My mother, 80, is a very intelligent, educated, articulate woman, who goes out a lot and has many interests. Over the past five years or so, my sister and I have come to realise that we don’t like parts of her very much. She has become increasingly opinionated and verbalises her opinions forcefully without any insight into their effect on others. She says some dreadful things in public and, when with the family, she dominates the conversation, usually banging on about a play or book until we glaze over. Close family are used to this, and we roll our eyes and try to change the conversation.
A few years ago, things came to a head when a letter she wrote to a family member on the eve of their wedding caused a dreadful upset and a family rift. Again, she seemed to think her opinions were of importance, insightful and correct. That they were hurtful and would lead to such consequences seemed never to have occurred to her.
Having talked to my sister, and as the calm, less emotional one, I decided to tackle her behaviour. It was awful. She ended up crying, I backtracked, and for a few months you could see how hurt she was (although she did hold back on saying things for a while).
The problem now is with the next generation. She has already made my son’s truly lovely long-term girlfriend feel excluded and uncomfortable. Not deliberately – I’m sure she would be mortified if she knew. My daughter now has a really nice new boyfriend who already means a lot to her, but he is culturally very different from us. Mum keeps asking when she is going to meet him, but I can’t imagine anything more cringeworthy and uncomfortable for him and my daughter (my daughter is avoiding this scenario and said he isn’t coming to a family gathering in May). Mum isn’t a snob, but she has no idea how to behave appropriately or how to make someone feel relaxed.
If she has decided something, it must be true and it is her role to tell everyone what is right! I know there is little chance of changing her behaviour and my last attempt to challenge it failed miserably. Do I just carry on excusing/apologising for her to new people? I really don’t want her to upset my daughter, the new boyfriend or other family members.
She is a loving, interested grandma and enjoys taking the grandchildren out for cultural treat days (with lots of advice chucked in, of course). They take her with a pinch of salt.
She is married to my dad, a sweet, kind, even-tempered man. She is horrible to him and interrupts him all the time, but they’ve been together more than 50 years and that’s his problem. If I probe him gently about her, he either doesn’t seem to have noticed or shrugs it off, so he’s no help.
You gave lots of examples, in your longer letter, of your mother’s “bad behaviour”. I feel a bit sorry for her. She sounds like a busy, vibrant woman trying hard to stay vital and connected without appearing interfering. It is as if that intelligence now has nowhere to go.
I consulted Susan Benbow, a family psychotherapist (aft.org.uk) with a particular interest in older adults. Almost the first thing she picked up on was that “you seem to feel a responsibility for what your mother says, and yet what she says is her responsibility”.
I think this is a really salient point. Why do you feel so responsible for mopping up the mess – real or perceived by you – that your mother leaves? Why can’t you just leave her to it and let people be upset if that happens? Why involve yourself? It seems an extraordinary amount of aggro could be avoided if you stepped back, and I wonder why you feel you can’t?
Benbow says that maybe your mother is worried about what will happen to you all when she dies. She says: “Some people, as they get older, feel they can speak more openly, they may feel it gives them more authority; there is also a greater sense of urgency.”
Benbow also points out that grandparents and grandchildren often have a very different relationship and I think it’s great you are letting them forge their own relationship with their grandma. Stories that may cause you to eye-roll are new and exciting for them.
What happened five years ago to make you and your sister decide you didn’t like aspects of your mother very much? Also, you know, it’s perfectly OK to not like certain aspects of our parents, but it’s as if that’s all your mother has become: a sum of unlikeable, opinionated parts. Given your astuteness that you can’t change her behaviour, could you therefore refocus to concentrate on the bits you do like? This won’t be easy, but perhaps this could be your challenge.
What you might also want to focus on for a bit is that both you, and your mother, think you are right. Perhaps there is more common ground there than you think?
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 3 April 2015.