How does a gentle reminder about doing your laundry from someone who loves you become an existential struggle?
Plus, strategies for changing unhealthy communication patterns that do not rely on *persuading* the other person to change for you.
Dear Captain Awkward,
What are some good scripts for telling my mother I don’t want or need her help with my life?
I’m 27 and moved back in with my parents last year after losing my job due to budget issues. Before then I’d lived on my own for nearly ten years.
I now have two part-time jobs and, before Quarentimes, had spent most of my time out of the house, working. Now I’m stuck inside and my mom won’t stop trying to involve herself in my life. She would before as well, but I didn’t have to see her as often. Every conversation includes questions like:
- When are you going to the dentist next?
- Are you still applying to jobs?
- Have you seen this job opening?
- Have you applied for unemployment?
- Are your student loans in deferment?
- Did you do your laundry?
- How is (minor medical issue)?
- Did you call the pharmacy?
- Why are you spending so much time playing video games/online?
For the first few months of living with her there were also comments about my weight and appearance, but luckily those have stopped. I’ve told her to please stop sending me jobs to apply to (she ignored that request) and the constant nagging questions are infuriating after years of living by myself as a capable adult.
I’d like to move out soon and I am searching for jobs but right now, especially with the virus, my timeline has moved from this fall to god knows when. In our current arrangement, I help the household with chores and financially; that doesn’t mean I’m obligated to let her run my life, right?
How do I tell her that it’s not her business to know all of these things? How do I deal with her inevitable tantrum when I try to enforce my boundaries? Especially regarding the jobs– what she sends me are things that are either inappropriate or that I’ve already seen, and I usually try to ignore or delete them. What do I say when she says, “Did you see that job I sent you?”
She gets frustrated that we don’t talk more and we have fought about that. I don’t want to talk to her when it’s just constant advice or criticism. If I try to talk about our communication issues she wails that I think she’s a horrible mother and shuts down.
I apologize if you’ve written about this before, but I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall sometimes.
I Can Actually Do This Myself (she/her)
Dear I Can Actually Do This Myself:
I have written about this before, but we get new readers all the time, so thanks for an opportunity to review “Adult Conversations With Permanently Concerned Parents 101.”
I know you want your mom to stop peppering you with “helpful” questions and suggestions altogether, but she’s probably not going to quit anytime soon. This is how she shows care. When you ask her to stop bugging you about things you have handled, she sees it as “Stop caring about me!”
Also, quite frankly, unsolicited advice and reminders and arguments might be the one failsafe way she knows how to get your attention. If you’re arguing, you’re engaging with her and she knows for sure that you’re paying attention to what she has to say. If you’re arguing about her giving you too much parental advice, the argument automatically shifts onto terrain where she is comfortable and has a lot of historic authority and power – “I’m your mother, are you saying I shouldn’t care about my daughter?” – so then it’s your annoyance versus A MOTHER’S LOVE and she (in her mind) wins that fight every time. That’s how simple-seeming questions become existential struggles:
Mom: “When are you going to the dentist next?”
You: “MOM, YOU ALREADY ASKED ME THIS 10 TIMES.”
Mom: “I just CARE ABOUT YOU and WANT YOU TO HAVE TEETH WHEN YOU’RE OLD, is that so wrong?”
You: “MOM, I’M AN ADULT WHO CAN TAKE CARE OF MY OWN MOUTH.”
Mom: “Well excuse me for CARING about MY DAUGHTER. ”
:Cue endless cycle of blame, recrimination, and avoidance:
You and I know that “Hey, I know you are trying to help me, but this isn’t actually helping me?” vs. “BUT MY INTENTIONS R HELPFUL, Y R U QUESTIONING MY HEART?” is not the soil where healthy discussions and secure boundaries thrive.
Being realistic about how primal this stuff is and how very unlikely she is to see the harm she’s doing to your relationship, and assessing how resistant she will be to changing isn’t as discouraging as it might seem. We already know that your relationship improves when you aren’t around each other all the time, and you’re not planning to live at home forever, so how bad it is right now is temporary even if the virus makes the timing nebulous. While you do live there, if we assume you can’t persuade your mom to change this behavior, we can stop spending time and energy on that project and work on shifting the the territory of your conversations and changing the ways you pay attention to each other.
Fortunately, I think there are strategies for de-escalating the argument part of things and giving that part of your relationship much, much less of your energy and attention. Even better, these strategies don’t need to be negotiated with her in advance. You don’t have to persuade your mom or convince her of anything, you can just do them and see what happens.
Think of it as a test: For a set period of time (1-2 months, minimum), when your mom asks a question or makes a suggestion that annoys you, you’re going to try responding differently than you usually do, in a way designed to de-escalate or avoid an argument.
If things get better, that’s something you can build on. If things don’t change or get worse, that gives you information that will help you try something else.
To begin, try responding to questions politely, truthfully, and consistently in a way that makes it very boring for her to keep asking them. Like so:
- When are you going to the dentist next? “I don’t know.” “I’m shooting for October.”
- Are you still applying to jobs? “Yes.”
- Have you seen this job opening? “Probably?” “Yes.”
- Have you applied for unemployment? “Yes.”
- Are your student loans in deferment? “Yes.”
- Did you do your laundry? “Not yet.”
- How is (minor medical issue)? “No change.” “Better today.”
- Did you call the pharmacy? “Yes.”
- Why are you spending so much time playing video games/online? “It’s fun.” “I like it.” “Because that’s where my friends live.”
For best results, try adding “Thanks for the reminder,” “Thanks, I’ll take a look,” and “Thanks, I’ll think about it” as a way to be polite while also not inviting further discussion at this time. For example:
Mom: “Did you see this job listing I just forwarded you?”
You: “Not yet. Thanks, I’ll take a look.” (This is not a lie, you will take a look as you delete it from your inbox, and if it’s one you have already seen you’ll delete it without having to even click on it.)
Mom: “You should really try/do/look at x (wrong) solution for y (problem you have not asked her about).”
You: “Huh, thanks, I’ll think about it.” (This is not a lie, you will think about it and then not do it.)
Mom: “Did you call the pharmacy?”
You: “Not yet, thanks for the reminder.” (This is a small lie, as you probably do not feel thankful, but it is 100% what she wants to hear and more importantly, it’s the one thing that might get her to check this off her list of things she thinks you need reminding about.)
Important: DO NOT BE SARCASTIC. No eye-rolling, no “tone,” no snottiness. Answer these questions calmly and as neutrally as you can manage, as if a polite, respectful person that you don’t have this fraught history with is the one who asked you. She asked for information? What if you… gave it to her? She made a suggestion? What if you…acknowledged it? She can load it up with subtext all she wants, but what if you just responded to the text? (On a strictly practical note, if she routinely gets politely acknowledged the first time she asks or suggests something instead of argued with or stonewalled like she expects, she might learn that she doesn’t have to repeat herself or push so hard to get through to you. Repeat that pattern enough times and maybe you’ve got yourself a good feedback loop instead of a bad one.)
Also important: Give it time and stay consistent. As the saying goes, “Old habits die hard.” You won’t know whether it’s working from one or two tries, patterns don’t change like that. You yourself probably need some time and multiple tries to adjust and feel confident in what you’re doing, so be gentle with yourself about that and try your best to be gentle with her, too, for now, whether it’s deserved or no.
Brace yourself for anticlimax, especially the first few times, as everybody who was revving up for the usual argument experiences a hard reboot to their default expectations. You should also expect some passive-aggressive behavior initially (“Well, excuse me for asking” “Is that supposed to be funny?” “What’s that supposed to mean?” ) when she doesn’t get the argument and attention she was expecting or senses she’s being dismissed. That’s ok, she kinda is being dismissed, she’s not wrong if she senses that something is different or is suspicious there’s a catch. Stay consistent, don’t take argument bait, don’t try to explain or justify yourself, stay neutral and chill if you possibly can. You want to starve this conflict of oxygen and attention.
Now, it bears saying: You’re allowed to feel annoyed when your mom does a thing you’ve told her makes you feel infantilized and keeps doing a thing you’ve repeatedly asked her not to do, you’re allowed to sense and mentally catalog every single shade of shitty subtext, and you are not required to always be perfectly neutral and polite when someone pisses you off this much! You’re allowed to say, hey, this is unfair, we’re both adults, I did try to ask her nicely, I shouldn’t have to work this hard! Please know that I know that the way your mom is behaving is not happening because you have too many feelings at her or because your requests are unreasonable or because you didn’t ask just right.
This tactic is a deliberate, strategic test of whether the dynamic with your mom can change if you change how you respond to her. Whatever your feelings are, if you stop questioning her intentions or challenging her right to say certain stuff to you, if you stop giving her a ton of engagement and attention when she does, and if you give her something pretty close to the response she was hoping for without a ton of extra baggage, do the tensions ease? If so, that’s good information!
It also bears saying that there is a distinct possibility that de-escalation doesn’t work at all because your mom wants to have the fight & throw the subsequent tantrum more than she wants the answer to her questions about your job search or acknowledgement of her “help.” That’s not fixable by you!
I say, try it anyway, because when somebody pushes your buttons and you do your best to remain calm, polite, and give them the appropriate responses and they keep right on pushing until there are tears and tantrums, one thing you get for certain is confirmation that this is not actually about you and they are not engaging in good faith, which is stressful, but it can also be freeing, since when someone makes a scene no matter what you do, you get to stop working so hard to placate them. We’re trying to move from “How do I persuade her?” to “How do I change it anyway?” If that leads us to “Well, shit, seems like Mom’s gonna Mom no matter what I do or say,” the project shifts from “How do I fix it?” to “How do I best take care of myself around it?”
There is another possibility I haven’t mentioned, which is that your mom picks up on the changes and asks you about them directly, like, “I’ve noticed we don’t fight anymore about when I send you job listings?” or “What, no fight about what a horrible mother I am today, are you sure you don’t have a fever?” or “Are you really gonna think about it or are you just saying that to get me to shut up?” (Yes)
I do not suggest that you say “I’ve been running a secret test on you to see if you will stop hounding me about my life, is it working?” but you can actually be pretty honest with her to the tune of, “Mom, you’re not wrong, something is different. Every time you give me advice I didn’t ask for, we fight, so I am trying my best not to fight so much anymore.”
Try to keep this discussion out of the territory of “Isn’t YOUR MOTHER allowed to give you advice” (a thing you’ve given up on trying to persuade her about) and focused on the topic of “Mom, I’m tired of fighting so much, can we not?” If a fight happens, get through it the best you can, then, stay the course!
If being boring and giving her minimal-yet-polite acknowledgement when she oversteps with comments on your life is working in that you are spending less energy on managing the situation, keep doing it. If it’s working in that she gets frustrated when she doesn’t get the answer & attention & emotional engagement that she wanted so she gives up, *definitely* keep doing it, that also counts as a win.
And please remember, your mom has choices about how she adapts to new knowledge and the same choice she’s had all along about listening to you and believing you the first time you told her you didn’t appreciate certain kinds of help. She can change this dynamic and have fewer arguments with you literally anytime she wants to by remembering, “Oh wait, my adult daughter doesn’t want these job listings from me, she told me so, so howabout I don’t forward it and don’t bug her to see if she got it, we’ll probably have an unpleasant argument if I do.”
If you’re ready for the next step, here it is: I want you to try to friend-date your mom. Just a little!
Hopefully you’ll have success shutting down the stream of unwanted advice and that will give you breathing space. If so, I want you to carve out a little bit of that space and call it “Mom-Time” and fill it up with consistent, pleasant interactions with your mother.
There are how-to tips for where to start in this piece I wrote for Vice in April about moving back home to quarantine with family, scroll down to the part that starts with “Have a plan for socializing with your family.”
What are activities you both enjoy? What are safe topics you can talk about where you don’t generally fight? What are subjects you wouldn’t mind hearing her opinions and advice on? What makes you curious about your mom’s life, the person she was before she had you or the one she is when you’re not around?
What does a weekly movie-date or board game for just you and Mom look like? What if now and then you just sit quietly together and watch the birds land on the bird feeder outside and relax for a few minutes and then tell her you love her and go back to your video games or working from home?
She’s mentioned that she wishes you would talk to her more, so, talk to her more! Do it in a way that rewards her with more of your attention when those talks are enjoyable and less when she does the stuff that pisses you off.
If you’re thinking, what the hell, Captain Awkward, this lady drives me up a wall and you want me to HANG OUT with her? You want me to REWARD her behavior?
Unless she is actually abusive and you need to avoid her as much as possible until you move out to be safe and keep your #$%! together (in which case, DO THAT), I want you to find one tiny, consistent, sustainable thing that you do for as long as you live at home that is not about whether you love your mom or she loves you (a given) but is actually about liking each other. Find something, anything to like, admire, and enjoy about your mom, and find a way to seek her out and spend time together – even if it’s 5 minutes at a time – that isn’t about fixing each other or the relationship. Most importantly, I want you to find a way to give your mom routine small doses of loving, positive attention.
The situation now is, she chases you, you hide. She bugs you, you shut it down. She persists, needles, pokes, and finally when she reminds you of something you already know enough times, one or both of you explode, and there are tears and arguments and big emotional fireworks and apologies and promises to not do it again until the next time it happens again.
You’re both adults, so logical, reasonable arguments like “Mom, I know you care about me a lot, but you raised me to be able to take care of myself, and what I need from you right now is to step back and let me take care of myself” should work. She’s an adult, so surely she also understands the thing where, if you pick a fight with someone pretty much every day by doing something that you know annoys them, they might get upset and eventually might start hanging out with you less?
It is depressingly possible that from your mother’s point of view, the moments where you are all pissed off and she is in full tantrum mode are the only times she can be sure of having your full attention.
If her inner monologue sounds like “What do I have to do to get through to my daughter about how much I love her and just want to help her so she can realize her full potential and be happy?”, then the fights you have are the moments where she knows she’s gotten through. When you’re fighting, you’ve stopped what you were doing, you’ve put down your screens, you’re listening to her, and she can tell that she still has power to make you feel stuff even if she doesn’t have the power to get you to do what she wants.
If this is the case, she may not be self-aware or doing it on purpose. For the record, not being self-aware or intentional about the harm she is doing doesn’t make it any less fucked up & I think she is very much harming your relationship when she treats you this way, just, when somebody isn’t self-aware, when they can’t admit or even see the consequences of their behavior, it’s really, really hard to fight fair with them.
This post isn’t about persuading your mom to change, it’s about seeing if you can change the dynamic in ways that don’t require persuasion or permission. Seeking your mom out on your own terms (instead of waiting for her to hunt you down and pin you like a butterfly) and giving her loving, kind, positive attention that sets you both up to enjoy each other’s company now and then for a change might not fix anything at all between you, but trying it out for a month or so, when you know you’ve got to share the same house awhile yet, is unlikely to make anything worse.
If it helps, think of it as another kind of test, one called “Does it really have to be like this forever?”
Growing up, did you ever think, “My mom doesn’t know the real me, and if she did, she wouldn’t even like me”?
When you were a teenager, did your mom ever go to a school conference or run into a coach or another adult from outside your family who praised you and then come home, throw up her hands, sigh dramatically, and wonder aloud, “Where is this bright, helpful, outgoing, polite daughter living in my house and when do I get to meet her? I only know this surly video-game addict with dirty socks because she never does laundry!”
Present tense, are you a good friend? What makes you one? Are you trustworthy, loyal, kind, funny, considerate, patient, easy to be with? Do you think your parents know what a good friend you are?
What if you could introduce your mom to the friendly stranger that she didn’t get to meet when you were 17 because she was so laser-focused on doing absolutely everything right and making sure her teenager did everything right, too, that she created a Ladyhawke-type situation where neither of you could be truly visible to the other in your true form as long as the spell called “I am a good mom who knows what’s best for you better than you do yourself, daughter!” held fast?
The curse is still here, you’re still pleading “Stop trying to fix me, just see me, please!” from your day-hawk form, but you’re 27 now, you do your own laundry and make your own mistakes, and maybe your family doesn’t have to repeat the same mistakes forever. Maybe the sour cantrip where mothers chide and daughters hide ends when you decide, “I am going to act like an adult whether or not my mother ever agrees to treat me like one, and it turns out I am a pretty likable, kind, friendly, considerate adult who is the boss of my own life, so that’s who I am going to be at home.”
Your job searches and dental visits can remain your own business, your mom can feel any way she wants to about how much time you spend online, and you don’t have to explain yourself. When your mom starts probing in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you can say, “Mom” in a warning tone, and if she keeps going you can say “Let’s not argue about that stuff! Besides, I want to know all about that new book you’re reading, are you still enjoying it?” and if she won’t accept your invitation to have an interesting non-argument conversation with her daughter today, then stop, drop, and try again tomorrow knowing that you tried your best with a crappy situation.
You want to change your mom into someone who doesn’t try to aggressively parent you and she wants to change you into the kind of daughter who matches the vision she sees in her head, maybe, or at least one who values her advice and appreciates her good intentions, and I’m here to say that you can’t really change your parents but you can sometimes invite them to step into the twilight place where the real, lovely & amazing adult person they raised lives in her true form, and you can hope that whoever shows up to that party knows that they can take a load off, put down the hard work of parenting for five minutes, and show you their secret, funny, weird, complicated, true-form adult selves, too, ’cause everybody looks good during magic hour.
If your mom wants to spend her precious irreplaceable time on earth obsessing over how often a fellow adult should ideally do her laundry, that’s her choice, but you can still offer her a different path and hope like hell she’ll take it while you still have this time together.