[Two Pronged] Dealing with a difficult mom
Rappler's Life and Style section runs an advice column by couple Jeremy Baer and clinical psychologist Dr Margarita Holmes.
Jeremy has a master's degree in law from Oxford University. A banker of 37 years who worked in 3 continents, he has been training with Dr Holmes for the last 10 years as co-lecturer and, occasionally, as co-therapist, especially with clients whose financial concerns intrude into their daily lives.
Dear Dr Holmes and Mr Baer,
My name is Tina. I’m 29 years old. Single. And here is my story.
I’m an only child and I was born out of wedlock and I grew up with my grandparents, my mother side. My mother and I didn’t really live together, since she was working somewhere else. She is the middle child of the family, she has an older sister and brother, and both are married with kids. Since I was living with my grandparents, she felt that she has the responsibility to provide for us. She only visited me during the holidays and on vacations. As for my father, I haven’t met him yet.
My concern is all about my mother, who is already in her mid-fifties. She has the tendency to ignore me and some of my family members every time she is mad at us. She usually sulks and gives us the silent treatment for petty reasons. Every time we apologize, she would just say, “Hindi pa, wala pa (No, not yet)." And so we just let her be until she would come and talk to us.
It’s only this year that we started to live together since we work at the same place. She decides everything, even the management of my finances. She usually says that I have to pay my debts since she lost all her life savings to my education. I have to ask for her approval for everything that I do. And every time I fail to follow her wishes, she will give me the silent treatment and tell me that I have to change my attitude.
I don’t have any problems relating to other people, it’s just sometimes I feel that I am not her daughter because of the way she treats me. She usually compares me to my other cousins and is always nagging about my attitude when the truth is, I didn’t do anything wrong. It upsets me because she acts the way she acts without any reason at all. Most of the time, she’s mad at me, and if I confront her about it, she will just dismiss me and blame me for everything.
Since I’m a psychology graduate, I had the chance to at least detect her personality as something as narcissistic in nature. I see her as someone who hasn’t dealt with her past issues and I felt like she is blaming me for all her misfortunes. Last year was the last straw when I hit the rock bottom. I thought of killing myself just to make her feel what it’s like when I’m gone. But I didn’t entertain it because ending one’s life is selfish and will not solve anything. Fortunately, I got over that stage and rose above the situation. Thanks to my friends and family members who are always there to listen. But it was tough!
I tried to understand her since she is my mother and I love her to bits, she’s my only parent left, and it pains me to be treated like this. I’m an adult now and I dreamed of raising a family of my own but I’m scared that I might end up like her. I tell myself I am who I am and I have a choice to lead a life different from what I have right now. I humbly ask for your advice since I don’t know how to deal with her anymore.
Thank you so much!
Thank you for your email.
You say that for the first 28 years of your life you lived apart from your mother and it is only this last year that you have been living together under one roof, "because you work at the same place." However, you do not suggest that your mother's character has changed dramatically in recent months so we can probably infer that when you decided to move in together her current behavior could have been predicted. The question therefore arises: why on earth did you agree to this arrangement?
If it is because you can't afford to live separately, then it would be understandable. But to subject yourself to this form of torture simply because you share a common workplace seems positively masochistic.
Interestingly you mention that you are a psychology graduate and based on this you have psychoanalyzed your mother and decided she is a narcissist. Quite how knowing this helps, you do not say. However, you do not employ these same hard earned tools of psychoanalysis on yourself to examine your own motivation firstly to agree to share common space with a known narcissist who makes your life hell and secondly then to stay with her.
Asian views on filial piety, single adult children remaining at home, etc, all militate against you establishing an independent, self-reliant existence away from this mother from hell but your own well being and mental health must surely take precedence if you are to enjoy peace of mind. You experienced the alternative, after all, last year when you contemplated suicide.
As for your concern that you might end up like your mother, remember that your father contributed to your genes too, though of course not knowing him makes this a possibly mixed blessing. In addition, you do actually have the capacity to shape your own behavior, should you so choose, therefore if you do turn out like her you cannot simply transfer the responsibility and blame your mother for everything.
I suggest that you take back control of your life, move out from under your mother's shadow and start living an independent life again.
All the best,
Thank you very much for your letter. There is something Mr Baer said, which I will revisit and expound on because I think it is of tremendous importance.
In paragraph 5, Mr Baer writes: “Asian views on filial piety, single adult children remaining at home, etc. all militate against you establishing an independent, self-reliant existence away from this mother from hell…”
In addition, there is the universal possibility that some parents parentify their children. Very briefly, in a healthy parent/child relationship the parent takes care of the child, and the child is taken care of by the parent. In parentification, there is role reversal, and the child takes care of her parents because of guilt, sense of gratitude, etc. If you want to know more about parentification, here are some links:
- [Two Pronged] My father's keeper
- [Clinical Notes] On talking about suicide – Part 2
- [Two Pronged] Mom's debts
While some parents parentify not necessarily for selfish reasons but simply because they do not know any better, your mother’s behavior towards you seems far more insidious than mere parentification.
For one, I think she is conscious of what she is doing.
For another, she is dead wrong. You, as a child, need not “repay” your mother for your education. That is a mother’s role/duty in life, whatever the difficulties she may face, and she has no right subsequently to demand that you allow her to decide what to do with your money.
Perhaps I come across as more hardline than other clinical psychologists, but I have seen the damage parents have been able to cause their children simply because their children do not fight back enough. And when I mean fight back I do not mean fight their parents, but rather fight their own guilt, ideas of what should be, unrealistic expectations, "if only," etc.
And speaking of your allowing your mother to get away with so many things, there is a saying: “What you allow will continue.”
So far, all your complaints and burdens seem surmountable if only you put titanium in your backbone and forbid yourself (not her) from crumbling/giving in the minute she behaves badly. You may not be able to control her behavior or reactions, but you can certainly control yours.
If your mother tries to run roughshod over you once more, simply do not accept it: leave the room, refuse to talk to her unless she really listens to you, and make your own decisions about your money, free time, and lifestyle.
It is difficult, I know, but it is the only way forward. She will not change unless she has no other choice. After all, why should she? At the moment, she has you right where she wants – under her thumb.
What you must do is escape that thumb, never to be dominated by it – and her – again. There are several ways to overcome such difficulties. Please write us again if you want to know more about them.
Best of luck,
Need advice from our Two Pronged duo? Email email@example.com with subject heading TWO PRONGED. Unfortunately the volume of correspondence precludes a personal response.