“I don’t know if I can handle this anymore. You need to set some boundaries. After you spend time with your mom, I pay for it for like a week.”
I’d heard my ex-husband say this to me since we met decades ago and it never really registered that my mother had that much of an effect on me. But after I broke out in hives because I’d agreed to let her come over and spend the day with me and my kids as I squirmed complaining about it on the sofa, I knew I had to do something.
For years, I’d spend time with my mom. I’d seethe during our visit, and the hangover from our meetings would linger, but I always told myself it was due to something else. I felt like I should be able to handle it because enough time had gone by since I’d last seen her, and a family gathering or afternoon with her should be something I could take in stride. Besides, she wasn’t that bad, and perhaps I was the one who had the problem.
But what would happen is I’d let her get deep into my vulnerabilities. She’d scrape old wounds and know how to pick where it hurt the most. And I kept allowing it to happen by exposing myself and showing up to see her, expecting the worst.
It’s funny how we usually find what we’re looking for, even the shitty stuff.
I’d come home and fall into a heap. Instead of being relieved our time together was over, my body would tense, tighten, and twist in preparation for the next time I’d run out of excuses and have to see her again. Because somehow I thought seeing my mom was an obligation, like a job. But it wasn’t something I was handling well, and my feelings and emotions about my mom would overflow onto my family. It was affecting us all.
My relationship with my mom has been strained for a long time. As a child, I was always too much for her, and she told me so. I was too loud, talked too much, had too many friends, and asked too many questions. It was clear I annoyed the hell out of her.
Then I really screwed her life up when I told her my grandfather — her father — had been molesting me for as long as I could remember. She didn’t want to deal with the situation or have to choose between me and the man who raised her, so it went ignored.
It drove a deeper wedge into our already busted relationship and broke it into a million pieces that we’ve never mended correctly because we just didn’t fucking want to. It was too much work and it was easier to dislike each other and white-knuckle our way through my adolescence.
Then I grew up and so did she. I tried. She tried. And for a really long time, I figured we weren’t going to ever make it fit and the relationship I had with my mother would always suck.
But after I broke out in hives, my (then) husband told me this was getting out of hand. For my own mental and physical health and the wellbeing of our family, I needed to figure this out, stat.
“You can’t go on like this,” he said. “Either cut the cord, set some boundaries, or something. But this isn’t good for any of us.”
He was right. It’s a gift when someone outside the situation loves you enough to be honest with you and tell you what you need to change — for yourself and your family.
I realized my part in this complicated relationship. There was a long time when I tried to force it all while keeping my mouth shut (especially after having kids). She’d make passive-aggressive comments about my size, or how I didn’t eat right or drank too much wine or spent too much money on clothes. Everything became a competition. If I was sick, she was sicker. If I did something, she’d done it too only harder or better or more times. She’d come over unannounced after I already asked her not to and plop down and mention how she used to do this that and the other different ways than I did.
I felt like I was being pushed around, and I played victim. But really I wasn’t setting boundaries that were firm enough. Instead of asking her to leave or tell her I wasn’t looking for advice or stick up for myself, I’d sit and twist and stew and think about how much I couldn’t stand to be around her. I’d sweat it out until she left. And each time, it felt worse.
After my kids got old enough to realize I didn’t really like their grandmother, and holidays would drain me and leave me in tears, I knew I had to do something. Not only was I sick to my stomach from anxiety when I was around her, breaking out in hives and taking it out on everyone else in my family, but I was also setting a horrible example for my kids.
I was teaching them it was okay to not speak up and to talk about someone behind their back. I was showing them you don’t have to set boundaries and you can suffer and break out in a red blotchy rash from stress because you’d rather be physically uncomfortable than have a conversation about your true feelings. I was showing them how to devalue your own feelings to make another person comfortable and how much resentment stems from that.
It’s okay to want some sort of a relationship with someone in your family without wanting the whole kit and caboodle. We can have a relationship that fits into our lives and, for me, I am able to have the best relationship I am able to, with the mother I was given, by setting limits.
I know I am okay if I see her in short bursts, so I do that.
I realize I do better when there is a buffer so family gatherings or dinner dates with my kids in tow are easier than one-on-one visits.
I tell her when she is doing something I’m not comfortable with, but I have zero expectations about how she should react to what I say. Expecting toxic people to change is like drinking poison and then being pissed you keep getting sick.
I look for the positive things in her and our time spent together, and I stopped talking about how shitty she makes me feel and all the bad things she does to me.
I had to.
The other choices — to keep going on the way we were or completely cut her out of my life — wouldn’t have worked for me.
She’s not perfect, and neither am I. But she is my mother, and she’s the only one I have. She’s also the grandmother to my children, and they love each other and want to have a relationship. My kids’ experience with her is different than mine and I need to give them space to develop something with her without adding snippets about what’s happened between the two of us. And I feel good about that decision. If I see something that’s wrong or unhealthy when it comes to my kids and my mom, I will take care of it, and that might mean ending our relationship.
But for now, I’m so much happier about the space we are in. It wasn’t easy, but the work I put into it, without expecting her to do anything, has been worth it. No more hives, sick stomach, or seething. Just speaking up, saying no, and searching for the positive.
Damn, it feels good to enjoy holiday food again and not put my family through the ringer any longer.
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