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Ask Polly: How Do I Stay Sane With My Crazy Mom?

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Dear Polly,

I am wondering how to make amends with my mother, or whether I should try.

She’s had a rocky road for parts of my life, and I don’t doubt her struggles or the sacrifices she’s made. She was a good and loving mother through my childhood. She was, as all moms are, disappointed in some of the choices my siblings and I made as we stumbled through adolescence. But overall it was a warm, supportive household to grow up in.

When I became an adult, she leaned on me and confided in me a lot, and I came to understand that she was deeply unhappy and very angry. For many years, the unhappiness and anger were primarily blamed on my dad, and sometimes my siblings, sometimes me. My grandmother heard more of the venting than I did. Once my mom’s mother died, I became the primary sounding board for a lot of her angst and emotions. I took it on with love and tried my best to be there for her.

Ten, 15 years later, things have gotten worse gradually but noticeably. Old grudges, grievances, and memories of those adolescent stumbles remain at the forefront of her mind. She brings them up frequently, even though most of them did not measurably affect us kids in the long run at all. She kept a similar tally with my dad, too, and things came to a head there (with a lot of acknowledged responsibility on his side), which ultimately ended in divorce after decades of marriage. He died suddenly only a few months after they split.

Since that time, she’s been furious with me. The anger comes off her in waves. I’m not going to say that I always chose the perfect words in grief, or not in grief, for that matter, but no major blowouts or fights over possessions or anything like that ever went down. There was a lot of “my grief is bigger than your grief” directed at me and my siblings, which was terribly off-putting after losing a parent. Not to deny her grief — it was epic and rightfully so! But it felt like there was no space for anyone else’s grief. Because they had split up, we kids handled our dad’s small estate and split the life-insurance policy, and she was visibly distressed over not being in charge of the estate. Money’s never been easy in my parents’ life, so I expected that to be a stressor even though she has her own inheritance now (much, much larger in scale).

It’s been a couple years since my dad passed, and my mom’s moved on with my siblings, but she’s still furious with me. She calls my siblings to report perceived slights (and I know that phrase can sound like finger-pointing, but she gets mad about things like me celebrating my in-law’s birthdays or about posts my friends make on social media that she is certain are about her but have nothing at all to do with her or even me). She does not call me about these things, and if I try to call, she doesn’t pick up the phone or talks in a stiff way. She complains that I never come over, but doesn’t invite me to gatherings. I invite her, sometimes she comes, sometimes she doesn’t. Usually, when she does come, my adolescent fuck-ups or my paltry salary are her discussion fodder for the large group. My adult life involves things she didn’t experience at my age (secure finances, travel, career, nice house), and sometimes it seems like she’s pissed off about that.

Grief is ugly, and no one is their best self. I get it and I try to be patient and set boundaries about how much ugly grief I can listen to or expose my kids to before going home or not calling for a while. I try to be mindful of my own grief and apologize when it encroaches on other people’s space. I want her to know my kids and be involved in their lives and share her best self with them. Her best self is awesome and funny and a really good cook. But I don’t want my kids to see their grandmother stuck in the past, blaming dead people and her own kids for her own unhappiness, not living today but reliving a lot of shitty yesterdays.

My better self wrote a lot of this letter, so I’d like to let my even-less-evolved self talk. I’m tired. I’m a mom, too, and my kids have a boatload of needs because they’re little. My dad’s dead and I’m still sad about it. I’ve got in-laws and a job and pets and all the things that require tender loving care. I want so much for my mom to be in my life, but I can’t add an over-60 emotional wreck who says mean things to the mix very often, you know? It’s exhausting and it makes me cry. I’ve tried talking to her, but it didn’t work so well, and how many times do I try and get burned?

Blue blue blue here,

Daughter in the Doghouse

Dear DITD,

Generally speaking, I don’t love to use the word “crazy.” But we need harsh words to get you past a big obstacle in your life. Your mother is a fucking crazy person. There’s no better way to put it. She grapples with the world like a crazy person. She hallucinates things that aren’t there. She blames. She makes trouble. She drags out ancient history and parades it around for all to see. She’s envious of you, and it makes her furious. She’s a fucking crazy person, and you love her.

You love a crazy person. You are invested in a crazy person. You clearly do not want to cut her out of your life. Now what?

Now you have to give up hope of her ever being anything but a crazy person. Do you see why we need this unfair word, “crazy,” in order to do this? Because it’s time to write her off at some level. It’s time to put her in her place, so she can’t tear away at your heart over and over again.

What happens if you’re not at peace with how crazy someone is? Well, if you’re someone who works really hard to make things better, someone who believes that any two people can see eye to eye with enough hard work, someone who is sensitive and hopeful and idealistic — and I think you’re all of these things — you turn every failure in on yourself. You suspect that there’s something bad about you that made you the scapegoat in your family. Now you’re the one your mom talks shit about to all your other siblings. And it hurts! It hurts over and over again. It probably hurts more each time. Your husband can say, “But she’s crazy!” Your friends can say, “But come on, she always does this. You know she’s crazy!” But part of you doesn’t believe that they’re right. Part of you suspects that you’re the bad one.

Why? WHY do you suspect that it’s all your fault? See Diagram A: Because Your Mother Is a Crazy Person. And why does your mother blame you and talk shit about you to your siblings? See Diagram A: Because Your Mother Is a Crazy Person. You’re open to talking things out, but crazy people tend to rally people around them who won’t call them on their shit or tell them the truth about anything. Crazy people flourish in an environment of promiscuous superficiality.

You are a scapegoat precisely because you’re not sleepwalking through these interactions, precisely because you still care, precisely because when she criticizes your behavior as a teenager (which is absurd!), it still hurts and embarrasses you. She can get under your skin, so you’re the target.

And what happens when you finally accept that your mother is crazy? What happens when you say to yourself, “This isn’t my fault. My mother lost her doughnuts decades ago. I just have to limit my contact with her and try to work around her obvious craziness when I do see her”? What happens when you tell yourself, before you invite her over and she actually accepts for once, not “I hope this goes well and we can have a good relationship, at last!” but “My mother will definitely act like a crazy person, so maybe I’ll invite only my very closest, most trusted friends who know my mom is nuts, and maybe I’ll have a quick chat with them beforehand about the crazy shit that’s likely to pour out from my mother’s crazy mouth”? What happens when you feel pretty happy before the big event, but you’re still wearing an imaginary suit of chain armor, and in the helmet of your chain-armor suit, there’s a little chip that plays a recorded message every five minutes that says, “Your mother is a crazy person, by the way”?

I’ll tell you what happens: Nine times out of ten, that’s the very moment when your mother STOPS acting like a crazy person. You seem rigid and cheerful and superficial and a little bit protected. So your mother goes in for the kill somewhere else.

But that doesn’t mean you should take off the chain-mail armor! NOOOO, don’t do that! Are you kidding? Do you want to see your own blood and guts splayed out all over the room, or what? Don’t get reckless, not now. Accepting that your mother is crazy means not blaming yourself and feeling hurt and feeling depressed all the time, yes. But once you feel confident and good and optimistic again, like you did when you were a sensitive, happy, thoughtful little kid — and you really will feel that way! — that’s when you’ll be tempted to say, “Oh, she’s not so crazy. See? She’s not acting crazy. Maybe that was just me being a little bitch about things LIKE SHE ALWAYS SAID I WAS …” See what just happened there?

Refusing to live inside a crazy person’s view of you means letting go of all hope of that person being anything but totally fucking crazy.

The whole thing is kind of sad. It’s sad to give up on someone and write them off and protect yourself from them. But you’ve been hurt enough, haven’t you? Super-fucking-crazy people are like little kids. You can still love them! As long as they’re not hurting the people close to you, as long as you can limit your contact and only agree to controlled settings, you can love them and enjoy them and eat their delicious meals and have a laugh or two and bring some joy to their lives. My mother is not a crazy person, not at all, but I still need a little bit of armor and some lowered expectations going into our vacations together. I need to be prepared to eat a little shit. Because the last thing I want is a big fight that makes both of us sad. Paradoxically, in order to have a truly great time with my mother, I have to power-down my hopes of having THE PERFECT MOTHER-DAUGHTER RELATIONSHIP. I have to follow her lead, be easygoing, and chuckle when I get served a giant platter of shit to eat, either from her or someone else in my family. “Heh heh, here’s my big platter of shit! I knew it would arrive at SOME POINT,” I have to say to myself.

We piss each other off easily. That’s just the way it is. And I guess I’m trying to tell you that the same is probably true for you. Maybe your crazy mother is chafed by your happiness and your confidence in yourself, and your siblings are just irritated enough with you that they allow your mother to rip you a new asshole behind your back. And maybe you and I would meet each other and we’d BOTH find the other a little bit distastefully smug. It happens! Smart, happy, confident women find each other a little too arrogant and smug now and then!

You know what we should do about it? NOTHING. Fuck that. We women don’t have a lot of good role models for extreme confidence and happiness in our culture. There are not a giant number of smart, outspoken women floating around in the public eye without getting blamed for it left and right, being called “brash” or “bossy” or “selfish” or “aggressive.” Let’s be who the fuck we are, but let’s be prepared for the big platters of shit, too.

But there’s some strange process of emancipation that may happen for you the second you really believe, 100 percent, that your mother is a crazy person, and you know that you love her anyway. She can be a crazy person, and you can work around her. And you can be less than perfect, too, and you can ask the people you love to work around you, too. I know you won’t expect that many people to work around you. I know you’re always trying to adjust, to be better, to give more. But you will never be perfect. It’s time to accept that, too. You are maybe a little bit annoying, in all of your happiness and generosity and balanced living. But if happiness and confidence have made you annoying to the people who used to see you as more of an apologetic, unhappy mouse? Too fucking bad for them!

This is why the old, old stories get told to the group. “She was a mess. Remember? This happy, balanced woman was a mess way back when. Don’t ever forget that, you guys!” The whole thing is laughable. Pity the storyteller. No one is listening to her. They can see what she’s doing. They feel sorry for her, too. You don’t have to “make amends.” She’ll just use it against you. Don’t confront her. She doesn’t want to talk any of this stuff out with you; that would only remind her how crazy she is.

It’s okay. You’re strong enough now. Limit your contact, yes, and protect yourself. Never forget that she’s fucking crazy. But find ways to give her your love.

Polly

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All letters to askpolly@nymag.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

Ask Polly: How Do I Stay Sane With My Crazy Mom?