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How do I deal with a mean mother?

Dear Lesley,

It sounds awful but I have such a struggle with my mother, her constant demands and toxic ‘snidey’ comments. Everything is a crisis, when sometimes the ‘crisis’ is the cable coming out of the back of the TV and the TV not working. What I do is never enough and she is constantly slagging me off (and my sisters and basically everybody) to everybody else. The vicious words that come out of her mouth are really upsetting. She also says inappropriate things to my children.

This is nothing new but it seems to be getting worse as she gets older and definitely in the last year. She is not alone, she has a husband who absolutely loves her but she is very up and down with him. She is on a cocktail of drugs and that has probably not helped her. I try to be sympathetic and help but part of me just wants to not do anything when she is being constantly rude.

Last week I did a week of ‘not engaging’ with her. I did visit her this week and said that she can’t keep saying these awful things to me. She said she was sorry and I felt better for saying what I had been holding in for a long time. I don’t know if this was the right thing to do. She hasn’t called me since so now I am thinking she has mulled things over and is cross with me.

Who knows what to do!

Regards, J

Lesley says:

Dear J,

I don’t think it sounds awful at all, at least not in the way that I think you mean it. You seem to be suggesting that it’s okay for your mother to give you a hard time, but not okay for you to be affected by it. It sounds like you’re worried people will think you’re picking on a defenceless old lady. Yet, from what you say, you’re the one being picked on!

Some people have wonderful, easy relationships with their mothers. Most people I talk to, either professionally or personally, have struggles along the way. Some can hardly bear to be in the same room. And when our mothers get older and more needy everything is heightened. But she has always been this way with you and everybody else. No wonder you feel upset. I think it’s important to recognise this because it might help you think about ways to handle it.

You’re doing your best

What came across to me from your email was that you were very clear that she is toxic, ‘snidey’, rude, vicious and demanding. Despite this you’re still trying to be sympathetic and helpful. And then when you do pluck up the courage to tell her the impact her words have on you, she reacts by not calling you – a kind of emotional blackmail – yet you’re the one who ends up feeling like you’re at fault.

I wonder if you’ve come across a book called ‘Will I Ever Be Good Enough?’ by Karyl McBride? It talks about mothers who are critical, self-obsessed and controlling. Interestingly the subtitle of the book is: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers. The author says that narcissistic mothers manage to manipulate their daughters into feeling that they are somehow always in the wrong. And because this has been the pattern throughout their lives it’s very difficult to see it objectively and even harder to change things.

Recognising that your mum may not change

It’s possible that the drugs your mother is on make her worse and no doubt as she becomes aware of her own ageing and fragility the pattern of finding others to blame for her woes – real or imagined – is accentuated. All the more reason to try and break the cycle now! It’s great that your mother has a loving husband but she is likely to need more of your support as she gets older and you need to think about whether you are able to do this, whether you want to do this and how you will deal with the situation in the future.

Perhaps the hardest part for you is to see the situation clearly and accept that your mother is so bound up in herself and her own needs? This means you letting go of the desire for the perfect, altruistic mother that you wish you had. If you can find a way to do this, you can then step slightly away from the situation, stop trying to please her and feel less guilty when she sulks or withdraws her affection.

Standing up for yourself and your family

You could tell her more often that you don’t like the way she speaks to you, that it is unacceptable. And if she persists you can say calmly that you are going to leave or put the phone down. Although this is hard, you’ve done it once and you could do it again.

You also could perhaps have a think about who you are in all of this, what kind of daughter you want to be and where the boundaries are. Perhaps you can put up with her complaining about the TV cable and just say, ‘yes I know, I know’, or hold the phone away from your ear and think about something else! Whereas if she is unpleasant to your children you probably want to be very clear that you won’t put up with this and that they shouldn’t have to either.

Finding a balance in your relationship with your mother

It may be that she will gradually realise that you’re not going to be manipulated any more. She may change her ways. And she may not. But if you know in your heart that you have done nothing wrong and that you’re doing your best, at least you won’t have to carry around negative feelings.

In an ideal world, you would relate to her as one adult to another, on an equal footing. If this isn’t possible you may have to decide what your new relationship with her will look like and how far you can support her as she enters old age. I don’t envy you this difficult decision but I think things will be better for you and for your children if you can find a way to start tackling it now. So I wish you the very best of luck with it all and I hope you’re able to find a sense of peace.

Dr Lesley Trenner is an Ageing Parent specialist with extensive qualifications and experience in life coaching. Lesley provides one-to-one help for people who are struggling to balance work and care, or cope with mid-life, family and career challenges. Sessions are available face-to-face (London) or on the phone. Email Lesley or call 07919 880 250 for a free introductory chat.

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