I am a woman in my 50s looking for advice on how to cope with my needy and manipulative mother, who is in her 80s. Physically, she is in really good shape: she is active, has a good social life, lives independently in a retirement property and drives a car. Her neighbours are lovely and she has settled in well, joining in with activities and helping others.
Mentally, she is negative, helpless, angry and – especially towards me – manipulative. She has always been this way. I always knew that Dad shielded me from a lot of the negative behaviour, but things have got much worse since he died a few years ago.
When I was a child she would threaten terrible things if I didn’t behave. She was delighted when I moved back home after finishing university. Then she was negative and undermining when I landed a job at a prestigious organisation miles away, giving me reasons not to take it. She is only really happy when she has my undivided attention.
Fast-forward several decades, and I’ve done well in my career. Before Dad died, I would call home twice a week and visit every four to six weeks. Since he died, I call Mum at least once a day, send texts during the daytime and visit once a month.
Things came to a head last summer when Mum went into a tailspin of anxiety and confusion. She was calling me at all hours. The evening calls would come at a time when I was winding down and getting ready for bed. They resulted in me feeling wired and powerless.
Finally, she was given antidepressants. She is a lot calmer. She still has ups and downs – small things trigger huge anxiety and obsessive, negative thoughts.
I love my mum and I am doing my best to be supportive, but it is starting to take its toll. I take my “daughter duties” seriously and want to help, but sometimes I feel overwhelmed by guilt about not doing enough. How can I make her happy without crushing myself? What am I afraid of? I worry that she will come to harm and it will be my fault.
How do I set some boundaries and protect myself from the nauseating guilt feelings?
You are clearly very sensitive, your much longer letter – edited to take out identifying details – showed great insight. Children from “emotionally complicated” homes often do become very insightful; they have to, to make sense of their surroundings. The problem can be that, despite a high level of awareness, once back in the family setting everything can become overwhelming. This is important to remember when reading my suggestion at the end because, I think, the more time you can spend outside the family setting, the more rational you can be. The more time you spend in it, the more emotional your responses.
Carrie Disney, a psychoanalyst (bpc.org.uk – if you want to find a local therapist), astutely points out that, from an early age “you seem to have learned that emotions are dangerous”. Disney explains that in a “good enough” upbringing “we learn that feelings can be managed, they may sometimes be scary but they can be thought through”.
But in your upbringing, you learned that emotions equal your mother adopting the nuclear option. So it is no wonder you learned not to let your feelings out; it felt safest that way. Unfortunately, after a lifetime of this, your emotions are on a hair trigger.
Disney thinks you are “clearly a successful woman … but faced with the chaos of your mother’s emotions you understand intellectually that she is being manipulative but you’re left with the feelings of guilt and horror – that sick feeling.”
Your father, Disney points out, “sounds like a positive influence but he looked after your mother a great deal, physically and emotionally. You now seem to have picked up this role. Did you learn through watching your parents’ interaction that your mother’s feelings always take precedence in the family?”
I get the sense there has been a lot of enabling and colluding in your mother’s behaviour, albeit subconsciously. And you are still doing it now by the frequent texting and calling.
You must know, as the insightful, intelligent woman you are, that you cannot make your mother happy – only she can do that and you are absolutely not responsible for your mother’s safety.
Indeed, if you were not so enmeshed with your mother, you would actually be better able to be the daughter you want to be when you do have contact.
Disney suggests “perhaps cooling the intensity of contact. You spend so much time worrying about your mother’s safety – ‘trained’ in this from a young age. Could you be a ‘good enough’ daughter while letting go of some of that?”
Disney points out that your mother does not just do fine, but really well on her own – she is able-bodied and seems to have a pretty good social life. “What is it about your mother’s feelings and demands that make them so powerful, that you can’t deny them?” she asks.
Of course you want to be in touch with your mum and support her, but I would give yourself at least a day, maybe two, between calling or texting. Given you will never change the way your mother is, this will help you recalibrate between contact so you can respond in a way that leaves you feeling happier.
This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 2 June 2017.