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Carolyn Hax: Is mom’s help with the kids worth her commentary?

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I have three kids, ages 5 and under, and life is hectic. We have child care during our working hours but are otherwise pretty much constantly looking after our kids.

My mom always says she wants to help, and on rare occasions she will take the older two overnight, which IS a big help. But sometimes I need smaller-scale help, such as someone to watch the kids while I take a shower or do the laundry. She offers that, but when I get out of the shower, she tuts about how she had to do all the dishes. Or while I’m doing dishes, she tuts at me about how I seem to need a shower. She comes from a place of concern (“Poor thing, I can see you haven’t had time to wash your hair!”) and she IS offering help, so do I have to tolerate that she is making me feel bad while doing it?

— Feel Bad

Feel Bad: Well, hm. A few things jump out at me.

First, sympathy. It’s so hard to find a way to be with people we love who just push our buttons. You’re willing to try now, because you want something from your mom, which is opportunistic and not ideal — but in a way it’s a good thing. Under different circumstances, you’d probably just keep her at arm’s length; by needing her, you get an opportunity to find a better way to communicate.

Second, she isn’t “making” you feel anything; she is being herself, and herself annoys you. That’s the only transaction. And you’re not “tolerating” something she does to you; you’re deciding whether the pros of her involvement outweigh the cons. That’s it.

Although you can talk to her about some of the ways the two of you communicate, this is mostly something you manage within yourself. As in: Can you change the way you interpret, and therefore respond to, your mom’s comments?

Adding these up, I see the mom thing working if you can, basically, get over yourself. (I.e., stop seeing it as being about you.) Accept her tutting as the verbal release of her own [stuff]. Maybe she’s anxious or awkward or craves attention or martyrdom points or whatever, and she lacks the emotional intelligence to handle it better. Can you train yourself to breathe through your own reflexive objections, toward the greater good of (now) having some help and (over time) strengthening her bond with your kids?

If yes, then try on some constructive responses to her tutting: “You’re a champ, Mom.” “Leave me the dishes if you want.” “Yeah, I swear they multiply.” Give her a few gentle options to see what releases the pressure. Pick the best one and move on.

You want to scream, but on a deeper level you want to get along better and even understand her. This is where the deep breaths come in. Ignore the impulse to react, then breathe into the greater good, then act.

Readers’ thoughts:

· Throughout high school, I was a babysitter/mother’s helper to a family. I would get regular calls stating, “I need to take a shower,” or, “I need to wash the floor. Can you come over?” I would go over for less than an hour, usually, to “make sure no one dies.” I made some pocket change, helped her tremendously, and I loved it. I believe her mother was equally help-challenged.

· Have you asked your mother (I keep typing “bother,” Freudianly) to stop making comments? Like, explicitly? I recently asked my mother to stop making comments about my body, which she sees as helpful. (“You look pregnant in that dress.”)

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