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)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.