Dear Captain Awkward,
I did not grow up in a house that did conflict- I joke (but not really) that I wish my parents had fought in front of their children. Because there was never an emphasis on healthy conflict, all conflict equals bad conflict. While I feel that I can talk to my dad about issues, the real problem is my mom.
When my mom calls (every day/every other day), I go through a nerve wracking thought process. If I don’t pick up the phone (because I had a long day, because I don’t want to talk to her or anyone), she’ll become more and more anxious and escalate communication attempts. I find myself yelling to the phone, ““What do you need!?!” as it rings and before picking up. If I do pick up the phone, immediately she’ll ask, “What’re you doing?” in a tone that implies I’m doing something bad. When she calls, it’s rarely about anything time sensitive or an emergency- it’s mostly just to chat.
If she calls when I’m in traffic, and I pick up the phone and say I can’t talk, I’m dealing with driving, her tone is disappointed. However, sometimes driving is the best time to call her, because I can say that I’m home now so I have to go.
For example: I had a very busy day at work. My mom texts me a general “How’s your day going?” type of text. Nothing time sensitive, not an emergency. I see the text and ignore it because I’m in meetings all day and don’t have the brain space to deal with it right then. That evening, I go to a bookclub that my mom and I are a part of. She sees me, and immediately has a wide eyed expression, and exclaims, “Didn’t you see my text? Why didn’t you answer???” Then I have to reassure her that I was busy all day, and besides, I would see her that night.
Recently her most passive aggressive text: She posted in the family text chain, “Any recommendations for a Pandora running station?” at 5:00pm on a Sunday evening. No one responded that night, and the next morning, she posted, “Thanks fam!”
I feel that I’m good about getting back to her- I usually respond to a text within a couple of hours, and never more than 24 hours.
I’ve seen her and my dad every weekend for the past month (which is way too much in my books, but it included some family event things). When I’m at their house with my brother and sister, I find myself constantly making sure that she doesn’t feel neglected or teased. If she feels that we are not bonding as a family as she’d prefer, she lashes out and becomes mopey and angry.
I’d like to not go full nuclear and destroy the relationship, but I’m tired. I’m tired of constantly checking my phone, because if I miss a call I’m going to hear about her anxiety and how much she freaked out. If I miss a text and don’t respond for a couple of hours, I’ll get a “You ok??????” type of text and escalating from there.
What I really need: a way to tell my mom that her constant need for contact and communication is too much. Basically my mom has no chill and low boundaries, plus a heaping dose of mother anxiety. Help me!
My shoulders are going up around my ears reading this! Also, you and about 20 other people have sent me a version of this letter recently so I’m glad for the chance to summarize a method that many people can apply. Here are your steps:
First, recalibrate “normal.”
In a perfect world, how much you would visit your parents? “Not every g.d. weekend!” sounds like your starting point, but quantify it even more than that. One “family dinner” or weekend activity per month? Choose what works for you and what you can reasonably sustain, and then commit to that and follow through. When you go, strive to enjoy yourself as much as you can. Turn down additional plans or invitations if you wish and when you do, do not give explanations beyond “I can’t make it this weekend, have fun.” Your plans could in fact be “I will be busy reading silently alone in my house with my phone turned off” or “Swiping right” or “Climbing rocks in the middle of nowhere” or “Reorganizing where I keep my collection of antique spyglasses.” Express all of the details of that as “Sorry, I have other plans this weekend, but enjoy yourselves!”
Two important things:
a) Once you say no thanks, follow through on the “no thanks.” You are re-teaching your mom and yourself that “I can’t make it” is not the beginning of a negotiation. Every “Okay, FINE, I’ll stop by for a little” when you already said you didn’t want to restarts the clock on how long this whole recalibration thing will take.
b) Watch/lock down/be aware of your social media postings on a weekend you said you couldn’t make it. If your mom and your siblings monitor your feeds, posting “A day of glorious nothing!” and one of those photos of your feet and the horizon when you said you couldn’t come to this week’s family barbecue will invite discussion and drama. Give your folks less information while you re-negotiate these boundaries.
Second, create a ritual.
You are already in the same book club. Awesome!
In addition, institute a once-a-week phone call with your mom at roughly the same time and day every week where you catch up for a little bit. Script: “Mom, my schedule’s kind of all over the place right now, I want to make sure I set aside time for you. Can we make a plan to talk for a little while on Sunday mornings?” At the appointed time, call her, chat for 15 minutes or so, ask her lots of questions about her week, make it as pleasant as possible, say your goodbyes and I love yous, and then give yourself permission to disengage until next week’s call.
Throughout the week, redirect all communications to that weekly call. “Got your text – let’s talk about it on Sunday!” “Can’t talk now, but I’ll catch up Sunday!”
Why this works:
A) Avoiding her just makes her chase you more. If you want to keep a relationship, do it on your terms.
B) If you consistently follow through, by calling when you say you will, it gives her an anchor to know she won’t lose touch with you. Over time it can help her be less anxious.
C) If you control the schedule and initiate the weekly call, it can remove some of your anxiety. You can start giving yourself permission to disengage the rest of the week because you know when you’ll fully engage.
For people with a contentious relationship with a parent, if you do the weekly (or monthly – the interval doesn’t matter as much as consistency does) phone call (or Skype), make sure you have some down time or something really pleasant to do afterward.
Declare independence from your phone.
Don’t pick up the phone when she calls. Let it go to voicemail. If you don’t already, pay for one of those services that transcribes your voice mails to text so you can quickly glance at the content. You can always reply “Got your msg, let’s talk about it Sunday! Love you!”
If you think it would help to set expectations in advance, you could try saying “Mom, I’m going to be turning my phone off when I’m at work so I can concentrate better during the day. I wanted to let you know so you wouldn’t be worried if I don’t get back to you right away.”
Or, “Mom, I have been trying to have less screen time lately and do more reading/exercising/relaxing/meditating in the evenings, so I’m going on a cell phone diet for a little while. Don’t worry, we’ll still talk on Sundays!”
Then, actually turn your phone off for some of those chunks of time. As much as you’re training her not to ping you there constantly, there’s an aspect of training yourself to let yourself be untethered.
Also, no more phone when you’re driving! When you’re driving, put your phone in a backpack or purse and put it in the back seat. Or if you’re using it for GPS, mute all notifications. Anything else is actually dangerous!
Prepare for a short-term escalation.
She will not like the new system, at first. She will escalate attempts to contact you. Non-emergency things will become emergencies. “But what if I need to get a hold of you in an emergency and your phone is off?” “Can’t a mother talk to her child?” She will try to slide the times around, or test whether you’re really turning off your phone.
If she’s feeling lonely or anxious (or in an actual emergency )she could call your dad, your siblings, a friend, her priest or minister, a therapist. It doesn’t have to be you, so, HOLD FAST. Stick to what you said you’d do, be active and reliable about the weekly phone calls, commit to and enjoy your planned visits, and leave your phone off or on silent when you need a break. If you are consistent, she will adapt.
Also, that night she asked for Pandora running station recommendations and nobody replied to her? She was passive-aggressively annoyed, but note: your siblings did not respond to her immediately and also THE WORLD DID NOT END.
Prepare for her to deputize others.
When she can’t raise you, get ready for texts from your siblings. “Hey, text Ma back, she’s texting me looking for you!” They know her, so hopefully they can be allies and y’all can present a united front. I bet they don’t like this behavior either, so, ask how they deal with it.
Prepare to feel guilty and weird.
HOLD FAST. You love your mom, you’re making an effort to communicate regularly with your mom, you’re not doing anything wrong! This is hard. You’re doing the right thing.
When you do respond to a text barrage, respond *once.*
Your texts from her might look like:
“Are you coming to the pot luck on Saturday?”
“I saw some fabric you might like for curtains – what are the measurements for your windows again?”
“Hello? Are you there?”
“Your dad asked me to ask you if he should pick up that wine you like for Saturday”
“Hello, should I be worried?”
“Are you hiding from me?”
“You’re probably watching the Thronegames or whatever, sorry to bother you, ha ha”
“Did you see the weather? You’re going to want to wear a sweater if you’re going out today!”
“Okay, text me back, I’m starting to get worried”
“Wow, ignoring your Mom much? Thanks alot LOL”
Your text back at the end of this can be:
“Hello lovely mother! Got your texts. Won’t be there Saturday, so don’t worry about wine. Let’s talk about fabric & measurements Sunday – thanks so much for thinking of me. Love you.”
Break the apology cycle and be very boring.
Do not address the “I’m worried” comments, at all. You’re fine, and her worry is not actually your problem. Make all “We used to talk more?” or “Whyyyyy don’t you ever want to talk to your mother anymore” or “It’s just that I worry about you” conversations super-boring for her to have. Keep it short and neutral, like “I’m here now, what did you want to talk about?” or “We’ll talk Sunday!”
Don’t apologize for not being tethered to your phone 24-7. You didn’t do anything wrong.
In fact, start keeping track of the number of times you say “I’m sorry!” to her about stuff that isn’t actually wrong or hurtful. When you do call on Sunday (or whatever day you mutually nail down), is the first half of the conversation an Apology Dance? Take note of it for now and over time do what you can to stop feeding it.
By way of example, my job(s) mean fielding an overwhelming amount of email spread across about 7 different accounts & systems. I realized a while back that every single reply I wrote started with a paragraph worth of “Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you sooner.” I decided to stop doing that so much – I replaced “Sorry …” with some version of “Hi, so nice to hear from you” or “Hello, thanks for your email” and skipped directly to answering the question or giving the person the information they wanted in the first place. I don’t know if the recipients like it better but I feel better not doing 20 little shame dances every time I try to climb Email Mountain.
Give it time.
Give her some time to adjust and give yourself time to adjust.
Eventually things won’t have to be so stilted and locked down and adversarial, we hope. You’ll enjoy your interactions more when you have more control and agency in how you communicate. Think of this as a temporary resetting period – hard, but necessary.
It will most likely get better if you stay consistent.
I’m descended from people who used to email me to ask if I got their voicemail and leave a voicemail to ask if I got their email. I once had to fax something to my dad’s former office that involved a full three days of communications. “Are you sending it now?” “No, tomorrow, when I’m at work.” “Well I’m checking the machine now and nothing’s here.” “Dude, I know.”
Every call home started with them saying some version of “Wow, we hadn’t heard from you for so long we thought you were dead!” (said in a joking tone, but still) or “It’s about time you called!” and then once I said “Um, phones work both ways and I haven’t heard from you in a while, either!” and interestingly enough, now we don’t do that anymore.
They also, when learning to text message, used to sometimes spell “come” in a horrible way, like “We’re downstrs r u cumming down?”
IT GETS BETTER. :-p ❤
And if it doesn’t get better, at least you have some boundaries for yourself in how and when you respond.
P.S. I want to push back on the idea that your Mom doesn’t “do” conflict. She does do conflict – by constantly poking you and responding passive-aggressively when you don’t immediately answer or give her the attention/answer she wants – she’s just the only one who is currently allowed express negative emotions or “do” conflict, and you’re expected to quietly eat it and give her what she wants. Setting and enforcing some boundaries here isn’t you creating conflict, it’s you putting guardrails around the conflict that’s already happening.