If you’re here reading this, then I imagine that you’d hardly be scandalized to learn that I’m frequently of the opinion that people are hot garbage — even when they’re your family. Sometimes ESPECIALLY when they’re your family! The only difference is that it’s harder to just up and walk away from your smoldering familial trash-fires. So this week we’re going to talk about love, guilt, responsibility, and setting healthy boundaries between you and your family, for your own sake. Because remember — we only care about YOUR wellbeing. Unless your mom is also a Pajiba reader, in which case she’s cool too.
But don’t worry, we still like you best.
[Reminder: Yes, we’re still doing this whole advice thing! Want to get in on it? Email us your problems at [email protected] and let us help you help yourself! Because at the end of the day, you’re still the one doing all the heavy lifting — we’re just pointing out where the shit needs to go.]
Here’s our question, from a letter-writer I’m dubbing The Good Child:
My mother has always used me for 1. A babysitter during my teenage years as she and my step-dad got drunk night after night. 2. A backup piggy bank from the time I was 16 on. 3. Her therapist also from about 16 on.
I’m 42, now, and Mom is 63. She lost my step-dad a few years back and she doesn’t have much money— pretty much only social security. She can barely take care of herself. My spouse and I let her live with us, and she was miserable and moved out. She moved to her hometown, and miserable. She lived with my brother, miserable. She lived with her boyfriend and her racist and stubborn mouth got her kicked out. Now she’s in a small apartment and guess what? Miserable.
Every miserable thing that happens to her, I hear about it. Every financial problem, every argument she has with someone. As she has said on more than one occasion, I am the only one she has to talk to (Tag! I’m it.) I hear about how she wishes she were dead, how she’s an “ignorant cow” (or whore, or whatever). How she should just live in a car.
I’ve tried listening and letting her vent. I’ve tried coming up with solutions to her problems. I’ve tried encouraging her to create her own solutions. I’ve tried being forceful and telling her she needs to get over herself and get a job and some therapy. Nothing takes. She just replies, “I know, I’ll figure it out.”
Every time I end a phone call or visit with her I end up a nervous wreck. I worry and spend hours trying to figure out how to help her. I feel overwhelmed by her misery. But I am her child. I feel responsible to be there for her as she is my mom.
What is left for me to do? I’m at a loss and dreading every phone call and visit. I dread the next tragedy.
Any advice is welcome. I don’t know what to do, anymore.
Dear Good Child,
First things first — this isn’t our first rodeo dealing with sad, scary moms, and I’d recommend you check out our last column on the topic because a lot of the advice still applies to your specific situation. Especially the main takeaway, which is that your wellbeing is more important than your mom’s. Your responsibility has to be, first and foremost, to yourself. Because let’s face it — she doesn’t have your back, and somebody has to.
And just as we asked in that previous column, I feel obliged to ask you as well: are you currently seeing a therapist? If not, would you consider going now? Because [PERMA-DISCLAIMER ACTIVATED] while we are not mental health experts, we are definitely fans of mental health experts. And between what you’re going through and what we’re about to recommend, you’re probably going to want a professional to help you sort through your feelings of guilt about your mom and the dynamic between you. There is no revelation or quick answer to your situation. There is only years of resentment, fear, and emotional baggage to try and lighten.
So in the interest of lightening loads, there are a few difficult realities we need to address:
1. Your mom doesn’t want to change. I can tell, because she’s had more than enough opportunities for improvement dropped in her lap, and she squandered them. I’m not saying she necessarily likes being miserable, but being miserable sounds like it’s her default and always has been. This is her comfort zone, and there is nothing you can do about that. But maybe by managing your own expectations and accepting this about her, it will be a little easier to let her day-to-day whinging roll off your back. Because let’s be honest — listening to ANYONE bitch constantly about their own miserable lives is exhausting, even if we’re not related to them.
2. You have already done more than enough for her. This guilt and responsibility you’re feeling? That’s YOUR default, and it’s unnecessary. I’m not saying people shouldn’t care for their parents, but I’m saying in your case, between what she put you through as a teen and what you’ve voluntarily done for her as an adult, you’ve already cared for her beyond the scope of any healthy parent-child relationship. You’re good. Absolve yourself. She’s done this to herself, and you can’t help someone who isn’t willing to help themselves. Besides, she certainly doesn’t seem to be feeling any guilt or responsibility for what she’s put YOU through, so don’t give her more than she’s given you. She hasn’t earned it.
3. Let’s talk about what she’s put you through. Genevieve called it “Parentification” — wherein a parent essentially grooms their child to act like a parent toward their own parent (which is a form of emotional abuse, by the way). Now, we all know that there will come a time in our parents lives when we’ll need to step up and help them. But that time is not when we’re teenagers, playing bankroll and therapist to them. Your excessive feelings of responsibility are probably because your mom put you in a position of being responsible for her at a young age. And this is something that happens to a lot of people — you’re not alone, trust me! — but it doesn’t make it right. It’s bad enough that she raised you to be more concerned with her wellbeing than she herself is, but now those ingrained feelings of guilt and responsibility are impacting YOUR wellbeing, and that’s unacceptable.
You can’t change the past, but you can certainly change how you deal with your mother moving forward. And the key word here is BOUNDARIES. You mom has dictated the dynamics of your relationship for long enough. It’s time for you to set the ground rules, for your own sanity. Need a break? Tell her to leave you alone for a period of time. Set a fixed call schedule, or even a fixed call duration. Tell her which topics are off-limits, from death-wishes to self-insults to any and all complaints about her life whatsoever, or tell her you need her to ask you about your life as well! Let her know what the consequences are if she crosses those boundaries (you will hang up and walk away). But more importantly, tell her exactly WHY you need this. Remind her of how much you’ve done, all the burdens you shouldered that no child should have to carry. Tell her how unhealthy your worry for her is for you, and that you can’t be her therapist anymore. You’re putting yourself first, because she never did, and putting HER first hasn’t worked out for anyone. It’s not about making her feel bad, necessarily — it’s just about asserting the importance of your own needs, and making her recognize how the current dynamics of your relationship are causing you pain.
It won’t be an easy conversation, and she probably won’t like having the control taken away. The boundaries will chafe her. She may pull herself away for a period of time, and blame you for that — testing to see whether your worry for her will win out and you’ll come crawling back. This can play out in a number of ways, and you’ll likely want a reliable person to talk to while you go through this (hello, therapist!). But no matter how hard it gets, remember that your mom does not need you. Oh, she may WANT you, and she may NEED help, but those two things are unrelated. It’s not your fault she has no one else to talk to, and you are not obligated to be there, no matter how much she may make you feel that way. By removing yourself as an outlet for her misery, maybe she’ll do herself a favor and seek other outlets. She controls her own destiny, as we all do. And all you’re guilty of is thinking about your own fate right now.
Look, bad things happen to everyone, and we all need to vent sometimes. So you’ll need to use your discretion on how much is too much whining from her corner. And it’s OK if something exceptional happens to her, and you step in to help. The point of this exercise is to make you feel better, and if leaving your mom high and dry in an emergency would make you feel too guilty, do what you need to do to sleep at night. Don’t beat yourself up, just be honest about what you’re comfortable with. But beyond that, just try to accept who your mom is so you don’t set yourself up for disappointment. Accept that you can’t fix her, and it’s her choice not to fix herself. Then focus on what YOU need from your relationship with her, or what you DON’T need from her, and set the boundaries that will get you there.
Just… take care of yourself. Good luck, Good Child!
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