Tell Me About It: Do I keep her at arm’s length or do I try to make amends?
PROBLEM: I am six months pregnant with my first child. My problem is my mother. She is closer with my older sister, who is single, and they do a lot of things together. That would never really have bothered me, but things have gotten worse since my pregnancy.
A pattern has grown up over the years of me saying something (which I would think is innocuous), and it being taken by mum in the worst way possible. For instance, she had a glob of mayonnaise on her chin recently; I discreetly pointed it out to her, and she threw her head back, rolling her eyes and saying “for God’s sake”! The tone/mood of the evening changed thereafter and became very tense.
Recently, I rang her about a pram and wanted her thoughts. She answered with her typical “I can’t talk, I’m with someone”. I said that if she can’t talk there’s no need to answer. Consequently, she has now not spoken to me for the last six weeks (I think this is the reason why she is ignoring me). Nor has my sister. My father wouldn’t be particularly strong emotionally and I have seen him stand by silently for years and never check my mum for these over-reactions. Sometimes, it almost seems like she is happy that she has something to use against me or give out about.
Happily, I have a wonderful husband, great friends, good (but busy) job. I’m sure my mum loves me, she just doesn’t like me. You can’t change people. Do I just, from now on, keep them at arm’s length, live my life and try not to engage in this negative repetitive behaviour? I genuinely feel too tired (I’ve had a very difficult pregnancy) to try and have yet another talk with her, which will just get nasty and unpleasant.
It seems like this pattern of behaviour is locked in now and won’t change.
ADVICE: You sound upset about your relationship with your mother and clearly you have tried to talk this out many times in the past to little result. If your mother did not care about you, she would not go to the huge trouble of not talking to you (as this takes a lot of determination and energy) but it sounds as though both of you are locked into a pattern that is hurtful and resistant to change. It is possible that your mother feels that you are critical of her and she then reacts defensively, but it may be that she is insecure, and she feels this most in her relationship with you.
You sound as though you are having a successful life: good job, loving husband, great friends and now you are about to have a baby. For many people who struggle with their self-worth, they fear being exposed as less capable or successful than those around them and it just might be possible that this is happening in your relationship with your mother. If this is the case, any attack or challenge of her will result in her insecurity rising and so she will either disengage or get angry. In any situation like this, it is always up to the stronger person to make the first move and right now that might be you. You have an excuse to tackle this issue as your mother is about to become a grandmother and you can argue that you want to change the pattern now so that it does not move into the next generation.
Can you want a good relationship for your mother and her new grandchild?
As many attempts to resolve issues have been tried previously, this time it would be a good idea to book a session with a family therapist so that someone can manage the conversation differently. It is common for family therapists to see mothers and daughters or any part or whole of a family and they will have experience in dealing with interfamilial conflict.
In order for this possibility to take place, it must first be presented to your mother in a way that does not make her feel that she is someone who needs to be fixed so how you propose this is hugely important. If there is a sound of criticism or disparagement in your voice, she will pick up on it immediately, so you must first clear yourself of these attitudes. Can you accept her as she is?
Can you want a good relationship for her and her new grandchild? If you can genuinely feel these things, you can begin the conversation with her. A parent/child relationship is central to our existence and no doubt you are experiencing this first-hand as you go through your pregnancy. If this relationship is tainted or difficult, we feel it intensely and most people only opt for the complete cut-off as a last resort. You know your mother loves you and this is something solid to begin salvaging your relationship with.
There is a distinct possibility that if you and your mother engage in therapy together, your older sister will feel her exclusion and begin to act out in ways she has learned from your mother, so this must also be considered. Perhaps you could invite your sister and your father into your sessions once you and your mother have gained some solidity.
Not only will this help with your family of origin, but it will also assist you in dealing with any future family issues of your own that might come up.