I act like a petulant child when I am with my busy and indifferent mother | Relationships
The question I am a 43 year old female. I have a happy marriage and amazing children. During confinement, my 76-year-old mother, who is widowed, did well, embarking on reading, gardening and cleaning the house, never a word of pity.
Now that things have opened up and we can visit again, the distance is forcing us to stay. My problem is that when I come back to my childhood home, I become a teenager again.
I never felt that either parent was interested in me. My mom is constantly talking to me, not listening, and going on plans while we’re there, subconsciously making sure that she doesn’t have to engage with me or my family. At the same time, she’s being lyrical about how she likes having us there. I am more and more angry with her. I come like a petulant, impatient and angry child. She still doesn’t want to know about me as a person. However, she clings to my husband’s every word, her eyes loving, listening to him intently.
I missed her during confinement and I’m so disappointed with myself that I can’t be an adult about it. There is no point in trying to confidently deal with not listening, as the hurtful and ensuing atmosphere causes me to take back what I said and apologize. The guilt following any visit is considerable.
Philippa’s response Your mom looks like someone who has feelings that are hard to tolerate, so she distracts herself from them by dealing with them. If you grew up in the 1980s, her parents may have grown up during WWII when caring and not dwelling on feelings were the coping mechanisms of the day and she seems to have inherited them. They held it in good stead during the pandemic.
Rather than being curious about her own feelings when she’s around you, she’s more likely to distract them by starting a new project. This is how she does. This is who she is. And I know that as infuriating as you find such habits, you love her, that’s why you miss her.
I have no doubt that she loves you, she shows you her love through her love for your husband. She gave birth to you and may find it hard to see you as a separate person. She doesn’t listen to you any more than she listens to one of his arms. But she would miss one of his arms if she lost it.
She was alone during widowhood and then the pandemic. Then a whole weekend of contact all at once can be overwhelming, but she might not have the language to talk about it. I’m sure she likes the idea of being with you, but maybe her body hasn’t caught up with the thought of being in her family again.
I have worked with several adults who have had this phenomenon returning to their adolescent selves when they visit their parents. The following exercises helped.
Sit in a chair like your mother would and try to imagine yourself in her body. How does it feel to sit like your mother and imagine you, her daughter, sitting with you? It can help to get into the role by saying “I am [your mum’s name], I am sitting with [your name], how do I experience my body when I am with my daughter?
Your next exercise is to sit in your chair as an adult. Be aware of how you are doing it in your body. Memorize how you hold your head, spine, legs, hands, and how you breathe. Now slip into yourself like the petulant child. How do you use your body to do this? Practice switching from one to the other. Remember these postures so you can recognize how you organize your body when you are with your mother. One way to interrupt your usual process is to deliberately stop yourself from slipping into that teenage body. It’s easier said than done, but role play will help. Make your husband act like your mother as you train to stay an adult.
For your next meeting, maybe have a weekend halfway between your homes in a hotel or other neutral territory. This means that she can’t be so busy with her plans, and your body won’t be triggered by your childhood home. You will need to do things like walk, visit historic homes, or sit by the sea. Since she won’t listen to you, this will give your husband time to mediate (as she will). He can say things like “X would love to hear from you that you are proud of her” (or whatever you want from her).
To fuel your petulance, you’ve gathered evidence as to why it’s bad, and you’re a victim. To nurture your inner adult, imagine what it is like to be her, to have had her life and her education, and to appreciate the things that she has done with her, including yourself. And remember, it’s easier to be angry than sad about what you couldn’t get from your mom. What can you get from her while she’s still alive?
If you have a question, send a brief email to [email protected]