Difficult Mothers in Old Age

Why this powerful relationship can wreak havoc on us whatever our age.

Posted May 10, 2012

Today interactions with our mothers last longer than we ever expected. The `oldest-old' as a group are increasing dramatically, and the number of Americans personally looking after an older relative (about 43.5 million) has increased by 28% since 2004. Since women live longer than men, it is more often a mother who requires care (unlike her husband she has no wife to care for her!). The default carer tends to be a son or daughter, and these grown up children may well spend more years caring for a parent than they did for their children. With a few important exceptions (such as Lillian Rubin’s 60 on up: The truth about Aging in America) very little has been written by psychologists about this new phase of parent/child relationship.

Having just spent the last three years writing about difficult mothers, I am well aware that a mother’s impact is greatest in early childhood, but the power of this bond is such that at any age difficulties with a mother can wreck havoc on one’s life. The conventional moral scheme may list caring for a parent under the heading “optional”, but it is generally experienced by sons and daughters as “essential”. In fact, priorities of care tend to be: first one’s own children, followed closely by one’s needy parent, with obligations to a spouse trailing far behind in third place.

The marital tensions that may arise from these priorities pale into insignificance when two further dimensions are considered. The first is one’s relationships with siblings, as issues about who is loved more, and who is the better son or daughter, become as salient as they were in the nursery. The second dimension of elder care that delivers a punch is the impact on our self-image, particularly on the questions, “Am I good or bad/selfish or generous/useful or useless?”

In a research project I conducted with some colleagues in Rome (http://www.asdo-info.org/public/RALFAita.pdf) I explored the impact on elder care on family dynamics and personal well-being. Many of the experiences midlife sons and daughters had of caring for parent were positive. There was the satisfaction of being helpful, in reciprocating for past care, in expressing love, and the pleasure of mitigating discomfort or fear or loneliness. Many sons and daughters reported an enhanced self-image as they complied with their high standards of human decency. Many also realized that a parent’s need for an adult child was two-way: even in adulthood, sons and daughters said that they still needed Mom to be around; they needed her to be all right; they couldn’t cope if she was unhappy.

Caring for a parent is a complex task, stirring up a medley of divided loyalties and presenting new variations on the enduring question (more salient for women) about what she owes to whom, and how much (of her time, her energy, her attention) she has a right to claim for herself. A common thought expressed is, “Midlife should be a time I can think about myself more; instead I have to think about everyone in my family, expect myself.”

Other more negative feelings, such as anxiety as to whether one could meet the elder parent’s needs and maintain one’s own sanity or health, were magnified when a mother was described as “difficult”. Often people become “more themselves” as they age, and a difficult mother is no exception. Anger, the need for control, narcissism, envy and emotional unavailability can present even a confident midlife son or daughter with a terrible dilemma: “How can I deal with my mother, and not be overwhelmed by shame?

A difficult mother is ungracious, unresponsive to her child’s needs, quick to accuse and criticize.  The infirmities of old age may magnify her empathic lacuna. She may deny she needs help and deny that she is benefiting from the help provided. A controlling mother may present her need through commands and suggest that any failure to comply reveals her child’s moral deficits. An envious mother may heap praise on one sibling’s support, condemning the offerings of her other child. A narcissistic mother may prefer the charming but inept and disengaged child to the one offering immediate, extensive, practical support; after all, her self image is not compromised by the neglectful son or daughter. An emotionally unavailable mother is likely to make implicit and burdensome demands without showing appreciation.

The needs of an aging parent set out a new phase of the powerful mother/child bond. It helps to be prepared for the new demands that will confront most midlife sons and daughters; it also helps to understand why many of us might shiver at the return of childhood terrors and confusion. As a psychologist I believe that understanding the problem—understanding why a difficult mother retains her power—is the route to survival. But we should also take care to short up other sources of support for us—from siblings and from a partner—instead of allowing these to be crushed by the new demands.

Terri Apter’s book Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming their Power (Norton) iwas published in May. Follow the discussion on @TerriApter #difficultmothers