My advice: Lie to your mom!

How can I deal with a needy, gushy, over-emotional mother for whom everything is a great big sad dramatic scene?

Published August 20, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am one of five adult children. We are blessed to have a mother and father who love us very much and want to be part of our and our children's lives. My parents divorced in 2002 after we were all grown up with lives of our own. My middle brother and sister had struggles as teenagers and young adults and both of my parents were always there for them, even after they divorced. It's over a decade later and all five of us are in good places in our lives. Three of us have wonderful children of our own and we all have good jobs and loving partners. By all accounts, my parents did a good job raising smart, sensitive, confident grown-ups. And for that, we are all grateful. With all of that out there, I have to admit that I feel a bit foolish for having problems with my mother now, but I am at my wit's end and my siblings are too. We need someone to help us sort out our relationship with our mother or possibly slap us silly and set us straight. I'll let you be the judge.

What you have to understand about our mom is that she was raised by an emotionally abusive father, struggled with her own relationship with her mother and sister, and her first marriage was to a man who cheated on her and ultimately abruptly left her to marry his mistress. I know that she's battled with trust and self-esteem issues her entire life and I am sensitive to and respect that. She overcame what she had to overcome and built a successful career in which she is revered as an expert in her field. She was on her own for several years after she divorced my dad (he remarried in 2007 and his wife is truly lovely), during which she leaned very heavily on us kids for emotional support. We were happy to oblige, knowing that the end of our parents' marriage was particularly difficult on her. And that's when the tables turned and she began needing us more than we needed her. She truly seemed to revert to some kind of childlike state in which she would throw tantrums if we didn't call her enough (or what she considered enough), if we declined invitations to dinner or other events, or if we or our children didn't devote large amounts of time to keeping her company. And it was during this time that the intense jealousy she felt toward my father and his new wife began to surface. If one or more of us decided to spend a holiday with our father (he lives several states away) instead of her, we would have to endure lecture after lecture about how much we hurt her. Any whisper of a mention of our dad by one of the kids would send her into either rage or emotional breakdown. Despite it all, the five of us muscled through her emotions and managed to be there for her and remain empathetic.

In 2008, our mom met someone new, fell in love, got engaged, and moved in with her partner (who is also quite lovely and whom we all love). For a while, things got better. Mom's new sweetie relieved much of the pressure on us to be her emotional support system. She seemed happier than she had been in years and we were all happy for her. All of us finally found the time and energy to work on our own careers and relationships and families and we breathed a sigh of relief that our days of tending to our mom's emotional well-being were behind us.

And then, about a year ago, my grandmother (my mom's mom) got very sick and was moved into hospice care. And one of my sisters gave birth to her first child. And my mom seemed to fall apart again. She canceled her wedding, telling us that with her mom being sick and our sister having a baby, it was just "all too much to deal with." The emotionally charged phone calls and demands for extra visits started again. And once again, we all obliged, knowing that our grandmother's illness was very hard on our mom. Our grandmother died this past winter and despite her fiancé's most ardent efforts to be there for her, our mother insisted that the only people who could comfort her were her children and grandchildren. And Cary, it's only gotten worse since then. We all miss our grandmother and acknowledge that everyone mourns in their own way, but our mom's insistence on us kids filling all of her emotional needs is becoming wearing and irritating and speaking only for myself, is starting to make me downright angry and resentful.

I am raising four kids of my own, have a full-time job and a marriage of my own to maintain, and my children and I are never available enough for her. Mom lives only a town away from me and both my husband and I have repeatedly extended the open invitation to join us for dinner any time she (and her fiancé) wants. I'm cooking for six every night anyway; what's one or two more? And I would honestly be happy to have her company and have her spend some extra time with her grandkids. But she's never taken us up on it. She insists that every visit happen at her house; she has some romantic vision of her house being the ancestral home and her being the loving matriarch. Our kids are teenagers and hanging out at my mother's (tiny) house is not exactly a popular activity at this stage of their lives. Three of my siblings live in other states and when they come to visit (they generally stay with me or our brother because we have guest rooms), our mother becomes distraught if they don't call her the moment they cross the state line. Her stock question is always "When did you get into town?" And no joke, if it's been more than a couple of hours, she is truly and deeply hurt. And there's no shortage of passive-aggressive comments that she would really prefer they stay with her. Every single phone call and email ends with "I miss you and the kids so much." With very few exceptions, she insists that every holiday be celebrated at her house. If she learns that our father and his wife are going to be at one of our homes celebrating a holiday, she's truly and deeply hurt. She seems incapable of "sharing" her kids with her ex-husband and puts that on us. Every visit with her is charged with emotion; nothing is effortless. Every other sentence out of her mouth is, "It's so hard not having your grandmother here," or "It's just so wonderful to have you all here," followed by tears, or "We really don't do this enough," or if one of the five kids or eight grandkids is not present at any one particular gathering, it's, "It's such a shame [insert name here] can't be here; I miss him/her so much." We can't just have a normal, everyday conversation with Mom. She seems to feel that if everything isn't always gushing from the heart, it wasn't a satisfactory visit. And the photos! Every. Single. Time. any one of us is with her, she insists on taking a million pictures. My kids have stopped wanting to see her because they're sick of their every facial expression being photographed.

The thing that pushed me over the edge was an email that my mother sent to my oldest daughter, who is traveling in Europe and wasn't at a family event this past weekend. It said, "Dear granddaughter, It was so hard not having you at the event this weekend. I missed you so much and it just wasn't the same without you." My daughter forwarded me the email, saying, "What am I supposed to do with this?" Which is why I'm writing. I don't know how to handle my mother or what advice to give my daughter. All five of us kids have tried giving mom gentle feedback on her behavior, even using the lauded, "when you, I feel" method. The only thing it accomplishes is to reduce her to a puddle of tears, anger, excuses and an increase in her passive-aggressive behavior. We've tried setting boundaries, which she happily bulldozes. We all love her and want to have a happy, functional relationship with her, but we literally are running out of ideas how to. Our mom is not an old lady -- she's just barely 60 -- and if this is how things are now, we all cringe to think about what the next decade or two will bring. (Not to mention feeling terribly sorry for her dear fiancé, who our mother doesn't seem to want or need emotional support from. And Mom still hasn't agreed to reschedule the wedding.)

In short, she's insecure, anxious, afraid we love our father more than we love her, and reeking of desperation (which, despite our best efforts to disguise, is starting to become obvious to her grandchildren).

Thanks for getting through this. Actually, it helped to write it all down. Any advice you have for me, my siblings, my kids and my nephews and nieces would be much appreciated!

With gratitude,

One of the Tired Daughters

Dear Tired Daughter,

You can't change your mom. All you can change is how you respond to her.

Changing how you respond to her may involve some uncomfortable new behaviors, like ignoring her, or cheerfully agreeing with her when it goes against everything you believe to be true. It may make you feel dishonest, or disrespectful. It may feel taboo.

For instance, imagine a world in which you love your mother and everything she says is interesting, but where sometimes, through some strange freak of physics, you cannot hear her at all.

At other times, even though it sounds crazy, just agree with her. Agree that it is sad that not all the children are together at this very special time, and wouldn't it be great if they were, and isn't it sad that people grow up and change, and isn't it terrible that they make their own choices as individuals, and doesn't that place a great burden on the rest of us, and don't you wish that we were all little glass figurines forever preserved in a glass case in the living room so that nothing would intrude on our imaginary paradise of a past in which the family was ideal and united and without strife?

Isn't it just sad beyond belief? Don't you agree?

Living in such a fantasy world may feel wrong, inauthentic and disrespectful. But the world is a strange place, and sometimes we have to do things that don't feel right at first, because we are locked into patterns that no longer work for us. And let me suggest that as you do this, however taboo and inauthentic it may feel, you may find that being disrespectful and inauthentic, rather than making you feel tortured and guilty, makes you feel strangely serene; you may even find yourself in harmony with your mother.

What was that, Mother? What were you saying? Oh, yes, I couldn't agree more!

By Cary Tennis

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