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Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“Now That I’m a Mother, I’m Angry About How My Mother Raised Me”

I know you aren’t regularly updating your site, but I wanted to send a request for advice, in case you feel any interest in responding. I am really struggling with how to manage my relationship with my mom as an adult.

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.

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.

6 comments… add one
  • cdobbs August 25, 2022, 11:07 am

    I think relationships are a lot more complicated than all good and all bad….whether those are friendships, relationships or family interactions. And people are complicated (not all evil or all good but a blend of the two)….so it can make it difficult….my family isn’t perfect and certain family members have done things in the past to me that really hurt me….but at the same time i know they love me and have also sacrificed for me…..it gets really confusing because of that….i don’t really have any advice for you except to say that you are not alone and i’m sure countless others feel the same….my approach now is to remove myself from negative situations and if someone does something that bothers me i call them out on it….they may not change, but at least i stood up for myself….as far as parenting your children….learn from the past and just try and be better than the previous generation

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  • Anonymousse August 25, 2022, 3:06 pm

    I think Wendy said so many good things here. I am similar to you. I didn’t realize quite how screwed up my childhood was until I had my own children and was comparing the way I treat my kids. Before I had kids, I was essentially estranged from my parents, we had a very, very distant relationship. When I had a family, we moved closer for unrelated reasons. I decided to try to forge a relationship with these people I’d already decided had kind of worn out their welcome with me already.

    It’s been very, very difficult. It was an issue I could not ignore. You need to see a therapist and learn to create boundaries FOR YOU to be happy, because if you are not happy you will not be the best wife or mother or you that you can be.

    Just because your mother didn’t beat the crap out of you everyday and lock you in a cellar doesn’t mean she was the mother you needed and deserved as a child. She was abusive. You can know that it is true, without her admitting it. It may also be true that the best she could do was be an abusive mother; even if she cannot ever admit that her actions and words were abusive. She can know and believe she did her best, and you can still know you deserved more. That all could be true. Maybe she was never given the skills, never given better tools to be a parent from her own. That’s not an excuse, but it’s perhaps what she learned.

    This is very complicated. I’d really encourage therapy and trying to keep in mind what is best for you and your family at all times. It doesn’t have to be mom in your life at this level or no mom, you can have a relationship where you tell her, “If you say another insulting thing, I’m hanging up.” And do it. I actually did that with my mom, like a toddler. And she learned! Sometimes she forgets and acts out of order and we have a refresher course on what I will accept and won’t accept.

    Don’t put this off or keep trying to just suck it up. It’s bugging you. And it’s bugging you that everyone else isn’t as bothered. That doesn’t mean you have to be like them! Choose your happiness. I used to feel nuts with everyone in my family tiptoeing around my mom, but the solution is distance and space, not trying to make it work while it slowly drives you mad.

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  • Anonymousse August 25, 2022, 3:09 pm

    You don’t have to pretend to love the way your mother treats you. You can say no to more family functions. Stop doing things that don’t make you happy for “family.”

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  • Kate August 25, 2022, 6:00 pm

    Some moms have some kind of personality disorder or narcissism or something, a mental health issue, that makes them awful to their kids. My husband, my boss, a friend of mine all have moms who have something like that going on. They took care of them as kids but are and we’re just awful in many ways and it’s because something is wrong with them. It doesn’t get better either, and can get worse in old age. That to me is different from someone like my mom who at times slapped me out of frustration and was busy a lot with her job but is fundamentally a loving, caring mom who doesn’t have a mental disorder that makes her behave like an asshole. I think you have to acknowledge that your mom is like that, and set boundaries for what you will and won’t do / put up with. And talk to a therapist if you can, about how you were treated, how it’s affected your self worth, and how you can develop coping strategies.

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  • Anonymousse August 26, 2022, 12:04 pm

    I actually got into therapy because I was really angry sometimes and I couldn’t figure out why. My therapist was the person who helped me realize I was so angry at how I was treated as a child. It’s not an uncommon thing for this to come up after you’ve had your own kids and you start remembering.

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  • Kevin September 4, 2022, 6:09 pm

    Thanks for sharing.

    From outside I would say your parents might have had a very rough time. Try to understand that if you can. It might explain their actions which btw are not cool. You know what happened, never doubt yourself. I don’t doubt you. I do however understand how difficult life can be for people. Often that negative reaction can be a way of deflecting things that aren’t nice. It’s good she is promoting family values, it is the greatest thing if you are happy. But you (and your partner) are in charge, you run the show. Not your Mum or Dad or his Mum & Dad. You & your partner. You should let your partner know if you have any issues cos that’s your go to person if you are in love.

    You are not ungrateful. You don’t owe your parents anything. I’m a parent of 2. My kids don’t owe me a thing but I will give them everything.

    Stand up for yourself. You are your own person and that’s down to you and nobody else. Don’t be grateful for you have made of yourself.

    Never let anyone hit you btw. Nobody ! You cannot allow that. If need be walk away until that person understands that you will not allow that to happen. I would also let your partner & siblings know how you feel about it.

    It’s unacceptable to allow anyone to ever put hands on you. You are better than that !

    Also if somebody puts you down I would shut them down. Who needs that. Positive vibes only. Anyone with negativity can just jog on and I don’t care who they are.

    When they are ready to come good then I might let them in my circle again. But you will decide that.

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