Dear Patricia: How do I deal with my needy mother's bid to play on guilt?
My mother is in her 60s and very active and involved in life. My father is retired and a few years older. He's very active too. Both have plenty of time on their hands, and thankfully are healthy.
Their marriage has been a happy one, as far as we children can see. My mother grew up in a household blighted by the fact that her father was an alcoholic. This is something she has spoken about, but never dealt with, or confronted, in a therapeutic capacity. Like many adult children of alcoholics, she needs to be in complete control.
My three brothers live abroad, are well settled, happily married and have children. My sister and I still live in Ireland. She's in a long-term relationship, I am single, we are both in our late 30s, and neither of us has children. We are well educated, have interesting careers and are active in achieving what we want from life, both socially and work-wise, and live in the city, having left our home town once we finished college. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that we are busy and involved in our own worlds. Of course we have our difficulties in various areas of our lives, but nothing that our parents need to be involved in. Our mother finds this difficult to understand.
I feel she basically spends a lot of time trying to make myself and my sister feel guilty. She regularly lets us know that we don't visit enough, don't chat enough, don't share our lives with her, don't invite her to visit us in the city.
And she recently wrote us both a long letter in which she argued that she felt she was "entitled" to more time from us, that she and my father had been good parents, and that they were not getting any younger. I might add that I had been down for a weekend only two weeks earlier and my sister had been with them the previous weekend. I'm wondering how best to deal with this issue effectively.
Ah. You've said a lot about your mother, her controlling behaviour, the historical reasons for it, the life she has and the state of her marriage. I can see her. But the only person who matters in this story is you.
Guilt is a given in life, except for the sociopaths among us. We learn to live with it, at best minimising it, or learning to control it rather than letting it control us. There's no point in demonising your mother -- or painting her as the guilty party if you feel demonising is too strong a word. Your task is to handle yourself.
At one level it's quite simple. Your mother wants more of you than you are prepared to give. That doesn't mean her desire is wrong. Nor does it necessarily signify a lack of respect for the life you lead. She just wants you to build in a bigger role for her. That's what she's asking you. And yes, she's manipulating, playing the age card, the duty card, the "poor me" card. That's not wise, of course. Attempts to create guilt almost invariably make the other person angry -- and, by the way, you are angry. You can hear it in your tone. But perhaps they are the only weapons she has. Who says parents are necessarily wise, anyway.
Your mother's desire for your company makes you feel fundamentally uncomfortable. It puts you in defensive mode. It reveals your weakness, your lack of solid self-confidence in who you are and what you do.
Because of all that, you feel guilty and respond with anger. What you need to achieve, of course, is a firm, kind and loving resolve. That comes with clarity about our own needs, conviction about our own basic goodness, and a gentleness towards the person who wants more than we wish to give.
Sometimes how we say "no" is the hurtful part. An angry, defensive and guilt- ridden person isn't going to be kind and tactful. Indeed how we say "yes" matters too. You may have visited your mother a couple of weeks ago, but did you do so with a full, generous and communicative heart? Is she missing quality, rather than quantity?
Examining our conscience is always essential in resolving angry guilt. Do you keep your emotional distance from a mother you always found controlling? Do you feel angry, or anxious about the past? Is there unfinished business between the two of you? That doesn't necessarily mean discussing it. It does mean confronting your own distress, and dealing with it. No, I'm not saying your mother is right and you are wrong. I'm saying that you'll find ways of managing your relationship when you've come to terms with your own hidden heartache.