#1280: “Am I a terrible daughter for moving out and leaving my mom to care for my grandma?”

Hi Captain,

I’m the youngest kid in a South Asian family. I’ve lived with my parents for four years because I have a career in the arts and have only recently started to earn enough money to pay rent and also, like, eat. I’ve also stayed with them this long because my frail grandma lives with us and I know it’s a big help for my mom to have me around.

Although my parents are good providers and generally supportive of me, in recent years I’ve come to realize that their home is not a very healthy place for me to be. They aren’t great about boundaries or understanding the behavior of a child that’s different from them. I’m gay, and not out to my parents, so I have to hide a big chunk of my life from them. My mom is also a textbook emotional manipulator – the type of person who makes every conversation about herself, gets angry with no warning, calls me crying when I’m out of the house, that kind of thing. I know she’s like this because she had a difficult upbringing and I sympathize with that, but I’m ready to be out from under her influence.

I had plans to move this summer, but Covid-19 threw a wrench in that. Recently a friend reached out with an opportunity to move to a new place in the fall, which would be perfect for me! The problem is, in the time between plans, my grandma’s health has gotten much more volatile. She always needed a lot of care, but lately she’s having scares a couple times a week. I worry that if I leave, I’ll be leaving my mom without any support. She has my dad, who helps physically, but she’s told me many times that I’m what gets her through the day. I know I need to leave, but I feel so selfish. I feel like I could just hang in there while my grandma is still alive, but that logic is what kept me here for so long in the first place. There’s definitely a cultural pressure, too. I’ve always felt a little distant from my big extended family, and I know this choice will drive me even farther away from them.

What do you think? Should I prioritize myself, or my family?

Hello! Thank you for your question.

Here are the choices as outlined in your letter:

  1. Move out, ABANDON YOUR MOTHER, and YOUR DYING GRANDMA and accept you are a SELFISH (gay!) daughter, FOREVER LOSING YOUR FAMILY
  2. Stay indefinitely, be your mom’s #1 shoulder to cry on and grandma back-up care system until your grandma dies, and eventually move out, at which time, presumably, your mom will…not…think you are being selfish and abandoning her?

My immediate thought is, what if these aren’t the only possible choices?

And what if your (very real) limitations also hold some keys to your freedom?

Ok, here are some questions – some logistical, some emotional – that may help you start building a good decision matrix for what to do about this.

  1. Is the potential new place within driving distance or public transit reach of your parents’ house, or are you GOING-going? (No wrong answer, just, this will anchor a lot of options one way or another).
  2. Are you able to get in touch with extended family or at least lay your hands on their contact information?
  3. Is your mother your grandmother’s only child or does she have siblings in the extended family?
  4. How close are your siblings (geographically-speaking) and what’s your relationship like with them? And how do they get along with your parents?
  5. You help with your grandma’s care, what’s your relationship with your grandma like? Is she somebody you can talk to?
  6. Do you think there is ever a time you could tell your mother something like “I am going to get my own place with a good friend” and have her response be even in the same postal code as “Well, I’ll miss you so much, but if that will make you happy, you should do it?” 

I suspect what you’re actually looking at from your mom (a textbook emotional manipulator, as you describe) is more like:

Present day: “Your grandma is sick, I need you.” Legit! Being a full-time caregiver for a relative is hard as hell, your Mom is not silly to want to hold tight to reliable and loving support.

Fast-forward in time, your grandma has died and you’re ready to move out. Your mom: “How can you leave me now? You know I’m grieving, I need you.” Sure thing! Grieving is really hard, and the empty feeling in the house is going to be even emptier if your mom’s last baby moves away and she feels like she’s losing everybody all at once. You can stay awhile longer.

So then you stay while she grieves. Fast-forward some more: Your mom isn’t as young as she used to be, she’s going to need care herself, how can you leave when she needs you? Also probably legit! Aging parents need care, somebody has to do it, you’re her favorite, it’s natural she’d want you.

Plus, the longer you stay at home, and the longer you go without getting married (to a man, they assume) and without having children of your own, the more the weight of cultural and family expectations is going to pull at you, and the more other family members will buy into the idea that staying put and taking care of your mom is your entire job within your family, a view your mom will do nothing to dispel.

If my guess is right and this is the case, it’s limiting to the point of suffocation. How can you ever leave somebody who needs you so much?

But, hear me out, what if she can need stuff from you and it does not have to be your sole job to fulfill her every need, especially at the expense of all of your own? It’s actually extremely not okay for parents to make their children responsible for their emotional needs. When do you get to have your big beautiful truthful gay artist life and also be the loving daughter and granddaughter that you clearly are?

If there is never going to be a good time where your mom will support you and let you go, if you are pretty sure all the times are going to be bad and come with a lot of roadblocks, why not find the time that works best for you? You’re going to have the fights anyway, you’re going to be called selfish anyway, you’re going to beat yourself up about whether you made the right decision anyway. If you’re dealing with a person who can never be pleased, perhaps the default choice does not have to be the one that guarantees your misery.

There are good reasons to stay close if your grandma doesn’t have much time left, not because of your mom’s needs, actually, but because of your own. If you would feel like you are doing right by your family to spend as much time as possible with her and do whatever you can to support your mom for a little while longer, and if knowing that you did your best when it counted would help you feel freer to leave when the time comes, then choosing to stay put for a while might in fact be the best among imperfect options, especially during the pandemic. 

Just, I don’t think staying is your only option, I don’t think you leaving means your whole family automatically falls apart, and I think you potentially have many untapped resources. For instance, where are your grandma’s other children, your mom’s siblings? You say you’re the youngest, so where are your siblings? You say your dad helps but your mom still leans on you more. That doesn’t mean he can’t take on more of the load, just that so far everybody prefers it this way. People can adjust in all kinds of surprising ways when they have to, so why are we jumping to “Letter Writer is a terrible daughter, obviously” when there’s a whole list of people who haven’t even been offered a chance to rise to the occasion?

Being a round-the-clock caregiver is hard work, your mom deserves tons of help and respite and support from her entire family, that’s not in dispute! But does it have to be you, all the time, and does it have to be only you? Or could you move to your own place and work with your family to make a rotating schedule of caring for grandma or reducing your mom’s overall workload? For example:

  • Who can drop off a few days’ worth of meals every week so your parents don’t have to cook so much?
  • Who can do the grocery runs, pharmacy pickups, who can tech support the telehealth appointments?
  • Who can take all the laundry off the back porch in big bags and bring it back folded and fresh?
  • Who can video-chat with grandma for an hour every night while your mom eats dinner and has some time to herself?
  • Is Grandma’s space at home set up for how her life is right now, does it need some rearranging and some tech solutions to make it more comfortable & safe for her & possibly give her more autonomy? [Stuff like: Installing safety rails near the toilet, making it really easy for her to reach things, minimizing how many stairs are involved in every facet of her life. I recall that at some point we bought my grandpa a glow-in-the-dark remote-control the size of a small skateboard and attached it to his chair with a telephone cord so he wouldn’t ever lose it.]
  • Who is on call for your mom for emotional support & logistical support when she needs it, and can that be a rotating cast of family members when you’re busy with work and your own life?

If you’re thinking, “That sounds nice, but it will never work because my family will never go for that,” you are probably right!

  • Your mom sounds like a lot, her extreme muchness is not a family secret, and you presently bear the brunt of that which means the others don’t have to. Why would anyone mess with this sweet situation unless they absolutely had to?
  • They will especially never go for that if they sense that you will keep doing all of these things on your own if they fail or refuse to step in.
  • They will never go for that if they think there’s a chance you won’t actually move out. If they sense the path of least resistance is “lean on nice baby sister who likes helping” vs. “spend more time with mom, a known difficult quantity” there should be no surprises if they try rolling downhill instead of up.
  • They will never go for that in a way that gives you permission to move out before you do it, they will never go for that as long as it’s a “Hey, what would happen if I moved out and everybody else stepped in more to take care of Mom & Grandma?” question. Often families will play around with agreeing with the designated scapegoat or Eternally Responsible Child in theory and then fail to support or do any practical steps when it counts.

“Why would anybody change if they don’t have to?” Good question. Answer: You can ask nicely and try to lead everybody to the right path, but there’s a chance you’re going to have to make it so they have to, which requires exercising a degree of ruthlessness and firmness that has never been encouraged or allowed for you, the youngest daughter, and you’re going to have to let things like “but you’re just being selfish” and “don’t you care about Mom” and “why do you insist on being so difficult” and “don’t you care about your family?” roll off your back when you stop picking up the phone on the first ring sometimes because there are lots of people who could be handling whatever this call is about.

And even with seemingly small stuff you’re going to have to go against a lot of  “nice girl” training, the stuff that says that if you’re moving out you should probably give everyone in your household a lot of notice and time to discuss it and let it sink in because you’d want the same consideration in their shoes, and you probably can’t go until you’re sure that every possible detail is covered, and yes you can go to the ball, Cinderella, you just have to handle all the things on this magic list that has no end first.

You’re going to have to do lots of things that make you ask, if I love my family and they love me, wouldn’t it just be easier to be who they want? Hopefully whenever that happens your self-preservation instincts will kick in and ask “Easier for who and at what cost?”

And there will be cost, because you know your family and I think you already know there might be no way to do this that feels good or where you can be sure that everyone will see it your way eventually. You might have to just…go. And let your relatives, who are all fellow adults, work out for themselves how to care for each other.

Since we’re imagining options, here’s one possible order of operations for getting out in one piece:

A. Quietly make sure you have sole possession of all of your identity documents and banking information, and change any passwords your parents might have access to. You may want to move your personal money to a bank they don’t use or know about and store copies of your personal documents outside the house. Consider renting a post office box if you can and starting to redirect your mail to somewhere that isn’t the house. Hopefully this is just a precaution, but if tempers flare, you want to be sure you *can* actually leave when the time comes.

B. Quietly gather contact information for all relatives you know and start making friendly regular casual contact with them that isn’t mediated through your parents. Even just, “Happy birthday!” or “Mom told me about the new house, how cool!” positive messages. Who responds in kind?

C. Gently feel out who will be a supportive helper without spilling your beans. Test out some messages:

    • “Mom is working so hard and could probably really use [a phone call to check in and see how she’s doing if you’ve got time this week][X specific practical support].
    • “I’m doing my best to help Mom & Grandma out, but I could really use some backup this week with [make a very specific request that would take something off your plate.]

Which ask works better? Who follows up and actually helps? Maybe this will be much smoother than you fear.

D. Rent the new place & secure friends to help you move your stuff.

E. Decide when you’re going to break it to your mom. However much advance notice you give her is how many days of fighting about it you are going to have while you still live there, so, do with that information what you will.

F. Make an advance plan for an elsewhere you need to be right after you break it to your mom, so there is a firm ending time to that first discussion. “I can’t talk more right now, New Roommate is picking me up to go curtain-shopping in a minute.” If you reasonably think her reaction might be violent, the plan to have someone else step in at a certain time so you aren’t alone can be part of making a safety plan.

G. Actually break it to your mom. “Good news, I found a place, here are the logistics.” You’re not asking permission, you’re telling her information. In a functional, supportive family relationship your happy news would be at least a little bit their happy news, so try treating it like it is and letting your mom do all the work of reacting (vs. trying to manage and anticipate it all for her).

H. Withstand her immediate reaction, which is not going to be awesome. You’ve weathered this before, you can again. You know that this is not a negotiation, no matter what she says, so you can afford to let her vent a bit. It is actually completely understandable if she has a strong reaction to hearing that her favorite support person is going to be elsewhere, or has a lot of stress about the possibility of doing everything herself, that’s not inherently manipulative, it just is!

I. Respond strategically. “Mom, I’m not ‘abandoning my family,’ I’m getting a different apartment. I understand why you’re worried, you’ve really been handling so much on your own, but please don’t worry. I have a plan for how I can still help out, and I have a plan today to talk to all of our relatives about how hard you’ve been working to take care of Grandma and talk about how we can all come together as a family to help you.” 

J. Get out of that room and that conversation as soon as you reasonably can. The longer you spend in that room alone with her, the more likely it will be that someone will say something unforgivable. You’ll do better if both of you have space to process emotions away from each other.

K. Present your extended family with the fait accompli: You are moving to a new place on x date, you’ve already told your mom, yeah, she’s pretty upset, also, these last few months at home have shown you that your mom & grandma could use A LOT more help.  What would really help the most is if they called your mom today and asked her what she needs, ’cause she’s kinda upset and could use the reminder that there are a lot of people in your family and she’s not all alone in the world.

L. Find a way to turn off your phone or massively screen your calls for at least the rest of the day once you’ve talked to everyone in the family. Hopefully they’ll flood your mom with attention and let her vent some of it out at Not-You.

M. Assume that the family will talk amongst themselves and there will be a lot of backchannel complaining about you from all sides. Repeat after me: “They can complain all they want, let them get it out of their system. I’m moving out anyway.” Resist the urge to clear your name or defend your reputation, your best bet is to disengage from trying to prove anything right now. You’re leaving, you’ve tapped multiple people on the shoulder to figure out solutions, you aren’t actually leaving your mom to the wolves even if she chooses to see it that way.

N. Memorize the following sentences:

    • “Really only Mom can tell you what she needs, I suggest you talk directly to her.”
    • “Mom, it sounds like you should talk to [relative] directly, I’m sure they want to help but they will need a lot of guidance from you about how, and you’re the expert on Grandma.” Deploy these often and get out of the triangulation radius.

O. Move as scheduled. Yay! Buy a houseplant. Name it and tell it your dreams.

P. Be prepared for an extinction burst as your mom supplies new and improved ways to persuade you that it is always an emergency that only you can solve, immediately. There may be actual crises with your grandma, but there will also be “crises,” probably. Engage within your abilities and safe limits and let the rest wash over you.

Q. Be prepared for the possibility that…it will go fine! You’ll move, you’ll check in as planned, and the rest of your relatives will pick up the slack and do their best, and everyone will adjust to the new normal over time.

(If it doesn’t go fine, and your family absolutely refused to step in to help your mother and your grandmother more, for whatever reason, does that mean you failed (the selfish daughter narrative) or does that mean that lots of people in your family need to reckon with their own priorities and repair their relationships?)

R. Be prepared for friction to re-occur or even increase as your siblings, etc. realize that they might actually have to do work. This friction can take lots of forms, and if the rest of your siblings are brother-shaped be especially vigilant about “sudden extreme helplessness” or “agreeing to do the thing but peppering you with so many questions & interruptions that it starts to feel easier to just do it yourself.” These are traps. They will figure it out.

S. Accept the “selfish” label strategically for the time being if it gets you the rest of what you want. Imagine in one of the waves of friction you get messages from your relatives about selfishness, like, “You’re so selfish for leaving our poor mom and grandma all alone!”  This is an easy one. This is a gimme. You were raised by the CHAMPION of the guilt trip, you’re not gonna fall for this old thing!

“Oh, sibling/aunt/uncle/dad, you’re right, Mom really does need her family…all of her family…around her. I may be selfish for moving out, but are you trying to tell me you can’t [Call your own mother twice a week when it’s your scheduled block][Facezoom with your grandmother now and then so our mom can get a little break][Make an extra grocery run now and again][Insert actual concrete task of caring here in place of the omnibus of “But don’t you caaaaaaaaaaaaaaare about faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamily?” they’re trying to dump on you.]?

I’ve been happy to help whenever and however I can, and honestly I’ve been fortunate to get so much time with Grandma, but what’s too much for Mom is also too much for any one person, and we all really need to pull together right now. Can I count on you to step up, for Mom’s sake? She really needs you.” 

KAPOW! Guilt trip returned to sender! They won’t know what hit them, or they will (because they’ve also met your mom) but they won’t be able to fight back without also admitting they are selfish and just don’t wanna.

T. Hold up your end. Call your mom at regular intervals (vs. waiting for her to chase you). Tell your grandma you love her a lot while she’s here to hear it. Do the support and care tasks you agreed to when it’s your turn. Drive home the message “Of course I still love you, I just live over here now” with your actions.

They may not recognize or thank you for this or forgive you, but you will be able to say that you behaved with integrity.

U. Remind yourself that it shouldn’t be this hard and it’s not your fault that it is.

Your parents should support you and love you and you shouldn’t have to hide your sexuality. Yes, your cultural background means that adult children – especially daughters – might live at home much longer than they do elsewhere in the world, but your work in creating a career as a working artist and moving into your first place is a thing to be celebrated and admired, not forbidden, not a reason to blame you. You shouldn’t have to sneak around like a thief in order to safely move to your own place, but the sneaking isn’t happening because you are untrustworthy, it’s because you are reasonably afraid that your family doesn’t think you are really allowed to live on your own and because you can’t fully trust them to let you go.

Is wanting your own place selfish? Maybe, but you have a self, you get to consider what you want and need and dream about at least some of the time. My strong sense is that you’re worried about leaving your grandma in the lurch or your mom in the lurch with grandma not because you intend to be like “eff off, fam, smell ya later” and stop doing any emotional support or caregiving, but because you’re afraid that once you leave and your mom blows up at you, you might not be allowed back unless you agree to live by their rules and never leave again.

When homophobic families punish and banish their queer kids for being who they are, and when they don’t make it safe for those children to live truthfully in their homes, they don’t get to complain if they don’t get the whole truth all the time or when their children don’t want to live in those homes. Not coming out to your family, and quietly preparing your move to your new home without keeping them in the loop may involve lying sometimes, but it’s not betrayal, it’s protective camouflage. That’s not your fault. You should never, ever have had to carry so much or tie yourself in these knots.

V thru Z: Live your life. Be happy. Fall in love. Make great art. Find your community and love your friends and let them love you.

Love your family, do what you can for your family, but love yourself, too.

That’s one happy ending I can imagine for you, here is another.