Carolyn Hax: Mom’s emotional dependence clips adult child’s wings


Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I love my mom, but her emotional dependence on me is a burden. The only thing she ever loved doing was being a mom. She got a part-time job at my dad’s insistence, but she hates it. My dad always tried to get her involved in his interests, but she refused, saying her kids needed her. My mom constantly reminisces about when we were little and she was happy. She actually says that. Sad, right?

All she looks forward to now is grandchildren, but none of us is going to make that happen anytime soon. My dad does his own things (sports and volunteering) while my mom cooks, cleans, works a job she hates and spends time with me.

When my older sisters moved away, you’d have thought it was the end of the world. Since then, she has turned her total focus on me. If I even spend the weekend at a friend’s house, she picks a fight with me while I’m packing up to go.

I want to get my own place soon, and when I talk about it, she breaks down sobbing. Really. I feel so guilty, but I’ve tried for years to get her interested in something: hobbies, books, volunteering. Nothing took. What now?

Anonymous: Understand this problem is entirely hers to solve.

There are nicer ways to say this, but the blunt version is easiest to shelve in the back of your mind for whenever you need it. This is her problem to solve.

As you plant your feet on this truth, your actions can remain caring, loving and involved. You can spend time with your mom when you want to, without enabling or getting sucked in. You can get into the habit of not responding anymore to her laments, or bouncing them back to her: “Yeah, tough one. What do you think you’ll do?” Her next reference to her expected grandchildren is an opening to say, once, clearly: “Waiting for other people to make your life better sounds like torture for you. It’s also not fair to us kids. We get to choose our lives now, just as you chose yours.”

And: “If our making choices you don’t like isn’t okay, then it’s not a choice.”

These points are consistent with “not your problem to solve,” because they’re steps toward removing yourself as her solution to everything. She may believe otherwise, but that has no meaning if it’s without your consent.

The important thing is to plant this “I won’t be your life” flag, then live there without explaining or defending further. “Hm. Yeah. Have you thought about what you’ll do?” Repetition of this is a shield for you and an action prompt for her. Her continually engaging you is a form of manipulation, where your responses reward her emotionally (and pyrrhically) for not moving on.

Second to last thing: There’s no “let” in “having my own life.” Your life is yours, and no amount of grief makes it hers to grant you. To know that is to live it.

Last thing: Why is she not working with small children? (I assume you would have said if she were.) There is so, so, so much need. And although your mom’s significant, howling boundary problems don’t make her an ideal fit, jobs include boundaries. (You have to go home at some point.)

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