#1382: “My mum won’t accept anything I tell her unless it’s been ‘fact-checked’ by my brother or my dad.”

Hi Captain,

I’m just looking for advice on a situation that is starting to drive me crazy – my mum won’t accept anything I (she/her) tell her as being true or correct unless it has been “fact checked” by my brother or dad.

Over the last year or so I’ve noticed it becoming a lot more frequent that whenever I say things to her I get some variation of ‘that doesn’t sound right/ that can’t be right/ are you sure? You should go and check with/ ask dad or brother about that.’ Whatever the issue is we are discussing, my dad or brother will invariably go through the same checking process I have already done and come to the same conclusion as me, but because the answer now comes from them she will accept it.

For example – I am currently in the process of moving into a different apartment that will mean finances are tighter for me. My mum insisted I should check to see if I am eligible for state benefits as I am in a low income job. I told her that I had already checked and wasn’t eligible but she didn’t believe me. So last week when I visited them I filled out the eligibility check again to physically show her so she would stop nagging me about it, but even doing it in front of her she still didn’t believe me. She kept insisting I was wrong as my brother gets benefits even though he earns more than me (he has kids, i do not) and that I must have filled out the checking form incorrectly. She then got my dad to fill it out for me and it was only when he did it and still got the same answer that she very reluctantly accepted that I had been right. I tried to talk to her and tell her that I felt annoyed and hurt that she hadn’t believed me the first time but she became extremely defensive and doubled down on the ‘but you might have put the wrong answers on the checking form’ and then said “but don’t you think it’s always better to get everything checked by one of the boys anyway? I do.”
I don’t. I’m an adult in my 30s, I have been living independently for several years and I resent constantly being second guessed on everything I say and treated like I can’t be trusted to know how to do things or fix things on my own without the help of a male family member.

This is also causing issues with my brother who is currently living with them. He is 3 years older than me and he has made it clear he thinks I’m stupid and incompetent because I am a female. He uses misogynistic language and talks down to me all the time, and whenever I go home to visit he spends the whole day constantly interrupting me to mansplain whatever I am talking about. Its got to the point where on my last few visits it made me so annoyed I had to threaten to leave and go home if he didn’t stop interrupting and talking over me. Instead of apologising he just laughed in my face, and my mum told me off for being angry instead of acknowledging why I was getting angry and standing up for me.

All this to say, I feel that my mum is subconsciously enabling his behaviour by constantly referring to him or my dad to check whatever I have said, and this is reinforcing the idea in his head that I can’t be trusted to know things or do things without his input. It’s got to the point where I don’t enjoy visiting them anymore because each visit invariably erupts into constant arguments when she refuses to take me at my word and brother piles in to talk over me, talk down to me and mansplain everything I say.

For some background I feel really sorry for my mum. When she was younger she wanted to pursue a career in science but she wasn’t allowed to study science subjects at school. She was forced into taking domestic subjects like cooking, cleaning and sewing because she is female. She has told me she is resentful that my gran didn’t stand up for her and push for the school to let her do the subjects she wanted. I feel like part of this whole issue is caused by her projecting her own insecurities and lack of confidence on me because she has never been empowered to stand up for herself and back her own abilities.

How do I communicate to my mum that I need her to knock off the ‘fact checking,’ take things I say to her at face value and trust my autonomy to know and do things by myself?

Many Thanks,

Annoyed Daughter

Dear Annoyed Daughter,

When you tell your mother something about your life, and she insists on having one of the men in your family ‘fact-check’ you, including the one who is sexist and actively mean to you, and said men participate in that fact-checking, and it proves you right, I’m curious.

What happens next? She “accepts” it. So, does she say, “Oh, okay, sorry to interrupt, please continue telling me about that” or “Wow, what a tough situation” or “Is there any way we can help?” [Is there something in particular you wish she would do or say?]

Or is the matter somehow “closed” once everyone does their little dance because it’s “not worth” “the hassle”/”the drama” of continuing to discuss whatever it is especially now that you’re so “angry”? (This is my guess.)

I ask because I’ve seen this pattern many times before:

  1. Child sets a boundary or simply relates a true experience, fact, decision, or aspect of their own life. “I go by [Name} and my pronouns are _____.” “I am planning a small, intimate wedding, so I will not be inviting this list of 200 people you handed me.” “Please don’t stop by my place unannounced, call first.” “”I don’t eat mushrooms.” “I’m moving apartments, so money is tight right now.” “No, I checked, and unfortunately I don’t qualify for benefits.”
  2. Parent compares the child’s statements against the imagined child who lives in their heads and the parent’s fantasy about what “should” be happening in the world. 
  3. Parent attempts a power play, making it clear they prefer their imagined version of their child and how the world works over reality, and set the child up to have to prove whatever it is before they can receive [Acknowledgement][Care][Accommodation][Respect][Support][Basic human decency][Not being poisoned by mushrooms]. Letter Writer, your problems literally do not exist until they are validated by one of the men in your family, and the only possible help* or care your mom can offer are her own incorrect, outdated, and unhelpful fantasies. (*Not that you were even necessarily asking for help!)
  4. The child dutifully attempts to prove whatever it is, which is easy, both because the child is the expert on their own experiences, because the facts are on the child’s side. But instead of clearing up the problem, things get even worse when the parent doubles down.
  5.  The parent blames the child for not matching the parent’s fantasy expectations and punishes the child for reacting with (reasonable) hurt or anger. The parent punishes the child for not submitting to the parent’s perceived authority. “I’m your mother, I only want what’s best for you!” “We’re a family, so you should ______.”  The parent scapegoats the child, and calls in other family members for backup to help pressure the child into accepting the unacceptable behavior. For instance, when your shitty brother spends your visits criticizing you,  “…my mum told me off for being angry instead of acknowledging why I was getting angry and standing up for me.” 

So far you’ve tried identifying why this is happening (maybe your mom’s experiences of sexism when she was young?)  and you’ve also tried telling her outright that this bothers you and asking her to stop.

It didn’t stop. And I don’t really have magic persuasive script where you and your mom talk this through like adults and she sees how she’s hurting you and changes her ways. Your mom is interacting with a fantasy version of you in a fantasy world (the one where she is a caring and supportive mom and where her son isn’t a sexist dipshit), and then treating the real, actual you like dirt. I don’t think that can be fixed with persuasion that doesn’t have some action behind it.

So here are my suggestions:

Take steps to conserve your energy and peace. For instance, you don’t enjoy visits to your family right now. Do you have people in your life who you actually enjoy visiting? Prioritize visiting them, and strongly consider that staying home where nobody treats you like crap is superior to having to show up to a command performance of filial piety where everybody treats you like crap.

When you do visit your folks, plan shorter ones, try to plan things where you and one parent alternate doing stuff outside the house (away from brother), and have an exit strategy for extracting yourself early (your own transport, a reliable friend who will come get you) when it all goes pear-shaped. When you can’t politely persuade someone to stop being a jerk to you, there is power in being able to say, “Welp, nice seeing everyone” and putting on your shoes.

Your family treats everything in your life like it needs fact-checking and second-guessing. Do you have people in your life who respond appropriately and supportively to your life news? (“I’m moving apartments, so money’s a bit tight lately.” “Oh, bummer! Moving is the worst!” “Oh no! Once you’re settled, want to plan some free or inexpensive hangouts while things catch up?”) Prioritize spending time with supportive people who don’t try to force you to justify your very existence, and when you need acknowledgement and support, skip your family and go straight to people you can actually count on.

I’m not saying “cut off your family forever” or “never speak to them again.” Nor am I suggesting delivering some ultimatum in the hopes that it will teach a lesson. (It won’t.) I am saying, give yourself permission to stop making effort within these relationships for at least a few months. Save the money you’d spend traveling, concentrate on moving into your new place and getting settled, and give yourself a break from the effort, expense, and mental load of keeping in close touch with a parent who routinely blows off everything you tell her about your life, a passive parent who enables it, and your terrible brother.

When you do see or otherwise interact with your family, I suggest you skip the fact-checking performance and apply a time-saving translator to your mom’s deflections. When you tell your mom about your life, and she reflexively calls in the mansplainers, try ***internally*** translating her reaction as: “I don’t have to care”:

  • “I don’t have to care, until a man says that your situation is actually real.”
  • “Oh, wait, it’s real? Huh. Well, I’m mad that I’m being forced to care, and it’s your fault, because you didn’t take all the (unsolicited)(wrong) advice that I tried to give you instead of caring.” (Can’t lie, your mom has big “Unemployed? That’s easy, just show up in person at companies you want to work for and knock on the door until someone lets you in, that’s what we all did back when university cost $10!” energy.
  • “I don’t have to care, and frankly I find your poor attitude about how much I don’t care and how much I deputize your brother to abuse you incessantly quite appalling.”

***Internally = quietly, inside your head. Do not ever have an out loud argument with your mom about whether she cares about you, under any circumstances, there is no good outcome there. Whether your mom cares about you and how much is not the point. I’m sure she does care about you. The point is, she is not responding to the things you tell her with care, so, once you acknowledge that to yourself, how much work do you feel like doing to “prove” the basic circumstances of your life?

Your next step is to skip the fact-checking performance altogether. Stop playing the game. You don’t actually need anything from her (or your dad, or your brother) for your life to be what it is, so why waste the effort fighting about stuff that’s totally irrelevant because you’re going to do what’s best for you anyway? Meet her derailment with the same amount of deflection, and make it very boring for her to keep trying this with you. Scripts:

  • “Oh, hahaha, I’m all set with research. Anyway, what’s for dinner?”
  • “Oh, I wasn’t asking you for advice, I was just telling you my plans. Did you move the jade tree? It looks so nice over there.”
  • “Interesting advice, I’ll consider it. Is that a new scarf?” (You will consider it, and discard it. This is not a lie and it does sometimes get people to STFU imagining they’ve won the point.)
  • “Yep, I’m sure. Anyway…” 
  • “Okay.”
  • “Huh.”
  • “Wow.”
  • “Hahaha, no.”
  • “Not relevant.” 
  • “Why are you being so weird about this?” 
  • “You’re being weird about this again.”
  • :Stony, awkward silence followed by a subject change: Let her talk herself out! Then change the subject, or return to the actual topic as if she didn’t do this.

Honestly, you don’t have to be deferential here. The goal is to make it powerfully, consistently, amazingly unfulfilling for your mom to keep doing this. “Ha, Mom, did you know they make calculator apps for phones and you can just use your finger to press the buttons? No penis necessary!”  “Mom, I know you love the thing where Dad and Brother re-run all my numbers, come up with the exact same thing I did, and we pretend that’s relevant to anything, but I’d prefer not to.”  She’s going to blame you for being uncooperative and angry before the visit is over anyway, no matter how patient and deferential you are, so why not earn it for once? If your mom has never seen how truly angry this deflection and minimization game makes you, if you’ve never raised your voice and been like “MOM, STOP. I DON’T NEED FACT-CHECKING, I NEED YOU TO MAKE SOME VAGUE SYMPATHETIC NOISE THAT INDICATES THAT YOU HEARD WHAT I ACTUALLY SAID. DAD, PUT THE ABACUS AWAY. I’M NOT DOING THIS,” and then left the conversation, maybe it’s time. “Your brother is just being himself, no need for you to be so angry!” “ACTUALLY I AM EXTREMELY ANGRY, THANK YOU FOR NOTICING.”

Your mom is the chief architect of this dynamic, but your dad and your brother both suck in their unique ways. You’re allowed to say, “Yo! Dad! The last 500 times Mom made you ‘double-check’ something I told her, what happened?” “What’s that again? I was right? Well, I’m going to be right this time, too, and on the off chance I’m not right I’m still going to go with my original plan, so, howabout we just skip it!”  “Hey, Dad, you’re free to fill out pointless government forms I’ve already filled out, but it’s not going to change my decisions, so, why are you doing this?” 

Your mom doesn’t have to “accept” the things in your life for them to be real. So skip the part where you try to spin the straw into gold. Shrug with your whole body and stop playing your part in these little skits about how the daughter who handles her own life is secretly the family loser.

Next, I mentioned this before, but stop threatening to leave when your brother is a jerk to you and when you’ve tried to shut down Fact Checking Theater and your mom refuses. Don’t threaten, just actually go away to somewhere they can’t be mean to you.

You could say, before the next visit, “I’m excited to see you, Mom and Dad, but just so you know, if brother does [x specific behavior] again, I’m leaving,” but you could also decide at any time when you’re there that this visit sucks and you’re not having fun and it’s time to go. Polite advance warning won’t actually do anything about the behavior, it will probably make your brother behave even worse the next time you see each other to try to get you to leave (or prove that you’re afraid to), and you’ll still be The Rude/Unreasonable one when the story is told later no matter how it goes down. The worst part is you are probably going to feel like the rude and unreasonable one because you’ve been conditioned to feel that way and because it doesn’t feel good to be pushed to the point that “Fuck this. Bye!” is the least worst option.

Important: It only works if you actually leave. Threatening, mentioning, hinting, etc. will NOT work. You have to actually get up and go, and probably actually silence your phone and have a cooling-off period to wait out the pressure and verbal abuse where they try to make you the problem, and wait a little while longer before you make any new plans to visit. So if you go this route, make a plan before the trip about what circumstances would make you leave, how you’d leave, line up a supportive friend to call if you need  help leaving or support once you’ve left. The first time you get up and walk out of a visit to your parents’ place will be the hardest time. It will suck, but you have to know: It is survivable, and with time and consistency it can get easier, partly because you get more experienced and partly because sometimes people learn that they have to treat you a certain way if they want to see you, and they do adapt somewhat. (Eventually.)(Somewhat.) If they don’t adapt, it doesn’t make leaving a worse option than showing up to be picked on again and again by people who assume they know more about your life than you do.