My sister and I live together with a roommate in a town about 2 hours by car from our mother. Every three or four months Mom expects to come to our apartment and stay a week or so. She calls it her “vacation spot.” Our roommate has been gracious, but we can tell it’s wearing on her. It’s wearing on us, too. We have trouble getting along with Mom. She talks constantly, has the television, radio, and sometimes the computer on all at the same time. My sister and I prefer quiet since our lives at home when we were kids were constant noise. Mom and Dad separated when we were eleven; Dad moved to another state and Mom got a job to support us. Even though we tried to help her at home, we were often yelled at for doing something wrong or using something that we didn’t know we weren’t supposed to use, like paper towels, cleaning supplies, or certain foods. She never told us not to use these things, she just assumed we knew. I remember her yelling at us the most–her voice was always very loud and made my ears ring. Mom had trouble holding it together and became depressed. At night she would come home from work, drop her stuff at the door, and go upstairs to watch TV. She couldn’t manage money and one by one, utilities were shut off. Sometimes, there wasn’t enough food in the house for dinner of any kind and there was no money to buy it. My sister and I lived on school meals. While our friends at school were busy planning parties or going out, my sister and I were scrambling to find a way to turn the heat and water back on. If my sister or I did or said something that my mother construed as criticism, the screaming would start. We heard about how ungrateful we were, how she bent over backwards for us every day and that we didn’t appreciate anything she did for us. If there is a holiday, we’re expected to go to her house to celebrate. This year, we were ready to tell her that we would be staying at our house for the holiday and she would see us at Easter. She started yelling at us over the phone how she’s never missed a Christmas with us and how she really needs to see us since she isn’t at a good place mentally. Each time I spend time with Mom I come away with horrific headaches and a stomachache and my hands are literally trembling. I don’t know what to say to her to make her understand that I’m seeing too much of her and that she stresses us out. What can I do?
A: I very much understand the struggle to cope with a difficult parent and the need to individuate. It is time to have more of your own life and less intrusion from your mom. This will not be easy, but it will be important to do.
Your mom will not understand — so the work here is to have compassion as you separate. In 12-step programs they call it detaching with love, but I think the real leverage is to find the compassion for your mom as you unhook from her. This is not something you are looking for her permission to do — and you most likely will feel guilty for having less contact. But this guilt will be easy to manage compared to the resentment you are feeling.
Limit your contact while you help to find social services for her in her area. She needs people around her on a regular basis for support. You can help find those services and help coordinate getting her there initially as you reduce your direct connection. Take her staying with you off the table altogether. If you don’t make the boundary it won’t happen. In the meantime you may want to have some therapy for you and your sister as you initiate this plan.
It is always better to choose feeling guilty than feeling resentment.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 5 Jan 2013
Tomasulo, D. (2012). Mother Won’t Leave Us Alone. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 26, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2013/01/05/mother-wont-leave-us-alone/