Controlling Mother: Understanding and Managing Her
You are 35 years old and your mom is still trying to run your life. She doesn’t approve of your boyfriend. She thinks your best friend is taking advantage of you. She comments on your weight. She “suggests” that you rearrange your living room and “insists” that she doesn’t want to be a bother — but — why haven’t you called her in the last 48 hours? She feigns illness, goes helpless around household chores you know she can do, and implies you aren’t a good daughter if you have other plans for your weekend besides going shopping at the mall with her.
You know she is able to take care of herself. You know that she isn’t sick. At 60, she manages a demanding full-time job. She is still strong enough to keep her wood stove going in winter and to give the entire house a good cleaning in the spring. So why does every conversation with her leave you feeling guilty or angry?
It would be too easy to call her “controlling” as if that’s an explanation. It’s not. It’s a label that may reflect your angry feelings but may not at all describe what is going on. Before searching the Internet for ways to put her in her place, there’s more to consider than an amateur diagnosis that results in setting rigid boundaries and distancing her from your life.
Possible explanations for what looks like controlling behavior
Maybe she is lonesome and can’t admit it to herself. If she is widowed or if your dad is distant and uncommunicative, she may be longing for your company. However close her friends may be, they may not know her as intimately as members of her own family do. If she acknowledges her longing for closeness, it would make her feel too angry at your dad to live with him peacefully or too sad about where her life is ending up. As a member of the family, she feels more able to impose on you than on other people she knows.
Maybe she is grieving. If your father died within the last five years, she may be having difficulty with the loss. Yes, some people move on within a year or so. But some people grieve for three to five years following the death of someone significant in their lives. Some people never seem to get through it and need professional help. Being with you may distract her from her grief.
People don’t necessarily have to die for her to be grieving. If your mom is taking care of her 80-something-year-old parent who is failing or if your dad is sick or if a disabled sibling is suffering early dementia, for example, your mom may be having difficulty managing the new reality. If she is losing her closest friend to cancer or is trying to cook and clean for people she cares about who are ill on top of managing her job and home, she may be overwhelmed by both what’s called “anticipatory grief” and by the added chores. Feeling so out of control of these events, she may be exerting some control where she can – on you.
Maybe she has an anxiety disorder. People with social phobia are fearful of being judged by others or fearful that they will embarrass themselves in some way if they are among people who don’t know them well. As long as she has a child or two with her (even an adult child), a socially phobic mom can keep the focus off her and on you. If she is agoraphobic as well, not having a companion when she goes places puts her in a panic. Unable to make friends, she leans on you for conversation and company.
Maybe she really is sick but either doesn’t want to face it herself or doesn’t want to burden you. You don’t see her every minute of every day. It may be that it takes her hours to do things that used to take her minutes. You see the wood stove burning or the clean house. You know she gets to work every day. You don’t see what it costs her to do it.