Dealing With A Toxic Parent Is Emotionally Exhausting

by Kathy Black
Scary Mommy and George Marks/Getty

Every time I set a date with my mother, I tell myself it will be different. I haven’t seen her in months. She knows where I stand on her dramatic life, and she won’t bring it up. I have to have zero expectations and let her unload on me and leave it at the quaint table where we share pot stickers. I’ll stuff my face and hope the loud chewing blocks her out.

It never fails, though. It doesn’t matter if I’m meeting my mother for lunch or the entire family is getting together for a birthday party — it never goes well. She can’t seem to help herself and sinks her teeth into everything that is going wrong in her life so she can tell you all the bad things people are doing to her. It’s like a hobby for her. Actually, that’s not true, it’s more of an obsession.

See, it’s never her fault. She has no control over the fact she hates her job, she’s having trouble with her neighbor again, or that her sister is driving her absolutely batty.

I’ve known my mother for over four decades, and drama follows her like a dog follows someone with bacon in their pocket. When I was younger, I used to think she had it pretty bad. People were just mean to her, and no matter what she did, she got the short end of the stick.

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Then I grew up and started to see how she would manipulate situations. Like the time she asked my father (her ex-husband) for some advice on how to handle my older sister who was struggling with a toxic friendship. He told her what he thought she should do, and after what looked like a lovely exchange between two people who were co-parenting together, she turned to me and said, “I love how your father comes over here and tries to tell me how to raise my kids.”

Whoa. WHAT?!

That was an eye-opener for me. I was 15 at the time and that moment allowed me to see my mother for who she really was — a sad, manipulative, toxic woman. This is a painful thing to realize at such a young age, but I’m thankful because it made me realize I didn’t ever want to be like her.

I began to see she craved the drama, the angst, the uncomfortable situations because honestly if they weren’t there, she knew how to create them and she was a master. And now, as she creeps into her 70s, she’s at the top of her game.

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But, she is my mother. She is my kids’ grandmother. She gave me life and raised me and taught me how to use a tampon for fuck’s sake. Can’t I put up with her drama in exchange for all that?

Her drama has made me do some tough work on myself. I’ve realized that spending time with her made me so angry, I’d be in a horrible state of mind for days after spending just a few hours with her. The hangover she left me with wasn’t worth the time, and I withdrew from her and cut off contact for a few months.

Her drama has given me opportunities to suggest ways I’d handle certain things (mainly the way she thinks about every damn thing) only to be ignored, which makes me frustrated and run to my sisters to complain about mom’s latest episodes. But, hello, look who’s creating the drama now?

I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried breaks from her. I’ve tried not feeding the drama by asking her how she was going to fix the situation (advice I heard on a Podcast once that was supposed to work; it didn’t). None of this changed my mother, nor did it feel right because I was using too much of my energy, energy I needed for other things.

I’ve ignored her nasty remarks about how my sisters don’t do enough for her. I’ve listened to her get so excited about a new friend only to dump them in a year’s time because they don’t follow her manual of how they should act. I’ve seen her plow through jobs, boyfriends, and numerous diets and supplements that are supposed to change her life as she demands her money back and leaves seething reviews. I’ve watched her buy expensive hair and face products only to do the same. But this shit is hard.

Her motto is “poor me,” but also “if there isn’t something wrong here, just give me a second and I’ll change that.”

I’m exhausted. Dealing with a family member who is drawn to their own bullshit like a toddler to a set of stairs is annoying to say the least. It feels like poison is being forced into my insides whenever I hear her go off about the latest problem in her life because dammit, there is always a problem.

And I ask myself every time I see her how best to deal with this behavior. Because it isn’t so horrific I need to keep her away from me and my children until the end of time, but it’s bad enough to make me want to put my hand in front of her face signaling her this is a danger zone every time she indulges in this grandiose behavior.

I still don’t have the answer, but I’ve been telling her I need to stay in a drama-free bubble before we meet, and ordering the nachos because my chewing will drown out most of her words when she decides to go for it and tell me “just this one little complaint” because she always does.

My mother isn’t going to change, but she’s given me a huge gift: She’s shown me exactly the kind of person I don’t want to be.