My mother acts like a child -- and looks like one too

She competes with me in everything and demands constant attention.


Cary Tennis
March 20, 2006 4:27PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

My mom is extremely dominating and competitive. She is a beautiful lady who doesn't look her age at all, and sadly she does not act her age either.

She praises herself constantly and expects everyone to praise her all the time. If you disagree with her or do not praise her, it results in a long and sad face. She maintains a well-kept house and every time she comes over she likes to point out untidy things in my house. Then she fixes them and boasts about it all day. My untidy cabinets are my business but I fear her long face so I don't say anything and put up with her. She never worked outside her home and boasts about how well she would do if she had the chance.

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She competes with me (an engineer) in every small and big ways. For example, I like to mow the yard and one time my husband said he liked that I did it and that I was very athletic for an Indian girl. My mom took it as a challenge and made sure that she mowed the yard next time. Then she talked about it all day. It's another matter that she got sick and couldn't get out of the bed for next three days.

So far my strategy has been to take it all quietly, but I end up saying a thing or two when my patience runs out. One time we went to a restaurant and she said she cooked better and I said I liked the food at the restaurant. That resulted in a long face for three days.

Sometimes I feel that she wants to treat me like a little girl whom she could trick and dominate all the time. I have two kids and she likes to point out how she worked harder for us than I do for my kids. Her friends are the people who praise her all the time for every trivial thing. One time someone told her that she looked younger than me and this made her extremely happy. I told her I don't care much about how I look and that I would prefer to age gracefully.

She lives on the other side of the globe and I am visiting her for 10 days in April. I am scared that I will lose my patience sometime and say something that she won't like. At this point in our lives I really don't want to increase the friction.

Any suggestions?

Indian Girl

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Dear Indian Girl,

It strikes me vividly that your mother not only does not act her age but also does not even look her age. It is as though your mother actually is a child. I picture her in a pinafore with a giant lollipop. What a mind-boggling and strange reversal, for your mother to be a child. How can that be? Was she always a child, even as she was mothering you? Did she bear you as a child, raise you as a child and remain a child? Or did she become an adult through motherhood and then revert?

At any rate, that is not how things are supposed to be. The mother, as I think all of us who have had mothers would agree, is best when she is strong and kind and wise and takes care of things for us until we can take care of them for ourselves. She does not compete with us when we become adults; if she feels competitive with us, she tries to hide it, because although we are adults in relation to her we are still the child, unable to face that sort of competition.

So for your mom to be like a child, competing with you, is very troubling.

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What kind of acclaim is she seeking through this competition? And who can give her the acclaim she longs for? No one, I am afraid.

So it is very sad. What can you do?

You can accept your role as the adult in the matter. That means accepting that there is much that this child who gave birth to you and raised you is not going to like about the way you parent her. And it is surely going to be an uncomfortable feeling, acting as a parent to your mother. Luckily, you do not owe her what a real parent owes her child. You do not have the everlasting obligations of care that a real parent would have. Although for this visit you may act as a parent, firm but tolerant, you can leave this playhouse and go back to your real house when your visit is over.

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One instinctively recoils, I think, from treating one's parent as a child. Yet that is what the situation seems to call for. Children must be controlled. They must be told no. And they must be cared for.

There is of course a name for the kind of adult behavior we are talking about -- narcissism. But I prefer to think of it in a more literal and vivid way, as the phenomenon of a child wearing an adult suit. It is more graphic and strange that way. Also it is easier to think of ways to deal with a narcissist if we think of the narcissist as a child. For instance, do you not occasionally lose your patience with a child? Do you live in fear of saying something that the child will not like? No, I do not think so. You accept that there is much that the child will not like but which is necessary. Do not children sometimes throw tantrums and pout for days? Yes, but we accept that. They will grow out of it.

It is like that with a grown-up child as well. There is little you can do, in fact, that this grown-up child is going to be happy with -- because you are the one setting the boundaries and behaving like an adult.

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It is sweet when a child wants to compete with a parent in mowing the lawn; it is a kind of tribute through imitation. The parent knows the child can never win, so the parent plays along.

But for a parent to seriously compete with her own daughter ... why would she do that? Unless she were still in some sense trying to become an adult by competition and imitation. That is another way in which viewing your mother's behavior as the struggles of a child may be instructive.

Doing so may be simply too weird. Or it may require too much emotional energy, straining as it does against credulity and logic. But if it were possible to view it that way, much might be gained. You might be able to ask then, as one would with a child one observes struggling with a monumental task, What is her project? What problem is she attempting to master? So often with children it is simply motor skills -- they want to drive the car and swing the golf club because it's part of a grand project to attain physical mastery. But your mother in mowing the lawn is not trying to master motor skills; it is something else.

I suppose there is something in her that is vacant, bereft, that she is trying to fill. But what? I frankly do not know. I guess that is just one of the many mysteries of the narcissist.

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And besides, it is not your most important problem. You've got kids of your own.

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