Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My mother has extreme and dramatic sympathy for my brother, and it’s driving me insane. Both he and his wife have lucrative medical careers but my mother endlessly insists and has sympathy for how poor they are. She calls me telling me how they can’t even afford groceries, while I watch them via social media travel around the country for fun on a monthly basis.
I’ve tried reasoning with her, saying maybe they should get a more reasonable apartment if they really are struggling with money (no way they are), and she always counters that they need a two-car garage, or gives some other silly reason they need a huge luxury apartment.
This used to be a minor annoyance, but a few months ago my social-worker husband was laid off, and we are living off my graduate student salary alone. When I tell her we are having trouble affording things, she gets incredibly critical and demeaning, saying things like, “You should have known when you adopted a dog that she would have huge emergency medical expenses.”
How do I respond to these comments, and her comments about the “financial struggles” of my brother, when my husband and I are legitimately struggling?
It sounds as if you can get orders of magnitude happier if you stop talking to your mother.
In the short-term, at least. Certainly stop talking finances, yours or your brother’s, and stop turning to her as a source of sympathy.
Just because someone is a mother doesn’t guarantee she’s going to act like one.
Your mom, case in point, has proven herself a bad choice for a shoulder to lean on. At this vulnerable stage, maybe the thing you need most (emotionally at least) is to give yourself the gift of acceptance: Accept the very painful evidence you have collected on your mother’s behavior and biases, and treat the will-Mom-ever-embrace-me-the-way-she-embraces-my-brother question as asked and answered. No. She won’t.
Not talking to her for a while sounds like a perfectly reasonable, possibly even delightful way to give yourself time to adjust to this new understanding of your world. But if you’re not ready for that, then at least stop “reasoning with her,” and stop trying to win. I suggest you develop instead a new, boilerplate response to your mom’s usual snark or favoritism: “OK, Mom, I’m going now.” (click)
Some in your position have come to learn, often late in life, that Mom was actually saying critical and demeaning things to siblings, too, about their situations and expressing to them her bottomless sympathy for you — i.e., essentially being just as rotten to each child in a kind of twisted game — but I’d postpone that line of inquiry until you’re back on your feet.
Do you have people who are dependably kind to you — friends, classmates, neighbors? Are there things you can put in your schedule to recharge you that don’t cost anything, like a walk or a good book? That’s where you shift your focus now — on things that pay off for you. Mom doesn’t. I’m sorry. I hope things turn around for you soon.
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