Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.
I love my mother and am in frequent contact with her, from weekly phone calls with both my parents and regular exchanges online, to a yearly visit. My concern is that, more and more, I feel like she's turning to me as a source of emotional security and balance.
When my mother was a little older than I am now, she was diagnosed with depression and began taking medication. While that did help stabilize her moods to a point, she and her doctor have never found the exact right prescription. The fact that her depression is never completely managed has meant that her emotional needs have been central to our family dynamic for decades.
The fact that her depression is never completely managed has meant that her emotional needs have been central to our family dynamic for decades.
I'm not sure how to set a good boundary that establishes that I am her daughter, not her therapist. She tells me concerns about her relationship with my dad. When I've mentioned my discomfort with this subject, she laments, "I believe these things should stay in the family, so if I can't tell you, I guess I have to bear it alone." She'll tell me, in tears, how she's proud of my brother and me but feels "so empty" with us living far away.
When I express my appreciation for independence and boundaries, she responds that she understands, and then immediately undercuts that understanding with a comment about how, sometimes, she wants to hold us so close she engulfs us, and we become a part of her again. From my perspective, she couldn't have found a more fraught image, as that’s one of my biggest concerns in our relationship: her emotional needs overwhelming me and mine.
What can I do to ensure that I’m supportive in a way that she needs, while maintaining the boundaries that I need, without creating resentment? I don’t want to bear more of her emotional needs or say the wrong thing and upset an already delicate balance.
A Daughter, Not a Therapist
What you’re describing — a needy parent who essentially expects her child to parent them — is a far more common experience than our culture chooses to acknowledge. Even in healthy family systems, aging parents often become dependent on children. So the first thing to recognize is that you’re not alone in dealing with this psychic inversion.
The situation sounds painful, but I see reasons for hope. By your own account, your mother’s depression has never been “completely managed.” For this reason, you’ve been left holding the bag. That has to stop. Your mother and father have to take charge of her mental health. If her current doctor hasn’t “found the exact right prescription,” then she needs to find a new doctor. Pscyhopharmacology isn’t an exact science—that is, the process may involve some tinkering with drugs and dosages. But the field has made great strides. Your mother doesn’t have to be suffering to the extent that she is.
To take a step back, though, it’s important to recognize your given role here. You are the daughter. A parent’s central purpose is to prepare her child for the world, with love and limits, then to let her lead her own life. Job one for you isn’t to cure your mother, but to create a boundary around your own life—and to feel okay about leading that life. This is not the betrayal of a promise. It’s the fulfillment.
Job one for you isn’t to cure your mother, but to create a boundary around your own life -- and to feel okay about leading that life. This is not the betrayal of a promise. It’s the fulfillment.
My guess is that your mother is subconsciously frightened that if she “gets better,” you’ll have no reason to stay in touch with her and visit. But that’s nonsense. In fact, you’re more likely to connect to her if she stops hiding behind guilt and grievance.
Job two, as a reminder, is to get her illness managed. Your father should be leading that effort, and your brother should be involved, too. I sense from your letter that your parents have a strained relationship. At the very least, they are not being honest with one another. (And again, you wind up holding the bag.) This also needs to stop. The problem here isn’t just about finding the right medication; it’s about pushing for honest and compassionate communication in the entire family system.
As it is, your mother’s central mode of communication is self-pity and guilt-provocation. To the extent that you suppress your own feelings — your need for boundaries, for psychic and emotional independence — you’re enabling this unhappy pattern. Your mother’s statement that her complaints “should stay in the family” is a perfect example. On the surface, it’s a blatant guilt trip. But the deeper message is even more destructive and hostile: Unless you share in my misery, I’ll have to bear it alone. It’s a kind of emotional cannibalism.
I recognize that your mother is in a genuine state of suffering, and that you love her and want to help. But maintaining the status quo isn’t helping her get better; it’s allowing her to stay worse. Just as important, it’s holding you back.
Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy reminds us. But unhappy families often share this doomed loyalty to despair. Your mother’s dream is that holding her children close will return her to some happier time in her life, when she felt less alone and bereft. But it’s a false dream, one that seeks to deny her children’s self-hood.
The fact that you recognize this is a terrible burden to shoulder. But it’s also a testament to your sensitivity and courage. Those virtues didn’t come from nowhere. They came, in part, from your parents. Your mother thinks of herself as needy and helpless. But she’s not. And you can help show her that by taking charge of your own life. That starts with being honest about your own feelings and needs. Telling the truth is not saying the “wrong thing.” It’s saying the necessary thing.
Your mother’s dream is that holding her children close will return her to some happier time in her life, when she felt less alone and bereft. But it’s a false dream, one that seeks to deny her children’s self-hood.
Here’s the tough part, ADNAT: We can only do so much for those we love. Even the strongest and most compassionate parents can’t save their children from misfortune and grief. The same thing goes for strong, compassionate children like you. You have to accept that there are limits to what you can do for your mother.
She’s ultimately responsible for her own happiness, though it bears repeating that your dad took a vow to support his wife in sickness and in health. It may be that she can’t break free of her stasis. In this case, you’ll have to rescue yourself from her all-consuming neediness. Or at least learn to withstand her sorrow without absorbing it.
But it might also be that your mother is stronger than you, or she, recognizes. In time, and with the support of her family, she might find the help she needs. In this way, both of you could achieve the lives you deserve, lives in which the shared goal is independence and joy.
Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.
Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football."