I recently became a parent, and as I’ve been reflecting on what kind of parent I want to be, I’ve gotten angry sometimes with how my mother treated me. A few examples:
– She slapped me and my siblings as kids. This is actually pretty common in the cultural community we’re from, but the other day she denied she had ever slapped me. (Her exact words: “What are you going to accuse us of next? You’re going to say Dad raped you?”) She would also pull my hair and push me to the ground.
– I once answered a trivia question in public incorrectly. She berated me for months on end, telling me how embarrassed she was of me and how stupid I looked to everyone else. I was eight.
– When I got homesick the first time I went to sleepaway camp, she told me how embarrassed she was that she was the mother of “the girl who cried.”
– She gave me the silent treatment on my wedding day because she thought I had taken too long to get ready for a wedding event the day before. Her exact words were, “I don’t want to wait for the stupid bride.”
– When she found out I was sexually active as a teenager, she told me I was disgusting and she was “sick of me.”
I could go on and on, but those are just some examples. The thing is, she wasn’t 100% cruel. There were lots of things she did that were really great:
– She never hesitated to use my father’s and her money to support me as a kid. She paid for private school and an expensive activity (think something like skiing) I wanted to do. I graduated with no debt from college or graduate school. This was obviously huge, and I was very lucky to have parents willing and able to support me.
– Even now, she pushes hard to keep the family together and plans lots of family vacations to cool places. My family is constantly getting together. My husband, who doesn’t come from a close family, loves hanging out with my family because he feels like he’s finally part of one.
I have two siblings who are much better about dealing with my mom – they essentially only talk to her about neutral things, accept she’s not going to change, participate in all family activities, and in general have a thicker skin when it comes to her. (My dad kind of goes along with whatever she says and always defends her.) And I’ve really, really tried to let things go. But I can’t seem to stop giving her lots of power over my emotions, and I’m struggling to imagine what healthy boundaries would look like (Skipping some family events? Hanging up when she says cruel things? Letting her “win” arguments – e.g., she didn’t slap me – just because I know it’s fruitless to argue?).
I don’t want to be an ungrateful kid; I sometimes think she was abusive in some ways, but maybe that’s dramatic? Your letter here makes me worried that I’m being some spoiled daughter who doesn’t appreciate the sacrifices my parents made.
Do you have any advice on how to handle this? Or how to cultivate a thicker skin?
Thanks so much for any advice! — Needing Boundaries with My Mother
First, congrats on new motherhood! It’s such a wild and wonderful journey, full of all kinds of the sort of self-reflection you’ve been experiencing, as well as so many challenges and rewards. You will make mistakes. You won’t be perfect. But if you love fiercely and you take the lessons you’ve learned from your own upbringing and if you (and your offspring) are lucky, their path will be less traumatic than your own, your parenting mistakes less traumatizing than your mother’s, and your relationship with your kid(s) less fraught than the one you have with your her. And if you’re *really* lucky and you do the emotional work, you might even find that the experience of motherhood will help heal some of your childhood wounds.
One reason I think there’s potential for healing is that, as a mother, not only can you look back and see all the room for improvement in the way you were raised, but also you can better appreciate the challenges your parents faced, as well as the limitations their own upbringing (and the cultural climate and social norms) may have presented, and maybe you can have more compassion and empathy for them.
Of course, compassion and empathy don’t and shouldn’t erase the justified hurt you’ve felt, even recently as an adult, at the hands of your mother. There are real fractures in your relationship that won’t be mended simply because you have a baby now. But there is hope for moving forward in a way that allows you to have a relationship with your mother while also honoring your own boundaries.
First, you need to consider what you want and need those boundaries to be. A good therapist can really help here and can also help with processing some of your childhood pain. But even without that guidance, you can think about when you feel most “triggered” by your mother. Are there regular times, occasions, or events where you feel particularly sensitive in regards to her or where she is especially badly behaved? If you can name those times, you can avoid those times, or you set some parameters that help you better cope. For example, if you know she often acts entitled on family vacations (maybe if she’s footing the bill for everyone?), stop going on the vacations, or reduce the number that you attend each year, or tell yourself that you will accept your mother saying one obnoxious thing each day – and that’s IF you can accept that! – and if it’s more than that, you will tell her that her behavior is unacceptable and you no longer feel comfortable going on vacation with her.
You’re an adult and you don’t need excuses to avoid social things you don’t want to do, but having a partner and a kid DOES kind of lend itself to excuses that help reduce hurt feelings. You can say that the three of you want to start your own family traditions, traveling as just a threesome (without extended family) or that you need to celebrate some holidays with your in-laws or just the three of you again. There’s a LOT of room for boundaries that protect your space and time and mental health but still allow room for a relationship with your mother. Think about what would be most helpful for you to let go of – a yearly tradition or event that particularly stresses you out or that you really dislike – and stop doing it.
There will likely be a fall-out – if you have always done something and suddenly stop, the people who expect you to do that thing will be disappointed; that doesn’t mean you should keep doing it. Let people – your mother – feel the disappointment. And then say something like: “I understand you’re disappointed, but this is what works best for me/us right now. We’ll look forward to catching you next time.” Practice saying that: “This is what works best for me. But I’ll still do this and that.” Couching a disappointment with a promise or reminder of what you’re still able or willing to do can soften the blow.
Finally, there needs to be something you get out of a relationship with your mother – something that YOU – not your mom, not your siblings or your husband or your child, but YOU – get. Maintaining a relationship can’t be 100% out of some sense of obligation. There needs to be pros that counter the cons, and I think there likely are here, but if there aren’t, then no amount of boundaries will change that. If you can’t think of anything you get out of maintaining a relationship with your mother, then that’s a different conversation than what we’re having, and it requires different advice. But let’s start here, with the hope that there’s some hope, and see how some boundaries might positively affect your life, your family, and your mental well-being.