The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: Mom thinks their stepdad’s death will mend rift with kids

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
4 min

Carolyn: A very long time ago, my mother married a jerk. My siblings and I were teens then and it was rough. He would yell, stomp around and slam doors if he felt the slightest bit aggrieved. Even now that my two sisters and I are grown, he still complains loudly about benign things whenever we visit, and he finds excuses to stomp around, slam doors and mutter rude things loudly. We rarely visit because of this. My two sisters have children and do not want to expose them to his tantrums.

It seems my mom is finally seeing things for what they really are. But since he is in poor health, she has adopted a, “Once he dies I can finally do x, y, and z,” attitude. And she doesn’t understand why we aren’t joining in with these plans to reunite as one big happy family.

Both my sisters live out of state and she is desperate for them to move back. The problem is, no one really wants to. We love her. And understand she is a product of her own upbringing (her dad was even worse, in violent ways). But we won’t pander to her requests for deeper connections.

Lately she has really been pushing for more visits and to guilt my sisters into moving. Each time she seems confused why she is the only one interested.

Do we tell her? Do we let her know she did this to herself? All the years she put our emotional needs last only encouraged us to pull away and find happiness outside of her. A spiteful, hurt-inner-child part of me wants to point everything out and explain everything in detail. Another part thinks we don’t need to do/say anything since she should know. Is there a middle ground we aren’t aware of?

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Both parts of you are contemplating responses that aim to punish your mom.

There are ways to tell the truth besides “everything in detail.”

There are ways to let something rest besides silence and withholding.

There are ways to engage with her honestly that aren’t punitive, but instead compassionate, both to her and to her grown children. There are reasons to engage with her that aim to be practical, useful, calming — and merciful. The status quo of her guilt-trippy, grasping desperation diminishes all of you, so easing that helps everyone.

So yes, there is a huge middle ground.

That middle ground is where you tell your mother the truth to help her understand her own family, or relieve her of the suspense of not knowing (so she’ll back off, please?), or give her a chance to address the emotional damage. Take your pick or add your own.

That middle ground is where you give her a kind, edited but complete enough truth capsule to ground her choices in reality. She may not choose to use it, but at least she’ll have it:

“Mom, if I’m hearing you correctly, you believe that once [Jerk] is out of the picture we’ll go back to the kind of togetherness we had before. Is that how you see it?” Listen carefully to her answer; she may well understand her kids better than she lets on. She may also know exactly how much she messed up and how futile her efforts are to wish or guilt that away.

But if her answer lacks self-awareness, then: “Speaking only for myself, I won’t just flip a switch from escaping my childhood home to wanting back in.” And, if appropriate: “I felt my emotional needs came last. Not just to [Jerk], but to you, too, because you were so occupied with him.”

Your words, of course, but that’s the idea.

While I’m here: “Should” is also a punitive word and concept. There are a lot of things we “should” know and say and do. Your mom “should” have protected you, yes, absolutely — and “should” have avoided/not married/divorced the jerk, and “should” know you were all deeply affected by her not doing these things. Arguably, too, you “should” treat her as a fellow victim, or “should” have been honest with her sooner, or “should” grasp you have more nuanced options than hot blaming or cold-shouldering. We “should” be grateful for word limits because “should” has no end.

Point is, the past is not great at telling us what was possible then. It’s much better at helping us see what is possible now (especially paired with therapy, as warranted and possible).

With regard to your mom, that can include choosing a constructive path forward: telling her once how you feel now, why, what you think will change that, if anything — and then being patient, guilt-resistant and true to your principles as she forms her own response.