I Appreciate My Mom, But I Still Need To Protect Myself From Her Harmful Behavior

by Calico James
Originally Published: 
A woman and her mom with harmful behavior taking a walk and hugging in nature

When you have a difficult relationship with your mother, people will try to undermine your feelings any way they see fit. “But she’s your mother.” “You’ll miss her when she’s gone.” “You should be more grateful for everything she’s done for you.”

Here’s the thing, though, you can acknowledge the harm your mother caused and still feel all of those other things. Even if you have a largely positive relationship, acknowledging your mom’s harmful behavior doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate her; it just means that there are parts of your relationship that are damaged.

My mother and I have had a strained relationship since I was a teenager. Not only is she incredibly judgmental, she’s controlling. I have never been a particularly rebellious person, but I can be incredibly stubborn. That meant we’d butt heads a lot. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t change even after I went away to college, or moved out of my parents’ house. All it meant was that I’d experience my mom being judgmental and infantilizing me at a distance.

When you have a mother like that, it is really hard to stand up for yourself, even when you know you need to. My mom’s criticism — whether it was about how I styled my hair, or makeup, or when I was still in college, classes I chose to take — would make me revert back to a sullen teenager. That’s basically how she treated me — even though I had repeatedly shown that I was capable of making good decisions for myself.

After college graduation, I, like many of my friends, had to move back home. Graduating during the start of the recession made finding a job incredibly hard, and living in a major city would be expensive and impossible. My parents understood that and had no problems with me coming back home. I was grateful to them, because I had no idea how long it would take to find a job that would allow me to make enough money to save for my own place and cover my basic needs like transportation, contributing to the groceries, or being able to have a night out with friends if I wanted to.

Since my mom was a stay-at-home mom, she didn’t quite understand the grueling process of a job search during a recession. My mom’s constant criticism — which I had been dealing with for years — showed up with a vengeance. Because she couldn’t see that I was constantly looking for jobs and sending applications, she thought all the time I was spending on the computer was me bullshitting and being “lazy.” But she would be passive aggressive, and talk to everyone but me about my alleged shortcomings. So I’d accidentally overhear her talking about me. Her excuse? I would get defensive if she tried to talk to me. That’s not altogether untrue, but when her approach was always antagonistic, I felt that I had to defend myself.

I tried to never take for granted the fact that my parents had allowed me to move back home. Not that they would ever let me be out on the street. But I knew it was hard to adjust to having me around all the time again. It was hard for me too. At the same time, I had to be realistic about my odds of finding a job. With a resume that was all over the place, it wasn’t easy to find something. It was months and months of sending applications with not even an interview. And when you’re not getting interviews, it looks like you’re not doing anything — even if you are.

Sometimes finding a job is a full-time job. It was for me.

As my job search wore on, I found some small jobs that would at least help me have some money coming in, but my mom’s criticism didn’t stop. She could always find a way to make me feel absolutely like garbage, which only put more strain on our relationship. I was struggling with my self-esteem, and she was honing in on all of my insecurities on a daily basis.

Eventually I found a better paying job and, after a year, I moved out of my parents’ house to live with my boyfriend. After several years and a child together, my boyfriend and I split up. I had nowhere to go, so my parents welcomed me and my infant into their home. It was a small apartment, and we had to make due. Of course, I knew things would be difficult, and I knew I had to suck it up because I needed them, but I had no idea just how bad it would be. My mom’s harmful behavior — especially the criticism — hadn’t really changed over the years. The biggest difference was that, now, I was less able to ignore it.

I’m pretty sure I was suffering from undiagnosed postpartum depression. That, coupled with the end of my relationship, left me a shell of myself. On top of that, my mom treated me like I was incapable of successfully taking care of a newborn. To just about everyone, it was obvious that I was struggling, and instead of gently being there for me to talk to, she’d accuse me of again being “lazy” and attached to my phone, which I was using to look for work and have friends to talk to when I was supremely lonely and heartbroken. It was hard to handle because it reminded me a lot of how things were only a few years before. But this time, I knew she had me backed into a corner — I had a young child and nowhere else to go. So I had to suffer silently, seeking refuge in my friends and my son when I could.

Yes, I’m aware that my parents didn’t have to support us. Trust me, I didn’t want to live with them because I knew my mom would be too much for me to handle. But when you have no choice, you have to sacrifice yourself. Not being able to talk to my mom about how her criticism hurt me made our relationship break down quickly to the point where it was almost impossible to repair. But thankfully I moved out, across the country, actually, and the distance gave me space to try and talk to her about the problems we have.

You can love your mom for everything she’s ever done for you — I’m incredibly grateful for all the sacrifices she made to give me a good life. But I also understand that those were her choices, and I didn’t (and still don’t) owe her anything more than the gratitude I’ve already given her. My mom’s harmful behavior — her unyielding need to be right, her judgment, her criticism — has done real damage to our relationship, the kind that will never be able to be fixed. She still tries to control me, even though I’m a fully independent and successful single mother in my 30’s.

Those of us who have to live with moms who exhibit harmful behavior (either physically or emotionally) don’t need to be told to get over our very real pain because the person causing it is our mom. We’re already suffering trying to reconcile how the person who is supposed to have our backs the most is the one who is causing us the most pain. So don’t try to tell us we need to appreciate our moms. We already do, but that doesn’t change the harm they’ve caused.

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