My Mom Is Selfish. Do I Still Have to be a ‘Good Daughter’?

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

This article originally appeared in Brooding, a newsletter delivering deep thoughts on modern family life. Sign up here.

As summer draws to a close, many of us are looking back on the trips we took and the visits we paid. As we do every summer, we faithfully made memories. And, inevitably, while doing these rounds in the company of our loved ones, many of us tended to our little collections of family grievances. We polished the existing ones, and we might have even added new ones. This week’s Brooding honors the season with an all-grievances edition. When I receive messages like the ones below, I ask myself, Does this person really want an answer, or did they just want to vent? So I offer my advice with the awareness that sometimes a solution is absolutely beside the point.

My sister drops everything for every minor complaint made by her kids, and I can’t stand it. I am worried that her indulgent parenting is making her kids into even bigger whiners than they already are. (And they already are big whiners.) I think it makes them less resilient and more prone to tantrums/freak-outs. I can’t stand being around my sister and her kids, and my kids also don’t love being with their cousins. I love my sister and want us to stay close, but this is getting awkward. Is there anything I can do to make this easier for me and my kids?
—F.R., Washington, D.C.

The hardest family grievances to let go of are the ones that allow you to feel superior to a loved one. Because as annoyed as you are, aren’t you also kind of into it? Isn’t it delicious, in a toothache-inducing sort of way, to feel like your sister is a lesser parent? How many people have you complained to about this before writing this letter? A lot, right? The reason for that is deep down you’re enjoying it. There’s no shame in it as long as you’re willing to be honest with yourself. But if you want to feel better about hanging out with your (inferior-to-you) sister, you have to first decide to forsake the bone-deep pleasure of feeling righteous. You can still harbor a little bit of it, but you have to make an agreement with yourself: I think I’m a better parent than she is, but I don’t care about that as much as I care about our relationship. 

Once you’ve made that pact with yourself, you can try a few strategies for gently and compassionately disrupting her parenting style while trying to build a closer relationship with her kids. While you can’t change the way she parents, you can show her that her kids don’t require ultrasolicitous care.

Remember that your sister is probably anxious about something profound and invisible to her, and this is what compels her to parent this way. She’s not doing it to annoy you, in other words; she’s doing it to self-soothe. Your poor sister — she’s doing her best. She probably is more self-aware than you think, but not so self-aware that you should criticize her directly.

Once you’ve set aside the special treat of feeling superior, I suggest a regular practice of swapping kids. Frame it as a nice way for you to get to know her kids better and for her to get some quality time with yours. The idea behind this scheme is to demonstrate that all of the kids — hers and yours — are not so fragile after all. Take her kids on a daylong outing, and allow them to get briefly immersed in your parenting style. Ideally, they could come stay at your house overnight at least once a year, though that depends entirely on your living situation. And if she’s up for it, send your kids to her home, even if just for an afternoon. If you live far apart, you can orchestrate this during your next summer visit. Even taking her kids to the pool for the afternoon can provide some exposure therapy for her anxiety. It’s essential that you not be in constant contact with her while you have her kids. Do not, for the love of God, send her pics and updates all afternoon. That is not part of the deal. Allow her to taste silence. You have the kids and everything is fine. She can learn to trust you (and, by extension, her kids’ potential independence), but you have to give her a chance to do so.

I’m in a situation with my mom (late 70s), and I’d appreciate your help. We used to be semi-close, but since I have had kids, she has checked out of being a person I can count on. She is barely able to be a grandmother and does not make an effort to get to know my kids. She seems very selfish. Maybe she was always like this and I never noticed until I became a mom. She’s not an addict or abusive, just self-centered and immature. She never asks me about myself, and when I do talk about myself, she mostly reacts by being anxious or confused. I don’t know how she functions in the world. But I am done making an effort to spend time with her, only to be disappointed. I don’t see why I should call her every week and fly across the country to visit her if our relationship is going to be totally one-sided. My brother disagrees with me and thinks I am being too hard on her. He wants the family to all get together and doesn’t see my side of things. Do I have a duty to be a “good daughter,” or can I follow my gut?
—C., Brooklyn

I tend to think about our relationship with our parents as having two phases: the one you have with them when they are alive and the one you have with them when they’re dead. Anything can happen while they are alive. You can say things that will surprise them and vice versa. Incredible, the way we’re able to keep surprising each other even after we’ve written each other off. When they’re dead, all you can do is live with what you did and didn’t say.

Thinking about relationships this way is somewhat at odds with the current tendency to take an actuarial approach to intimacy. We think in terms of what we “give” and what we’re owed. We keep a running tally on all the people we care about. We’re told that doing this is important for maintaining fairness and, above all, for pushing back against old hierarchical and patriarchal forms of relations, in which women were duty bound to serve men and care for everyone both young and old. I think a lot of us believe that if we don’t act as our own intimacy accountants, we’ll be taken advantage of and harmed.

This habit of mind is bolstered by the pop-cultural interest in pointing out the narcissists and gaslighters in our midst. This became important — even urgent — during the height of Me Too. But like any important social change, calling out bad behavior has become a packaged good on reality TV. It’s entertaining to watch Housewives do it, but do we really want to invite that approach to interpersonal relationships into our own families?

The alternative to actuarial intimacy is not selflessness or Confucian subservience to our elders. You can be self-respecting and self-determined while also treating your flawed and disappointing family with compassion and even love. But this demands that you ask yourself, What is the purpose of family relationships, anyway? If it’s not score-keeping and making sure everyone is getting what they “deserve,” and it’s not duty and service, then what’s left?

I don’t know enough about your mother to tell you what your relationship with her might offer you, but you do say she isn’t abusive. Family estrangement is no joke, and people tend to avoid it unless it’s a matter of survival. This doesn’t seem to be the case here.

It’s easy to forget, in the midst of coping with our family members’ flaws, that it’s rare and important to be known by someone for your whole life. I sometimes wonder if all of our lifelong journeys of entrepreneurial self-improvement are making it too easy to lose sight of the pleasure of being intensively known by someone. Our culture’s emphasis on self-improvement — whether it’s through wellness, or professional accomplishment, or whatever — suggests that our old selves weren’t worth knowing anyway. We’re looking for the people who will celebrate our future selves, not our past selves. We move through life banishing the past in a flurry of insistence that we have “no regrets.”

Mindlessly projecting ourselves into the future is a symptom of our human lives beginning to imitate the spirit of capitalist enterprises — growth or death! Maybe I’m wrong to once again make neoliberalism into my whipping boy, but this approach to life feels low-key impoverished.
Corporations don’t have regrets, but people do.

Which brings me back to the two phases of our relationship with our parents. Your mom knows things about you that no one else will ever know, and when she dies, that ephemeral archive of knowledge about you will vanish. Your brother is right: Having a living mom, no matter how self-centered, is important. Not because she will make your life “better” or because she will make your children happy — simply because she exists alongside you and shares your history. It would be a tragedy for you to realize that only after she’s gone. Give her a call. She’ll disappoint you, and you’ll be angry, and it won’t feel triumphant, but this is your life as it is, and coming to terms with it, rather than leaving it behind you in a huff, is your challenge as a human adult.

All of my siblings and in-laws have exceptional kids except us. Our son (age 12) is totally average, maybe even a little slow in some areas. Please don’t get me wrong — I think he’s amazing. But he’s a normal kid in a sea of high achievers, and I don’t want him to grow up feeling less than. We have tried to put him in activities, and he never gets engaged. He just doesn’t care. What can I do for him?
—S.A., San Francisco

Spare a thought for the average kids among us! If he can’t be a star, let him be a nice guy, and leave it at that. I’m a big fan of the power of suggestion — talking to a frightened child about how brave he is or a rough child about how gentle and kind she can be. We tend to take on some of the qualities that are narrated into us, at least somewhat, so why not just tell him what a sweet, good-hearted, generous dude he is? I like him already. He’s going to do great.

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