I Have A 'Tricky' Relationship With My Mom

by James Grady
Originally Published: 
A collage with a mother and a daughter who have a 'tricky' relationship during a fight
Scary Mommy and fizkes/Getty

I don’t have a relationship with my mother by choice; if I wanted to rekindle one with her, my mom is ready and willing to be a very big part of my life.

Rekindling what we had isn’t what I want to do though. I want change. I want something that doesn’t feel so complicated. I want a mother who loves selflessly. But I am tired. I have stopped hoping for change or her ability to grow by way of her own emotional healing.

It has been almost two years since I cut my mother out of my life because of the toxic effects of our dynamics. The cut wasn’t a complete sever, though. On most days I want it to be and for the most part it is; however, she still has access to me and to my kids.

Before I asked her to stop calling, visiting, and sending multiple emails a day, I had established other boundaries to try to make our relationship more manageable and healthy–specifically for me. I have always described my relationship with my mother as tricky. On the surface she looked like an overprotective, overly loving and proud mother. But under that layer, which wasn’t false, were unhealthy motives and her own unresolved trauma. My mother was a victim of childhood and domestic abuse. Instead of therapy, she used me to take care of her emotional needs. And when I also became a victim of physical and sexual abuse, I was still seen as someone to protect her, even as she enabled those abuses to happen to me.

My mother’s role in denying what I actually needed as a child and her insistence that she did all she could to protect me collide to create internal shitstorms during every one of our interactions. Her own experiences should have stopped the abuse or at least led to a better understanding of its effects, but all it did was add to her emotional dependency.

People see a benign mother and a grandmother who loves her family; I see a trigger to my past which bleeds into my present.


A bulk of the work I did in therapy was to find ways to keep my mother distant while still maintaining a relationship with her. I wanted to have a parent to depend on. I wanted my kids to have their grandmother in their lives. For all of her unhealthy interactions with me, she was a very attentive grandparent and my kids loved to be around her even if I had to intervene at times. I often corrected stupid shit that came out of her mouth. I shut down the beginning signs of her feelings being placed on my kids when she guilted them into hugging her or pretended to be sad when they wanted to play with a friend instead of her during one of her visits. I was very clear: My kids are not responsible for her feelings and are not meant to be her only source of joy or purpose.

It is my job to protect my kids and if she wanted to be around them, then she had to respect the boundaries I set. Right now she is struggling to accept any boundaries that keep her out of contact with my kids.

My mother emails me to say she is devastated about missing her grandchildren. She insists I am keeping the kids away from her as punishment. I am not. They are just too young to pick up a phone and call or video chat. My mother needs me to facilitate a relationship between her and my kids, but I need to facilitate healing by eliminating her needs. I needed a break. I needed control of my contact with her.

I have told my mother not to email me or call, but she still does. I don’t answer her calls and if I respond to her emails, I do so when I feel healthy enough to put some distance between me and the person who I don’t feel attached to even though my guilt and instincts tell me I should. She still sends Christmas and birthday gifts to the kids, but I asked her to stop sending random packages or notes in the mail. Seeing her name on my phone or handwriting on a letter shocks my system and sends me into a state of feeling unsafe.

Estrangement would be best, but she doesn’t agree and I don’t have the energy to eliminate all contact; she doesn’t respect me enough to walk away, so I have shut the door but not locked it. If I open the door, it is for my kids and not her.

They are still too young to know why their grandmother hasn’t visited or called. They are also too young and self-absorbed to question her lack of presence. My oldest will ask about Grandma sometimes, and I simply tell her that sometimes adults need space from each other. She is allowed to email a few out-of-town relatives and my mother is one of them. When she is moved to do so, she sends my mother a note. I don’t force or deny their relationship, but I do monitor it.

I continue to monitor myself too. I feel guilty for the space I need and for the hurt and confusion it is causing her. But I also have felt the relief from limiting almost all contact with my mother. Some old wounds are healing without her presence keeping them raw and open. When I have a flicker of longing for a mother, I ask myself if it is my mother I am wishing for. Ultimately, she’s not who I want or need.

I have stopped expecting her to change, so perhaps I can change to the point of seeing my mother as someone different. If I can grow far enough away from her, she will no longer hold the expectations of being the mother I grew within. That may be the cut that benefits me most.

This article was originally published on