Writer and broadcaster

I feel let down by my mum – again. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

My dad divorced my mum when I was 13, my brother nine. He wanted custody and put a lot of pressure on us to decide who to live with. After five years of anguish and procrastination I let my very tempestuous relationship with my mum get to the stage where she kicked me out and I had to live with my dad – I see now that I created this situation. My brother stayed with my mother until he was 30. 

My mum often complains to me that my brother is emotionally distant (like my dad), doesn’t phone or look out for her but she continues to support and help him. My brother often complains about my mum, accusing her of giving him chores to do at her house when he visits and treating him like a pseudo-partner (she hasn’t remarried or cohabited but does have a boyfriend). He thinks I am her favourite and makes comments about the “prodigal daughter” when I visit. They only seem to be in agreement when they are united against me.

My brother and I were very close when we were young. My mum is a hypochondriac and I think she sees illness as a way to get attention. Plus, and this upsets me most, I will never know what it’s like to have a mum capable of putting my needs above her own. She has, over the years, in numerous ways, put her needs above mine and the latest upset is an example of this.

I’m 10 weeks into my third pregnancy this year following two miscarriages. My first obstetric appointment fell on my mum’s birthday so I thought it would be nice if she came with me and I took her out for lunch. I also wanted someone to come with me. The night before, she texted to say she was too ill to come. 

I feel she could have come if she had really wanted to. I have lost count of the times I have taken time off work to go with her to hospital appointments. I rarely ask anything of my mum and when I do she lets me down. 

I’m sick of this one-way traffic with my mum and brother, who sides with her when it suits him but can’t tolerate her most of the time. I want recognition of the distress their behaviour has caused me and for them to treat me with the kindness and understanding I need at this point in my life. I also know this may never happen. How do I move on from this?

I’m very sorry to hear about your miscarriages. What struck me most about your letter was the number of people wanting one thing and not saying it, but “acting out” to get what they want. I was also struck by the amount of anger at your mum but little mention of your dad, despite his obvious failings, too. Where is he now? And what about your partner? What part do they play in all of this? Why didn’t your partner see the obstetrician with you?

I was struck by the focus on your mother. I think this is because you are stuck in a very young child/parent relationship with her – as you say, you never really got what you wanted from her as you grew up. I wonder if she is, in fact, capable of giving it. You mention that her own mother died when she was a teenager and I think she herself may be looking to be mothered.

Family psychotherapist David Amias (aft.org.uk) thought you were all “in this family dance together – you all take steps towards and then away from each other.”

He suggested you could try to do things differently, in the hope that they will respond differently: “Look at the part you play in the family script.” But we both questioned whether you should do anything when you’re pregnant and things may seem heightened.

Ultimately, you can’t make your mum and brother act differently (I would love you all to go to family therapy but realise that may never happen), but if you can change your responses to their behaviour, you might get a different outcome.

Is there an impartial third person who might help you to look at things differently?

In the meantime, Amias suggested looking to others around you for the support you need, such as friends and your partner. He also thought that when the baby arrives, the focus might be different and it could mark a new start for all of you.

Sometimes, mothers who did not do well first time round excel as grandmothers. In the meantime: bolster your self-esteem in other ways, look after yourself and the baby and keep a bit of distance for the next few months.

This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 7 November 2014.