AdviceHelp Me Rhonda

How to Deal With Unloving Parents, Pt. 2

This is an open letter to “Disowned” from the Apr. 1 column. I am a daughter of a mother almost identical to the one you described in your letter. Your words “narcissistic, greedy, jealous and controlling” perfectly fit my late mother.

First, let me say that Rhonda’s advice was spot-on. I am more than twice your age, and advice like this plus an enlightened therapist (such as you apparently have) could have saved me years of terrible self-doubt and constantly derailed self-esteem. It is an awful thing to have been born to an unloving mother. But things were different in the 1960s—most people, including the therapists who were supposed to help you, tended to side with the power of the family, no matter how wretched, toxic, or downright dangerous these parents were for the poor kids who suffered under their rule. 

But even my 1960s-style therapist had this to say—repeatedly—about my mother: “Stay away from her!” Tangling with people who mean you harm only drags you down into their own emotional quicksand. There is no benefit from it.

A question my sister and I learned to ask ourselves was: If a person on the street treated you this way (demeaning you, undermining or sabotaging your efforts toward success, trying to separate you from your loved ones, having temper tantrums when they don’t get their way), would you put up with it? The answer is always, “no.”

Sending your love to a mentally ill mother (and that’s what she is) is commendable in a spiritual sense, if you are prepared to give and not get. My mother, even on her deathbed, never acknowledged any of the awful things she did to us, much less apologized. Actually, I’d never heard any apology from her about any wrong she did to anyone, in my entire life with her. She simply wasn’t capable of seeing anything beyond herself.

The reason she cut you out of her will is the same reason my mother cut me out of hers: You went on to your own life, and she cannot control you anymore. This is the only control she has left.

By the way, my sister and I learned to develop a great sense of humor about our mother. If you want to dethrone a tyrant, laugh at them! My mother used to send me nasty notes written on Christmas cards, with a check enclosed. At the bottom of the check was written “Here’s your Christmas buy-off”. Lovely. We posted the card with its loony rantings on the fridge for a laugh, and sent the check—usually for a whopping $10 or $25—right back.

Which brings us to the cards. Here’s what I found works for me: At Mother’s Day, I’d buy a blank card with a pretty but noncommittal picture of butterflies or flowers. Then inside I’d write: “Happy Mother’s Day, Love B.” That’s all. I did the same for every other holiday—”Merry Christmas, Love, B.”—and so on. No lovey-dovey, gushy text inside the card, because that would be a joke with this kind of mother. (“Mother of mine, you were always there for me…” Nope.)

I came up with this compromise because (1) it defused the situation, so I wouldn’t have to hear from her or my codependent alcoholic brother that I didn’t send a card, and how could I be so cruel, etc., and (2) it was bland enough that I was not selling out my soul and lying to make her happy (which she wouldn’t be anyway).

So, here’s some advice from an older woman who has been there: Keep doing what you’re doing! Keep living your life happily, and don’t look back! Laugh at her silly antics! As for getting past it for good, you never will. But like with any disability, you learn to work around it and do the best you can, and keep yourself out of danger.

And as for your parents “sinking into their own misery,” as you put it, they made it that way. Don’t let yourself or your loved ones sink into it, too.

Best wishes for a happy life, 

Disowned, I want you to know that your letter drew some attention. You are not alone in struggling with a poisonous parent. There’s another response I wanted to point out to you. A commenter on the online version of this column quoted Dan Savage’s advice from his column Savage Love. Dan says:

“My advice for you is the same as my advice for all queer kids with crazy, hyperconservative parents: Don’t fear their rejection—make them fear yours. Tell your mom you’re queer, and then tell her that you won’t speak to her or see her if she can’t treat you and your partner with respect. Remember: The only leverage an adult child has over their parents is their presence. If your mom treats you like shit, absent yourself. If she’s rude to you in your own home, kick her ass out.”

Dan’s advice—to make your controlling parent fear your rejection—is so great, I’m disappointed that I didn’t come up with it myself.

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