#1233: “Is it ever safe to take a difficult parent off a ‘low information’ diet?”

Dear Captain,

I (she/her, 32) suppose that this is a question about resetting boundaries. My mom has made a few comments over the last year or two that I’ve never really reached out to or confided in her, and she sounds hurt about this. This is true! For example, in fifth grade my school put on a menstruation talk and I got a “just-in-case” box of pads. I was a late bloomer and didn’t get my period until I was 14, whereupon I dug up this box from my closet. I didn’t tell my mom I’d gotten my period until I needed a new box. This continues today – last year I let her know that I’d ended an 11-year relationship with my boyfriend about three months after it happened, after I’d already ironed out a lot of logistical and emotional issues. She had no idea that we’d been having problems.

I never made a conscious decision to put her on a low-information diet, but I never felt like I could talk about my problems with her. For one thing, for a large part of my childhood she was a single mom trying to work nights and provide for five kids. I felt that I was helping by being “the good one” and being very quiet and self-sufficient.

The bigger thing is that, while I like my mom when she’s sober, she’s also an unpredictable and mean drunk. I remember one family reunion event where she got drunk and started telling other relatives about how her kids (I was standing right there) don’t love her enough and it wasn’t worth it and she regrets having us. Then the next morning everyone pretends that everything is fine and nothing happened and we have pancakes. I honestly have no idea how she would react if I mentioned any of this.

So my questions are: Should I let sleeping dogs lie, or actually try to address this with her at some point and maybe have a closer relationship with her as an adult? Is there a way to test the water without diving in? Also, I moved far away (not a coincidence) and only visit home once or twice a year, so is this a thing to bring up in person (at Christmas, yaaay) or on the phone? Any advice for scripts I can practice ad nauseum in the hopes that I can actually say it out loud?

Thank you!

-Distant Daughter

Dear Distant Daughter,

It makes sense that your mom regrets not having a more trusting and intimate relationship with you, but let’s stop and examine the idea that it’s somehow your fault or your job to do something about that. There are reasons your relationship is how it is. Giant, glaring reasons called “she’s an unpredictable and mean drunk” who doesn’t remember telling the whole family her children were her greatest regret in front of said children (which I sense is the tip of a giant iceberg of Unsaid Things about Mom and her Drinking)(Congratulations on your October ‘Burying The Lede‘ Award btw! ;)). It sounds like you learned pretty young that telling your mom personal things either wasn’t safe, wasn’t necessary (helpful, etc.), or felt like adding to her (considerable!) workload in raising all of you so you adopted a strategy of quietly handling things yourself and seeking support elsewhere. This was a completely reasonable thing to do? If it’s not serving you any longer you can change it if you want to, but you don’t have to, and you don’t have to do it on your mom’s terms or her schedule.

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😉 ❤

I’m going to give you a story and then the advice, since I can relate, a lot, way more than I’d like to.

My mom isn’t an alcoholic and she does many things extremely well, as in, if she weren’t retired and completely uninterested in politics she could be a roving Cabinet-level government minister. Every six months the USA would be like, “Whatever happened to all those problems Ma Awkward was Secretary Of? All gone? Does she want to be Secretary of [Other Stuff] next?” And all the Departments would be like “Pick me! Pick me!” and she would unfuck them one by one (but definitely not use that word for it).

But she doesn’t really “do” feelings, especially negative/uncomfortable feelings, especially when they don’t match what she thinks the feelings should be in quality or expression. Her tendency is to be a management consultant about it, there’s an immediate, instinctual move to interrogate, classify, and Right-Size the feeling in order to offer the exact correct amount of reaction it deserves: Is it really even a feeling, am I absolutely positive it’s that specific feeling because it’s definitely not the feeling I should be having (i.e. the feeling she would be having in the same circumstances), it’s not the feeling I used to have before about this (i.e. the one she assumed I had), can we try making it smaller and see what that gets us? Can we identify the cause of the feeling so we make it go away and, better yet, figure out how to avoid that feeling in the future? Also, why didn’t I mention this (air quotes) “feeling” (if it is in fact a feeling, which is still very much TBD) to her sooner?

This instinctive “but what is it” is not intended to be mean or dismissive in any way. She wants to know, and asking questions how she shows interest and care, she wants to understand so she can offer the correct help. Nurse’s training: Find out exactly what we are dealing with so we can target the correct solution, the incorrect solution might do more harm than good. Also there’s the part where she was raised by (literally) a professional interrogator and investigator. There must be something here to understand, there must be a way to help, let’s keep digging until we find it.

We get along much, much better now, and also as an adult I can have some humor and empathy about it (it must be so busy inside her brain sometimes), but as a kid let’s just say there were a lot of times where I would be sad about something and then have to answer questions like, “Well why do you think your friend invited everyone to her party except you?” or “But why didn’t you get the music solo/part in the play?” or Why didn’t anyone ask you to the dance?”

These were not rhetorical questions. She wanted and expected me to supply reasons, and “Who the hell knows?” and “It wasn’t my decision, I guess they just picked someone else?” and “Everybody makes mistakes or gets passed over sometimes, even when we do our best” weren’t part of my vocabulary. So instead of receiving comfort when I was already down, I’d have to troubleshoot my own failures and rejection like it was a workplace safety meeting and we were trying to avoid a repeat of last quarter’s unfortunate meltdown at the plant.

There’s definitely something in here about being a “gifted” kid and all the messages around that (“Since I can do anything I put my mind to, if I can’t do something, I must not have tried hard enough!”) and I think my mom genuinely thought turning hard things into teachable moments would empower me to learn how to feel less bad in the future vs. be forced to be complicit in my own failures and painful coming-of-age moments by having, while in pain right now, to conjure plausible reasons for why I’d failed to live up to my potential. Good thing I have a vivid imagination, right?“Feel bad? Let’s get to the bottom of how you could have avoided this and what steps you could take to avoid it in the future, then you’ll be happy and have gained knowledge!” My Absolute Jerklord Of A Brain: “Let’s generate increasingly elaborate scenarios for how everything is always our fault!”*

My mom’s “A feeling? Let’s investigate this!” approach had another end result: I did learn how to feel immediately a little better when bad things happened, because I stopped telling her about sad/hard/negative things until or unless it became absolutely unavoidable. Presto! At least the part where I had to squirmingly generate justifications for my own exclusion and pain went away, with a possibility of also dodging the part where she called the other kids’ parents or had an awkward terrible meeting down at the school or did something else to make me feel like I had no agency about what had happened. (Dame Awkward = Not a respecter of ‘ok just tell me the truth and nobody will be in trouble’ pacts).

Of course, when small problems that could have been dealt with early would flower into actual (expensive, logistically-taxing, “the school called“) crises, it would be even more stressful because obviously early intervention could have prevented this, so why hadn’t it?  My mom would be justifiably confused because she’d thought everything was fine, which is fair because: I was definitely on-purpose letting her think everything was fine, up to and including lying and saying it was all fine, until it became so incredibly Not Fine that third parties were involved. Mom would also be humiliated because the school (and etc.) would also be confused when they did loop her in: How could this be the first my parent was hearing about this problem? Didn’t we see each other every day? Once that happened, I wasn’t just (in trouble)(screwing up something important/expensive)(getting bullied within an inch of my life), I was also making her Look Like A Bad Mother in front of other people. Now the whole WORLD’S idea of what a Mother and Daughter SHOULD be like was being challenged by my failure to adequately perform! Let me tell you, nothing inspires trust, vulnerability, and comfort like being COMMANDED to confide stuff when you don’t know whether it will be interrogated, minimized, or punished this time but will almost definitely be one of those things and possibly all three. So I kept hiding until I couldn’t.

This led to my integrity and my competence being always in question, the narrative in the family became “Jennifer is an unreliable narrator who ignores problems until they pile up, she can’t be trusted to do anything right even though she is so smart and should be able to do absolutely everything right on the first try, and we can’t trust her to tell us what’s going on!” and it wasn’t…untrue? I can see why it looked that way in the Terrible Mirror we built for each other. And when you add in undiagnosed #ADHD…a lot of the times it was that way. I still let things pile up until they compel attention. And I was lying! (I’m not alone, my older brother is perhaps the world’s greatest Secret Squirrel player and “It’s hard to say” is his catchphrase.)

But I also wasn’t getting credit for (or any help with) all the hard things I was quietly handing, and clearly nobody was ever gonna talk about the times I’d said “Um, this is a problem?” and I’d been told it wasn’t really a problem or, if it was a problem I shouldn’t feel that way about it and anyway I should probably solve it myself ’cause how else would I learn anything if other people fixed my problems for me. It would probably not surprise you to learn that I developed a highly skewed sense of when it is okay to ask for help: my counter defaults to “never” and from what I can tell my family’s defaults to “much sooner than now, which is why we can’t possibly help you now, since it would send the Wrong Message, but our door is always open if you want to discuss all the ways you could have avoided this in the first place.” (I’m good, thanks!)

I feel like I need to say in defense of my Mom: She 100% did not know she was making me feel this way, would not have wanted me to feel this way, and would be heartbroken to learn now that she was making me feel this way. I think she wanted to know and understand what was happening with her child so she could help, and how can you do the correct help if you don’t understand so could I just tell her already? When she would be embarrassed, angry and also genuinely hurt that I hadn’t come to her sooner about things that were truly making me suffer, I didn’t have the kid-words to say “Because whenever something’s wrong, you always me feel even worse about it. In fact YOU make me feel worse than ANYONE ELSE IN THE WHOLE WORLD DOES, and I will now do almost anything to avoid disappointing you even if that means keeping my whole personality a secret.” I also didn’t have the adult words to say, “Can we skip the Teachable Moment for once? Just give the kid a fucking hug and a cookie and tell her sometimes it goes like that, but you believe in her and know she tried her best!”

She loves me so much and she was doing her best. I love her so much and was doing my best. If everybody was doing their best, why was so much of it so awful is a question I will be chewing on for the rest of my life, but the answer to “Why are you slow to confide in Your Mother or come to your parents when you need help?” isn’t exactly a mystery, and “Welp, why did you make it so hard for me to tell you things?” isn’t a mystery that I think she wants to actually talk about, or even can talk about, because then we’d have to audit some of her past behavior and she’s historically been far more comfortable on the territory of what other people should be doing differently. I was certainly a dramatic, disorganized, secretive nightmare as a child; she was a grownup that whole time. Maybe it could be different if I had more faith and tried harder and forced us both to talk about what happened, but also, maybe the way to “better” is to leave it all back there and focus on what kindness and love can be nourished here and now. Maybe I don’t want to grind myself up on rehashing those memories with the little time my mom and I do get to spend together, maybe “better” is silently agreeing “We’ve achieved relative harmony, go us!”  and deal another hand of rummy. (Maybe “better” is something I put at risk every time I write about it.)

GOOD NEWS. Things are much better now. Not perfect. Not healed. But better.

What helped make it better:

  • Having a long period of setting boundaries and resetting expectations.
  • More specifically: Moving far away and staying there, being financially and otherwise independent.
  • Even more specifically: Boundary-setting and enforcement stopped the bad behaviors, so visits stopped stressing me out the way they did before. My coping skills got better, everyone’s behavior got better, we could build something from that.
  • Therapy. So much therapy. Did you know that feelings can be friends that give you information and it’s not necessarily your job to show them how much smarter than them you can be?
  • Selective information sharing! Some things aren’t up for discussion with my parents until I feel like I’m on firm ground and/or have already figured out a way to deal with them, even if they are things that other people would or “should” go to their parents about right away. Nowadays it’s more like a medium-information diet, where I can pull back to “low” if things get contentious, but where I also try sharing stuff the way “normal” people might and see if everyone will rise to the occasion, and sometimes everyone does.
  • I’ve also gotten better (see the Years of Therapy™ ) at interrupting the routine when we lapse into old patterns – “Oh, I wasn’t looking for advice, I was just letting you know what happened” or “I know you wanna help, but I’ve got it handled,” “It’s okay to just say ‘that sucks’ and that you love me” and maybe then we’ll have a fun conversation about whether “suck” is appropriate language.
  • Prioritizing being kind and pleasant in the present over talking about the past or being “closer.” Letting go of what things “should” be like and being as kind and pleasant as possible about what things are like.
  • Having a great support system which includes my older sibling (we are a united front on family stuff as adults) and includes this space to write about things and feel less alone – a space, incidentally, speaking of selective information sharing, which I have never hidden but also never specifically mentioned to my mom.
  • People mellow with age. Not all people, but some people, and so far we’re those kind.

Do I wish it were easier/better/closer?

All the time?

Is it really hard to write about this in public?

Yeah?

But what we have now, good and bad, we come by it honest. And I won’t pretend the history away. If we build something good now we still build on what went before, not on one person’s idea of what it should have been like or what I should be like, enforced at the expense of my integrity, enforced by my compliance. I don’t do that anymore.

Letter Writer, I think lots of people are in these shoes, with a parent who wants to be “closer” but doesn’t know quite how to get there, and with messy histories where the child did reach out again and again for comfort and help and found either control or indifference or inattention or “halp” that was worse than nothing and learned that it wasn’t worth it to keep trying. Being a parent is perhaps to be used to having feedback and guidance be a one-way street, so they put it on us to figure out what “closer” looks like. Or perhaps that’s just how we receive it, since being their child meant a certain amount of learning how to please them.

And there are outright abusive parents (in the world and piling up in my inbox, forgive some multitasking please, Letter Writer) who want their adult children to reach out to them “more” (visit them, live near them, share life decisions, come to them for advice, accept their opinions and judgments, listen to all their problems like an on-demand unpaid therapist, be their personal assistant, take care of them in their old age, etc.)  not because they value or even like their children (though they’ll use the word “love” like it’s going out of style) but because they want the outside appearance and validation of “We’re Good Parents™, right? And that’s what Good Children™ Do For Good Parents!”

“We’re a faaaaaaaamily, so you have to (do what I want)(perform according to my expectations) and I get to (say/do whatever I want to you)(without ever being accountable for it)” is a weak-ass argument when you break it down, as is the “I put a roof over your head and clothed you when you were a minor who was legally unable to live alone or work and had no choice, so now you owe me anything I want forever!” argument. Blood is thicker than water but it’s still a fluid, so if a parent is having to pull out the org-chart and the fact that they did the bare minimum to enforce a connection with a fellow adult, why is that, exactly? (They always pretend they don’t know, but they do.)

But what if “I wish we could be closer” or “I wish you would confide in me more” isn’t necessarily a command? In your shoes, I would not necessarily assign myself the job of “figure out how to be closer to Mom” or strategize in advance about a Christmas sit-down or phone conversation.

Your mother expressing a regret or sad feeling about how your relationship has turned out doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong or need to work harder at this. She’s allowed to be sad about how things are, you’re allowed to proceed with caution where she’s concerned and do what works for you. Frankly, I would do a “self-awareness” audit of her motivation in bringing this up at all. Is this a fond wish to be closer in the future? Is it a vulnerable expression of regret for her role in all this? Is she at all self-aware about how her drinking, etc. contributed to the problem between you? Is she still drinking? Does she still act like an asshole when she drinks? Why does she think you’re not closer? Does she actually think you are Daughtering Slightly Wrong and expect you do to Be More Like Other Daughters, Possibly TV Daughters Who (Creepily IMHO) Refer To Their Mom as ‘My Best Friend’?

What would “closer” even look like to her? What do your siblings think?

Consider that any conversation about your relationship with your mom that places a burden of “trying harder” on you and doesn’t acknowledge her drinking (and the mean things she says when she’s drinking, and the iceberg of things you didn’t say about her drinking when you earned your certificate) is a giant trap. Wouldn’t it be so much easier for your mom if everyone pretends that any distance between her and her adult children is their fault somehow the way everyone pretends she didn’t say all those things terrible the morning after the family reunion?

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“Charlie, can we talk about why our football games always end with you flying through the air? It’s really frustrating that you don’t kick the ball more.”- Lucy

If it’s a trap, you don’t have to spring it. You can keep on as you are, you can think about what’s possible and likely without engaging with her (your instincts are probably the right ones), and, if she brings this up again, you can ask her about it. Scripts:

  • “Mom, you’ve said that a few times now and I’m not sure what to say. [Why do you think we don’t talk about personal things more?” ] [“I tell you stuff when the time feels right for me.”][“Is there something specific you have in mind?”]
  • “You’ve mentioned that a bunch, and I have thought about it. I guess I got out of the habit when I was a kid – you were always pretty busy taking care of us and I thought I was helping when I handled things quietly on my own without bothering you. If you want to talk more, want to set up a weekly* phone call where we both check in for a little bit every now and then?”
  • “You’ve mentioned that a few times and I don’t know what to say. I don’t tell you stuff sometimes because I can’t predict whether I’m going to get cool, sober mom or mean, drunk mom today, and I don’t like to fight with you, so it’s easier to stay quiet.” Does that feel possible to say? Or terrifying? She wanted “closeness,” does she want the honest kind? Consider that there are worse things you could do than expect her to chew on that problem as hard as you’re chewing on this right now. Consider that all pressure to “be closer” might dry up pretty quick if it means that her behaviors are equally up for discussion.

*Weekly = can be monthly, can be brief text exchanges, can be dropping a postcard in the mail every now and again, can be Skype, can be playing some online game where you destroy each other at Scrabble and make small talk in the chat, the only important stricture is that whatever you offer up is something you both can and want to do sustainably. It also doesn’t have to be discussion of anything particularly deep. Sometimes being present with someone is more important than how you spend the time.

Another tactic to try (I recommend this a lot) whenever there is a contentious history with someone is to stop going back and forth and ask them, straight up:

“In a perfect world where everything from now on works exactly the way you want it to and you get everything you want, what does that look like?” i.e. Stop telling me what I’m not doing right and paint a picture of what “amazing!” looks like from where you sit.

When this works well, it pushes the antagonist in a conflict to articulate a positive case for what they want. You might not be able to do what they want, it might not be feasible or reasonable to do what they want, you might want nothing to do with what they want once you know what it is, but at least you gave them an opportunity to say what they want and maybe the discussion can be about that from now on.

When you suspect people are arguing in bad faith, this question brings them to a halt. ‘Cause if they have no positive case? And just want to keep picking on and blaming you? You’ll hear a lot of “Don’t be ridiculous” and “But I’m your mother, you should tell me things.” If she were the kind of mom you felt great telling personal stuff to, you’d have that relationship, but she isn’t, so…? Are y’all gonna talk about that, really, or can we just shoot for “Don’t get drunk and tell the whole family how I’m your biggest regret and we’ll call it The Best Christmas Yet!”

You can also skip the part where you talk thru the dynamic or “problem” of your “closeness” and just try out sharing personal information with her sometimes to see if you get something different than you used to. Maybe she was trying to say, I want to hear these things, I want another chance at this, give me something to work with and I’ll show you that I can be different now, I want to be here for you now the way I couldn’t when you were young and I was overwhelmed with parenting and earning a living, please know you’re not bothering me. But she didn’t say that, she didn’t offer you something different or apologize for her part (in the words of Sam Outlaw: “You been looking really sorry but I haven’t heard it yet”). So only try sharing more if you want to, you don’t have to fill in the blanks in a way that gives her all the benefit of the doubt. If she wants a closer relationship she has choices, too.

The hopeful thing that maybe I can tell you is, you don’t have to decide it all right now. “Forever is a long time, Sally.” You’ve made a relationship that works better for you for the time being with what your mom was capable of. If she’s capable of more, you can find out at your own pace, you can try different things and see what works, you can give her and yourself the gift of keeping a door open for the possibility of change without opening it all the way if that doesn’t feel safe or you don’t want to do more work, you can default back to what you have now if that works better, you can try again (or not) as many times as you like. Boundaries aren’t a physical fence, they are adaptable in real time, and the choices for your relationship with your mom aren’t “CLOSE!” (EXACTLY AS YOUR MOM ENVISIONS THAT) vs. “NOT CLOSE!”

We can’t go back and fix the past but we can sometimes make a better future one little bit of present at a time. I wish that for you, but please know, you’re doing pretty damn great already. ❤

 

*Notes from a Jerkbrain: You know that thing in letters where something terrible is happening and the lovely Letter Writer is literally doing The Most™ about the situation, and still begging, “Please tell me, what am I doing wrong and what more can I do to fix it?” I can recognize it in y’all because that’s what it sounds like in here with me, almost all the time. I had to learn how to have compassion for myself and not automatically blame myself for everything, from scratch, as an adult, one 50-minute session per week at a time. The insidious thing is, looking at a rough situation and being honest about our own contributions to it and figuring out what we can actually control is an important and useful life skill. Just, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of self-blame=>what is the self-improvement lifehack=>it’s not working=>what if I tried harder tho=>still not working=>guess the problem is me?=>repeat=>but what if I did it perfectly this time?=>ok but what if I avoided it really hard=>still not working=Clearly, I suck=>repeat. We have to take responsibility for our actions but we don’t have to take responsibility for everything everyone does to us or feels about us, fighting against this specific impulse is where my sometimes-absurd lists of all the choices everyone in a given situation has about what they could do comes from. It’s literally a screenwriting exercise from an Adaptation class in grad school (“Go through your scene with a partner and write down all the different choices your characters could make about each aspect of the situation“) that I adapted for thinking about my own interpersonal conflicts. I recommend it highly both for adapting well-known stories where the audience already knows what happens to make sure that the characters don’t act like they already know what happens and are making real, motivated choices, and for reminding yourself that you’re not the boss of everyone and it’s not automatically all your fault when other people are confusing or mean to you.

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