I'm in my forties, with a 2-year-old daughter, and I'm still trying to figure out how to handle my mother.

She's of a fundamentalist religious faith, and has tried assiduously to instill this faith in me and my sister, but it didn't take with me. I'm not an atheist -- in fact, I consider myself a fairly spiritual person, in my own way -- but I don't feel that my mother's religious faith, or her church, has anything to offer me and I've felt this way since I was about 10.

My mother simply won't accept this. Over the years she has told me many times that she fears my "rebellion against God" will send me to hell and she interprets any defense I make of my private spiritual choices as further proof of my rebellion. She's even called me in tears to say how much she fears for my eternal future. This was bad enough, but now my daughter is getting old enough to understand what her grandmother says.

It doesn't work when I make my case nor does it work when I ignore my mother.

How can I protect myself and my daughter against this form of psychological abuse, short of severing my relationship with her completely (which, after the latest episode, I'm almost angry enough to do)? She was a loving mother to me in most ways, and absolutely dotes on her granddaughter.

Parents who tell their grown children what to think or how to pray aren't mean or controlling on purpose. They're just very anxious people who are trying to keep their children safe, in the best way they know how.

This may help you forgive your mother a little, but it still won't make her behavior acceptable. Your spiritual life is even more personal than your sex life and she has no right to intrude.

It's time to establish the same boundaries you would set for anyone who tried to coerce you into doing something you didn't want to do. Don't feel guilty about setting them and don't defend your own beliefs or explain them. Your mom is too worried about you to listen.

You also shouldn't attack her beliefs, because that would be unkind. As the shrinks say, never tear down someone's defenses until she has something else to put in their place.

Simply be gentle and kind and thank her for her concern, and then tell her you won't listen to her religious lectures any more or let your daughter listen to them either, but that you would like to read about them. And then give her a beautiful blank book, ask her to write her religious thoughts in it and promise to consider her opinions when she has filled up the book. This will let you honor your mother in a way that will matter to her but without getting into any more verbal tug of wars.

If your mother insists on talking about religion anyway, however, say "I love you" and get off the phone or get out of the house immediately, even if you have to walk around in the dark or the rain. Your relationship will survive as long as you are open and friendly with her and show your interest in other ways.

This boundary-setting should relieve you enormously and probably relieve your mother too. She doesn't want to offend you; she just doesn't know where to stop.

Meanwhile, keep up your own faith because the soul must be fed as well as the mind and the body. This will make it much easier for you to deal with the inevitable stresses of life.

Although organized religion has its drawbacks, the right one can probably strengthen your faith better than you can do it alone.

You may respond best to the peace of a Quaker meeting house or a Buddhist temple; to the rituals of Jewish, Catholic or Episcopalian services or to the freer thinking of the Unitarian-Universalists. Or perhaps you will be drawn into the church or temple that has the most beautiful music or the most intellectual or inspiring sermons.

The right religion will not only support you better, but it will support your little girl too as long as you give her the right to make her own choices when she grows up.

Questions may be sent to margukelly@aol.com or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.