#1260: “How to maintain boundaries within stressful family relationships during COVID-19 lockdown?”

Hi Captain,

My mother and I have always wanted different frequencies of interaction. After I moved out for university, at a holiday party my mother announced the only gift she ever wanted from me was daily phone calls – even her friends were incredulous. She tends to call any hour of the day, hitting redial up to a dozen times if I don’t answer. Calls can be about anything, from “are you free tonight” to an extended vent session about my father or brother (who still lives at home). No call has ever been an emergency – I found out my father broke his wrist a week after it happened, via Facebook, despite my mother and I talking in-between.

Over the last few years, I’ve become better at enforcing manageable levels of communication – proactively calling her on weekends for a chat, making up vague excuses, explicitly saying I won’t answer/call back unless I’m free. This had the side effect of every conversation starting with how I’m too busy and don’t prioritise family. After the first few hour-long complaints, it’s now usually only a throwaway comment per call.

With COVID-19, we’re all under Shelter-in-Place. Now she knows I’m not busy and she wants the daily calls again. Additionally, she wants to use them to teach me her native language. Even if I didn’t find daily calls with my mother draining – daily phone calls that require homework and family/diaspora guilt?

I know we’re in anxious times and we should all reach out and connect with each other. I am also worried about my parents – my father is likely high risk, my brother maybe so, and my mother is a healthcare worker (not frontline, but still in a hospital).

I’ve tried suggesting using a language app/online course and having weekly conversation practice – no dice. I’ve tried suggesting weekend catch-up calls without the homework, but then comes the guilt. We text occasionally with pictures of the garden, but that doesn’t cut it. Digital game nights and Netflix-parties are also out.

I’m tired and stressed and I want to connect with my mother – but not at the expense of my own mental health. Suggestions? Scripts?

– At home doesn’t mean on-call (she/her)

Thank you

Hello there!

This is going to be a repeat of a lot of past advice about maintaining both boundaries and regular contact with difficult/partially estranged family.

What I’m seeing:

  1. You are doing all the right stuff. You are suggesting what would work for you, you are trying to be patient and reach out more. You are finding low-stakes ways to keep in touch (photos of the garden). Pro-actively calling her once a week instead of waiting for her to chase you. It’s good.
  2. Your mom doesn’t want to hear it. She keeps telling you that whatever you want to do and can do isn’t enough for her. Consider that this might be the case no matter what you did and even if you gave her everything she thinks she wants from you, your dynamic is one where the story is that her daughter doesn’t care enough and her primary communication tool with you is guilt.
  3. Your mom sees boundaries and not being 100% available to her or here for whatever she wants to say to you and do with you as mean, selfish, etc. But what I see is someone who is trying very hard to stay in contact with her. You are working hard at this because you love her and you want to be in touch.

“Control what you can control,” says my therapist. She means, I can’t send incompetent and corrupt national leaders into deep, peaceful, Sleeping-Beauty-like decades-long sleep where they think they are awake in a simulation with the powers of my mind (though I am trying my best, a little help here, witches?) But I can take my meds and scoop the cat box and call a friend and limit my social media and newsfeed doom-scrolling to certain hours of the day. Okay, “can” is a strong word this week, let’s go with “try.” “Intend?” “Consider.” “Contemplate, as if from a great distance.” “Mull now and again, in passing.” Point being, when I start to feel overwhelmed and anxious, my brain’s habit is to go to the big picture and not the little one that’s within my reach, and it’s on me to break the loop.

We don’t change because the world feels like it’s ending, we become more ourselves. Which means that under pressure, some people fall back on destructive or unhealthy patterns. For me, that’s avoiding paperwork and laundry, playing too many phone games, making to-do lists that make me feel bad because I’m already avoiding all the tasks on them, petting the cat while singing Sondheim, and vibrating with incandescent fury in the direction of the government. For others it’s a more…interactive…proposition; your letter is part of a trend I am seeing in both the inbox and in comments where people whose anxieties and stress responses manifest as attempts to control the people around them are having a pandemic-renaissance of those behaviors.

I’m reminded of the excellent phrase that Letter Writer #963 coined, identifying her husband’s extreme environmental beliefs as “a load-bearing depression repository.” He needed to treat his mental health, find a career he could stick with, and be a better roommate and partner, but instead he became obsessed with the Letter Writer’s kettle-boiling and dishwashing habits (only her dishwashing, please, he doesn’t wash dishes, he’s busy SAVING THE EARTH). That guy’s depression was real, the way our present fear is real, but his depression didn’t mean that his controlling behaviors were valid or acceptable or that the negative effects on his wife weren’t also real. “I’m only a jerk because I’m suffering.” No. You can walk, chew gum, suffer AND annoy everyone around you at the same time.

Content warning for abuse, xenophobia, and eugenics at the links in this next paragraph:

“I feel bad/afraid, who can I blame and how can I control them?” is not a basis for good decision-making by humans. Interpersonally, this is dangerous. In our communities? It’s unconscionable. In the hands of fascists? It’s horrific. Again, I interrupt our regularly-scheduled Awkward programming to implore everyone to resist the temptation to identify certain people in our lives or groups as virus vectors to be blamed, used as an excuse for violent actions, or written off as expendable. People who are afraid are more prone to manipulate and be manipulated. Nobody is expendable. Cruelty will not save us. Push back on these attitudes wherever you find them, and (control what you can control) recognize the temptation to displace your fear onto other people in yourselves.

Back to you, Letter Writer #1260: Your mom’s fear is real, the stress she’s under as a hospital worker (!!!!) is real, and I can imagine her internal logic? – no, that implies self-awareness and intent, let’s go with instinct  – as something like: “I am afraid. If only my daughter called me more, I would feel less afraid. I love her so much. Does she love me as much as I love her? How can I get her to call me more? What if we’re running out of time to get this to work [work = the way I want it and only that way]?Communication specifically with you has become a load-bearing fear depository. This is entirely human and understandable. There’s likely a mirror of this in you that sounds like“If I could just get my mom to BACK OFF a little bit, everything will be okay.” 

Unfortunately, the communication tools she knows from the past are made of guilt and shame and blame and overwhelming you with calls, so she sharpens them again and sticks them into your old, tender places. They feel exactly as bad as they always did and the extra fear sprinkled on doesn’t help. “But we’re a family!” doesn’t fix it. “But you’re my daughter, we should be close!” doesn’t fix it. “I’m just trying to give you the gift of our family’s heritage! doesn’t fix it. And your responses – “I love you. I can do X, would you accept X?”  -doesn’t fix it for her.

Here are several places you can try to set & maintain a boundary: 

Continue scheduling time for calling/texting her – Maybe a text of a garden photo once/day at the same time every day, a quick phone call every other day at the same time (you can set a timer if you want to – “Oops, time to take my bread out of the oven, love you!”) and a longer catch-up once/week at your usual time. Stick to the schedule. It was working for you before this happened, you’ll be less stressed if you are pro-active and in control, and she’ll be less anxious if she can predict the pattern even if she doesn’t realize or accept it.

-It is okay to be unavailable the rest of the time. Put your phone on “do not disturb” and then stick it in a drawer. Log out of messaging programs. You are a nice person so you may be tempted to warn her or tell her what you are doing and why, but given your history of hitting redial again and again (WHO DOES THAT? AAAARRGHHHHHH), I’d just do it. It’s not a negotiation. Voice mail exists. Text messages exist. You can talk tomorrow/later/at your regularly scheduled time.

– Continue ignoring the throwaway guilt trip comments, and if she escalates again, interrupt the blame/guilt spiral. Scripts:

  • “Mom, I’m calling you/talking to you now. Do you want to catch up, tell me how your day is going, hear about mine, or do you want to tell me I don’t care or call enough? I would gladly do the first thing, but if you want to take up all our time together doing the second thing, I’m going to hang up and try again tomorrow.”
  • “Mom, when you say stuff like that, what is it you want me to feel or do? Because what it actually does is make me feel bad and want to get off the phone. Can you please stop?”

Find three safe topics of conversation for subject changes. Media you both like, a hobby she has or you have, family stories, memories of when she was young or you were a kid. If one of the things is asking her for help or advice, so much the better; let her feel needed and feel like the expert. Scripts (combined with above):

  • “Mom, stop with the guilt trip. Just stop. The reason I was calling is, can you send me the recipe for Grandma’s no-knead bread again?”
  • “Mom, do you remember when we went to ______? I found an old photo the other day (text photo). I think it was July? How old were you in this photo? Where did you get that hat?” Prompt her for her memories.
  • “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when it’s safe to be out and about again? I’m dreaming about [a haircut][a dance class].”

It is okay if you don’t want daily language lessons. It is okay to flatly refuse them.

  • “Mom, that’s a lovely and kind offer, but I don’t want to do that.”

Stop suggesting or negotiating alternatives for communication. And don’t try to sell your mom on anything. You need to not have *daily* phone calls with a person who stresses you out. It’s not about “what’s best for both of you.” Nor will she understand something that hurts her feelings if you just explain it more/better. She’s not buying it. You actually get to decide that daily phone calls aren’t for you and make that true, you don’t need permission.

This doesn’t mean you’re out of options, though. The things you said you were actually up for doing with her? Just do them.

  • If and only if you want to study the language, use the online tutorial, tell your mom which one you’re using and where you are in it, and make the “20-30 minutes of conversation practice on Saturdays at 11:30 am” or whatever it is a thing you just do. Call her at the appointed time, say “It’s time for language practice, Mom, will you chat with me?” If she wants to do it her way or not at all? She can tell you that and I guess you’ll do it not at all. You tried. Give it a couple weeks. Try again.
  • “Mom, I’m going watch [movie] at [time]. Want to pilot that Netflix party thing?” If she doesn’t want to she doesn’t want to. She’s invited. You tried.
  • “Mom, let’s play X game online together! How does 8pm sound?” If she doesn’t want to? Try again next week. For now, you tried. The efforts you make to stay connected count even if they are not the exact efforts she demands.

You and your mom are not good a the meta-conversation of what should your relationship be like. Lots of people aren’t good at that, so maybe think of this as the difference between “We should hang out sometime” and “Can you meet me at _____ for ______ on ______ day Y/N.” Invite her to things you would actually like to do. She is free to suggest alternatives and issue invitations in the same vein instead of “More.” “More.” “More.” “You don’t care about family.” “More.” 

Everyone is stretched thin, anxious, worried, scared right now, so you can have empathy for that and make allowances for your mom, try to be gentle with her, and be a little more available than you might normally be. But you are allowed to make allowances for you and be gentle with you, too. You matter as much as your mom does. If she is allowed to be a little “off” or need more from you during a time of intense stress, consider that you are not obligated to perform exactly as she wishes, never need anything from her,  or hide and modulate genuine reactions to stress you’re feeling – including stress that’s caused or exacerbated by her! So be honest with yourself: Your mom stresses you the fuck out under the best of circumstances. You stress her out. You were never going to be “daily phone call” people. She had thirty-odd years to teach you this language. Do your best, by which I mean your unique and specific best, knowing that your best might not ever be good enough for her and hers might never be good enough for you, this relationship may never be comfortable or one where everybody feels like they are getting everything they need. The same way “weddings don’t exist to fix your family,” probably neither do pandemics. You love each other. You talk on the phone sometimes. This is is the mom you get and you are the daughter she gets. These are the gifts you can offer.

We never get enough time. The clock was always at five minutes to midnight, the countdown was always running. You are still trying to show up for your mom, and that is a beautiful and loving thing to do, so please give yourself credit for that. The clock will do what clocks do, our imperfect love and messy attempts at kindness won’t slow it down but they will sometimes stretch the few weeks or minutes or hours so they feel almost like enough. 

36 thoughts on “#1260: “How to maintain boundaries within stressful family relationships during COVID-19 lockdown?”

  1. Brilliant, as always. Thank you.

    Something I did with my parents this year is subscribed them to a service called StoryWorth, which sends them a question every week (either a canned one or one written by me) and collects their written responses in a book at the end of the year. Each week’s responses get emailed to me.

    This has proven to be a wonderful tool for managing my communication with my parents, which has definitely been an issue in the past. We automatically hear from each other at least once a week, and we automatically have something to talk about that isn’t political or awkward or unpleasant.

    It’s not a cure-all for parental boundary-leaping, but it’s been really helpful to my family.

    I swear I do not work for this company.

    1. Thank you for this — I’m looking at my budget to see when I could afford several subscriptions!

  2. Thank you for this post. Hi LW, thanks for writing in so I didn’t have to.

    I also have a mother like this. Her phone-based control attempts were part of a larger pattern of boundary crossing and emotional blackmail which got worse and worse. We ended up going to therapy together (there was an ultimatum from my side about not staying with her ever again), which dealt with some of her anxiety and need for control and also helped me truly feel like my reactions and boundaries were valid. It’s taken a long time for me to not have an immediate “oh lord please no” reaction to seeing her Caller ID pop up (though I still have a reaction, it’s just less visceral) and I only recently, two years or so post-first therapy date, started calling her to chat because I felt like it.

    But pandemic amnesia is real! Over the past ten days I’ve been treated to a greatest hits reel of “other people have their children living with them” and “bob’s niece calls him seven times a day” and “if only we could schedule a call every other day I would feel less alone (while quarantining with a friend and her whole entire family)”. Cue breathing difficulties definitely not associated with virus. I pushed back, my sibling pushed back, my mother managed to schedule an online session with the therapist, who pointed out that maybe this wasn’t the most helpful of approaches, which led to my mother retracting her request for any scheduled calls, at all.

    I know MH support isn’t always accessible for everyone (esp. during lock-down!) but maybe there’s an online or phone-based service that could help? For you or for her? And maybe for both of you once the situation stabilises? Till then, I hope you find space to breathe.

    1. $$ and accessibility issues acknowledged, therapists have had to go online, too. Just finished my 3rd video session a couple hours ago.

      And yes, having space to breathe is…glorious.

    2. OMG “other people have their children living with them” I feel you so hard.

  3. I’ve found that it really helps me to send all of Darth Mom’s calls to voicemail. If I can and want to, I call her back. But it removes the urgency of having to instantly decide whether to answer. I suspect it would also help with your redialing issue.
    I’ve told her I rarely check my voicemail (which is true) and that email is best. That’s a helpful redirect because people don’t usually expect immediate response to emails.

  4. Thank you for reminding us that pandemics don’t exist to fix families. There can be a lot of internal and external pressure to let down healthy boundaries (for example, with abusive relatives in at-risk groups) because WHAT IF THEY DIE AND YOU NEVER FIX THE PROBLEMS BETWEEN THEM AND YOU?!? It’s important to remember that longstanding toxicity in relationships doesn’t just go away because someone could die, leaving things unresolved — the time limit doesn’t actually help resolve anything unless both parties are willing and able to change their behavior in a relationship and sustain that change going forward for however long they’ve got. It’s even more important to remember that mental health is health, and that managing your stress level is key to getting through this crisis, so your emotional well-being isn’t something to sacrifice out of a sense of fear, obligation, or guilt.

    LW and others in your position: work on these relationships with these difficult people to whatever degree is healthy and rewarding for you. If a relationship (or a greater amount of closeness in a relationship) isn’t sustainable under normal circumstances, a pandemic won’t change that.

    1. “What if they die and you never fix the problems between you?”

      So this sounds a bit silly, but lately I’m getting a lot of comfort from the Critical Role character Caduceus Clay, who is a cleric who mainly deals with dead bodies. Grew up in a graveyard, all that. In a recent session, he said “The only thing I’ve ever found that brings closure is when everyone’s finally in the ground.” and I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit.

      We get to invent our own closure, and that’s the only way it happens.

      1. Ah, yes, that old guilt-trip, ”what if that’s THE LAST TIME you speak and then they die… HOW WILL YOU FEEL?”. My response is ”then I would take comfort from the many years of love and friendship between us and really remember the good times”. To one specific in-law who absolutely adores wheeling out the ”but death may occur” in response to anything not going their way, my response is always ”well, that would be sad if Z died of a heart attack but we’ve all got to die some time, don’t we?” with a big smile and an immediate subject change.

        1. “That would be sad but at least they’d stop annoying the crap out of me” sounds like an acceptable answer.

  5. Wonderful advice, as always. The only suggestion I would make is that instead of saying “I’ll hang up and try again tomorrow,” say you’ll try again next week. Your mom wants you to call every day (she doesn’t want this, but this is what she thinks she wants). I can easily see a situation where she deliberately indulges the bad behavior if she thinks it means you’ll call again tomorrow. Other than that, the Captain’s advice is perfect.

  6. Oh my god. This could be me. I’ve been struggling a lot with my mom lately, and with this pandemic I’ve found myself on the phone with her multiple times a week. If she could talk to me daily, she would – complete with the guilt trips and everything. I’ve been trying to remind myself that I can change my mind about how often we talk at any given time, and she will just have to deal with her feelings. It’s been very very hard. Sometimes we’re switching back and forth between English and Spanish and it’s taxing and stressful to communicate. I just, I feel so seen with this letter, and I want LW to know they are not alone.

  7. A thousand loves for this post.

    There was no pandemic when my mother was alive, but I spent a lot of effort at setting boundaries, and when that didn’t work well enough there were times that I simply didn’t call as often and didn’t talk about myself much. This distressed her, but she’d learned that if I wasn’t going to be open about something, it wasn’t gonna happen, and excessive attempts to get information out of me made me back off on the frequency of the phone calls–or, if I was visiting in person, made me suddenly need to take a walk or inspect Dad ‘s garden. (I had some practice in avoiding social discussion of my work by then–I worked for a military contractor–and just used those techniques on Mama.)

    But, and this point is important, I could not be the daughter she wanted, and she could not be the mother I wanted. Still, we loved each other, we persisted in our relationship despite the tensions, and we did the best we could. It was important for me to finally recognize that, it gave me some closure after her death.

    As a friend of mine likes to say, “perfection is not an option for humans.”

  8. I’ve found that phone calls with my mother are a lot more manageable when I make the call. She’d just love to hang out on the phone for two hours. If I make the call, then I can time it for, let’s say, half an hour before I have to start dinner, and there’s a built-on end point. But it’s better for her emotionally, because the fact that I thought of her and reached out to her fills some of her emotional need. Half an hour that I initiate leaves her happier than two hours that she initiated.

    1. Yes! I just recently started both initiating calls and timing them. I think I actually borrowed the half hour maximum from the historical novels I read where 30 minutes was the amount of time for a formal in person visit prior to phones. It really is the right amount of time for talking to relatives.

      1. For all the complicated manners of the past have been mocked, I have to say that a visit having a very distinct conclusion point is one I wish never went away. I fumbled for years about what was the proper amount of time to stay/go/when can I tell you I’m tired and that would have been so helpful.

    2. yes, excellent point. I also find with certain extended family who desperately want lots and lots of info (that they can then disseminate to literally anyone who crosses their path, I mean, cashiers, randos at church, anyone), giving them brief whatsapp’s with a picture of something they’ll find interesting, of a place you’ve been / are visiting and a short commentary on it, a quick voicenote with strictly surface-level items of interest means you can always respond to the inevitable ”but I KNOW NOTHING about what is really happening in your life” with ”but… but… I am in touch so often! Now, how crazy is this weather? Our daffodils are up so early!” etcetera.

  9. Give yourself a planned out at the start of each call- blame your kids, your now wildly-misbehaving cat, set the oven timer, start folding a load of laundry or unloading the dishwasher. When it gets a bit overwhelming, just apologize, you have to go (because of stated reason or silent self-deadline), you love her, talk soon, bye.
    Not a huge help, but going in prepared with how to end may help you pull the trigger when you need to.

    1. Another idea – lots of people are doing live online classes on different topics, so you could sign up for one and then call 20 or 30 minutes beforehand. Voila, a built-in ending to the phone call! And it’s at a predetermined time, so you don’t have to rely on yourself to decide when it’s too overwhelming and make your excuse.

      I’ve used this to great effect. My mom would talk on the phone for hours if I let her and I find the path of least resistance is to call before I have to leave for something. Now that I don’t have anywhere to actually go, I’ll just sign up for an online class (usually dance or fitness, but I’ve seen calligraphy, painting, lots of stuff). Then I call my mom a half hour beforehand, tell her when I get on the phone that I wanted to make sure to call her before my class, and then have exactly my preferred length of conversation before I have to go. It works like a charm!

  10. What if you just … didn’t? She’d lay on the guilt. You’d hear blah, blah, blah without trying to change her behavior. She’d call 10 times. You’d pick up the phone when you felt like it. She’d start with how she never hears from you; you’d yawn. She’d spew her anxiety; you’d glance at the clock. She’d point out the unassailable logic that you MUST be free because no one is going anywhere. You’d shrug. You’d have a passing thought that we should all reach out to each other- then you’d give your head a quick shake because really, everyone is at the same risk whether they’ve been on the phone earlier in the day or not. Things like hand washing help. Things like pointless worry don’t. Bleach on the doorknobs, good. Emotional leeches on the telephone, not helpful. You want to connect with your mother, but your every attempt so far as been at the expense of your own mental health, so reframe the desire. You want to connect with some idealized dream mother, not the one you’ve got. I recommend taking a long hot bath and reading N.K. Jemisin.

  11. Jedi hugs, LW, your mother sounds difficult. I have a grandmother like that (plus some weight/health/education shaming and a propensity toward giving unwanted gifts), and the only way I could deal with her was by setting her ringtone to silent and then, if I was up to it, calling her back later (with a nice chocolate or something planned for after I hung up). She would also email alllll the time – and, insultingly, she’d put a read receipt on EVERY! EMAIL!

    My grandmother never learned that yelling “you don’t call enough” = less time with me, being pleasant = more time. I don’t know if your mom will either – the fact that she’s reverting to “call me EVERY DAY” implies… no? Please don’t give her any more time/energy than you actually want to. There’s no amount of your attention that will make her less nervous and controlling, because it’s not about you, it’s about her own stuff (I don’t know and I won’t speculate as to what that is). You could offer to move in with her and be her willing lapdog 24/7 and she’d still find some excuse to complain that you’re not doing “enough” for her.

    You briefly mentioned being worried about your father and brother. Can you schedule time to call *them* specifically, no mom allowed? I know it’s super-sneaky and underhanded, but could you find a way to call them when you know your mom’s on shift, so she can’t butt in when you’re having Sibling Complain About Mom Time (or whatever floats your boat, IDK). That’s if you want to, of course.

    (My grandmother and I are, btw, no longer on speaking terms. She blew up at me because, at a time when I was working three jobs and didn’t have the time to shower every day, I sent my regrets on attending a late-night party that would have taken 50+ minutes to drive to *each way*. I cannot overstate the value of knowing that, should all else fail, you can walk away.)

  12. LW, I have found great power in inviting needy/wanty people to things that they are highly likely to say no to. This can have great power to turning the needy pursuer vs. avoidant rejector dynamic on its head.

  13. I love the last paragraph on time! I’ve benefitted hugely from reading the questions and helpful answers over the past couple of years. Thank you for providing this great resource.

  14. My parents have also started calling a lot more often in the current situation–it’s getting to me a bit, and that’s without the long history of constant pushing-for-more behind it! LW, you’re totally justified in sticking to your old schedule.

    As for managing it…first, ‘being home’ doesn’t mean ‘not busy’. You can still pull on all sorts of things for excuses, from “I’m working from home so I’m still busy” to “wow, cooking from scratch takes so much longer than eating out, it’s really filling up my evenings!” to “[old childhood friend] is having such a hard time in these circumstances, I promised I’d call her at 2 to catch up and give her some space to talk, so I have to go by then” to “I’ve taken up gardening/knitting/baking/obsessive cleaning/Netflix, this new hobby is fantastic and also sucking up all my time!” to literally whatever might be believable for you. Probably whatever you say will even be true! To-do lists have a way of expanding to fill the time they’re given.

    Second (and somewhat contradictory to the first point), you actually don’t have to have an excuse at all. You know your mom is really stuck on the idea of daily calls as the only acceptable expression of filial love. You know that basically nothing you say will change her mind on this, because you’ve already tried all of it. So…if she won’t accept any reasons, then maybe you don’t need to come up with reasons. Maybe you can just say “That doesn’t work for me, I’ll talk to you next Wednesday as usual though!” and then not pick up her calls until Wednesday. She’ll hate it, but she’s always hated it, and you’ve managed to have a relationship up to now anyways. Just because there’s a pandemic on and everything else has suddenly changed doesn’t mean you actually need to reconsider this too; a little normalcy might be good for both of you, even if your mom won’t admit it.

    Third…if I’m off target then forget this, but it sounds from your letter like diaspora/heritage/family related feelings are part of what’s making this round of your mom being your mom hit extra hard. If that is something that’s a sore spot for you, maybe approaching it in other (non-mom-ordered) ways might help with that? Like finding a group of people with similar diaspora experiences to you (everyone’s online these days, so it doesn’t even need to be local), or learning the language on your own terms for your own reasons, or catching up with other family members without your mom as the intermediary, or even just venting with a friend who gets the pressure of it. Connecting to that side of yourself on your own terms might go a long way towards defusing its power as a guilt-trip tool in your mom’s arsenal.

  15. Just to add on the language learning dynamic: guilt is not a great motivator. And from linguistics research, it’s pretty difficult to learn a language from a loved one as an adult… the dynamic is built in. It’s hard to be misunderstood/repeatedly corrected by a loved one, even if they’re not guilting you into it…!

    (there may also – understandably – be part of you thinking, she had my whole childhood to speak to me in her language, it’s her own fault that I can’t speak it now! You’re not wrong, but there could be lots of reasons your parents made that decision ranging from outdated ideas about language learning/immigrant inferiority/wanting you to “get ahead” by speaking only English… that she has now realised weren’t valid or worth it. Still, the above applies).

    If (and it’s an if!) you’d like to speak the language for your own sake – to speak to other relatives, not just your mother; to order food in a restaurant; enjoy a trip there more; understand the songs/movies/culture better – then by all means do it. But don’t involve your mother until you’re at a level where you can take correction without it knocking your confidence. There are many ways to get conversation practice online e.g.: italki/skype/etc.

  16. “I know we’re in anxious times and we should all reach out and connect with each other.”

    It might be helpful to let go of this ‘should.’ We are in anxious times, and we should all reach out and connect with people who will make us feel better, but your mom makes you feel worse. You don’t owe it to her to soothe her feelings at the expense of yours. You don’t owe it to anyone to pretend you have the kind of relationship where talking to your mom makes you feel better.

    To me, it sounds like your mom is an opportunist. Over the past few years, you set a level of contact with her that you could live with. Now there’s a crisis, and she sees an opportunity to renegotiate. The circumstances have changed, and she wants to see what she can get away with in the new situation.

    You don’t have to renegotiate if you don’t want to. You don’t need to talk to her more just because you have more time. You don’t need to make excuses about it. She probably wouldn’t accept excuses anyway. If calling her once on the weekends and ignoring her the rest of the time is what works for you, it’s fine to keep doing that. She’ll probably be upset and guilt trip you about it, but that’s what she was going to do anyway.

    1. Adding this because I just noticed the line about her hour-long complaints: you don’t need to listen to her complain for an hour. It’s fine to hang up.

  17. Dear LW,

    I once said to my mother that each time she called to tell me she needed me to come over to see my father (*) she added three days to my arrival date.

    I won’t say she never called again – she did, for years. I, however, didn’t pick up the phone and did add the three days. Every time.

    Over the course of the first year or so after my father’s stroke I learned that being the “bad child” was immensely freeing. If you’re the bad child, your every kindness is (correctly) perceived as a gift.

    And to this day, 12 years after my father’s death, 29 years after his stroke, living with my mother, my mother appreciates my decency and kindness. She doesn’t take me for granted.

    All of this is to say, it’s ok to refuse her demands.

    (*) My father had had a debilitating stroke. He remained alive and psychotic and disinhibited and requiring 24 hour care for 17 years.

  18. I would add: all those things you said you were okay with doing? Weekly check-in calls, Netflix stuff, using a language learning app, texting her? Do you actually *want* to do all of those things, or are some or all of these things you feel you *have* to offer to do in order to feel like you’re a [good daughter/connected family member/whatever]? It’s worth taking a step back and seeing if you actually, deep down, enjoy connecting with your mom that often. You don’t have to say “yes” to her just because you’re not busy. You’re allowed to want to be relaxed on a Saturday instead of tensely anticipating your agreed-upon afternoon call. Maybe that call can be an email or a text. Maybe you can wait to reply to the email instead of replying right away.

    I have dealt with this in my family and I’ve found that the trick is to get comfortable with the guilt. Whatever level of contact you propose, it’s not going to be enough for your mom. She only has power over you as long as you feel the need to avoid feeling guilty. If you embrace the fact that you’re going to feel like a bad daughter whatever level of contact you choose, she has no power at all. The only “consequence” of resisting her guilt-barrage is that she’ll try to tell you how bad she feels/how bad you are, which you can control. You alone have the power to say, “I’ll talk to you later, bye” and ignore/mute/block whatever communication channels are necessary to protect your mental health.

  19. Leaning into the “bad child” role can also be quite freeing from the personal expectations! “Sure, a good child would talk to mom every day regardless of their own feelings about it, but I am the BAD child, so I’m only going to talk to her when I feel like it!” At least, that’s how it worked for me – your mileage may vary depending on what sorts of buttons your parents and culture installed in your psyche.

  20. LW, you mention that you are also worried about your father and brother. It sounds like your mum isn’t the best source of updates on them. Do you have your own communication with them that is separate from her? Whether it’s an ongoing conversation, or a “please text me if there’s an emergency in your house” request.

    Also, you say that your mum knows that you now aren’t busy. You can push back against that! Maybe you’re busy making bread like the captain suggested, or you’re learning things through online platforms, or reading books, or keeping up with your friends etc. You can pair ignoring her calls for a few hours with a text later along the lines of “I did a deep clean of my bathroom today, and didn’t hear my phone go off. Are you still good to have our (regularly scheduled) call on Thursday?”

  21. That is such a kind answer to everyone. I love the specific actions suggested to keep connection manageably. Text is a great quick “I’m thinking of you”.

  22. Oh, LW, I totally sympathize! I’m in a similar situation, and am trying to negotiate the same desire/need for daily phone calls with a mother with whom I have always had a… difficult… relationship. In my case, my mother is living alone, in another state, with no family nearby. She has a serious heart condition and anxiety issues, which she normally manages through her active social and volunteer life. (She is, genuinely, a good and hard-working person doing good things in the world; we just rub each other the wrong way and have since I was old enough to say “no.”) Now that she is staying home and unable to have contact with any of her local friends, she has turned to the telephone for survival. And I do mean survival: she was hospitalized for several days after her heart condition worsened and she fell, and her cardiologist is urging us to get her daily visitors and/or move her to a retirement home where she will at least see other people regularly. (We are working on that. She has chosen a place, but current circumstances make it very difficult.) For now, my sister and I both call her every day – normally, I call her once a week on Sunday evenings and we “have dinner together.” Daily calls are… a lot.

    I’m not at all saying you should call every day – the Captain has given you some excellent suggestions for disengaging from that expectation, and I hope you can follow them. What I would like to share is a few things I’ve done to make my conversations bearable. First, I’ve picked a time when the conversation is naturally limited – I usually call about half an hour before I’d like to start dinner, and make that my excuse for ending the call. Second, I try to have one or two happy stories culled from the local paper or my social media so that I can monologue on those instead of listening to her complain. Third, I’ve developed a list of “reliable distractors” – in her case, the book she’s reading for book club, her travel plans when this is all over, what movies she’s seen on Netflix lately – that help break the cycle of complaint. (It has also helped, in an entirely random way, to realize that my mother makes exactly the same disgusted noise as Cassandra in Dragon Age: Inquisition. My mother – a Seeker? It still drives me crazy, but now it also makes me giggle.) I also reward myself for talking to her: extra gaming time, fancy chocolate, a nice glass of wine, whatever.

    The other thing that has helped is to decide explicitly that I am talking to her for her sake, because she needs the support, and that I will not expect support from her. (I have lots of other people for that.) It frightens and upsets her (not that she would ever admit that) to hear that I have any worries at all; she wants to be reassured, and I’m in a position that I can honestly do that right now. I don’t know if that applies in your case, but I offer it for what it’s worth. I wish you all the best!

  23. I WISH I’d read your response before my mother passed in 1983. I called her a martyr when I was 9 as I was very tired of being guilt-tripped.
    When she moved from Boston to San Francisco, where *I* had moved to be away from her, it became obvious to me that she was never going to stop.
    I was nowhere nearly as kind as your suggestions, I simply stopped talking to her except on rare occasions. I hated listening to her VMs as she was a constant whiner.
    But then I had come to a place where I got she was doing the best she knew how, me as well, & I could forgive both of us.
    We made up 2 weeks before she became unexpectedly very ill, dying in 3 days. I’ll always be very grateful we had that chance.

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