Ask Polly: Can I Kick My Mom Out of My Life?

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Dear Polly,

Since the age of 13 my mother and I haven't gotten along. As a small child I got plenty of love and support from her. I distinctly remember how jarring it was as a teenager when all of a sudden we were fighting constantly.

At first my mom took me to see therapist after therapist, who, one after the other, would tell her that she herself would really benefit from therapy (and then we'd move on to the next one). We had the same fights as any family, but ours seemed to escalate to new dimensions never imagined by my friends and their families. The first time I left home was over not mowing the lawn one week. Then I ran away again after she stole my diary and we had to call the police to settle our domestic dispute. I left at midnight on my 18th birthday to go to college, and promptly self-destructed. Several years later after making a plan to get myself together, my mom welcomed me back into her home while I finished school and worked. I got married to my best friend right after I graduated and moved to NYC, where I've had an amazing career for the past five years.

It seems like my mom and I have been on the road to recovery since then, but lately I've been doubting how much of this is real. The fantasy of having an endearing, stable, and respectful relationship with her might be manipulating my emotions. While I'm immensely proud of the life I've strung together for myself, my mom always has reservations about my accomplishments. We talk on the phone once every two months, but it's mostly about her interests or her gossip, and I usually shove in ten minutes of what I've been doing so I can fish for compliments. We email and I have to write very concrete sentences that won't be misinterpreted and lead to an argument. Her emails are the opposite of this; I am disrespected and made to feel childish and naïve.

Lately my therapist and I have been working on the idea that my mom is not capable of being emotionally supportive, and that I'll likely never have the relationship with her that I want. I crave a mom I can talk with about lady stuff and share stories and get advice. I'm only now accepting that isn't in the cards with my mom, and that's not her fault or mine.

And then I got pregnant. My mother-in-law was so thrilled. My mom was less than thrilled. She wanted to know why I wasn't paying off my student loans instead, how I expect to live in a fourth-story walk-up both pregnant and as a new mom, and what if the Crohn's disease medication that my husband is taking hurts the baby?Well, (a) I am paying them off, (b) that's just how we do it in NYC and everyone on my floor has a very small child, and (c) we know it won't because we talked with his doctor and — are you really asking if we'd have an abortion?

It is filling me with overwhelming rage thinking about her flinging this bullshit at me and my family. I'm not sure if it's the hormones or what, but I feel the need to protect myself and my child from her. I've been thinking about just ending this relationship altogether. I feel like she has nothing constructive to offer me and my family, and will only bring an onslaught of negative bullshit. My husband agrees with me, and is terrified of her. She works in child protective services, and he's afraid she'll use her position to lodge a complaint against us as parents if we piss her off or she perceives that we're not taking good care of the baby. I don't disagree with him, but I'm not good at anticipating her next move.

All the logical equations in my brain point to “think about the best interests of your family" — there's my therapist — "and get out of this now," but the other part is thinking “single mother, gave up everything to raise you, be a good daughter and stop being pregnant and crazy." What do I do? Is that voice just the part that wants the supportive fantasy mom? Is my logical brain thinking in the best interests of my family, or just overreacting?

Can I kick my mom out of my life?

Sincerely,

Exhausted & Emotional  

 

Dear E&E,

Pregnancy can kick up a crazy mix of vulnerability and aggression in a person. On one hand, you're in this volatile, strong-yet-compromised state. On the other hand, your hormones make you feel like an invincible superhero, ready to spring into action for the sake of your clan.

After the first trimester passes and the perpetual hangover lifts, there's a phase of giddiness and energy and joy mixed with a strange urge to fuck shit up. One part of your brain is saying, "I will make the nicest little nest in the whole world for my baby." Another part of your brain is saying, "If any of my enemies come near this nest I AM GOING TO FUCKING STRANGLE THEM TO DEATH WITH MY BARE HANDS." And part of you wants to strangle those enemies right then and there. You know, just to practice.

You're in a trigger-happy state. That's not bad! This aggressive/joyful mode is useful and it's interesting as hell and it's a reflection of your concerns in life. Your urge to push your mother out is a direct reflection of the carelessness with which she's treated you for years. You want to make sure your child isn't exposed to that carelessness. Plus, worrying about your child's well-being naturally throws you into a state of mourning over what you didn't have growing up. You didn't feel emotionally supported as a teenager. There's no way to overstate the effects of that. You feel furious about it, and heartbroken. Your body is hurling you into the center of these emotions right now. You're vibrating at a higher level, yes, but you're also in pain and you can't see a way out. 

Your brain is shouting, SOMETHING MUST BE DONE ABOUT THIS! And bless your husband, he's good with the empathy. Your mother is scary. He agrees! But he also doesn't want a war, no way, because your mom might go ballistic. Your husband has your back, thank God. But listen to me: You guys both need to chill the fuck out for a second. What you're dealing with is very common: a self-centered, sensitive, control freak of a mother. Yes, she's incredibly reactive and emotionally abusive. Maybe she has a major personality disorder and maybe she doesn't. But you know what? It doesn't matter. You're the ones who are in control here. She's not going to assault you. She's not going to steal your baby. She sounds unreasonable at the moment, but this is new territory for her, and her emotions tend to make her reckless.

Stay calm. You don't need to take action right now. YOU ARE PREGNANT. This is not the best moment to make big decisions. Trust me on that. This is an excellent time to talk through your anger, your hurt, your frustration. It's a great time to access the churning layers of emotion that are coursing through you, and the tangled thoughts that twist and turn and make you say to yourself, "Oh my God, this problem has so many layers, it's such a MESS." 

You can process this stuff. Or, you can set it aside for now and revisit it once your baby is sleeping through the night and you're no longer on high alert, physically or emotionally. It's your choice. My advice is to take the middle path: Process it a little, but practice setting it aside regularly. Say to yourself, "This is tough. I'm going through something big with this pregnancy." But then say, "Right now, I'm just going to relax. Nothing needs to be decided. Nothing needs to be done."   

You still have a lot of work to do when it comes to your expectations of your mother. Boy, do I get it. I was right there with you after the birth of my second child. I wanted to have an incredibly close, perfectly loving relationship with my mom. She's so smart and evolved in so many ways. Why couldn't we be closer? When my efforts failed, like you, I doubted the progress we'd made. I felt crushed and rejected, in ways that brought me back to the loneliness I felt as a kid. 

I had to give up on that vision. I also had to recognize that my mother often felt attacked by me. I had to be a patient friend to her instead of an angry kid, even though arguing with her made me feel like an angry kid.

People get more fragile as they get older. They need more from their children. They show it in weird ways. I know that's hard to deal with, in your state, with your disappointments, with your mother's extreme statements and behaviors. But you do have to put it in perspective: Your mom is a controlling person who feels out of control right now. She worries that you'll always hate her, that you'll shut her out and disregard her concerns. She feels vulnerable but shows it by disrespecting you and pushing your boundaries.

Anyone can say, "Fuck it, cut her out." Plenty of people swear by that. You imply that your therapist has said this. Honestly, though, I don't think it's a good time to make that call. Right now, you need to feel safe. But you're a grown adult; you can manage that. When she tries to meddle, all you have to do is tell her "Don't worry, we're on top of it," and leave it at that. Draw some lines and be nice about it. "Mom, trust me. I appreciate your concern, but we're on it." 

You have to accept that your mother will probably always disappoint you. You have made progress with her, but you can't let that progress trick you into thinking that she'll suddenly become someone you can lean on. Leaning on her isn't safe. It's a terrible thing to have to accept that about a mother, but in your case it's necessary.

Don't give her power to crush your spirit anymore. I know she can be scary. Mothers who can't look at themselves, who can only see what everyone else is doing wrong: I know a few of those. Talk to some of your adult friends about this and believe me, you'll hear similar stories.

My mother isn't like that, but things went south when I started to express my anger with her. Once I got a little distance and gave up on my idealistic vision of how she should be, things got easier. I had to work hard to accept her flaws and mine and resolve to love her for who she really is.

When I was where you are, I didn't feel like anyone understood how much it hurt, the way my mother still attacked me personally when she felt cornered. Every single time I was about to see her, I had to say to myself, "This will probably go badly." I had to lower my expectations. I had to feel my anger, cry, get distance, and prepare for the worst.

That process matured me more than I can express, more than I ever could've matured by cutting her out of my life. I'm not you, though. I don't know exactly what you're dealing with and what you feel capable of taking on. I just think there's hope. You have to do more work in therapy, and on your own, before you can see that there's hope. You have to stop panicking. You have to get through your pregnancy and give birth to your child before you understand your mother's place in your life. I don't think this is the moment to decide where she belongs. Focus on what you want for yourself and your husband and your child. Don't tell yourself you'll only be happy if she's out of the picture. Stop giving her the power to overwhelm you with her mythical wretchedness. See her for the sad, frustrated person she is for once. 

Practice saying, "I love you, but this isn't your business." Don't explain or argue. She will make adjustments. Brevity, confidence, calm energy: You need that now. You're not a hurt teenager anymore. You might feel just as terrible, but you don't have to process that with your mother. You can do it on your own or in therapy. When you're with her, you can behave like a calm mother bear who wants to keep the family together. The mother bear won't let anything hurt her cub. Everybody knows that and respects it. A look is all it takes sometimes. 

You are strong now. The walls are not caving in. Everything is going to be fine. And in two or three years, when you've both adjusted to your new reality and your new roles, I'll bet you'll feel glad that you didn't cut her out. If you don't feel glad, you can revisit the question then. But don't decide now. Hold on and have faith that this road will smooth out soon enough.

Polly

Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday afternoon.

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