Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My mother just had plastic surgery for completely superficial reasons. I can’t get past it.
Yes, I realize it’s not about me. But, how do I explain this choice of hers to my kids? I despise this and many other of her superficial and materialistic lifestyle choices. How can I continue to foster a relationship between her and my kids when I question her status as a role model and as someone I would have hoped they could look up to?
I don’t want them to grow up thinking we should be valued by our looks and other superficial and materialistic qualities. I’m trying to focus on how this likely makes her feel better about herself, but I’m just personally disgusted and really don’t want to be in the same room with her (it’s not like we’re incredibly close, if that’s not already obvious).
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So, I’m also struggling with my personal interactions with her – I’m not sure I can even stomach a pleasant, non-fake conversation. I would like to be happy for her and wish her well in life, but I don’t know how to do that because she’s a constant presence and adult figure in my kids’ lives – which I don’t necessarily wish to change, as she is their grandmother.
Plastic Parent’s Child
Definitely don’t say all this to your kids, because they'll probably emerge as I did – siding with and feeling sympathy for your mother. Your letter starts on a wow-level of hostility toward her frailties that only mounts as you go.
A balanced message for your kids is easy, if they even ask your opinion of Grandma’s body work, which they very well might not: “I’m uncomfortable with cosmetic surgery because I think a person’s value is in what she does and thinks and says, not how she looks.” And, because I hope this is true: “That said, I support Grandma’s right to decide these things for herself.”
Obviously you have to tweak the message to make it age-appropriate, but it covers the values-education portion of our program.
That leaves the intense-and-apparently-unresolved-negative-feelings-for-your-mom portion. If you haven’t already tried therapy to help you sort things out, I recommend it; otherwise the inherent conflict in “I want Grandma in your lives” and “I find Grandma unbearable” will likely overwhelm whatever you were hoping to accomplish by keeping her as a “constant presence.”
Meanwhile: You “hoped they could look up to” someone whose priorities you find “disgust(ing)”? That doesn’t make sense – unless you think a grandmother in general should be someone to look up to, but that doesn’t make sense in a different way. People aren’t just boilerplate roles to be played.
In addition to making peace with your mother somehow, please also embrace the idea that not every worthwhile “role model” is a positive one. They could witness Grandma’s struggles with her appearance (or whatever else) and resolve not to be that way themselves.
As long as there’s no abuse involved, and as long as their interactions are supervised and placed in a framework of solid values by a primary caregiver, kids can come away better for time spent with so-called bad influences. They can learn a lot about consequences – and about love, and about how complex people can be.
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