The Friendship Doctor

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Coming to Terms With an Imperfect Mother

Many mothers are less than perfect -- some very imperfect

QUESTION

Hi Irene,

My mom and I have had a very complicated relationship. Even before my parents had an awful divorce 14 years ago (and they still can't attend any events together), we butted heads. I have a hard time talking to her; she constantly talks about the past and in the last two years has begun alienating my younger sister.

I try to stop any conversations that go in this direction but last week she pushed it too far, and I snapped back. I love my younger sister, and have a close relationship with her. After this conversation, my mom went from calling me several times a day to not at all. I worry about her because she doesn't have many friends and is constantly lonely, so I have tried to be a friend to her, and that seems to have backfired.

We're back to not speaking again, but this time I have young children. Luckily we live several hours apart so they haven't noticed anything amiss. They adore her and I have never said anything bad about their grandma to them. It's all very painful and it makes me anxious and depressed. I've admitted may times I've made mistakes, and I'm far from perfect.

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I am convinced she has some kind of mental illness. I have gone through therapy in the past, and the best advice I have gotten is to set boundaries, but it is really difficult to keep this up. It often feels like she wants me to fall apart - talks about me getting divorced, or being on my own - though I am in a very happy marriage. I am just tired and don't know what to do next. She has always refused medication and therapy, and honestly I am tired of asking her.

I know this is a friendship forum, but was hoping you could give me good dvice on what to do here. I am out of ideas.

Signed,
Cassie

 

ANSWER

Dear Cassie,

From what you say, your mom sounds like a difficult person: She's had continuing problems maintaining close relationships (with your father, your sister, and friends) so I'm not surprised that your relationship with her would be stormy as well.

Many mothers are less than perfect -- some very imperfect -- and I respect your efforts to be a loyal and supportive daughter (and sister) despite your mom's limitations. It's understandable you would get frustrated and "snap" back once in while.

If you're feeling as anxious, tired, and depressed as you describe, you need to take a step back from her for the time being. Your first responsibility is to take care of yourself and your own immediate family and to not let your mother drag you down.

My guess is that after your mom calms down, she will start calling you again because she's quite dependent upon you. When you speak next, whether you call her or she calls you, tell her you're sorry you snapped, put it behind you, and get together with her and the kids for a couple of hours.

Continue to encourage her to seek professional help. If she sees an internist or primary care doctor, you might call the doctor in confidence, describe her behavior, and ask his or her opinion of your mom's mental and emotional state. If he concurs there is a significant problem, he may be able to coax your mom into getting treated.

You're never going to be able to change your mother's personality or demanding nature so try your best to set some reasonable boundaries. Calls several times a day sound like too much. Perhaps, you can limit the calls to no more than once a day although that will be difficult given the pattern that's already been established. You also might want to meet with your own therapist to get a "booster" session every now and then to help you deal with this difficult situation.

I hope this is somewhat helpful.

My best,

Irene

 

Have a friendship question or dilemma that is bothering you? Ask the Friendship Doctor.

 

 

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Her latest book is Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.

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