but emotionally…. He mocked my looks and my weight. He would tell jokes with punchlines like, “And so the dog died!” which were very upsetting to Little Me. Any time I spoke up, or cried, he would become very irritated and impatient with me. The major complaint he had for me was I was ‘too sensitive’.

    I don’t know dad, maybe you are too insensitive; ever thought about that, old man?

    He seemed to love my older brother more than me (pretty typical – the whole extended family was #TeamMaleHeir). Once Brother graduated from high school, my parents seemed done with the raising-children thing, and I lived with my maternal grandparents (I assume now so I could stay at the same schools) while my folks lived elsewhere.

    Eventually my parents came back (sort of, my dad was only around on weekends, though they were not divorced) when I was in high school. I was a good kid. Well behaved, excellent grades, no problems. But my dad did not like my older boyfriend (19 to my 16). At one point, we argued (yet again) about BF. And my dad said, “You are not worth this effort. You’re really not. You are worthless. I’m done.”

    And for the next years of high school, my dad did not speak to me other than the occasional, Pass the salt. It was not until I was awarded a full academic scholarship to my home state’s flagship university did he speak to me and take pride in me. Well – pride because it reflected on him. My problems are my own making, my successes are his.

    Things were rocky between us for many years – and still are, from my point of view. But now I just try to ignore it – now he’s just an old man I’m related to. I don’t look to him for the love I know I will not receive – and at this point? I’m 52. Nothing he could do now can change the past.

    He undermined my self-esteem by telling me – directly and indirectly – that my feelings didn’t matter. That I didn’t count. I mean – that is where self-esteem comes from, right?

    I don’t think I will ever recover from his rejection of me. I’ve carried my dad’s poor parenting into my personal relationships, pursuing men I cannot have because they are emotionally, or literally, unavailable (Please, Someone Choose ME!). If he knew how much I resented him, it would break his heart – so of course he will never know.

    He likes to go on about how alike we are. He gets a lot of pleasure from that although I don’t see why. Yes, we have some broad personality traits in common, but we are very, very different.

    So when he asked if he was a good Dad, all I could think to say was, “You did the best you could.* Your dad (my grandfather, who I only met twice) was a horrible drunk and cruel and you didn’t have a very good example of what a father looked like, and maybe let’s not talk about this right now?”

    So yeah. I’m sorry you are having to fend off this question. But you are good and wonderful and have a happy life and that is the ONLY thing that matters.

    *I HATE this phrase. It’s meaningless. You can do your best and still do a shitty job. All this phrase does is make the parent feel comforted at the expense of the child’s (denied) experience.

    1. Sorry that ended up being such a long comment! – I guess the LW’s dilemma hit home for me.

    2. Oh my gosh, this really spoke to me. “My problems are my own making, my successes are his.” “He likes to go on about how alike we are.” Both of those are so true in my case as well. I like the response “you did the best you could.” I suspect I’ll be getting that question from my dad at some point.

      1. For Guy – I think we have similar fathers. They take what they think reflects well on them, and dismiss the rest. I am only some craft of his own, and not really Me.

        When I graduated from law school at the age of 41, at my party his toast went on about himself and how him-self made me happen. My ex-BF (good man) finally spoke up and said, “Well okay maybe we should toast POLICY CHICK, for what she ACTUALLY ACCOMPLISHED.”

        As I said, “You did the best you could” to me is a statement that soothes the recipient but does nothing for the one offering it. But it works for a lot of people.

    3. My mother used to like to tell me my father and I “didn’t get along”* because we were so similar.

      I honestly think that was a major contributing factor to me never wanting children. I was afraid to be him.

      A few years ago, I finally told her “If I were just like Dad, I would kill myself.” Not politick, definitely. But she did shut up about it.

      (I don’t recommend this to the letter writer, for obvious reasons. But I felt compelled to share this because this letter and especially this comment, oooh, it burns.)

      *Code for: he screamed at me all the time and sometimes hit me.

      1. I know where you’re coming from. My mom and I aren’t THAT much alike, but I worry that under stress, I could fall back onto her non-existent “coping mechanisms” of yelling at or berating or sniping at more defenseless people, which is what I, and to a lesser degree one of my sisters, got our entire childhood. And I will NEVER test that theory, I will NEVER put another kid through that, even as a chance. My mom really wants grandkids, and she would probably be a better grandmother than she was a mother (she has mellowed, somewhat in recent years)…but I remember my childhood too well to reenact it.

  16. Thank you for putting it so nicely!
    I have parents that were both physically and emotionally abusive.
    They deny being bad parents and offer as prove that I turned out well. I always feel I turned out well despite of them instead of because of them. It cost me a lot of work to repair the damage they had done, and I was lucky having an amazing network of friends that let me be angry, sad and confused when I needed to be.
    My parents blame me for their behavior and indicate that as I was such a difficult child they couldn’t have treated me any other way and they did the best they could. They still struggle with the fact that I am not willing to confirm that they are awesome parents, even though they will periodically ask.

  17. Chiming in to agree with the Captain: The only move is to choose not to play the game.

    My mom was absent physically and emotionally for large portions of my childhood – sometimes both, sometimes just one, or the other. When she was around, she was either a domineering nightmare of expectations of perfection, coupled with harsh abuse disguised as ‘discipline’ for getting it wrong, or she was such a chaotic mess that our roles were reversed, and I was caring for both our needs alone. So my great-grandmother would have to step in and raise me until mom decided that she wanted to be a parent again. And to top it off, when I was almost 10, mom had another child, who also immediately became my responsibility too. I love my baby brother and was fiercely protective of him, but I shouldn’t have needed to be. It robbed me of an even somewhat normal adolescence and early adulthood, and my mom shamed me as “selfish” for even wanting as much.

    Every so often, mom tumbles back down into those low spots still, wanting to rehash the past, thinking it is my job to come rescue her, as always. It’s so tempting to want the kind of emotional closeness and closure this question seemingly opens the door to. The thing is, if we could have an honest conversation about it, I’d be more than happy to tell her the truth. Still, we will probably never have this conversation. Or, at least, she will never hear my end of it. Because I know that we don’t agree at all as to what her “mistakes” were. My mom will admit that this “wasn’t fair” to me, but at the same time acts as if SHE is the one who had “no choice” in the matter. Even just agreeing with her that she made “some mistakes” sends her into a downward spiral of self-loathing and talking about what an awful person she is, and then she starts lashing out about how “sorry” she is that she “couldn’t be the perfect mother” that I apparently expected. And then it’s all my fault for not realizing that she’s human too. Plus, look at how well I turned out. So, I’m just a big ol’ meanie for not appreciating her enough. Trump card! Take that, you ingrate!! And, like magic, she’s crawled out of her spiral, back into her rightful place on the throne of motherhood.

    What my mom is wanting, is to give me all the reasons that she shouldn’t be blamed for all the harmful things that she chose to do, and never stepped in to prevent. The question isn’t being asked in good faith. She wants absolution without acknowledging the true harms done, accepting responsibility, and repenting first. She wants the credit of having done the work, so she can claim all my successes as her own, and ignore all I had to go through to get here – she wants to cut to the perfect ending scene. I would venture a guess that you’re being asked this for a similar reason, given your mother’s history of not wanting to get involved in the ‘messy details’ of your emotional life.

    This question is a lure, LW, and you’re right to suspect it. It has nothing whatsoever to do with wanting to know what you really think or feel. I would advise keeping a very tall, very thick, very firm boundary around discussing it with her. “There’s nothing you can do to change it now” is probably the most honest answer you can give. Protect yourself from the oncoming attack. You have every right to.

    Best of everything to you, LW.

  18. I feel so mad on everyone’s behalf that I want to take all of the crappy parents that think they ‘did the best they could’ and yell at them about whether they could have had parenting classes or got advice from the plunket nurse or what have you. Also my dad had anger management issues so my first reaction to conflict is to think about yelling ><

    1. I think I’d be okay with “best I could” if it was part of an actual apology, a real acknowledgement of damage done. Like, how about being a good parent *now* and not putting the responsibility for your emotions on the adult offspring who already suffered through your best-I-could/not-good-enough?

      1. Yes! Exactly! I had one parent who once, when telling us he had just been told he only had a 50% change of living for 5 more years, gave a vague “I’m sorry for whatever it is I’ve done” in an effort to stop the family from trying to hold him accountable for all the shit he put us through, and another parent who realized how bad her mistakes were, acknowledged what she did to us, expressed true regret for it and changed her behavior. I think you can guess which one I actually made peace with.

      2. Yes exactly! Mine likes to ramble on about the idea of “the good enough parent” as a way to absolve herself or something. Just because it was the “best she could do”, doesn’t mean it was good enough. If she actually acknowledged and took responsibility for the way she acted, I would be able to tolerate her talking about how hard it was as a single parent. But instead she uses that as a shield to avoid taking any responsibility.

    2. I always feel this way about crappy parents or other abusive relatives/friends/SOs. I want to shake them and say, “See what you did to this poor human being, you jerk(s)????”

    3. Totally. Even shit parents can avoid hitting a child. Or preventing/intervening when a step parent (or anyone hits a child). If that is people’s best, I would hate to see their worst.

    4. My mom had parenting classes. She went to class and took notes and came home and explained to nine-year-old me that I was the “acting-out child,” and that the reason I was failing fourth grade and getting in trouble was “for the attention,” i.e. to manipulate her, and that was really unfair of me. She twisted what she learned to hide her own selfishness and inadequacy behind a facade of science and authority. Lundy Bancroft cautions people not to give copies of “Why Does He Do That?” to abusers; likewise, abusive, neglectful, narcissistic parents will perhaps not learn from parenting classes what we might wish. Assholes gonna asshole, ya know?

      1. Ugh, Leonine, so awful, and so reminiscent of my mother telling me that her therapist said I was the cause of all her problems [spoiler: I wasn’t]. All the Jedi hugs.

  19. This is a really interesting discussion.

    My two cents is going to look a little different from everyone else’s.

    My parents weren’t what I’d consider abusive, but they were inadequate in ways that have caused me real harm in my childhood all the way into my adult life. (At nearly 40, I was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder that explained EVERYTHING about my lifelong struggles in certain areas. Earlier detection and intervention might well have been life-changing for me. My diagnosis made me realize that a. my parents weren’t checked in enough with me to see some obvious warning signs that something was off with me and b. their subsequent reactions suggest that maybe their desire to not have something be off with me led them to ignore/choose not to see my obvious issues.)

    Fast-forward to now. I’m stepmother to two girls and it is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t. I have struggled with every aspect of this role, sometimes visibly. I’m currently separated from my husband, living apart from the family while we go into family therapy to see if there’s anything here worth saving.

    There’s a country song’s worth of back story and I’ll spare you all that. The bottom line is that I’ve been doing the best work I know how to do and somehow I’m still getting an F (okay, maybe a D) and it’s time to hire a tutor. My parents did the best work they knew how to do–I sincerely believe this–but I would probably have to give them a C.

    I sort of think your mom knows her outcome grade is in the failing range, but she’s looking for a more flattering effort grade. It’s really hard to give something–especially something as important as parenting another human–your all and then to discover you objectively suck at it. I’m lucky in the fact that I’m owning my suckage while the kids are kids and there’s still time for therapy and learning new patterns and making amends where I can. I know that if I’d given my first real hard look at these questions later in life, my ego would want the kids to throw me a softball on at least the effort grade.

    Sorry this is so long. I think my point, if I had one, is that maybe you can find a way to thread the needle and tell your mom you know she tried hard and probably did do something like the best she could, but that her best fell short of what you needed and that you therefore can’t reassure her she was a great parent.

    1. I don’t think it’s LW’s responsibility to manage her mother’s feelings about this.

    2. Clover – same. I have had chronic depression beginning in my teens and culminating in a pretty spectacular breakdown in my late 20s. My parents never saw fit to share that we have a very significant family history of mental illness and did nothing – and I mean nothing – while I suffered needlessly for nearly 15 years. They didn’t even notice anything was wrong and the few times someone else tried to intervene they ignored it.

      I don’t have to forgive them for that and I’m not going to.

      1. Clover, CommanderBanana, I’m both really sad and also kind of relieved I’m not the only one. I’ve been in tears reading the comments, trying to decide whether to add in or not.

        What are you supposed to do if you didn’t have abusive parents, if you actually had -good- parents, except for that one crucial bit that was completely unintentional but screwed your life up? My mother asks me versions of the ‘good parent’ question, but it’s usually “Do you think if we’d known about X thing, we could have done something? If we had noticed X thing, we could have helped you?”

        And I just….I can’t. Because honestly, my childhood was hell, but the only good part was my parents. They literally saved my life (unkonwingly) mutliple times. But the few mistakes they did make were so impactful. I’m still discovering how messed up some things made me. And it makes me so angry. But at least half the time the answer is “No,” because of the whole situation. And they really were, honestly, trying their best. So the only thing talking about the parts that make me angry with them would do is hurt them. It’s one thing to say it’s a trap when the peron acting is a narcissitic abuser. It’s another when I’ve already seen the discovery of my very deep depression worsen your mother’s, even as she was commuting cross-state and sleeping on my dorm floor so that I didn’t have to worry about being alone and dropping into another dissociative episode and slashing my wrists.

        And counselors always end up trying to convince me that there is some deep-seated problems with my family because (I guess) they’re so used to seeing certain types of problems. So discussing this just ends up as an arguement that no, my parents didn’t actually tie me to furnaces and whip me or something. (Yes that was actually suggested once.)

        Sorry, I’m venting a bit.

      2. I’m both glad and sad that I’m not the only one. Recently discovered autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. They actually did sort of catch the ADHD, but then rejected it for a variety of reasons, and my mother decided I was “just” depressed. Well, yeah, when you’re being abused, that’s sort of inherent, and adding in undiagnosed neurodiversity and it was a recipe for disaster.

  20. When your parents ask “Was I a good parent?”, I suggest answering in a flippant, cheerful tone of voice “No, you were awful! Really horrible!” Then change the subject. They’re trying to get you to do emotional care-taking of them, so leave them wondering if you really mean it or not.

  21. The LW is a better person than I am. In her place, I might be tempted respond to “was I a good parent?” with her own dismissive words: “Oh, mom, you KNOW I don’t care about that.” (Obviously don’t do this unless you’re looking for a fight.) The Captain’s scripts are good ways to either shut down the topic or start her down the road to admitting that that all was not as she likes to pretend.

    1. Ha, I just added that one this morning – can’t believe I forgot the best one last night!

  22. LW I am so sorry for the fact that you are being put in this difficult situation. I heartily recommend the captain’s scripts but if they don’t let up you could always say something to the effect of: “Look, no one is perfect and I won’t say there aren’t times when I felt you let me down, but I made it to adulthood in one piece and I like the way my life is going now that I’m here. So even if things weren’t great it looks like you managed to get me to the other shore and I appreciate that. I can take it from here.”

    Maybe it feels a little gentler than they necessarily deserve but if your goal is to keep as much peace as you can while still remaining true to your experiences then I feel like something like this might work. In my experience this question is one part “rewrite the past for me” but also one part “Are you doing ok now? Or did I damage you forever?”

    1. I think you’re probably right about it being a two-part question. I hadn’t thought about it until you said, but when my mom finally laid off of me about that was when she was in rehab and they wanted her to bring the kids in to therapy with her, to help her work through some control and abandonment issues and I said, “You know what? I’m good. That’s really not something I feel like walking through again. I’m fine with not doing therapy sessions over this, ok?” It was my way of returning all that to her lap and letting her know it was hers alone to deal with now. She was obviously disappointed that our storybook reconciliation would not be forthcoming in front of a tearful, supportive audience, but she did let it go.

    2. LW here. This is a really interesting perspective, and one I hadn’t considered – that it might be her (bent, insensitive) way of asking if I’m really all right, if she can feel assured at least that she didn’t ruin my life or something. That does sound like her. I might not be equipped to answer that yet, but I’m getting there. So thank you very much for this thought. 🙂

  23. I think my mom honestly doesn’t remember the worst parts of he parenting, and I do my best to forgive that. I certainly understand the reason why she might really not remember much from a few years that, because of how time works, also happened to be pretty critical ones for me growing up.

    However, she also doesn’t actually CARE. Spending time with her is a struggle to get a word in edgewise, she never asks about my life (at least not in any useful way), and when i do try to talk about something deeper than Entertainment We Both Like, I get interrupted so she can instead tell me about what she had for dinner or some other triviality.

    It hurts. Even if she did the best she could, it wasn’t and continues not to be good enough.

    So LW, I think “not good enough” is a valid answer. Maybe not one you want to say out loud? Or maybe it is. If your family runs on jokes, maybe you can say it that way? “How was your parenting? Not good enough! Hahaha, no seriously, what’s on your mind”

    You’re not alone in the crappy parents club *jedi feathers*

  24. “If a lot of the scripts above look like answering a question with a question, yes, correct!” Funny, I use this same technique on my friends’ little kids who ask “WHY?” all the time. “Why do you think?” I answer.

    So sorry, LW, that you may have to resort to treating your parents like little kids, but it does seem that they’re acting like little kids so there you go. Jedi hugs and best of luck to you.

  25. No real advice, just a lot of sympathy and commiseration. My mom has definitely asked me that question, and also, perhaps because our relationship is NOT very positive right now, I get a lot of “Why don’t you want to spend time with me? What is it exactly? Why don’t you like me? When are you going to start liking me? Why can’t you care about me like a moral person would?”

    My answer that I’ve recently stuck with is “I don’t have to answer that,” or “I don’t have to give a reason.” It is not satisfying to anyone and it doesn’t make it stop, but it does kind of shut down the conversation in the moment.

    1. I’m in this position with my grandmother, and given that she is now 91 and clearly not changing, when she asks me “what did I do?” I simply respond “I’m not going there” and I walk away. I would go there if I thought for one second that she would acknowledge how horrible she has been to me for my entire life, but she won’t. so I won’t bother expending the mental capital.

  26. Had to chuckle at Wikipedia’s explanation of those demogorgon things. What an apt description! Particularly towards the end:

    Prince of Demons, Lord of All That Swims in Darkness

    Home plane:

    Power level:
    Demon lord

    Chaotic Evil


  27. Oh LW, your question makes me thankful that my mother had the good sense to never ask me that question because, hoo boy, would I have loved answering it! The injustice of having to suffer through bad parenting, and then being put in the position of having to somehow defend or deflect that bad parenting, is beyond unfair.

  28. Oye, my mom did this thing when I was a child where she told me all my problems weren’t really problems and I was silly for having feelings about them. I still spend a lot of time trying to logic away the feelings because of it. Sorry you had something so similar.

    1. Ouch. Mine just said “you should be happy more.” Keep in mind this was during the three-year period where the only reason I didn’t kill myself was because I thought she, my dad, my sister, and everyone in my classes all *wanted* me to kill myself, and I hated all of them too much to give them the satisfaction.

  29. I 100% advocate for using the great deflection strategies in the Captain’s advice and comments. I understand your fear of the conversation turning into you having to debate instances of abuse and bad parenting – unfortunately every time I’ve tried to confront my abusive dad, it’s turned into exactly that – including him trying to intimidate me by glaring my down and claiming he did nothing of the sort and I’m crazy and am I calling him a liar?!??? And now armed with the words of my painful tearful terrified attempt at confrontation, he likes to claim that he’s actually “terrified” of *me* due to my overreactions and tendency to call random things abuse when I’m upset. Classic DARVO (deny, attack, reverse victim and offender).

    Debating specific points of abuse and trying to pull up evidence is not going to work and it’s putting all the emotional labor onto you. I hope the strategies of getting them to explain their questions and concerns pushes it back to them. Take care, LW! Remember you can bail on the conversation if it ever starts heading down the debating-your-childhood-experiences path like you can just never do that and it’s for the best. Even if you decide to give some version of your opinion on their parenting, it’s not a debate class and you don’t need to back it up with hard cold data – you were asked for your opinion and you can give it to whatever extent you want or don’t want. Best of luck with all of this.

  30. Ack. What a thorny question.

    My mom and I had a conversation like that a couple of years ago and all I could come up with was “It wasn’t ideal and I survived.” The pragmatic woman she was took it pretty much in stride.

    (Hugs) from afar if you’d like them.

  31. “Oh, Mom, you know I’m not interested in talking about any of that.”

    I think it could possibly be both satisfying and effective to use that line… Is there some way, however, to use it and to be sure that the addressee understands/remembers that the line was originally their own line and is now being turned back upon them?

    1. I think you say it if you’re gonna say it and let it go. Either the mom is self-aware enough to get it or she’s not. Sometimes we gotta say things for ourselves.

  32. My mother used to ask the was i a good parent or tell us she was a horrible mother so we would deny she was (she was not a very good parent but she had some moments) She always liked to point out she was better than her mother (which really almost any person would be as my mother’s mother is the grand dumpster fire of a being and the rest of my mothers family is of similar nature) Like your mom my mom had some very redeeming character traits that were not related to being a parent
    My mother had mental problems from her childhood and when she would ask if she was a good mother My reply to her was a very diplomatic I think you did what you could(mostly I did feel this was true but it still did not make her a good parent). Though I did once tell her she was all sorts of awful once I do not recommend that answer and in the end it will revert to same question anyway later about the parenting.
    Generally I agree just ignore the question if you want a “relationship” with your mother, you’ll probably need to keep it superficial stop trying to share things she doesn’t care about with you it will only make your feel shitty and she is not likely to change. This method worked really well for me I stopped arguing about things that were not changeable and did not matter much in the grand scheme of things and generally made non committal sounds about things i did not agree with unless they were just something I couldn’t not say. The strategy worked well she thought we were really good friends and I would in turn think of how artificial that was and feel bad she had no basis of good judgement when it came to what make a good relationship and being disappointed/angry she would ever be what i needed
    I want to tell you, you should probably cut off your parents and find your own family of your choosing but I know this is very hard and while I tried multiple times to do so myself I was never successful. It is a normal response to want to keep in touch with your parents but It is highly unlikely that your relationship would improve. Additionally I found the older my mother got the more she believed the lies she told herself about our upbringing, which made it even more difficult to hold my tongue when she would say things I knew to be untrue or if I failed argue the facts with someone who would never believe them and would continue with her version of events another day Like the discussion had never been.
    Don’t look for improvement or change it probably wont happen adjust your expectations for your relationship and proceed accordingly to preserve your mental health
    My mother has died and all i could feel was sad that we would never have the kind of relationship I had always hoped we might have.

    1. With respect, advising the LW to cut off contact with her parents altogether seems like an unnecessarily nuclear response. She notes that she loves talking to her mother, and has mostly positive things to say about her and their relationship now (for the most part). Cutting off a parent is a very difficult and personal decision (as you know), but that is not the advice the the LW is looking for, here.

    2. “My mother has died and all i could feel was sad that we would never have the kind of relationship I had always hoped we might have.”

      My father died when I was 25. He was neglectful rather than abusive, but my relationship with him caused me all kinds of emotional upheaval throughout my entire childhood and the first few years of adulthood. We hadn’t spoken for 2 years when he died, and it hit me really hard. The impact of it completely bewildered me, because we really had no relationship at that point, and it had been years since I had been upset at our lack of relationship. It took a while, but I finally figured out that I was mourning the death of my hope that we would someday have a real relationship.

  33. I was lucky enough to have non-abusive parents, so take this with a grain of salt. But …

    If what you want is to end that conversational thread without either lying or jumping into the briar patch of unproductive pain, in addition to the Captain’s suggestions, you could always try this (if it’s true):

    “You love me, don’t you? And I love you.”

    Your mother has had years to own her abuse, and she hasn’t done so, and doing so is her work and not yours, and in my opinion this conversation really isn’t part of her doing that work. What it is, when you strip away all the externals, is your mother asking you two things: “Please reassure me that I did OK. Please reassure me that you love me.” You can’t, in all honesty, do the first. But if you can do the second, maybe it would help.

    1. You’re right. That is one thing that I know without a shadow of a doubt – that she loves me more than anything in the world. She’s terrible at it, but it’s still not nothing. And while knowing that makes it harder, it also is very precious to me. Thank you for this.

  34. My mother was a narcissistic nightmare, and neglectful at best when I was a child. My adulthood was filled with her asking that question. To be fair, it was indicative of a much bigger issue. Eventually I said she was a terrible mother after another round of badgering. This caused all the half concealed garbage we had been tiptoeing around to come out in the open.

    I’d like to say I found a resolution you might like, but I didn’t. We don’t talk anymore. We haven’t for over ten years. As it turns out, I am much happier not to have that nagging reminder of my terrible childhood. Turns out, talking with people that are really into how I’m actually doing, not just how I can fill a position for their narcissistic fantasies is a lot healthier.

    I’m not saying this is your outcome, but what I had thought was a drama filled nightmare actually ended up being the best thing I could ever do. I no longer play gaslight the past with anyone, or defend why smacking a 14 year old around is justified.

    What kind of response you give, if up to you. You should consider it from your perspective. What will give you the best closure. What do you want out of this long distance relationship with them. If you want to lay it all out, by all means do. If you want to dance around it because you still want those long phone calls, that’s okay as well. But instead of thinking about what they want, you should consider what is going to be best for you.

  35. My mom asks this question too. I wouldn’t say she was abusive, but there were many, um, borderline incidents in my childhood. I usually keep it light and as, “Well, I’ve got a decent job, a good marriage, and I’m a functioning adult, so you must’ve done something right” + subject change.

    Also… Edited to add: “Oh, Mom, you know I’m not interested in talking about any of that.” –> Sheer brilliance right there.

  36. I’m hoping this comment is helpful, because I know my situation is different.

    My mom was a different kind of emotionally abusive, and actually got to a point where she realized it and sought therapy for it. So I’m incredibly lucky that she doesn’t deny my experience, doesn’t try to justify her actions, and makes the right noises about understanding that it’s a different process for me to work through my side of it.

    However. She does bring it up pretty frequently that “if I ever need to talk to her to process, she’s ready” and of course wants to stay in frequent contact. Like LW, I have kinda split her into two people: the abuser from my past and the friend in my present. And I am not ready to reintegrate those people. Saying the things to her now I wanted to say 20 years ago only makes me feel like a powerless teenager again. And often, I’m not even in a strong enough headspace to talk with my friend-mom without feeling triggered. But when we talk, like LW, it’s about engaging stuff and goes on for an hour, so she doesn’t really grok that we can have what we have while still being a Very Complicated Person for me to talk w.

    I guess I’m sharing this to say, even if your mom *did* get it, you still don’t have to have that “grade me as a parent” kind of conversation. Just because it is something she wants or needs does not obligate you to provide it. Not that I’m a shining example of well adjusted adulthood to follow or anything, but I think it’s okay to maintain the emotional distance you prefer, separate your friend-mom from your mom-who-raised-you, and deploy the good Captain’s scripts to keep it how you want it to be.

  37. My Mom has been doing this my entire life. She would get a little into her cups and apologize drunkenly for being a bad mother. When I was six. Twenty-six… and so on.

    I used to absolve her because that’s what she needed and I would be a terrible daughter if I didn’t give her what she needed. As I grew older and realized that I didn’t want to absolve her, that I didn’t really have forgiveness and her behaviour and my Dad’s behaviour really really messed me the hell up, and then I went and made a bunch of messed up choices that compounded the original mess that is me. But I have stable employment, a kind boyfriend, and great kitties, so the mess is mostly between my ears and people don’t see.

    When I first started trying to shut it down, I would just say that dreaded, “You did the best you could,”

    But then that started to feel untrue.

    I then started saying, “Well, you and Dad were babies when y’all started having babies.”

    But no more absolution. After a couple of years of this, she dramatically announced during a family visit, “Your father and I have decided that we just aren’t going to apologize for the past anymore.”

    She was not expecting my jubilant response, “GOOD, BECAUSE IT’S BORING AND POINTLESS!” Because that wasn’t the answer she was expecting/wanting, she periodically still says it. Dramatically, in front of other family. And I keep saying the same thing back to her.

    I know her well enough to know that what *I’m supposed* to say is, “You have nothing to apologize for, you guys were great parents.”


  38. Wow, LW, your mother and stepfather make my brain hurt.
    Your mother is off-the-charts when she explicitly refuses to discuss your childhood issues and then asks if she was a good parent. Seriously, WTF? She doesn’t get to blow off your childhood and then ask you to praise her parenting. I’m so done with that kind of duplicitous crap from *anyone* I’d probably say “no” and then when she started reasons say “Oh, honey, you know I don’t care about that.”

    A less nuclear option if you want something somewhat more confrontational than than the Captain’s scripts is to make her chose her own adventure:
    “How do you want me to answer that? as I was when a child? as the adult daughter I am now? how I’d feel if I saw someone who parented like you did? as an adult who likes you as an adult?”
    You’re telling her you know her question is a trap and that she doesn’t want the truth, and that whatever you said, there would be things unsaid.

    On consideration, to be used only if you happen to be pissed off and want a tangle. I have zero fucks for people who know they’re crap and still ask you to blow smoke up their ass.

  39. I grew up around a lot of passive/aggressive manipulators. The only way to make them stop is to call them out on it.

    “Were we good parents?”

    “No. You weren’t.”

    They’ll never ask that again.

    “You know I don’t care about that.”

    “But I do. Can this one conversation be about me instead of you?”

    It’s very normal to think of your mother as strong, classy, brilliant and brave, but there’s nothing strong about letting your step father physically abuse you (and if you don’t think she knew, you’re almost certainly wrong – the odds of him slapping you around, and not having done the same to her *first*, are pretty slim), there’s nothing classy about passive/aggressive manipulation to salve her own guilt, there’s nothing brilliant about not picking up the signals that she’s hurting your, and there’s nothing brave about refusing to face her own failings.

    The caveat to all this is that you perhaps do not *want* to make them stop, at least, not at the price of damaging a relationship you are now mostly happy with. It’s still dysfunctional, or you wouldn’t have had a letter to wright, but it’s dysfunctional in ways you can, perhaps, live with. Deflecting might make the dysfunctional parts tolerable, but it will not make them stop.

    1. >>he odds of him slapping you around, and not having done the same to her *first*, are pretty slim

      Hmm, I don’t know that I’d agree with that. When I was a child in England in the 80s, the middle-class norm was definitely that it was ok for a parent to hit a child but not for a husband to hit a wife. That was also true for my grandparents on the 50s.

      1. … which is not to say that LW’s mother didn’t know about or shouldn’t have intervened in abusive treatment from LW’s stepfather and isn’t culpable for her part in enabling that, but it doesn’t follow that “hits stepdaughter = hits wife”

  40. I’ve been getting questions along these lines from my not-abusive mother a lot lately. It’s weird and uncomfortable and awkward to field that question even when you can give the answer they want to hear with total honesty–I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to get it from an abusive parent.

    I just wanted to add that, in my own not-abused experience, even answering “yes, you did fine,” won’t necessarily make the question stop. My mom and I butt heads a lot over trivial stuff because she’s passionate and headstrong and shouty and raised me (for good or ill) to be the same way, but now every single bit of friction between us seems to cause her an internal crisis over the state of our relationship. I’ve been using a lot of the Captain’s techniques to manage her, because it turns out all that anxiety and questioning isn’t actually about me: she’s currently dealing with her own mother’s progressing dementia, which has turned their previously loving relationship of equals into a dumpster fire and made my mom needy and anxious in other areas of her life… like constantly bringing up whether or not we see each other “enough,” and if that’s because I hate her and she’s a bad mother and a narcissist who ruined my life. (She’s not. I don’t even know where that came from.)

    So I definitely would go with one of the Captain’s scripts that turns the question around on them, because there are a lot of things that make parents ask that question and the majority of them are not even tangentially related to “serious reflection on the way I treated my child, with the realization that it might not have been so great.” Use positive reinforcement to encourage the parts of the relationship you genuinely like–whether that’s “Mom, it’s so great to talk to you, I love our conversations and they brighten my day” or the Captain’s “I like our relationship the way it is now (that you’re hundreds of miles away and I only need to interact with you twice a month)”–and deflect the rest of their anxious feelings back to where they belong, which is not with you.

  41. I use “I know you did your best.” with my parents. I’m not quite up to telling them, “Your best was shit, and I deserved better.” But it does end that line of conversation.

    1. I do this too! I genuinely believe they did their best, so I can say it without rancour.

      It just so happens they’re emotionally immature adult children whose best was miles short of good enough. But I leave that bit out 😛

  42. It’s perversely comforting to know I am not alone in needing a safe-for-me answer to “daughter, was I a bad parent (SAY NO SAY NO SAY NO)”. My mother does it as a statement in bouts of emotional self-flagellation. That’s how she gets her fixes of pain and absolution. In recent years, I’ve just let the silence hang there. Sometimes I change the topic after it gets heavy. Sometimes she breaks first. She’s so hard to interact with, without feeding her demons.

    LW, I totally understand why you want to salvage what you can from your relationship with your mom, especially since there’s plenty worth keeping, if she’d just stop tossing this bomb in your lap. At best it’s a bomb. At worst it’s a trap.

    In your position, I might try probing once or twice to find out if she wants to know and deal with the truth. At any hint of “no”, I’d fall back on the deflections. If she kept pushing but did not want the truth, I’d probably start shutting down the question. Some of the scripts above would work. Another option is “please stop asking me that, [unless you’re going to listen to and act on the answer].”

  43. I may have a different perspective. Your mom was not a good mom. She is very few of the things that you used to describe her, at least not consistently. A ‘good’ mom does not subject their child to abuse or to someone who has alcohol issues. She is looking for you to give her something – validation, absolution, confirmation? Whatever it is, you don’t owe it to her. YOU are the child. Someone who lets a stepparent abuse their child in ANY WAY is an ass hole.

    If you ever feel the need, you may want to unpack your childhood and your mother’s treatment of you with a great therapist.

    I would also questions if you LOVE to talk with your mom. Do you really? Do you like these questions? If you do – awesome, keep the conversations. But if they are making you feel anything but happy, you can pull way back.

    I’m sorry you didn’t get the mom you deserved. All the best.

  44. LW. I’m so sorry. Judi hugs if you want them.

    I happened to watch the first half of Tangled right before reading this letter. And, earlier this week, my mom dropped a FEELINGSBOMB ambush email. I’d told her about some Bad Stuff in my life (I don’t normally share but this was public, so…). Within minutes of hanging up, she sent me an email with a badly typo-ed subject line: ‘From me f you bo’. And a link to an article about a hypercritical mom who realized the errors of her ways.

    That’s not an apology. It’s …. FEELINGSSPAM, an emotional ambush when I was fragile and vulnerable and she wanted me to Perform The Ritual of Forgiveness without her ever saying she was sorry.

    It sounds like your mom is doing the same thing. I’m sorry.

  45. From what I see here, Stepdad was and is physically and emotionally abusive, and Mom is an emotionally distant manipulator who has kept LW working for her affection her entire life to the point that she still says she worships Mom despite Mom’s emotional abuse and enabling Stepdad’s abuse.

    Why make both them and me feel like crap when it doesn’t really matter now?

    It clearly *does* matter now – it’s impacting your relationship still, LW, enough that you’re seeking advice. So, you do it because it will ultimately make you feel better to free yourself from seeking the emotional involvement you want from your mother that she is incapable of giving or unwilling to give.

    Answering that question honestly would ultimately involve me DEFENDING my memories of neglect and abuse.

    Here’s the good news: it doesn’t need to. They solicited your opinion, and you obliged by sharing it. You can make any attempts to argue you out of it both boring and fruitless by responding to criticisms or counterarguments with, “Okay,” not actually changing your opinion, refusing to give reasons – “You asked, and that’s what I think” – and noting how pointless the conversation is. If they keep pressing, you can end the call – “Look, I’ve already told you what I think, and I’m not interested in discussing it further. Have a nice [time of day] and I’ll talk to you soon about some other topic!”

    Whatever you do, don’t play the game – as CA suggests, either call them on the question or give an honest, direct response (you might also want to admit to yourself that your mom has not treated you very well, because she definitely has not). It’s a trap, but you can free yourself.

  46. No, I don’t think they were good parents.
    My Mother did not ask this question directly; instead it was slightly guilt tripping wonderment- ” But you were such a wonderful social child! I always thought you would be first to be married!”- When I, in my 20s, 30s, 40’s was the last of the siblings still unpartnered. After (fortunately not too much) of this, I took a deep breath and said ” Well, you made it very clear that what was important in life was your career. You made it very clear that your family and your children were not priorities for you. And I have just followed what you modeled” And have repeated that every time she has brought it up since.
    I know you say that you cant just tell them they were bad because then ” you will have to defend your own abuse and neglect” And you know your family, I don’t. (And it sounds like your abuse was a bit more- close up? then the neglect I got) But I just want to put a vote in for ” No, you were not a good parent. That’s how it was…and subject change to the thing you want to talk about. I know exactly what happened in my childhood. If someone wants to claim otherwise, that is on them, and why don’t we talk about this movie? I don’t need to argue memories with them.
    On the whole, my mother has been reasonable enough to basically shut up and let the conversation end rather than be defensive though. This is just what has worked for me, my sympathies to others whose problematic people are not that pragmatic.
    Shout out to people above with caregiver mothers; My sister and I stood at the back of her retirement party and listened to everyone talk about how she was always there for them. And looked at each other and said ” Well, I guess that explains why she was never there for us”
    Seriously, she refused to hug me or touch me from age seven on- because ” she got enough of that at work (from the people she was caring for) and didn’t want it when she got home” That burn will never heal.
    For the record though-happily married, have good (superficial) relations with mother, fairly close to my siblings. Food to eat, place to sleep. Life is good.

    1. “Seriously, she refused to hug me or touch me from age seven on- because ” she got enough of that at work (from the people she was caring for) and didn’t want it when she got home” That burn will never heal.”

      Oh man, this one brings back memories. My mom was a teacher at charter schools for most of my adolescence, for at-risk kids. She would come home and when I would bounce up wanting to tell her about my day, she would say, “Okay, okay, I’m all teenagered out for today, can we do this later?” I don’t need to tell you that later didn’t come very often.

      Thank you for your thoughts. It gives me a lot of comfort to know that at least I wasn’t the only one in the Uncanny Valley between loved and not wanted.

  47. Parenting resulted in DID. Enough said on that one.

    Now when the conversation with mum verges on Fantasy Families I reply, ‘Sorry, mum, but I am afraid my memory is far too good. I remember more than you realise; would you like to talk about it?’


  48. This may be off-topic, but here it is:

    When I finally got into therapy in my early 20s, to try to sort out my Dad issues, my therapist suggested I talk to him. To tell him a very specific incident that would exemplify his emotional abuse, and ask for him to apologize/recognize it/something affirming.

    So I go to do this. “Dad I need to talk to you about how you told me I was worthless, and then you didn’t speak to me for the rest of high school? You remember that? Well…” And he cut me off. He said, “If you told me I did something that hurt you, or if I was a bad father, I couldn’t take that. I’d never forgive myself.”

    Well that certainly shut things down, and of course I’ve never gotten any satisfaction from him and I never will. I don’t know what my point is. Maybe I just needed to tell that story.

    1. Ugh, this makes me furious for you. It’s so self-centred. It’s like… he sees you’re hurting because of his parenting, but he’s not willing to talk about that, because he ‘couldn’t take’ it. All the while implicitly asking you to take the pain that he caused.

      My father has done many similar things around acts of physical and emotional violence, so I feel you on that.

    2. If you need to hear that this (both the behaviour and the avoidance) is totally fucked up: this is totally fucked up.

      But it’s also part of a larger pattern where a man’s pain is the only thing that counts: to this kind of thinking it’s more hurtful to be called a racist than to be a target of racism, so nobody should call them out; it’s more devastating to be falsely accused of rape (or to be accused of rape that you don’t think was rape) than to be raped, so society must make 100% certain this will never happen; looking after the victim can be done when there are resources (emotional, time, money) left.

      This might be a time to return the awkward to sender: ‘I couldn’t take that’. ‘Well, you have to take that, because it happened.’ Not that I think it will help much.

  49. This is weirdly illuminating about a certain conversation I have had multiple times with my mother. . .

    HER: I was a bad parent!

    ME: What?

    HER: You kids never had chores, and you would have been better off if you’d had chores! [heavy implication that we are both dirty]

    ME: I think your parenting was okay . . .

    HER: [angry] No it wasn’t!

    It weirdly never occurred to me that my mom was just projecting her issues with self-worth onto her parenting. (She did an okay job, incidentally — my brother is more consistently functional than I am, but I’m functional enough.) Like: it’s not about the parenting. My mom just feels bad about herself.

  50. I can appreciate the LW’s need to retain a positive view of her mother, however based on the abuse that this woman allowed to be done to her own child, I guess I’m having trouble accepting that she is in any way “brave”, “strong” or “classy”. Indeed, I find her refusal to protect the LW from her husband’s emotional and physical abuse to be a solid form of child abuse in its own right. And given that the woman also refused to engage her daughter in any way but the most superficial – she actually said “you know I don’t care about any of that”?! – I would call the LW’s mother more of a fair-weather friend than a parent.

    That said, the LW managed to overcome this horrible beginning in life and make herself a happy family of her own, and for that I applaud her. I would also encourage her to put her own emotional needs far above those her bizzarro parents seem to be expressing with their questions. Either they have come to realize that they were crappy parents and are seeking absolution or they are simply playing more of their mind games now. In either case, I think honesty is the best policy. When asked again, I’d likely respond with something like “Well, I certainly don’t plan to raise my kids that way, but whatever.”

  51. My parents actually did apologize for abusing me when I confronted them. They did try to justify it at first, but backed down. The “why would you ask that” approach would feel too much to me like it’s implying that she has no reason to think she was a bad parent, but YMMV. I have to admit that “Oh, Mom, you know I’m not interested in talking about any of that.” is awesome, but I understand if you want to be less confrontational about it.

  52. I honestly can’t think of anything more dismissive and nasty than telling someone you don’t care about something they are saying with any frequency.

  53. The part where the LW described her mom as the “strongest, classiest” made me so sad. Just… hugs.

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